The men’s room of the New York Hilton was thick with cheap men’s cologne. Standing at a urinal was a tiny old man in a big suit, who seemed to disappear into the depths of the porcelain, a wisp of white hair flowing off his little head. Mickey Freeman, who played Private Zimmerman on Sergeant Bilko, took care of his business before heading back out into the lounge, where men in loud suits and the breast-enhanced women who love them were streaming out of the Friars Club’s 100th annual roast, at which they’d witnessed the skewering of Donald Trump.
Mr. Freeman just wanted to get home. “Let’s get out of here,” he told his buddy, a elderly man in a loose gray suit. “Hey, Mickey—why didn’t you get your piece of the Donald?” The former TV actor muttered, “Ah, he’s too easy to roast,” before shuffling across the room.
The chance to turn Mr. Trump, that ultimate New York character—billionaire, skirt-chaser, blowhard, TV phenomenon—into a human piñata for a bunch of sour standup comics might seem too easy, too natural, too perfect. But all too tempting (who wouldn’t want their chance to take a shot at Mr. “You’re Fired”?). So, after a lunch of baked chicken, broccoli and scalloped potatoes, washed down with Johnnie Walker Black Label and Trump Ice spring water, some professional comics and a few amateurs (Al Sharpton, Regis Philbin, Jeff Zucker) took their whacks at the man and his mane.
“I like your hair—it looks like Nicole Kidman’s bush,” snapped Stewie Stone, an old-school comic in a rumpled gray suit, veering to glare at Mr. Trump, who sat at the dais, a beatific grin on his face. “Do you realize if your father weren’t [a millionaire] first, you’d be a fucking waiter at this event?”
Mr. Stone set the agenda for the roast, which consisted of grilling Mr. Trump for his real-estate tactics, his taste in women such as current girlfriend Melania Knauss and, of course, his hair.
The man of the hour, orange hair glinting in the light, pink tie anchoring his suit, reserved his biggest laugh for Norm Crosby’s joke about buffalo ejaculate making the ground sticky. Most of the time, he flashed that bland smile (“On the show, in the boardroom, you’ve got that pursed-lips thing,” cracked Susie Essman. “It looks a little like a vagina. And that might be a good thing, because this way when you’re sucking [NBC chief] Jeff Zucker’s cock, you’ll both be playing it straight.”)
Mr. Zucker, Mr. Trump’s boss as the mastermind behind The Apprentice, guffawed, his bald head bobbing up and down, reflecting the house lights, as he elbowed Katie Couric, who was seated next to him. (Later, he got his own chance, reading from scripted notes: “Donald’s wedding will have something for everyone—for Donald and his friends, there will be a cigar room. For Melania and her friends, a bouncy castle.”)
When Mr. Stone deadpanned, “I read your new book—it only goes up to Chapter 11,” fellow comedian Jeffrey Ross banged his fist on the table in frustration, mouthing the words “That was mine!” A mile away, at the far end of the 75-strong dais, sat a grinning Tom Cantone, the vice president at Foxwoods Resort and one of Mr. Trump’s rivals.
Mr. Trump’s smile faded when Mr. Stone cracked, “The last person who changed the skyline of a city so much was Hermann Goering,” emphasizing over the tepid applause, ” … who was a Nazi.”
A hush came over the room. The audience, including two bottle-blond young women sitting up front, tucked into their cheesecake. Victoria Gotti, in a tight black top, snoozed, resting her chin in her palm.
Grim-faced Richard Belzer went even further as he promised to “take a closer look at the man, the legend, the fucking grafter wrapped in a fraud perpetrated on society known as Donald Trump.” After cursing the audience for hissing at one of his jokes, he proceeded to evaluate some of Mr. Trump’s famous sayings, as popularized in his books. “Here’s a quote from Donald J. Trump: ‘Money was never a big motivation, except as a way to keep score. The real excitement is playing the game.’ Wait a minute—I thought the real excitement was evicting a crippled orphan just before the bulldozer shows up.”
