Oct 9, 2020 • 1HR 3M

A Conversation with Jesse David Fox

Listen now | We talked about how the video for Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” was formative for both of us, why we didn’t know any Protestants while growing up on Long Island, and more.

Alicia Kennedy
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Conversations on food and culture, hosted by writer Alicia Kennedy, with guests such as Nigella Lawson, Bryant Terry, Melissa Clark, and many others. Read Alicia's newsletter on similar topics, which has over 17.5K subscribers and has been mentioned by the New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Vogue, GQ, and many other publications.
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Jesse and I used to work together at New York Magazine, where he’s still senior editor at Vulture and the host of “Good One,” a podcast about jokes. He’s one of my favorite thinkers on cultural topics because he’s not just into one thing. While comedy is his professional focus, he’s also deeply into food and fine art, and he brings the knowledge of these forms to his work on an art form that most people don’t take seriously. Because I think food is also an aspect of culture that people take for granted, I wanted to discuss the connections with him. How does taste work when the response is utterly subjective? How can we critique something that people respond to physically?

We talked about this and much more, including how the video for Paul Simon’s “You Can Call Me Al” was formative for both of us, why we didn’t know any Protestants while growing up on Long Island, and that the key to a good neighborhood restaurant is an agreement upon the “normal amount of salt.” Listen above, or read below.


Alicia: Thanks, Jesse, for coming on to talk to me.

Jesse: Of course. Yeah. Thank you for having me. I feel like I both talk to you every day and also have not talked to you in six years.

Alicia: I know, that's a really interesting thing about social media, isn't it? Yeah. 

This is my second interview that I'm doing today, and both times I'm going to start with a question that isn't actually my first question. Which is, you responded to one of my Instagram stories about the video for ‘You Can Call Me Al,’ saying that it was also formative for you. Can you tell me about that? How was ‘You Can Call Me Al’ formative for you? 

Jesse: It's hard to remember. 

So, I should have remembered when exactly the song came out. I watched TV early and often. As early as I was, one is hypothetically able to watch TV, I was watching TV. And MTV, I feel like, was the thing I was constantly watching. And I just remem — such a specific memory of watching that video with my dad and learning what funniness was. [Laughter.] 

I don't know what my brain was like before it, and there's so many seminal memories that sort of came immediately afterward. But, I do — just, the idea of seeing grown-ups acting silly, and being like, This is what comedy is. This is what funniness is, which is these beings that I've only understood as being protectors, or these foreign beings. They make funny faces, too? And specially ’cause it's — they're wearing those — they're dressed up. There’s just something that's so clearly made sense. 

And I still think my sense of humor is not so far away from that, which is grown-ups doing stupid things. But, still well done. It's still professional, it's not completely thrown together. And just sort of the deadpan quality of like, ‘This is gonna be completely unaddressed, this world.’ We don't know why they're doing this. Over and over again, it's the thing that I find funniest.

Alicia: Yeah. I started listening to Graceland very obsessively last year, even though I've loved that song forever. The video, again, for me too, taught me what funny is. Because, just, Paul Simon, his face in the whole video, I mean, I guess it just teaches you the idea of the straight man. Especially moments when he carries the drum past the door, and he's looking back at Chevy Chase. There's just something about it. 

Obviously, I don't think about comedy as much as you do, so I can't explain it as well. I just know that it was just — yeah.

Jesse: I think you explained it. It is a classic comedy routine, but not played, how it is — right?

So, it's also, he's short. And Chevy's tall. And it's just heightened and played a little bit more grounded than is, was of the style before that. But if that video was made now, it would be even more extreme.

There is also something about it being music that appeals to a kid in a way that if it wasn't music, it wouldn't work. The comedy’s completely nonverbal. You don't have to understand any words they're saying, because the song is being played, and ultimately the song is not about what the video is about. And also, the song is like Raffi adjacent in terms of its musicality. 

So, I think it’s sorta like, ‘Oh, this appeals to you.’ It's hard to remember this, be — but I remember this only because of when I interviewed John Mulaney. He was talking about — and he's a little bit older than us — but a lot of kids programming that was around when we were a kid was just adults doing things. It was for kids explicitly, but it was still just like you saw two adults. It was not a bunch of kids hanging out. 

So, I do think it was written as a sketch, and it plays very much like what would work. But it wasn't violent. I do think a lot of two-man comedy that you would see, or even — I feel like I would see some Three Stooges stuff as a kid for whatever reason, and it was more aggressive than I guess was my sensibility at four, and my sensibility still. And so, it just sort of was everything. It's still, I guess if talisman is the right word, but it is a touchstone that it's nice to see it carry through. 

But you're like, ‘Oh, that is the same comedy as Detroiters,’ or whatever, things that I think of are the things that are for me. It's sweet, and they're playful, and — but not done in a way that's so obvious. Where it's just sort of like, ‘They'd never do a thing.’ Which is like, ‘Isn't it weird that Paul Simon’ — I don't even know if I knew Paul Simon. That's a thing of like I don't know when I learned Paul Simon was the little guy.

Alicia: Right.

Yeah, I don't know. It is funny that one, that we saw that video so much, and that it was so memorable. I mean, you're not the only person who's like our age where I've talked about the ‘You Can Call Me Al’ video and being like, ‘What was up with that? Why did we like that so much?’ But it was very, very appealing to people who were like three or five years old.

Jesse: I remember that and the George Harrison, ‘I’ve Got My Mind Set On You’ video.

Alicia: Oh, yes! That video was so funny. [Laughs.]

But also, for me, I really liked the Grateful Dead video, ‘Touch of Grey,’ where they turned into skeletons.

Jesse: That probably would have been too spooky for me. I remember, The Grateful Dead-

Alicia: When that came out?

