A Day at The New Yorker Festival

Posted: October 8, 2012 by shawnfury in Uncategorized
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October is about playoff baseball, preseason basketball and regular season college football. And each year October is also the time for the three-day New Yorker festival, which I attended for a third time on Saturday, hitting a pair of events at the Director’s Guild Theatre on 57th Street.

In the morning I attended a 90-minute panel consisting of four authors who have written presidential biographies and in the afternoon spent another 90 minutes watching a panel with four top writers and creators of television comedies. For each one I manned a seat in the front row, on the left side of the theater. The two events couldn’t have been more different in many ways. Authors at one event spoke about the Oval Office while those at the second event spoke about the primal nature of writers’ rooms. The first panelists were well-dressed, the second group wandered out in jeans. But both proved fascinating and equally entertaining, partly because as different as they were, they both shared insights on writing and the creative process.

Ron Chernow, David Maraniss, Annette Gordon-Reed and Edmund Morris spoke on the first panel, which New Yorker editor David Remnick moderated. Remnick — who has a deserved reputation for being probably the best magazine editor in the country — was a big reason I chose this particular event, even though he was only the moderator. He operated like Steve Nash with the group, setting up each panelist, dishing off in a timely manner, taking control when someone rambled on a bit too long and throwing in his own accurate shots when warranted.

Chernow primarily spoke about his George Washington book, Maraniss about Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, Gordon-Reed on Thomas Jefferson and Morris on Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan. Each writer spoke about the mountain of research they dug through and by the end it was impossible to tell which author had the most difficult task. When Chernow mentioned that 130,000 new documents about George Washington have emerged, Morris, replying a few minutes later, noted that there were 5 million documents in the Roosevelt archive.

In another testament to the daunting task facing anyone who writes about any president — but especially those writing about the first one — Chernow noted that there are more than 900 biographies of Washington. Chernow and his fellow biographers have spent a couple of centuries disproving myths that emerged from one of the first books about Washington, which offered up the cherry tree story and the tale of Washington getting on his knees to pray at Valley Forge. Each writer spoke about finding new things to say about people who have had everything said and written about them, whether they governed in the 18th century or the 21st.

During the Q&A portion — and, actually, during the regular session, a chat the woman who asked the question apparently didn’t listen to — a lady asked about the future of biographies, referencing the challenges writers will face in a world where handwritten letters become an endangered species. Letter writing certainly isn’t what it once was. Remember those letters read on Ken Burns’ Civil War series, the superbly crafted, heartbreaking, inspiring missives written by soldiers, wives and presidents? In 120 years, what will documentary makers read? YouTube comments? The authors acknowledged the changes, but their words — and, more importantly, their work — have shown that the best biographers adapt and dig and ultimately it won’t matter whether the archives are in an old shoebox or a server.

Other favorite moments from the first panel:

* Gordon-Reed, who wrote a book that played a huge role in revealing that Jefferson fathered the children of his slave Sally Hemmings, spoke about the blowback she received from scholars, writers and historians who did not want to believe that one of the revered Founding Fathers was anything but perfect. Imagine the courage it takes to write a difficult truth about a national icon. And imagine the skill as a writer and researcher it took to lay out the facts that altered our perception of Jefferson. There’s a reason Gordon-Reed was the first African-American to win the Pulitzer for history.

* Morris, spinning great anecdotes on Roosevelt and Reagan. He spoke about a poem Richard Nixon read that Roosevelt wrote and how he discovered the original piece was about the night in 1884 when both TR’s wife and mother died. That discovery helped spark Morris’ desire to write about Roosevelt. Morris also talked about keeping his notes from being subpoenaed during the Iran-Contra scandal and he recalled how Reagan “channeled” a speaker he heard in the 1930s, talking in the voice of the man he heard in Iowa 50 years earlier.

* Maraniss, whose known to sports fans for his superb biography on Vince Lombardi, talked about bumping into Bill Clinton’s great-aunt at a motel in Hope, Arkansas, and finding a stack of letters in her attic, which Clinton wrote during his years at Georgetown.

The second event, narrated by The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum, was called “The Future of the Sitcom,” although the panelists spent more time talking about the past and the present. The speakers? Michael Schur, the co-creater of Parks and Recreation; Nahnatchka Khan, the creator of Don’t Trust the B—- in Apartment 23; Greg Garcia, the creator of Raising Hope and My Name is Earl; and Mike White, who co-created and co-stars on HBO’s Enlightened. White also wrote and starred in Chuck & Buck.

As you’d expect, all four panelists proved highly entertaining. White had an odd energy on the stage, which was perhaps later explained by a tweet he wrote where he said he had to pee very badly and thought he was going to have to run off the stage. Khan talked about how easier it was to get away with controversial topics when she wrote for Family Guy. You can get away with things in cartoons that you can’t with real people. She spoke about a struggle with CBS about the use of the word panties in an episode, which the censor wanted replaced with “skivvies.” She won that fight.

It was fascinating hearing the panelists talk about their battles with executives, the give and take involved with taking “notes.” Garcia likes to deliver a lot of praise to the good ones, in hopes that when he does disagree he’ll have built up some goodwill. White had an opposite view, believing even if you think an exec has written a great note you shouldn’t say that as it will only encourage them. And Schur? He was actually kind to the exec they work with, saying she delivers astute notes and is willing to back down when there are disagreements.

Baseball fans might be more familiar with Schur’s old work. Under the name Ken Tremendous, Schur co-created the famous blog Fire Joe Morgan. I love listening to Schur write about baseball or talk about it on Joe Posnasnski’s podcast, and I could have listened to him talk about comedy for about three more hours on Saturday without ever leaving my seat. During the Q&A, a burly, bearded man — who plans to graduate with an English degree and also works as a standup comedian — said he went to the same high school as Schur (Code for: “Hey, wanna give me a job as a writer on Parks and Rec?”) and asked the panel what advice they’d give someone looking for a job as a TV writer. He wondered if he should go and get an MFA. Khan said no, absolutely not. No. Garcia added, “I hire writers, and I can tell you I don’t know what an MFA is.” Let that be a lesson to everyone reading.

White didn’t seem to talk as much as the other three, but each story he told delivered, from his tale about sending an enraged fax to an executive while working on the show Cracking Up, to his dealings with HBO, who give him almost complete freedom, except when a bigshot wanted White to remove lines about a baby dying, a dog dying and the heart breaking, since they were simply too depressing. He left them in and sat behind that executive at the premiere, panicked about the reaction. When the lines came on, the exec turned and said how much he loved them, completely forgetting his earlier insistence that they come out.

In my three years attending the New Yorker Festival I’ve seen six events. Each one has exceeded my expectations, from Michael Chabon and Zadie Smith to Paul Giamatti and this year’s panelists. I have the occasional fantasy that someday I’ll be on one of the panels at the event, perhaps talking about a novel or my 2,879-page book about the Lakers, which reviewers will call “The sports equivalent of Robert Caro’s biographies of Lyndon Johnson.” Until that day I’ll remain in the audience. It’s a good place to be.

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