Craig Newmark

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Below is an interview I did with Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist (as it turns out, there is a Craig, and he’s very real).

Before we start, here are 5 things you should know about Craig:

1. Craig is 63 years old, lives in San Francisco, and happily describes himself as a full-blown nerd. In college, he studied computer science, then worked for IBM, GM, Bank of America, and Charles Schwab until the late 1990s when he started craigslist. At the time, he just wanted to post about social events in San Francisco. Then it expanded to other classified categories. Now it’s one of the ten most-visited English language web platforms on the planet.

2. Craig no longer runs the company, but he remains active as a customer service representative. He responds to emails personally and deals with spammers. Seriously!  He also operates Craigconnects, which publicizes charitable organizations. He also tweets a lot – you can follow him here.

3. Craigslist’s main source of revenue is paid job ads in select American cities. They don’t run ads the way most other sites do, so they don’t make much money (or as much as you would expect from a top 10 website). CEO Jim Buckmaster told Wall Street analysts that craigslist has little interest in maximizing profit, and instead prefers to help users find cars, apartments, jobs and dates.

4. Craig is, uh, a socially awkward guy. I guess we’re all awkward in our own special ways, but Craig has written and talked about it publicly. In 2009, he wrote: Whenever I hear the symptoms associated with Asperger’s, they feel uncomfortably familiar. In my case, let’s say my capacity for social behavior is a bit limited, and it’s a good thing my work is mostly in front of a screen.

5. And perhaps because of that, he gives famously short answers. Read any interview, and you’ll see that his responses are rarely more than a sentence or two. This one is no different.

And with that – Craig Newmark, welcome to the blog.

Craig, you’ve said before that you built craigslist “with no vision whatsoever.” You never had a business plan, never had a grand vision for the company, and yet it has turned into one of the most significant and widely-used sites on the web. How did this happen?

– I listened to the community continuously
– I added functionality that people wanted and needed
– Kept it simple, resisting the urge to fix what wasn’t broken
– Remained true to community vision, minimally monetized, didn’t sell out
– Turned over management to Jim, when I realized I suck as a manager

Jim continues on this tradition, since 2000.

What was the biggest challenge about starting craigslist? And what is craigslist’s biggest challenge today?

No real challenge, since it didn’t occur to me that I was starting anything other than a hobby.

You’re famously modest – or as you say it, realistic. You’ve described craigslist as a community service. You don’t advertise on the site – you’ve never ‘sold out’, so you don’t generate the type of money that other top websites do. It’s such a unique and admirable approach – other than Wikipedia, I can’t think of another top website that operates like that. You don’t focus on growth, so much as you focus on keeping a good thing going. Where did this approach come from, and why is it so important to you?

Fundamentally, this arose from values drummed into me in Sunday School:

– Treat people like you want to be treated
– Know when enough is enough

Also including a sense of commitment.

Where do you get your news? And given that there are so many media sources, how do you find ‘the good stuff’?

Many sources, maybe thirty RSS feeds, similar number of podcasts. Also, regularly read Washington Post, NY Times, etc., and listen to public radio.

I was perusing your Twitter (you tweet a lot), and it’s clear that you are very passionate about politics. There is so much about this election that makes me want to crawl into a hole, but the main issue I have is that there seems to be a complete disregard for facts. I’m talking about Trump, specifically. Anyway, part of me views this election with complete and utter shock at who we’ve become as a people. But part of me also wants to believe that the majority of us are good and reasonable and intelligent and in the end things will be fine. What do you think?

I think there are far more honest people of good will than people whose way of looking at things is “truthiness.”

You’ve written openly about how you can identify with Asperger’s. Whenever I hear the symptoms associated with Asperger’s, they feel uncomfortably familiar. You’ve also said that your capacity for social behavior is a bit limited. How do you feel about this today? Is it something you think about?

As an old-school nerd, I have little instinct for social norms or convention.

Nowadays, I can simulate social skills, maybe as long as ninety minutes at a time.

You’ve done a number of public appearances – interviews on TV, podcasts, a TED talk. Do you enjoy talking about yourself and your company? Do you hate it? Is it nerve-wracking? Exciting? Scary? Awesome? Unnatural? Diarrhea-inducing? All the above?

I like talking about the stuff I believe in, because that helps promote the people who are effective in such areas, and because I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished.

Fun to do, particularly if I feel I’m being funny. (Note to self: I’m not as funny as I think I am.)

Four favorite bands of all time? Leonard Cohen

Do you watch sports? I’m a nerd, no sports

Who do you look up to? Jimmy Wales, Linus Torvalds

What is the wallpaper on your phone? Dark gray

Explain your life’s mission in 12 words? “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


And finally, I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but some people like to brag about how little sleep they get. I find this abhorrent. Sleep is good, and I like to get a lot of it. In a few sentences, please describe your thoughts on sleep.

I don’t sleep as soundly as I should. Might need to ask Arianna.

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Jeff Fleishman

Every now and then, I will Google myself, just to make sure everything’s OK in case IMPORTANT PEOPLE need to Google me. And whenever I google my name, I tend to check out the other Jeffrey Fleishman’s. What are my fellow brethren doing with their lives? As it turns out, there are quite a few of us. One is a writer. One owns his own business. One plays the french horn. One drives a truck. One is a rabbi.

Today’s guest is one of those Jeffrey Fleishman’s. He is an award winning author and columnist for the Los Angeles Times. A longtime foreign correspondent, he covered the Iraq War and served as bureau chief in Cairo and Berlin. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in feature writing, and he was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting. He is also the author of two novels.

You can follow Jeffrey on Twitter here, and read through his archives here.

Jeffrey Fleishman, papa, welcome to the blog.

Jeff, I’m going to start by asking: what are your overall thoughts on the name Jeff Fleishman?

Well, I’ve had it since birth, and I’ve gotten used to it.  It seems strange, but I’ve always felt like a Jeff Fleishman. I never felt like I needed to replace my first name. I don’t have any identity issues with it. I suppose that’s probably healthy.

I don’t know if the Jeff and the Fleishman actually go together. It’s an interesting combination, a cultural coming-together.

How often do you Google yourself?

Not much, only if I’m looking for a news story that I can’t find in a file somewhere. Are there a lot of us out there?

There are a few of us. One drives a truck. One owns his own business.

Interesting.

Did you have any name-related nicknames growing up? Mine were Fleish, The Oleo Kid, Jeffe, and Beef.

Yeah, people called me Fleish sometimes. I’m sure the same is true for you, but I also got a lot of mispronounciations like ‘Fleeshman.’ And lot of people would write the I before the E, or put a C in it, or add an extra N at the end.

OK, let’s get serious. You were a war correspondent in Iraq. In a recent column, you wrote: 

During the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, I was traveling with my fixer on territory held by Al Qaeda-linked militants. American bombs rumbled down from the sky as hundreds of villagers fled their homes in a caravan of cars, trucks and tractors. Moments after we interviewed a few of them, a suicide bomber exploded and bodies were scattered amid flame and smoke.

Whoa. How did you become a war correspondent?

I always wanted to write since I was really small. And my dad was in the navy, and he would go away for a long time, so I was always curious about what the world was like. As I got older, I really got the travel bug. Back then, newspapers were big and fat and rich, so I joined newspapers with the intention of going overseas and becoming a foreign correspondent. And that often rolled into war reporting.

What do you remember about 2003?

It was very early in the war – the scene you described was during the invasion. Actually, before the war started, I was based in Berlin. In late December 2002, I went into Iran with the intention of crossing the mountains into Iraq to wait for when war came, or when it didn’t. I crossed there on New Year’s Day. And then I was basically living in the mountains in Northern Iraq in a town called Sulaymaniyah. Then the war came, and I started doing reporting in the north.