Jesse: Yeah, it's just so funny. I mean, the ‘Call Me Al’ video, I think, was like, ‘86, ‘87. So, that means I was hypothetically like two. Eight, I remember from that — who knows? But, it is so clear. Maybe I'll say that's my earliest memory if anyone ever asks.

Alicia: [Laughs.] I think I think that's a good one. I think that makes sense. Yeah. 

Well, can you tell me about where you grew up and what you ate?

Jesse: Sure. Yes. 

I grew up in, broadly, Long Island, New York. Since you'll know where these things are. I'll say more specifically. I grew up in Valley Stream, which, for those who don't know, is really, really, really west, and mostly entirely south. Where I grew up, specifically, was on the border of Queens and Long Island. As you know, it's places where suburbs were invented. [Laughter.] Valley Stream’s a pretty big one. It has two SNL cast members. In my head, there was a third, but I can't remember who it is. Both Jim Breuer and Fred Armisen are from Valley Stream. 

And I grew up in a town that was inside Valley Stream that, when I — was called Green Acres for a really long time. But then there was a shooting at the Green Acres Mall. And so we voted — ‘we.’ I was not part of it. We voted to change our name to Millbrook. Is a nice little town. 

So, eating was a big part of, I think, growing up. My dad, in my head, was a proto-foodie, I think before — because all I know from how popular restaurants were in the ’80s is from that scene in When Harry Met Sally, where Carrie Fisher was like, ‘Restaurants in the ’80s were what theater was for people in the ’60s.’ And they don't totally know what that means. 

But my dad wasn't a yuppie. He didn't have enough money to go to the restaurants. He was a psychologist, but in the ’80s he was primarily doing residencies or whatever. So, he wouldn't go to restaurants. He lived in the East Village because he wanted to try the different foods that were in New York, that were in the city. He was going to school on Long Island. He's getting his PhD on Long Island, but he lived in the city because he wanted to eat different things. 

So, he raised us on that ethos. So, that meant a few things. He had an office in Queens that he would go to multiple days a week. But on Saturdays, sometimes he would take me there, and we'd get lunch in Flushing. Going to Flushing, Queens, and eating Chinese food — and mostly it was Cantonese, especially then — and knowing what that meant, and understanding the differences and learning it.

Broccoli was my favorite food for a large part of my life. Broccoli and roast chickens were the only things I wanted. As long as I've lived, I've known broccoli as American broccoli. That is how I understood what broccoli is, and I preferred it because it's less bitter than what we would call I guess Chinese broccoli. But I understood. I think that's a huge difference, which is, oh, understanding that your idea of what food is is not universal, is already a pretty eye-opening thing. But I remember, when sushi restaurants opened up. I remember when a Thai restaurant opened up, and my dad telling me what Thai food is, and telling me that he would eat Thai food all the time. 

And my dad cooked a lot. On the weekends, he would do things that took more effort — again, things that now feel so commonplace, which is, people, ‘Oh, I'm gonna learn how to make gazpacho or whatever. Or, I'm gonna learn how to make Cajun food.’ No one else's parents I knew were doing stuff like that. 

And I would always help him whenever I could. Gazpacho was such a specific memory for me, even though I didn't like eating tomatoes for most of my life. But it demanded the most chopping, so I could help him the most. I was like, ‘I could do the job.’ [Laughs.] It's interesting. It's like he let me do the knife-related cooking, but not the fire-related cooking.

So many of my memories that I have are eating related. We got takeout Chinese food Friday nights. Often, we would get — there was a specific sort of American Italian place, Italian-American place, we got food from on Sunday nights. There was the kosher deli. 

And eventually, I worked at that kosher deli; I worked at an Italian deli. That is sort of how I organized what Long Island was, and I think before I learned to not like it as a place, I think that is what I liked about the place.

Alicia: Well, I mean, same. 

Yeah, it's funny. Because people ask me — I did an interview recently where someone was like, ‘Oh, tell me about where you grew up.’ And I'm like, ‘Uhh.’ [Laughs.] I don't know how to explain it other than by the food that I ate, ’cause that's the only good thing about it. That and the beach, I guess. 

Just constantly organizing it by — and I think it sounds kind of insane to anyone maybe who grew up somewhere where that's not the only good thing? I'm a food writer, so I guess people expect me to talk about food. But if I wasn't a food writer, it'd be like, ‘Why are you only thinking about things in terms of the pizza, and the bagels, and the Chinese food?’ Well, it's because I come from like a Hellmouth, so-

Jesse: But yeah, ’cause it's like I have friends who, now as adults, maybe are into food less than I am, but they still — where people will be like, ‘Oh, I like this pizza.’ 

Long Island, I think, trains you to develop opinions about the things that are plentiful, which are bagel places, and pizza places, and takeout Chinese. Those especially, I think, then as — by high school, also, you had the opinion of what were your sushi places.

And I think that has always been a part of — I can't speak to WASP Long Island and WASP New York City. See, I sort of didn't — I didn't know any of those people. I didn't know there were Protestants until high school. 

I understood that Jewish people weren't the most. I grew up next to the most Jewish part of Long Island. But I understood the Jewish people were not the majority of white people in the country. But I thought Catholics were — ‘It's not Jews, but it's definitely all these Italian people, and all these German people, and all these Irish people.’ 

But, that stew of that generation of immigrants, which all those sort of people are, which is sort of early 20th century, where food and the amount of food is just so important, and the opinions about food is ingrained, I think so much of what we think of is the New York identity. 

So, my mom grew up on Long Island in the same town. So, yes, she didn't have necessarily opinions about what sushi place, but they did have opinions about what bagel place, or even the place where we got pizza. Most of my life was her parent’s place that they determined was the best. And I imagine if you talked to whoever else that had that same sort of lineage, they would be like, ‘That place sucks. This is the place.’ 

