Sunday, October 14, 2007

The New What-er Festival?

Since I started this blog by going off about the New Yorker Festival, I should probably provide a little context for my obvious enthusiasm.

The Festival is an annual whirlwind of cultural activity and stimulating people, a celebration of that great American tradition, the New Yorker magazine. I regularly attend the Festival on a mission to touch as many bases as possible and did so again this year. Friends from Chicago and elsewhere also come in for it, catching up between events and comparing notes over dinner. There's also usually someone smart and fascinating in the seat next to you or behind you in line. It's a great way to connect to the people behind the print version, as editors, writers and subjects leap off the magazine page and magically become three-dimensional before your eyes. Like the tennis U.S. Open, the New Yorker Festival makes an excellent centerpiece for a visit to New York City.

I went to NYC a day early to have dinner with a friend on Thursday night and saw the new revival of A Chorus Line on Broadway (the show of course gets an A+, this cast maybe a B-, and it happened to be Tony nominee Charlotte D'Amboise's night off, which presumably didn't help; still, enjoyed it). Friday, was fortunate to pay my latest backstage visit to the Conan show thanks to the great Chicago-bred comedy writer Brian Stack.

And Sunday night, made my usual return visit to the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater for ASSSSCAT improv, one of the small handful of Most Dependably Excellent Improv Shows Ever. In this week's model, the likes of Miriam Tolan, Seth Meyers, Amy Poehler, John Lutz, Paul Scheer, Rob Huebel, Peter Gwinn and Horatio Sanz broke it down with nonchalant authority. In case you are not familiar with these players, each has made some modest progress in the comedic arts.

But these were the aperitifs and dessert. As for the Festival itself, here's what I saw:

1. Friday night, documentary maker Errol Morris and writer Philip Gourevitch talked about their Abu Ghraib movie and book. Besides the grim subject matter, it was a weirdly tense and downbeat atmosphere even though they were preaching to the choir (I mean, does anyone feel proud or excited about what Americans did at Abu Ghraib?). This was my least favorite event of this and probably any other New Yorker Festival.

2. Saturday kicked off with humorist Andy Borowitz summing up the news in his clever, funny way. To see this I had to skip a panel on investigative journalism with Jane Mayer, James B. Stewart (DisneyWar) and Lawrence Wright (The Looming Tower) that I heard was terrific. There really is something for everyone at this festival, and if you have a lot of interests you have to make hard choices.

3. Film critic Anthony Lane and Columbia professor Simon Schama looked at history as depicted in Hollywood movies. Two witty Brits talking a mile a minute, interrupting each other, showing an amazing range of knowledge about film, particularly in the case of Schama since he's a history and art history professor, not even a film professor.

4. Features editor Susan Morrison interviewed Steve Martin about his early days as a standup comedian, promoting his upcoming memoir, Born Standing Up. This was excellent. Martin was candid and interesting and the well-prepared Morrison did a good job of drawing him out. The magazine has posted video of the entire event on its site; if you like Steve, check it out, you'll love it.

As if a Steve Martin interview weren't Hollywood enough already, it became more so as I took my seat. A friend of mine, the talented writer Jenny Blair, had grabbed us the last two seats in the rear corner of the Directors Guild of America auditorium. By the time I got there shortly before the event started, the place was packed and the rest of our row stood up for me as I sidled across to the empty seat. The last standee on my behalf was one Eugene Levy, whom I had met in Aspen at the Waiting For Guffman reunion at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival. Jenny later told me that Mr. Levy had been approached by a series of fans wanting autographs or photos before I got there; he'd accommodated them, but hadn't seemed too thrilled that hiding out in the last row hadn't worked.

I tried not to bother the guy, just mentioned that I'd had the pleasure of meeting his friends, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Willard, at the Conan show the night before, where Mr. Willard and Late Night writer Brian Stack, alums both, had compared notes on the early days of Second City, from Robert Klein to Mina Kolb to the late Avery Schreiber. Mr. Willard held court in his dressing room, telling us about seeing a young Woody Allen do some awkward standup comedy in the 1960s at the Chicago nightclub Mr. Kelly's, fumbling with his notes, stammering out the bits, learning his craft on the way up. We'd also discussed Mr. Willard's scene-stealing turn as a Westminster Dog Show TV announcer in Best In Show and Bob Balaban's family roots in the Chicago movie theater business. Mr. Levy -- and, for that matter, Mr. Martin -- would have added much to this colloquy, but they were a day late and seven blocks too far north.

5. Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik debated the issue of whether the Ivy League should be abolished. Happily, this was not at all stuffy or self-important, but rather funny and informative on the Ivies' flawed meritocracy. Interesting fact: today's admissions model with its goal of admitting well-rounded students came into being in the 1920s as a result of the so-called "Jewish problem." The kids of Jewish immigrants were so academically strong that under the existing admissions M.O., i.e. simply admitting the students with the best grades, they would have filled the entire Harvard, Yale, etc. campuses. As a result, the schools changed the game, admitting based on not only grades but other, softer criteria like legacy status, athletics, interviews, essays, and extracurricular activities, so they could admit whatever mix of students they wanted. This approach, often providing a means for connected BMOCs and beautiful people to sneak in the side door, persists to this day. How else would a well-born laggard such as a young G.W. Bush get into otherwise elite Yale?

6. Sunday morning meant "Bagels with Bob," a talk about New Yorker cartoons from cartoon editor Bob Mankoff. His funny, interesting stump speech and slide show described the selection process (he sees about a thousand gag panels per week and chooses the finalists for editor David Remnick, who picks the ones that go into the magazine); included a funny film about how Mankoff loves to reject everything; covered the popular caption contest; analyzed the psychology of humor; and poked fun at the magazine's extensive cartoon licensing efforts. Well worth attending.

7. That afternoon, an outdoor interview and demonstration from Frenchman and parkour creator David Belle. His nascent sport is a balletic mix of acrobatics, gymnastics and stunts using the urban environment as a canvas. Visually arresting and at times terrifying, parkour has grown in popularity and media attention since appearing in the latest James Bond movie, Nike commercials, and other trend delivery systems.

Belle is an unbelievable practitioner, the Baryshnikov of parkour, but also modest to a fault. He was reluctant even to perform any parkour at all, which was a little weird (after all, the Festival had flown the guy in from France and billed the event as an interview and parkour demonstration). There were about thirty apprentice types there doing some rudimentary moves, but Belle mostly just supervised as visiting guru, then submitted to an interview from Alec Wilkinson, author of the recent New Yorker parkour article. Eventually during the Q&A, when some tall guy from Chicago asked Belle in French to favor us with some parkour of his own, the large crowd applauded their agreement, and with a grudging smile he flashed a too-brief glimpse of his massive talent. Audience video of the event was permitted, some of which has been posted to YouTube (here's just Belle's encore), but other videos there give a better idea of how skilled he is. The guy is simply amazing.

8. The final event I saw was film critic David Denby interviewing Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen about Superbad, The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Knocked Up, Apatow's TV career, and his standup comedy days as Adam Sandler's roommate and Jim Carrey's opening act. Predictably, this was a freewheeling, smart, dirty, hilarious interview that the sellout crowd loved.

Apatow is a master of the anecdote, writing chops constantly on display as he speaks in hilarious paragraphs, and Rogen comes across as a sharper and more ambitious version of his familiar screen persona, the bearlike stoner with a heart of gold. Rogen had hosted Saturday Night Live fifteen hours earlier and looked as if he might have slept for twenty minutes since. Denby was a genial host if slightly out of it, referring to the director at one point as "Jeff Apatow," but it didn't matter. You don't interview these guys, you just knock over an occasional first domino and get out of the way.

I could choose a dozen representative stories from this nonstop cavalcade of laughs, but here's one chosen at random from my several pages of notes. When the makers of Superbad were casting the role of über-nerd Fogell, better known and (Mc)loved as McLovin, they sent a letter to the drama departments of Southern California high schools looking for the following: (i) an eighteen-year-old boy who (ii) looks thirteen, (iii) is a loser, and (iv) thinks he's awesome. When a skinny, reedy-sounding teen named Christopher Mintz-Plasse came in to read for the role, he said he'd heard about the opportunity from schoolmates who told him he was just the guy some filmmakers were looking for. His Superbad audition was his first ever, as one might have guessed when he asked co-writers Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg to autograph his script. Mintz-Plasse won the role despite having no professional acting experience and proceeded to steal the movie.

With something like seventeen films together in various stages of completion, including Knocked Up and Superbad released back to back this summer and the forthcoming "pothead action movie" The Pineapple Express, Apatow and Rogen have spent an aggregate three hours in the last three months not being interviewed, but they managed to keep it fresh. They also showed clips from their work together on TV series Freaks and Geeks and Undeclared and a scene cut from Knocked Up in which Rogen's meathead roommates discuss the abortion option in amusingly ignorant style.

After that, I wrote up my little article, saw some friends and that was that.


Jenny Blair said...

Knocking over the first domino: a perfect description of an Apatow-Rogen interaction, if someone who wasn't there may say so. The New Yorker Festival is a great and glorious pilgrimage. Thanks a million for talking me into going this year.

Jenny Blair said...

Ben! Will you put up your ODB bit? I want to send it to Prescott Tolk.