Director: Aaron Sorkin; Cast: Ted LeFrank as himself, Meg Whitman as herself, Aaron Sorkin as himself, and Seth Green as Computer
Ted LeFrank had never been ambitious. He’d worked at a pizza restaurant in his hometown of Mt. Vernon, New York and he’d often thought about adopting a rescue dog.
But over time the vague dissatisfaction he felt about his own life began to crystalize. What had once been a storm of problems he could barely describe – lethargy, ennui, lack of sex, lack of money, lack of meaningful relationships, lack of meaningless relationships, lack of physical fitness, and lack of sleep, mostly – had settled into a more identifiable problem: that he was 38, and nothing would ever change.
“Unless, of course, I change it,” he said.
“Change what?” said the guy standing on the other side of Ted’s cash register.
“Oh, it’s hard to explain,” Ted said. “But don’t worry you’ll still get your pizza.”
“Ok,” the guy said.
That guy buying pizza was Aaron Sorkin, and the conversation rattled him.
Sorkin specializes in characters with important jobs, lots of self-confidence, and an ability to convert awkward silences into pregnant pauses that convey more in a second than most of us convey in a lifetime. In Ted, Sorkin had met somebody who upended his notions of what made a character. Sorkin sat down, ate his slice of pepperoni, refilled his Diet Pepsi, and wrote the following words on a napkin:
“Just met an actual guy. Movie idea?”
Nobody could’ve predicted that Ted LeFrank would become the subject of Sorkin’s latest and arguably greatest Silicon Valley biopic, TED Talks: The Movie.
The movie starts after Ted gets off work the day he served Sorkin. The shaky camera pans up from Sorkin’s cashed pepperoni and follows Ted out the door and all the way to his apartment, where Ted opens his HP laptop. (In voiceover we learn that Ted has stuck with HP over Apple because Ted has a thing for HP’s CEO, Meg Whitman. Ted likes to think that Meg could be a friend of his mother’s.) Ted bites his lip, the camera holds on his face. The viewer can almost hear Sorkin salivating from the wrong side of the lens. Ted scratches his chin. Ted remembers the epiphany he had before serving Sorkin. Ted turns towards his computer and googles “How do I change” and comes across the famous Gandhi quote about being the change you want to see in the world. Then Ted googles “Where is the sort of change Gandhi’s talking about happening today.” The computer (in voiceover, with the perfectly cast voice of Seth Green) tells him that the most change in the world is happening either in China or Silicon Valley. Ted can’t ride a bus to China so he opts for California.
Ted doesn’t know much about computers but figures, worst case, he can buy a bike and a tape deck and ride around Palo Alto blasting a nonstop loop of vocals-free reggae, wearing a thick layer of caked-on sunscreen and waiting for invitations to preach whatever gospel he’d cook up on his very long bus ride. “Is being a reggae guy on a bike my worst case scenario? Or is it my secret dream?” Ted has no idea, but he’s grateful to have something to mull over while he looks out the bus window.
The thing Ted liked about the pizza place was that he got to have pleasant thirty-second exchanges with everybody who passed through the shop. Thirty seconds was about as much as Ted could handle, and he often wondered how, in a broader sense, he could reduce his human interactions to that particular increment. If he could have a relationship with somebody who never asked him for more than the emotional equivalent of thirty seconds of lively sounding banter, forget adopting a rescue dog, Ted would have himself a human companion in no time.
The movie cuts to the bus, where Ted takes a seat near the bathroom and watches the aisle as bus rider after bus rider streams his way. A man in a hat stops and looks down. The voice of Seth Green identifies the man as Aaron Sorkin.
If Sorkin’s in the aisle, who’s holding the camera? Was Sorkin a passive observer of Ted’s real life or an active participant in the founding of TED Talks? Why do movies have to be so confusing?
