Energy levels were high (so were some of the attendees), and everyone appeared to be from downtown — NYU film students and professors alike who would kill for their own “Knocked Up” success story. Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow, who played themselves at the New Yorker Festival last Sunday afternoon, didn’t quite manage to fit in with the rest of the magazine’s highbrow lineup.
What were these guys doing at a three-day-long event, packed with forums and debates catering to black-clad Manhattanites killing time between sips of wine and cigarette drags? The typical festival ticket usually featured some abstract, pointless idea and two or three speakers who would intellectually service themselves, much to any audience’s delight. Take the debate between magazine staffers Adam Gopnik and Malcolm Gladwell — an argument set out to resolve whether the Ivy League should be abolished. Absolutely nothing was going to be accomplished by hosting or attending this talk. Nothing. But wait! Yellow Tail is a sponsor? It’s happening at the Society for Ethical Culture — on the Upper West Side? Cerebral city dwellers couldn’t snap up tickets fast enough.
The New Yorker took a different approach to its annual zeitgeist festival last weekend: It was trying to be the funny, chain-smoking cool-kid genius at the party. Most people would be turned off by this ambitious slew of qualities, but most people aren’t New Yorkers. They found it absolutely titillating to go from Gopnik and Gladwell debating the Ancient Eight to Rogen and Apatow shooting the shit. A Saturday evening with the former and a Sunday afternoon with the latter epitomized what the festival was going for this year: ironic simultaneity of high and low, pretentious and grounded, courteous and coarse.
The transparent grandstanding of the education debate didn’t stop the audience — a good half of whom attended Ivy League schools, according to a show of hands — from attending in droves. Gladwell argued in the affirmative, using statistics (his favorite weapon; a student’s favorite depressant) to cut to the chase. His criticisms were primarily directed at Harvard, Yale and Princeton; he suggested liquidating the universities’ intellectual and financial assets and letting Donald Trump turn the campuses into condos, but for some reason — maybe the rampant crime? — luxury developments seem out of place in New Haven. He also suggested combining the three endowments and purchasing his homeland of Canada. The schools, he said, are doing a terrible job affording opportunities to lower classes. (So alternatively we should build buildings the poor definitely can’t afford and keep them out forever?)
Gopnik praised the same schools his colleague set out to vilify. He didn’t use fancy numbers, but insisted that the Ivy League is the only place social mobility actually works — abolishing it to combat inequality would be “like abolishing the NBA to combat obesity.” If one was to listen to Gladwell, he said, and see the Ivies as aristocrats that should be overthrown — much like the aristocracy in the French revolution — what about the subsequent chaos and reign of terror? (Gopnik, as you may guess, is a notorious Francophile.) He conceded that reforms could — and should — happen, but that getting rid of the nation’s best schools would be like tearing down the entire Parthenon upon realizing its doorframes were too small.
The audience voted, in the end, to keep the Ivy League, so Trump won’t be pimping out L-Dub any time soon. The debate felt a bit ridiculous: as much as the argument was about the democratization of American intellect, few in attendance could exactly relate to the lower class at the heart of the debate. Audience members returned home, perhaps a bit riled up and certainly full of opinions (come on, it’s the Upper West side), but too complacent to do anything about the matter at hand.
When director Apatow and writer-actor-producer-stoner Rogen took the stage at the Directors Guild Theater the next day alongside obligatory New Yorker representative and film critic David Denby, each speaker stood in for a separate generation: Denby was the stodgy, grandfather-like mediator, Apatow was the enthusiastic but grounded voice of middle age and Rogen was the wonder kid. Denby had the other two walk the audience through their respective creative trajectories — which overlapped, for the most part — and interspersed dialogue with clips from “Freaks and Geeks,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up” and “Superbad.” Most people present had seen the clips before, but probably in a weed-induced haze, not in the midst of a serious (ha) and timely New Yorker-sponsored event. Plus, the contextualization within Apatow’s and Rogen’s career anecdotes was kind of like a real-life “Inside the Actors Studio” (host James Lipton and Denby look freakily alike).
One main theme was how Apatow, Rogen and their colleagues brilliantly managed to bring awkwardness back to the big screen by way of lazy, useless male protagonists who play pingpong and “didn’t go to Yale to work 12 hours a day” (thus spake Jonah Hill, playing himself in “Knocked Up”). Denby, at one point, brought this awkwardness to life: Following a mention of the typical protagonists and their off-screen inspirations (Apatow and Rogen), he wondered out loud “why women ever chose to sleep with any of us.” The two younger men seemed put off by the prospect of being grouped under the same sexual header as Denby.
No monumental issues were tackled and no controversial topics touched upon, so some were inevitably let down and returned home to read Nietzsche or whatever. But most emerged giddy and grinning widely, feeling like they’d just hung out with a few famous buddies in someone’s basement (while their friend’s creepy grandpa watched from a few feet away and tried to work in really weird sexual innuendo). With the Frat Pack panel as one of the weekend’s last events, the New Yorker festival ended on a light note. If the three days of analytical and self-conscious discussions were kind of like extended sessions of psychoanalysis for the publication, Rogen and Apatow were kind of like friendly shrinks who handed the magazine a beer and told it relax. But, really, if the New Yorker relaxed, it wouldn’t be the New Yorker; by so graciously letting the beer-wielding dudes into the intellectual enclave, it hung on to its position as the most informed, in-touch and ironic journal around.