Sunday, December 5, 2010

I was there.

As many of you know by now, Steve Martin appeared at the 92nd Street Y last Monday to have a conversation with art writer and New York Times Magazine "Questions for" contributor Deborah Solomon. At the event's conclusion I knew I'd seen something awkward and unexpected, but I didn't realize exactly how newsworthy it would become. In the six days that have followed, fueled mostly by the ill-conceived decision by the 92nd Street Y to send out a letter to its patrons giving them a refund while condemning the quality of the event, this tale and various narratives have been spun at The New York Times, Mediate, Salon, NPR, and again today with Steve Martin's op-ed in The Times. Most all of these accounts contain some sort of caveat admitting they weren't there, conveniently giving themselves a net to fall back on as they joyously lambaste whichever side their readers would enjoy hearing lambasted. Thanks to a good friend of mine who had an extra ticket, I was there...and this is my account.

If you read some of the articles associated with this so-called "fiasco", it's easy to get a very skewed idea about what took place. It really sounds as though a boorish audience hissed and yelled for Steve Martin to do SNL-inspired sketch humor. This could not be further from the truth. My seats were about middle-middle so I had a pretty good view of the stage and all that was going on around me. The audience, while being older (as one would expect at a $50/seat 92nd Street Y event), was enthused and somewhat electric as Martin took to the stage with Deborah Solomon. I should note at this point that I am a Steve Martin fan without being a fanatic. That said, Martin has such tremendous presence and charisma that even sitting in a chair listening to him talk about art was, initially, quite a treat. And lest you think it was all serious, as many of the articles have led their readers to believe, it wasn't. Martin, while being a serious writer with a serious passion for the subject of art, is still Steve Martin. He's engaging, he's witty, and he was arguably the most perceptive person in attendance that evening. He kept discussion of his new book, The Object of Beauty, somewhat light and, at times, gently encouraged his interviewer to do the same.

No doubt because she's a fan and friend of Steve Martin as well as a fan of the book she had professed to reading twice already (including once that very day), Deborah Solomon focused all of her attention on the book---as has been widely and correctly reported. This focus, however, was not the main problem---as has been incorrectly reported. The problem is that Solomon, however well-intentioned she may have been, simply wasn't very good at leading this conversation. Solomon discussed the book in the same way a Park Slope-based book club might tackle The Kite Runner. She took us through the book's plot---chapter by chapter at one point. At at least two different points, over Steve Martin's very correct objections, she flipped through the book to find and read certain passages she liked. I think I speak for everyone in the audience when I say that if anyone was going to read a passage from the book, it surely should have been its author. And that, in a nutshell, was the main issue. The restlessness of the audience, from my seat anyway, was not that we were being subjected to a dull discussion of art, but rather that the interviewer was unable to get in synch with either the interviewee or the audience. Nobody was there to see Solomon. And yet, at about 35 minutes into the interview, we'd heard as much or more from Solomon as we had from Steve Martin.

The pivotal moment in the evening came when a 92nd Street Y rep walked on stage and handed Solomon a card. Having seen many lectures like this, it's not that uncommon to have a note passed like this. It's usually an admonishment about time or some other issue of conversational flow. It's also usually NOT READ. Solomon read the card aloud and it basically said something like "ask him about his career in general." This elicited a rather loud ovation from the audience which, I admit, made me cringe. However disappointing it may have been to watch Solomon botch this interview, it still felt like a harsh audience reaction. That said, the stories about the event often report this loud ovation as evidence of the audience wanting to hear Martin talk about The Jerk or his "wild and crazy guy" days on Saturday Night Live. That's not really how I interpreted things. I took the ovation to be more of a "thank god, they're finally telling Solomon to stop aimlessly talking about the book like a 5th grade book report" applause.

Unfortunately, the audience questions which followed and became the focus for the last 15 minutes or so, were your typical, inane audience questions that, of course, reinforced the notion that the audience was only interested in getting the real scoop on It's Complicated or Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Are any audience questions ever good? The few questions that were submitted on cards were not too dissimilar to the kind of questions we used to see on The Chris Farley Show. Deborah Solomon had little interest in asking those questions and Steve Martin had even less interest in answering them. To his credit, Martin remained quippy throughout the train wreck and was quite entertaining. His patience did wane by the end, however, and he ended the hour right on the dot like a high-priced Upper East Side therapist. "I see our time is up," is effectively how it ended.

A few final thoughts. First, I can't believe this is a story. All this should ever have been was a mediocre event that, as the 92nd Street Y reps described it, didn't quite "gel." It should have been a story for the 850 or so people in attendance and that's about it. I had a good time relaying the disaster (over-hyping it myself in the process, I admit) to co-workers the next day. I don't blame the 92nd Street Y for sending Solomon a card trying to get her to change gears, and nor do I blame them for issuing refunds to patrons who weren't happy. But sending a letter to everyone admitting that it was a disaster---effectively blaming Steve Martin (Solomon was not referenced in the letter)? The second I saw that letter I knew they'd stepped in some deep doodoo and they've been backtracking ever since. Even if 300 of the 850 people there demanded refunds, you do that business individually...not en masse in public. Stupid. Just stupid.

Second, it's funny to see how diverse accounts of an event can be---especially by those who weren't even there. I don't suggest that my account is 100% correct by any means. It's as subject to bias and conjecture as anyone else's, I suppose. But if you take the time to read many of the articles about this story, you'll likely find yourself confused about what really happened. I even saw one headline from overseas which had somehow translated events into something like "Steve Martin Booed off stage at NYC Comedy Club." For what it's worth, this first-hand account is very similar to my own and puts the blame squarely at the feet of Solomon.

So who are the winners and who are the losers?

Winner: Steve Martin

He was good! When he spoke about art he spoke intelligently and passionately. He was amusing, he was polite, and he was perceptive enough to do his best to keep things from going off the rails. He's also had a fun time with it on Twitter as evidenced by some of these hilarious tweets:

"I am offering to erase my signature from signed books at 92nd St. Y."

"Made love to wife. She demanded refund. Trusting wife said she was not expecting “book chat” in the middle of love-making ordeal."

Loser(s): Deborah Solomon and 92nd Street Y

Those that were there know that Solomon was the real culprit. I'm sure she meant well, and moderating an interview is no easy task, but she still failed in about a dozen different ways. Given the chance to right the ship, she pretty much kept it on course for the iceberg. As for the Y, their PR team needs to go back to school and take "what the fuck did you think was going to happen 101!".


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