Note: Joe Garden is The Onion’s features editor. He works out of The Onion’s New York City office.
In the course of barreling through my workday to knock off for whiskey Friday—an office tradition in which myself, one other writer, our designer, and whomever else happens to float through our designer’s tastefully appointed office consume a handle of Jameson—I received an IM from my pal and A.V. Club majordomo Keith Phipps.
“Got a second?”
I’ll confess, my first instinct was minor annoyance, since my IM status was clearly “working.” That feeling passed in a second, because God knows how many times I have interrupted the workday of Keith, Tasha, or Josh in the same manner to ask them about some pop-culture trivia, compliment them about an article, complain that Savage Love isn’t up yet, or just to yak at them because I hate seeing a screenful of icons, none of whom seem to be interested in talking to me. So I responded yes, and he posed the following question: Would I be interested in seeing an intimate conversation between Gene Wilder and Charles Grodin? At the site of both the first Ghostbusters action setpiece and the fascist book-burning survival message of Roland Emmerich’s The Day After Tomorrow, the New York Public Library? Well? Would I?
My brain momentarily shorted out.
In the continuum of things I thought I would do in my life, this… Well, it had never dawned on me that such a conversation would happen, let alone in front of witnesses, let alone that I would be one of said witnesses. Wilder fucked up my childhood with his roles in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, The Little Prince, and Young Frankenstein. Charles Grodin fucked up my adulthood as Aarfy in Catch-22 and the obstetrician in Rosemary’s Baby. I’m sure that had I seen Clifford, that would have fucked me up too. It’s on my list of things to watch on Netflix insty-view.
So I guess I would put attending a public conversation between these two luminaries (a word that feels right but wrong at the same time) somewhere after working at the Illinois State Fair for 12 years. It happened, but it’s not like I set down any career path to do it. And there was no way I could not do it.
What to say of the conversation itself? It wasn’t quite the public event I had initially believed. It was part of the library’s Conservator’s Program, in which 30 to 40 nicely dressed high-end donors are periodically treated to free wine and special appearances. (Note: the “I am a charming, scrappy writer” blue jeans look does not fly very high in these circles, but after the second free wine—scientifically speaking—you start to look better to others.)
A representative from the library introduced the men by highlighting three 30-year-old films each of them had appeared in. Wilder’s filmography was obvious. In Grodin’s case, she chose three second-banana roles (King Kong, Rosemary’s Baby, and Heaven Can Wait) instead of his starring roles as a commentator for 60 Minutes II or Midnight Run, which Gene Wilder helpfully offered to the halting introduction.
This five-and-a-half-minute prelude promised that we would see an intimate side of the two. I was stoked. Wilder, looking as though he was about to burst into tears at any moment, began the actual conversation with an idyllic story of how he and Grodin met under the tutelage of acting teacher Uta Hagen in New York City. They would frequently walk along the East River while drinking Pepsi. And suddenly, in a narrative twist, they were successful.
He then went on to express his preference for film acting over stage acting, because the former allowed for more honesty and nuance of performance, but now he prefers writing over acting, period. “I’d rather just be at home in my study, write, come out for a cup of tea, give my wife a kiss, and then go back in and go on writing,” Wilder said. “And that’s what I do.”
That statement underscored his apparent discomfort in being there, which made me appreciate him all the more. He wasn’t Captain Showbiz, someone who’s been there, done that, and can now tell where the bodies are buried. He came off as a guy, slightly uncomfortable in his own skin. But maybe that’s just acting. Maybe the real Gene Wilder left the library to go straight to a club, where he drank whiskey and fought with bouncers until he was brought down in a hail of bullets.
Then came Grodin, who went in and out of personas, from cranky talk-show guest to stern commentator, and periodically unguarded Wilder admirer.
Once the introductory remarks were done, there really wasn’t a lot of interplay between the two. Grodin periodically playfully insulted Wilder (“I don’t remember the lapses [in our friendship], because a little bit of him goes a long way”), which Wilder seemed to take in the spirit it was intended. Grodin also asked how long Wilder has been married; Wilder answered “Seventeen years.” “That’s his fourth wife,” someone behind me stage-whispered. (Dear God, I thought these people were supposed to be my betters.)
On the book of short stories Wilder is working on, What Is This Thing Called Love?, Grodin asked Wilder, “Well, what is this thing called love?” Wilder was cagey, telling people only that the book would be out on Valentine’s Day, 2010. The former talk-show host, seeing the topic lying there on the ground, briefly expounded on his own theories about love: “Cut slack, because the hardest person to see is ourselves.” He then added an anecdote about interrupting his wife while she watched mystery programs, segueing into a story about the genesis and plot of one of his own plays, At Home With Bill, which he talked about for about three minutes. I ultimately left the event bereft of romantic advice from the experts.
At the 30-minute mark, Grodin announced that they would take questions. They ranged from what movies Wilder liked these days (he voted for Slumdog Millionaire for the Academy Awards, didn’t much care for Doubt) to statements about the Somali pirates (they are bad) to how Mel Brooks is doing these days (so-so, maybe doing a one-man show). Wilder also expressed his distaste for many of the scripts he had been sent (“The f-word is used so much now. You eff, you effer, mother-effer. Every third sentence.”)
As for Grodin… well, Nathan recently interviewed him, and I have no doubt you’ll get an eyeful of Grodin on the A.V. Club soon. (I would humbly suggest An Eyeful Of Grodin as the title of his next memoir.)
The conversation, as such, never really spread its wings. The idea that this was going to pull back the curtain to reveal the men behind the men was clearly never going to happen. Wilder was just a touch too shy, and Grodin was too polished from his years as talk-show curmudgeon to really let it all hang out.
The closest it came was when Wilder, responding to Grodin’s joking insults, said “I spent seven and a half years in analysis. I was trying to be, if not a saint or an angel, and it nearly killed me. When I came out of the analysis, criticizing myself every day, my analyst said ‘What have you learned?’ I said ‘I don’t question my own goodness any more.’” That nearly broke my heart.
At this point, they don’t need to reveal themselves to a roomful of fans, no matter how much money they give to the library. They’ve both written memoirs (in Grodin’s case, four of them), so pertinent details of their lives are not private, and they’ve known each other so long that I’m sure their real conversations wouldn’t hold people’s interest. For two people who have lived public lives, there should be the expectation of a little peace once in a while.