On March 20, in between jokes—“You can’t spell ‘diet’ without ‘die,’” and sharing a picture of a man dressed as a giant iron (Iron Man, get it?)—George Takei put up a serious post on his Facebook feed. Fred Phelps, the founder of Westboro Baptist Church, known for its vitriolic picketing at the funerals of soldiers and gay people, had just died. “He was a tormented soul, who tormented so many,” Takei wrote to his nearly 6.5 million followers. “Hate never wins out in the end. It instead goes always to its lonely, dusty end.”
To newcomers, the abrupt change of tone might sound odd. But Takei's followers weren’t likely surprised; in the midst of humor, they know, he often delivers wise and solemn messages to fans.
For decades, Takei, who turns 77 in April, was most famous for his role as Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek series (catchphrase: “Oh my!”). But since he started his Facebook page in 2011, the actor has been a social-media whiz. He’s got more than a million Twitter followers, in addition to his Facebook throngs. His feeds are fun mix of dad-humor—puns and silly photos—and the occasional dirty joke, all of which get tens of thousands of “likes” and thousands of comments as well. He frequently mentions his husband, Brad, and his daily life in Hollywood, attending premieres or giving a birthday shout-outs. His fan base has grown from Trekkies to people who simply like some humor in their Facebook. He’s even popular on Amazon, where his funny reviews of products have made him a top commenter on the site. If you’re not following Takei, a bunch of your friends probably are. I learned that when I went to his page to discover 87 of my friends had already “liked” him. Anyone following, however, will also notice the occasional, pointed comments about civil rights, politics and history.
You might say that Takei is playing a long game. Speaking at SXSW earlier this month, he explained to interviewer Matthew Segal, the president of a civic education organization that targets millennials with social media, OurTime.org, his reasons for starting the Facebook page that would renew his celebrity for a new generation.
He began in an unexpected manner. “I grew up imprisoned in two U.S. barbed wire prison camps, internment camps,” he said. He wanted to “raise the awareness of that dark chapter and make sure it never happens again, and the best way to do that [was] through a Broadway musical.” But to get a musical to Broadway, Take would need a much larger audience of likely ticket-buyers. Takei began work on Allegiance, which follows a Japanese-American family as they’re relocated from California to rural Wyoming, but meanwhile, he set out on social media to find new fans. He didn’t start out mentioning internment camps though. “Kitten [photos and memes] got people to like and share,” he said. “You catch more flies with honey and then you sock it to them with the meat.”
Takei’s social media approach is a bit like Buzzfeed—he aggregates the funnier stuff from the internet: “someecards” and giant quotations with pretty backgrounds, to silly signs. He gives fans riddles or asks them their Oscar picks. It’s like a much better version of the friend who sends along chain emails and long jokes to everyone they know. Only in this case, the people come to Takei.
Takei’s posts, all done by him personally, give him a unique voice on social media. Many celebrities make impassioned pleas on social issues, at least when they're not hawking their brands, but few have been able to use Twitter or Facebook to both get people to like them more and take them more seriously. But Takei’s blend of jokes and serious commentary has allowed him to be both the internet’s funny uncle and moral grandfather at the same time. He’s a host on the Howard Stern Show. He talks about gay rights while making jokes about clothing-store signs for “active male tops” and “active male bottoms.” Then he brings up the horrifying stories of Japanese internment to audiences who usually aren’t expecting a gut-wrenching history lesson.
In person, he uses the opposite formula, speaking seriously and sprinkling in a few lines that bring down the house with laughter. At SXSW, Segal, his interviewer, seemed surprised by his forthright and non-humorous discussions of his childhood, American history and politics. He invoked his father’s love for the former Illinois Governor Adlai Stevenson, the progressive Democrat who lost twice to Dwight Eisenhower, and discussed the importance of political participation. He criticized Edward Snowden’s decision to leave the country rather than stand trial and embrace a civil disobedience tradition. (“He’s talking about freedom and liberty and he goes to Russia of all places.”) and excoriated the International Olympic Committee’s decision to keep the Olympics in Russia after the passage of anti-gay laws. “The Olympic Committee is absolutely spineless.”
But he still knew how to lighten the mood. He told the audience how, for decades, many—if not most—mispronounced his name as "Tak-kai,” which sounds like the Japanese word for “expensive." But when, in 2011, he heard about the Tennessee Legislature’s proposal to ban teachers from using any language that assumes the existence of gay people—a bill known as “Don’t Say Gay”—Takei suggested that people could substitute his name for the word “gay,” as in Takei Pride Parades. His strategy, he now says, was two-fold: Mock the measure and get people to pronounce his name correctly: "Takei, rhymes with gay."