Famed New York cultural and community center The 92nd Street Y is offering full refunds and an apology to all those who attended a recent interview with comedian, novelist, movie star, and all-around legend Steve Martin. What did he do? Spit at the audience? Fall asleep in the middle of the interview? Drop an insulting reference to Alice Walker?
Nope. He just wasn’t funny enough.
Martin and his interviewer, Deborah Solomon (a writer for The New York Times Magazine), made the mistake of talking more about art than about comedy, and the Y’s audience apparently took a dim view of that choice — although one might reasonably expect an audience of New Yorkers who have the inclination, let alone the discretionary income, to spend fifty bucks on an evening at the 92nd Street Y to have even a manqué’s interest in the subject of art. Particularly when the interviewee is a well-known art collector who has just come out with a new novel about…art.
Apparently, viewers watching the conversation via closed-circuit TV around the country sent in a flurry of emails complaining that the conversation was too art-focused (read: boring). A note was duly handed to the interviewer to get onto the comedy, stat. (Martin later said that this was “a little like an actor responding in Act III to an audience’s texts to ‘shorten the soliloquies.’ ”) Solomon gave the audience a chance to address Martin directly, and he politely fielded about seven questions from the floor about his film and TV career. Neither Solomon nor Martin knew they had disgraced the Y until after the fact, when Sol Adler, the center’s executive director, sent out the following message to ticket-holders:
We acknowledge that last night’s event with Steve Martin did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y. We planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening. We will be mailing you a $50 certificate for each ticket you purchased to last night’s event. The gift certificate can be used toward future 92Y events, pending availability.
Solomon is peeved. Yesterday, she said:
Frankly, you would think that an audience in New York, at the 92nd Street Y, would be interested in hearing about art and artists. I had no idea that the Y programmers wanted me to talk to Steve instead on what it’s like to host the Oscars or appear in ‘It’s Complicated’ with Alec Baldwin. I think the Y, which is supposedly a champion of the arts, has behaved very crassly and is reinforcing the most philistine aspects of a culture that values celebrity and award shows over art.
See, that’s the thing, though. Martin sold the place out because our culture, even highbrow New York arty culture, values celebrity (and juicy stories about same; the more the better). It was probably a little silly to pretend that it didn’t. But going so far as to refund the tickets?
Martin himself, who is surely the classiest guy ever to appear regularly in public with a fake arrow through his head, called the refund “discourteous,” but beyond that doesn’t seem particularly bothered. (He pointed out that “As for the Y’s standard of excellence, it can’t be that high because this is the second time I’ve appeared there.”)
I don’t know. On the one hand, there’s something refreshing about a bunch of allegedly art-loving New Yorkers admitting they’d rather be amused than edified. On the other hand, when you buy a ticket to something, you risk not liking it. It happens. In fact, unless I’m much mistaken, it happens all the time. This episode strikes me as a weird new strain of pandering and a bit of a dodgy precedent at that.
Although I’d love my ten bucks back for There Will Be Blood.