Stunt Journalism with Joel Stein

INJ 79 | Stunt Journalism

I got to know Joel Stein when he was a staff writer for TIME magazine. He has been on the writing on staff for two television shows and has written six network pilots. His forthcoming book, In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book, comes out in October 2019. In it, he documents the time he spent in Roberts County, Texas which has the highest proportion of Trump voters in the country.

Listen to Episode #79 here

Stunt Journalism with Joel Stein

Our guest on this episode is Joel Stein. He is a professor of journalism at Princeton, but he’s best known for his writing. I met him when he was a staff writer at Time Magazine, but he’s written for two television shows and has written six network pilots. He’s written a book in 2012, Man Made, which he adapted into a film script and his forthcoming book, In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book. In it, he documents the time he spent in Roberts County, Texas, which has the highest proportion of Trump voters in the country. Welcome, Joel.

That was beautiful. Were people crying? Because I shed tears somewhere in the middle, just all the memories came flooding back.

It was good days on the Princeton campus. If you weren’t working as a writer, academic or a talking head, what would you be doing with your life?

That’s what I’m trying to figure out right now because I feel like I haven’t been working for a while. I need to figure out what to do next. I think I’ve ruled out all the things I would’ve done if I were younger.

Which is?

I’ll probably go to law school like everyone else.

You’re so lucky you didn’t do that.

I’m so lucky. All my friends who went to law school quit law or a couple of them still do it, but they’re miserable. I’ll probably want to be a judge or something. It’s probably just from watching Night Court. What else would I have done? I don’t know. I didn’t have any skills. I don’t know what it would’ve done with my life. I still am not sure.

I need an answer.

I would be a podcaster.

I’m so surprised you don’t have a podcast.

I had a podcast once. It took me a year and a half to do six episodes. I’m pitching something else now. It was like a self-improvement thing where I’d try and learn something and improve my marriage or something. I’d pick one thing every episode.

This is very AJ Jacobs-like.

I was in a little group in New York in the ‘90s. We’d probably only went to lunch once, but we thought of ourselves as a group where we called ourselves The Stunt Journalists, The Stunt Journalists Association. It was me, AJ and my friend, John Sellers. There were a bunch of people, some of whom you know. We would talk about the exchange, how we did stunt journalism. We all do the same thing.

I met AJ Jacobs.

He’s the nicest man.

He’s an incredibly nice guy.

I’m not nearly as nice as AJ.

Neither am I.

As you can tell by the way, I said, “No. AJ would never have said that.”

He’d be like, “No, you are. Of course, you are.”

We could beat AJ up. That’s the corollary for sure.

I met AJ working on The Humor Code in the same way I met you or more or less the same way that I met you.

Did he interview you for it?

I can’t remember. I think we interviewed him.

That’s not how we met. AJ is so much more important than me.

He has a nice little cottage industry of article then a book where he puts himself in an unusual predicament and then writes a book about it.

I do article and then nothing, which is probably not as good.

You’re funnier than AJ For example, he had a book, I think they changed the name but it’s like, The Guinea Pig Diaries.

That was a collection of stunts. He turns them all. The one thing we do that similar is he sells them all as sitcom ideas, which usually don’t get made. Although Living Biblically got made for CBS and they didn’t make many episodes.

He spent a year living by all the rules in the Bible.

He has a new book. He has a new book called Thanks A Thousand.

I don’t know this one.

I like this one. It’s literally put up by TED Talks and he gets his coffee from this place in New York show and he wants to thank everyone involved in getting him that daily cup of coffee. He travels all around. It’s an interesting study of capitalism, if nothing else, like all the people involved in getting your coffee.

We’ll turn our attention to you and away from AJ.

I have a couple more things to say about AJ. His wife, Julie, is great. She keeps him in line.

She’s like the straight guy to his neurotic-ness in his books.

Let’s just call him. I have his number. It will be much better than just sitting here and talking about AJ. for three hours.

I feel like I could learn from this. I don’t do it. He has a daily practice where he brainstorms crazy ideas. I don’t know if he goes outside. He finds some time away from his phone or his computer with a note pad or notebook and he writes down ideas. Of course, 99% of them are completely tacky or crazy or stupid. Every so often he comes up with Thanks A Thousand or The Year of Living Biblically or Drop Dead Healthy, whatever his new thing is.

I’d like to think this is how Hitler came up with the Holocaust. He had twenty ideas. Some of them were just about like painting he wanted to do and then, “We’ll kill the Jews,” and he just went with it.

Please tell me you’re Jewish.

Yes. He’s thrown by Joel or Stein. Which one?

I am just checking. I’m Peter McGraw, so you know that I am not.

My son is ten and he wanted to watch some Seinfeld. I think the dentist is played by the Breaking Bad actor, Brian Cranston. He’s the dentist who converts to Judaism and then makes horrible anti-Semitic jokes and keeps saying, “But I’m Jewish,” and he just converted.

Your son is a chip off the old block, wanting to watch Seinfeld episodes at ten years old.

He’s obsessed with The Simpsons. In fact, we went to Universal Studios to go to Simpson’s Land and we’re supposed to go to a table read of The Simpsons but I screwed up the time so we’re going next time. He’s pretty into comedy.

Let’s talk a little bit about how we met first.

Was it love at first sight for you?

I re-read the article that you wrote. I don’t think you were in love. I think you have wistful memories. You are teasing, of course. Funny or Dreck is the title of it. It was on the back page of Time Magazine on May 8th, 2014 and it says, “I’m a man of science. By which I mean, I don’t believe in God. I’m not that crazy about science either. I would much prefer to live in a world without God or science, where we didn’t ask so many boring questions about everything.”

I stand by that.

That holds up. In the article, we did a collaboration where you submitted a group of jokes that you were struggling with.

When I write a column or anything, I have alternate jokes or alternate punch lines.

Alternate jokes and punch lines?

Sometimes but often just the punch lines, but sometimes it’s the whole setup and the punch line.

You were relying on your editor to help you choose.

I run them by anyone around me. My wife used to be into it for the first few years of our marriage and now she is annoyed by it. I will bother whoever I happen to be emailing with at the time and it’s an AB test or an ABCD test. I’ll just send the four out. The nice thing about that system is sometimes when you’re typing them all, it makes you keep going and then you’ll get a way better one. By the time you get to the fifth or sixth or seventh, then you won’t even have to bother people.

Who do you bother?

Literally whoever I happened to be emailing with, “While we’re talking.”

There’s a chance I could have received one of those while we were emailing setting this up. You might have dropped it in or this is back when you were doing this?

Once when I was emailing with you were all things I was considering for that column. They weren’t made up for this. These are all real.

When I say we, I mean the Humor Research Lab.