Your fixer once said to you, “Let me see your passport. I want to see what escape looks like.” I imagine that sticks with you.

Not only is it an escape, but it’s an escape to this place that they had heard about for so long. In that area, America means so many different things to people – it could be blonde girls in California, or New York City – so there’s just this huge mysticism around America. A lot of people attach human rights to it, and they think America is the good force in the world. I think that still exists to some extent, but it’s been modified over time.

You’re in Iraq, or Afghanistan, in the trenches of war. You see death and destruction and utter chaos. The world is literally burning around you. How do you even attempt to deal with that?

For me, when you’re in situations like that, a sort of primal instinct kicks in. It’s about survival. All of the senses are heightened – smell, sight, everything. When you’re war reporting, you don’t always have time to stop and write because everything is in flux all the time. But you train yourself to take it in, and then when you get to a place where it’s relatively calm, you adjust.

Once you’re there, I think war reporting on the ground is easier because the drama is right in front of you. You don’t have to dress it up, you don’t have to reach for it. The challenge is to parse it and keep it simple and not over-dramatize it.

What is the most intense scene you’ve witnessed?

Iraq in the early days was bad. You had waves of suicide bombers, you had the insurgency, then you had Al Qaeda, and kidnappers, just a whirl of violence. Explosions constantly. It was always a tense time going into Iraq. Libya was crazy too because you had a bunch of people who were just running around and looting and firing big Kalashnikov’s and 50 caliber rifles and trucks – it was like farcical and dangerous at the same time.

But probably the most intense thing I did was in the mid-90s. We accompanied Buddhist monks and nuns over the Himalayas into Nepal and then into India. They were escaping Chinese soldiers. We spent a good portion of the trek crossing the mountains and getting up to these really high altitudes, while trying to dodge Chinese soldiers. It wasn’t war, but between the environment and the harsh conditions – and also the beauty – it was magical and spooky.

I don’t want to come across as insensitive here, but you’ve seen some shit. Have you ever had symptoms of PTSD?

Some of the people I worked with had mild cases of PTSD. Thankfully, I don’t sense anything welling up inside of me. But it’s interesting you ask that, because I’m just finishing up my third novel, and it’s about an Iraqi veteran who did four or five tours, and he’s coping with something called ‘moral injury.’ It’s this thing where the ethical and moral boundaries of your inner gyroscope have been screwed up. You don’t really have trauma, or flashbacks, but you can’t get over what you did or saw. It’s more of a psychological and emotional term, as opposed to the standard post-traumatic stress.

Oof. Ok. Can you tell me a funny or happy story from your travels?

No matter how weird things got, there were always intense moments that would turn into laughter. When you’re in those situations, and then things loosen up, the humor comes pretty quickly. Your body wants to change. Your mind wants a new landscape.

One of the funnier stories: Pope John Paul II was holding a mass in Beirut. My fixer (translator) and I stood to watch as his signature white car approached. We pushed through the crowd toward the car. The Pope passed us, and then my fixer turned to me and yelled: The pope has run over my foot.

One time I was interviewing some guy, and he was talking passionately in another language that I didn’t understand, with words and adjectives flying all over the place. And then I asked my translator what he said, and he looked at me and said: War is bad.

Your first book was called Promised Virgins: A Novel of Jihad. An Amazon reviewer called it an ‘iffy’ title, which I would agree with. It’s about a journalist in Kosovo who hears about a mysterious bearded foreigner, bearing weapons and money and preaching Holy War. Heavy stuff. Why did you decide to write about this?

I wrote the book after the Kosovo War while I was covering the Iraq War. As much freedom as you have in narrative newspaper writing, there were still some things you couldn’t get to. The novel gave me the freedom to express different things that I couldn’t do in journalism.

I had originally titled it Promised Virgins. It wasn’t a novel of Jihad. And then there was some debate in the publishing house about it. They said if it was just Promised Virgins, it might sound like the Virgin Suicides, and they wanted to make a distinction. And the other thing was that Jihad means war, but it also means personal struggle.

Every week or so, you write a column in the LA Times. In the last two months, you’ve written about a bunch of wide-ranging topics: Hollywood’s threat to boycott production in Georgia over proposed anti-gay legislation, Tina Fey in Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, an anti-NRA film, and the Sunnylands retreat of late billionaire Walter H. Annenberg. How do you choose your stories?

I try to pick the stories based on my interests. Now that I’m doing more arts and cultural stuff, I try to write about things that still matter to society at large. I did a story about prescription drug abuse, one about the legalization of marijuana, plus all of the one’s you mentioned. Right now I’m working on a piece about anger in America, and how art is or is not speaking to that. So I try to do pieces that speak to what’s going on in society, through art.

**Five rapid fire questions**

Three of your biggest influences in writing: Ernest Hemingway, my first publisher Charlie Ryan, and a professor I had in college who really encouraged me to go for it and not think about boundaries.

In a sentence or two, what do you think of today’s political climate: It’s like a circus wrapped inside a car accident that fell down a cliff.

4 of your favorite movies of all time: Citizen Kane, The Godfather Part I and II, Embrace of the Serpent

6 of your favorite bands/artists of all time: The Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Stan Getz, Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Thelonious Monk

Best place you’ve ever visited? Worst? Best: Rome. Just beautiful. Every day walking around was wonderful. Worst: Any war zone when the water and the power go out.

And, finally, there is a chapter in Freakonomics called A Roshanda by Any Other Name. It poses the questions: What kind of signal does your name send to the world? Does your name correlate with economic status and education? Sometimes I wonder how much of my life, and your life, would be different if we weren’t Jeff Fleishman. If your name was, I don’t know, Marvin Rump, do you think your life be any different?

It could be. I think when you are given a name, you are given an identity by someone else, but is that really who you are? And if you’re not that, who would you be? You become subsumed by your name so much, and disentangling yourself from it and imagining yourself as someone else is … odd.

You’re Jeff Fleishman, and I’m Jeff Fleishman, born at different times and on different trajectories, but we’re still true to the lives and the names that were given to us, right? So yeah, if we were both Marvin Rump, I wonder what kind of conversation we would be having. It’s an interesting question. I imagine there would be some shade of difference.

I wouldn’t have interviewed you if your name was Marvin Rump. I don’t think anyone would.

That’s absolutely right.

Jeff Pearlman

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You may remember I used to interview people fairly regularly on this here weblog. I haven’t interviewed anyone since I spoke with Susan Bennett (the voice of Siri) eight months ago. But now I’m bringing it back! This week I had the great pleasure of speaking with writer, blogger, tweeter, and overall cool dude Jeff Pearlman.

Jeff is a New York Times best-selling author of six books. He is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer, a former ESPN.com columnist, and a former staff writer for Newsday and The Nashville Tennessean. On his website, he describes himself like this: I’m a former (awful) cross country and track runner at the University of Delaware, I’m a lover of all things Hall and Oates, I have ridiculously thin skin and my wife is only 5-feet tall. We have two children, and a dog, Norma, named after a grandmother.

Jeff also writes one of my favorite blogs, where he writes about coffee shops, public restrooms, and the process of writing a book. He also interviews a different person every week, which he calls the Quaz. Every. Single. Week. For the last four years. It’s a ridiculous pace.

I’ve mentioned the Quaz before, because it was really the inspiration for the interviews on my blog. I knew at some point I’d have to talk to Jeff. And here we are.

Jeff, welcome to the blog.

