With Stephen Colbert having been a guest last week on The Late Show with David Letterman, this reminded me a of gathering I was at a while ago. Let me back up a moment.
It was a very nice time. Quite pleasant people, and extremely congenial overall. It's just that it was the kind of situation where one particular guests was...well, One of Those. You know.
I knew almost everyone, except there was one couple I hadn’t met. From later conversation, I gather that the husband was in the music field, though I can’t swear to it. Anyway, when I arrived, I greeted everyone, introduced myself to the wife half of the tag team and shook her hand, and then went over to the guy. He was testing out my friend’s new guitar, and I put out my hand. He sort of wiggled his right hand at me to show that he had this little plastic pick between his thumb and forefinger and therefore was completely encumbered and unable to shake my hand. I looked at him a moment, trying to decipher the finger-wiggle, and when I figured it out, I came close to snarking at him, “Seriously, dude??!! You haven’t figured out how to move the pick to your left hand in order to free up your right hand so that you can shake?? Or...or you just can’t figure out how to stick it between your teeth for 10 seconds?? Never done that, I take it?” Instead, I just shrugged and walked off. In retrospect, I think what I should have done is just kept my hand out there, waiting for him to shake it.
Little did I know that that he would get even sweller as the evening went on.
Early in the evening, after we sat down to resolve the problems of mankind, providing your definition of mankind only goes back a couple weeks and "but we had Italian food for lunch yesterday" is a big problem worth solving, someone mentioned that they'd been bar mitzvahed. (I have no idea how it came up. It isn't your typical, save-the-world conversation opener, after all.) That was the fellow's opening for him to lecture us all on linguistics and the derivation of the term, "bar mitzvah." It's not actually a verb, he said, but a noun. One doesn't get "bar mitvzahed," but has a bar mitzvah. Fine, dandy, a little condescending, but it's always good to know the the truth of things -- except he kept on, going into the history of the Jewish People to explain why all this was so, and why it was important for us to know this, and that you could Google information on its history, and why it would be a huge faux pas to use the word improperly, in case for instance you ever found yourself in a conversation with some very religious people and were discussing bar mitzvahs and didn't want to come across as...as...and he struggled for the right word. "Pretentious?" I offered. His wife burst into knowing laughter, clearly having lived through years of these sort of pontificating lectures. He sort of laughed it off, too, somewhat and then went back to his story. When he took a breath, I mentioned in the same spirit of accuracy that, "Y'know, "Google" isn't actually a verb either." That stopped him for a moment, until finally he mumbled out, "Well...uh, yeah, but it's become one by standard acceptance." You're right, I replied. "Just like 'bar mitzvah.'"
It got worse.
At one point, not long after -- and silly as his upcoming comment was, this is just the set-up, not the point -- he expressed that traditional, obligatory holier-than-thou comment how “There are no good movies being made anymore.” Now, obviously, there was a lot of I wanted to say -- many words, plenty of movie titles, tumbling over one another -- but I simply left it at, “Sure there are.” I mention that because a few moments later he started talking about theater, and stated proudly that "The best play I have ever seen in my life was actually a college production of West Side Story. "You know West Side Story," he said, "It's wonderful." I suspect it was meant to show how discerning he was, able to be impressed by things most Luddites would miss. I said nothing, keeping the thought, "Seriously? A college production was the best-ever theater you've seen, The Best, ever -- ever -- and the 'best ever' you've seen is a college production of West Side Story -- and we're supposed to take your judgement of cinema as meaningful?," to myself.
But that's not the point either. Because a bit later in the evening, someone mentioned Stephen Colbert. (See! I knew I'd get to it eventually. But it's all connected as part of the tale.) The good fellow noted that until Stephen Colbert had just been signed to replace David Letterman a week earlier, he’d never heard of him. I suspect this was meant to put him above the fray or -- or, I don't know. I sat quietly a moment -- as did the others, largely out of stunned silence, and I decided to keep things simple and reasonably gracious, saying just, offhandedly, “You know, he did have his own TV show." Adding, "For nine years.” The guy blustered a moment, but then came up with his ideal dismissive defense, “Well, it was on cable.” What I wanted to say was, “So is Fox News. Ever heard of them?”, but I just replied, “You know, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and was one of Time Magazine’s 100 Most Influential People. And the book he wrote was the New York Times #1 bestseller for four months. And was the guest speaker at the White House Correspondent's Dinner.”
None of that mattered. I guess that's what happens when you're on cable, and our friend continued on. He didn't know Stephen Colbert, so that was that. Other than suggesting that this Colbert person he didn't know probably wouldn't succeed.
But even that was only the tip of the iceberg, because when someone then mentioned the competition of Jimmy Fallon having taken over the Tonight Show, the guy didn't known Fallon either. "He was on Saturday Night Live for seven years," I offered, hopefully. (Left unsaid: "And starred in half a dozen movies, and has hosted his own TV show for five years -- on NBC even, a network that isn't cable!!") It will not be surprising at this point that when someone mentioned that Jimmy Fallon had been replaced by Seth Meyers, he didn't know Meyers, who had been on SNL for 14 years, was the head writer of SNL and host of its Weekend Update segment. I think the shock would have been if he did know Seth Meyers.
To be clear, it wasn't that he didn't watch TV as being beneath him. He did watch television, and generally seemed to like it. His favorite show was Elementary. I mentioned that I liked it, too, and especially its star, Jonny Lee Miller -- a bonding moment, perhaps. All of which led to me bringing up that, as it oddly happened, the other actor who also plays Sherlock Holmes but on PBS, Benedict Cumberbatch, had starred in a stage play with Elementary's Sherlock. "Who's he?" the guy asked. Did you see the recent Star Trek movie? No, he hadn't. Okay, remember there was recent movie about Julian Assange and Wikileaks, well, he starred in it. No, he didn't know that. The others at the table began raving about Cumberbatch, so I stayed out of it, leaving them to say that he's generally considered one of the top up-and-coming actors today.
As I sat there, while the others were extolling Cumberbatch and all manner of other subjects, I began ruminating. And I realized what was so gnawing. Not that he didn't know these people, or that we had different tastes. No one has to know who Stephen Colbert is. Or who Jimmy Fallon is. Or who Seth Meyers is. Or who Benedict Cumberbatch is. Truly. That's fine by me. We all have our own interests. BUT -- what it hit me was: someone who is going to position themselves on a pedestal as the all-knowing arbiter of taste in popular culture, you darn well should at least have heard of Stephen Colbert!!
Lest I make the fellow out as a bad guy, he wasn't. When he wasn't lecturing as a world expert with no foundation, he was reasonably pleasant. And his wife was very nice and extremely bright. It's just that too much of the time, he was lecturing as a world expert with no foundation, and it was only the rest of the fine gathering that kept my head exploding.
Fortunately, he eventually moved to another room to seek out the musical instruments. And I lived to let my head decompress. What I also know was that, when somebody won't take a guitar pick out of his fingers to shake your end, you just can bet the farm that he's going to be One of Those...
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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