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Song of Solomon: Steve Martin and the 92nd Street Y

Song of Solomon: Steve Martin and the 92nd Street Y

It looks like the New York Times’ Steve Martin 92nd Street Y comedy of manners story has turned into something bigger. Today, Martin published an Op-Ed explaining himself more fully, and all last week’s papers seemed to have something to say.

Well I do too. But a brief recap first: last week, Deborah Solomon sharply criticized the 92nd Street Y for asking her to change the questions she was asking Steve Martin at a Monday night Y discussion. Martin’s new novel, "An Object of Beauty," is about the art world and he’s an avid collector himself; Solomon naturally spent most the time talking about art.

But audience members apparently became so bored, and had expected Martin to talk more about his popular film career. The Y’s staged hands got wind of this and quietly slipped Solomon a note during the discussion that told her to change subjects.

In the Times’ story published a few days later, Solomon, who writes the popular Sunday Magazine Q&A for the paper, got very angry. She told her colleague, the Times reporter: "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."

I think she’s right, but I don’t think her comments were the right way to handle it. Steve Martiin’s, on the other hand, were.

He didn’t launch an angry attack on the Y, but still offered a sly rebuke. His comments compared the Y’s response to audience unease as "a little like an actor responding in Act III to an audience’s texts to ‘shorten the soliloquies.’"

Well put.

But what’s the broader significance of this little debacle? It obviously highlights the unpredictability of lectures, and shows that pressure programmers and moderators can face.

Yet it seems that Solomon and Martin were entirely within correct to talk about what they talked about — Martin’s book, which is why he was there in the first place. The other parts of his career are not irrelevant, but audiences should know better than to expect him to spend a lot of time on “Father of the Bride.”

Plus, if they want to hear more about his films, then ask at the Q&A that the Y always allows for at the end of a talk.

There’s a lesson for the Y in it, too. While I don’t think Solomon should have put it so baldly and with so much pretension, she her general view is spot-on. The Y’s pandering was a sorry capitulation to poorly informed guests. The Y should have simply told angry patrons to ask the questions they wanted to hear when they got the chance. A little back-bone on their part is in order.

Moreover, giving free $50 vouchers to disgruntled guests, which the Y did the next day, was an even more ham-fisted. When it comes to refunding events, a lecture is no different from any other form of entertainment. If you don’t like the show, then don’t go again. Or, if you feel so moved, send a letter to the Y the next day. But please don’t expect a refund.

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