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December 2, 2010

Are Comedians Allowed to Be — Gasp! — Serious?
by WomenInComedy - 2

By Liz McKeon, WICF Editor

Steve Martin appeared, Monday night, as part of the lecture series at NY's 92nd Street Y. The moderator for the evening was New York Times columnist Deborah Solomon. Martin and Solomon spoke for an hour in front of a crowd of about 900, according to the Times. Tickets to the event cost $50. Afterward, as reported in the Times, the executive director of the 92nd Street Y sent an e-mail to ticket holders informing them that the 92nd Street Y would be mailing them all $50 gift certificates to make up for what he referred to as an event that "did not meet the standard of excellence that you have come to expect from 92nd St. Y." Sol Adler's e-mail also stated that "[w]e planned for a more comprehensive discussion and we, too, were disappointed with the evening."

Now, while I applaud the 92nd Street Y for making every effort after the fact to give its patrons what they want, I do have to ask — how did this happen? How did a renowned cultural and art institution like the 92nd Street Y come to feel that it needed to refund its patrons for an evening with a writer who is currently on a book tour, who discussed his new book and its subject, namely the art world, with a columnist known for her art criticism? That is what happened here. Steve Martin, wild and crazy guy that he is, is also a best-selling writer. I say "best-selling" because that is what his bio. for the event called him:
Steve Martin is a celebrated writer, actor and performer. His film credits include Father of the Bride, Parenthood and The Spanish Prisoner, as well as Roxanne, L.A. Story and Bowfinger, for which he also wrote the screenplays. He’s won Emmy Awards for his television writing and two Grammy Awards for comedy albums. In addition to a play, Picasso at the Lapin Agile, he has written a best-selling collection of comic pieces, Pure Drivel and a best-selling novella, Shopgirl. His most recent novel is An Object of Beauty: A Novel
Was it the event description that threw people off? The title of the lecture was "Steve Martin with Deborah Solomon." I suppose, given that open-ended designation, one could have assumed the evening would be about anything related to Steve Martin, so one should have attempted to narrow it down. Could there possibly have been a clue as to what Martin would be speaking about — something to help customers decide whether or not to spend their hard-earned money on a ticket to this event? I suppose I'd have started with the only other bit of information contained in the lecture's title, Deborah Solomon's name. But what if I didn't know who Deborah Solomon was? Well, I'd have been in luck, theoretical patron of the arts that I am, the ever-helpful 92nd Street Y included a brief biography of Ms. Solomon on its events page as well! Huzzah! Let's see what they thought was important the public know about Ms. Solomon leading up to the lecture:
Deborah Solomon has been an art critic, art historian and magazine writer. She currently writes a weekly column for the New York Times Magazine, under the heading "Questions For..."
Well there you have it, folks! Deborah Solomon, art critic and magazine writer, was to interview Steve Martin, well known comedian, writer, and, it should be noted, musician. How do I know he's a comedian and a musician? I know because Martin's career has existed within the public domain for decades. Based on his bio. on the event's page, I would know only that Martin is a writer, actor, and performer; that he is an Emmy-winning television writer; that he must be some sort of comedian, because he's won two Grammys for comedy albums; that he has a series of film credits to his name; and that he is a playwright and author of a collection of comic stories, a novella, and, most recently, a novel.

If this was an evening with The Jerk-era Steve Martin, I would wonder what the hell an art critic was doing interviewing him.

Of course, today's Steve Martin is not The Jerk-era Steve Martin. Today's Steve Martin is a post-Picasso at the Lapin Agile-era Steve Martin, a post-Shopgirl-era Steve Martin, a Steve Martin who is currently touring to promote his new book, set in the world of high-end art collecting. A Steve Martin who is an art collector himself. A Steve Martin who has proven himself to be a brilliant Renaissance man. Would I expect, had I bought a $50 ticket to see this author and performer appear onstage at the 92nd Street Y to be interviewed by a Times art critic, that he would appear with an arrow sticking out both sides of his head and subject us to an hour of pratfalls and zany comic mishaps?

Well, would you?

I would hope that, given the evidence provided by the venue leading up to the event, most adults — and make no mistake, the 92nd Street Y's audience skews "adult" — most adults would expect to hear Steve Martin discuss his new book.

The venue itself is known for providing a wide array of cultural programming. WICF 2010 performer Sara Benincasa played host at the 92nd Street Y's Tribeca-outpost's Oscars-viewing party this year, along with Sara Schaefer and Michelle Collins. I'm sure the evening was a roaring, hysterical success. Much less funny, but no less wonderful, was the event I attended at the uptown location in 2005, that featured Louise Erdrich and Bobbie Ann Mason. Let me tell you, that audience was so angry when Erdrich and Mason didn't even bother to Jello-wrestle onstage that they immediately went to the diner down on 89th to angrily gum their meatloaf and pudding. It was slow, orderly, polite pandemonium.

If this had been Steve Martin and Alec Baldwin hosting the Oscars, I would fully understand the audience's dismay had they sat and discussed art and literature for an hour. Had the event been billed as "A Night of a Thousand Laughs, with Steve Martin! at the 92nd Street Y," I would understand the venue deciding to refund its audience's money. But a night billed as "Steve Martin with Deborah Solomon"? Art and literature should have been expected.

What say you, readers? Can you allow your comedians to exist outside of the realm of comedy? Or do you want your humorists forever pigeonholed into neat little boxes, ever-ready for your comic consumption?

To the 92 Street Y's credit, they appear to have been responding to their audience, and it's that audience that should bear the brunt of any ire garnered. Steve Martin said, according to the Times, that "viewers watching the interview by closed-circuit television from across the country sent e-mails to the Y complaining 'that the evening was not going the way they wished, meaning we were discussing art.'”

Apparently the venue responded by passing a note to the interviewer in the middle of the event, which she read aloud, telling the audience, according to Mediate, that "she’d been instructed to ask more questions about Martin’s career instead of focusing exclusively on his new book."

This announcement was followed by applause and cheers from the audience.

The Times quotes Beverly Greenfield, the 92nd Street Y's director of public and media relations, as saying:
“We heard from our audience members, who were vocal about their admiration for Steve Martin and their displeasure with the program, at the event, and afterward by e-mail and by phone,” Ms. Greenfield’s e-mail continued. “On occasion, when a program clearly has not met our or our patrons’ expectations, we have offered patrons a credit.”
Further, according to the Times:
Mr. Martin said he was taken aback by the Y’s response, describing it as “discourteous” and adding, “It seemed to me that a consultation was at least in order.
“As for the Y’s standard of excellence, it can’t be that high because this is the second time I’ve appeared there.” 

Further reading:
Lee, Felicia R. "Comedian Conversation Falls Flat at 92nd Street Y." New York Times 1 Dec. 2010.
Panel Nerds. "Panel Nerds: Steve Martin Isn't A Wild and Crazy Guy Anymore." 30 Nov. 2010.


  1. The venue refunding patron's money is not only ridiculous, but bad form. It is an insult to Steve Martin, I really think it makes the venue seem out of touch with it's artists. It also assumes that the patrons who attending are stupid. I wonder how many people complained? I would LOVE to see that list of complaints - what were people actually expecting? When Steve Martin speaks on any topic it is fascinating - and usually laced with humor. What could have been so wrong with that?

  2. Hey Deana - I updated it to explain that the 92nd Street Y was, apparently, responding directly to its audience's complaints. I shouldn't have left that part out -- I don't fault the venue as much as I fault the consumers, I imagine 92Y was just trying to keep its audience happy. But I can't understand why the audience would react the way they did, other than a willful lack of understanding of Steve Martin's career.