At age 27, Joel Stein was hired by Time magazine as a staff writer. In many ways, Stein quickly turned the decades-old publication — revered, traditional, dry — on its head, infusing it with youthful energy and sardonic humor. Stein’s approach: to find interesting scenarios and characters, and then make the stories, ultimately, about himself. His column, launched in 1998, has been a popular, albeit occasionally controversial, feature since its debut.
Additionally, Stein’s unorthodox (he calls them “obnoxious”) Q&As that he conducted with celebrities for the magazine were a coup de grace to the proliferation of inane, puffball celebrity-chats of the 1990s. It wasn’t long before nearly every magazine/newspaper Q&A had an edge, parroting Stein’s tendency to shift interviews away from the products the stars wanted to promote, away from the blind deference to which the super-famous were accustomed. The only person Stein really ever fawned over was himself. As an interviewer, he had the phone slammed down on him more than once (see: Wesley Snipes, Sharon Stone, etc.), hang-ups that Stein now wears as badges of honor.
Stein started out writing a humor column at the Stanford Daily and was later employed at Time Out New York as a columnist and editor. In addition to Time, Stein has been on staff at Entertainment Weekly and the Los Angeles Times and contributed to a seemingly endless array of publications, including The New Yorker, GQ, Esquire, Wired, Businessweek, Playboy, Elle, Travel & Leisure, Sunset, Real Simple, Food & Wine, etc. To date, Stein has written 14 cover stories for Time. He also writes a regular bimonthly food-column, The Intolerable Foodie, for Los Angeles Magazine.
Beyond magazine work, Stein has had a successful career in various facets of media and entertainment. He’s written for sitcoms, appeared all over television (you’ve surely watched him expound on I Love the ‘80s or one of the many nostalgia-inducing VH1 offshoots, whether you’ll admit it or not), and has written for the Academy Awards. In 2004, Stein taught a humor-writing class at Princeton.
Stein has also faced his fair share of controversy over the years, from a column pointing out his lack of support for the troops, to his most recent embroilment — written for the New York Times opinion blog — on why adults shouldn’t read The Hunger Games. It has sometimes made him a divisive figure among readers, the recipient of angry mail and irate Internet-comments. To his credit, Stein routinely blames himself for any upset he’s caused.
Recently, Stein wrote the book, Man Made: A Stupid Quest for Masculinity. Stein came up with the premise — after having lived a relatively cozy life, the effete Stein embarks on a journey to realize a greater sense of manliness — after he found out he was going to have a son, a notion that terrified him. Stein’s Quest encompassed two years worth of “guy stuff,” including boot camp, hunting, Ultimate Fighting Championship training, day-trading, home-building and a 24-hour shift with Los Angeles firefighters.
Stein and I first met when he came to speak at my college 10 years ago as a visiting professional. I interviewed him then for my student newspaper and we’ve kept in touch sporadically ever since. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Cassandra Barry, and their three-year-old son Laszlo.
The Rumpus: You worked on this book for two years. That’s a long time for somebody who’s used to a weekly deadline. Was it easy for you to stay interested in the project?
Joel Stein: Well, I did it on the side, when I had some time. I didn’t really cut down on my other work. That’s part of why it took two years. This may have been a mistake, and you may be able to tell, but when I initially wrote each chapter, I kind of treated them like really long columns. I remember it was really liberating at first, because when you go have an adventure for a couple days and write a one-page column, you wind up choosing one aspect of the experience and writing about that. And not even necessarily the best part, but just the one that seems like it would be easy to tell on a page. And this really let you digress and kind of tell the whole experience. So that was fun to write these individual things.
Rumpus: Are the chapters in the book in the order of the way things actually happened? How did you decide how to structure the book?
