When people look back on their childhoods, they can sometimes pinpoint a key moment that shaped the course of their lives. For Vulture senior editor Jesse David Fox, it was a Simpsons joke about ruining two perfectly good jackets to make a third — a gag that opened his eyes to the art of joke writing. Vulture Insider Jeffrey Malone sat down with Fox (who wore Simpsons socks, naturally) to discuss how that joke set him on the path to become the first Vulture editor dedicated to comedy, his journalistic philosophy, and why wordplay is so fun.
I’ve heard that you will always tell the story to anyone within earshot of how you went from Vulture commenter to Vulture editor.
Out of college I found some writing gig on Craigslist where I could write music reviews for $25 a pop. I liked it a lot, but I did not believe people had jobs writing. It didn’t seem possible, especially not for me. I was a bad English student in high school.
Instead I tried to work in the music industry, specifically at a very large talent agency. When that company moved me to Los Angeles from New York, I quickly realized it was too corporate and that I didn’t want to be there. I applied for a million entertainment-industry jobs, and no one cared. Then my friend said, “You should start a blog.” So I did, figuring I had at least one interested party. I ended up writing these very Vulture-y essays. It was around this time that Vulture was doing Recap Commenters of the Week. Once I learned they did that, my goal was to get on there every single week so that they would notice I was there and be like, “Who is this person?”
After a year and a half in L.A., I moved to San Francisco, where I made two New Year’s resolutions: I was going to learn French, and I was going to pitch to websites. I quit French after two weeks because I had some success writing. I started writing about comedy podcasts — few people were doing it at the time, so I figured I would. I emailed Scott Aukerman to do an interview with him and [Earwolf] co-creator Jeff Ullrich. They are the first people I ever interviewed. It was probably not great, and I was so nervous, but it happened, and Splitsider ran it. Then a few great things happened quickly. I started writing weekly about TV for Jewcy.com and about comedy podcasts for Splitsider. The editor at Splitsider then asked me to recap 30 Rock, and since I had some success with making infographics in the past, I decided to recap the show all in graph form.
A few weeks into that, [former Vulture senior editor] Willa Paskin then found me on Twitter, and I freaked out, you know? She asked if I would ever like to do anything for Vulture. I was like, “Yes! Hey, I do these graphs. I could do them for the Oscars.” First I did the Grammys, actually, but when I did the Oscars, it became a top story on the homepage of New York Magazine. I was paid real money for it, and that kind of raised my profile.
What was the earliest age that you had some inkling—
Oh, that I wanted to be a writer?
Yeah. Regardless of how much you thought you could succeed at it.
I wrote poems in high school. They weren’t good. They were actually very, very bad, but I wrote them. Senior year I had a teacher who seemed to respect my opinions more. He was the first person that I think acknowledged maybe a creative career path was possible. And one day my dad said, “I can imagine you being a writer, just because you believe in your opinions.”
I remember a Simpsons joke from “Secrets of a Successful Marriage”; I must’ve been about 10 or 11. Homer says something to the effect of, “I’m so excited to be a teacher. I even sewed patches on my elbows.” And Marge says, “Homer, you idiot, it’s leather patches on a tweed jacket. You ruined a perfectly good jacket.” “Ah ah ah,” Homer goes. “Correction, Marge” — he holds up his jacket and there’s two holes cut out of the back of it — “I ruined two perfectly good jackets.” And to me that was the funniest thing in the world, and I realized: A person wrote that. That was the first time I ever thought about the fact that people write jokes.
Was there ever a moment where it crystallized for you, and it’s like, “Yeah, Vulture is— ”
Where I’m supposed to be? You know, my first week at Vulture we had a pitch meeting, and they told me, “You don’t have to have ideas.” But I had four ideas, and they liked them all. Vulture was a place where I was allowed to be funny. I did a post about how Emily Blunt’s American accent is more believable than her British accent. That’s still, in my opinion, a good idea for a post. Within my first three days, I was like, “I can’t believe it’s exactly what I hoped it would be.”
As someone who’s read this site forever, I pride myself on the fact that my role is keeper of the Vulture voice, and that I can so easily nail this voice. An embarrassing example: Kate Winslet was on Kimmel or something, and she mentioned that she keeps her Oscars in the bathroom and can tell if people are holding them up because they take a little bit longer after they flush. And I pitched this story when I was a news editor: “Hey, could you write this up? The headline would be ‘Kate Winslet Knows What You’re Doing in Her Bathroom.’” And Lane Brown, our culture czar, says, “Hey, wait a second.” And he pulls up a link from 2008 or 2009 with the headline ”Kate Winslet Knows What You’re Doing in Her Bathroom.” Exact same story, exact same headline. And I was like, Holy shit. I have so internalized the Vulture angle that I can perfectly quote a post I must have read seven years ago.
When you’re writing an article, what is your goal? What do you consider your responsibility as a writer, and as a Vulture writer specifically?
There was an essay about essays in the New York Times or T magazine a few years ago. I don’t remember much of it other than the idea that an essay is never meant to be a final opinion on a matter. And I think that idea has been completely lost on the internet. You know, everyone’s a reactionary, and I am not that. Not being a reactionary is a goal of mine as a human being.
I like writing sentences now. I used to not be as much of a sentence writer. I used to be more of a gestalt-type person. I wrote a thing about why the new Samantha Bee show is really, really good, and I still think it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. Not because the argument is so great, but because there are so many really good sentences in it.
Or sometimes it’s just fun. If I’m interviewing someone, I’m having fun. Interviewing the Kimmy Schmidt writing team was possibly the most fun I’m ever gonna have, because I love wonky joke mechanics, and the fact that other people do, too, is really wonderful to me.
Which shows from your childhood have shaped how you live your life, and which shows inform your worldview?
The answer to everything childhood-TV-related is going to be The Simpsons. That’s a show where jokes — and their writers — are the kings of the world. It’s what the world would be like if smart people ran it.
What’s so great about comedy is that you can tell if it’s art or not. There’s a clear line between the craft of being a comedian and the art of being a comedian, and I’m judging the art of comedians. Because it’s so personal, it allows for what is essentially self-inspired, really artistic invention, and that is something I learned from seeing actual art. I’m really into photography. Not taking it, consuming it. It’s similar. It’s the art of enjoying a particular and unique view of the world. You know, a lot of art is that way: Oh, hey, this is a voice that I have, and here’s my worldview.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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