And it's partly because it is so, what I find so fascinating, which is if you've grown up where X is the tomato sauce, or whatever, right? So then, if you eat any other tomato sauce, it's not gonna taste as good because you have a certain value system of whatever it is. It's so minor, and it's the type of thing that fascinates me, but like, ‘Oh, for me tomato sauce should be this, and have this much acid.’ Where if you had a person who liked, I don't know, this Italian place, they’d be like, ‘Oh, I like sweeter tomato sauce and anything that is not — what is acidic is gross to me.’

And that is what I like. ’Cause otherwise Long Island, it's like my parents — once me and my older brothers graduated from high school and were in college, they moved upstate. It's just so cramped, and so much traffic, and parking lots were — every parking lot was a nightmare. And it's like, ‘You don't have to live that way.’ That’s, especially where I grew up, it's, there's — certain food of that level and access to the city is the reason you do it.

Alicia: Yes. 

No. And I mean, for me, there was also a lot of Greek food. I don't know if there was a lot of Greek food where you grew up.

Jesse: Because I didn't like tomatoes, everything that was, to me was tomato-related, I was like, ‘That's not my thing.’ And so, I couldn't understand others, these Greek salads, and they have tomatoes in it. So, I don't want that. And gyros or whatever had tomatoes in it. I couldn't be like, ‘I want to just take out the tomato.’ I saw one; It had a tomato in it. I was like, ‘No, thank you.’ 

I don't think I started really eating Greek or general Mediterranean-related food until much later, when I realized you could just ask for not tomatoes. Or, if it’s is a sauce. It's just sort of chunky tomatoes. It's an early taste distation or whatever. So I was like, ‘Well, tomatoes is the thing I don't like, and bananas is the thing I don't like,’ and then that was just sort of the rules. And I didn't like eggplant, right? Once you don't do that... 

So, my parents were eating Greek food, especially because they were vegetarian. They still are. But, as we're talking about my childhood, they were. So, Greek food, I think, was really appealing to them. And I think maybe it's even possible they're like, ‘Oh, this is a thing that we can just eat,’ right? I ate meat and my brothers ate meat, and also we were all in — growing boys in high school. And my dad realized, ‘Just — make slabs of meat,’ and we won't say anything about it.’

Alicia: It's funny to hear someone say that they didn't know what a WA — never, didn't know what a Protestant was. ’Cause I don't think I did either. I don't know if they're there now. They must be, on Long Island.

Jesse: I mean, I don't know. I mean, if you broadly define Protestant to mean anything that's not Catholic or Greek Orthodox.

I have to imagine — so, this is incredibly — this is — I don't want to talk too much about this, ’cause it's coming from an incredible place of ignorance. So, Valley Stream, where I grew up, has become like in vogue, because as all these people are leaving the city with families, Valley Stream is a place people are listing to move, which is crazy. Because, it wasn't a bad place. It just was not the place on lists people said to move, because there are really nice suburbs all around. And why would you move to a medium nice suburb when there's these sort of really, really nice ones?

But, so, my little brother, who is 11 or 12 years younger than I am, he went to the same elementary school but then moved when he went to — my parents moved. So, when I grew up, it was let's say 80% Jews, Italians, Irish. Let's say, that's my 8%, the entire thing. And then I had some friends who moved, who by the end of elementary school, I had some Jamaican friends, and Haitian friends, and Filipino, and Taiwanese. That was that wave that was happening. 

But then in the 12 years, by the time my brother was graduating, I would say, the — he was one of two Jewish kids in his elementary sixth grade class, and there's maybe like three Catholics, and then — So, that's part of what is the pitch when people are like, ‘Oh, you should move to Valley Stream. Valley Stream is the most diverse town in Long Island.’

It's crazy, other than it makes sense because Valley Stream was never defined by one ethnic group. It wasn't an Italian town, and it wasn't a Jewish town, it wasn’t — which happens in Long Island, as you know. So, I think that little amount of openness, the fact that it didn't have to be just one, allowed like a slow creep. 

So, now, as there are more first and second generation Africans, or Asians, or — there's also a sort of a lot of seemingly affluent African-Americans who are — I think, I don't know what their religions are, is what I’m trying to say. [Laughter.]

Alicia: No, for real, yeah. 

No, but it is such an interesting place to have grown up, because of all of that was going on. But it is also like the most segregated place. 

And also that did — wait, speaking of weird places people are moving, did you know that Anna Wintour's beach house is in Mastic.

Jesse: [Laughs.] So weird.

Alicia: Which is so weird. I was like, ‘What the hell?’ I was like, ‘That's so far from the Hamptons.’ And when I was a kid, Mastic was the most dirt-baggy place.

Jesse: Yeah, but I guess if you want a lot of space, you don't want to see anyone. I think you are like, ‘Oh, I just want a beach that's mine.’

Alicia: Yeah, then you move to — yeah.

Jesse: People know she's rich, right? She's rich. But compared to other types of rich people. I don't know how rich she is. She's not as rich as Howard Stern, or Jerry Seinfeld, or Billy Joel. So — 

Alicia: Who are all great Long Islanders. [Laughter.]

Jesse: They all have places on Long Island, but they also have hundreds of millions of dollars, so they can both move to the Hamptons and buy a giant place. Right? 

Alicia: Right.

Jesse: But Anna Wintour probably doesn't have enough money where she can do both. Like, she can. She probably has enough money where she’ll buy a giant place on Long Island that's a beach place, or move to the Hamptons and have it a nice place. But she doesn't have ‘I could buy top market, over the insane, I'm-buying-this-to-prove-how-much-money-I-have places.’

Alicia: Yeah. 

Well, since we're on this kind of sort of topic, but — so I don't know if this is actually that related. 

I feel there are similarities between food and comedy in the cultural world. And food is a pretty obvious topic for comedy. And I was going through your podcast ‘Good One,’ which we haven't mentioned yet. 