Where are they located? The Human Research Lab was headquartered in Boulder, Colorado.

My co-author on The Humor Code, Joel Warner, he submitted some punch lines also. It was like a little bit of a competition.


I think he won.

I don’t think he won. I could look back at this. I know your editor fared well in terms of her prowess in picking.

She’s now the editor of Vanity Fair.

She didn’t bring you over?

She has not brought me because she can pick better jokes than me.

That was fun to do. You were a good sport and you teased a bit in the article, but it wasn’t mean.

I retract all my teasing.

Teasing is a form of affection. I would hope I can do that.

There’s a friend of mine that died a couple of years ago. He was a sitcom writer and he was the best at picking you apart in a way that made you feel seen. Because a big part of successful teasing, the thing that makes my son laugh the most when I pick on him or make me laugh the most with my friend Marsha pick on me is when he would notice something about me that I hadn’t even noticed about me and pick on that. You feel loved because you feel seen.

The saying I always have is I don’t tease people I don’t like. I tease people I like. Teasing does serve a purpose beyond expressing affection. It is a way to guide and give feedback in a way that’s meant to be uplifting versus just straight.

Especially if it’s something you didn’t notice about yourself. You both feel seen and you have a chance to cry.

Do you have an example of something that he noticed about you that you were unaware of?

Not right now.

Are you not doing the Time column?

They got rid of me when they switched editors.

Do you miss it?

I do. I miss writing columns.

It was a weekly column. You had a regular deadline, you had a regular practice preparing for it and now you’re just adrift.

I’m totally adrift. If I wasn’t, I’d be here. It’s true.

You were surprisingly easy to wrangle for this.

I’ll see you an hour later. I have nothing going on.

We were talking about how your publisher’s basically sitting on your book right now. It could be out.

I don’t think that’s the way she would see it. They’re working hard right now putting paper and marketing and the sales. I don’t understand it, but it takes a long time.

Allow me to say this because you have a publisher. I do not have a publisher.

I think I’ve come around to disagree with what you’re about to say. I pre-disagree.

Do you want to say why you disagree?

Yes. You’re going to say it’s a ridiculous amount of time between when you finish a book and when it comes out.

[bctt tweet=”Teasing is a form of affection.” username=””]

I’ve experienced this myself.

It’s shocking. I’ve experienced it as well. You’re like, “What was that year about?”

I’ll give you the timeline for The Humor Code, you can give me the timeline for In Defense of Elitism. We delivered our book on time one minute before the deadline, December 31st. We did it for ourselves as much as we did it because it was our first book and we were excited. I think the book came out sixteen months later, including it being more or less done for at least six of those months. We agree on the timeline. That’s more or less the same for you.

I now think that’s the same timeline.

Tell me why because let me contrast that with I’m now working on a book that I’m going to publish. I would call it a hybrid model. I’m self-publishing, but I have a company that’s helping me with the process in terms of cover design, getting an ISBN, editing and all these kinds of things.

Not in sales and marketing. Who’s going to get into the Barnes and Nobles or the airports or you’re just going to sell through Amazon?

Do you mean the places that people don’t buy books?

That’s totally true.

I think it’s unlikely it will get into Barnes and Noble. It’s a potentially an airport book and so maybe it has a shot for that place. The answer is it’s going out on Amazon, it’s going out on Audible and it may or may not make it into brick and mortar.

In which it doesn’t matter. I used to write a column for the LA Times every week, in print. I would give it to them in the morning and it would be out the paper the next day.

To finish my thought, that book is going to come out almost the moment it’s finished. I’m expecting it’s in early 2020.

There are a lot of things as you know, from any book that the publisher does and those things I think take a lot of time, more time than I would have.

Let’s stop because they don’t do that much more than this company that I hired. They do a cover, they design it and they get it registered.

For instance, I had three rounds of copy editing and fact-checking this.

They’re going to edit it. I’m going to fact-check it myself. I’m going to hire someone to fact-check it.

That’s going to take you a little bit of time. That fact-checker is going to cost you X number of weeks probably.

I don’t make too many grandiose claims.

The tiny mistakes I would make like spelling of someone’s name.

Sixteen months, the issue is I think you’re being too generous.

I think of the sales team and the marketing team.

The issue is this. The publisher is serving themselves. What they do is they slot it to their production schedule.

It has to do with when they think it’ll sell the best too.

I don’t think that they have any real data. They’re not data-driven. They have weak intuition about when it’s a good time, especially because they don’t know what the competitive forces are. They’re making a guess based upon when other books are coming out and so on.

I will walk out of here in defense of the publishing industry. I will storm out.

This is still going to go up if you walk out of here. I have this perspective as a business school professor, which is anything that’s been done a certain way for 50 years. Because of technology, there’s a way to do it with higher quality, faster or whatever that thing is. You can call it mattresses, call it taxi cabs, what whatever those kinds of things are. The advantage that these publishing houses had at one point in time was they had printing presses they had the supply chain and now they don’t. They’re not the only ones with printing presses and they certainly don’t have the supply chain locked on. At the same time, they’ve been hemorrhaging staff. They’ve been cutting their costs. I do believe that good editors provide value. Ours certainly did, but they’re woefully inept at any data-driven decision. In a world of minimum viable products, in the world of testing, all these things, they are averse to that. They don’t like that. They’re the auteurs who go, “This is the cover.” What if you said to them, “Let’s just run the study and we’ll just pick the cover that says it “sells” best with our target audience.”

How would you run the study?

I could do that in three days.

By just putting it online and see what people voted for?

There are two ways to do it. One is very clearly very experimental and controlled. You get a panel of people that you pay for, which is what we did with the Time article. You identify them in terms of demographically and then also psychographically do the best. We know the type of people who likely to buy your book and you randomly assign them to conditions where you give them a description of the book and you show them the different covers. Each person sees one cover and then you get judgments and behaviors associated with it. I tested the shit out of my subtitle for my book. I’ve already picked my subtitle. I probably ran four tests on it.

I love that stuff. We didn’t do any that stuff because it was just me against the sales team.

Also, if you want something to behavioral, what I did was I just had a little line that says, “When this book comes out, would you like to receive an email alerting you to it? Please give us your email. We won’t share it with anyone.” I have a frequency distribution of for each book, the number of people that gave me their email. Now, I have a behavioral measure of interest also. That’s the first way to do it.

Why are publishers not doing that honestly?

They don’t think like scientists, first of all. It’s a classic problem where people think, “Data is good, but I’m better.”

Every TV executive also thinks that way, but they also test everything, like a pilot. It’s just bigger stakes.

Of course, we can start on TV and how TV’s doing it wrong also.

That model is changing so much.

