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Make 'em Laugh

A Lesson in Cultural Geography from Steve Martin.

5:13 PM, Dec 3, 2010 • By PHILIP TERZIAN
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I record with interest and, perhaps, a measure of surprise and sorrow a brief dispatch from the frontiers of culture—in this case, the hallowed precincts of the 92nd Street Y on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Suffice it to say that the 92nd Street Y is the sort of place where Charlie Rose might talk to Anna Quindlen before an appreciative audience, or Leon Wieseltier might interview himself. Culturally speaking, this is important business.

Make 'em Laugh

Buena Vista Pictures

And so it was that Steve Martin, the comedian/renaissance man, was invited to come to the Y last week and be interviewed about his new novel by Deborah Solomon, who conducts interviews in The New York Times Magazine. (Readers will instantly recognize her feature, which is always illustrated with an awkward, full-body, Avedon-style snapshot of the victim and a series of petulant questions if the victim is politically right of center.) Martin, who is an avid art collector, has just published a novel—An Object of Beauty—set in the art world, and Solomon was supposed to interview him about his novel, and about art collecting.

Which, evidently, is what happened. Solomon asked Martin—star of The Jerk, Father of the Bride, Roxanne, and Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid—a series of questions about his novel, and about art, and about art collecting; and after enduring several innings of this high-minded discourse, the audience of 900 ($50 per ticket) got visibly and audibly restless. Someone from Y management approached the stage and handed Solomon a note, suggesting that she ask questions about Martin’s career in stand-up comedy and cinema and less about Caravaggio. Solomon, it would seem, was so taken aback by the message that she read it aloud to the audience, which cheered appreciatively. Six or seven written questions were then submitted from the floor, and Martin answered them.

All of this has been duly recorded in the pages of the New York Times (“Comedian’s Conversation Falls Flat at 92nd Street Y,” Dec. 2), including the fact that the 92nd Street Y apologized to ticket-holders the following day, and offered a refund. “The evening with Martin and Solomon,” said the director of the Y’s public and media relation, “just didn’t gel.” For her part, Deborah Solomon was appalled that an audience at the 92nd Street Y should harbor such philistine tastes: “Frankly, you would think that an audience in New York . . . would be interested in hearing about art and artists,” she told the Times.

It is Steve Martin’s comments, however, which attracted my attention. In an injured tone, he explained to the Times reporter that he believes Deborah Solomon “is an outstanding interviewer” and that (here comes the shocker) “we have appeared together before in Washington, D.C. in a similar circumstance to great success” (emphasis mine).

I don’t know if that observation strikes readers in the same way it affected me, but I conclude that what Steve Martin is saying, in effect, is that audiences in Washington are sophisticated and erudite while audiences in New York are boorish and uneducated. People who live in the nation’s capital want to hear what Steve Martin has to say about Georges Braque, but the arts crowd in Manhattan just wants to hear him sing “King Tut.” This is such a departure from the received wisdom about these respective communities—everybody in Washington is an ill-educated hack, New York is a city of gourmands, connoisseurs, and balletomanes—that I am not entirely confident that the Times comprehends what it has published.

Solomon certainly does. The 92nd Street Y, she complains, “is supposedly a champion of the arts [but] has behaved very crassly and is reinforcing the most philistine aspects of a culture that values celebrity and award shows over art.” Which explains why Deborah Solomon consents to interview Steve Martin for money.

There is, of course, another way of looking at this: That Washington is so deprived culturally that its handful of besieged sophisticates devour every crumb thrown its way, and that New York is so accustomed to the Higher Thinking that it seeks to unbutton occasionally, and enjoy a good laugh. What, after all, can Steve Martin teach the average Manhattanite about art? Not much, perhaps. About manners, however, there’s much to learn. 

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