And so many of the jokes are about food, which might just speak to your interests, I guess. But you talked to Marc Maron about tumeric. And even like Sebastian Maniscalco, his doorbell joke is about cake really at the end. But are these things similar, in terms of the taste that you bring to them and all that? Are there actual connections in your perspective?

Jesse: Yeah, I mean, it's hard, because I — I mean, the answer is, from my perspective, yes, because I'm the only perspective I have. Because comedy does not sort of have a history of criticism, like almost every other art in the world, no matter what every sort of critic, broadly defined, I try — I'm getting into maybe accepting calling myself a critic. But that comes from a different point of view, right? Because there's not a history of it. 

So, there are the arts that I'm interested in that are my frame of reference, and food is one of them. And fine art is one of them. And I think on the surface level, a lot of comedians talk about food, because it's a universal experience. And if you're trying to be the type of comedian that is famous and popular to a lot of people, it is a very good subject to appeal to a lot of people. Especially if you're not cursing, right? Like, if we want to talk about family, food is so associated with family.

And it's also just sort of a thing you're doing three times a day, right? So, if Jerry Seinfeld, instead of three times a day — instead of eating three times a day, three times a day, did — I’m trying to think of another thing that is universal — like, worked out. 

Let's say you worked out three times a day. And everyone did. Instead, let's say everyone worked out three times a day and ate once a day. Jerry Seinfeld would have hours and hours of working-out material. Because that's how his brain works. 

Some comedians have these broken brains, where they can't not just be looking for material and be like, ‘Oh, that's different.’ So, for a person like a Jerry Seinfeld, who to me is not — who cares about food so much for a person who seemingly doesn't care that much about food. Every episode of that — his show, he's getting coffee, and he cares about that. But, most of the time they're eating.

One time, I was at Carbone. I think the only time I ever ate at Carbone. In the back room was his birthday party. But I didn't realize it was his birthday party, because one famous person came in after another and you're like, How does Andy Cohen know Ila Fisher know Jake Gyllenhaal know-’ And I was like, ‘Oh, these are people that are apparently Jerry Seinfeld's friends.’ So anyway, he was eating at Carbone. I think it's just sort of a — it is a, it's a thing that he's observing. So, you see that with a person like him. 

Jim Gaffigan has so much material about food. It's a way in. And Jim Gaffigan’s recent — he put out two specials that he did, entirely of material of the country he was in. So, he did an hour of Canadian jokes, and he did an hour of Spanish jokes. And he was going to do an hour of jokes, either about Latin America or about Mexico. He hadn't decided because then Covid hit, so he couldn't do those shows. 

And all the jokes were about food. Every single one. He had an hour of jokes about Canadian food. And it's because if you've been to Canada enough, as he has, you're just — it's an easy way, and a surface-level way, where you can interact with a culture. It also can be a more deep way you interact with the culture, but it is a way where you can have an immediate interaction. 

But I also think, for me, where they connect is — and where I think about it the most — is they are incredibly subjective art forms, that are so subjective that they feel objective, which is your relationship to what you think tastes good. And similarly, what you laugh at is so built into who you are as a person that you can't imagine someone else thinking differently. 

And it becomes really hard for me to sort of then be like, ‘Hey, this is not good, or that is — that's good.’ So much so that I've given up on it. I've given up on the idea that there is good — good and bad is not what I think about. It's not how I try to talk about the art of comedy, where because there is a history of food criticism, food writing, I think people trust sources, even if they — even though they shouldn't, hypothetically.

I think that, hypothetically, if a person likes a restaurant, you go there and you like it. And then they go to another restaurant, and they say they like it and you — whatever. Then you can be like, ‘Oh, me and this person have a similar enough point of view.’ 

But any assumption that one person is more correct is like — and that you should then live that way, doesn't make sense. Because you've lived a very specific life where three times a day you've eaten food, and that has shaped what you find interesting or not, and it's so connected to background and where you lived and when you lived, and in class, and every single thing that makes a person a person, it interacts with. 

And comedy is the same way, which is you laugh however many times a day, if you live a good life, hypothetically, you laugh more than you eat. But if you do, each laugh is the same as a bite, maybe? But all those laughs are such specific associations of cultural history, but also your friend’s cultural histories, and also the media of what you — the time you grew up in. 

I think comedy especially is incredibly time sensitive. And it's something I think about a lot where people — comedies about timing, and they assume that means the speed in which you say — I think of Wayne's World or whatever, where he says something and then he says, ‘Not,’ and you’re — the time between he says not, that's what timing is in comedy. But it's also just sort of, in 1991 or whatever, when he first said that joke was at a time where sarcasm was ready for its spotlight. 

So, timing is so important in comedy in terms of how culture builds to a certain — what people find funny, and what is interesting, and what's surprising. ‘Cause surprise, I think, is a little bit more important to comedy than it is for food, though it can be important to food. 

So, it all sort of stirs together, and I think what we both find — me, based on reading you, and me, based on being myself — what we find int — why we find things interesting, our stuff interesting, is because all that goes into a person can go into this form. It gives you an opportunity to bring all of yourself to it, where you can write about it from a psychological point of view. You can write about it from a sociological point of view, or political, or anything. That is because it is all a person is. 

And in ways that other art forms, I think, are a little bit harder. And that's the part that's harder — it's hard for me to imagine what is — what — why music is different, but it just sort of is different.

Alicia: It is. [Laughs.] No, it absolutely is. 

And I, I've been thinking about this a lot because my boyfriend — comedy, the way comedy manifests for someone if their native language, is different is — and it's so difficult to communicate why something's funny and why something's not. 

And so, I've been trying to really understand his brain on this, because he likes Curb Your Enthusiasm but is a bit indifferent to Seinfeld or he really loves certain Adam Sandler movies, And I'm like, ‘Alright, I'm trying to understand what's going on here,’ And then really didn't like Kids in the Hall. And then I tried to show him a Marc Maron — I think his last special. And he was like, ‘I don't like this.’ 