For these reasons. Do you know why? Because something was done a certain way for 50 years and then here comes technology. I think about what Netflix is able to do. Netflix is able to decide what programs to green light based upon all the data that they have.

They don’t need to make a pilot in the same way or at least get a script in the same way.

The other way to do it is to do something that’s a little less controlled but has more realism, which is you buy Facebook ads or Google ads and you have the different pictures of the covers and you measure whether people click on those or not. Would you like to continue to defend your public? Here’s the issue is I get that of course publishers provide value. It’s just the cost of the value they provide. I think this is where the value in publishing is. It’s not the printing books because other people can do that. It’s not in the cover art. It’s not in the editing because all of that stuff could be outsourced to very capable freelancers who’ve lost their jobs, who used to work for Penguin anyways. The value that the publishers provide is they will give you a risk-free loan under some circumstances. It’s risk-free to the author, but it’s highly risky to the publishers. Their value is their financial model, which is that there’s a lot of people out there who are incredible writers who don’t have a steady paycheck. They more or less cobble together a living writing one-off pieces for the remaining major magazines and newspapers and so on and then having a larger paycheck for a book.

For the reader who’s not familiar with this, it goes something like this. I wrote a book proposal. You have an agent. I couldn’t get an agent for it. It’s too niche is basically what I’ve been told. They either want something that is likely to be broadly appealing or they want you to have a big platform. They want you to already have thousands of followers that will automatically buy the book. Which of course what I say is if I already had thousands of people who would automatically buy the book, what do I need you for? In any case, it’s a classic. You want a publisher because a publisher wants you to have a platform in order to give you a book. I’m acting like I’m telling you this, but I’m telling this to the readers. If you’re lucky, more than one publisher wants it, they bid on it. They’d write a number down on a piece of paper and they slide it across the table via your agent, so to speak, metaphorically. You usually pick the publisher who gives you the most money. On occasion, you might give up a little bit of money because of something.

We actually gave up a little money on The Humor Code because we liked our editors so much. Our agent was very good and she got us to split the difference like, “Let’s cut the difference in half.” That money is yours. It usually comes in three or four bundles. You get a check right away, you get a check when you deliver the manuscript, you get a check where the hardcover comes out and you get a check when the softcover comes out. That’s four. If it’s three, it’s just hardcover. You pay back that loan with your sales. Once you’ve reached that number with your sales, which 90% of books never do, then you start getting royalties, which is somewhere in the realm of at least back then, 10%, 15%, 25% for Audible books. There’s some usually, let’s say it’s 10% then once you sell another 10,000 copies and they bump up to 15% or whatever. You may have better deals.

I’m nodding because I never got anywhere close to getting those.

Those numbers?

No. I didn’t sell enough books.

Neither did we.

The worst thing about the publishing industry is that assuming you don’t make back your advance, at which point you would start making a profit, they send you every quarter, it seems like, in perpetuity. My great grandchildren, I believe, will be getting these things. That tells you how much you’ve sold and how far you are from you paying back the advance. My first book has been out for seven years. It’s not selling anymore. I’m still getting these quarterly statements and they’re mean. There’s no reason to send me those.

I don’t get them.

You’re so lucky. They come in the mail physically, like paper, telling me what a failure I am every quarter.

It’s a hit-based industry, so 90% of books don’t pay back their advance and 10% of the catalog, probably 1% of the catalog pays back all the advances and makes all the money for the company, songs, drugs, prescription medication and so on.

Non-prescription drugs.

Non-prescription drugs as it is not a hit-based model.

You sell aspirin. Heroin is always a hit.

The alternative model to this is if you can afford to live without the advance. By the way, it’s so bad now, I know authors who don’t even get the royalties anymore. They sign a contract with a publishing company that’s going to pay them $20,000 for this book, let’s say. Even if it becomes a bestseller, they don’t see another dime.


Because these people are so desperate for their advance that they give up the royalties to get a little bit more of the advance. I was willing to forego a complete advance for more royalties.

I want to work the other way.

We’re in different worlds. I’m essentially doing that by working with a company to self-publish my books. I pay them but I keep 100% of the royalties for every book I sell.

I’ll make you that deal with my book.

I’m not willing to be the bank.

Just give it a shot.

I understand. I’m surprised. This is actually not a bad idea. Someone’s going to steal this and get rich. If the real value of a publisher is that they serve as a bank, there’s no money in it. Let’s talk about In Defense of Elitism. It sounds like you had fun doing this book.

Yes, I did for sure.

[bctt tweet=”More than anything, a publisher’s value to a writer is their financial model.” username=””]

The thesis of this is?

You tell me.

I have an idea. I haven’t read it obviously.

I’d love to hear yours because it’s not too late for me to change it.

All the books are printed and sitting in a warehouse right now, waiting to be sent out.

My first book sold so poorly that they call me and like, “We’re going to turn them into mulch.” “That’s horrible.” “Would you want to buy some?”

On a deep discount?

It’s $2 a book. I was like, “This is a weird offer you’re making me after you paid me to write this book. You’re asking me to buy them.”

I hope you bought some.

I did.

How many did you buy?

That was the question. I said to my editor, “How many do I buy?” He was like, “I don’t know. It depends on what you want.”

I’d buy 100.

100 is an excellent choice. He wasn’t giving me a number and I thought 300 was a reasonable number.

It’s hard to give away 300 books.

It’s harder to physically store that. I came home one day and literally I couldn’t walk through my front door because UPS had blocked my whole front door. I had no visual concept with what 300 books looks like. A case has twenty. A box of books is twenty. I still have a lot of them.

I wish you brought one.

I wish I brought 40 of them. What do you think it is about? This is a great test.

You’re more of an elitist than I am. I’m a state school guy. You’re an elite university guy. I’m wearing a burlap sack. I think the idea essentially is like, “Let’s hold on a second, people. We need elites.” I’ll use my own personal case of this.

You deduced the book is we need elites. That’s definitely state school.

I’m going to use Cambodia as a case study.

It comes up in my book.

In the 1970s, there’s a genocide in Cambodia. Unlike many genocides, it’s focused on the intelligentsia. Teachers, doctors, lawyers, accountants were murdered. They wiped out an entire generation. That happened 30-plus or 40 years ago. Cambodia has not recovered yet.

It turns out Cambodia is full of the nicest people that tourism is going well. It’s not a great example but yes, that is my point.

I think there’s a great example. You can compare it to Vietnam that didn’t have this happen. Vietnam is a bustling metropolis, a vibrant country beyond just tourism and filled with equally nice people.

Is that right?

That is exactly right.

It is not a great idea to kill all of your experts. It has been proven time and time again.

The idea is that we need scientists and we need educators and we need accountants.

I feel like there has been a movement against the whole idea of the democratization of expertise and the fact that all you need is your own gut, which is deeply baked into certainly America. A lot of cultures I think is growing along with populism and an anti-democratic fervor and it scares me.