Back in 2008 I was a junior in high school, and you gave a talk at a writer’s conference. I went to your session along with maybe 20 other high schoolers. You ended your talk by offering a copy of your book to the first person to name three players on the 1983 Yankees. I knew the answer immediately because I am a dork. I named Ron Guidry, Dave Winfield, and Bobby Murcer. Now, here we are eight years later, and I’d like to ask you to name three other players on the 1983 Yankees.

Are you joking, I can name like a zillion! Steve Balboni, Don Mattingly, Ken Griffey Sr., Andre Robertson, Bobby Meacham, Mike Pagliarulo (editors note: Mike Pagliarulo was not on the 1983 Yankees), Dave Righetti, Butch Wynegar, Rick Cerone, I could go on.

How do you deal with stress? Not the shit, I have a flat tire type of stress. I’m talking about the am I doing the right thing and being a good person and making the right decisions and living a good life type of stress?

Once you have kids it’s very overwhelming: Am I raising my kid right? Am I setting the right example? Am I letting her watch TV too much? I question myself all the time. Even with books, I question myself. Is this mature? Is this being fair? Is this actually right of me to use this material? Do I have too much of a writer’s hat on and not enough human? Is this going to ruin someone’s life?  It burdens me.

It’s a cliché, but you hope you do more right than wrong. But I’m as big of a screw-up as anybody.

You tend to use your blog as a catharsis for stuff that you’re dealing with.

Yes, and the problem is that no one can really give you the right answer. We all have different moral codes. A lot of times I throw stuff out there hoping someone will make me feel better about myself, but it’s kind of impossible. I was raised by Jewish parents in Mahopac, New York, but someone else might have been raised by a single mom in Alabama, or Canada, or wherever. We all have different experiences to guide us. I put stuff out there, I hope someone will make me feel better about myself, but it usually doesn’t work.

I think we all just want validation. Especially writers.

Of course. A lot of people say they don’t need validation, but everyone who writes or sings or performs needs feedback. Sometimes it’s self-mutilation in a way, because you can put stuff out there and people are going to destroy you for it, and then other times it’s joyful. But all people have a need for affirmation.

I do think about this a lot. None of it really matters. Eventually we’re all dead. And whatever legacy you have, you’re not even around for. I don’t know. I sound ridiculous.

You also write a lot about poop and pee and boogers. 

I’m still a twelve year old boy. I just love talking about that stuff. I don’t have a reason, but my kids think it’s funny. My wife thinks it’s nasty. I’m comfortable with that.

What is your biggest problem right now?

My 12 year old daughter and her stupid iPhone. She’s a good kid, she gets good grades, she’s a truly great daughter. But parenting now is really weird. She always wants to be on her phone – messaging friends, playing games, etc. – and the parent in me is like, come on! But for kids, it’s the center of their social universe.

It’s just not anything I dealt with as a kid, and it’s easy to judge from afar, but it’s really a pain in the ass. 

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I read an interesting blog post today about Abundance. We can get unlimited music for a few bucks a month. Unlimited movies and TV shows for a few bucks a month. Unlimited news and journalism, free. Unlimited access to dating partners on Tinder and Hinge and Bumble. Facebook is free, Twitter is free, YouTube is free. Everything is free. It’s great to have so many options but… I wonder if Abundance is killing us, you know?

It feels like nothing is special anymore. This is going to make me sound like an old fogey, but when I was a kid, my parents would be like, Who wants to go to the movies on Friday night? And I’d be like, YEAH!! THAT’S AWESOME! Or we’d go to the roller rink. And it was special. Things were, like, big, you know?

God, this makes me sound so old. But you’d have your little cable TV with your 20 viable channels. And even if you had the one HBO channel, they’d be showing Ghostbusters, and you’d be like Oh my God, Ghostbusters is on!! 

But now there’s so much easy access to everything. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, because it really isn’t, but it definitely takes away from the specialness.

You’ve written six books. In a few words, what do you remember about writing each book?

The Bad Guys Won! Virginal ignorance and innocence.

Love Me Hate Me. Worst guy I’ve ever written about (Barry Bonds).

Boys Will Be Boys. Charles Haley masturbating.

The Rocket That Fell to Earth. Least enjoyable book experience.

Sweetness. Most enjoyable, and most interesting, and most haunting, and most fascinating book experience.

Showtime. I thought it wasn’t a good book, and then everybody seemed to like it.

I get the sense that guys like Tom Verducci and Buster Olney still love to cover baseball on a daily basis. But one of the things you’ve written about is how your relationship with baseball really suffered after covering the sport for a few years. The season was long, and the players were assholes, and you realized there were more important things than waiting an hour to get one inane quote from Will Clark. Do you think your strained relationship with baseball is a byproduct of your personality, or some bad experiences, or something else?

I never hated baseball. I got tired of the repetition. I love Sports Illustrated, I still love Sports Illustrated, they were the best group of people I’ve ever worked with, but I didn’t want to be someone settling into a career for 20 or 30 years because it was secure. It’s just not me.

It could have been baseball, it could have been football, I don’t think it mattered what I was covering. I think I would have gotten tired of the repetition no matter what.

My family and I moved to California a year and a half ago. We have no ties in California whatsoever. We left a lot friends and all of our family in New York. And people were like, why did you do that? The reason we did it is because life is short. There’s a lot out there. It’s very easy to settle into a pattern, and all of a sudden 20 years have passed, and you don’t even remember which year was which, and everything merges together.

Your most famous story was the John Rocker profile in Sports Illustrated. It (rightfully) painted him as a racist, bigoted, terrible human being. When the story broke, you were suddenly cast into the limelight. On a side note, ‘cast into the limelight’ is a weird phrase. Anyway, you were suddenly famous, albeit on a small scale. What was that like?

It was miserable. Self-promotional journalism was not that big then. There was still this mindset that journalists are supposed to tell the story, not be part of the story. I don’t mind attention, but this was different.

It was really awkward. I was 27, young in the biz, I had been a fairly obscure baseball writer, and all of a sudden I was the center of attention. I did not enjoy it.

But you were put in an almost impossible position. You met John Rocker, and then he proceeded to say a bunch of racist and xenophobic and horrible stuff. You can’t just not report that, right?

Right. I think Rocker is a buffoon, and I never felt like I did anything wrong. He was very accurately quoted, completely in context. Your job as a journalist, especially when you are doing long profiles on people, is to get them to open up. And here’s this guy who is completely opening up to you about how he thinks and how he feels. And you’re supposed to ignore it because it might not portray him well? I never thought I was in the business of protecting racists.

How do you feel about the whole thing now?

I can look back and laugh. I mean, you had Eastbound and Down, where Kenny Powers was basically John Rocker. And in hindsight, I can’t say it hurt my career. You do grow from those experiences. Everyone has their moments in journalism that are really embarrassing and really horrifying, and that was my first.

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Less than 1% of people have their own Wikipedia. What is it like having one?

It’s funny because every now and then someone will throw stuff on there. If I write something really bad, someone will be like Jeff Pearlman has sex with pigs. 

It’s weird how certain things that didn’t exist when I got into the business (a Wikipedia page, a blue check on Twitter) now carries currency. I don’t really care.

But it is a form of validation, no?

But by who?

Here’s the thing – you enter journalism and you just want to make it. I don’t know what that means, but I really wanted to make it. I wanted to have a career, a really good and enjoyable career. Back when I started in the business, that was about working at Sports Illustrated. But now it’s about never wearing shoes, and picking up my kids from the bus stop. It’s provided this amazing life for me where I’m able to live in Southern California, and have this chill existence, and I get to write books for a living. It’s a frikkin’ joke.

