In the four years since George Takei joined Twitter and Facebook, he has become a cultural fixture. Every day, Takei shares silly memes to which he adds a single line of positive commentary. Boom! They can garner tens of thousands of shares and hundreds of thousands of likes on Facebook.
That online presence has sparked a revival of the 78-year-old actor’s career and become a platform for his social advocacy work. Last year, it spawned an attention-getting documentary, To Be Takei, which introduced a broader audience to George’s husband, Brad. Now they are costarring in a streaming comedy series, It Takeis Two, which launched in April on YouTube. Next up: This fall, George will star in Allegiance, a Broadway musical based in part on his own life.
Here, the couple discusses how they catapulted George from has-been status to social relevance, how Brad has ceded control, and the not-so-secret agenda that drives their entire operation.
Star Trek fans are legion and they are online, so it was a natural place for the former Captain Sulu to gain a foothold in the current culture. “Star Trek was about the future and future technology,” explains Brad. “So the segue to tech and the Internet wasn’t as giant a leap [for George] as it would have been for some people.”
Before Star Trek debuted in 1966, Asian characters (then known as “Oriental”) spoke mostly with choppy accents while karate-chopping their enemies to the sound of a gong. But Takei’s character, Sulu, had a commanding, accent-free presence and a sly smile. He was one of the first Asian characters to come off in a casually positive light. That pioneering portrayal has made him an enduring and respected figure. A Trekker convention regular for decades, Takei came out of the closet in 2005 and was invited to be part of Howard Stern’s satellite radio show in 2006, where he’s continually debunked gay stereotypes and challenged Howard’s often-homophobic assumptions.
So when Takei joined Twitter in 2011, he racked up followers quickly: 1.4 million in the first year. “I thought, well, social media is the most powerful way of communicating in our society today,” says George. “I had a base to begin with–sci-fi geeks and nerds–a small base, and I had to grow that. I had to find the key. I tried many things and found that humor was the thing that got the most likes and shares. That’s how the emphasis on humor came about.”
It turns out Takei and his partner of 30 years have an agenda other than to make people laugh: With George and Brad as the spokescouple, they want to show the world that same-sex couples are as deserving of rights and respect as everyone else. They also want to bring attention to the internment camps in which the U.S. government rounded up Japanese Americans during World War II–a shameful and largely overlooked piece of American history that should get some mainstream attention with the opening of Allegiance on Broadway in October.
All of this–the memes, the shares, the documentary, the new webseries–has been a canny way of simultaneously bringing the two civil rights issues closest to George’s heart to light and shoring up support for the musical. “Here we were investing our energy, time, talent and our money in a project that people know very little about. This was four or five years ago,” says George, who not-coincidentally joined Twitter four years ago. “But if we approach [the internment camps] as a grave issue, the audience is small. So to get that audience you have to entertain them. And humor is the best way to reach a great huge mass of people.”
The forced relocation of Japanese Americans during the war is a chapter of history that comes straight out of Takei’s childhood. When he was five years old, his family was taken from their home in Los Angeles and placed behind barbed wire in a prison camp in Arkansas for three years. “One of the reasons why the Japanese-American internment story is not well known is because it is a grave, embarrassing, shameful story,” he says. “To deal with grave issues [in front of] a large massive audience, humor is the biggest sweetener.”
Likewise, he says, humor is his way to build support for marriage equality, what he calls “the civil rights issue of our time.” George and Brad see themselves as the Lucy and Ricky of the movement: “We have two different personalities but we love each other, just like the [Cuban] and the airhead redhead on I Love Lucy. It’s that idea. Just by the normality of what could be considered our not-normal, mainstream relationship.”
It hasn’t gone swimmingly every step of the way. “Even on this scale there are misses,” George says. Part of finding what works and what doesn’t work has been trial and error. One error: He shared a meme that pictured a woman standing up out of her wheelchair and reaching for a bottle of liquor on a high shelf. “I thought it was funny, but we got blowback on that,” for being insensitive to people with disabilities. “That was an unexpected repercussion.”
Of course, all Takei is doing is reposting funny bits that other people are sending him. “Success breeds success, I guess. This is a sharing medium and it’s a truly social media project.” Indeed, but unfortunately some of what he shared was lowest-common denominator clickbait content.
Another controversy erupted a couple of years ago, when people online discovered that George wasn’t posting on his own. “It started with Brad and me,” George says. “As it got more and more demanding we got interns. And now, when we go on speaking tours in Japan and South Korea with the State Department, we’re gone for weeks on end and so what we had to do was get some real pros to help us with it. We backlog the various posts and time them so that so they’re fed out on a time basis. The impression created is that we’re awfully prolific—there I am in Australia giving a speech and there I am on our Facebook making people laugh. But I am involved.” And speaking with him it’s clear that his sensibility and voice are reflected rather well in his posts.
The webseries, It Takeis Two, has an especially heightened sensibility. It’s a reality show-ish, scripted look at their lives together, a la The Osbournes, with a surprising emphasis on Brad, who has been George’s manager for almost as long as they’ve been together–nearly 30 years. “I’m there to make sure George shines and so if I have to be the sourpuss of the relationship on camera for that, I’ll take that bullet,” says Brad.
“I’m–if you’ll excuse this–the straight man,” says George.
They expressly wanted to avoid making a vanity project that burnishes their reputations. “If we had final editorial control over the finished episodes, I might say, ‘That one scene is not flattering,’ or ‘It’s bad lighting of me’…so it’s almost better that George and I are the on-camera talent, so to speak, and let the director and his editing team create the best possible episodes.”
George and Brad’s marriage was pioneering in perhaps more ways than most of us tend to recognize. “There was all this hooha over us getting married and it was on the basis of our same gender,” says George, “but the other part of it is what used to be outrageously controversial: we’re an interracial couple.” George is Japanese, Brad is caucasian—but do people really think about that anymore? As George points out, it took the landmark Loving v. Virginia case at the Supreme Court in 1967 to invalidate laws prohibiting interracial marriage. “But today I’m barely conscious of it. It’s Brad who’s my husband. And the big thing that gets all the discussion is the fact that we’re gay. So times change and I’m sure that there will come a time when the word equality can be dropped. It will just be ‘marriage.’ We hope that we’re playing a role and helping to bring about those changes.”
In the last couple weeks alone, George has been the commencement speaker at UC Hastings School of Law in San Francisco and received the Roger Baldwin Award from the ACLU in Boston for his work with the LGBT community, including his recent efforts to boycott businesses in Indiana over that state’s attempt to pass laws allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation. “You don’t live life expecting these kinds of awards,” says Takei, who has also gone on U.S. State Department-sponsored speaking tours in Japan, Korea and other countries, to promote reconciliation and LGBT rights.
“So many people see the last part of their lives as [being on the] golf course and retirement,” Brad chimes in. “George says, ‘Screw that! Be vital, try new things, risk new things.’” To that end, It Takeis Two is an experiment that may or may not work. “We don’t really know how the market will react to it but we think it’s another way to let people view gay relationships.”
If It Takeis Two is a low-risk investment, they have much, much grander ambitions for Allegiance. “We’ll run open-ended [on Broadway] for a year or so and then we’ll organize a road company,” says George, who dreams of having the musical translated into Japanese for a tour in that country. And then, maybe a movie.
“George is truly a born optimist,” his husband says, acknowledging that many people who spent time growing up in a prison would come out with a chip on their shoulder. Not George. “He’s somebody that sees the future with optimism, with promise. If you don’t dream big you might accomplish small things. George dreams big.”