How do you defend elitism in this book besides pointing a finger at Cambodia and say, “Don’t do that?”

It’s mostly about Cambodia. It mostly focuses on the killing fields and the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot. It’s a funny book. I think people enjoy it.

I know it’s funny.

I hope so. How do I do that?

When you first started the book, how did you think you were going to do it?

I thought I would just rant.

What everybody loves is a middle-aged white guy from Stanford who taught at Princeton to rant.

No one’s hungry for this book except the people who buy books. That’s the genius of this and the library book. I thought I would go to places where people disagree with me, explain why they’re wrong. They would learn from me and I would learn little homey things from them that you could put on the quilt in your kitchen like a doily. I learn some homespun wisdom and we’d both come out the better for it. That’s not quite how it went down. What I like to do is even though I have these definitive thoughts in my head, I like to go to places and meet people and mock them. I found the county in America that the highest percentage of Trump voters. I spent a week there.

Where did you stay?

Why would you ask that question? That was a real problem for me actually.

Because I imagine that on one hand, you want to make sure you’re in a comfortable spot. You’re going to be doing some writing and you’re an elite. I’m thinking about what I would want to do which would be like, “Can I find a nice comfortable apartment,” or whatever thing. Part of me, what I would end up doing is the counter to that. I need to live among the people. I need to put myself into the shed so to speak.

I was so lucky because I was talking to Mayor Breeding, who’s the mayor there, who also works in the breeding business. Coincidentally, he breeds cows and it’s all true, in Miami, Texas.

By the way, that’s not a coincidence. There’s research on this.

It’s the same way tailors are named Taylor and there’s a joke about that in my book. In England, their last name is Mason or Taylor or Torturer. It’s the classic British last names. I asked him where to stay and he said that this is a very small town.

He’s like, “I have a guest house.”

He did not, which is what I was hoping for. That’s all I wanted, on the ranch. Instead he’s like, “You’re going to stay at the Holiday Inn in Pampa,” which was quite a distance away from Miami.

This is in West Texas?

No, it’s East Texas. It’s in the panhandle up north near Oklahoma.

As an aside, there’s a Jack Black movie where he plays a funeral director. There’s this scene.


It’s an outstanding movie, by the way, very funny. It’s filled with people who I can’t tell if they’re actors or if they were just locals that they cast in the movie. In any case, there’s a scene in this movie where this guy talks about the five regions in Texas, Texarkana and West Texas. It’s a big country. That’s right. It’s up in the panhandle.

I’ve been near Oklahoma. It’s very rural, very Christian and very white. They are not poor at all.

Is it oil money or ranching?

Both. It’s the only two places people work. Mostly oil, but there are some ranching families. People work on the ranches too. He told me I had to stay in this other town Pampa instead of Miami because every town apparently around there is a weird version of a Florida city. Instead of Pampa, I wanted to stay in Miami, and then I was looking online as I booked my holiday. I was like, “Maybe there’s some Airbnb.” It turns out, Mayor Breeding didn’t tell me this but there’s a B&B in the town. This woman lived somewhere else, I was the only one staying at the B&B, including the owner. It was more like a rental house, but it was perfect.

[bctt tweet=”The whole idea of the democratization of expertise is growing along with populism and anti-democratic fervor.” username=””]

There was a woman who was going to come and make me breakfast and she had a list of ridiculous names like, “Do you want the yellow rose of Texas?” which was like fried eggs. I was like, “I can make my own breakfast and give it my own ridiculous names. You don’t have to come here in the morning.” She did guide me through the town and introduced me. If a town has 500 people, you’re there for a week, you can meet an enormous percentage of them pretty quickly especially if they’re eager. They don’t like the media, but they don’t get that many visitors.

You’re a celebrity. Your goal was you’d both be better off for it, but you’d do more changing of their minds than they would do changing of your mind?

It turns out they knew a lot about me and my elite culture because they have television and access the internet. I knew nothing about their lives at all. I learned more than they did.

What would you take away from that do you think that has had an effect on you?

One thing is the reality of white Christians losing power in relation to other people and what they had. It’s the general existential threat they feel about this loss of power.

It’s happening throughout Europe and the US.

It’s intense and it’s real. That struck me. If you ask them, “Who’s the most discriminated against group in America?” They will tell you without irony, they’ll tell you white Christians for sure. They don’t like Trump as a person.

He’s their guy.

They use analogies. This is a disturbing analogy, but they feel like there’s an insect. If you had a problem like cockroaches in your house, you would call someone to come in and get rid of them. That guy would probably be showing the crack in his ass and be cursing and unpleasant. If he can get rid of your cockroaches, he’s your guy. I think that’s how they feel about Trump.

I think one of the most fascinating findings in psychology, I learned about this early in my academic career, is what’s called motivated reasoning. Humans are not reasoners in the way that Plato and Aristotle and the great philosophers were reasoners where they just very carefully weighed the pros and cons of things and then came out with this is wrong or this is right or whatever the righteous path is. What we’re more like is we have some desire for what the righteous path is and then we’re very good at arguing against the cons and promoting the pros in order to make a case for why the path that we’re walking or the one that we want to walk is the right one to walk.

I divide the book into the populist, then I spent time with the elites, then I spent time with the populist elite and the elite populist.

You need to define those things for the state school kid.

Fair enough. You get the idea of the populist. That’s the Miami, Texas people. I spent a lot of time with them. I spent time with these secretive organizations that you can join, just clubs. I happen to belong to a couple of those. I wrote about that.

What is an example of one of these clubs?

I didn’t go there, but The Trilateral Commission.

I don’t get the mailers for these things.

They’re just like Bilderberg or like Davos. I didn’t actually go to any of those three. I belong to a couple of them. I spent a day trying to be the mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti, let me follow him around and try and make decisions to see how I would do. That was my elitism section and then for the populist elites.

What is that? As an aside, I would have renamed all of these things.

Would you have AB tested this or what would you have done?


I do. At some point in the book, I figured out that it is just boat elites versus intellectual elites based on something. There’s this theory of the circulation of elites that Pareto came up with around 1900. Anyway, what I’m getting to is the elitist populists are the Steve Bannon’s, the people who are clearly from the elite class, all the people pushing Brexit, the Boris Johnson’s. One person I spent a lot of time with in that camp was Scott Adams with Dilbert cartoons. He’s a big Trump fan.

He famously predicted Trump’s win.

He is obsessed with what you were just talking about, which is cognitive dissonance. What’s the other one?

I call it motivated reasoning.