Stein: It took me a little bit to realize you could just kind of do it chronologically. I tried all kinds of different ways to switch them up. And I realized that, for the most part, the chronological telling worked best. But then I had a bunch of columns that didn’t really add up to a book, at all. And I came to realize that form really dictates a lot of structure. In other words, you can get away with stuff in a one-page story that you can’t get away with in a book. Or even in a Time magazine cover story, you can get away with a lot that you can’t get away with in a book. And people learn this when they go from working at Letterman or even SNL to writing sitcoms, and then they go from writing sitcoms to writing movies: the longer that things are, the more structure is required from you. Basic rules of storytelling started to apply to the book. I had to learn those in ways that everyone else probably intrinsically understands. I had to have the basics explained to me by friends who write movies. And a friend who teaches scriptwriting at Stanford sat me down and told me how storytelling works.
Rumpus: What did he say?
Stein: A bunch of things. The thing that worked best for me was giving a lot of thought to Back to the Future. You know all those parts in Back to the Future that seem seamless, that are Doc saying, “Well, this lightning hits this clock at this time, so you have to do this by then and if you don’t do anything …” Setting the rules. Setting the clock really overtly. “Don’t mess with the present.” And Marty’s like, “Well, I’ve already met my mom and this picture’s fading.” And Doc’s like, “Well, you have to fix that by the time the lightning strikes.” Now you have something to root for and something to follow and you know where the setback comes in. It’s just stuff that I had to do.
Rumpus: So in your case it was saying, “I’m having a son, I’m a first-time father, I’m not the person I would like to be for him and this is what I need to accomplish.” And this gives the reader something to root for?
Stein: Yeah, and having some setbacks. And what I wound up doing, which I think is really journalistically dubious, is changing the order of some of the things I did, so that the things I ended up struggling with the most wind up being two-thirds of the way in. And there’s other things I figured out, when it was too late, that I’d like to go back and redo.
Rumpus: Like what?
Stein: Just being much more earnest and clear about why I wanted to do this, upfront. So that people really bought into it. Which I don’t feel I did. I don’t know. I’ve definitely learned a lot.
Rumpus: What would you say if you could go back and revise? Is there a bigger reason to set off on this quest for masculinity? I thought you presented a compelling case.
Stein: It’s a little forced, obviously. But I wish I’d legitimately talked about some painful moments in my life where I felt insufficient as a kid. Just talking about some of the loneliness I felt as a kid because I couldn’t relate to other boys … just not moving, being so lonely. I would be at home reading, because I felt so disconnected from humanity. Just painting those pictures a little more clearly and seriously, so that people got it. I cheated a lot in the book. My friend from high school was like, “I liked the book, but you painted a small part of yourself.” I wish I’d explained, emotionally, some of the stuff upfront a little better.
Rumpus: Has the way you see yourself changed after doing all of this and writing about the experiences.
Stein: I do feel like I’ve changed.
Rumpus: How so? Are you still doing stuff outside of your comfort zone?
Stein: Not nearly as much as I’d like to. I’m still thinking about signing up for a jiu-jitsu class. I did check one out, there’s one down the street. But I’m fixing stuff at my house, things here and there that I’ve been able to fix. And that’s felt pretty good. My son and I have talked about going camping in the backyard, probably this month sometime. And moreover, I really just feel comfortable when I run into soldiers at the airport, now. I strike up a conversation. You feel much more comfortable in that world. The fun thing about journalism is if you go do a story about something, you can now ask three intelligent questions about it. Or say three intelligent things. And that gets people talking. Now I can do that with a host of “guy” stuff.
Rumpus: In terms of the activities in the book, you’ve said that hunting was the worst. What was it about hunting that you really didn’t like?
Stein: You know what, I don’t like to be in the forest. It’s a weird thing. I’ve learned to have a general appreciation for nature, which has taken a while. But the forest, I still don’t really love. I just don’t care about animals enough. And nature. You really, really have to care about animals to want to kill one. You have to learn all this stuff about them and start thinking like them. I can’t imagine deer hunting. I used to think I couldn’t imagine deer hunting because killing a deer seemed so awful. But now I think about just sitting in a tree and doing nothing all day and probably not even seeing a deer. Not moving and sitting in a tree? That seems rough.