I try not to take shots at people any more, because it’s bad karma, but the one guy in the business I can’t understand is Jason Whitlock. I feel like he takes his job too seriously. He sees himself as very important. He writes like he doesn’t have kids, like his writing is the center of the world. And that used to be me, but I was 25 years old. As you get older, you realize it’s a joke. Having this career is a gift.

Again, we’re not that important, we’re all going to die, we’ll all be forgotten.

We are both named Jeff. My family still calls me Jeffrey, but all of my friends call me Jeff. Is the same true for you?

It is not. No one calls me Jeffrey, except for one friend I grew up with named Frank Zaccheo. And my college roommate calls me Jeffrey. My nephews and sister-in-law call me Jeffy. Everyone else calls me Jeff.

Like you, I was raised Jewish, I went to Hebrew School at a reformed temple, I had a Bar Mitzvah. But over the years, I’ve lost touch with a lot of my Jewish roots. My priorities have changed. Where do you currently stand with the Jewish people?

Well, my daughter had her Bat Mitzvah two weeks ago, which was great. My wife always says we’re culturally Jewish. I definitely don’t believe in God in the way that there’s this higher being controlling our actions and judging all of us. To be honest, I think that’s kind of asinine.

I feel like being Jewish is like being Italian or African American or Hispanic. It’s more than just a religion, it’s a culture. Like, there are tons of times you meet someone and … you just know they’re Jewish. I did a story in 1995 for the Nashville Tennessean on Peyton Manning, when he was in college. I traveled to New Orleans and met his second grade teacher. And I knew she was Jewish as soon as I started talking to her. And all of a sudden we’re playing Jewish geography. That kind of stuff is powerful, and it’s real. I’m quite happy to be Jewish.

This is the tenth interview I’ve done on my blog, but I’ve probably been turned down twenty or thirty times. It’s tough because I’m just a random dude on the internet and no one knows who I am. Maybe I’m too ambitious – I’ve tried to interview people like Buzz Aldrin and Madeline Albright and T-Pain. Do you get a lot of Quaz rejects?

All the time. I’m just a random dude on the internet too. It really infuriates me when people agree and then they don’t do it. I tried to do one with Young MC the rapper. When I was a senior in high school, I was all about Bust a Move. I ran cross country and that was our theme song. So I reached out to him, his name is Marvin Young,  and he was like, Definitely I’ll do it. Never heard back from him.

But then I got, like, Michael Dukakis, who ran for President in 1988. That was a good gem for me.  I think I’m up to 245, so when people see you’ve done it week after week after week, they know you take it seriously.

Are you just going to keep doing these weekly interviews until the end of time?

I have these moments where I’m like, I’m not doing this anymore. This week I did one with a transgender kid, and the thing got no views. Nobody cared. But then I did one a few weeks ago with a professional prostitute, and it was huge, it was re-tweeted all over the place.

The Quaz is like my consecutive game streak. It’s my Ripken. I want to get to 300.

Please name five random, obscure baseball players from the late 90s/early 2000s.

Sure. Kerry Ligtenberg. He had great lamb chop sideburns. Timo Perez. Jose Cruz, Jr. Marvin Benard. And the late Mike Darr.

Please name five more.

Um. Neifi Perez. Dmitri Young. Melvin Mora. Sal Fasano. Joe Randa.

**Rapid fire questions**

What was the last thing you Googled? Someone told me today that Donald Trump’s spokesperson called Barack Obama a half-breed. And I was like, there’s no way that happened. So I googled it, and she was right. Nothing surprises me anymore.

What is the wallpaper on your phone? I was in a restaurant bathroom, and they had a sign that said: Make Each Day a Little Better Than the One Before. So I took a picture of it and now it’s my background.

Nicest athletes you’ve covered? Sal Fasano. Brian Johnson. Torii Hunter. Sean Casey. I teach a class out here, and Jeanie Buss, the owner of Lakers, drove an hour and a half to speak to my students. She was fantastic.

Meanest athletes you’ve covered? Barry Bonds. John Rocker. Will Clark. Albert Belle. But there are truly a million more nice people.

What do you remember about Angel Berroa? I remember he was with the Yankees briefly. Guys like that fascinate me. They come, and they go, and they vanish into the abyss. Then they never enter our thoughts again.

I don’t really like Hall and Oates. Why am I wrong? They’re freakin’ awesome. You gotta go back to the 70s and listen to their first album. Their 80s stuff is not as good. 

What do you want to be doing in 30 years? I’ll be 73 years old. I don’t want to be retired and sitting around. My wife and I always have this discussion. She wouldn’t mind being retired and taking a jewelry class. I would really struggle with that. Maybe I’ll feel different about this when I’m older, but I’d want to pack up my stuff and travel across Europe for a year. 

Your Quaz inspired me to start this interview series. Who are some of the your favorite Quazes? Dukakis. I did one with my friend who has MS. Shawn Green, the former Dodger outfielder, was very good. I did one with a member of the American Nazi Party. The hooker was great. Honestly, I would rather interview a guy mowing the lawn across the street than Steph Curry. That’s why the Quaz exists, to interview random people about random things.

And, finally, you’re a guy who knows some things. In other interviews you’ve done, you’re almost always asked for advice you would give to aspiring sportswriters. I’d like to end this interview by asking: what is your advice for aspiring adults who just want to be, I don’t know, good and thoughtful and decent?

I might need that advice. This is not a direct answer, but I see a lot of people who became adults and just gave up…on something. I don’t know what happened. You were a 20-something, you were working at your college newspaper, you were going out drinking, maybe you were smoking pot, and you were excited about the world. You were psyched about life, and you wanted to try new things. But somewhere along the way, for a lot of people, they just lose that. Life becomes about working 60 hours a week, and you get home and all you want to do is watch TV and veg out. And then the weekend comes, and you have to mow the lawn. I don’t know, people just lose it. You start settling. Life trudges along, and all of a sudden 20 years have passed, and you have this existence that you don’t feel excited about.

So – I don’t know what it means to be a good person. But when you get older, it’s very easy to settle into a pattern. Maybe you go to law school because it seems like you can make a lot of money, even though you’re not that excited about law. And then you’re paying off loans, so you have to be a lawyer, because there’s so much money you owe. And then the only law firm that will hire you is this nightmarish company. But the perks are good, and maybe you get a bonus at the end of the year. And all of a sudden two years becomes five, and five becomes ten, and it takes over your life. I see it happen all the time, and it depresses the hell out of me. But you don’t have to let that happen.

Interviews, one year later

One year ago, I posted my first interview with the wonderful Jerry Dale. Then, over the course of a year, I did eight more. It’s been one of the most enjoyable parts of writing this blog. I’ve had a chance to speak with some really special people. I’d like to continue doing these interviews for the next 70 years or so.

My inspiration for this was Jeff Pearlman’s Quaz. Jeff is a former writer for Sports Illustrated, he’s a big-wig author of some best-selling books, he writes an excellent and weird blog, and he’s got his own Wikipedia page, so he’s able to snag some quality talent (though I’m quite proud of the guests I’ve booked!). He does one of these every week. I can’t even imagine. I’ve done nine in a year.

A few of my loyal readers have asked me how I get these people to do an interview. It’s simple. I use this awesome internet tool called Google, I find their contact information, I fly to their location, I show up at their doorstep, and I force them to answer questions. If that doesn’t work, I send them a nice email and hope for the best.

I do all of the interviews over the phone. I call the person, or they call me. I put the phone on speaker and record it in on my laptop. There’s usually some chit-chat at the beginning, and I re-introduce myself so that they don’t forget who they’re talking to, and then I dive right into it. Most of the calls last about 30 minutes.

Then I begin the painstaking operation of typing it all up.