He believes that the mind is so faulty and so prone to those two things. It’s very Nietzschean, but the only perspective is to pick what you believe in. It’s whatever makes you happiest and is the most effective at predicting the future. It’s nihilistic, like there is no truth real fast. Therefore, Trump is great because he doesn’t bother with truth. He just points you directionally towards what’s useful. That’s a real strain of anti-intellectualism, which is what my book’s about.

That’s what I was saying. I could offer some alternatives to a Scott Adams-like view of this, which is a data-driven scientific approach to making decisions. He simply argues and he can to some degree. The thing that’s fascinating about motivated reasoning is that smart people are best at it. For example, it’s very hard for someone to give up a theory, especially if the theory is theirs, hence the Max Planck quip about science. Science moves forward one death at a time.

Is he mad at Einstein or what did?

No, as the older academics die off, so do their old theories. It allows new theories to blossom because older academics hold more sway.

To be clear though, you’re at the beginning killing older scientists?

Letting them die is the difference. I’m heading that way. Admittedly, this stuff’s out way outside my expertise and even largely off my radar. I have come across this notion, “Is it intellectual elites versus some other like wealth elites?”

I call them boat elites in my book.

What do you call them?

Boat elites. There’s nothing worse than a human being that owns that boat, I fully believe. They’re so horrible that once they get eleven miles away from us, we let them do whatever they want. I’ve never met a boat person I liked. As I was writing this book, the Republicans have been running on anti-elitism for quite a while.

Also, the Republicans tend to have these what I would call wealth elites or you would call boat elites.

There were a couple of congressmen running and their platform was to defeat the elites behind them. Suddenly in Minneapolis, Trump made a speech where suddenly he started saying, “Why did they get to be the elites?” It’s like, “We are the elites. We have better, bigger houses, we have better boats.” He went straight to the wealth thing immediately and I was like, “This is the conflict between the intellectual elite and what I call the boat elite.”

I think that’s one of the fascinating things. Certainly, this two-party system has its flaws and fascinations. I think that one of the fascinating things is the makeup of the Republican Party as this weird cobbled together two groups of people, this as you would call them populace, the Middle America folks. Also these very wealthy, more libertarian-minded small government taxes, low taxes. How is that possible? The party, is it still serving? It’s still serving them. There are still tax cuts and there are still these other things.

They think it’s all cracking. I think if you felt it crack in England a little bit when those conservatives left Parliament over Brexit. You’re seeing it over tariffs in America. If you’re a rich person, this is not what you want. There’s this whole populism that’s happening that I think is fracturing the Bill Kristols who were leaving the party because it doesn’t represent small government at all anymore. Trump doesn’t care about spending, he doesn’t care about the debt. He only cares about trade.

To me that’s an interesting partnership, so to speak.

He doesn’t care about free trade. He only cares about limiting trade.

Because he cares about boats.

Is this the least funny of your podcasts?

It’s actually the most I’ve talked about politics.

I never ever would write about politics. I never read a column about politics for the most part. It just the times we live in. This wasn’t the book I intended to write. I was writing a bunch of funny essays about growing up.

Did it feel like the wrong thing to do?

It felt boring. Maybe it’s just that we’ve given people, besides straight white guys. I don’t have any particular trauma I’ve been through or anything to overcome. The story just seemed shallow. It was like, what else am I interested in? I wish I was living at a time when I wasn’t interested in politics, which is a time I used to live in.

I don’t know. I think we’re going to pivot here in a moment, but my opinion about this stuff is I’m not that into it. The reason is that I made a decision many years ago, after a very difficult life with my mom. After she passed, I made a decision that I was going to no longer let things I can’t control make me unhappy.

It doesn’t mean you can’t be interested.

I keep a lot of the politics, especially the national stuff, at arms distance. I know what’s going on but I’m not as upset.

It can upset you.

Of course and I still know what’s going on enough, but I’m distant enough and it’s not frequent enough that it has very little effect on my happiness. However, I am a bit of an optimist and I should be. I was the state school guy. My life is way better than it ought to be.

I feel more so similar because I didn’t have to go to a state school.

I’m happy I went to a state school, but now as part of my identity like overachiever thing. I’m not naturally talented like you are, Joel. I need to work hard. I think that in the long run, this might be good. First of all, we can’t look back at the history of this country and think of it wistfully and as this wonderful thing. We had a civil war. We’ve had presidents assassinated. We’ve had churches bombed. We still do. We’ve had a black president also.

That’s on your list of awful things?

No. What I’m saying is there is progress but it’s not always smooth. One of the things that I think helps with progress is to have people involved and voting and caring and doing this stuff. I think the fact that people are pissed off and getting involved politically and the people who never would have run for office five years ago. I’m optimistic. I think this is part of what progress looks like in a sense. I think it’s good that people are involved and starting to do stuff and not asleep at the wheel like I think that they were for a lot of times.

[bctt tweet=”What’s fascinating about motivated reasoning is that smart people are best at it.” username=””]

I would like to go back to being asleep at the wheel.

That’s fine. The question is where does the progress come from? Does it come from the times when people are asleep at the wheel or that come from the time when we’re tussling and unhappy and having to march? Let’s be honest, when do you find big changes? It’s when violence is happening.

I don’t know. I think our country was set up nicely so that change happens maybe too slowly, but peacefully. Gay marriage, not that there weren’t riots and stuff, but for the most part that happened pretty peacefully.

That may be the exception.

I don’t know. We didn’t need another Depression to get Obamacare. There are incremental changes that I would like to see happen instead of revolutionary ones. I’m not a Jeffersonian that way.

That’s fair. Regardless of whether it’s revolutionary, but in general, if people are actively involved in government and politics.

I’m by nature non-confrontational, the idea that you need to fight to get change. I like a long meeting.

Let me make the simplest argument that should make you happy, which is, “Would we be better off if we could get everyone to vote?”

That’s the heart of my book right there. I’m not sure if the answer’s yes.

There’s a political scientist at Princeton who would argue the answer’s no. I think he’s a political scientist. Essentially, the idea is the average person doesn’t know enough about policy to make good decisions when it comes to policy. I think that’s fair and that’s an argument for elitism.

That’s why we’re not putting Brexit on the ballot.

Yes, indeed. The issue is we do need to vote. The system is set up where the populace votes. My solution is you want more people voting, not fewer people voting because at least it’s the case that the votes are going to reflect the overall better than some haphazard gerrymander view.

I don’t think I should be voting. Now that you’ve moved to California, are you going to vote here?

I’m not here long enough to do that.

It’s a horror show. First of all, we vote every four weeks or so and we vote on 100 things, including judges. None of us know anything. We vote on propositions that are confusingly worded often and certainly are way outside of our bailiwick of understanding. We get crazy things happening here.

All of these things are designed either to dissuade voting or to try to alter it in some way. The fact is that I would rather more people be voting than not, given that we have a voting system.