Rumpus: How has the touring been? I saw that you were Skyping yourself into book clubs around the country. I thought that was a great idea.
Stein: I’ve Skyped into book groups, which has been really edifying. I don’t think I really had even been in a book club. And I didn’t really understand what they were until you get to be part of one. And I’m not the first person to think of this. I did some book club in San Antonio and I was the third author they’d gotten.
Rumpus: You’ve Skyped into high school classes, too, right?
Stein: It seems like a bad idea, but it’s true. There’s a couple high school teachers who got into my column and then they have the students write about me. Or have me come to their class. I don’t do it unless it’s in LA. I’ve Skyped into a class in Wisconsin once or twice.
Rumpus: In a way, it reminds me of when the Beatles decided to send music videos around instead of going back out on the road.
Stein: You know, in some ways it makes sense. Because if you’re at my level and you go to a bookstore, even a good turnout is not that many people. Sometimes it is. But for the most part, it’s not a huge turnout. So if you can get as many by Skype, pretty cool.
Rumpus: This book is the latest of so many projects. Preparing for this interview with you was a challenge because of how many things you’ve done. Let’s go back to your humor roots for a minute. When you started writing a column at the Stanford Daily, who were your early influences?
Stein: I used to read [former San Francisco Chronicle columnist] Herb Caen and I was like, “I want to do that for a living.”
Rumpus: What was it about Herb Caen that appealed to you? He didn’t really write humor.
Stein: Herb Caen wasn’t my guy, style-wise, but I was at Stanford and I saw his column and I was like, “Oh, that’s the experience I want to have. I want to be heavily tied to a city that I write for every week, that knows my stuff and I can interact with.” I thought the gig he had was kind of what I wanted, more than his writing style.
Rumpus: What about Dave Barry?
Stein: Well, you know, Dave Barry was one of my guys, for sure.
Rumpus: With Dave Barry, it always seemed like he was perfectly content just sitting back and commenting on stuff in a funny way. But, from the time I’ve been aware of your writing, you’ve always thrown yourself into your stories. You’ve always been at the center of them. When did that start?
Stein: It was a couple things: I think I realized that Dave Barry was funnier than I’ll ever be, and he made no attempt to make any actual points. He had a general libertarian point of view, but in general, he just liked to make jokes. As he later told me, he wished his stuff was on the comics page, because then people wouldn’t ask him what his point was. So, first of all, I realized I wasn’t as funny, so I had to do something a little different. But secondly, just from being on the opinion page, I think I wanted to do it more as an essay that was a little funny, instead of a funny thing that sometimes had a thought. So, reversing what he did. And then as far as going out and doing stuff, that’s a good question. It was my third column for The Stanford Daily where I went out to a sperm bank. I think I’d been reading so much Spy magazine and watching so much Letterman. It was Letterman and Spy where they went out and did things. It just seemed like that’s the way you do this stuff. You have to go, that’s where you find stuff, if you’re trying to think of something funny. I would mix it up, but I noticed that those got the best response.
Rumpus: When you were first hired at Time to write a humor column, you were 27. Most of the other staffers were quite a bit older. It looks like you really had a lot of fun using the magazine’s name and reputation and the access you got as a staff member.
Stein: It has been really fun. I mean, it’s been crazy-fun. I think this is just a personality issue, or growing up with Letterman or something, but when I got to Time [former Time staff member and current Bloomberg Businessweek editor] Josh Tyrangiel and I were like, “We’re at Time magazine! People will take our calls and do whatever we ask!” The New York Times has zero people with this attitude. And Time, they had a couple of us. I remember early on, I was working for that Notebook section. I just started — I did this for like five years in a row; it was one of my favorite things I did — for Thanksgiving, I would get politicians and celebrities and sports stars to trace their hand and make a turkey. And that was my attitude. It was like: no one else can get people to do this kind of stuff. I would do these obnoxious Q&As with celebrities. If I had continued to do them, I wanted to do them with politicians and other more serious people. And then, of course, everyone wound up doing that. But yeah, I would do these Q&As where I asked obnoxious questions and they would be confusing to people because it was coming from Time magazine, whereas if it was your local disc jockey, in a different context, they wouldn’t put up with it, or it would be stupid. I always thought that being at Time and tweaking your bosses and exploiting your expense account was just fun. Just joyous.
