Just because a dog can talk, doesn't mean you should listen

In Sunday’s New York Times Op-Ed pages (yes, pages, even though no trees were sacrificed for my convenience), comedian/actor/musician/author Steve Martin wrote about an unpleasant experience he had at the 92nd Street Y as part of their speakers series. Mr. Martin is currently on a book tour promoting his new novel, An Object of Beauty, about the world of art, a subject Mr. Martin, a serious collector of modern art, knows well. The promoters of the Speakers series knew he was on a book tour promoting this novel, and they knew the subject of it.

This fact is undeniable: the promoters at the 92nd Street Y knew the reason Mr. Martin would be in town and what he was promoting. They asked Mr. Martin to select his interviewer; he chose an old friend, Debra Solomon, an art scholar and contributor to the New York Times. They were informed of his choice of interviewer and in the course of due dilligence, were provided with a bio of Ms. Solomon, which was used in the marketing of their appearance. (Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon had engaged in a public conversation before an audience some years ago in Washington, D.C. and remembered it was rewarding, so they were looking forward to yet another.)

To be clear: The 92nd Street Y knew Mr. Martin was promoting a novel about the world of art. They knew that he had asked an art critic to participate in the conversation. They included this information in their advertising and press releases about the appearance. Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon knew they had signed a contract to appear on a certain day and time and have a conversation between each other. Ticket buyers were informed of these facts as well in the advertising and promotional material.

When Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon arrived for their appearance they were informed that the conversation was going to be transmitted live to viewers around the country. In his article, Mr. Martin says this was a surprise, although he did not say if this was a violation of the contract he signed. In any case, the promoters of the event demonstrated their profound ignorance of the word “ethics” by failing to ask Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon for permission to retransmit their appearance in advance.

Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon were in for another — even ruder — surprise: viewers were given an email address and encouraged to send in questions.

The inevitable happened. Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon were in the midst of a rewarding (at least the two of them found it rewarding) conversation about the world of art and Mr. Martin’s novel. Unbeknownst to them, the producers were receiving a cascade of negative emails insisting Mr. Martin assume a less intellectual and more amusing persona, and sent a staff member on stage to interrupt them with a note: “Discuss Steve's career.”

“I have been performing a long time, and I can tell when the audience’s attention is straying. I do not need a note,” Mr. Martin wrote. “My mind was already churning like a weather front; at that moment, if I could have sung my novel to a Broadway beat I would have.”

The situation begs a question: Who is at fault? Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon for not fulfilling the audience’s careless and deliberate misunderstanding of the planned subject of the conversation? The audience, both present in the hall and at other locations, for failing to read the blurb saying Mr. Martin was promoting his new novel, An Object of Beauty, which is about art, and the bio blurb about Ms. Solomon, saying she was an authority on art and an art critic? Or was it the promoters, who blindsided the two by encouraging email feedback and then allowing it to intrude on the conversation?

Before they were interrupted, Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon were in the midst of a conversation. A serious conversation. They signed contracts to have this serious conversation, and the 92nd Street Y promoters also signed, and neither was in duress or less than capable of understanding what they were signing.

It’s very clear. Ticket-buyers foolishly plunked down their $50 plus Ticketron fees thinking they were going to see the “Wild and Crazy Guy!” playing banjo with an arrow through his head and singing “King Tut.” They were mistaken, and now they were pissed.

When the era of personal computers began, with the nascent phenomenon of desktop publishing, many pundits trumpeted a technology which gave voice to ordinary people. No longer would the unwashed masses have to jump through the hoops of writing coherently, submitting to editors who are paid to make aesthetic judgments, and publishers, who put their assets on the line to publish that writing.

Desktop publishing and the Internet which followed were, to use the nauseating buzzword, “empowering,” giving voice to the previously voiceless. We did hear more and different opinions, but that wasn’t necessarily positive. Desktop publishing and the Internet gave voice to every deranged grassy-knoll crank whose only qualification was a keyboard and an ISP, and the less than talented tyro who labors under the tragic misapprehesion he can write. (You might think I fall into the latter category. You would wrong.) The sluice gates were open, but instead of sparkling spring water, we drowned in sewage.

Which brings me back to the unfortunate evening experienced by Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon, and some will argue, many of the 900 ticket buyers in the hall and countless others watching on closed circuit. No doubt negative emails came from outside the hall, but thanks to the wonderful miracles of modern technology, they also came from inside the hall, where every idiot with fingers was busy clicking on their smartphones, “DiS sUX BFuNY”

In response to the complaints from the ticket-buyers who failed to read the advertisements carefully and were disappointed not to see the more animated and amusing Steve Martin, the unspeakably rude and unethical promoters further insulted Mr. Martin and Ms. Solomon by offering refunds to the morons.

Mr. Martin, to his credit, held his tongue for the most part. I have been more volubly upset on his behalf than he was in his article. But he did get in a zinger: “Since that night, the Y has graciously apologized for its hastiness — and I am pleased to say that I look forward to returning there soon, especially to play basketball."


Talk to me: Kenn@KennFong.com.