Meet My Gimpy Life’s Steven Dengler

Steven Dengler, producer of the new hit web series, My Gimpy Life, is a busy, busy man, with all sorts of amazing trades. He recently sat down with us to answer some of our burning questions.

Congrats on the successful debut of My Gimpy Life! Was it everything you dreamed it’d be and more?

MGL was Teal’s dream, not mine, so I measure its success through her. And she’s pretty darned happy with how it worked out, so I would have to say… yes.

I’ve been living my dream for almost twenty years. I started a company with my best friend in 1993 and it’s gone on to be tremendously successful. Now I get to give back. It’s wonderful to help motivated, passionate people like Teal bring their dreams to life. They put everything they have into them. I’m a born and bred entrepreneur, so I deeply respect that. But more importantly, I am invigorated and energized by the fun energy of dream projects. They get me excited and inspired to do more in my own businesses. There’s a kind of fellowship among people who create. It’s like a special club or secret society. When I’m with people who are building something amazing, I feel… at home. And then at the end we have something to show for it, something that can be shared with the world. Everyone benefits, both the creators and the recipients. It’s a great feeling.

How did you come to know Teal? What’s it like to work with her?

My introduction to Teal was through her work on The Guild. I later came on as Executive Producer to season 2 of the Jeff Lewis Five Minute Comedy Hour, and we developed some mutual friends through that. She and her husband are a lot of fun to hang out with and I try to do that when I’m in LA, which only happens a couple of times a year. On a few of these visits she mentioned her idea for a show called My Gimpy Life, which she described as her “dream project”. She had already shot a pilot and was looking for a sponsor or partner inside showbiz. Now I am by no means a showbiz insider, but it sounded like a great idea to me, and I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I can back fun projects like this. So I raised the possibility of funding it once or twice and I think she eventually decided that it was important to get it made and out there.

So in the end I did finance the first season of MGL, but I’m not sure I’d call that “working” with Teal. Teal has a great team of experienced people that actually did all the work: Gabe Uhr, Sean Becker, Jeff Winkler, and so many more. And of course Teal and her husband Ali! So yes, I provided the money, but they put it to work. I did get to hang around the set for a few days and play a small role in the production. Which wasn’t “work” by any measure. For me, it was playtime. Which, in all honesty, was part of the appeal.

Were you involved in the creative process for My Gimpy Life?

More in theory than in practice. I was sent early versions of the scripts, but they were really, really good and certainly didn’t need any input from me. In general, I try not to stick my fingers into projects I support. Part of this is for practical reasons, since I have a heck of lot on the go at any given time. But mainly it’s because I don’t like to get involved in a project unless I already respect the talents and abilities of the people involved. So then why would I mess with their creative process? I’ll contribute a few ideas if asked, but it’s best if I just stay out of the way and let them do what they’re good at. I was quite happy to watch the production develop and evolve over time from the sidelines. That involvement was very cool, and very much appreciated.

What do you hope My Gimpy Life will accomplish overall?

That’s a big question, and there are several ways to answer it. The most direct answer is that I hope it will be the start of a long-running series with a dedicated fan base. What’s great about MGL is that everything in it is based on the real-life experiences of Teal… and also a large number of regular people just living their lives in wheelchairs. The show is eye-opening because it introduces us to a world that is alien to us — but it’s just our world, the same world we live in every day, just seen through the eyes of a person who happens to be in a wheelchair. I love that MGL accomplishes this through humor, because this lets it bypass the defenses that people often put up to thinking about things outside their experience.

But bigger picture, it would be really awesome to see it picked up by someone and go “mainstream”, and be something that the average person is familiar with. It’s in an interesting place because it’s simultaneously something people can relate to and something that is completely foreign to them. For as long as that’s the case it will have a huge potential audience, and an important message to deliver.

In a perfect world, we would all see a day where that message had been fully conveyed and was no longer relevant. There was a time not so long ago when having a person of a color on a sitcom was a big deal. The whole plot inevitably revolved around it, and subplots were continually being developed to explore it. Why? Because it was new, it was relevant, and it was important. It was time for society to deal with the issue, and there was a lot to talk about. The discussion had just started, and many people hadn’t thought about it that much. Well I’d love to see a day where this issue isn’t interesting anymore, where it’s old hat. Where a person in a wheelchair can just be a regular character in a production. Can you imagine that? Just a person in a wheelchair, and nobody makes a big deal about it. No backstory about how it happened, no awkward situations, nothing. Just a regular character in a regular show. So to go back to your original question, I hope that MGL will be an important step along the path to reaching that day. And seeing how it’s turned out, I think it’s obvious that it will be.