Sorkin looks at Ted, says, “Brace yourself to confront your dreams,” and quickly moves on. Ted, deeply confused, rubs his temples and almost doesn’t notice as a professionally dressed woman with a blonde bob sits down right next to him. Could it be? Meg Whitman? The HP home office printer baroness? The onetime Republican gubernatorial candidate for California? Why would she be riding a bus from Mt. Vernon to Silicon Valley?
Meg sits down, and Ted prepares his one word greeting – “hi” – and then looks out the window at the unmoving parking lot and wonders how to handle the fact that one of his most private dreams has been delivered right into his lap. Ted stares out the window. Ted hopes they’ll get moving soon so that he’ll have more of a reason to keep his eyes trained on the glass. As the bus purrs to life, Ted finds his prayers answered and takes pride in the fact that he’s the sort of guy who chooses practical things to want – buy a bus ticket, pray the bus moves, be pleased when it does. Keep it simple.
Meg, though, doesn’t have a window to look out. So she keeps asking Ted questions. Why Silicon Valley? Inkjet or laser? Why a rescue dog? Why reggae instead of vocals-free ska?
Ted turns to Meg Whitman and all he wants to know is who sent her. The camera holds on Ted’s eyes. Ted buries the moment by asking Meg a few basic questions about her immediate plans for the future, her family, her career. An hour later he looks down at his wristwatch and sees that his normal thirty-second threshold for interaction has shattered.
“You’ve achieved something, Ted,” Meg said. “It’s called personal growth.”
She leans over, gives Ted a hug, and offers him a fistful of trail mix.
“You know what’s funny, Ms. Whitman…”
Ted chews a peanut and raisin.
“You know what’s funny, Meg? When I was at the pizza place, I always thought it was the thirty seconds it took to complete a transaction that made it easy for me to talk to people. But actually it was that they were captive audiences. They couldn’t leave until I gave them their change. Sitting here with you, in a situation where you can’t possibly get up and leave, I’ve realized that having a captive audience really helps me. It makes me think I should go to jail or something.”
“Why would I want to get up and leave, Ted?”
Ted finds himself chuckling without knowing why.
What’s the difference between a movie and real life? Had Aaron Sorkin been secretly reading Ted’s dreams so that he could know what an actual guy was like? Did Sorkin know that Ted would go on to found a club called Ted’s Small Talks at a Mountain View Starbucks, where his trio of bike-riding members would put on headsets and stand up and talk about their finicky coffee preferences so as to overcome their social anxiety, only for a rival Starbucks regular to steal the idea and launch TED Talks to wild success? Did Sorkin know that Meg Whitman would break Ted’s life wide open merely by asking him a few basic questions? What was Sorkin doing in Mt. Vernon in the first place? What did Ted do when he got to Silicon Valley?
Well, he rode that bike around and adopted a rescue dog.
But was Sorkin’s movie any good?
The movie’s emotional climax comes when Sorkin and Whitman confront Ted in a parking lot, two years after his arrival in Silicon Valley. Cameras rolling, they tell him the truth – Whitman never would’ve ridden a bus from Mt. Vernon to Silicon Valley unless she’d been compensated. They give Ted a second to process this information, and then ask him to give a TED Talk about what it feels like to be used. The talk, Sorkin tells the camera, will be the film’s finale, and will be Ted’s real life chance to escape the lowly ranks of Ted’s Small Talks and ascend to something better.
Ted weighs his options. Whitman shifts on her pumps. The cameras roll. Ted’s personal growth was real, that much he knows. He never would’ve founded Ted’s Small Talks without spending those three thousand miles talking to Meg. Ted looks at Meg. Ted grabs Meg by the hair and throws her to the ground. Her face doesn’t pull off though, she’s wearing no mask, this is not Scooby Doo, and it takes Aaron Sorkin a second too long to intervene.
Tom Dibblee is Trop’s editor. His fiction has appeared in Glimmer Train and his nonfiction has appeared in Pacific Standard, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and the Point. He lives in Los Angeles.