I take a lot of pride in my preparation. I’ll spend hours combing through other interviews they’ve done, I’ll read up on their life story, and then I do my best to formulate interesting and thought provoking questions. Many of them are the same – What’s your story? How did this happen? What’s next for you? But, I also try to give each interview its own distinct flavor.

I geeked out the most over Aaron Small. The guy singlehandedly saved the 2005 Yankees. He’s also the nicest guy ever. When I told him how old I was, he called me a young pup.

Eddy Elfenbein continues to fight the good fight over at Crossing Wall Street. I loved his answer to what we can expect over the next four decades:

I am always an optimist. I think we are going to have a very robust stock market. I think there are going to be tons of innovative companies that will bring us lots of new toys to play with. I think people will live longer and they will be healthier, and I think it will be a more peaceful world. I think the market is a great place to be and will continue to be a great place to be. The free exchange on the market is one of the great inventions in human history.

Arthur Chu is my hero. He was a Jeopardy champion 11 times and did it in such a unique and awesome way. Many devoted fans criticized his Forrest Bounce strategy. He tried to put this in perspective.  I think being willing to accept that not everyone might like you is part of not going crazy with this stuff.

Sean Forman created the greatest website on the internet – baseball-reference.com. He also named three really random baseball players when we talked: Arquimedez Pozo, Wayne Gomes, and Brook Fordyce.

Lois Lowry wrote The Giver, one of the most popular children’s books of all time. In my interview, she successfully spoke the words pedantic and moralistic without coming across as pretentious. When I asked her what her goals were, she said: I hope my brain doesn’t start to atrophy.

Susan Bennett is the original voice of Siri and indulged me by saying this in her Siri voice.

Lucas Gray is an animator on the Simpsons. I like drawing some of the weirder characters. Mr. Burns is kind of challenging to draw. I feel like when I get him, it’s a bit of a victory. Moe is a weird one, I like him. Barney. I like drawing Grandpa.

Marty Schwartz taught me the guitar via the internet. He also was the first person to go “off the record,” which made me feel really cool.

But my favorite interview was the first one with Mr. Jerry Dale.

A brief refresher on how I managed to find Jerry Dale – back in April 2014, I wrote a blog post about a baseball game in 1972 where Dock Ellis tried to hit every hitter on the Reds. Ellis was eventually removed from the game after five batters. I asked myself – who was the home plate umpire that night? because that’s the type of thing I ask myself. I went to Google. I found out it was Jerry Dale. I found out he was still alive. I then found out he retired from baseball, moved to Africa, and became an African safari tour guide. And then I thought: I need to talk to this man.

And, boy, did we talk. We spent a good hour on the phone. He told me about the game, about his career in baseball, about his life in Africa. And then we became something like pen pals.

A few weeks later, Jerry sent me this email:

Hi Jeffrey,

I want to send you a book that you cannot live without.  Don’t want to tell
you what it’s about, will surprise you with one of the top books in the USA.

I wondered, what could it be? A New York Times best-seller? 50 Shades of Grey? Harry Potter? A few weeks later, this arrived:

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Thanks, Jerry.

Susan Bennett

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The other night, I was talking to my phone. Set my alarm for 8am. What is the weather tomorrow?  When is Game 6 of the NBA Finals? Remind me to pick up my dry cleaning. Also, how do I live a fulfilling life and make a meaningful contribution to society? And then Siri spit out the answers, she set my reminders, and she refused to answer the only question that matters.

And then I thought – wait a minute, there is a real person behind Siri. Someone, at some time, recorded this. What’s her name? Who is she? What’s her story?

Enter Susan Bennett, the voice of Siri.

Susan has been doing voice-over work for years. Her career began in the 1970s when she recorded the voice of Tillie the All-Time Teller for the first ATMs. She is the voice of all Delta terminals. Her voice has been used in advertisements for Ford, Coke, McDonald’s, Visa, Macy’s, and many other companies. You can visit her website here and follow her on Twitter here.

Hello, Siri. Welcome to the blog.

Susan, how did you become Siri?

To tell you the truth, I don’t know exactly how my voice was chosen. The recordings were done in 2005, back in the dark ages of technology. At the time I was doing digital recordings for text-to-speech companies. I, along with many other voice actors, knew we were working for phone systems, but we thought it would be for messaging. No one, other than Steve Jobs, could really envision what they were planning to do with the voices.

I did the basic vocabulary that became the original voice of Siri, but I don’t know if my voice was chosen by the man who created Siri, or if it was done after the fact by Apple. The Siri app was created and fully realized by a Norwegian man named Dag Kittlaus. Apple eventually bought it for $200 million.

At the time we couldn’t imagine that the iPhone would exist, let alone one with an interactive voice. But now it’s part of our culture. A lot of things haven’t kept up with the speed of technology, and we’re all learning how to utilize it and try to spin it in a positive way for ourselves.

So, I don’t know how my voice was chosen. It’s still a mystery. And Apple ain’t talking.

It’s something we use so ubiquitously. But it is quite possible that your voice has been heard more than any other voice in the history of mankind.

That’s a frightening thought.

What was the process like when you recorded Siri?

It was very long and tedious – four hours a day, five days a week. The scripts were very monotonous. They ended up being quite nonsensical because they were created solely to get the proper sounds that they were looking for. They wanted all of the sound combinations in the English language. And when you consider the fact that the English language has 1 million words, probably more, it was a lot.

Each sentence had to be read exactly the same – the same tone, the same pacing, the same intonation, the same emphasis. It was very tedious and tiring work.

I think the reason Siri works is that you don’t feel like you’re talking to a robot. There’s a bit of personality in there.

Yes, and I think that’s why everyone freaked out over Siri and she became such an iconic thing. She was the first concatenated voice that sounded human AND she could interact with people.

You didn’t come out as the voice of Siri until October 2013. What went into the decision to finally reveal yourself?

It was the influence of my husband and son. They both thought I was missing out on a fun opportunity. I was being a little more conservative about it because I’m more of an introvert than an extrovert. I wasn’t sure that I wanted the recognition and the notoriety. It could have gone either way as far as future work for myself, either: Oh, that’s Siri, let’s get her! or Oh, let’s not get her, she’s everywhere.

I debated for a long time before I was finally like, this is silly, it’ll be fine. And it has been a really fun experience, and I’m so glad I did it.

What were those first few weeks like afterwards?

It was very overwhelming at the start. That first month was a real whirlwind, a whole month of running from interview to interview and making appearances.

The voice-over business is so completely different now. I have had my own booth since 1996. We don’t get a chance to interact with people all that much. We’re often isolated in our little booths, working via ISDN or Source Connect. We’re not actually in the studio with the other talent the way we used to be. So I thought, at the very least, if I come out as the voice of Siri, there will be something different going on and I can talk to people.

Of all the appearances you did – David Letterman, Queen Latifah, CNN – were there any that were especially memorable?

I did some appearances at tech conferences. At one of them I met Steve Wozniak. Most people don’t know that name as well as they know Steve Jobs, but the irony is that Wozniak actually built the first Apple computer. He’s an absolute genius and just a wonderful person.

When I was appearing at this tech conference, I was going to be there a day before him. And then I was told: well, we don’t have too much extra money to pay you, but could you stay the next day and introduce Steve Wozniak? And I said, oh, I’d love to! So I had a chance to meet him, and he’s just a wonderful, great guy. So that was probably the most memorable experience for me.

What is your relationship like with Apple? 

Apple has been notoriously silent about all of this. In fact, they changed all of the original Siri voices with OS 7. My voice is no longer on the newer phones. I’ve been in touch with some of the other original Siri’s, and our feeling is that we were replaced because we didn’t have non-disclosure agreements. And we didn’t have those because originally Apple had nothing to do with what we had done.

