Officially, the crowd crammed into the basement of the Paley Center on Thursday night had come for edification. Here was a panel discussion on the topic of Excellence in the Media, featuring Peabody Award-winners and -bestowers, hosted by documentarian (and class of ’98 Peabody winner) Pat Mitchell, who actually kicked things off by declaiming from the Wikipedia definition of “excellence” — certainly an homage to a beloved old Simpsons, that once-excellent show that scored its Peabody in 1996.
Really, though, most people were there to enjoy excellent TV people Amy Poehler and David Simon being told how excellent they are. There was lots of this, along with insightful commentary about the state of documentary filmmaking and broadcast news from journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Horace Newcomb, outgoing director of the Peabody Awards. (The nut: There’s still some good work, sometimes, and people know to submit it for Peabodies.)
None of that was surprising, especially. What was: the way David Simon and Amy Poehler hit it off, dishing out compliments, losing it at each other’s jokes, and even building on each other’s best lines, like they’d been doing it for years at Poehler’s beloved UCB. (The two first met backstage just before the event.)
Among the highlights:
• After everyone else has batted politely at the question of what makes excellence excellent, Poehler started her first chance to speak by holding her arm out to the panel members and saying, “First, I’d like to introduce this audience to the next judges of American Idol.”
• Not long after Newcomb and Hunter-Gault discussed the excellent BBC documentary series Putin, Russia, and the West, Poehler declared, “I definitely want to do a comedy about Putin.”
Simon pitched himself as showrunner: “This is where my stunted career in half-hour begins! I will ruin your career!”
“I will play Putin,” Poehler said, over his laughter. “I’ll catch fish with my bare hands. It will be called Putin!, with an exclamation point. Maybe a musical!”
• Mitchell asked Poehler how “excellence” is achieved in comedy, a question that seemed to make Poehler a little itchy. She responded, politely, “What makes comedy excellent? I have no idea. When excellence and comedy come together, everybody gets nervous. Nothing is worse [in comedy] than trying to write something important.”
Then she went on to describe a good, important joke anyway. Her first Saturday Night Live episode was the first to air after September 11, 2001. (“When I started, comedy was over,” she said, before adopting a higher, sillier voice than her own: “‘Oh, shit, what a bad time to start!'”) That was the show where Paul Simon sang “The Boxer” with 9/11 first responders, and the one that opened with a joke Poehler credits to Lorne Michaels. As the show opens, Michaels asks Rudy Giulani, “Can we be funny?”
Giulani’s response: “Why start now?”
• Poehler on Parks & Recreation‘s commitment to character-based dialogue: “For a while [in TV comedy], eight-year-olds and old women spoke like the 25-year-old Harvard-educated writers. On our show, characters can’t know what they don’t know. … It’s hard not to go for the best joke. But if you have a character who’s not cynical or naive in that way [of the best joke] you can go for it, but you lose something.”
• Simon on writing material that might lead to the kind of honors that he often receives: “If at any moment you stop and think, ‘This will be good for the Peabody or the Emmy or the Pulitizer,’ you’ve lost your way. When I write something, all I want is to not embarrass myself in front of the person who knows about the real event.” He listed Marines, cops, trombone players, and other Simon characters, saying that as he writes about their lives and professions he imagines them sitting at home, watching his show, and being surprised that someone for once actually nailed the details. “If I get that right,” Simon said, “the world will follow.”
• Several minutes after Simon mentioned that he and his writers planted 18 or 19 quotes from The Wild Bunch into the second season of The Wire, Poehler told him, “I’m still freaking out about the Sam Peckinpah thing. Does Ziggy say something?”
Simon: “Who’s Ziggy?”
Mitchell: “Is comedy excellent if it makes people laugh?”
Poehler: “It’s a start …”
Mitchell: “Is comedy excellent if it makes people think?”
• “You threw me there,” Simon said to Poehler a few minutes after she flatly denied a relationship between comic excellence and consciousness-raising. Poehler elaborated: “Jim Carrey falling down in Dumb and Dumber doesn’t take me to a place of thought. The freedom of the person, the joy of performing—it’s enough. It doesn’t have to connect to a bigger theme.”
She faced Simon. “Does comedy have to make you think?”
“No,” he said. But before he could get out whatever words he was poised to speak, a beeping interrupted him — from his own pocket. His cell phone. “This lesson in professionalism has been brought to you from HBO,” he said instead. Then, to Poehler: “That’s a $25 fine on my sets. How about yours?” Then, to the rest of us, in the room and on the Paley Center’s livestream: “Comedy is fucking ineffable.” And: “It’s a gift from God.” And to Poehler: “I look at what you do and think ‘This is so hard.” And how when you laugh “you feel like you have a brief, fleeting window into the human condition—you recognize the humanity in the people you love, or your own foibles.”
• Someone in the crowd asked if these panelists’ award-winning excellence took courage to achieve. Poehler would not claim courage, but she did cop to labor: “Doing the work is so hard and boring. Writing is a toil.” And she would admit to sacrifice: “This is not courageous, but I made a decision in my twenties to own nothing and not have kids or get married or have health insurance.” (This follow-your-dreams hardship was made more palatable, she said, by being a white girl from a middle-class family: “I had a big ol’ safety net.”)
• Simon is a great talker, a guy you can imagine will still be reeling off killer anecdotes and quotations long after the waiters have cleared your table — and all the while doling out his own epigrammatic marvels. Asked about that Guardian article currently making the rounds, the one that asks why the New Orleans Mother’s Day shooting isn’t considered a national tragedy, he says, “If we were to fly the flag at half-mast every time there was a mass killing in America, we’d never raise again.”
Earlier, during one of his many laments for the death of journalism, he said, “I’ve been surprised at how many reporters don’t want to get caught asking a stupid question. I thought that was a technique.”
• A woman identifying herself as Carol Channing’s former manager asked Poehler for advice about getting a client an audition with Lorne Michaels for Saturday Night Live. “She’s the new you,” the manager insisted. “She’s just your size!”
“This is the plot of All About Eve,” Simon told Poehler, “and you’re Bette Davis.”
Poehler’s eyes crinkled as she held her polite smile.
• As the evening wound down, Mitchell tilted one last time at the question of just what “excellence” is supposed to mean. “Is it like pornography?” she asked.
She was referring to Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s thumbnail rule for identifying obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” But before she could offer this context, Poehler announced with solemnity, “I speak for all of us when I say we have seen some excellent pornography.”
This brought the house down. When the laughter and applause crested at last, and Hunter-Gault tried to move the panel along to another point, Mitchell pleaded, “Dig us out of this hole!”
“You can’t top that!” Simon said. “That was our button out!”
The talk continued. The journalist in him even offered a few more opinions, but the showman in him—who is excellent — knew the performance had already ended.