Shatner’s Stampede and How Irony Came to Calgary


Until not long ago, I lived in a downtown Calgary community called Ramsay, just across the Elbow River and over a high ridge from the Stampede grounds. When the evening breeze blew a certain way, we could hear the Young Canadians rehearsing their grandstand revue from our backyard, and each night’s fireworks rattled our windows. The Stampede’s “back of house” more or less surrounds Ramsay, and so we had a window on lots of backstage stuff as well.

An annual highlight was the vintage tractor parade. One fine summer morning, dozens of gleaming, meticulously maintained old-timey tractors would slowly chug past our front porch, drivers perched atop, each one in their dressiest check shirts and broad-brimmed hats. I’ve never witnessed what the tractors did once they reached the Stampede grounds, but the scene has always stuck with me as a quintessential Stampede motif: proud, traditional, a bit hokey, and as straightforward and sincere as a grain elevator.

This is the essence of Stampede. It is static, ritualized, devoid of hidden meanings. It is irony’s anti-magnet. You do not ironically race a chuckwagon or cheer on a Superdog or scarf down a bag of those little donuts. Which is why this week’s announcement of the honorary marshal for the Stampede parade was a genuine surprise.

In keeping with the white-hatted good-clean-fun vibe of the whole shindig, the parade marshal gig usually goes to a figure pretty much unimpeachably statesmanlike and deified, a living statue—governors general, Olympic medallists, sitting or retired heads of state, Lloyd Robertson or Rita MacNeil or Lanny McDonald. Sure, there have been left-field choices—Budweiser spokesdog Spuds Mackenzie, for example, was a sort of co-marshal back in 1988, but if there’s such a thing as an earnest party-loving canine corporate mascot, wouldn’t Spuds be it?

Anyway, for the 2014 parade there are to be two deputy marshals in the conventional mold—Winter Olympic heroes Denny Morrison and Gilmore Junio. And they will be flanking … Shatner. William Effing Shatner. Captain Kirk, T.J. Hooker, the Priceline Ninja. That riddle-wrapped-in-an-enigma-caught-in-a-pregnant-pause-followed-by-a-whoopee-cushion who parlayed a campy 1960s sci-fi starring role into a celebrity persona so singular and self-effacingly ironic it’s become the gordian knot of postmodern hyper-connected media personalityhood. Shatner is dead serious and totally kidding. Simultaneously. All the time. He’s in on the joke. He wrote the joke. He just turned around with campy startled suddenness to catch the joke before it could pin the “Kick Me” sign to his back. In 2014, somehow, the Stampede will be launched by a geek-culture superhero who may as well be known as Captain Irony.

Check out the tight little YouTube video the Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth posted to announce its choice:

2014 Parade Marshal Announcement

This might well be the most intentionally funny and almost-hip thing the Calgary Stampede has ever done. Dig Shatner goofing on his own outsized persona en route to a gentle snark at Calgary’s remoteness from the epicentre of the pop-cultural galaxy he resides in. “I’ve been out of this world, I’ve been down deep in this world, and I’ve been all over—and the one thing I’m most proud of is I’ve been … to Calgary.” Check out Stampede president Bob Thompson, coming off like he was chiseled from Stampede infield clay to play the role, looking not like the square-jawed Calgary cowboy he is, but like a winking Shatner nod to his actual self. Even the Wikipedia entry on this subject is a brilliant deadpan one-liner: “In 2014 William Shatner will be one of the Grand Marshals for the 102nd Calgary Stampede as he was an avid equestrian.”

This is wildly unexpected, is my point. This is like your so-called funny uncle deciding to “do a rap” and then doing it well. Throwing down. Representing, or whatever it is kids say nowadays. How did this happen? How could this be? What’s this all about?

Here’s a thought: geek culture just got swallowed whole by the straightlaced mainstream. Consider that the biggest event of the spring at the Stampede grounds is now the Calgary Comic & Entertainment Expo. Born in 2006 as a seemingly perfunctory regional comic-con, Calgary’s expo has become the nation’s second largest, attracting top-tier sci-fi stars (2014 headliners included Sigourney Weaver, Sean Astin, and Anthony Daniels) and placing the city’s name in such illustrious fanboy precincts as Wil Wheaton’s blog. Surely not even a plurality of the 100,000 attendees of this year’s event were “geeks” by any 20th century definition of the term. The geeks didn’t inherit the mainstream—the mainstream put on a geek mask and a Hobbit costume. And now, instead of addressing a small gathering of true obsessives (as in the legendary Saturday Night Live sketch in which Shatner advised a Vulcan-eared Jon Lovitz to “get a life”), Shatner will ride at the front of the Stampede parade.

On the ground in Calgary, the divide had been heretofore longstanding and crystal clear. The Stampede was Official CalgaryTM, brash and hokey and square. And then there was a broad prairie of impassable terrain, on the other side of which was a rabbit warren of subcultural scenes, small and under-celebrated cosmopolitan enclaves of punk and alt and geek and hip, progressive and transgressive, all of them profoundly (sometimes even avowedly) not the Stampede.

Shatner is crossing Calgary’s cultural barrens. Geek culture built a bridge, and this summer Captain Kirk will shamble across it on a horse, doing cartoon ju-jitsu moves and vaudeville doubletakes the whole way. There will likely be many “beam me up” headlines in the local press. Shatner’s backing band, figuratively speaking, will be an orchestra of new country stars on the Nashville North stage. Rodeo cowboys will stand (and ride) with the Trekkies. Mayor Nenshi, I can only hope, will pull a Quimby and wish Captain Kirk a hearty May the force be with you.

I can’t say for sure what this means to the greater geek culture, but in any case one of its godheads just got hogtied like a prairie calf. He belongs to the Grandstand show dancers and rodeo clowns now. The Stampede Parade has taken to wearing its trucker hat ironically.