Rumpus: Did those interviews come from the point of view of: “Everybody’s doing the same type of celebrity interviewing. I’ve got this freedom at Time and everybody’s expecting one thing, but I’m going to do something else”?
Stein: Yeah, exactly! And to some level, that made it OK. I can’t even imagine how I’d feel now, but back then, I just felt so sick of the celebrity culture, especially interviews. I don’t really feel that as much. I’ve just given up, I think. And TMZ and all those magazines kind of turned it anyway, because everyone goes into those magazines so angry and it’s much more complicated. But back then it was much more … fluffy. So I just thought it would be fun to do a Q&A that didn’t work that way. My favorite thing to do would be to have Q&As that started with “As.” More than being obnoxious, the weird thing was, it was a Q&A that was more about me. It was just me talking about me, me asking things about what they thought of me. I mean, there was a lot of me in these Q&As. And I would go after people who meant something to me. Like, I would meet Marlo Thomas or John Cusack and so then it really became even more about me. So I thought that was really funny. There were a few that started with “As.” It was like, “I don’t really care about the Qs.”
Rumpus: Do any of those Q&As stick out to you, still, for whatever reason?
Stein: Oh, yeah. I mean, the ones I remember most are the ones that didn’t run because I got yelled at and hung up on.
Stein: Oh yeah.
Rumpus: And there’s no going back after that? You can’t call them back and say you’re sorry?
Stein: No, because I think in the three cases I’m thinking of, their publicist called my boss and yelled at me. Yelled about me. And I was way beyond calling someone up and apologizing to them. Those were horrible.
Rumpus: You’ve said that interviewing people makes you nervous, but it’s your favorite part of the job.
Stein: Reporting in general makes me pretty nervous. But I realized: all the amazing work experiences of my life were thanks to reporting. So that forces you to go do it.
Rumpus: It’s interesting hearing this from a guy who works at Time and seems so at ease with himself and who’s also so willing to mess with people.
Stein: Yeah, yeah. I’m just inherently socially anxious and shy. And I wouldn’t force myself into that situation if it wasn’t for work. But just walking up to strangers is awful.
Rumpus: Is walking up to strangers harder to you than, say, having George Clooney at your house for dinner?
Stein: Yeah, much. I hate walking up to strangers.
Rumpus: Does that go back to the idea of being rejected?
Stein: Yeah, totally, whereas I know that Clooney has agreed to this. He’s done this before. He’s going to act a certain way. Plus, the [celebrities] who end up intimidating you are the people who have special significance, usually to your childhood. People who meant something to you. There have been people who represent something very symbolic and I’ve been freaked out interviewing them. Like [tennis player and coach] Martina Navratilova— that felt like a big thing. And Hugh Hefner felt like a big thing. Weirdly iconic figures. In a different way than someone who’s just famous and talented, like a Will Smith or a George Clooney. You know?
Rumpus: Right. You have some sort of deep connection to them that started early and is maybe a bit harder to explain.
Stein: Yeah. They represent something to me. Exactly. Meeting John Cusack was weird.
Rumpus: How so? You watched Say Anything a lot?
Stein: All those movies. He represented some sort of attainable coolness when I was growing up.
Rumpus: Do you ever feel like you’re straddling a line, in a way? You’re reporting and interviewing, but in another way, you’re a public figure. You’ve been interviewed by Conan O’Brien and Bill Maher. You’re on VH1 all the time. You’ve experienced at least some of what these celebrities have gone through. Is that true?
