By Hannah Shearer and Emma Simonoff
The 2020 Vulture Festival started Monday October 26th. A week of reunions, conversations, and celebrity friendships, Vulture Festival is a celebration of all things popular culture. Vulture Senior Editor and the festival’s executive producer Jesse David Fox sat down with WTBU to talk about how planning has changed this year, his road to Vulture, and why guilty pleasures shouldn’t, and probably don’t, exist.
Hannah Shearer (HS): How has the planning process changed this year with Zoom?
Jesse David Fox (JDF): You sort of have to think about the event in a different way. If we do bigger cast reunions, or just “Cast Doing X,” we’d have eight people on stage. But from having Zooms, you’re aware that having too many people doesn’t work, because you can’t pick up on social cues. It’s really stilted. So I tried to figure out ways to downsize the events and try to find events that were more focused.
Honestly, it was doing what I always try to do which is, can I get people in a unique situation, in a situation you don’t normally see them in, in a way that really gets a sense of who they are as regular people, not as famous people. Then I was just thinking of weird ideas, which is always the same. You’re trying to think about “What’s the weird idea someone would do at home?” That’s the Rachel Brosnahan dog idea. Rachel isn’t going to bring her dog to a festival with a lot of people because that’d be very scary for a dog, but she can do that at home and it’s really intimate and nice and real. It’s a completely different look at this person.
It always starts with who do we love and what can we get them to do.
HS: It’s funny you mention celebrities who are friends because that was the core of our radio show, and being obsessed with celebrities who are friends and their interactions with each other.
JDF: I feel like I have a list of celebrities that are friends that have not said yes, for a variety of reasons, but that you’re like, “Oh, it’s just nice to know that people are friends.”
Part of [planning this year] was essentially taking from our own pool of opportunities. When the pandemic hit, we were looking for shows we could do on Instagram and I was like, “Oh, we should have an event where the two celebrity friends get to hang out with each other.” That’s all I wanted to see because I felt like the goal when you’re creating an event is essentially you want to adapt the idea to the format you’re doing it in and then the existing vocabulary of that thing.
The goal, in essence, is always to connect the fans both physically in the same room and also spiritually with the people who make this meaningful work. That’s hard to do online, but it’s easy to do if you break down certain artifices of how these types of things work. I think that’s hopefully what we’ve done. I mean, we’ll see if people are like “Wow, that really broke down the artifices,” but I think what they’ve created have that vibe that I love so much. Like Rachel Bloom talks to her bully. It was her idea! And she’s said, “I could do something like talk to my bully.” And we said, “That’s exactly the type of thing. Great, done.” It was nice to have someone get it, we love when people get it. It’s my favorite thing in the world.
That’s always what I found interesting. Even when events are normal, giving them stupid names, that’s what’s exciting for me. Or at least what keeps me coming back.
Emma Simonoff (ES): How did you get started at Vulture?
JDF: This is the longest version and the point of this story is you can’t control your career path as much as you’d like to in college. In college, I majored in psychology, but I started planning events for my campus and I liked it the most, so I said, “This is what I want to do and I want to work in the music industry.” In the hopes of working in the music industry, I got a radio show and I started writing reviews for my campus newspaper. Not a lot of them, but I did it just to be like, “Look how much I like music, jobs!” And then when I graduated, I still wanted to work in the music industry, but also I liked these things that I did.
So I never really tried to turn this beyond writing these reviews, still while trying to work in the music industry. I got a job working at William Morris, which is a major talent agency, and it’s now called WME. And they made me stop writing, because they said it’s a conflict of interest. So I tried in earnest, I was working in New York in the mailroom. The mailroom is a real mailroom, you deliver mail, that’s all you do for the entire day. I was in New York there for a bit and the person who’s in charge of music HR was like, “You’re great, you should move to LA” and I never wanted to move to LA but I was like, well, maybe this is my opportunity. And once I got to LA I realized, I hate this stuff. The thing about the businesses — the music business, the movie business — is ultimately, it’s business. People who do it are doing business, they like business, they like transactions and deals and I don’t like conflict enough to, like, hang. So, I really was bad at it. I’m also bad at talking on the phone, I don’t like it, and really poorly organized and that’s the job of good assistant. I was there for like a year and a half, not being given responsibility, and not being able to get other jobs because people did not understand me.