I like to say that I’m “Siri Classic” or “Steve Jobs’s Siri.”

What other projects have you worked on?

I live in Atlanta, and most of the work I’ve done has been regional stuff. Back in the day I did a lot of commercials for Coca Cola, McDonalds, Papa John’s, IBM, just about any company that you can think of because I’ve been in the business for a really long time. I’m also the voice of Delta Airlines gates worldwide. In the past decade, I’ve mostly been doing narrations and eLearning projects.

I saw that you and your husband are in a band?

We had a private events band for 25 years. We had the same four people for 20 years, and then people started dropping off and doing other things. At this point in time, that band is not really in existence, but we have a new band called Boomers Gone Wild. We play 60s and 70s music, and it’s really fun.

What’s next for you?

I don’t know. Part of voice-over work  is to audition, and I audition all the time like everyone else. I have a couple of projects coming up this summer, but I don’t like to talk about them because I don’t like to talk about things that aren’t a sure bet.

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**Five rapid fire questions**

Do you own an iPhone? Yes. I don’t use Siri. I don’t listen to audiobooks either, and I don’t listen to talk radio. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing voice-over work for so many years that there’s too much talk. If I’m listening to anything, it’s always music.

If you could have one word tattooed on your arm, what would it be: Persistence

Did you see the movie Her? Yes. I had mixed feelings about it. I thought it was visually interesting, I thought the acting was really great, but it was too long for me. And all of this technology that is making its way towards artificial intelligence is a little disturbing.

4 favorite bands of all time: The Rolling Stones, The Beatles of course, Bonnie Raitt, Eric Clapton

Best piece of advice you’ve ever received: Well, it goes back to being persistent. Don’t give up. It’s really tough in today’s culture because so many people are trying to do the same thing, and it’s very competitive. But if it’s something you really want to do and really believe in, you just have to keep going.

And finally, Siri, take us out in style…

Marty Schwartz

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Three years ago I started to teach myself guitar through YouTube.

I’d search a song – Stairway to Heaven, Wagon Wheel, Wish You Were Here, Get Lucky – and I’d scroll through all of the tutorials, and before long I discovered a YouTube channel run by a guy named Marty Schwartz. He had a lesson for like, every song ever. And the lessons were really good, and he just seemed like a cool guy, and I kept getting better and learning new stuff. And I didn’t pay a cent for any of it, which could never happen before YouTube.

Marty Schwartz now has a massive following. He has over 1.3 million subscribers and 400 million views. He is your friendly neighborhood YouTube guitar teacher, and he has literally taught millions of people how to play the guitar.

I’ve done eight of these interviews now. This was very different from the others. Most of them last twenty or thirty minutes. Marty and I were on the phone for two hours. We talked about his career and religion and stress and baseball and Led Zeppelin and what it means to be 24 years old. There is a lot I had to cut. At times it felt like he was interviewing me, and then I would go off on a crazy tangent, and then he would go off on a crazy tangent, and then we’d slowly regroup. I think an hour went by before I asked my second question.

And that’s exactly how I want these interviews to go. I don’t really want them to be interviews. I want it to be more of a conversation, where I can talk and have some fun with cool and interesting people.

Marty Schwartz, welcome to the blog.

Marty, you live this awesome life where you give guitar lessons on YouTube, and you jam with your band, and you can support yourself and your family from it. How does that happen? What is your story?

Out of college, I was working at a music store part time and teaching some students and I was in a band. And then I got laid off from the music store. And I was thinking, that part of my paycheck is my rent, what am I going to do? Being laid off was horrible and stressful, but I took action and started to teach guitar full time. It worked out because of referrals – I was young, I was excited, I got along with people, and then I continued to tour with my band and play gigs.

Many years later, I’m in my thirties and I’m married with two young kids. I get to the point where I’m teaching elementary school music and I’m giving guitar lessons and I have no more free time left in my day. I can’t make any more money and I’m just not quite making enough to pay the bills. Being so busy didn’t leave me any creative energy. But I was starting to get settled into my job at the school, and I thought that would be my full time career, and maybe I’d go back to school and get a full teaching credential to get the benefits.

Then 2008 happens and the economy crashes and I get laid off from the teaching job. And not only did I get laid off, but the regular gigs I had ended as well. And then not only that, but a lot of the private students I taught had parents that were getting laid off, so they couldn’t do lessons anymore until they figured out their employment situation. I actually taught kids for free for awhile, because I certainly empathized with their situation, and I was in the same one.

All I could think about was my family and my house and my bills and the possibility of moving back into my dad’s house with my kids, and the horrible failure of that and what that would mean. But I remember – after I was called into the school and they told me they were cutting the funding for music, I drove home and pulled up my laptop and I made a cover video of The Beatles’ Don’t Let Me Down. It was the first conscious video I ever made. And I was just like, OK, everything is coming to an end, I have no control, so all I can do is go play guitar and make a video of it.

My thought originally was to make YouTube videos to promote myself as 1) a guitar player and 2) a guitar teacher, so that when referrals called, I could point them to my channel to show my style of teaching. I started to get a little bit of a following, maybe 100 views, and then I just continued to make a a ton of videos with no idea of what would happen.

Eight years ago, the climate on YouTube was so different than it is today. Like, you could actually look up a song and have there not be a video of it. This is impossible now.

At the time, one of the big channels was Next Level Guitar, and I did some videos for them. And then I hooked up with the marketing/business guy over there, Tim Gilberg, who liked my lessons a lot. And so he made me an offer and we started Guitar Jamz. That’s when it became an official entity. We went into a partnership – he knew how to run a business and put the infrastructure in place, and I just did the videos my way. Once that happened, I was just making non-stop videos and it started to take off. And now, I just consider myself your friendly, neighborhood guitar teacher on the computer, even though I actually make income from the DVD sales on the website.

Thinking back now, it’s like, some of the best stuff happened to me after terrible situations. It was never something I planned. I was just trying to make a few extra hundred bucks a month.

What is your process for creating a video?

It’s getting harder and harder to do, but first I try to think of a song that I already know how to play. If I’ve done too many of those in a row, then I feel like I owe it to people to do something a little more complicated, so then I try and learn a new song. I usually think about this and practice in the morning.

After lunch is when I film it. I do everything by myself – I’ve got a studio with a computer, cameras, lights, guitars, everything. Sometimes I’ll film the close up first, because that’s harder and takes more of my energy. And then I film the intro and the outro at the same time, because that’s one angle from far away.

I call the intro the sizzle. Every video of mine has a sizzle. I don’t open with talking, I open with what you’re going to learn right away. For that part, I’ll turn the camera mic down manually and crank the guitar up to get better tone.

And then I take the card over, put it into the computer, I edit it myself, and then I upload it to YouTube. My goal is one video a day, but I never reach that. I just tell myself that’s the goal, so it gives me an itchy feeling if it’s been three or four days since I’ve done one.

As you started to pass some significant milestones – 1,000 subscribers, 10,000, 100,000 – was there a point where you were like: Whoa, this is becoming big, and I need to be aware of what I’m saying and what I’m doing?

I’ve never really said things that were too out of line or anything … but actually, I have a perfect example.

A few years ago I did a Michael Jackson video while he was still alive. And I covered my face with a medical mask, because every time you saw him he’d be wearing one of those. That was just me having fun. And then he died, and now I’m mocking the great Michael Jackson. There are some really crazy Michael Jackson people out there.

