Sunday, February 24, 2008

Weekend Edition: Wisdom of Solomon?

Easily the most-read section of the New York Times Sunday Magazine, besides the crossword puzzle, is the “Questions For…” column by Deborah Solomon.

I say this without a single statistic to validate the claim, but it’s the only thing I read every weekend in the Magazine. For some reason it just seems to pop out as you open the thing up.

Besides, who wants to read the cover story about Mike Huckabee or whoever the politician-of-the-week happens to be? You can read Solomon’s column, feel like you’ve read the Magazine, put it in the recycle bin and move on with your day.

Solomon herself comes across as witty and direct, with an extra-liberal agenda. Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it just seems that every series of questions, whoever the person being interviewed, ends up with her insinuating how great it would be if Hillary became President.

The page is usually interesting, funny and sharp.

Not so was a recent “Times in the Air”—a New York Times television ‘magazine’ appearing on JetBlue TV sets in planes across the country—featuring an interview with comic Steve Martin.

Martin recently published a book about his stand-up comedy career, and for anybody interested in the process of creativity—how people create stuff, whether it’s great literature, great software, great companies or just great standup comedy—the book is fascinating.

So I watched the Steve Martin interview with some anticipation and much interest.

What I didn’t anticipate, however, turned out to be the most interesting part of the interview, aside from Martin’s stories of his early career: how poor the interviewer from the New York Times would prove to be.

She seemed particularly interested in taking the interview in a certain direction, regardless of what Martin was actually talking about. So interested was the interviewer in getting to a particular subject that while Martin was making a very funny point about how undeveloped he had been as a young comedy writer for the Smothers Brothers, she actually began skimming through Martin's book, head bent, nodding and saying “uh-huh” while Martin spoke.

He noticed she wasn't looking at him, so he turned to the audience and finished his story. When the audience began laughing, the interviewer gave a half-hearted, pro-forma chuckle and then proudly said “I found the paragraph I was looking for,” and promptly asked her own, entirely different, question.

But the worst was yet to come.

Asked why he stopped doing stand-up abruptly, rather than gradually, Martin explained that stand-up is something you have to do constantly, “300 nights a year,” to stay sharp. To stress the point, he said he always worked the night before a “Tonight Show” appearance, because if he didn’t do that, he wouldn't be at his best with Johnny Carson.

To this, the interviewer asked the whopper that stopped her subject cold: “You can’t practice at home?”

Now, Steve Martin, to his credit, didn’t burst out laughing or make a remark—although you could see he held himself back. Instead, he smiled and politely said no, you need an audience.

The interviewer, I learned as the credits rolled, was—as you might have guessed by now—Deborah Solomon.

But I didn’t make the connection until this week’s “Questions for Gov. Rick Perry: Troop Leader” in the Sunday Magazine.

In it, Solomon focuses on Perry’s involvement in the Boy Scouts, pressing him on the issue of gays in the Boy Scouts, which apparently is a huge issue among, well, gays and the Boy Scouts.

Having never been involved in the organization, we here at NotMakingThisUp take no sides, our interest being in Solomon's habit of moving the interview into a narrow area of her own special interest.

And here, after taking Perry to task that “the Scouts are alienating so many American kids,” Solomon hones in on what really seems to bother her: Boy Scout merit badges.

She asks, and I am not making this up:

I know they have a dog-care merit badge, but why not a child-care badge?

When Perry says he has “no problem with that,” Solomon bores in harder with this line of inquiry, which, again, I am not making up:

How about a merit badge in vegetarianism?

To Perry’s credit, he—like Steve Martin on the “Times in the Air” interview—avoids the easy, sarcastic come-back.

Like, oh, “How about a merit badge on interviewing people competently?”

Jeff Matthews

I Am Not Making This Up

© 2008 Jeff Matthews
The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews' recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.


eeeeeekonjohn said...

i thought the weirder part of the interview was was this exchange:

Solomon: But don’t you think that homosexuals might also be interested in being loyal and thrifty [and so should be allowed to be boy scout troop leaders]?

Perry: The argument that gets made is that homosexuality is about sex. Do you agree?

S: No.

P: Well, then why don’t they call it something else?

Don said...

One of the reasons her interviews read better than they look is that what you see in the magazine isn't really an interview - she takes snippets of responses and attaches them to "questions" the interviewee may never have heard, among other clever tricks. The Times' ombudsman wasn't too fond of this practice - his October 14, 2007 column on her interviewing technique was called "Questions and Answers - in no Particular Order."

Mark said...

Solomon is so completely humorless that I gave up on her long ago. In fact, it's sad what's happened to the Sunday Times Magazine in general: it became increasingly boring under the LAST editor (Moss, who moved to "New York Magazine") but whoever edits it now makes Moss look like a genius. It's actually kind-of sad, considering how great it was when I was growing up in the '70s and in college in the early '80s; back then, it was truly something to look forward to every weekend. On the other hand, I'm actually kind-of glad it's now as bad as it is, because "The New Yorker" (to which it used to be quite similar) is so damn good, and reading that thing takes up enough time already!

As long as we're on the subject of the Times, for some reason (and it's not JUST due to the odious Ben Stein and Gretchen Morgenson, as horrible as that pair is), the Sunday Times business section has-- like the Magazine-- also become a pile of boring and irrelevant dreck. This is particularly strange in light of the fact that the business section in Saturday's Times is one of the reading highlights of my week; maybe the guy who edits Sunday's is the moronic twin brother of whoever edits the Magazine.

Jeff Matthews said...

Gretchen is a great reporter, and a great writer too.

Mrs. Magoo said...

Funny, I saw the interview on a JetBlue flight this weekend and thought it was an embarrassment, but then I'm not a fan of Ms. Solomon's 'interview' / snippet column, and am curious why the Times keeps it going. Agree with Mark's comments above---the Sunday NYT is a shadow of it's former self---little news in the 'news' section, sports section is uneven, business section is People magazine light (save for Ms. Morgenson's fine columns), with Week in Review only redeeming feature.....Old habits die hard, but if one thinks about it, the thick Sunday NYT is an anachronism and a poor use of (natural) resources.

Professor Shiznitt said...

For a hilarious obtuse interviewer skit, go to YouTube and look up Bob and Ray Komodo Dragon Expert.

Daren said...

I could not agree more. I was very excited when I sat down and thought that Steve would be talking about his book. However, it was just too painful to watch. Wow.