A funny thing happened recently at New York City's 92 Street Y. Or, I guess to be more accurate, a funny thing didn't happen recently at New York City's 92 Street Y.
Which was the problem.
It seems Steve Martin (yes, that Steve Martin) was in the middle of a discussion promoting his recent novel, An Object of Beauty, at the well-known Manhattan venue (which, incidentally, has a long history of hosting writers and filmmakers and musicians and artists of all walks) when New York Times columnist, Deborah Solomon--who was hosting the evening's conversation--was handed a slip of paper advising her to move the conversation along to funnier, more light-hearted matters. Martin (who is himself an avowed art collecter and whose recent novel presumably deals with the contemporary art world) was supposedly in an involved conversation with his interviewer about--what else?--art.
As it turns out, however (despite the venue and its legendary history, and the fact that Martin was there to talk about his latest novel--which is about the artworld, of all things--which also, incidentally, just happens to be something of more than just a passing interest of Martin's), art was the last thing on the audience's mind that night.
*[Aside: To quote Capt. Willard, as he rides aboard PBR Streetgang in the heat of Vietnam's jungle, wiping sweat from his nose and reading even-voiced from the dossier spread out on his lap of the tortured and troubled military history of Col. Walter E. Kurtz, who--on one particular instance--pissed off a league of military upper echelon: "It seems they didn't dig what he had to tell them..."]
What Martin didn't seem to know was that the management at the Y was taking real-time email requests from its audience members (oh, you've gotta love the magic of hand-held computers/cameras disguised as phones these days), and those requests more than indicated an audience that was growing increasingly disgruntled, dissatisfied, and disenchanted with the interview's "artsy" turn.
In short, the audience was bored out of its collective mind and demanded to take charge of the interview. They didn't want to hear a long, drawn-out dissertation on art, after all, from a gifted writer (essayist, playwright, and novelist as Martin has proven himself to be). No, what they were there for, as it turns out, was the good stuff. They wanted the old Steve Martin. They wanted the "fake-arrow-through-the-head-and-banjo-playing" stand-up comedian of 30 and 40 years ago, the genius who stumbled onto the comedic stage with a breathtakingly iconoclastic "anti-comedy" act that deconstructed and reinvented the whole notion of stand-up comedy forever. They wanted The Jerk. The Man With Two Brains. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles. They wanted the Steve Martin who--over Saturday Night Live's long-running career--has guest-hosted more than any other star. They wanted to hear from Martin the funny man, the "wild and crazy guy" of yesterday. The Y's (wise) audience that night, in other words, wanted to laugh.
*[Aside: I'm guessing such stringent demands from the audience in what can now, infamously, only be called "the Y interview" would have invariably overlooked certain stages in Martin's checkered career, then. With such an opinionated live audience as the Y seems to attract--an audience short on patience and with a taste for all things humorous--I shudder to think what they would have done to Martin had the conversation moved into a discussion of the comedic cornucopia examplified by "Cheaper By the Dozen" and "The Pink Panther"--Parts I and II for both, respectively. Oh...the horror! The horror!]
It was as if--in these days of communal empowerment--the Y's (wise) audience decided to rise up, and to breathe a sigh of disgusted frustration, and to scrunch its forehead and narrow its eyes with simplified focus and determination, and to mutter in rebellious, pent-up rage: "Let's roll."
And in the end, they demanded nothing less than a full refund. And the Y acquiesced. (After all, I guess, the customer really does know best.) But be that as it may, the angry audience members got their money back for that afternoon's failed talk. And Martin was left speechless. Literally. (Well, that is until after the interview, anyway, when he was able to get his own hands on his own cellular device and start tweeting and emailing opinions of his own of how the whole affair went down.) In the days following, it seems, Martin has calmed down somewhat from the Kafkaesque ridiculousness of the whole situation; in the ensuing days his own angry tone has softened somewhat. Some of this may be due to his background as a philosophy major in college and to his familiarity with existential absurdity in our daily lives. Some of this may be due, as well, to his years as a stand-up comedian and to his impeccable entertainer's intuition to know that--like it or not--the audience will have the last word. Some of this also may be attributed to a public-relations spin team, earning its paycheck from Martin to keep him out of the headlines as much as possible.
I don't know.