And I was like, ‘But-’ And I'm trying to understand — kind of explain how it works. That's the worst. You can't explain to someone why something's funny. And just like you can't intellectualize how something tastes — if something tastes good to you, you can't just explain to someone who doesn't like it enough how to like it.

But I think that other art forms, there is that sort of — it's less visceral, because you're not having an actu — well, sometimes you're having a physical response — but you're really — it's not a physical thing. Laughing is physical. Eating is physical. And so, you really know in your body how you're responding to it. Whereas, when you look at a piece of art, and someone — and you're like, ‘I don't really like it,’ but someone can explain to you why it's good. And you're like, ‘I understand from that perspective.’ You can put yourself in other perspectives when it comes to other things. But for these two things, it's just, it either is or it isn't for you.

Jesse: Yeah, I think Adam Sandler is a huge international comedy star. Which is not a thing that usually exists, because comedy does not trans — it barely translates between people that speak the same language. When people say, ‘Oh, it's because of the language,’ it's not necessarily like that. 

There's British comedy that I’m like, ‘I do not get it.’ Contemporary British stand-up comedians who are very successful. And you're like, ‘This is an iteration on some other iteration on some other iteration of a history that I am not a part of.’ 

And sometimes there are British comedians, who clearly watch American comedians. That’s their frame of reference. And so, as a result, you can get it. There's this comedian, Daniel Sloss, who I had on, who's essential — essentially an American comedian, but he's Scottish. But I’ll watch — so much of that I've avoided British comedy, because I don't want to have to learn a whole, complete other world. 

I think it's this thing, where, often it's, how do I put it — tastes evolve. And tastes don't necessarily evolve for the same people at the same time. Sometimes, often, people add class distinction — sometimes it's financial class, but it's also just sort of the class of smarter people, or people who have more access to certain types of media are exposed to the avant garde, or whatever the new is. The people that are like, ‘My job is I'm gonna create comedy that is new, and you get the raw version of it.’ 

And I've seen a lot of those things. It's going to have to essentially be sort of watered-down and influence filtered through, before the general public catches up to this style of comedy, right? Let's say sarcasm, or whatever, Gen-X-style sarcasm, or reverence of the early ’90s that was critically acclaimed by the aughts. You would see that style of comedy in CBS shitty sitcoms, right? 

And now critics would be like, ‘That's bad.’ But, that was really popular, because it took 10 years for essentially people to get it. And I think sometimes you do see that with food, which is like — it's hard to think of examples. 

But, I don't know — let's say pork belly was really it like 15 years ago, or, let's say 15 years ago, whatever. Pork belly, it was really — and David Chang did those things. And- 

Alicia: And now it’s at Applebee's.

Jesse: Yeah, exactly. 

And if you’d put pork belly in front of me. I'd be like, ‘In 2020. What is going on?’ And even though as a person who still eats meat, the idea of pigging out — pun intended, since I did that on purpose — is insane. It's so boring, and a thing that I've experienced so many times that it's not interesting to me. 

And how that happens is a matter of time and how things filter through society, and you could argue that — and rightfully. So, it's like eating pork belly designed — that was in vogue when I ate in 2005, 2006, or whatever. I was eating it as it filtered through a Korean population who has been eating it for thousands of years, or whatever it was. 

But, how — and that is what's interesting about food is that — it doesn't work the same way in as comedy, but there are, hypothetically, really interesting com — comedians are pulling from different sort of avant garde experiences, and they are filtering through. I don't know where — what I'm saying. 

The point is, you can look in a similar way, and I don't think certain things that have histories of art criticism can interact the same way. Because the people making it are aware that they are feeding into a history. So it's like, I don't know, an abstract painter knows the history of representational painting that they are working against. And their audience also knows that. That is very different than an art form where most people's experiences with it are every day from their families, from their friends.

Alicia: Right. 

No. And it's funny, I don't know why, I’ve really feel like [laughs]— So, in my family, among like my cousins, me and my one cousin have very more, I guess you would call funky taste, in things, in terms of art and stuff. And in terms of like our sense of humor, we're very — we all have a similar sense of humor in my family. But both of us have the weirder sense of humor. 

And so, one of our other cousins got into doing stand-up when he was at college. And I can't watch the video because I'm too afraid of watching it, but he hates Sebastian Maniscalco. We have this argument every time we get together about whether Sebastian Maniscalco is good. I think about him all the time in terms of like, ‘What is taste?’ Because I think he is funny. And it doesn't make any sense, I guess, in terms of what else I like and what else I think is funny. 

But I don't know what it is about him, because I also only found out about him when my dad showed me a viral video of the doorbell joke. I was immediately like, ‘I don't care about this,’ ’cause my dad's showing me something stupid on Facebook. But then I was like, ‘Actually, this is funny.’ 

So, I don't know why I want you to explain. Please explain Sebastian Maniscalco. How did that happen? And I think that this is sort of relevant in terms of taste.

Jesse: Yes. He's a great example. And I'm really happy to, to explain — I have been given an invitation to mansplain, and so I feel like it’s a-

Alicia: Yes. [Laughs.] 

Jesse: And I will say to your cousin, who I think Sebastian is a type of comedian that snobs in — a type of snob that barely exists anymore — look down upon. But, I will say this, many of who I think of as like the comedian-comedians, very artful, respected comedians are obsessed with Sebastian Maniscalco. John Mulaney is amazed by Sebastian Maniscalco. 

And it's a couple of reasons. Doing physical comedy is really risky. And I think people assume it's really stupid. And broad, because it is broad and it's not very verbal. But, you have to imagine, most people are going up to — on a show — they take a mic out of the stand, and they stand there. And maybe they walk around. To do insane gestures is incredibly risky, and not rooted in anything specific. It's completely self-inspired. 

