Walter Gretzkying Carnegie Hall

The New Yorker isn’t given to prudishness, but sometimes its writers get waggish. As in a Tad Friend “Talk of the Town” piece on October 19 about Kevin Smith on stage.

Kevin Smith, the writer-director of such couch-potatoes-rule films as “Clerks” and “Dogma,” and the author of a new book called “Shootin’ the Sh*t with Kevin Smith,” has a sideline in standup. Not long ago, to pretty much everyone’s surprise, he played Carnegie Hall.

[The asterisk in “Sh*t” isn’t a contribution from Friend or a New Yorker editor; it’s in the book’s title.]

Early on, Smith began

offering candid, digressive responses to his fans’ questions–so candid that, in these pages, it’s necessary to relay them in code. We’re going to substitute “Wayne Gretzky,” the hockey great whom Smith reveres, for the intimate body parts that he frequently mentions. When he discusses those body parts’ being involved in certain private activities–when he uses them as a verb–the proxy phrase will be “Walter Gretzky,” Wayne’s father, and, according to Kevin Smith, one of the great human beings.

Note the extravagant indirectness of “intimate body parts” and “certain private activities”, expressions that send up the sort of elaborate taboo avoidance indulged in by the New York Times and some other publications. (Some day when I want a mildly frivolous project to brighten a down time I’ll assemble a document with all the NYT taboo avoidance examples I’ve collected over the years.)

Friend went beyond this to introduce the absurd Gretzky Code, thus deliberately tying himself up in knots in reporting what went down at Carnegie Hall, since Smith got some questions about the actual Wayne Gretzky. But the Gretzky Code did enable Friend to pull off some wonderful weirdness.

The last comment came from an audience member who had been

watching the reactions of Smith’s mother and wife, who were seated up front, to Smith’s profane musings. Smith pointed proudly at his mother and his wife and said, “There’s the Wayne Gretzky I came from, and there’s the Wayne Gretzky I go to.”

And later, Smith comes across his 9-year-old daughter (who had introduced him at the beginning of the event) attempting “If I Fell” on the piano, and says:

“I won’t remember anything else about tonight, but I will remember my kid trying to plink her way through that Beatles song backstage in the Maestro Suite at Walter Gretzkying Carnegie Hall.”

[On a different, um, note: when he talks about substituting “Wayne Gretzky” for intimate body parts and about using those body parts as verbs, Friend indulges in a common metonymy according to which a linguistic expression and the thing it refers to are conflated: a reference to the thing can convey a reference to the linguistic expression (body parts as verbs and the like). In ordinary language, this practice is usually harmless, but in discussions of linguistic structure, identifying words and things can lead to trouble.]

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