Report from The Gary Shteyngart Roast

There were nearly one hundred and fifty souls at the Harvey Theater two nights before Thanksgiving. Outside, it was just a few degrees south of fifty degrees Fahrenheit. Inside, the writer Gary Shteyngart waited to be roasted with the heat of a thousand suns and the pain of a million overwrought metaphors.

Shteyngart was introduced by John Wesley Harding (aka Wesley Stace) with a slideshow of great Russian writers as “Thus Spoke Zarathustra” played over the speakers. Harding, who may or may not have been pretending to be British, had big gray eyes bulging with murderous suggestion in the dark. Presumably, this was one pivotal characteristic which had secured his role as host. He was keen on nouns which connoted human tragedy.

“And what has this incredible legacy of suffering,” boomed Harding into the mike, “what has this incredibly legacy of suicides, what has this incredible legacy of gulags, repression, this legacy of bubonic plagues, of famines, of forced labor camps calling for a revolution? What has this legacy given birth to, ladies and gentlemen?”

This was followed by a slide of Shteyngart, with a bottle of champagne and a pig. Yet there was neither Dom Perignon nor a prize porcine specimen circulated on stage. The audience learned later that animals were forbidden. It was believed that some clever person at the Brooklyn Academy of Music had induced this prohibition because someone would have to pay these wild beasts a performance fee. Whatever the reason, this callous ban had prevented Shteyngart’s beloved dachshund, immortalized through an endless concatenation of photographic pride on Twitter, from making his stage debut.

The four panelists emerged from their hidden positions: Kurt Andersen settling into a seat on stage right, followed by Sloane Crosley in a purple top, Edmund White in dapper suit and cane (the only figure among the quartet who came with a prepared list of barbs, which including a funny blurb for Mein Kampf that he let loose later in the evening), and New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman in red boots so striking in hue that one wondered if she had spent half the day kicking in the teeth of MFA aspirants who hoped to enter her estimable pages.

Then there was Gary Shteyngart, clad in an evening jacket a few sizes too big and purportedly donned for the second time in his life. This ostensible target of wit and no-holds-barred barbs seated himself in a tiny wooden chair designed for a small child. He remarked almost immediately on his ass. This was an understandable fixation, given the chair’s regrettable physical dimensions. Mr. Shteyngart was to mention his backside two additional times over the next hour.

The evening wasn’t really a roast. The format was more Q&A, with Harding asking questions of the panelists, often unfolding an inquiry into a biographical multiple choice option which permitted an audience member to stand on stage with a winning raffle ticket that had been painfully extracted from the staple in the top right corner of the program. The queries felt more like vaguely invasive biography rather than outright ridicule. The barbs, if they can be called that, were mostly kind. Much of the time was devoted to apparent outtakes from Shteyngart’s two book trailers for Super Sad True Love Story, although it was noted early on that the artifact-laden footage had been shot on an iPhone.

This was a pro-Shteyngart crowd. When the collected spectators were asked if there had been anybody there who had never read a word of Shteyngart, a few handfuls of people raised their hands. Gary Shteyngart proved to be a brand name. One does not have to read his books to comprehend his imposing and often cardiac arrest-inspiring influence in the literary community.

The evening was mostly pleasant, especially when Shteyngart was presented with material to react to (such as his physical recreation of the non-Jewish walk from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook, that fabled first book that Shteyngart referred to as The Russian Debutante’s Handjob). Shteyngart appeared to be grateful for the company, both on stage and off, and talked largely in his natural m├ętier rather than the clueless immigrant character who had charmed half the world on YouTube.

This was also the first public event in which Shteyngart’s prolific blurbs were given an official tally, although the number was as suspiciously pat as a late career Tony Scott film title. Presumably, the paying crowd had earned the right to learn that Shteyngart had blurbed 123 books. Shteyngart had not remembered the first book he blurbed, but he believed that his maiden blurb involved California in some way. The massive screen behind the stage mimicked Shteyngart’s blurb prolificity by running a rolling set of credits with the blurbs and the titles, although this reporter noticed several key blurbs missing (such as Benjamin Anastas’s Too Good to Be True). It remains unknown if the people who put this show together had obtained the vital details from Jacob Silverman’s invaluable Tumblr or an independent investigation. This reporter is too occupied to summon his inner Seymour Hersh. He is, in fact, trying to thaw a turkey at the last minute while writing this report.

Of the four ostensible roasters, Kurt Andersen was notably the weakest, peeling off easily observed details about Shteyngart’s height, his immigrant experience, and early pictures of Shteyngart on the Web without bothering to build a story around this. Crosley was surprisingly laconic through much of the night, but she did call Shteyngart a hack with the relish of a dear friend. The clear star of the four was Edmund White, whose sharp and ribald wit led him to take more risks and elicit more laughs. When the conversation shifted to teaching, White said, “I teach at Princeton, where the students are too smart to actually go into writing. They all go into finance.” In describing the details of Shteyngart’s forthcoming autobiography, White said Shteyngart had called himself “the leading Eastern European pimp with a stable full of Russian whores built for all tastes.”

We leave more vulgar minds to speculate on the vital question of Shteyngart’s underworld connections. One thing was certain: wild horses couldn’t keep the appreciative crowd away from BAM on Tuesday night. Perhaps in five more years, the second Shteyngart roast will permit room for a dachshund.