His images, and his visuals, are deliberate and thought out. When I interviewed him, and he affirmed my suspicion that he knows why he does certain things, I was like, ‘This rules.’ It's like one of my favorite things that’s ever happened — well, to learn that- 

But so, the thing that I have accepted, and the thing that I've worked on, and I — I did this big list of where I ranked every Adam Sandler movie. The list partly came out of the fact that I like Adam Sandler. But so it wasn't like I took on this objective being like, ‘I hate Adam Sandler, I'm gonna try to figure out why it works.’ I liked a lot of these movies. And I would keep on seeing reviews about how they're bad. And when you watch all of his movies in order, as I did — so, this is 40 movies, or something like that. You realize, if you assume they're not bad, they're all good, right? 

And you're like, ‘Well, that's, intentional. That is a person, who, with control, deliberately being able to successfully control his output for consistency. It's-’

And what I have accepted, and what I've been trying to really work on, is having essentially like a post-taste appreciation of comedy for myself. I don't demand — I actually don't think it's a good way to live. I think you should enjoy the things you do enjoy and just enjoy them, and don't be mad if someone else doesn't like the things you like, and try different things ’cause you might like it. But don't get mad at yourself for not liking something. 

As a person whose job it is to think about comedy, I found focusing on what I respond to is not interesting. I don't have the ability to describe how I feel in a way that I think food critics hypothetically can. I think there's that type of food critics who really can describe sensations, and it's poetic or whatever. And one, I think you could do that more with food than comedy. 

That was never what was interesting to me. So, as a result, I was like, ‘I'm going to try to appreciate comedy no matter what, regardless of taste,’ If I like something, I almost hold it against it. I'm just trying to be like, ‘If I don't like it, and people do like it, why? How's it happening? What are they responding to?’

Jerry Seinfeld is the most famous of saying this, but lots of people say it, but because he's so famous he gets to say it the most, which is the idea that funny is funny. And it's really interesting, because it was a thing that was used by previous generations to explain why women should be allowed to do comedy too, which is if you're funny, that means you're funny. And that means you should do comedy. 

The problem is when people were saying it, what they were really saying is, ‘If I think you're funny, then you're funny.’ That means you're allowed to pass, because you have proven to Jerry Seinfeld that you are funny. But what a person like Jerry Seinfeld has never done, or why would he, is be like, ‘Oh, what I find comedy, what I find funny, is completely biased towards my sensibility, whatever that is. And I'm not going to investigate that.’ 

Because why would he? When you are an artist, you're not necessarily tasked to investigate your taste. Your job is to assert taste. Your job is to be like, ‘This is what I think is good.’ 

It is actually why I struggle when I've tried to write with a non — when I try to write fiction things or whatever, creative things or written comedic things. I struggle, because I can't just be like, ‘This is my taste. And I think it's good.’ It's a bit of a problem. Anything I've done, I needed partners to be like, ‘This is done. This is funny.’ 

So, I have tried to take the idea of ‘funny is funny’ to be like, ‘If you are funny to anybody, you are funny.’ And that means things that to you, or to me, like a person who's consumed so much comedy, who's seen everything, who's — it's easy for me to be cynical, or easy for me to be over it, to be like, ‘If someone's laughing, that means it's funny.’ Now, let me see what is interesting about it. Let me see what makes this compelling art.

And what I've tried to do, as the — with my podcast as I interview people, or as I'm trying to do when I write, which is have people approach comedy as they do, let's say, fine art, which is like you go to a museum. And let's say the only way you consume art history is through museums. So, museums actually do a deliberate job of telling you what important art is, and the context in which that art exists. Even if you don't read the little squares, most art is in a room in relationship to other art and you're supposed to understand it as such, and you get whatever you get from it. And as a result, because these institutions are creating these rooms, there's insane amounts of bias that's built into it. But that's a different conversation. 

But, you could see a painting and be like, ‘Well, my eyeballs don't go, ‘This is beauty.’ But you can be like, ‘Oh, I am learning something. I'm getting an experience from this,’ right? I like going to museums. I like looking at paintings I don't like and being like, ‘Ok, I understand this in the context of history. And as a result, this is fascinating to me.’ But I do prefer to look at art I do like, and that's allowed.

I like photography a lot. Photography is my favorite art form, because it's similar to comedy. It's like a snapshot of how a person sees the world. And it doesn't all appeal to me. But it is interesting to see everyone's point of view. 

So, I think there is a way for people to watch all comedy, and be like, ‘Oh, it's interesting that this is how part of the country, or part of society, or part of whatever processes information and does it comedically. And I'm having a nice time.’ Maybe I'm not laughing, but I'm having a nice time. Which is actually a thing that happens all the time when we watch comedy, especially at home. Which is like, it's hard to laugh when you're by yourself. But you're still feeling pleasant. You're like, ‘Oh, this is a nice time watching a character and not be so caught up with ‘how much am I laughing? If I'm laughing a lot, that means it's good.’

So, with Sebastian, to bring it back in, it's like, ‘what a kooky guy.’ And he's doing this, and I think it's like, ‘Oh, and no one else is doing it.’ And he deliberately picks obvious subjects, right? He's just taking family, let's say family dinners, a thing that everyone has. It's not an unexplored topic. But he’s like — it allows him to really express his comedy, which is the crazy gestures and flinging his hands in specific ways. And that either works or it doesn't.

And why it works, who knows? That's what's magical about it. I can talk for an hour about Sebastian Maniscalco, about why — whatever. But what is also great about comedy is there are unexplained reasons. To me, it is both a mystical art and a thing I can demystify, but that is what, is why I'm able to still be excited about it.