But what I do know--for better or worse--is that this incident seems to serve as a very specific social and cultural landmark, indicating (to me, anyway) a particular trend in these times we live in. As Americans, we celebrate our "Americaness" at every turn. Yes, we're a free society (on paper and in our cultural mythology, anyway). And yes, we celebrate liberties not enjoyed by other countries around the world (again, at least on paper and in our cultural mythology). But this "freedom" and this "liberty" has led us--over time--to arrogantly assume that we are free to take liberty with whomever and whatever we happen to disagree at any given moment.
Our cultural mantra--in these millenial days of ours--seems to have evolved into an uber-simplistic: "If you don't like something, change it." (Which, of course, can be reduced to even fewer words to synonymously--and possibly even more effectively--say: "Get 'er done!")
It's the reality-show mentality. The "Survivor syndrome," for want of a better phrase. If you don't like someone, vote them off the island and be done with them. Or the "American Idol syndrome," if you prefer, where--to fully emphasize the word "American" in the show's title--the audience (that would be the members in the studio as well as the millions watching their TVs, with access to a computer or a cellular device) can cast their votes and have a voice in selecting the show's winner. True democracy in action. The spirit of America, after all. What the hell has happened to us? The old, fitting phrase, "the Ugly American," used to simply refer to an American attitude of arrogance and self-entitlement when away from the friendly confines of American shores. But now it seems to have shifted somewhat so that the Ugly American has nested closer to home. It has nested at home, to be more exact. We have become a country of unsightly patriots, it would seem. And if something doesn't suit us--say, a President, or a celebrity interview--we get up in arms (because, after all, it's our 2nd Amendment right, don't you know?)--and we demand recompense. We demand our God-given right to give voice to our dissatisfaction. We demand to be taken seriously. And to be heard. And to be listened to. And to be taken seriously.
We demand, finally, that things be the way we want them to be.
And if they're not...then we demand that things change. We demand to be happy. And we demand it right now. "Get 'er done," in other words.
You can see this attitude in the whole idea behind the current "Tea Party" movement which is all the rage. And the "Birthers" movement, as well. (I could even be mean and lump the Klu Klux Klan movement in this category, I suppose, but...well, I wouldn't want to be mean...) We have steadily become a country of whiners. And of pathetically unaware conformists bragging--all the while--of our distinctly American trait of nonconformity.
When did this happen, exactly? Has it always been this way? Were our American forebears--whom this new brand of "patriots" so quickly and proudly hoist upon the nearest pedastal--the same way as we are today? Or is it only for expediency's sake that we make them so? Does it make us feel better--for convenience and for our natonal conscience--to believe this is so?
What has happened to America? Seriously. I mean...after W.W. II, for example, we were the world's heroes. We could do no wrong. (In a more blunt way of putting it, I suppose, at that time in history, if you were an American, then it was guaranteed you could get laid. Period. Anytme. Anywhere. No questions asked. That's what it meant to be from the good ol' U.S.A.)
Something has changed, though. Since that time, we've become incredibly self-absorbed. We are overwhelmingly concerned with ourselves, it seems--isolationist in the micro- and the macrocosm. If it doesn't involve us, then we don't have the time (quite literally) to worry about it. And if it does involve us, then look out. We might just run a little "shock-and-awe" bombing campaign on you. Or we might run a campaign of a different sort, to "take our ___________ back" from the evildoers who so diligently and tirelessly want to steal our ______________ away from us.
*[Aside: And for the sake of argument, please feel free to fill in the above blanks with any word that seems fitting. In case you're drawing a blank in regards to the above blanks, here are some thoughts: country, little-league baseball team, Girl Scout/Boy Scout troop, country, church, book club, local school board, country, public library, downtown business district, celebrity interview, country, etc.]
What happened to the good, old-fashioned, "gentlemanly" notion of playing fair and of awaiting our turn? What happened to the outdated idea of sitting out the rough patches and of patiently, devotedly, and faithfully awaiting the turning of fate? Whatever happened to decency, and to respect, and to be willing to take the bad times along with the good? Now it seems we're only in it for the good. The good stuff is all we're worried about. To hell with anything else. We're all about immediate gratification. We want what we want, and we want it now. We don't want to have to wait. And we don't want to be disappointed. And we don't want our time to be wasted. Or our money, for what it's worth. And if anyone disagrees with us--or dares to point out the faulty logic in our nature--we want them gone. And we want it now.
Ironically, we've lost our sense of humor at the very same time we've lost all sense of seriousness. (Leave it to one of the great ironic comedians of our time to point this out to us.) It doesn't make any sense. And it's no laughing matter.