Amateur Hour at Studio 360

Kurt Andersen has offered the uncut version of his conversation with Harlan Ellison. But what is particularly astonishing is just how much of an ignoramus Andersen comes across as. He constantly interrupts Ellison. At around the 26:30 mark, Andersen cannot get Dreams with Sharp Teeth director Erik Nelson’s name right and must utter the intro again. An embarrassing suggestion that Ellison wrote “Paladin of the Lost Hour” for the original Twilight Zone is there. In short, Studio 360 is a program that is made almost entirely in the editing room and certainly not from the conversation itself. And if this uncut interview serves as a representative rough version of what the editors have to play with, then I wonder just how much Andersen is relying on his editors to salvage the show and make it sound “professional.”

For the record, while there is some editing on The Bat Segundo Show (mostly to boost levels, remove coughs and popped plosives, make people sound a bit sexier, and the like), what you hear on these shows is 98% of the conversation. If I make a referential mistake, I leave it in. If there’s a strange tangent, I leave it in. If a guest and I get kicked out or something strange happens because of a third party, I leave it in. But I compensate for these fallacies by actually knowing the material: reading the book in full, wading through other interviews to ensure that I don’t ask the same questions, making sure I pronounce the author’s name, the book’s title, and the book’s characters correctly (although there have been a few minor slip-ups; nobody’s perfect). I’m determined to get as much of this right in my conversation because it means less editing time for me. And I only have so much time to commit. Perhaps this “one take” sensibility comes from my theatrical background. But apparently Andersen (or his writers) cannot do this.

Just think of all the man-hours that have been expended towards correct Andersen’s mistakes. Consider the labor costs that might have been avoided had Andersen actually bothered to pay attention to his goddam subject.

But what do I know? I’m just some hapless podcaster.

(Incidentally, at the 30 minute mark, it’s also quite funny to hear Harlan Ellison skewer Andersen’s stereotypical remarks about Los Angeles.)

I Did Other Stuff

How This Post Originally Appeared (December 2, 2003):

The months passed along. I moved into a nice new place. The bad juju disappeared. Then I collided into reality. The Po Bronson question so popular months ago (now unseated by Ethan Watters generalizations) that only the inner self can answer. But I like to refer to it as: “The unlived life is not worth examining.”

I appeared in a play. The Man Who Came to Dinner to be precise. It was the first time I had appeared on stage in about seven years, not counting a one-time role in The Curse of the Starving Class. Community theatre. The first time I wasn’t nervous.

I wrote like a maniac. I sent out packages. I received rejections. I still write. And I will continue to write, even if I’m six or so years behind Kurt Andersen.* Gene Shalit doesn’t return my calls. But who’s counting?

I started a book club, of which more later. We’re on the third book right now. And if you’re a San Franciscan into discussing lit, drop me an email and I’ll be more than happy to add you to the list.

I met people. I auditioned for more plays. I got out of the house. I holed up with books. I went crazy in Vegas. And if things continue the way they’re going, I’ll have something very big to manage starting in January. We’ll see.

But I was still a bit antsy. The nightly journal and the hard early morning writing ritual weren’t enough. I needed another canvas. These things come in threes, do they not?

So much like Leonard Nimoy coming to realize late in life that he will always be known as Spock, I’m here to say that I Do Rant, even if ranting proper is not what I plan to do.

And for those just tuning in, welcome to the ballpark. We serve toasty frankfurters, but don’t crack our peanut shells on restaurant floors the way they do in Southern California. Crazy bastards.

[3/22/04 UPDATE: Now a little more than four months later, I find myself doing a lot of the same things. The difference now is that my desires have broadened. However, I have begun to understand the personal facets that prevent me from achieving everything. Life is not an easy path, but it is a path that one must walk every day, even if the gravel bruises the bottom of your feet. To live without vision, and regular progression, is to exist in a terrible vacuum that sucks away your soul a little each day.]

Addendum (May 20, 2013):

Nearly ten years after I posted this entry, I’m wincing at the language (which I haven’t altered), along with the way I awkwardly compared myself with Kurt Andersen. (I have also updated the link to a Web Archive version, as the folks at Folio appear to be embarrassed by the Andersen timeline or have otherwise allowed the article to fall into disarray.) As David Denby pointed out in Snark, I think many of the early bloggers were inspired by Andersen — largely, because many of us may have intuitively gathered that we were working in the tradition of Spy during the 1980s. I have not succeeded in my career (such as it is) anywhere close to Andersen, but I did end up moving to New York. In fact, I asked Andersen to be part of my somewhat successful documentary about Gary Shteyngart and his blurbing, and he was one of the few authors (out of perhaps forty I asked) who did not reply. He proved to be a remarkable bore during a November 2012 roast. It’s safe to say that, at the age of 38, I have no desire to be like Andersen at all. I don’t like his writing. I have no real desire to befriend him. I think he’s lost his touch. But like Andersen, I did end up pumping out 500 hours of radio interviews in the subsequent decade. I doubt very highly that Andersen will find this little footnote, but I include it nonetheless, with unapologetic candor, because I am an obsessive compleatist. I have also changed the “featured image” for this post (which did not exist in 2003) to Kurt Andersen, since it seems apposite.