I will say why I ended up not ever writing about food was, I was like, ‘I want to have a thing that I could not have to intellectualize.’

Alicia: Yes.

And that makes so much sense. Because it really does take a lot of joy out of it. When I was writing restaurant reviews, I was like, ‘I hate this.’ It just ruined the whole process. So, I admire people who can write restaurant reviews, and not start to hate food. Because-

Jesse: Adam Platt was the New York Magazine restaurant critic. I've been with him as he's on — eating to write reviews about it. And it is interesting. He jokes about being cynical about certain things. But when a thing is new or exciting, or just sort of really well done, it is interesting to him. But I'm not there when he's going to the, I don't know, 50th New American restaurant of the yea- 

Because a lot of restaurants are just, are — that are being reviewed are not trying to be — That's the thing that's so hard about food, is there are people who deliberately are being like, ‘This is not art. I'm trying to create a thing that is not art,’ for what, whatever that means, even though they're failing, because it is art. Because whatever. 

But as a result, it's so weird to review a thing where people are like, ‘I'm trying to create a neighborhood restaurant.’ So, my value system is not — my value system is like, ‘Is it convenient? Does it scratch an itch of people who live walking distance from this restaurant?’ Not what a thing a person who's writing about it for a magazine would want. And that is, I don't know why you do? 

My favorite restaurants, or my — the places — I used to be really into restaurants, I think, as an idea. And I would know what was new. And then you go to enough of them, and you're like — No restaurant is doing a thing that I haven't necessarily been exposed to. 

If you're doing a type of cuisine that I've not eaten, whatever extreme regionality or just sort of doing it differently or whatever, if you're just doing whatever you define modern food is, I, I'm just not going to get excited about it. Because it's like — it's not — I've had so many versions of it, right? I'm old now and I’d rather have — I live, I know the places that are walking distance that sort of do it.

I'm like, it's not going to be better for this because these people, for whatever reason, as we’ve talked about, have, I don't think grew up in the same place as I did. But, what — ‘the amount of salt they think is normal is the amount of salt I think is normal.’

Alicia: [Laughs.] 

What keeps — ’cause you're saying you don't want to think about restaurants or food that way. What makes you like thinking about jokes in a way where you're kind of breaking it down and really opening it up and kind of not talking necessarily about the visceral reaction, but about the intellect behind creating that?

Jesse: I will say that I didn't get into journalism to write about comedy, necessarily. I kind of backed into it. 

I started — I was writing music reviews, because I wanted to work in the music business. And when I eventually was working in the music business, I was like, ‘This is not for me.’ And I started a blog and I was recapping Top Chef or I was writing — I sort of came to writing about comedy much later. 

And something happened. For whatever reason, it worked. How my brain works, and how comedians' brains work. I was able to sort of see the Matrix and enjoy the Matrix at the same time. And like, it just is such a window into these people. The thing that I sometimes say, which is like — I have a podcast about art, it's just I talk about comedians, because I have more expertise in comedy. And because comedians are good at talking.

And I don't know if that's true. I do think that is partly true, which is I'm interested in the creative process and how one goes from having an experience, or having a feeling, and how that then gets filtered through people. But I don't know what would happen if I interviewed non-comedians, and if — I could probably get a person who's good at talking who was not a comedian, or a comedy creator.

And I do think partly, what is interesting to me, is it's such an unexplored area. There just isn't any discourse, really, whatsoever. I know. I've researched it. I am working on a book proposal, and I look to see what else there is, and there just sort of isn't anything there. 

You know, a handful of philosophy — every once in a while philosophers have gotten really into the idea of what we find humor humorous. And Freud looked into it. But it really is, they were — none of them were looking at comedy as an art form. They were just looking at it as the fact that we laugh, and why do we laugh. 

But until the last 10 years, there hasn't been a history of people really talking about it. It's crazy. And so because of that, there is something exciting about every idea I have, it's the first time anyone's had that idea. 

And I do think how — there's sort of — how comedy both reflects society, and how it also is able to shape society, let's say broadly define the word society, makes it just a really interesting entry point to sort of have bigger ideas. 

So, on the reflection side, comedians work on jokes by — they have an idea and they test it out. So, testing out means they try it in front of an audience, and the audience responds in a certain way. And as a result, they change the joke to adapt to the audience they had. Then, they do it to another audience. And they change it again, based on that. And then they do that 1000 times, let's say. It's probably less, let's say it's 1000 times. 

But that means thousands, a thousand different groups, groups of 300 people, communicated something to this person about where society is on a certain topic. And most comedians are doing these jokes. They're doing a lot of it. Often, it's New York crowds, but a lot of them are tourists. But they're going around the country and not just tier one, tier two, tier three, tier four markets. They're playing cities that you can’t imagine have comedy clubs, but do. And that is shaping how they tell this joke. 

So, by the time we see it in a special, it is the reflection of how, I don't know, let's say 20,000 people see a certain issue. It's essentially like they're polling the country. Now, regardless, that is interesting, right? So, let's say they polled 20,000 people, and they realized those 20,000 people are really transphobic. So, that's bad. I don't think it's a societal good that that's the case. But it's a very useful way to know that a lot of this country is specifically transphobic in this exact way, right, or racist in this exact way, or whatever in this way. 

I think the one you see probably most often is sexist, right? Because so many comedians are talking about dating. So, what they're — how they communicate reflects the sort of gender norms of whoever their audience is. So, you have that part of it, which is no matter what. If you can completely detach yourself from the influence these comedians have, by watching comedy, you're just like, ‘Oh, this is where the country is at, or a portion of this country is at.’ 

And you can't deny it, because even if you don't think it's funny, clearly thousands of people did. And that means something. Right or wrong, it means something. And it can tell you in many ways to be like, ‘Oh, the problem is here.’ I think it's useful to be — just literally it's like, ‘Oh, this is where the views are. We now know what the views of the opposing side are. We hypothetically can help address it.’