Stein: It’s sometimes true. It’s rare that they know who I am. But sometimes, if they’re younger, like Lena Dunham, who has been reading me since she was super young, that gets reversed. Because I just heard about Lena Dunham and I really like her, but it’s different than if you’ve been reading someone’s column for a long time. So that is interesting and weird. It doesn’t happen often.
Rumpus: How do you prep for interviews when you’re going to talk to someone? Do you do a ton of reading, or do you just kind of approach it conversationally?
Stein: With a Q&A, you need obviously to keep it snappy. But if it’s just a profile, for a long time now, I read a ton of stuff about a person and then I approach it conversationally. I try to see what that person is thinking or feeling about that particular day. I just get more of a sense of what that person’s like and hopefully it’s more interesting than a normal conversation.
Rumpus: When you got to Time, how did the other staffers respond to what you were doing?
Stein: There wasn’t a huge generational divide, since there wasn’t anyone of my generation besides [Tyrangiel and] Romesh Ratnesar and John Cloud — we all got hired at the same time. Everyone else was either a Baby Boomer or a Greatest Generationer. A lot of people at Time, and readers, hated the stuff I was writing. Some thought it was fun. The two complaints were that it was inappropriate, which I disagreed with, but understood, and that, once I did stuff outside of the People page, it was eating up space that could have been used for an important story. Harder to argue with. I was protected since the editor, Walter Isaacson, liked my stuff. But the editors below him were sometimes blocking my stuff. Then they sometimes got overruled by Walter, which made me a disliked teacher’s pet in some corners. But basically, honestly, everyone at Time is one of the nice kids from your AP class, so the vast majority of people were just nice to me.
Rumpus: What did you learn from Walter Isaacson?
Stein: To think critically when writing. To walk up to strangers when reporting, which I still have trouble doing. To report as much as possible and say “yes” to lots of stuff.
Rumpus: Your column was always popular, but it was dropped from Time after 9/11 for a while.
Stein: Right. I was still employed at Time, but they got rid of my column. And then after some period of time, I convinced Entertainment Weekly to run my column on their back page, which only lasted maybe six months until they fired me. And then Time was starting to run my stuff [again]. They still had a back page called the Essay page. And I was getting on there occasionally, maybe once every four-to-six weeks.
Rumpus: Were there any new stipulations, based on what was going on in the world? Or did they say that you could just do what you were doing before?
Stein: I think anything went at that point. The whole thing comes down to editor changes. So what really happened before 9/11 is that we had an editor change. A great guy who I really liked personally. I think he really liked my writing, I just don’t know if he loved my column. And so the column changed a bit. All my writing changed a little bit because [incoming Time editor] Jim Kelly was different than Walter Isaacson. So, I think the whole magazine changed, including my stuff. And then I got the LA Times to run me every week. And then Time got a new editor, Rick Stengel. And Rick had been talking about running me every week. And the LA Times conveniently fired me, which I don’t think Rick noticed. And he offered me the column every week.
Rumpus: When Entertainment Weekly and the LA Times stopped running you, did they give you any sort of reason. Did you know it was coming?
Stein: It’s like getting dumped. They never tell you the truth.
Rumpus: So, you get fired, you get a high-profile job somewhere else. When it comes to creating opportunities for yourself, are you just really persuasive?
Stein: God, no. It was pure panic mode. When Time got rid of my column, I thought it was all over. It was really sad. And then, I just started pushing it to lots of places. And I thought someone would run my column, I thought it was popular, and no one wanted it. I met with a lot of people. And I eventually convinced Entertainment Weekly. But that probably took me close to a year and they got rid of it after six months. And then I looked around for a long time until Michael Kinsley became the editor of the LA Times opinion section. I knew him a little bit and I eventually convinced him. He was resistant. I convinced him by sending him a ton of ideas. I almost got [a column] at Sports Illustrated. I talked to a bunch of different newspapers, talked to the Wall Street Journal. I had meetings at a bunch of places, but it wasn’t going anywhere. And then, luckily enough, Time has taken me back. If it wasn’t for Time, I wouldn’t have a column right now, I’m pretty sure.