Oh, and the one that I love – this is awesome because this guy was so mad at me – was a video I made for Every Rose Has Its Thorn. I’m a little cheeky in that video. I’m just mocking them, and I say: Why is it that every rock ballad video from that era has a shot of the band on tour, really exhausted, just looking out the window? And I got a message from this rocker guy who was like: Yeah, you’d be tired too, bro, if you were touring and doing shows, but you’re just in your basement playing guitar.

But I just get a chuckle because if I was, like, hanging out with Brett Michaels, I’d totally say the same thing to him. And he’d probably find it funny too.

You have over 1 million subscribers and 400 million views. Have the folks at Google or YouTube ever reached out to you?

No. My partner Tim used our YouTube status to go to their headquarters in LA and film a little side project, but I’ve never heard from anyone.

Have you heard from anyone of note?

I don’t hear from celebrities too often. The majority of people I hear from are professional athletes. I bring this up because I saw all of the baseball stuff on your blog – about four or five years ago, I got invited to hang out with the Red Sox. I got to go down during batting practice and the players were like, super fans. They had bought my DVD’s. Beckett was really into guitar, and that old knuckleball pitcher…

Tim Wakefield?

Yes, Wakefield. Really into guitar. And Saltalamacchia, the catcher, who is humongous by the way. These guys were so excited to meet me and it was just blowing my mind, because it was still early in the game of what I was doing. It’s one of those moments where you go – oh shit, this is real. The numbers that show up on the screen are real people.

The Red Sox told me that because of their curfew on the road, they’re basically stuck in the hotel, so they all get together and play guitar and watch my lessons. And because they’re athletes, they’re really competitive, so they try to out-do each other.

Do you see yourself moving on to something else, or are you just planning to perpetually upload YouTube videos until the end of time?

I am planning to move on from here. I don’t exactly know what that will be. I’ve been doing the videos for so long that I think one natural thing for me to do is get out more and do clinics and possibly more gigs. I would love to collaborate with musicians more. I want to be out more, interacting live with people.

But I feel like, who I am is set. So anything that I do out of here will be related to what I’m doing now. I’m just looking for other avenues to continue being myself. I definitely want to evolve as these platforms evolve.

How does one pull off the fedora?

Well, a lot of comments tell me that I don’t pull it off. What’s funny is that when I booked the first session for Next Level Guitar, I was just thinking it would be cool to wear a hat to set me apart. I had just won that hat in a benefit concert we were doing for my friend who needed a kidney transplant. I just bought a ton of raffle tickets and won. So there was some good karma on it.

I brought the hat with me to the first session, and I definitely thought about not wearing it. I asked the guy filming it what he thought, and he was like: Oh no, that’s cool, do it man! So I just did what he said. But it was like the greatest thing ever, and a total accident, because it was a really eye-catching thumbnail.

So I probably don’t pull off the fedora. But just like my buddy Papa Stash can’t shave his mustache now, I’m stuck with the fedora.

***Rapid fire questions***

Normally I ask five of these, but I was having too much fun so I asked eleven.

You’ve jammed with lots of cool people. Who are some of your favorites? I played with Phil Lesh of The Grateful Dead, which was a dream come true. And Tenacious D, which is one of my favorite bands of all time. And the band that made me want to pick up an instrument was Blues Traveler, and I’ll be playing with them pretty soon. So that will be the trifecta.

You can only play one guitar lick for the rest of your life. What would it be? A funky, bluesy, soulful B.B. King lick would be good with me.

Memorable concerts you’ve been to: The Jackson Victory Tour when I was a little kid, that blew my mind. I saw Pearl Jam, Nirvana, and the Chili Peppers – all in one concert! – which was the kickoff show of the Blood Sugar Sex Magik tour. Pearl Jam didn’t even have their first album out yet. I also saw the original lineup of Guns N’ Roses at the Forum in LA, which was pretty magical.

You live in San Diego. Are you a Padres fan? I was super into baseball when I was growing up, but over the last decade I haven’t followed sports at all. My wife and kids veto any kind of sports following. I just don’t have that veto power, unless it’s like the NBA Finals or something.

What do you remember about your bar mitzvah? I did not have a Bar Mitzvah. So the rapid fire answer would be … no memories. My dad is Jewish, my mom is Catholic, so under Jewish law I am not Jewish. But I think I fit in quite comfortably in any type of Jewish situation. I feel Jewish, you know what I mean?

Zeppelin II or Zeppelin IV?: II. Ramble On is just, like, one of the best songs ever.

Abbey Road or Sgt Pepper? Abbey Road

Quadrophenia or Tommy? Tommy

Exile on Main Street or Sticky Fingers? Exile

Born to Run or Darkness on the Edge of Town? Born to Run

Blue Album or Pinkerton? Pinkerton

And, finally, what do you think about the state of music in 2015?

Well, there’s a lot of whining, from all types of people, but musicians especially do it. Any time spent complaining about not getting paid enough or the depreciation of music is a waste of energy. Or going on Facebook and complaining about how the alt music scene sucks now.

Just like anything, you have trade-offs. Before the internet, if you didn’t have a record deal, you’d have to spend a few million dollars on a music video and a few million dollars on promotions just to finagle your way onto MTV. Or else you didn’t have a music career. So people would complain about that. And now you cut to 2015, and you can just be yourself, and you can be discovered, but you have to cut through the noise. It’s a trade-off.

For me, the state of music and what’s happened has been the greatest thing, ever. So I can’t talk about how things were better before. Being able to have something like YouTube where anyone can put their song up, for free … that’s exposure you could have never had before. There has never been more choices and more opportunity for musicians. It’s not about waiting around for someone to help you, you just gotta go get it.

Lucas Gray

From a young age, I knew that I was never going to be an artist. I’m colorblind, I had poor fine motor skills, and I drew people without torsos. I was entered in an art show once – I wrote about it last year – but I didn’t exactly have the skills necessary for a career in animation. And that was fine. I moved on to other things.

That said, I’ve always been interested in the behind-the-scenes workings of an animated show. Because, to me, an animated show is like magic. There are so many things that go into it, from the storyboard to the drawing to the voice acting to the fact that there are 24 frames in every second. I don’t know how it can all happen, but I’m grateful because cartoons are just about the best thing ever.

Enter Lucas Gray. Lucas works in the animation department at The Simpsons and Family Guy. He’s held a number of different positions, from storyboard artist to character layout artist to character designer. He was there at the beginning, and he’s there now. And now he’s on the blog. Welcome, Lucas.

What is your background? What drew you to animation?

I have always drawn. I became interested in computer animation, and I was thinking about getting an internship at one of the studios in Los Angeles when I was home from college one year. There was a magazine called Post Magazine, and I just went down the list of studios that were looking for internships when I stumbled into The Simpsons. This was back in the first season, so I had never seen the show before. They gave me a take home test, and I took it, and I got a very entry level position.

So it was kind of an accident. I had always drawn and I was a really big fan of Looney Tunes, but I didn’t do an animation degree. Back when I got into the industry, there weren’t a lot of animation departments cranking out armies of animators. There wasn’t work for them yet.

I did that job for awhile, and then I left to finish college. To my surprise, The Simpsons was still going on when I was out of college, so I tested and then got into a different department.

IMAGEN-3989612-2I looked on IMDb, and you’ve had a number of different titles. Storyboard artist, character layout artist, character designer, background clean-up artist, storyboard revisionist. What are some of the responsibilities and challenges of each position?

They’re each really difficult in their own way. What I do now at The Simpsons is storyboard, and the challenge of that is: you have to look into the blankness of the page. You read the script, but you have nothing telling you that this shot should be a low angle or a high angle or a close up or a wide shot. And so you just have to look at the blankness and create images out of it.

