Book writing, even when brainstormed by collaborators or dictated by a subject to his ghost, is essentially solitary. So is reading, once you're out of kindergarten ? which, we may note with understandable pride, we are. You write your stuff alone, you send it out into the world, and the world consumes it alone. Everybody keeps their hands to themselves and there's no talking.
One of the principle pleasures of public readings, therefore, is getting to meet your audience ? a benefit that can be all the more rewarding when, as in the case of our books Yiddish With Dick and Jane (YWDAJ) and Yiddish With George and Laura (YWGAL), the book you're reading is intended to make people laugh. Then the lucky/pathetic author(s) experience the added delight and horror of learning, in real time and via real people, which lines land with a concussive burst of ha-ha and which fizzle and lie there in dignified, poignant silence.
We had ample opportunity to engage our audience and gauge our work during our recent somewhat-gala East Coast Tour. Of course, these were hardly our first readings, and so we had some vague idea going in of how the public would react. For example, we pretty much knew that we had a hammerlock on the crucial 70-year-old-Jewish-woman demographic. We had read to them before. Some of them were literally our mothers. Seventy-year-old Jewish women were our constituency, our base, our peeps.
And, indeed, when we arrived at the Port Washington (Long Island, NY) Public Library for the night's show, there they were, in force: enough seventy-year old Jewish women for a complete soccer game, including refs, coaches, and soccer-grandmom fans. But there were other people in attendance as well ? younger people, older people, people who were not remotely women but were, in fact, men.
We'd read in "Port" before (and Barbara's mother lives there), so the gig presented us with a home field advantage which we exploited big-time. We schmoozed and kibitzed. We threw in a local joke. And, frankly, we killed.
True, someone will reply, "Wait a minute. You 'killed' with a crowd consisting of your mother and her friends? So what? They walked in loving you. They arrived pre-killed for your convenience."
Maybe. But the crowd neared a hundred (the night's before had neared sixteen), so we were killing strangers (or "we killed with strangers," or "at strangers," or whatever the preposition is) as well. So we were delighted. This was more like it. This was the robust, appreciative turnout and merch-moving triumph we'd had in mind. Imagine, we imagined, how electrifying the next appearance, in Washington, D.C., would be.
This, not because DC is a hotbed of Judaism (although it's at least, arguably, a warmbed of it), but because, unlike its predecessor, Yiddish With George and Laura is a boldly, if not outright obnoxiously, political book. Yiddish With Dick and Jane is pseudo-nostalgic social satire; YWGAL is a bloodthirsty hatchet job. While the story confines itself to an adorable tale concerning the President and his nukular (sic) family, the Glossary is openly anti-administration.
In fact, when arranging these appearances, we always offered our hosts a choice: the PG-13-rated YWDAJ (For "Some homosexual content and drug-related humor. Parents Tepidly Cautioned."), or the R-rated YWGAL (For "Blistering Anti-Administration mockery and Open Contempt of Republicans."). We don't particularly want to offend people ? although, now that you mention it, we ourselves have been offended, and worse, by the liars, criminals, and demagogues that have controlled our national life these past six years, and so, really, if ?
Look, never mind. Let's just leave it that we're looking for laughs, not outrage. Of the hundred or so people in the audience at Port Washington, only one woman disapproved of our partisanship; afterwards, she indignantly told the lady in charge that it had been "inappropriate." But that's what Republicans always say, when the facts are against them and reality comes a-calling.
When we asked the D.C.J.C.C. if they were willing to present YWGAL they said, to coin a phrase, "Bring it on." So we looked forward to a tumultuous, raucous evening of Democratic triumphalism and high-contrast (Bush/Yiddish) laffs, all in an auditorium the size of the Met. Sure, it rained ? poured, really ? the whole day of the reading. And yes, the entire area was under a Tornado Watch for the duration. But so what? Who cared about the stupid weather?
Everyone. Literally everyone in the greater DC metro area cared. We had eight people, half of whom consisted of Ellis's sister, her boyfriend, Barbara's cousin, and the woman who had booked us. And forget "the Met." The reading took place around a table in the library, like a very specialized and very, very restricted grad school seminar.
Oh, yes, people laughed, and we all chatted pleasantly afterwards, and if we couldn't have fielded a soccer game with the participants, we could have at least played bridge. But a pattern had begun to suggest itself: A small, disappointing turnout one night, a lusty and appreciative crowd the next. Would it continue?
The next night's reading was to be in Boston, for the "Shabbat Boston" event of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies, to be held in the Hebrew Senior Life center following Shabbat services nearby and a kosher dinner. Read that sentence again. We'll wait.
See how none of those names suggests a sexy evening of lively hilarity? And yet that's exactly what "went down." The Hebrew Senior Life center ? a low, broad room suitable for Bingo or mind-numbing testimonial luncheons ? was devoid of Hebrew seniors living life. Instead, it filled up with attractive, chattering, vivacious Jewish men and women in their twenties and thirties, about eighty of whom trooped into the next room, after the meal, for our reading. They were fabulous. We were fabulous. Everything was great.
One reading remained, at a synagogue in Danbury, Connecticut. If you're keeping score at home you know that, for the pattern to hold, the Danbury gig would have to be something of a dud. But how sad-making that would be ? and as the last event of the tour, too. How preferable to round off this odd-numbered series with a hybrid evening, a final perf consisting of both a rousing success and a heart-sinking disappointment. This would not only perfectly balance the books (two good, two not, one half-and-half), but would restore symmetry to the universe.
Impossible. And yet...
Half the audience, we learned, had dragged themselves away from a classical music event that had started ninety minutes earlier at another venue, and had essentially come out of solidarity with or obligation to the organization that booked us. The reading took place in a multi-purpose room, to an audience seated at an array of round dining tables. Thus, while the table to our left roared and giggled and squealed, the group to our right maintained a stony silence throughout. It was, as Barbara pointed out, like listening to a stereo with one broken speaker.
Thus ended our East Coast Tour '06 ? i.e., we broke even. It should be mentioned that, without exception, all of our hosts were gracious and upbeat and fun. And, of course, it's nice to get praise, and to meet strangers who have actually read, let alone enjoyed, your work.
But travel is, as some 19th century Frenchman once said, barbaric (and he had never flown), and the vagaries of publicity, weather, and competing events make each appearance a crap shoot. Would we do it again? No. Absolutely not. Forget it.
Well, maybe. Oh, all right. For a reasonable fee. But no people throwing up on airplanes (see yesterday's post) and no tornadoes. Otherwise, that's it. We've had it ? until How to Raise a Jewish Dog comes out next year.