Eventually, I started writing for fun because I realized no one cared what I was doing. This is a time where people would do blogs that are talking about being a parent or writing personal essays about dating or whatever. And I just wanted to write Vulture-style blog posts, for fun, for essentially nobody. A friend who I hadn’t seen that much was like “I’d read a blog from you just because I don’t get to talk to you that much.” So that was it, I was writing it for like 10 people. No one found it. But I liked doing it so much it was what I did as a hobby.
So about a year and a half in, my boss brought me to his office and he said, “I have to let you go. You’re too sensitive to work here and you’re too much of an intellectual to live in Los Angeles. So get out of here, get out of town.” And that actually, in retrospect, is a very generous way of doing it. So, I took that as a sign that I should not try to work in the entertainment industry anymore. And at the time, I thought, either try to become a writer somehow, or maybe try to work in the food industry because I like food. And right before I was about to move back to New York, I got a job in San Francisco, doing marketing for restaurants. In San Francisco, it was a time period where I say it was the only time I was truly young. Meaning, I didn’t really have a goal or directive. I was just sort of there and I was writing and it’d be a little bit romantic because everyone was an aspiring creative person.
I liked comedy in high school, but I didn’t think much of it. I would use a fake ID to go to the Comedy Cellar, which is a famous club in New York, and then I kind of got tired of it because I’d see the same type of comedian over and over again, who was tough and said offensive stuff. Then I moved to LA and my friend took me to see the show Comedy Death Ray, which was a live show that eventually became “Comedy Bang! Bang!” and I saw comedians there and was like, “This is amazing! This is what comedy is now?” I was just amazed by what new comedy was. So I was getting into comedy and I moved to San Francisco, and really had so much time to listen to comedy podcasts.
As a New Year’s resolution, I said, “My life’s not going in a direction. So I’m either going to: learn French or write for websites.” The thinking was, I’m either going to make one last go at trying to have a career doing a thing that I’d like to do or move to France. If I can’t get anything, I might as well live in France. I was like, oh, it’d be great to live internationally, just messing around. I might as well live in France.
Pretty quickly, places let me write for them. I wrote for a website called JWCY.com, which was a blog that was kind of about Jewish pop culture, but it’s really just about pop culture, written by Jewish people. I started co-hosting this podcast in San Francisco about music. All of this is happening at the same time. And then the big thing was Splitsider started fairly soon to that time, and I really loved it and I wanted to write for them. I pitched them something, they didn’t respond. So, I created a plan, which was, through my friend I had access to the guys who created the podcast network Earwolf. I thought, Okay, I’m going to interview them. And I’m going to have it hopefully be successful. I will then pitch a podcast column to Splitsider. And then that’s exactly what happened. I pitched a free column. No less than 20 hours of podcasts a week. And this was in 2009, 2010, so really early in the podcast world. I wrote that weekly and I moved back to New York, and I had another weekly column writing about TV for free.
Then, I was asked to recap 30 Rock for Splitsider. I said, “I don’t like recaps, because plot summaries are really boring to me,” and he said “Okay, well, you can do whatever you want.” Around that time, I had started using graphs in my articles, because I thought they were cool and I found a website that was created to help kids learn how to make graphs. I was asked to do a bunch of graphs as an accompaniment to an article that was being done of the hundred greatest Jewish movies of all time.
Two weeks into doing joke recap graphs, someone from Vulture asked if I ever wanted to do anything for Vulture. I pitched graphs around the Grammys and graphs for the Oscars. The Grammy’s one did okay and the Oscars was really popular. And then they asked if I wanted to do graphs, periodically, so I did one for the Summer Movie Preview. Around that time, I got a job writing full-time for Splitsider, and then Vulture was looking for somebody who had blogging experience. I just started having blogging experience. I applied in May. They responded to my email in September. And they’re like, “Can you come in tomorrow for an interview?” I did. They offered me the job that night. And then I started on October 1, 2012. That’s how I ended up with Vulture. I will say, other people have a normal path. They major in journalism in college, and then intern and then work here. I’m weird.
