Colin Jost, John Mulaney Roast Lorne Michaels At PEN America NYC Gala; Salman Rushdie Makes First Public Appearance Since Near Fatal Attack


Colin Jost opened the PEN America Gala under the iconic model of a blue whale at the Museum of Natural History calling himself “a writer and a friend of writers” and “extremely fortunate to be here tonight surrounded by two things that might not be around much longer — writers and ocean life. This is the first time that a whale is not the most endangered thing in the room.”

“Television writers, as you may know, are on strike right now,” he added, to applause by the 700 guests at the literary org’s annual dinner honoring, among other, Saturday Night Live creator Lorne Michaels, and The Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie.

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“I have to say, it’s very disorienting to spend the afternoon on the picket line and then show up for a museum cocktail hour in a tuxedo. I don’t think that happens at a lot of other labor movements,” Jost said.

No WGA picketers were visible outside the entrance on 81st Street on the Upper West Side, likely thanks to Ted Sarandos bowing out of the event where he had also been set to receive an award. The Netflix co-CEO announced last week he would not be attending “given the threat to disrupt this wonderful evening” and “distract from the important work that PEN America does for writers and journalists, as well as the celebration of my friend and personal hero Lorne Michaels.”

The event unfolded in week three of a strike by the Writers Guild of America that has seen vigorous picketing on both coasts and strong support by other unions. Picket lines dogged a half dozen upfront presentations by media companies to advertisers this past week.

PEN had lauded Sarandos’ “singular work translating literature to artful presentation on screen, and his stalwart defense of free expression and satire.” The WGA says Netflix and streamers have led writers to lower pay and the Hollywood craft to an uncertain future. “As a writers’ organization, we have been following recent events closely and understand his decision,” PEN said of Sarandos. The program Thursday night focused on book banning in the U.S., tightening constraints on satire and comedy, and support of threatened writers worldwide.

Netflix remained an event sponsor. “I’d like to thank the PEN Gold Sponsors this evening — Netflix and Penguin Random House,” Jost said. “Not to be confused with Random Penguin House, the reality show Netflix is going to use to replace scripted programming.”

Mingling with the literati were Alec Baldwin and his wife Hilaria, Michael Che (Jost’s SNL Weekend Update partner), Fred Armisen, Emily Rata, Candace Bushnell, Candice Bergen, Diane Sawyer, Barry Diller and Diane Von Furstenberg.

Comedian John Mulaney, an SNL writer for five years, introduced Michaels, who launched the show in 1975, praising the producer for fostering and protecting generation of writers, and for presenting all viewpoints “from the far left to the moderate left.”

“He gave so many writers the chance to have a national network TV audience, to speak to the entire country. But every writer that has come through Saturday Night Live is totally ungrateful…so resentful. I contacted multiple writers for their favorite stories and the conversations would descend into bitching about a sketch that he cut 43 years ago.”

Michaels would nudge his writers to get in better physical shape, Mulaney said, telling him, “’John, you know your body is for more than just taking your head from room to room?’”

“Journalists, including ones that we are honoring tonight, face real danger around the world to deliver us the truth. I can only imagine what it’s like to work under someone who absolutely controls every aspect of your life and won’t relinquish power for decades,” said Jost.

Michaels, accepting the PEN/Audible Literary Service Award, paid them back a bit, dwelling in his remarks on the Infinite Monkey Theorem — “that if you locked a bunch of monkeys in a room with typewriters, sooner or later they would write Hamlet.”

“Americans have a soft spot for monkeys. They’re funny and you don’t really know what they are going to do, and sometimes they throw feces.” He also called the SNL writers he’s worked with “some of the most brilliant and sophisticated men and women I have ever known.”

It was a paean to comedy “Even Shakespeare knew you needed laughs to keep the room.” Michaels didn’t speak about the WGA strike. SNL, along with most of late night, went off the air immediately after the strike started on May 2.

The event closed with Booker Prize Winner Rushdie, PEN president and resident hero, who spoke about his near fatal stabbing on stage at the Chautauqua Institute in New York last summer, his first in-person appearance since. He lost an eye in the attack and wore a patch. “I just want to say hi, everybody, it’s nice to be back. Nice to be back, as opposed to not being back. Which was also an option. I am pretty glad that I rolled this way.”

He said the U.S. has become a major battleground in the fight for freedom of expression, especially in states like Florida under Gov. Ron DeSantis.

“All of us involved with PEN spend a lot of time fighting on behalf of writers in other countries. But right now, we face a problem in this country. The attack on books, on teachers, on libraries … has never been more dangerous. PEN and Penguin Random House this week sued a school district in the state for book bans, a suit he called “colossally important. And, well, let’s hope we win. We need to win.”

Rushdie, who turns 76 next month, began his association with PEN America when he emerged after more than a decade in hiding as the result of a call for his death issued in 1989 by the Iranian theocracy over The Satanic Verses. He served as PEN America president from 2004-06 and co-founded the organization’s World Voices Festival.

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