The Algonquin Round Table is still dead!
There are only two things I know for sure — it’s social death to wear white after Labor Day and no one should ever attempt to recreate the legendary Algonquin Round Table.
I recently found out the latter when I was asked to join a panel trying to attain just that vainglorious feat. It was the 90th anniversary of the “vicious circle” consisting of Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott, and company—writers and actors who on a daily basis throughout the 1920s had bon mots for lunch and each other for dessert. These people put the “it” in witty–and they wanted little old me from south Brooklyn to recreate their legend?
Fortunately they’d also assembled feisty gossip-reporter-turned-novelist Paula Froelich, droll humorist Joel Stein, and documentary filmmaker Albert Maysles, but from the beginning some of the elements were off.
Firstly, the séance-like event was held at dinnertime, not at noon, and all we had were some passalong chicken skewers and a bowl of olives that for all I know were left over from the original Round Table. More damagingly, we were seated at a rectangular table—which is sort of like remaking Lord of the Rings into a trilogy about lasagna trays! On top of that, a paying audience had mysteriously shown up to watch us debate and dazzle.
I’d say we let them down, but at least they got to see humans speak face to face—or side to side, anyway–rather than by texting, tweeting, blogging, or updating one’s Facebook page. As the world knows, chat rooms and message boards are the new Round Table, and that fact wasn’t lost on this panel of professional pundits. Internet expression became our main topic, most of the commentators lamenting the fact that everyone on earth is now an armchair gossip columnist and a wannabe wit, leading to a deadly pandemic of snark overkill.
To be perverse, I defended this trend, saying that bloggers shake things up with their refreshingly outrageous, unpolluted-by-publicists takes on things. “A lot of the blogs are so badly written,” Froelich interjected, looking pained. “Well, what do you want? They’re unpaid!” I replied—or I would have if I hadn’t retreated to silent stewing while nervously nibbling on olives at this point.
Things got semi-lively again when rocker Andrew WK stormed off the panel as a shtick, sheepishly coming back as moderator Nat Benchley (Robert’s grandson and the only trace of old-school authenticity in the room) said, “Oh, were you gone?” And I piped up again at the end when asked who the funniest wits are today. “Well, I just read Sarah Palin’s book and it was hilarious,” I quipped.
I topped that with an even more brilliant zinger: “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” As the crowd roared with laughter, I had to admit that was originally said by Dorothy Parker.
At least I wasn’t wearing white.