Would you want mandatory voting like in Australia?

I don’t know if I can answer that question.

Are you in trouble with someone?

No. My inclination is to say yes, but I don’t know about the pros and cons of mandatory voting. If you forced me to answer the question, I would say yes.

I’m just a self-critical person. I feel like you’ve had other guests and they’re just funny.

I think everybody feels pressure to be funny, but you’ve already made me laugh out loud so you can check that box. We’re going to pivot here. You wrote a book about elitism.

This is one of the first interviews I’ve done.

I think you’re going to be tussling a lot with this book.

I spent a whole chapter with Tucker Carlson. I’m going to have to talk to him again, I’m sure.

Your subtitle, which was never tested, is Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book. What I like about your subtitle is that you have the word you and you’re in it. Basically, you have “you” in it twice. I think there’s a magic word. People care most about themselves.

I was at Universal Studios in many tiny gift shops because you exit through the gift shop on a ride now, which is so smart. They sell all the key chains and stuff with your name on it. It just struck me how kids don’t want key chains but the whole key to sales is putting someone’s name on it.

Coca-Cola is bottling with people’s names on it.

That was genius. Every salesperson just uses your name 100 times when they talk to you.

You give talks. One of the things they teach you is it’s not me, it’s not we, it’s you.

What do you mean? How do you use that in a talk?

If you’re opening up with a question, the question is not how do we make the world a better place? The question is how do you make the world a better place?

Especially when I first started writing columns, I did the second person all the time by default, almost like I was Jay McInerney. It is compelling like you’re talking directly to the reader.

Let’s get funny then. You taught a class on humor writing at Princeton.

That’s funny because you mentioned it as the main part of my life and it was a semester. It was one day a week of teaching.

You weren’t a professor of Journalism. You were a lecturer in journalism school.

Maybe at best. I was definitely not a professor. It was exciting to me because I grew up right near Princeton. I didn’t get in and all I wanted to do was go to Princeton because I didn’t want to go far away from home for college. Plus, that’s all I heard about and I didn’t get in. They asked me to apply years later for this lecture thing. I was so excited and honored and I applied and they rejected me. I was like, “Is this is a thing you guys have where you asked me and now you’re rejecting me?” They said, “No. Don’t worry, we just didn’t have enough spaces. Just send it again for next year, next semester,” and they rejected me again. They said, “9/11 happened and we’re just being very serious. Please resubmit.” I was just like, “This is like Charlie Brown and Lucy.” The third time, they let me teach. All my dreams came true.

I have a very different experience with Princeton. I also grew up in New Jersey. I grew up in Willingboro, New Jersey.

Where is that?

It’s Exit 5 on the Turnpikes. You’re like Burlington, Mount Holly, Delran and Cinnaminson. Willingboro nowadays is quite an impoverished town.

Cinnaminson’s rich.

Cherry Hill is not far away. Morristown’s not far away. Willingboro, when I was there, it has a bedroom community of about 30,000 people. Mostly Philly, but people might go to Trenton or something like that. I grew up as a Phillies fan. We were poor. We didn’t go to games. We’ve watched them on TV.

Their urinal system was a trough, it was just a river of urine.

That’s about as good as the team was.

There was an all-star game in Philadelphia. I was working for Time Out New York and I got to cover it. I walked onto the field and I’d never touched artificial turf before. It is like cement. I couldn’t believe people did anything on it.

It’s unbelievable. It’s gotten better. Now these turf fields are almost like grass and spongier too.

You’re from Jersey and you didn’t get Princeton heartbreak.

I never aspired to go to Princeton.

Did you not see Risky Business?

I did, although for me, my mom never went to college. My Dad went to four colleges in five years. I saw his report cards. He wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. My sister didn’t go to college. Not everybody in my family went to college. Maybe half and it tended to be the men. For me, my college decision was like pretty easy. I was like, “I guess I should take the SAT.” I took the SAT one day and scored pretty well because I was good at that stuff. I had decent grades in AP and honors classes and so I applied to what was then Trenton State College, which is now the College of New Jersey and Rutgers. I got into both and I went to Rutgers.

This is almost everyone I went to.

Not anymore. Nowadays, people are working like crazy to get into Rutgers. It’s an anxiety-inducing experience. For me, it was like I need to stay in-state, I need to go to a state school. I’m going to do so. I went to Rutgers, which is up to the road from Princeton and we just resented those Princeton elites.

Did you read the short story by the comedian? I’m blanking on his name. He wears glasses. He has a story. You know him and you like him, I think. He has a story about going to Rutgers and dealing with someone on his computer. He’s younger than us, from Princeton and deciding to drive over to Princeton and beat the shit out of them based on all of that resentment. He’s drunk and he gets in this horrible scrape and he beats up this guy. It’s a crazy, hilarious story in a short story collection.

There’s something called The Cannon Wars between Princeton and Rutgers. This goes back to when both schools were private schools, before Rutgers went land-grant state university.

[bctt tweet=”There are different kinds of surprises. Simply creating something surprising doesn’t always mean funny.” username=””]

Is this where they disagree about what big books they should read?

It’s not those kinds of cannon. That they actually have these revolutionary war cannons and they would steal them from each other. What has happened is on both campuses, these cannons are now sunk into the ground in cement. They can’t be carried off. What happens is that people will now go and paint the canons but it’s asymmetric. That is Rutgers kids, i.e. me the night before I graduated from college, drive down to Princeton with some red spray paint, sneak on to campus and paint the Princeton.

Princeton doesn’t care.

They don’t care at all.

We had a rivalry about an ax. This is Stanford and Berkeley. It’s symmetrical. They equally care about this ax and try and steal this ax.

My neighborhood underwent white flight while I was growing up there.

What age was it?

This was the ‘80s. I graduated in ‘88 from high school. It started in the ‘70s and it happened in the ‘80s. It’s upwardly mobile black families were moving from Philly, Camden and Trenton into this suburban community. It had good schools, nice homes and affordable. It was Levittown community. As tends to be the case, the white people started to leave.

When you were in high school, was it still majority white or not?

No. The majority was black and then I went to Rutgers.

What was your social circle?

About 50/50.

Is it somewhat diverse?

Yes, at least ethnically.

Would you say at least not financially?

I think financially, I was probably on the low-end of the band. The kids that we thought were wealthy were not wealthy. Religiously, I remember one Jewish kid in my class. He wasn’t as funny as you. I went off to another state school. I did my PhD at Ohio State. When I was graduating, I looked for academic jobs. I couldn’t find anything. I had done some work for Danny Kahneman, who’s basically one of the fathers of Behavioral Economics. He subsequently won a Nobel Prize in Economics for Psychological Insights into the Decision Making. I had done some work for him. I emailed him. He was at Princeton at the time. I said, “Are you hiring for your post-doc this year?” He gave me the job on the spot.

