I’m not always impressed by stars in public, in the flesh. As a news junkie, however, I’m nearly always impressed by great political reporters — or politicians, should I respect them. It’s my version of a celebrity crush. When CFR contributor Elizabeth Burke and I were in the press room for the presidential debate at Hofstra University in 2012, I actually said out loud, and to no one in particular, “I can’t believe I’m sitting behind Martin O’Malley!” And I was more awed by Chris Matthews than a bobbysoxer infatuated with Frank Sinatra.
It all goes back to when I was 11. President Carter was delivering a speech at Queens College, and I lived down the block. My mom was on the fence as to whether we should try to catch a glimpse of him. Then she decided that we should, and we ran down the street. Mom and I somehow arrived in the perfect sightline as the President emerged from his limousine. For reasons lost to the innocence of my youth, I didn’t wave: I saluted. And President Carter spotted me and saluted me back. You never forget a moment like that.
So two months ago, when a press release announced that Ari Melber, MSNBC’s chief legal correspondent and host of The Beat was emceeing a live event at Merkin Concert Hall called In Your Face — New York, I grew excited. Melber fits my news-celeb ideal: solid analyst and newsman; culturally attuned chronicler of hip-hop.
In Your Face — New York is the creation of Martin Sage, a very warm and likable man whose TV writing career dates back to the salad days of Tom Selleck’s mustache. Later, he produced The Thalia Follies — A Political Cabaret with his friend Isaiah Sheffer, the late founder and artistic director of NYC’s Symphony Space.
In Sage’s bio, he compares In Your Face — New York to your
…wise-guy funny, outrageous nephew — the one who borrows your laptop and never returns it, but nevertheless is invited to Thanksgiving dinner.
Since the 2015 launch of In Your Face — New York as a semi-regular event, the hosts have included Sarah Jones, Mo Rocca, Isaac Mizrahi, Adam Gopnik and BETTY, and Ruth Reichl. All good “gets,” as we say in the biz.
It is, in essence, a variety show. It aims to plop down arts and politics on stage together and let things rip. At its best, it is a kicky, kooky genre clash: part news and views, part chat ‘n’ chews, part schmooze. This next observation may be a shanda, but speaking as a member of a certain tribe, it felt like there were more Jews in the house than in Anatevka before the evacuation. Merkin Hall is on the Upper West Side, but much of the material is predicated on schmaltz, and I don’t mean from your Bubbe’s 1957 Thanksgiving. In Your Face — New York is nice and it can be fun. Rarely, though, is it in your face.
The show began with specialty material, with lyrics by Sage and music by legendary bassist (and musical director) Jay Leonhart, performed by Leonhart’s daughter, the gifted Carolyn Leonhart, backed by the 1 Train Band:
Cute? You bet. But for an event called In Your Face — New York, I expect Uncle Irving and Aunt Sophie to bicker over the Fairway bialys. Or to see Tony Shalhoub’s punim when he witnesses Mrs. Maizel’s “tight 10” for the first time. Just look at the video above. The roach image is literally in your face; the gag about Cellino and Barnes is clever. But, ladies and germs, this is New Yawk. Get it all in my face, or else you can fahgettaboudit.
Melber, as host, was a mensch, spring-stepping onto the stage of Merkin Hall directly from his broadcast of The Beat. Given the usual Robitussin-worthy congestion traffic between 30 Rock and Lincoln Center, maybe he took a jetpack between the skyscrapers of Billionaire’s Row to arrive on time. Gossip-mongers and journalists are privy to endless rumors around what news-folk are really like when not on camera, but Melber was as affable on stage as he appears on the tube.
I’d also like to thank him for a concise explanation of what we mean, here at The Clyde Fitch Report, by the “crossroads of arts and politics” — fast-forward to 2:30:
In short segments, Melber interviewed Ann Temkin, Chief Curator of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art; rapper Tee Grizzley; and businessman and social-media foe Roger McNamee. Next was a “lightning round” Q-and-A with the audience. I thought that he handled that last part with grace, given that at least one of the questions was, if you will, a little bit in-your-face.
But then Melber was gone. I’m unclear why, but hosting duties were now conferred upon Mo Rocca. You gotta go to Mo — he told fantastic yarns, including a frisky one about the musical Cats. Later, he interviewed his fellow CBS journalist Martha Teichner.
But the specialty material in between? Again: meh. Remember, this was in March: Paul Manafort had just been sentenced not once, but twice, to time in the federal hoosegow. The song “Secret Agent Manafort” (a riff on the 1960s Johnny Rivers tune) attempted to be trenchant but its cover was blown — and why was there a joke white bread? Beyond some sultry vocals by Mary Brienza, backed by Kathryn Markey and Leenya Rideout, the moment was basically mission impossible:
There was also a distantly familiar J. Fred Coots tune, with more parody lyrics, called “Writing Small Checks to Bernie Sanders” (nothing about “millionaires and billionaires”?); and a comedy sketch, “The Canadians,” about flat-vowel espionage (with actors Peter Jacobson, Peter Riegert and Clea Lewis); and a song about Facebook, “The Facebook Song,” after which I marked myself safe. In Your Face — New York is as edgy as giving someone side-eye on an elevator.
Now, there is something here that may contradict all of the foregoing. I was seated in the mezzanine, far off to the side, where some of NYC’s dreariest sightlines leave you feeling marooned, abandoned and deserted from the action down below. (I’m not kidding: Amelia Earhart, Judge Crater and Jimmy Hoffa all say hi.) For this reason, I’ve also omitted the name of the comic who tried to work the audience before the Leonharts’ opening number — literally, I couldn’t see her, and what I heard wasn’t terribly comical. Either the Merkin’s acoustics were engineered by Beethoven on his deathbed or the balance and amplification were also off, as during the show proper, I couldn’t hear most of the lyrics over the band, which otherwise sounded terrific.
In Your Face — New York, however, could be in my face if it wanted to be, so here’s some free advice. In case any of us have forgotten, the American republic is in hospice, so let’s pick up the pace, shall we? And let’s give it some upward structure so it builds to a climax. And that sea, that parade, of white faces on stage, with just one guest of color? Not exactly diverse. And if the audience for this show, which seems loyal, really is as liberal as it seems to be (they creamed when Melber mentioned Manafort’s convictions), then please, please sharpen those satirical knives. I’m deeply reluctant to argue with George S. Kaufman, but satire is not “what closes on Saturday night.” Satire is what we hunger for.
Branding might also help. In Your Face — New York has been dubbed both a “raucous, head-on collision between a Marx brothers romp and The New York Review of Books” and “Saturday Night Live waking up next to CBS Sunday Morning,” which sounds suspiciously like Lorne Michaels and Jane Pauley had 10 minutes of humina humina. More raucousness, more collisions, more romping. Go ahead: offend us.
The next In Your Face — New York is set for May 16, again at the Merkin. “Great Women Take on New York” is the theme, and the host will be singer-songwriter Nellie McKay, an inspired choice. Guests include New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast, New Yorker writer Patricia Marx, Guggenheim award recipient Meghan Daum, CBS Sunday Morning correspondent Nancy Giles, TV comedy writer Sybil Sage, poet J. Hope Stein, and a sketch by Sex and the City alums Elisa Zuritsky and Julie Rottenberg. I’m sure the post-coital cosmos will be most delicious, but will they be in your face? I suppose they might very well be in my face after reading this review. But, you know, my face is pretty pale these days. I think I need some blush.