HS: But it’s reassuring for college students to hear that!
JDF: I like to tell this story to people in college. I don’t think it’s healthy to have a rush to find your career immediately. I think if you can pull it off, you’re going to be very successful. The most successful people are the people who know what they want and are correct and are talented enough to do it. But that’s a really small group of people in my experience, because you don’t totally know where you’re going to be by the time you’re going to be doing it. And you have so little exposure to what it is. And you don’t know what the industry is going to be like. I was sure I could not make it as a writer because it seemed like no one could. Like, “Why me?” I didn’t know anyone who was a journalist, I just liked doing it, like this is the thing I’ll do as a hobby for the rest of my life. And then it got to a point of, “Oh, I sort of can’t do anything else. I have no other skills.”
You have to be open to how you feel about the thing that you’re doing. Pursuing a goal, just because you had the idea of doing it when you’re in high school is like, you’re just not that person anymore and you’re not going to go back in time and meet them. There’s a lot of people who say, you’re not allowed to have a fallback plan, and that was never my temperament. I always had backup plans. I’ve always had full time jobs while I pursued all these things. I didn’t have the luxury of — I mean, I know people who pursue these things and their parents paid rent or stuff like that. And I don’t begrudge them, that’s the nature of their situation, but I just never was in that, so I always had jobs. But yeah, be open. And then, as you get closer to 30 be realistic about what’s working out and what’s not.
Try as long as possible, but also, make sure you’re happy and doing things that are safe. Live in two places. That’s my main advice, whenever anyone asks for advice — and I don’t like giving people advice, because I don’t believe I know anything — but as much as possible while you’re young, try to live in two different places.
HS: What’s your day-to-day?
JDF: I have the weirdest job in journalism — I do normal things that normal journalists do but I hodgepodge together things that normal journalists wouldn’t. I’m just sort of on Slack and you’re seeing what’s happening and you’re staying abreast. I’m more involved in the comedy vertical and what we decide to do and why the story is worth covering. The comedy vertical in particular is just a constant dialogue. We’re talking on the weekends, we’re talking during SNL. We’re not even talking about stories — comedy journalism is such a small thing. There’s like, four of us who do it? I think, because we’re sort of creating what comedy journalism is. It’s been a decade, but compared to movie journalism and music journalism, it’s like a baby. So I think there’s a lot of conversations like, “What is a story? What is interesting?” in this field. How can we do it in a way that reflects our values since we have a bizarre amount of say, in terms of what counts as competent journalism, so that’s like the day.
The day is, I’m listening to a podcast, at 2X speed, constantly listening to a person. If you ask other people, they’ll have a much more realistic understanding of what their job is. But [for me] it’s a lot of listening to people being interviewed and trying to get a sense of who they are, trying to get a sense of the questions that they weren’t asked that they should be asked.
ES: On that, you have this really in-depth research process when you’re preparing for an interview. When you’re about to interview someone who has just a giant body of work and has been interviewed a million times, how do you start that?
JDF: I interviewed David Sedaris last week. It was probably the biggest body of work of anyone I’ve ever interviewed, because he wrote books and books are very long, much longer than a movie. So I had to think, what are the conversations he hasn’t had? I’ll listen to him on podcasts, and think, what are the conversations he hasn’t had or what are the conversations that have evolved over time? And what do I want to avoid? What are the beats I need to hit, to get enough of a sense of a person? It becomes like a puzzle of, what can you ask that hasn’t been asked? And you can become detached from, what I, the host of this thing, actually care about. And, because you have only so much time, you want to spend the most time being like, “Well, what do I actually want to hear about?”
So when I do research, it’s ultimately an opportunity for me to think about the person, but if I feel like I have all my thoughts, I don’t need to keep on doing the research to get more of them. I wanted to get a breadth of his work. So I listened to some of the beginning, then stuff in the middle, then the most recent stuff. That’s useful because you get a sense. I try to consume interviews from the time in which he did that stuff and see how they talk about it. Because people get better, or different, and their value system reflects how they’re different, so you want to reflect that. The thing is, I’ve been doing it so much that the thing I ultimately do is I start. I just start. Then I start figuring out what I really like about this person, or what is the one feeling that I’m intrigued by, regardless of the question I want to answer. It’s what is the feeling I want to know about this person?