Rumpus: Still, you’ve been called brilliant at your ability to parlay one opportunity into the next …
Stein: I’m not brilliant at it. That’s what happens when you say “yes” to stuff. Like, I write this book and then people see me on some show talking about it and they’re like, “Oh, I remember that guy, we should go talk to that guy again about writing a sitcom.” Which has nothing to do with anything. It’s just they kind of remember you. And you appear on I Love the 80s, right? And then some magazine editor is like, “Oh, we should get him to write for us.” It doesn’t make sense. It’s just how things kind of work. At first, I tried to define myself really strictly. People would ask if I wanted to host things and I was like, “No, I’m a writer, I don’t host things.” Just thinking I wouldn’t be good at it — which is true — but also just wanting to hold on to some part of my identity. And then I realized that that’s kind of stupid and certainly antiquated. Now you kind of have to be able to do a lot of different things. Plus, as journalism dies, I kind of feel like I want some skills besides writing. I’d like to be able to write movies or host TV shows or whatever. Things that I might actually not inherently like quite as much, but are interesting and fun things to do. A good backup plan.
Stein: Early on, even in college, I figured out that it was just more interesting to me to create content than to write about other people. So that makes it more marketable. I’m good at marketing myself through the columns. But no, compared to other people I know, as far as networking and pushing yourself out there, I’m not very good at that. That hasn’t helped me particularly. Being in New York and having worked at Time Out New York and then being at Time, living in New York for a long time has helped because I know everybody. And they’re the people who call me and give me jobs. So that kind of real networking, which is just living in a place and having jobs where people around you are extremely successful, has helped me tremendously. But as far as pushing yourself, I wasn’t so good at that.
Rumpus: Do you sometimes try to take a strong stance on a point that seems relatively inarguable? Things that are commonly considered to not have another point-of-view? You opened a column in the LA Times with the line, “I don’t support the troops.” That seems like you’re either playing devil’s advocate, or trying to bait people. More recently, you wrote a piece for the New York Times about how adults shouldn’t read YA novels, focused around The Hunger Games. I know that got a negative response.
Stein: It’s a lot like what you’re saying. The most general mail is the stuff where I take a strong opinion on something that everyone disagrees with me about. It’s just that I don’t think I am aware of which things I’m saying are that incendiary. So I probably do this a lot. And it’s just like you don’t normally notice quite as much as when I hit something where I’m really in the minority and don’t quite realize it. If I have an opinion that’s very mainstream, I’m not going to bother writing about it. It’s just not interesting. You know? I love sushi, but I’m not going to write a column about it. I did write about going to Whole Foods and I made a meal by trying to get the most miles in shipping of each product, in opposition to the local food movement, which I feel strongly about. That’s not a fake opinion. I think the local food movement has been taken to idiotic extremes. And so I wrote about that and people got pissed. Now, I knew people would get pissed, but that didn’t piss off nearly as many people as saying that adults shouldn’t read The Hunger Games. And I don’t know that when I sit down to write. I’m not that clued into what people are that touchy about and how many of them there are and how niche these niches are. I have some idea that if I pick on [boy band] One Direction, I’ll get a ton of hate mail, because I know that when you’re 15, you love a band like you will kill people. But I don’t quite realize that that’s true about people — adults — who read The Hunger Games.
Rumpus: When the Hunger Games piece came out and blew up like that, were you actually shocked? Or did you expect to bait some people into writing vitriolic responses, but think that the wider majority was on your side?
Stein: No, I was totally shocked. Because I had written something years before for the Los Angeles Times about how adults shouldn’t read Harry Potter. And people got pissed. And then someone at the New York Times was running this thing on this page I didn’t even know about, their opinion blog. It’s not even in the newspaper. And he was like, “Oh, I saw this thing you wrote. Can you write a similar one about Hunger Games by this afternoon?” It was literally 300 words or something. So I just wrote it as an e-mail at the airport and sent it in. And then I was like, “Oh, I guess this New York Times page is a big deal and adults really like The Hunger Games.” But the other thing is: online reaction is very different than real-world reaction, although that one got some real-world reaction. But online reaction is very different. It’s not real.
