When a comedy chat goes wrong: Who’s to blame? Examining the 92Y’s “conversation” with Steve Martin

A remarkable thing happened earlier this week on New York City's Upper East Side. An organization, the 92Y, offered a full refund to patrons who attended an event with celebrated comedian Steve Martin. How did this happen? Why did this happen?

Let us face facts.

The 92Y advertised Steve Martin in conversation with Deborah Solomon on Nov. 29, 2010. It sold out, with tickets selling for $50, plus an additional mixer for $12 that Martin himself wasn't even attending. The description mentions that he has a new novel, "An Object of Beauty," but also mentions his other credits in writing and performing for film, TV and stand-up comedy. Other cities also were selling tickets for $10 for fans of Martin to watch a simulcast and submit questions to him. The BSC Mainstage in Pittsfield, Mass., promised an "interactive experience, as audience members will have the chance, during the live event, to submit questions to the speaker via email."

So, obviously, you're expecting an hour completely devoted to art, right? I'm sure there are some Steve Martin fans who would spend $50 just to be near him for an hour, even if he didn't utter a single word.

But that's not how this was billed. Billed as an interactive conversation with Martin, I'm certain that everyone who paid money for this expected to learn more about the man they adore. Mediaite's Panel Nerds noted that even after someone from the 92Y admonished Solomon to ask more interesting questions, "this discussion went on too long for many audience members who wished to hear more about the Martin they knew already. In this way, Solomon was too rigid, twice “catching” Martin talking about himself, instead of about the book, and quickly turning her – and in turn his – attention back to the novel."

Defensively, Steve Martin wrote on Twitter last night: "So the 92nd St. Y has determined that the course of its interviews should be dictated in real time by its audience's emails. Artists beware."

He misses the point. For one thing, his conversation was sold to fans in other cities as an interview that would include their emails! Maybe they didn't tell him that, and if so, that's on them. But it's not his fault that the interview bored people. It's the fault of the person interviewing him. Deborah Solomon, who famously or infamously sometimes enjoys distorting interviews to make her subjects in the New York Times Magazine look bad (see what she did to Seth MacFarlane in 2009, for example), includes a note each week that her interviews are condensed and edited. When performing live, it's deliciously ironic that the people who employed her asked her to condense and edit! Solomon told her colleagues at the NYT that she thought it seemed most timely and interesting to talk to Martin about art and his new novel about art. Well, that's nice. But when you're interviewing someone in front of a live audience who has paid money to watch the interview, perhaps for more than one second, you should consider the live audience and what they might find interesting.

That's not to say you cannot still ask him about the novel and about his artistic interests. You just need to ask him questions that will provoke answers that everyone will enjoy.

It's not that difficult, if you're a professional journalist!

Just ask Lawrence Grobel. Who is he? He's a guy who profiled Steve Martin in the October issue of American Airlines' American Way magazine. And Martin Tweeted a link to this article yesterday, too. And this is how Grobel, who describes himself as a longtime friend of Martin's, helps introduce his piece:

My flying off to Nashville to hang with Steve would be no different than my calling Steve on the phone to have a conversation with him. Either way, we’d be doing the exact same thing: sitting very still, talking seriously. I would try to be his straight man, throwing up potentially funny scenarios in hopes that he would hit them out of the ballpark. And Steve would analyze them philosophically, because that’s what he does.

Steve Martin is not always on. Fine. Great, even. The profile is still enlightening and amusing. Do you know why? Because Grobel had the good sense to play to his audience.

I think back to when I was a reporter at the Boston Herald, and had the chance to sit down face-to-face with Will Ferrell as he did press for Talladega Nights. Ferrell couldn't have been nicer or more enjoyable as we talked about the movie and his past experiences in comedy (Boston Herald archives). But the Boston Globe, who met with Ferrell in the same hour, decided to call him out for not being funny on command. Why? Because he couldn't respond to unasked questions.

This reminds me of that, because the main reason the 92Y felt a need to refund audience members, and why the audience was unhappy in the first place, was because they felt they'd been misled.

They had a comedy idol in front of them, and they were disappointed. I don't blame Steve Martin for this. I don't blame the 92Y for this. I blame Deborah Solomon for this. She had the ability to ask this comedy legend questions about his life and his pursuits, including the new novel about the art world, in a way that made people feel as though they were getting their money's worth. And she didn't do that. Instead, she chose to ask questions that interested her. For once, she learned that her magazine tagline — "INTERVIEW HAS BEEN CONDENSED AND EDITED" — should apply equally to her.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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