But Mr. Trump barely dropped his smile, and with reason. At this point, the ritual verged on the ridiculous, a strange little game in which the peasants get to poke fun at the king once a year, emphasizing all the more who wields the power. And Mr. Trump knew it, playing along with that plastic grin.
Al Sharpton, who looked catatonic throughout most of the coarse humor, even got into the act. “The Friars Club needs sensitivity training. We could start with the guy who called me up to come to this roast. I said, ‘How diverse will the audience be?’ He said, ‘Oh, that won’t be a problem. We’ll have as many blacks there as Donald has living in his buildings.’”
An orange-suited elderly man sitting at a table in the front grabbed Ben Stiller: “Pinch my cheeks—do you feel that?” Mr. Stiller obliged him, slinking away to greet his father and past honoree, Jerry Stiller.
A large man stretched into a tuxedo, his brown beard crowding his chin, almost fell out of his chair, teetering on the edge, as Ms. Essman took her turn at the dais, thanking Mr. Philbin for his introduction, “Thank you, Rege. I had no idea you had such a sharp tongue. It must severely hurt Mike Eisner’s ass.” (Mr. Eisner is the chairman of Disney.)
Ms. Essman, better known as Jeff’s wife on HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, was on a roll, telling Trump: “We met once, but you don’t remember because you weren’t trying to sleep with me. That’s ’cause I’m not your type. It’s O.K.—because, you know, I’m smart, my tits are real, and I speak English.” Mr. Trump looked into the audience and smiled reassuringly at Ms. Knauss.
“I think you should make the Trump condom, and you should have your face right on the tip. That way at least someone is getting fucked by you besides your business partners …. At this point, the only thing you own that’s not going down is Melania,” quipped Ms. Essman before turning her tongue on Ms. Couric, who wore a glittering silver “K” pendant on her black sweater.
“Katie Couric had been dating the owner of the Boston Red Sox. The Boston Red Sox! I mean, why don’t you just fuck Saddam Hussein?” And Mr. Sharpton: “He probably has no idea who I am. Essman is a Hebrew word for Tawana.” And, of course, Bill O’Reilly: “Bill O’Reilly has a new reality-TV show on NBC. Jeff Zucker just told me it’s called The O’Reilly Fucked Her. He’s also pushing a new children’s book, it’s called When Billy Gets Big.”
By the end, Mr. Trump was still grinning and in control. Getting up to thank the crowd, he apologized to Ms. Knauss; pushed Mr. Philbin aside (“You sit down,” he growled); teased Ms. Couric, attending her very first roast, about the first word she’d been privileged to hear (“cunt”); and fired back at the enemies and detractors who’d been making light of his casino’s financial problems. “Now, as far as Atlantic City goes, we’re doing very well. Watch—you watch, you watch. We’ll pull rabbits out of a hat.”
Someone in the audience laughed.
—Marcus Baram with Blair Golson
Politics makes fellows get into strange beds. On the night of Oct. 12, about 150 young New Yorkers joined together at the Slipper Room for a singles auction to defeat George W. Bush and elect Democrats to federal, state and local government. It was sponsored by Girls Gone Political, which, according to a flier being distributed, is a grassroots organization that is “disgusted with the Bush Adminstration!”
Techno star Moby, who was with a beautiful and brainy blonde, said he’d do “just about anything” to get John Kerry elected.
“I mean, humiliation is my forte,” he said. “I would walk backwards from New York to Washington D.C. Not naked.”
“Stop having anal sex?” Musician Dolce Fino asked him.
Would the famously vegan Moby start eating steaks?
“If the difference was between George Bush and John Kerry winning, yes, I would eat a steak,” he said. “And I would probably be projectile-vomiting for the next month, but I would gladly take one for the team.”
And what would it take to vote for Bush?
“I would vote for George Bush if part of his problem was allowing Manhattan to secede from New York, happily, and let the rest of the country have him.”