I had this prodigal son returns to experience, coming back to New Jersey after having lived in California and Ohio for many years. I was not excited to come back to New Jersey, but very excited to come to Princeton because not only could I have never gotten in here as an undergrad, I had tried to get in as a PhD student and couldn’t and now they were paying me. I had this fascinating realization because remember, I was the guy who was like, “These stuck-up elitist a-holes,” basically where I was so pleasantly surprised. It’s a very undergraduate-focused campus.

Which is interesting. It doesn’t have a law school, doesn’t have a med school.

I coached there. I coached on the Club Lacrosse team. I had such a wonderful experience with these undergrads because they were whip-smart. They also played well with adults. It was a surprising thing. I had coached prior to that at Ohio State and then I coached subsequently to that at Colorado. In both cases, the teams were more athletic. I had equal success with these un-athletic Princeton guys because they were so receptive to coaching. I had this pet idea, which is to get into Princeton, you have to be crazy smart. You have to be pretty damn smart and you have to be hardworking of course, but you also have to play well with adults. You have to see adults as a path. You take advice, you take coaching. I think that the Princeton kids violated every stereotype that I had of them. They were super emotionally intelligent and they were very warm and friendly. I had only a subset of all the students on campus, but in a huddle, I would tell these guys what to do and they would do it and we would win. The data is crazy. They were 49th in the country the year before they asked me to be their coach. We played in the national championship game.

What are you doing here?

Because it wasn’t me. Any coach could have done that.

Did they have a coach before you?

No, they didn’t have any coach. They went from zero coaches to 49. It’s a great story.

It’s a ragtag team of kids without a coach.

It’s a fun little story. It’s one of my best memories of my time, was with this group of guys.

We’ll call it the opposite of Rudy.

By the way, people love those stories.

INJ 79 | Stunt Journalism
Stunt Journalism: To get into these Ivy League schools, you’ve got to be pretty smart, hardworking, and play well with adults.


They do. It’s usually underprivileged. It’s not Lacrosse kids. It should be football.

Everybody loves that 49 to one. We lost in the national championship game.

To whom?


What is their team name, by the way?

They’re the Tigers.

No, that’s Princeton. What’s the Navy people?


No, come on. Really?

Yes. Midship people, it should be. Joel, you’re are very clearly not only a writer, but a journalist because we’re bumping up against one of my limits, which is how much I allow myself to talk on this show.

I like to hear from others, sorry.

I know and I appreciate that, but I’m going to turn it back to you. You get your teaching gig to teach a humor and writing course. How do you teach people to write humorously?

I think of humor as math. I was on this show called I Love the ‘80s. It was a small class of fourteen, sixteen people or something. You had to apply. I made them write an essay, so it limited them. Because I was on a TV show, everyone wanted to be in this class, so I got 100-something people applied.

How many students were there?

Fourteen, maybe?

If you just picked the fourteen funniest students, you now had a successful class.

I did not do that. Maybe I should have done that. I picked the best writers.

That’s smart. That’s like picking athletes for a team rather than people who are good at the sport at the moment.

I read about that. I thought, “My job is to help you become a better writer because this is a writing class and I’m also going to teach you this skill of how to be funny that you will be marginally better at and you’ll know that you can employ when you need to.” Because I do believe there are times when you are doing a disservice to a story if you’re not funny. There are certainly times when you’re doing a disservice if you are funny.

People consume media to be entertained.

Also you can’t write a story about George H.W. Bush barfing in Japan and not present it as something that was funny. That’s not the experience of it. I think you have to know how to tell a funny story. I did that with them. I think that a lot of joke-telling, especially, it’s just math. It’s just how do you present the unexpected or how do you create the unexpected. I made them write a ton. I made them write a story, report a story and rewrite a story every week.

That’s hard for an undergrad to do.

They’re busy. First of all, they’re trying to get laid and they’re drinking.

Princeton kids work hard and play hard.

I have never seen a problem as bad as I saw on the Princeton campus. What happened was F. Scott Fitzgerald still dominates that campus culturally, and then they had these eating clubs and they let women in. I think the assumption would’ve been that they’ll calm it down. Instead, the women just were like, “We’ll drink until we puke and get naked.” Sunday mornings, the nurse’s office is like a rehab center. In fact, one of the kids wrote a story where she went on Sunday morning or Saturday night where people go. I don’t want to say too much. There’s a whole room. It was a chill-out tent and she went sober. They were telling her that she was fine. She’s like, “No, I don’t feel well.” She was like, “How do I get through that?” It was funny.

Can you give me an example of a lesson in terms of the mathematics of comedy? I know you only taught this class once, so I’m sure you taught the rule of three. I’d be amazed if you did not do that. That seems like day one, which you’ve already used once.

Rule of three is annoying to me and people bring it up sometimes.

[bctt tweet=”The question is not how do we make the world a better place? The question is how do you make the world interesting?” username=””]

You used it already here.

You use it but all you’re doing is reversing an expectation. I’ve set up a pattern and I’m going to go against the pattern. If you can set up a pattern as quickly as possible, it’s efficient. You set up a pattern or two, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set up a pattern of three or four or five.

We were talking about my new project and actually the reversal is one of the lessons that I’m talking about and it’s like Comedy 101.

In sitcom writer’s rooms, they have all these terms.

The reversal was just a reversal of expectation. You lead people one way and then you bring them back some other way. Which is what all jokes are. Not all but a lot.

All jokes are surprises. You got so disappointed in me.

What I’m saying is to me is a surprise is neither necessary nor sufficient. The things that are surprising do tend to be funny, as long as it’s not things that are often offensive or scary.

There are different kinds of surprises for sure.

Just creating something that’s surprising is not always comedy.

We talked about this. There’s a safe zone. I remember I was sixteen. I hang out with my friend Ross Novi and we decided we’re going to categorize every joke. We got one and then we stopped. I see it every so often. I’m excited. We called it the dead bird genre, which is when you’re walking down the street and you see a dead bird and then you pick it up. You start just chewing at it and gnawing at it and you want to be eating the whole thing. The idea is you pretend something is normal that is not normal. Everyone has experienced it or they did not. We were going to do this for thousands of things and then we didn’t.

I’m glad you have followed through on other things in your life. I’m going to ask you a couple of quick questions. As an aside, there’s a dead monkey story that is part of the reason why the Benign Violation Theory exists. The joke is I’ve already given away the punch line. Why did the monkey fall off the tree? Because he was dead. Thomas Veatch heard that joke and he said he laughed for an hour. He thought it was incredibly funny. Tom Veatch was a linguist who basically did the hard, heavy lifting that serves as a foundation for the Benign Violation Theory.