When I used to be a character animator, that thinking has already been done for you. You start out with this storyboard and a blueprint, but now you have to make really accurate drawings that have the action and the volume and the right scale. Before we used computers, you would do a whole scene on pencil and paper, and you would take it in and your director would be like: Yeah, Homer’s a little big. And so you’d have to go back and reduce all of those drawings down 10%. I felt like I was never as good at that job – I did it for six years, and I struggled with it all six years. And then as soon as I became a storyboard artist, even though it is a different kind of challenge, I felt like I was more suited for it. I felt better about my storyboards right away than I ever did about my character layouts.

I have no idea how The Simpsons happens. Like, I just see it on my TV and assume it is all magic. Can you describe the process of creating an episode, from start to finish?

I have no insight into what happens on the writer’s end. From the animator’s side, we receive the script, it’s plopped down on our desk, and then the storyboard is the first step in the process. I read the script, I get my assignments – usually there are three storyboard artists per episode, and we each get roughly one act from one commercial break to the next. I then break my act down into smaller segments. So let’s say we’ve got a little bit at the house, then you go to the school, then you go to the bar, and then back to the house. And then I start to rough out little thumbnails of how this could look.

You’ll have anywhere from one to six or seven panels for each scene that describes the action that is about to take place. After that, you’ll have a rough meeting where you show what you’ve done to the director and the supervising director, and you get a ton of notes on what is working, what isn’t working, and a lot times you have to go back to the drawing board on some really complicated stuff. There is no sentimentality in the industry. Just because you worked hard on it doesn’t mean anything. The real question is – is this working or not? You have to be very ego-less and very resilient because you hear a lot of difficult criticism of your work.

Lucas Gray - Animator SimpsonsAfter that, you do another couple of weeks of cleaning up and addressing the notes, and then the storyboard gets sent over to the writers and producers, and they give their notes. Then there’s another few days of revision. So all of this is just to get the storyboard ready, which is really just the blueprint. Then it gets handed off to the animators and the character layout artists and the background layout artists, and they elaborate all of those drawings. The storyboard can be pretty rough, almost like a shorthand, but now the characters have to be drawn on model with nice volume and good acting. And then they shoot the animatic, which is the whole episode with those drawings, but there’s no color, there’s no in-betweens. That gives you a good sense of whether the episode is working or not, and you can really get a sense of the timing of the jokes and the clarity of the shots.

Then they show that to the writers and producers, and there’s another round of revisions, sometimes even re-writes. They do some more work here in the US, and then it gets sent over to Korea, where the real in-betweens and coloring will all happen. After it gets sent back from Korea, it’s pretty much a finished episode, and then there is one more round of notes and re-writes and re-takes.

Both The Simpsons and Family Guy work that way. There are some slight differences – Family Guy doesn’t do character layout. It’s all contained as a storyboard. But the compositions on Family Guy tend to be a little simpler, so you can get away without the character layout department.

That whole process – from the time the script hits our desk to when it airs on TV – takes about eight months for The Simpsons and little less than that for Family Guy.

Who are some of your favorite characters to draw?

I like drawing some of the weirder characters. Mr. Burns is kind of challenging to draw. I feel like when I get him, it’s a bit of a victory. Moe is a weird one, I like him. Barney. I like drawing Grandpa. On the Family Guy side, I like drawing Stewie a lot. He’s fun, he’s weird.

How much, if it all, do you interact with the cast and the producers?

I don’t know them well at all. I got to know some of the producers over at the Fox lot during the movie. I don’t really know the cast of either show. Family Guy is a little different because it’s all in one building, so you get to see the writers and producers and cast members more because you’re at the same location. But there’s a pretty big gulf between the animators and the voice actors.

What is the work atmosphere like? Laid back and funny, or intense? Or a combination of both?

I would say it leans towards the intense side. There are pockets of laid back and funniness, but I tend to have an approach of getting the job done on schedule. For me, it takes a lot of hard work and long hours.

There’s definitely some colorfulness to the offices. There’s a lot of toys around, because animators are nerdy like that. There’s definitely funny people. But there’s a lot of, just, nose to the grindstone. With TV production, you’ve got to make a deadline, and there’s a lot of work to be done.

They don’t give you more than enough time to do it. They give you slightly less than enough time.

Before the 2012 Presidential election, you worked on a video called Why Obama Now. It got over a million views in the first week. How did that video come together, and how did you get involved with it?

I knew I wanted to do something political because I was raised in a very political household, and I never felt like I fulfilled my civic duty. I’m not really an activist, but I come from a family of activists. So the video was just something that occurred to me. I thought, well, I could do it. And because I could do it, I got excited and I dedicated myself to bringing that vision to reality. I actually took several months off of work and learned After Effects, because I really wanted it to look slick. I did all of the artwork, and I edited the speech down from an hour long to a tight little three minutes. I showed some of my friends who were animators, and they helped get me over the finish line.

What are some other projects you have worked on?

I did Cosmos last year, which actually came out of the Obama video. The producer of Family Guy saw that video and she thought I would be able to help on Cosmos because they were doing animation that was a little more conceptual. I also produced some mini docs. They were more infographic-ey and explanatory. That was really fun because I enjoy explaining stuff, and I get a lot of satisfaction if I can do that visually.

**Five rapid fire questions**

Some of your favorite episodes: They all blend in together, like one giant lump of animation.  Sometimes I’ll be watching an episode and I’ll think, Did I do that? I have fond memories of my early years when I was a prop designer on Boy-Scoutz N the Hood. Some of those episodes in Season 4 and Season 5, like when Homer goes back to college because he’s incompetent at his job.

Worst part about your job: I’ve had to do an all-nighter for almost every single deadline that I have worked toward since 1991. It’s just really intense and it can be a brutal amount of work. And also, slaving over something and bringing it to your bosses to then have it destroyed in front of your eyes. You feel like in that moment, there’s no appreciation for what you got right, it’s only about what you didn’t get right. I don’t blame my bosses because we all have a job to do. We’re not there to stroke each other’s egos. We’re there to get the job done.

Favorite piece of memorabilia: They give some pretty good Christmas gifts. One year The Simpsons gave us a picnic backpack with plastic dishes of the different characters and a little cutting board with the three-eyed fish. And that, for me, was the best Christmas gift they gave because I’m a picnicker.

How do people react when you tell them what you do for a living: I try not to lead with it. I don’t say, Hi my name is Lucas, I work for The Simpsons AND Family Guy. I remember a group of girls at a bar being very unconvinced. They were like nuh-uh, and I was like well, what do you you think an animator looks like? Why not me? Mostly people are like, Oh they still make The Simpsons?

Favorite Simpsons or Family Guy quote: The way my mind works, it’s more like I have images and feelings about certain things. I remember there’s this one shot where Mr. Burns is supposed to be the grinch. I just remember that the way they mimic’d the animation and were able to make Mr. Burns so grinch-like was beautiful to me.

And, finally, was there an episode or a scene that stands out as being particularly challenging and time consuming?

They very first scene  I did as a character layout artist was for the Christmas episode in Season 9. There’s a scene where there is police tape around the Christmas tree, and the police officers Eddie and Lou and Wiggum are at the Simpsons’ house. I forget exactly what happens, but I worked on that scene for two weeks. I kept turning it in, and my director would say: Ok now you have to fix this and this. And then I would turn that in, and he would say: Ok now you have to fix this and this. 

When I was done with it, he was finally like: Ok, the scene is approved. Now you have to do two scenes every day. That’s your quota. And I had just done one scene in two weeks.

But I’ve always been grateful to him for letting me take the time to go through that process and teaching me all the things that a scene has to have. I didn’t get up to speed right away, but I basically just worked and worked and worked until I was able to hit the quota.