Doors to the 8pm event at the City Winery (NYC) opened at 6pm, and it becomes apparent in the two hours of wining and dining that pretty much everyone is attending the House of Speak Easy’s “Seriously Entertaining” live literary series to see Steve Coogan. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of great talent on the bill. Susan Minot’s story of getting an African worm stuck inside her lip is particularly worthy of note, and who doesn’t want to see Uma Thurman quote Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Versus? But it is the recent Oscar nominee, BAFTA winner, and British Comedy Awards Outstanding Achievement winner who’s been at the top of his game for quite a long time now who everyone is itching to see in person. What happens next is no one’s fault.
After Dana Vachon tells a funny story about a Vanity Fair article gone awry, which spirals into the philosophy of turds floating in a swimming pool (I’m not being rude, that’s what it was about), the host comes out and announces that because Philomena is nominated for an Oscar, Steve Coogan has to be in Hollywood this week doing Oscar-y things and unfortunately can’t be here with us tonight, but has agreed to do a Q&A over facetime. Big cry of despair from the audience, who paid $35 for a seat.
While the tech people try to connect to Steve in L.A. via iPad, the host stalls for time by plugging Steve’s new movie, Philomena. It’s the true story of a young woman whose baby was taken away from her by the nuns and now as an old woman, she’s working with a journalist to track him down. Steve’s still not connected on the iPad, so she inches a little further into the story, revealing the first big twist in the movie. The audience gasps. Steve’s still not on the line. Having nothing else to stall with, she reveals the second big twist of the movie. The audience gasps again and a few people cry out. Steve’s on the line now, shown on two big screens at the front of the stage, but as they are in front of the host, she can’t see him and thinks she needs to stall for more time. She unveils the third and last big twist of the movie. “Stop!” everyone yells out. She says that she thought it would be okay to summarize the plot because the film has been out for a while now (but if we’ve all seen it, why do we need a summary?), but I think she just didn’t have any other material to stall with. Everyone yells at her to stop, but it’s too late, they don’t need to see the movie now. (I’ve seen it. It’s brilliant. Go see it.) Oh, but look, she sees Steve’s on the line now.
It quickly becomes clear that Steve can not hear us. When he turns and speaks to the person operating the computer, it is clear we can not hear him either (the little microphone symbol on his screen is crossed out). What we get instead is a giant, brightly lit face of Steve Coogan wearing an expression a cross between a screensaver face and one that knows he just might be on screen in front of a couple hundred people. A bit like this:
An exceedingly long, red-faced few minutes go by before some jiggery-pokery going on in the back gets us Steve’s audio. Hooray! “Can you hear me?” he asks. Presumably not being able to hear anything on our end, he continues, “If you can hear me, wave your arms.” Never has a group of people exploded so cheerfully, screaming and waving all their limbs about. beat. Steve looks up to the person assisting him. “No, they can’t hear me.”
Steve suggests, “If you ask me a question on the phone, I can give you an answer. I mean, I can talk about Philomena ’til the cows come home. ‘Til you all want to go home.” So the host calls up Steve on a cell phone so that he’ll be able to hear her questions and relay his answers via Facetime. Brilliant. Except that the instant the phone lands in his hand, his audio is gone again. Someone in the audience suggests putting him on speaker on the cell phone, which she does, but the audio quality is so garbled and with a three-time-zone delay from the visuals that the audience actually boos! As she and Steve discuss what to do, we see his hand gestures and lips moving, but hear nothing.
Finally, she’s able to get a slightly better sound, perhaps by using the iPad speaker rather than the phone speaker, but now every third word of Steve’s answers drops out, leaving us with 100% enthusiasm and 66% content. For example:
Host: Steve, all your life, you have written comedic writing, so what was the biggest challenge in undertaking something as serious as a subject as Philomena Lee?
Steve: The biggest challenge was [garbled] I hadn’t done [garbled] until recently [gabled] as dramatic. When you write [cuts out] and, uh, [garbled], it’s all mitigated by the fact that [garbled] as often as possible.
The host tells Steve that the microphone is a little iffy, so they’re going to do just one more question, and they’re going to do it slowly. How slowly is going to help, I have no idea. At this point, I seriously start to wonder if this is a prank.
Host: When you saw the Pope last week, what did he say to you?
Steve: He didn’t tell me what he thought of me. (laughs) He was very nice about Philomena. That was the reason for our visit. It was about this project in Ireland to change the law to allow mothers access to information on how to trace [their children]. The senior adviser was very positive.
Host: Are you going to go back to comedy now or are you going to carry on straight writing?
Steve: I like comedy as a tool, as a device, to use in drama. [Garbled] to use comedy as a device in [garbled] to bring levity to difficult subjects. [Garbled] if you make your audience laugh, you’re more likely to engage them, and you can, as it were, slip in under the door your serious point. So, I’ll do more drama, but I’ll use comedy within those dramas.
Host: Would you ever consider doing American TV?
Steve: Everyone has their price, and as my agent once said to me, I’m [cuts out]
Host: Are you going to be at the Oscars? Are you going to be present or are you going to do a Woody Allen and stay away?
Steve: Oh, well, doing a Woody Allen means a lot more these days than it used to.
At this point, as Steve tries to tell us if he will be at the Oscars, his audio cuts out all together. The host asks what his next writing project is while his mouth is still moving, answering the previous question, and then she realizes we can’t hear him at all. “Actually, I know what his next writing project is,” the host says. Steve realizes that we can’t hear him anymore and takes the phone away from his ear. “He’s going to be doing another I Am Alan Partridge.” Steve waves goodbye. The host thanks everyone for bearing with her, as it was “a marathon scary and terrible.”
Personally, I feel bad for the host. It wasn’t her fault technology was failing. After years of podcasting via Skype, I know the horrors of tech glitches while you’re speaking to someone you greatly admire. (My power went out while I was interviewing Hitchhiker’s Guide legend Simon Jones, for example.) It wasn’t Steve’s fault either, that he had to be in L.A. for Oscars events. Well deserved. I do somewhat blame the Winery, though, for not telling us he wouldn’t be there. They must have known at least 24 hours ago that he was going to be on the other side of the country. For some of us, $35 is a splurge, and I wouldn’t have bothered. House of Speakeasy has issued an apology to its ticket buyers, which is much appreciated, and when their next month’s guest, Stephen Fry, also couldn’t make it at the last minute, they did alert people ahead of time and issue me a refund.
Flash review of Philomena
Philomena is Steve Coogan’s film adaptation of the non-fiction book The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith. It’s the story of journalist Sixsmith helping an old woman named Phiilomena find her long lost son who was stolen from her when she was in a convent. Coogan’s script writing pulls at your heart strings, and actress Judi Dench brings something to the performance few others could. A definite recommend.