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Bringing out the New Yorker in L.A.

A weekend of readings, celebrity interviews and performances celebrates the witty Manhattan magazine.

March 29, 2004|Erin Ailworth | Times Staff Writer

Robin Williams shimmied onstage, headed straight for the pole in the right-hand corner and, with a slide and twirl, gave the Spearmint Rhino ladies a run for their tassels.

The tiny, curly-haired and bespectacled woman seated at the other end of the stage just shook her head and smiled slightly. The audience tittered.

The maraschino-red sign behind the stage declared that this was part of "The New Yorker Nights" in Los Angeles, a mini-version of a 4-year-old annual festival organized in the Big Apple and billed as "entertainment inspired by the pages of the New Yorker." And judging by the packed audience ensconced in pillow-backed seats in the Silent Movie Theatre on Thursday night, at least 210 people know the magazine is the newest "cool thing" in L.A.

That's what the numbers imply, anyway. Recently released figures show more Californians read the weekly than New Yorkers -- 167,580 paid subscribers in the Golden State compared with 166,630. The magazine's editors say it has always been popular outside New York, but increased entertainment coverage is part of the jump in numbers.

And the audience was there Thursday to see that coverage live.

Williams riffed on Janet Jackson and silent porn before turning to New Yorker staff writer Lillian Ross, the woman onstage, whom he has known since she first interviewed him in 1986 for a piece about his film "Good Morning, Vietnam."

"Lill," as Williams calls her, smiled again, shuffled her pages of questions and launched right into the live interview -- a more raunchy and less politically correct version of "Inside the Actors Studio." She barely got out the words "1986" and "Dr. Ruth" before Williams, 51, cut in with his typically risque commentary.

"Schwarzenegger," "Bush," Ross tried again. Williams stayed on topic for a few minutes, then opted for gay marriage.

"I live in San Francisco," Williams said, "so when they had people going: 'I do, I do, I do,' it was so much fun." He added, in a Fab Five voice: "And then you have gay divorce: Who gets the George Michael CD?"

And that's how it went for the rest of the night, from Saddam Hussein to Minnie Mouse, "The Passion" to Martha Stewart, gay marriage to the music of N.E.R.D. Occasionally, hands from the audience would tremble into the air, nervous to open themselves up to, as Williams put it, his "scorn and ridicule."

When asked where he liked to perform his comedy, Williams replied: "I've traveled to Afghanistan. That's a tough room .... You've got your people dressed like Casper, that's weird. You've got your land mines...."

Mostly, people just laughed and left Ross, in her early 80s, in the question hot seat.

As one woman described it to her friend while sipping Grand Marnier margaritas in the red-and-black parking-lot lounge at the next night's event: "He would just go off for 40 minutes and then she would ask another question and he would go off. Way off."

Friday night saw 25-year-old actor Jason Biggs standing in a back corner of the lounge smoking a cigarette he lighted using one of the tiny candles on the strategically placed black tables. Tracey Ullman was hidden in a tiny side room, fiddling with her black-and-white polka-dot dress and sipping her drug of choice: a fresh cappuccino.

People milled around heat lamps, ice tinkling in their glasses. Proceeds from the drinks and ticket sales were to go to the Scleroderma Research Foundation, the local Kedren Head Start program and Reading Is Fundamental Inc.

Nathan Baesel, a 28-year-old stage and television actor, fiddled with a jacket that refused to stay on its perch. He, Biggs and Ullman were about to go on stage for "Fiction Live," readings of short stories that have been published in the New Yorker.

Baesel was the first out of the chute, reading "Asset" by David Foster Wallace. With a backward turn of his baseball cap, and a shrug of his shoulder that folded his right arm up into his sleeve, Baesel transformed into a young Southern guy who uses his abbreviated arm to pick up girls.

"I usually keep it in the sleeve until it's time to haul it out and use it as the asset," he drawled to a snickering audience. "It breaks 'em down every time."

Ullman kicked off her pointy red high heels as she half hopped, half slid onto a stool for a reading of "Stuart" by Zadie Smith. Her arms flailed and her face contorted as she easily slipped from a Greek hot dog vendor to a T-shirt-clad English teen, to a gaggle of girls and back again to the hot dog guy, then a hysterical woman and finally a McDonald's employee -- all while narrating a mad chase through London streets.

"In this city you might miss your nemesis in a big crowd in the morning and you might fight your friend in the afternoon without realizing your mistake," she informed a rapt audience.

Then Biggs was up for his reading of "The Smoker" by David Schickler. He fiddled with the microphone and perched a little uncomfortably on the stool. He is Douglas, the only male teacher at an all-girls school struggling against being drawn into a romantic web with Nicole, one of his students.

"I don't want you to kiss me, I want you to hit me," Biggs as Douglas eventually tells Nicole. "I want you to hit me. If you do this, I'll just know...."

The theater lights came up, the audience clapped, murmured and as one began to move back to the lounge. Some would be back Saturday night for drinks and a live interview between New Yorker staff writer Susan Orlean and the band They Might Be Giants.

Either way, there's a good chance the number of New Yorker subscribers in L.A. climbed a few more notches over the weekend.

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