You get a sense that most people don’t prepare the way that I do, so they don’t know what has been asked. If you listen to two interviews with a person or three interviews with a person, and they say the same thing over and over again, that means they’ve been asked that question 40 times. Not, four. It means that everyone’s always asked that.
So that’s the goal, you consume the interviews with the person as much as the work because you want to find how to get to a more genuine space with them. But your goal should not be to prove to them that you’ve spent a lot of time researching them. One, it makes them feel uncomfortable. You should make it seem like you spent some time because that makes them feel nice, but too much, you come off like a stalker. Also you come off like a show off, like you have to prove all this information about them. “You once said in 2012 that you bla bla bla bla bla bla,” it just comes off weird. Imagine if you’re in a regular conversation and then someone’s like, “well, when you’re 14, you once wrote a diary,” it’s the same feeling. It’s very unnatural for most people to be public people. You have to remember that. Part of them still thinks it’s weird that they’re being talked to. So I try to just think about them as humans.
ES: So that’s what you’re doing days, hours before an interview. But what are you doing five or 10 minutes right before you’re about to have a big interview?
JDF: So I’m usually done with my questions. I wish I didn’t procrastinate, but ultimately, I need to be within 24 hours of the interview before I just start. I think of the questions as an arc, so I want there to be a sort of momentum where I start and continue through. I may start the day before, but usually the morning of, I just start. I’ll write in a notebook the beats I want to hit and then I write questions to the beats. That has been really helpful. That was a game changer of the last two months where I thought to do that, because otherwise I just procrastinate too much.
So then, about two hours or three hours before, I’m done and then I’ll look over questions. This is where it’s strange during Zoom. During the non-Zoom interviews, I would make a lot of drinks. I try to drink tea right before, because I had a substitute teacher in high school, who was like, “Studies show that if you drink tea right before you take the SAT’s you’ll get a better score.” So in my head, drinking tea 30 minutes before a thing is essential. I have tea, then during my interviews, I’ve had tons of coffee, so by the end, I’d be really wired. I don’t do that as much now because I’m home, so I’m not gonna make a bunch of dishes. But I still like making tea, I usually make tea within like 15 minutes beforehand. Then I look over the questions, I might start saying the first one out loud.
Then I’m setting up the room. I do it in my bedroom and I have to set-up the situation, which is arduous. I’m checking my vocal levels. I tend to sign on, let’s say, five minutes before, so I’m talking to my producer about what this interview might be like, or things to look out for. Hopefully, just sort of de-escalate the situation. You don’t want to come in hot, right? You don’t want to be too amped because the person is just coming in. And now that it’s over Zoom, there’s a certain amount of uncertainty everyone has, because they don’t know if the technology is going to work. Which isn’t nice.
Sometimes the people listen to the podcast and that’s my least favorite, because then it’s just so weird. I haven’t figured out how I feel about it. They might have questions for me, and then it’s like, “Oh, no, this is not the balance that I’ve tried to create.” I’m mostly trying to remember what it’s like to be a person. Especially because you don’t talk all day and then you have to talk for an hour and a half. You’re like, how does talking work? You want to sound like a person. So that’s part of it.
HS: Do you have any guilty pleasures and what do you think of guilty pleasures as a concept?
JDF: I’ve thought a lot about — so I never had guilty pleasures, because I came up exactly at a time where having both, high end things you like and low end things you like, is what it means to be a person with good taste. To have good taste when I was a young person, in my 20s, meant you liked the Smiths, but you also liked Taylor Swift. And that’s what I meant to have good taste. But then I more recently, in the last few years, have pushed back on the idea of taste more broadly and it’s because of two things happening at once. One, I just sort of wanted to — because comedy is a really subjective art form, you can’t really control what you laugh at in the way you can control what intrigues you. So it’s so subjective. It feels so subjective, that in a way it feels objective. You’re like, “Well, I laughed,” and you can’t imagine someone who does not laugh at it. Comedy and food are most like that, where it’s so personal to you that you can’t imagine it any other way.