You’re known for donating to really great charities, as well as for funding awesome creative projects. What’s the process for deciding which causes and projects to support?

It’s not very scientific, that’s for sure. A project has to appeal to me. It has to catch my interest in some way. It’s hard to describe, but I know when it’s happened. But as I talked about above, I also like to know and respect the people involved, either personally or through their body of work. For example, I didn’t know Tim Schafer personally before I started financing projects with him at Double Fine. But I played his games for years and I knew him through his work. When the opportunity came up to work together, I didn’t even think twice. And it’s gone very, very well for both of us.

And now word has been getting out that there’s this crazy guy who finances all kinds of new media things. It’s getting kind of nuts. These days a ton of people approach me and ask me to finance things, which doesn’t have a lot of appeal for me, since I invariably don’t know the people involved and I don’t have any attachment to the project. So I’m stuck turning down this crowd of people approaching me out of the blue, since I don’t have the key factors in place that make me comfortable financing something. It’s not something I enjoy doing at all, because I know that many of these people are baring their heart and soul to me and I am returning that vulnerability with rejection. But I try to remind myself not to make it personally. I can only do so much before I start doing more harm than good. If I start financing anything and everything that comes to me, I’ll start messing up. A lot. So I need to focus on what I can do, not what I can’t. But it’s hard to turn away good people bringing you their dreams. Thankfully there are other options, like Kickstarter. I think it’s safe to say I’m a Kickstarter addict. I think it’s the best thing to have happened in years, and it will transform the creative process in the same way that the Internet transformed information exchange. We will look back and wonder how we ever lived without it.


Teal Sherer and Felicia Day in My Gimpy Life.

Is there a particular reason you’re a big advocate for women in comedy/media?

Yes. I’m an advocate of talented people in comedy and media, and many of them just happen to be women. I don’t discriminate either way. If I like a project, if it speaks to me, if it involves good people and accomplishes a worthy goal, and if I have the resources available, I support it. A lot of these involve women, which shouldn’t surprise anyone.

That being said, I am concerned there is a subtle undercurrent of male entitlement in some circles of geek culture, particularly gaming. There are definitely people out there who think women can never be a “true part” of geek culture. I believe it’s a minority of people, and I personally suspect it’s those who haven’t been exposed to female geek peers and role models. Some of the biggest (and coolest) geeks I know are women. Clare Grant, America Young, Teal Sherer, Bonnie Burton, Tara Platt, Felicia Day, and my sister, Ash Vickers, just to name a few. So if some of the things I do end up benefiting positive female geek peers and role models, I can live with that. Over time, as women continue to actively create, build, and participate in geek culture, I believe the ignorance and arrogance will fall away. History is full of examples. Women have had the right to vote in the USA for less than 100 years. Can you believe that? Not even 100 years ago, women couldn’t vote. Now it’s unthinkable for women to be anything less than peers in the democratic process. But it certainly won’t take that long for girls and women to be seen universally as full peers in geekdom. We’re a long way there already. Sites like Comediva are a huge part of this, and you should be very proud of what you do.

You’ve also got a bit of a geeky side. What is it about video games that you love so much? Who’s the most badass female character you love?

“A bit of a geeky side?” I think that’s the politest I’ve ever heard it put. I have several Krix pieces, including the Valve-signed Portal Gun and the Valve-signed Gravity Gun. I played Max Payne 2 until Mona Sax survived. I wrote my first computer adventure game — as a real job, for a paycheck — at 16. I have a character named after me in Rain Slick 3. So I’d say I’m a full-on geek.

What I love about video games, particularly the great ones, is that they allow you repropostion your entire existence. What if you were a resisting a massive galactic invasion? What if you were a Jedi? What if you were a super hero? What if you were a tormented immortal with amnesia? Then they let you explore that. I always say that a good video game is the highest form of fiction. Period. I wrote a MegaCynics strip on this topic. People unfamiliar with games make a mistaken assumption, namely that they all have similar depth. So they play Angry Birds and Farmville and and assume all other games are like that. Now, I’m a huge fan of simple, fun games like Plants Versus Zombies, but you can’t compare those with games like Mass Effect or KOTOR or Batman or Torment or Anachronox. These games let you engage with a story in a way that literature, movies, and television simply can’t. You make choices, you affect the story, and you see the outcome. You aren’t just a spectator; you are the protagonist. You don’t watch; you act. And you get to bring your personality along with you and see how that would work in a completely new setting. You get to be more than you are. You get to grow and learn and change. You experience victory and loss and friendship and betrayal and the whole gamut of human emotion. You don’t get a canned experience; you build your own experience out of a raw world that responds to what you do. There’s nothing like it. It’s magical.