Did he smoke a lot of marijuana?

It’s possible. He did strike me as the type. He’s a quirky dude. That’s him trying to figure out why that was funny, led him down the path that basically set up the bones of what we then adjusted and tested to be the Benign Violation Theory. I won’t deconstruct it all, but in any case, your dead bird story reminded me of this. Speaking of subtitles, did the subtitle of your first book change? Originally it was A Stupid Quest for Masculinity and then it became Man Made: In Which a Dad Learns to be the Man for His Son. Why did the subtitle change?

The book sold so poorly that they rebooted for the softcover. The softcover, we went to a whole photoshoot. I took a picture with my son. They put a whole new subtitle on it. It looks like they tried to create a second book to trick people and forget the first book. It still sold horribly. It’s still the same book. It is a sweet attempt on their part and I felt so guilty about the book selling poorly that I was going to do whatever they said at that point. It’s worth a shot.

This is going to sound strange. You’ve had a rich life. I don’t know what your dating life has been like, but you’ve done fun things. Being on I Love the ‘80s, it’s work but fun and doing your Time Magazine and at the end of every issue, you had this comedy-focused column. You’re writing books, you’ve worked on scripts, network pilots and so on. How did this turn out so well for you besides that you went to Stanford?

I got particularly lucky that there were a certain time and a certain place that it plays being in Time Magazine where I can be ten inches outside of the box, which is a very safe distance but still shocking to people. It’s before the internet. It’s before people can just do whatever they want. Just fighting, just being up a little bit of a punk in that system got me a lot of attention. This guy gave me a lot of rope to hang myself with. I’ve got a lot of attention at a very young age at 27. I exploited that to go try. I didn’t exploit it in a lot of ways I probably should have career-wise, but I exploited it as far as going and having adventures of a certain kind. I got to meet a lot of people and do a lot of things.

Thank you for not using the word, “I’ve leveraged this,” because that’s one of my pet peeves.

I would have used leveraged, but I think I could have leveraged it better to get things in my career but instead, I exploited it. Is that the word I used? I realized when I first got to Time, even before I got the column, I used to have the front of the book magazine sections with charts and graphs and quizzes and funny things. I loved that stuff. One of the first things I did when I was working in that section, I was like, “For Thanksgiving, I’m going to call the most important people I can see if they will trace their hand and draw a Turkey on it. We’ll run them.” That was my overwhelming principle that I was going to take whatever power Time Magazine, for instance, was giving me and see if I can get people to do stupid things. Maybe that meant who’s going to let me throw out the first pitch. They have money. I’ll fly out to Iowa. I remember one of the first things I did, which was just a joke.

This is your stunt journalism coming out.

You’re leveraging someone else’s money and power. I remember early on I said I wanted to get my own cleanup highway signs, Adopt-a-Highway. I want to adopt a highway and put my name on it. I hated the Adopt-a-Highway concept. It bothered me. I don’t remember why, but it was driving me crazy. I looked into it and I found a sweet stretch on the five here, even though I was living in New York. It was for $10,000 or $20,000. It seems like a good deal but for a joke in a column, it’s expensive. All I needed was the no, so I emailed the publisher of Time.

You don’t even need to do it. You just need to try to do it for the column.

That was true with a lot of what I did. A lot of it was getting the interaction with Ted Turner. That was my attitude. It’s like, “We’re having a Christmas party for our little section.” I’ll be inviting Time Warner’s CNN. I would send invitations to people to get their reactions, just not even for a column, just for fun. I sent an email to the publisher and I got a yes. The next thing I know, I’m sending out a $20,000 check and putting a name on Adopt-a-Highway. I was like, “I’m operating in a whole world I don’t even understand.”

Now you know how to turn the volume up with these requests.

Just exposing that world and learning about that world was interesting to me by pushing the boundaries of it.

The last question, Joel. What are you reading or listening to that’s really good, that’s outstanding? Just one thing. Not that run-of-the-mill good but the thing that you’re like, “That’s great.” It’s okay to say nothing. I know your son is into Seinfeld.

No. He was into The Simpsons. What are you?

It’s funny, you’re a second person to turn this around on me. I had to say that at the moment I’m not. There are two podcasts that I’ve been listening to. The first one is Invest Like the Best by this guy, Patrick O’Shaughnessy and it’s nominally an investing podcast. I’m not into investing per se. I’m a hold the world guy, so I don’t ever have to make any decisions. I hold on to mutual funds. One is a Total US stock market and the other one is a Total International and also from Vanguard.


Where did you get it?

I got it from my buddy, Dan Goldstein. He actually is a previous guest and then you hold them in percentage to the GDP. Basically, it’s like 55% US, 45% world or whatever.

Doesn’t that get skewed now because all the US companies are global companies?

The problem is that the world and the US are so highly correlated, but you’re better off having both than having just one. My point is it’s as broad a diversification in equities as you can hold. I don’t do much investing. I just buy those things.

What’s in the podcast?

He has very bright, thoughtful guests and people I don’t know or wouldn’t normally listen to. I always find myself going, “These are fascinating ideas,” even if I’m not always into the topic or anything. The other one is this guy, Ben Bergeron, has a podcast called Chasing Excellence. He is a CrossFit coach, runs a CrossFit gym, but he talks about a much broader set of things than just fitness, although I consume it mostly for the fitness. I’m a fitness guy.

Are you a biohacking guy?

I’m a clean-eating guy. I work out nearly every day.

Are you running or lifting or what?

I do everything.

Do you lift every day?

No, I do a little bit of everything. Here you go asking me questions again. I’m trying to get settled in here so I don’t know many things. When in Boulder, a typical week is one day trail run, one day lifting, one day yoga, one day some high-intensity training, rinse and repeat. Calisthenics for 30 seconds on, ten seconds off or whatever.

Are you hiking here?

Not since I arrived, but I’ve done Runyon and I’ve done Griffith. I find that the glimpse into the CrossFit world and the glimpse into the very serious fitness-nutrition stuff I find fascinating even if I’m only doing 50% of it.

I’m just starting at biohacking story, so I’m doing that for the next months. You didn’t answer your question.

I’ve answered it. Don’t worry about it. Thank you. Joel, I knew this would be fun.

Was it fun?

I had a great time.

I had a good time too.

Thank you for that. Cheers.

Resources mentioned:

About Joel Stein

INJ 79 | Stunt JournalismI got to know Joel Stein when he was a staff writer for TIME magazine.

He has been on the writing on staff for two television shows and has written six network pilots. His forthcoming book is In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You’re Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book comes out in October 2019.

In it, he documents the time he spent in Roberts County, Texas, which has the highest proportion of Trump Voters in the country.


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