So I was thinking about that, and then, I started ranking every Adam Sandler movie. I really wanted to do it, I really liked Adam Sandler. As a pursuit, it really makes you think about taste as an idea. Who got to have control over what good taste was? What are the things that go into what we define as taste, be it class, or educational background? Or power structure? Right? So, I watched all of his movies, and what happens is, you realize they’re all about the same, which is if you assume they’re not bad, they’re all not bad. Almost all of his movies are as good as each other. So I wrote this very long article ranking his movies, it’s like 25,000 words or something.
As it relates to comedy, the older Gen X/young baby boomer philosophy of comedy was, if you’re funny, you’re funny. “Funny is funny,” is the saying Jerry Seinfeld says a lot. And at the time, it was more open ended than the opinion before that, which was white men being like, “if you’re not a white man, you’re not funny.” So then you have the Jerry Seinfeld generation, which is like, “if you’re funny to me, that means you’re funny.” But it ultimately was biased by the objective of the people who are already established, which again, makes it more white male leaning. Now, it wasn’t only white men, but it was the taste of white men that got to determine what funny was, or just who was in charge.
So what I now say is funny is funny, which means if you’re funny to anybody, you are funny. I will not deny it. What’s funny to me does not matter. If you are doing the thing of performing and people are laughing, then you are funny. The thing is, don’t judge people on just if they’re funny, judge them based on how they’re achieving that. This is all to say, personally, I have no guilty pleasures. I literally don’t know if they exist anymore.
I wrote a piece about the movie “Blended,” which is not one of the better Adam Sandler movies. It has really big flaws. The comedy of the movie is some of the worst comedy ever done. But the drama of that movie is really well done, and really mature, and the nature of the relationship is really grown up. For whatever reason, I don’t know how he got into this idea, but to do a love story between a divorcé and a widower is really complicated. And they did not play that as anything easy. They played them as parents first, and then the relationship was under that guise. I come from a blended family and I was very moved by this movie. I wrote a piece for Vulture about how moved I was as a person who comes from a blended family, and it made me think about my parents in a different way. And I thought that piece was really effective at communicating how one, stupid art allows you to be a little bit more of a child. And that is useful because our child-self is something that is hard to tap into in the same way.
I also think, “look, I’m a person with a specific life that comes from a blended family, I’m coincidentally the same age as one of the kid’s characters,” but there are other people that come to that movie with their own set of experiences. And if you could do it in a way that is artful, and that doesn’t lead me to look if you’re a good enough memoirist, and you can write about it as a story about yourself, that’s fine, but I do think to pretend you’re some unbiased robot seems increasingly ridiculous. As soon enough, we’re going to have unbiased critic robots who will be able to do that! People are so, like to confirm the orthodoxy of critical taste that if you enter enough of it into a thing, a computer program will be able to consume art and be able to be like, “This adheres to the critical consensus.” We’re not that far away from it. We’re essentially one step removed — that is what Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes are essentially doing, which is finding the collective case. So if you’re a writer, why would you want to just be another data point? This is your life! Your meger goal is to express yourself. To think that the most interesting thing about you is your opinions, I think you’re thinking too little of yourself.
I would say there’s value to exploring things you don’t like as much as there is in exploring things you do like and how you respond to it. There’s value to approach things you don’t like with empathy to the creator and to the potential audience. And there’s bands I didn’t like that a few years later I did like. It’s useful to think “oh, a lot of people say this is good. I trust those people,” but you have only so much time.
You’re gonna spend so much more time with your own opinions than anyone else’s. You might as well investigate those and think about clever ways of expressing them as opposed to finding clever ways of expressing the opinion everyone else has.
This interview has been condensed.
Vulture Festival runs until Friday October 30th and the events are available to watch until November 1st. Tickets are available here. Listen to Fox’s podcast “Good One: A Podcast About Jokes” and check out his articles on Vulture.
To hear Hannah and Emma talk about Vulture Fest highlights, tune in to Plea Bargains on WTBU, Saturday at 12 AM – 2 AM or listen to the show on the WTBU archives.