Rumpus: It’s not real because it’s so easy?
Stein: It’s not real for a bunch of reasons: first of all, when I get real big volumes of hate mail, it’s usually because I wrote something poorly. But it’s also because some group told people to e-mail me and those people didn’t read the article, they read the post about what I wrote about. And they all e-mail me. And they all come around at the same time. They’re way more severe. People are different in different situations and people are different online than they are in real life.
Rumpus: And does your opinion ever change after you get all that feedback?
Stein: Yeah. Yeah.
Rumpus: It does?
Rumpus: What’s an instance where you reconsidered your stance on something?
Stein: There are some arguments I made in the “supporting the troops” column. The main argument I made, I still agree with. But there were points I made in there that I think are foolish and not well thought-out.
Rumpus: So sometimes it’s just a matter of clarity.
Stein: I think I believed some of those things and some people kind of argued against them and I realized they were right. You don’t really want an army of people making individual decisions [as Stein wrote in the piece]. And I don’t think I completely understood that until people gave me examples of what happens when your army takes over your government and it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I guess you can’t really have people make individual moral decisions.”
Rumpus: What about your story about immigration in Edison, New Jersey? What happened there?
Stein: I think I just did a bad job explaining a complicated thought. The thought was, “Hey, I see a bit of racism in myself when I look at the changes in my hometown that make me feel a wee-bit displaced, which helps me understand why people are hostile [about immigration].” But because I’m particularly familiar and comfortable with Indians — growing up in Edison, going to Stanford, working in journalism, having a half-Indian editor — I wasn’t very careful in my writing.
Rumpus: Does it just get to a point where there’s a tipping point and the consensus is to issue some sort of apology?
Stein: No. I have to say, I’ve learned over time that every editor has told me when you’re getting that much hate, you don’t talk about it. You just kind of don’t give it oxygen and let it go away. It’s almost — not always, but almost — always the best policy. It’s hard to do. It’s hard to discipline yourself not to explain yourself or apologize.
Rumpus: Do you read the comment sections on your stories to gauge public opinion?
Stein: It’s interesting because I will Google myself and read any blog that anyone’s written about me. So I’m totally self-obsessed that way. But for some reason, I never remember to look at the comments on articles. It’s weird. I can’t defend that. I also don’t read the “letters” section of Time magazine. I think it’s just my habit as a reader. I don’t read comments on stories, in general. And I don’t read “letters” sections of magazines, but I’ll read anyone’s blog post about me.
Rumpus: You must get plenty of letters, though.
Stein: Yeah. I read all those, I try to respond to all of them. So I can’t explain why I don’t read comments. Maybe because I worked at Time for so long and they don’t have them, so I keep forgetting that they’re there. Legitimately. I never thought to look at the New York Times one, even though I knew people were pissed off. I’ve seen YouTube videos from people who are pissed off at me about that and that takes a lot of effort to go find.
Rumpus: Have you, as a reader, ever felt angry enough to comment on somebody else’s article?
Stein: It would never occur to me. It really wouldn’t. I’ve definitely written people e-mails telling them I’ve loved their stories, but that seems more like a professional journalist thing to do. No, that seems crazy. What would piss me off that much? I have a really high bar for being angry. Like, it doesn’t even happen every year. What would it be? I can’t imagine what someone would write that would infuriate me. Maybe if my loved one had died of some disease and someone was insensitive, that would piss me off. I don’t even know. You’re not going to change anyone’s mind. Especially online.
Rumpus: Have you had to develop thicker skin over the years?