Some of my favorite badass female characters are FemShep and Jack from ME, Annah and Grace from Torment, Harley from Batman, Alyx from Half Life, Chell (and GLaDOS) from Portal, Anne-Claire from Rain Slick, Jade from Beyond Good and Evil, and even my own sister Ash, who is a playable character in the upcoming game Fist Puncher for XBox and PC by Team2Bit. In fact, she and I are both characters in that game.

Speaking of geeky things, MegaCynics is a hilarious webcomic! We loved the Felicia storyline and the Teal appearance. What other funny and/or geeky would you love to make an appearance in the comic?

Thanks! Ash and I have been having a blast with MegaCynics, and I’m really proud of how it’s coming along. Since we write the comic ourselves, we can do pretty much anything we want. I’ve been getting to know a lot of geek culture people in the past few years, and I expect a lot of them will eventually end up in the comic. Teal’s been in more than a few. We recently did one featuring Bonnie Burton that I was really fond of. And I’ve got ideas for strips with America Young, Anne Wheaton, Tara Platt, Amy Okuda, and more. We try not to force any strips, though. They come together on their own time. And when they come together, they’re ready.


On the set of Nuka Break.

Are there any other projects coming up you’re excited about?

Absolutely, but excuse me while I geek out about some non-new-media stuff.

I started with my best friend in 1993. It’s still my entrepreneurial “first love” and it’s been very good to me. I’m the CEO and we’re currently around the 300th most popular site in the entire world — and a top 100 site in the UK and some other major countries. And we’ve got some amazing stuff under development. Wifarer is another one to watch. It’s an app that lets you navigate indoor venues like malls, stadiums, and airports. It’s taking off like crazy and it’s going to be enormous.

On the new media side, I just signed on to Season 4 of Tara Platt’s Shelf Life series as executive producer, sponsor, and a character. With my own action figure. So that’s pretty cool. Season 2 of Nuka Break is coming up fast. I’m also executive producer of that and and this time my character has a much larger role. I’m also executive producer and sponsor of Vic Mignogna’s Star Trek Continues, featuring an amazing cast, including Grant Imahara and Chris Doohan. I’m executive producer and sponsor of The Silent City by Rubidium Wu, which is just fantastic. I’m executive producer and sponsor of Sandeep Parikh’s Save the Supers series, in which I also happen to have cameos as both a super villain and super hero.

On the game front, I’ve been working with Tim Schafer to finance a number of amazing and completely new games that are a blast to play. And I’m in discussions about financing a new show that combines philanthropy and video games. Plus I’m involved with a whole bunch of other things that would make this section too long to run. I try to keep a list of them on my website, but I’m usually behind a bit.

As an aside, whoa you were a torchbearer for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic games? Awesome! Here’s a challenge: can you describe that experience in five words or less?

A brief moment in eternity. Sometimes we are aware that we are doing something important, something that will stay with us for the rest of our lives. And sometimes things happen to you whose significance isn’t readily apparent, and doesn’t fully sink in for some time. This was, paradoxically, both of those. I knew at the time that I was part of something important. Something much bigger than myself, even much bigger than my country. But to actually run with the Olympic flame in my hand, the one and only official Olympic flame in my hands for those few minutes, connected me to a tradition that dates backwards to ancient Greece and forwards to all future Olympics that will ever be. In time I came to realize how truly amazing a thing that was. Its significance is still unfolding, really. I still have the official outfit I wore, and the torch I carried sits on my desk at work. The expedience is something that will never leave me. I am tremendously thankful, proud, and honored to have been a part of it.

I have been so lucky in my life. I have had the opportunity to participate in — and contribute to — so many wonderful things. Things like My Gimpy Life, dream projects that might not have happened without my involvement. I know so many successful people who use their money to simply buy more and bigger toys for themselves. I say: there are incredible people doing amazing things out there. Go and get involved. You’ll be helping to create worthwhile and lasting things, helping to make someone’s dream a reality. You’ll have fun doing it, and you’ll have an enduring sense of contribution and satisfaction that’s better than you can get from any plaything. It’s an amazing feeling.

Check Steve’s cameo appearance out in episode 2 of My Gimpy Life!


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