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December 2019 Diary Life Magazine Media The Month

Michael Wolff is working on ‘nothing’

A surprising number of my contemporaries have children who are stand-up comics

November 29, 2019

11:32 AM

29 November 2019

11:32 AM

New York

‘What are you working on?’ is a standard and annoying question often asked of creative types. Finally, I have a good answer: ‘Nothing.’ That was my response at a recent New York dinner party at the home of the Italian journalist Mario Platero and his British wife, Ariadne. The Plateros have been entertaining the New York media class for decades and many of their long-time guests are even older than I am. But they are all still announcing projects. More power to them. They are fighting obsolescence. I’m embracing it. For one thing, it is hard not to be fatalistic if you are a journalist. Every magazine I have ever worked for, and I have worked for them all, is dead or will die shortly. For another thing, Donald Trump is the one consuming subject, sucking all views and opinions into his void, and on this issue I have nothing left to say. Still, even with the collapse of so many journalistic enterprises, many of my former colleagues still go on at great and constant unpaid length on social media or, scrambling for a pay-per-appearance contract, as desperately willing pundits on cable television. Why? People are afraid, it seems, to say nothing. I’m looking forward to trying.

Alas, I have a four-year-old. So there will have to be some form of exchanging words for dollars in order to provide for the next 20 years of her education. But really I am not sure how, if I were doing gainful work, I would be able to perform all the duties necessary for applying to kindergarten. I have older children, all of whom have been successfully educated, but our daughter is my wife’s first and she has cast a wide net among Uptown, Downtown, public, private, traditional and progressive schools. No matter the type, every school requires at least a part-time job’s worth of activities, among them a parent interview, a multi-hour parent tour and a ‘play date’. In this last, one’s child is led off with a random group of teachers and peers where, unaware that she is being observed, she will, we hope, have a highly verbal good time. Unless, instead, she has a total meltdown. I have assured my wife that none of this really matters, that rejection, if it comes, is just part of the process, and in the end everything turns out just fine. She does not believe it.

After a recent kindergarten tour, I had lunch with Simon Dumenco, my old editor at New York magazine (recently sold and with an uncertain future). He is also underemployed. It must be a law that restaurants are now required to ask patrons if they have any food-related allergies. Or perhaps there are insurance and other liability issues. Anyway, the question is a frankly unappetizing one. I asked for the roast (or, possibly, poached) chicken salad at a spanking-new establishment in the East Village, but, having seen this dish go by, asked to have it without the frisée lettuce that I glimpsed sticking stubbornly up from the plate. ‘Are you allergic to frisée?’ asked the server. I find it has an unpleasant feel on the roof of my mouth and so in that sense of aversion, and wanting to cut short the details, I said, ‘Yes, I’m allergic to frisée.’ The server returned to say that the lettuces were already mixed in and, hence, it would not be possible to offer the dish without frisée. Already over it, I said I’d take it as is. ‘No,’ said the server, ‘because you’ve alerted us to your allergy we can no longer serve it to you.’

I told my son, a stand-up comedian, this story and he immediately saw it as promising material. A surprising number of my contemporaries have children who are stand-up comics. Could this have something to do with the disappearance of a certain kind of journalism? ‘You have a strong voice,’ used to be high praise but ‘voice’ seems largely out of place and even suspect now. At best, journalism seeks a standardized political voice. I can’t say for sure that the comedy world is any better because my son has banned me from his shows, but I am heartened that in comedy you might still be able to make fun of your dad and have frisée get a laugh.

Michael’s restaurant on West 55th celebrated its recent 30th anniversary with a cocktail party. A good number of the people at the party have been going to Michael’s for the full 30 years, including me. Many occupied the highest reaches of the media business: CEOs, anchormen and women, editors, publishers, columnists. In its way, it was heartening. We are all still networking as though there were a tomorrow. But in a scan of the 300 or 400 machers in the room, I realized that practically nobody had a job anymore. I suppose the good news for us is that, unlike the generation rising in the media business now, the past 30 years were kind enough to finance the retirement that we don’t seem yet to have fully grasped we are in.

This article is in The Spectator’s December 2019 US edition.

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