Stein: Yeah, I’ve gotten thicker skin mostly from just having been through it enough. And partly just from being older. You just stop caring quite as much about everything. I was in San Francisco in this hotel and I’ve gotten in this bad habit of — before I go into the bathroom, I’m like, “Is there a newspaper I can read?” — because sometime’s there’s a newspaper outside your door. So I’ve gotten in the bad habit of peeking my head out while I’m not wearing any clothes and it’s never caused any kind of trouble. And then the person across the hall also opened her door when she was leaving her room. Ten years ago, I would’ve just been mortified for the whole day, worried that I’d see this person again. Then I was like, “Oh, maybe she saw me naked. I don’t care.” I’m getting to the point where I just don’t care.
Rumpus: Moving on to another facet of your writing life, you wrote for the short-lived sitcom, Crumbs. Was that more fulfilling for you than you thought it was going to be?
Stein: No, because I’ve always wanted to do that, since I was a kid. And in some ways — a lot of ways — being in that room all day made me realize how much I liked reporting and how much I got out of it. Which I didn’t really know until I sat in that room.
Rumpus: Were you a little bit relieved when it was canceled, so you could get back to your regular life, or were you thinking that it would be a nice, cushy job to have for a while?
Stein: That’s a good question. We wrote a whole season, even though they didn’t air it. I suspected I wasn’t going to get rehired. I will never know. But I didn’t think, for what they were paying me, I was that good. And I knew the show wasn’t doing well, so I was more in the mode of being a little sad that I wasn’t going to be rehired. But I was relived that I got to go back to having my life back. It was really, really, just really time-consuming to do that job, plus my column. I think I was doing two columns. I was doing a Time one every other week. I was writing a lot over the weekend and late at night and being in that room all day. It was hard to keep that up. Impossible.
Rumpus: When did you first move into the sitcom world?
Stein: When Time got rid of my column the first time, I called my TV writing agent. I had never written a sitcom before and he was just kind of waiting for the right time, which is why I chose him as an agent. I told him about not having a column at Time. And he’s like, “Good. Now is the time.” So I came out to LA and pitched a show and got my first sitcom. Which I probably wouldn’t have done if I hadn’t lost the column.
Rumpus: What is a standard Joel Stein workday like? Are you all over the place?
Stein: It sucks. Basically, I wake up, take care of my son for a little while, and then like, “I am gonna write!” And then I wind up … I don’t know, I have a friend who’s writing a book about food stuff and he wanted to interview me about cupcakes, so I did that before I talked to you. I’m pitching a sitcom, again, so I talked to this producer on the phone. And I haven’t eaten lunch yet. I just realize that the day kind of slips. I have to write at some point today. I have stuff due. I have to interview someone for my column. I just feel like it’s not very disciplined and it’s a mess.
Rumpus: You recently had a piece of fiction — I Will Be Your Server — published in The New Yorker. What motivated that and has The New Yorker been a goal of yours for a while?
Stein: It’s my second Shouts piece. It’s exciting for sure, but it’s not the same as writing a long reported piece for The New Yorker. I’d love to do that.
Rumpus: And which cover story at Time are you the most proud of?
Stein: The one I wrote for New Year’s Eve, 2000. Not because it’s the best written, but because I only had a few hours to write it and I had to read through hundreds of pages of reporting from Time correspondents all over the world. Plus, I asked to send a reporter in an airplane at midnight and another to be in a bunker with Y2K believers and they wound up getting great stuff.
Rumpus: Are you still hungry?
Stein: When I lose my column again, I’m sure I’ll get hungry again. Maybe it’s having a kid, but it’s probably just getting to do what I always wanted to do — I’m really not that hungry. I’m writing the screenplay for my book and I’ve always wanted to try writing a screenplay, so that’s a new challenge. I should probably try fiction, to see how bad I suck at it.
Rumpus: Yet you’re still all over the place, saying yes to everyone and everything.
Stein: My wife yells at me about this constantly. I’ve said no to a couple more things than I would’ve and it usually works out pretty well. But you don’t get anywhere without saying yes. The people who get places in life just say yes to everything.