Viral Before the Internet: The Legacy of the Algonquin Round Table

Last fall, I was sitting on a hard banquet chair, watching gossip columnist Michael Musto and performance artist Andrew W.K. verbally duke it out over the legitimacy of Megan Fox’s career, while Albert Maysles, the world famous documentarian, quietly encouraged Time reporter Joel Stein to drink more brandy.

I was sitting among a group of guests, including some of New York’s most critical journalists, who were all watching the same scene unfold with equal parts astonishment and amusement. I had helped to arrange this particular display of opinionated inebriation as a tribute to Dorothy Parker and the 90th Anniversary of the famous Algonquin Round Table. At that moment, I couldn’t have been prouder of how it turned out. What better tribute to the most startling group of social critics in recent history than a spirited argument in a public forum?

For this anniversary at The Algonquin Hotel, DKC invited six New York notables in the fields of journalism, art, filmmaking and literature whose reputations matched those of the original Round Table members to participate in a panel discussion about media, fame and the art of communication.

For the uninitiated, the Round Table were a group of hard-drinking, hard-talking literati who spent nearly every day lunching at the hotel, criticizing each other and everyone they knew, as well as the world at large. Many of the original members – Dorothy Parker, Robert Benchley, Alexander Woollcott – had jobs as critics for prominent publications. It’s safe to say they were pretty famous. But the question that was asked repeatedly during the planning and execution of the anniversary event was regarding their relevance today. As a whole, was the group well known enough to attract any attention?

There is no question that The Algonquin Round Table and its members had a profound impact on American culture – after all, if not for ”The Ten Year Lunch,” as they were called, we wouldn’t have gossip columns, The New Yorker magazine, celebrity roasts or many of the most notable quips ever uttered. (”You can lead a horticulture but you can’t make her think” and ”Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” were first uttered by Round Table alumni, among many other famous phrases.) If nothing else, their existence inspired a phrase that is still often used to describe any group of more than three semi-intelligent people who gather anywhere in the world. A recent Google search found the term ”Algonquin Round Table” used to describe a group of ”Monday Night Football” commentators, several people on Twitter discussing Xbox games, and by one blogger as a sarcastic critique of his son’s teenage friends.

But what did they do exactly? And why did they do it? Well, to answer that question I defer to Nat Benchley, the host of our commemoration event. Nat is the grandson of original Round Table member, Robert Benchley, and the author of ”The Lost Algonquin Round Table.” These qualifications make him quite opinionated on the topic of their importance – check out The Huffington Post piece he wrote on the subject and you’ll see what I mean. He can list in detail the plays, novels and magazine articles each of the members wrote, and which of these are still in print today. And while all of that is very impressive, he managed to distill their relevance down to one simple sentence for me one night over a glass of wine – ”In a nutshell, Louise, they were viral before there was an internet.” (My team and I encouraged him to include that phrase in his HuffPo piece because we thought it was so impactful, which we’re proud to say he did.)

Nat is right. In 2010, the most famous contributions attributed to the Algonquin Round Table are not the many books, plays and screenplays they wrote, or the numerous magazine and newspaper articles that featured their bylines. They are most famous for their quotable quips. For example, many of us have probably repeated the ”Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses” line without bothering to attribute it to anyone – we’ve just heard it said by someone and we repeated it. Considering it was first said as an offhand comment over drinks ninety years ago, that’s a pretty extraordinary example of viral communication.

Nowadays any piece of information, whether it is useful or even accurate, can legitimately be called viral because there is an internet. Any opinion can be disseminated at the speed of light via Twitter, Facebook or good old fashioned email. What would the Round Table have thought of that? Most of the panelists at the anniversary event concluded they would not have approved. It was summarily decided that Facebook status updates and Twitter posts are part of the reason we all have such short attention spans, and could be cited as the prime example that society at large is obsessed with ”over-sharing.” To paraphrase the general consensus of the panelists that evening: ”Who cares that you just made dinner for the kids? Did we really need to read about it in your blog?”

Nat Benchley’s primary complaint on the subject is that oftentimes with the myriad of methods of instant distribution available to them, ”people spew words just because they can.” While I do agree with that, I think the reason that the Round Table was ”viral before there was an internet” is because they did roughly the same thing – only they did it better. It’s true there were fewer modes of distribution for their ramblings and perhaps they chose their words more wisely and skillfully than writers today. But if they were alive today and had access to the various information channels that we do, I think they would use them. And often.

For example, while a medium like Twitter might seem like a gratuitous riot of unnecessary information to some people, I think Dot Parker would have had a field day distilling her famous word-play down to 140 characters. And although I agree with Mr. Benchley that the work Ms. Parker produced during her lifetime is worth its weight in Tweets, I think the best tribute to her legacy would be if those of us who use Twitter (or other quick-fire information vehicles like it) chose to be inspired by her well-crafted form of communication when we do so.

I’m not a big believer in nostalgia for nostalgia’s sake – the good old days weren’t always better, for one thing – but in the case of the Round Table, I’m thrilled I was part of an event that celebrated their existence. What I learned from their legacy will no doubt affect the rest of my career as a communications professional. In a nutshell, that lesson is that intelligent communication, no matter the medium, is the kind that will stand the test of time. Even if it’s on Twitter.

Posted by: Louise O’Brien, Account Supervisor