His friends cheered.
Writer Jay McInerney, up onstage to say a few words in support of John Kerry, told a joke his precocious 9-year-old son had told him. “He said, ‘Dad, there was a journalist interviewing George Bush, and he asked George Bush the significance of Roe vs. Wade. And George Bush said, ‘Roe vs. Wade was the most significant decision that George Washington had to make before he crossed the Delaware.”
“I thought that was pretty good for a 9-year-old, and I’m very proud of my son for being against George Bush, for being a Democrat,” Mr. McInerney said to more applause. “Particularly in the hotbed of Republicanism which is the private-school environment in Nashville, Tenn.”
Finishing up, he said, “We know what’s happening here: We want to elect John Kerry and defeat George Bush.” But asked how much money it would take to get him to vote Republican on Nov. 2, Mr. McInerney replied, “A couple of million would do it—but they’re against everything I believe.” Still, he said, “I’d sell my one vote.” He paused. “Two million.”
It was time to auction the celebrities present for dates. Moby was sold for $800 (after agreeing to match the bid).
Kyrie Collins, wearing a tuxedo-style blouse, velvet snakeskin-print pants and pointy Jimmy Choo boots, stepped outside. One of the organizers of the event as well as an entrepreneur and a “motorcycle chick,” she said she has given a lot to Kerry already.
“What else would I do? I’d pretty much walk over glass, eat dirt, pull my own hair out, rip at my breasts, run naked through the streets—whatever it took,” she said.
A few nights later, on the other side of town and the political landscape, there was a literary-political salon-type gathering at William F. Buckley’s Park Avenue spread. In his plush, modern-art-filled living room, Mr. Buckley moderated a lively but pretty serious discussion on the war in Iraq and the Presidential race. While in line for the bathroom, The Transom asked Fox News correspondent Monica Crowley what she’d do to get Bush elected.
“I would give up all of my Duran Duran albums,” she said. “And I just saw them last week in person, and I would still run off with any one of them. So for me to give up all my Duran Duran albums—that’s saying a lot. That’s serious. I would never listen to them again. This is a huge sacrifice. Life without ‘Come Undone’ and ‘Rio’ is not worth living, and I’m willing to give it up.”
How much to get her to vote for Kerry?
“No, they would have to bust the budget for the amount of money. Inconceivable! I don’t have a price like that. For me to vote for Kerry, he’d have to become a Republican.”
National Review senior editor Ramesh Ponnuru was asked what Kerry could do to buy his vote.
“I am reminded of something that I read in an Alex Cockburn column years ago about some union leader who was upset with Jimmy Carter, and he was asked, ‘What could Jimmy Carter do to make you happy?’ And he said, ‘Nothing!’ And he thought for a minute and he said, ‘Wait! Wait! One thing: die.” And then he laughed.
The Passion of Payne
Alexander Payne, taking a break from the hectic schedule of promoting his new movie, Sideways, is sitting on a silver bollard in front of the Time Warner Center on Oct. 15. Handsome and slender, his eyes betray more mischief than it seems he would like. He speaks and moves with determination and makes sure to be on time, if not ahead of time.
Mr. Payne’s protagonists are not made of the same stuff. Young or old, male or perhaps female; wealthy enough or just scraping by; professionally accomplished or unemployed, they all share a certain quality. From Citizen Ruth’s Ruth Stoops to Sideways’ Miles Raymond, they suffer from the same disorder: high levels of self-absorption coupled with low levels of self-awareness. They are often repellent in their dishonesty and obliviousness, the sort of small people who leave audiences laughing awkwardly in the knowledge that it is their own helpless humanity depicted onscreen. Certain critics have taken this to mean that the Stanford-educated Payne, who speaks in full paragraphs and is disarmingly self-aware, is a condescending prick, an arrogant bastard and, worst of all, pretentious.
