92nd Street Y goes "American Idol" on Steve Martin

Audience whines about an interview being too highfalutin, so refunds are offered. Is all art up to a vote now?

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published December 2, 2010 4:03PM (EST)

Blame it on "American Idol." Or maybe "Gladiator." If there was any doubt left that American audiences now believe they have the right to vote on how their entertainment unfolds, that notion was thrown to the lions Monday night, when actor/author/comedy legend/noted aesthete Steve Martin did not amuse the audience gathered at New York's 92nd Street Y to watch him in conversation with art critic and New York Times Magazine writer Deborah Solomon.

The tip-off that the event was taking a Sean-Young-on-"Skating With the Stars" turn came halfway through the evening, when a representative from the Y walked onstage and handed Solomon a note directing her to steer the conversation away from art -- the subject of Martin's new novel, "An Object of Beauty" -- and more toward his long and often hilarious career. Martin told the New York Times Wednesday  that viewers around the country who were watching the interview on closed-circuit television had been e-mailing the Y to complain about the conversational subject matter.

Solomon then read the note aloud to the crowd, provoking the biggest cheers of the evening, before yielding the mic to questions from the audience. But even that acquiescence did not suffice. The next day, the Y's executive director Sol Adler sent out an e-mail to ticket holders saying, "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." To recap: After a talk on Manhattan's Upper East Side between an art critic and the author of a book about the art world, a sold-out audience of 900 has been granted a refund because the conversation focused too much on art. Talk about a tough room. And coming one day after the Smithsonian's utterly wuss move of pulling a gay-themed video after some right-wing huffing and puffing,  it's enough to make one throw up one's hands in despair, or just throw up, period.

Any audience might rightly expect that an evening with Steve Martin is not to be an evening with Damien Hirst. Martin has a lengthy résumé of crowd-pleasing fare, from his earliest stand-up routines to his more recent incarnations as Oscar host and star of movies like "It's Complicated." When you go to see David Hockney, you do not expect him to play the banjo in bunny ears. But Martin's credibility as being more than just one of a trio of sombrero-sporting amigos goes back decades, and the Y itself boasts that it's the "premiere platform of civic dialogue and intellectual discourse." Just not too intellectual, funnyman. I can't help being reminded of the troupe of space aliens in "Stardust Memories" who inform Woody Allen, "We enjoy your films. Particularly the early, funny ones."

Solomon told the Times Wednesday that "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." And Martin, after describing the Y's action as "discourteous" in the same story, tweeted late Wednesday that "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."

The Y has not yet posted the video of the event, so it's impossible to assess whether it was truly an epic dud or simply didn't have enough cat juggling for the crowd. But any audience familiar enough with both Martin and Solomon to have shelled out 50 bucks to see them really should have been better braced for more highfalutin artsy-fartsy pretentiousness than King Tut routines. In recent years, Martin has grown increasingly highbrow (and, some would say, full of himself), while Solomon has always been that way. Yet its director of public and media relations Beverly Greenfield said Tuesday that the evening "just didn’t gel. 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."

If you order the steak well done and it comes rare, you should send it back. And if you pay a few benjamins to see a Broadway spectacle and it starts late and Spider-Man winds up flailing in midair for extended periods, I believe you have a right to request a refund.  (And good luck getting it!) But Martin's audience should have trusted him better than to expect him to do its bidding, and more significantly, the Y should have as well.  Artists change and evolve, and it's ballsy to expect them not to. Madonna doesn't want to sing "Like a Virgin" in perpetuity either, folks. The notion that the customer is always right, as anyone who's ever worked in customer service knows, is a flat-out lie. Customers are wrong all the freaking time. If you think paying for a ticket entitles you to call the shots on how something clearly billed as a "lecture and conversation" is supposed to go, if you believe your entertainment should be as crowdsourced as Bristol Palin's dance career, here's the scoop: no. And to rudely demand otherwise is beyond wild. That's downright crazy.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

MORE FROM Mary Elizabeth Williams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------