The Joel Stein Interview

January 9, 2004

Today is the day to take someone out for lunch.


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A lot of people love today's interviewee, and a lot of people don't particularly love him as much as other people do. Currently a a columnist for Time, his impressive career as a young writer has had stops at Time Out New York, Entertainment Weekly, E! and with Martha Stewart. Plus, he went to the Burning Man Festival with Walter Isaacson, editor of Time, so come on, he must be doing something right. He took some time out from his burgeoning television career to speak with us.

The Joel Stein Interview: Slightly Less Than Twenty Questions

Your readers often seem to have very passionate responses to you and your writing. Why is that, do you think?
The only reader to ever have a passionate response is my mother, and only when I write about her. She demands I take her out of any story she appears in. Then I let her talk for an hour, at which point she softens and just cuts the good jokes.

You seem to take criticism in stride, but does it ever really get to you? If so, are there some times when you feel it more than others?
I figure I pick on people, so people should be able to pick on me. The worst criticism is when they're right. Not when they point out that I'm shallow or sophomoric or self-obsessed or something else I already know, but when they point out something bad I didn't know or worse yet, knew but was hoping no one would notice. Like that I'm a racist homophobe who knows little about pop culture and doesn't go to they gym nearly as much as he makes it seem. Ouch.

How exactly do they get your witty, snarky responses on the VH1 and E! commentary shows? Do they just give you a topic and ask you to riff on it or do the producers ask you specific questions?
They ask specific questions. It all takes just a few minutes. And they don't pay us. It's the cheapest solution to making television ever created. It bums me out that everyone I know is much more impressed with my take on 101 Celebrity Oops! than a cover story I wrote for Time. Make sure you spelled that 101 Celebrity Oops! thing right. And tell people it's on E!

In this article, you say that you've been "hung up on by some of the most talented people in the world." Now why would they be hanging up on you?
Because I asked a question they didn't like. When I started doing Q&As interviewers were much more James Liptony. In the last few years, nearly everyone has gotten a little Stuttering John in them. If I did Q&As again, I'm sure fewer people would hang up. Or they'd hang up leisurely, without any passion. And that would break my heart.

Have you seen "Shattered Glass" or read The Fabulist? Do you think that Stephen Glass is trying to capitalize on his own mistakes or the guy should just do what he can?
I think that guy looks too much like me. Why do all magazine writers have that nerdy, Jewish look? Why are there no more Hemingway looking reporters?

What did you do to merit this, and why?

I did this. And I would do it again.

What is your Tivo set to record?
It's a long list. And I'm married, so blame Cassandra for whichever ones you think are lame: Simpsons, The Daily Show, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Letterman, Conan, South Park, The Simple Life, 24, The Sopranos, Friends, Celebrity Poker Challenge, The Office, Two and a Half Men, Arrested Development, Meet the Press, The O.C., lots of stuff on Trio. That's the only channel I can think of where a Zulkey mention would actually effect their ratings.

You're a sports writer as well as a columnist. What's your favorite team or who is your favorite athlete to cover?

I'm a lifelong Yankees fan. And I like hockey, mostly the Rangers, though Jersey-pride makes me like the Devils. And I pretend to care horribly about Stanford teams, since I went there. And I love the Tour de France. I do think Lance Armstrong is a great story that certainly I, and I think no one else, has gotten right yet. The closest is Sally Jenkins who wrote his books with him, but there are limitations on an autobiography. No one is reading the answer to this question, so I'll use it to say hi to my Mom. If only she knew how to use the Internet. Poor, stupid woman.

You've been terminated from Martha Stewart's magazine and Entertainment Weekly. Which was more memorable?
They both sucked. But getting fired from Martha the first time (I was fired twice) was worse, since I was a month out of college and figured I'd never work again. Having my column canceled is heartbreaking, and much more real as rejection goes than the Martha Stewart thing, but I'm getting used to. In fact, I'd understand if you cut this at question #8.

What were some of the stupidest questions you wrote for "Ten Stupid Questions"? Were there any that were too stupid to run?
Asking me that question might be the stupidest. That's an EW thing that replaced my column there, not something I ever did. So thanks for hurting me again.

Have you ever gone out with somebody who liked you for your writing? How did that go over?
The opposite. My college girlfriend, who I met before I got my Stanford Daily column my sophomore year, was always disgusted and offended by what I wrote, especially when it was about her. She broke up with me once because of something I said about Suzanne Somers. And because I was really bad in bed. "Bad" isn't really fair. More like "totally selfish."

You grew up on the east coast but when to school on the west coast. So what's your favorite place to be and why?
I really like Northern California. I wish I lived there.

You have advised on comedy writing through I've taken comedy stage writing classes, but how does one teach comedy prose?
I have never advised anybody on anything, except how to please me in bed. And that didn't work out so well.

When do you usually come up with your ideas for columns? At work? In the shower? At the VH1 studios?
I come up for ideas when I have a deadline.

How accurate a sendup is this? What would you have done differently?
It's pretty perfect. It's unfortunate that people search me online sometimes and find that and think I wrote it. But it gets at how self-interested and sophomoric I am, and how I'm fascinated by my ability to exploit Time magazine and my corporate card. I still can't get over that. A corporate card is an instant exoneration of your sins.

Are there any subjects, either in writing or in real life, that you have to take seriously, or is everything open to humor?
Anything is open for humor, if it's funny enough. But other people feel differently. I'm lucky I have editors.

If you weren't a high profile writer or "young snarky white male pundit" as one website called you, what do you think you'd be doing now?
Hopefully, I'd be a low-profile writer at Time Out New York. I liked it there. Sometimes the owner of the magazine would bring us cookies. Only he called them biscuits. That was great. Other than that, I guess I'd be a lawyer. That doesn't look like fun, but maybe I'd get to be a judge. I bet they get lots of cookies. I vaguely remember that from Night Court.

Do people ever ask you why you killed your daughter and savagely beat your wife, confusing you with Joel Steinberg?
Remember that question about subjects that aren't open to humor? I was wrong about that.

How does it feel to be the 86th person interviewed for
You've done 86 of these? And you don't get paid for it? Maybe it's time you ask yourself some questions, Zulkey.