“I make comedies!” Mr. Payne says. “So when a guy slips on a banana peel, you’re not supposed to laugh? We’re supposed to understand his pain? Give me a break! You know, I remember one negative review, written by a guy—who shall remain nameless, but whose initials were Anthony Lane—who called me pretentious! Mind you, I agree with a lot of negative reviews, but it was just so clear that this said far more about the reviewer than it said about my film. Jim and I like our characters! We think they’re funny!”
Funny, indeed—when Jack Nicholson received his 2002 Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic Feature, he mumbled, “Did anyone notice we were making a comedy?”
Mr. Payne has spent the last 13 years writing screenplays (and doctoring other directors’) with his best friend, Jim Taylor. Each script is hammered out on one computer with two keyboards over the course of six months, eight hours every day. “There’s a lot of noodling time and obsessive e-mail checking,” but they get done on time. And so with Sideways, one set of best friends found itself writing about another. “No, the relationship is not a lot like ours—it’s a lot like the characters in the book. It’s based on a book. We’re professionals!” Mr. Payne is eager to emphasize, several times throughout a conversation, that he is a professional, and by implication that The Transom may not be.
Nevertheless, Mr. Payne is also eager to emphasize that he does not wish anyone, least of all himself, to make pronouncements on his work. For a while he was “the Bard of Omaha,” until he started filming in the Santa Ynez Valley. To others, it seemed apt to describe him as the “midlife-crisis guy,” forgetting that Ruth Stoops was still several decades removed from one. “It’s all a work in progress. I’m just beginning to learn what a film is. It’s a very elusive thing. I do know that I want to find myself in the position where I am only getting better with age. Lina Wertmüller once said that ‘Artists over many years lose many things, but not their anger.’ I admire directors who finished strong, like Buñuel. He always said that we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. I find myself, with age, getting angrier. The more you find with experience is a greater awareness of the subtleties of how we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. I don’t really see how we can lose anger.”
Mike Wallace likes to ask a lot of questions—which can prove problematic when he’s the one being interviewed.
At Central Park Conservancy’s Oct. 14 fête honoring this year’s “Living Landmarks” honorees, we tried to get the 60 Minutes man’s opinion on the Presidential debate the night before. “Were you offended by the talk about the lesbian?” he asked The Transom. We told him we thought mentioning Mary Cheney was in poor taste. “I didn’t!” he harrumphed. “I mean, it had been a subject of public discussion before, handled very personably, I thought, by the Vice President the first time it came out …. I thought that Kerry was in charge, didn’t you? I think the consensus is that he was in charge.
“Who’s going to win?” he asked suddenly. “Do you think the fact that they’ve caught bin Laden will make a difference?” We raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. Had we missed a press release? “Haven’t you heard? I say they’ve found bin Laden!” he repeated loudly. Asked if he was busting The Transom’s balls, Mr. Wallace crowed delightedly, “Absolutely!” So who’s going to win Nov. 2? “I’m not damn fool enough to answer that!”
Regardless of who prevails on Election Day, the following night will find Mr. Wallace at the $10,000-a-table gala with new inductees like actresses Candice Bergen and Whoopi Goldberg, literary agent Morton Janklow and Yankees pooh-bah George Steinbrenner. “I became one of these old hunks a few years ago!” he said as Liz Smith (who’ll host the Nov. 3 event) came over with socialite Iris Love, the aptly named archeologist who excavated what is thought to be the Temple of Aphrodite in Knidos. The two flirted for a moment. “You better get out of here or I’m gonna tear off your—” Mr. Wallace gestured to the front of Ms. Love’s blouse. She giggled girlishly.
“And now I’m going to give you a kiss on the mouth!” he said, leaning over to peck Ms. Smith—whom he’s known for 50 years—on the lips. The pair pleaded with the veteran newsman to join them for dinner downstairs at Le Cirque. He said that first he’d have to check with his wife, Mary. “Is it that your wife wouldn’t believe you were with two old maids?” Ms. Smith cackled. The two women scurried downstairs while Mr. Wallace secured permission from his wife via cell phone.