Mr. Bad Taste

Thompson’s creation was disdained by highbrow critics, including the Russian playwright Maxim Gorky. In response, Thompson articulated an elaborate manifesto defending his work—a defense, in retrospect, perhaps designed as much to assuage his own internal doubts as those of his external critics.

This May, Mr. Hirschorn used his Atlantic column to pen a similar manifesto. Under the heading “The Case for Reality TV: What the Snobs Don’t Understand,” he argued that the format allows for “the best elements of scripted TV and documentaries while eschewing the problems of each.”

Over lunch with NYTV, Mr. Hirschorn continued his campaign. Reality shows, he said, often dare to touch “third rail” issues, such as race and class, which conventional dramas and comedies tend to avoid. “A lot of scripted television now gets no ‘Updike points,’” he said.

His ability to toss off phrases like “Updike points” suggests that Mr. Hirschorn still aims to keep one foot—at least mentally—on the high ground. There’s the Atlantic column, for one thing. And he has kept up ties with his old New York journalism friends: At his apartment in Chelsea, where he lives with his wife–a book editor at St. Martin’s–and two children, Mr. Hirschorn hosts a poker game for media types. CBS’s Gil Schwartz, The New Yorker’s Tad Friend, New York Magazine’s Adam Platt, Slate’s Jacob Weisberg and HarperCollins’ David Hirshey have all played.

So have any of Mr. Hirschorn’s friends in polite society ever needled him for being a prime mover behind, say, America’s Most Smartest Model—in which, according to VH1’s Web site, 14 “‘himbos’ and ‘bimbos’ face challenges that put both their overall intelligence and their beauty to the test”? According to Mr. Hirschorn: no. Perhaps, NYTV suggested, the Atlantic piece was Mr. Hirschorn’s defense not against the external Gorkies of this world, but rather against the part of his brain that used to dabble in Nabokov?

“I think I’m constantly self-doubting and self-interrogating on everything,” said Mr. Hirschorn. “I think that it’s a slightly shtetl mind-set, if you’re always trying to figure out what’s wrong with what you’re doing and the vulnerabilities of it, nobody will figure it out before you do.”

But for all that anxiety, he’s having a blast. “I get to hang out with hilarious people and freaks and all sorts of bizarre, wonderful characters,” he said.

And friends confirm that he’s far from tortured. Mr. Andersen, his former mentor and business partner, said that he has never seen Mr. Hirschorn happier than in recent years. “I think he got over worrying about somehow being true to his master’s in comp lit and his Harvard degree,” said Mr. Andersen. “When you’re good at something, it makes you happy. He was never the kind of pointy-headed intellectual sort who looked down on entertaining crap.”

“It’s not like he decided, I don’t care about Nabokov anymore, it’s Flavor Flav for me,” Mr. Andersen went on. “He’s a man of many parts. Wallace Stevens sold insurance while he was writing great American poetry. There are histories of people doing these improbable things in different parts of their lives.”

Back at the upscale taco joint, Mr. Hirschorn ordered a cup of coffee. He said that one of the greatest influences in his life was a book by John Seabrook, called Nobrow: The Culture of Marketing, the Marketing of Culture.

“You can look at opera, which was the ultimate lowbrow activity of the 19th century,” he said. “And now you have to wear a fur to go see it. So I think these things are completely arbitrary.”

Some day, he said, he’d like to write a book or make a movie. Where might those projects fall, on the Flavor-Flav-to-Comp-Lit scale?. “Again, it’s sort of the no-brow thing,” said Mr. Hirschorn. “For me, all creative ideas sort of exist on one plane.”