Now, the other part is comedians have the ability to shape how we see certain things. For whatever reason, they're just sort of really good at it. And there's a bit of comedy helping the medicine go down, of like, ‘Let's talk about complicated issues, but I'm going to talk about in a way that's funny, so it gets to you.’ They're also just sort of really good at putting things succinctly in a way that just like — it's almost like they create earworms of ideas.

And the example I like to use because it's like the least touchy is — this comedian Shane Torres has had this joke about Guy Fieri. Do you know this joke?

Alicia: Yes, I love that joke.

Jesse: So, here's this guy, Shane Torres. He's a fantastic comedian. And I saw him opening for Kyle Kinane, who's one of my five favorite comedians. And I had seen it before, but — and, so he's just opening and he does this joke about Guy Fieri. 

And I'm like, ‘Oh my God.’ To explain for those who don't know, it's a defensive hit. And it's easy to be like, ‘Of course,’ we all like him now. You have to remember, seven years ago, everyone hated him. Hated him. He was number one enemy for, as this joke argues, for no reason. Just because he is not like what snobs think cool is. 

So, Shane has this joke that about — essentially, it's a joke that's to art what this conversation is. It's a joke about taste. And it's a joke about what we determine is cool. It’s a joke partly about why is Anthony Bourdain cool. Just because he wears a leather jacket and is cynical.

So, it's this full-throated defense of Guy Fieri both an idea and also as a person. You learn that Guy Fieri is a really like pro-gay marriage guy. He does so much work for charity. And the entire idea of what that show is, which is he's mostly helping mom and pop restaurants make a living. Which is true. Being on that show is a real game-changer for a lot of places. People in a lot of cities that don't get featured a lot. 

So, I saw this joke maybe two years before it was on TV or in anything. And I remember being like, ‘Whenever he's about to film something, I need Vulture to get some sort of exclusive in premiering it, because this thing is going to explode.’ This so succinctly captures a thing, and will rewire your brain. If you don't like Guy Fieri, you listen to the joke, your brain is rewired. And you like him.

And so this joke came, comes out. And it went viral. And then as people would, and you could see the world change. Night and day. And that is the power comedy can have, especially when it's a thing that's completely not talked about. So, it's smarter when it's a thing people are constantly talking about. 

But, for some reason, its ability to sort of get past your first line of defense, because it's comedy — you’re a little bit more vulnerable. Its ability to sort of condense speech and be convincing. And it can do something like that. 

Obviously, there's more serious examples, right? It's no one — Bill Cosby is, was this somewhat known, somewhat talked about villain for however long a time. But Hannibal Buress told one small joke, it goes viral, and then everything else happens for whatever reason. 

And, that is the thing that satire can do. I say it in a silly voice. And that is also the other part, which is like, ‘Oh, it's both a reflection of this thing, and it can move things forward.’ It is a volatile art form, especially now where people care about it so much. 

Especially as we are of the generation that sort of like came — we are the first generation where being a comedy nerd existed. There were discrete comedy fans, and they all wanted to become a comedian. But we were a generation because Comedy Central existed, because Seinfeld was so popular, because of Jon Stewart, where we're like, ‘Comedians are a big deal.’

So, all of it, it just sort of keeps on being fascinating. I've done 100-whatever interviews, and every time after I do one I'm like, ‘I don't know if I can keep on doing it.’ And then I start researching a person. And like 30 minutes in, I'm like, ‘Oh, I can't wait to talk to this person.’ It happens every single time. It's not fun, and I think I should get over it, those sort of boomerang of emotions that I experience. But, I don’t know.

I interviewed this guy. Meeting Ali Siddiq recently, who I had kind of heard the name of, but for whatever reason missed his special. And I was exposed to the fact that he's — he had this one joke that went viral that I completely missed about his time in prison. 

And I'm like, ‘Oh, I've learned more about prison from his joke then any documentary I've seen, any TV show that I watch.’ And it's a joke. It's a 12-minute joke. If you watch a couple of jokes, let's say you watch 30 minutes of material, I think you could really get a sense of what it's like in a way that you cannot in any other art form. 

I don't think there's any other art form that would capture a thing like that, than comedy, because how it condenses the human experience. And how jokes, good jokes, not bad jokes — maybe not — but good jokes are like icebergs. Obviously, it's a cliché, but it really is the tip of what is a universal experience. 

And the podcast, pretty much is like — oh, the joke is the iceberg. Part of — oh, not the iceberg. Is it an iceberg? Yeah, the iceberg. But then, the rest of the pod — the interview is like the rest of this ice. And, so when you find out the rest about that ice, you're just like, ‘Oh, man, that iceberg is now so much more interesting.’

Alicia: Well, I think we answered all of my questions without me really asking them.

Jesse: And I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have. 

And maybe, the problem is when you give me the questions ahead of — and this is a thing that I forgot. When you give people questions ahead of time, they then internalize- 

Alicia: Exactly, no. 

No, and I’ve noticed that lately, and it's it — but it's a certain kind of person who internalizes the questions. And other people don't pay attention to them at all, which is fasc — it's fascinating.

Jesse: I think it's — certain people have different speeds of connection. And I noticed that because I talk to comedians who have insanely fast speeds of connection. But, as a person who doesn’t, like his is kind of like what I'm like in therapy. I'm just always looking to Tarzan to the next-

Alicia: [Laughs.] Well, I'm glad we got to swing through the jungle on these topics. And yeah, I really appreciate the time. I think this is fun.

Jesse: I feel like I wanted you to talk more.

Alicia: I have so much to say about all of this stuff, but I'm not a — I don't feel like a cohesive enough thinker on the topics to do it well for a recording. I'd have a great conversation about comedy over a drink or something. But I'm not going to do it on record, because- [Laughs.]

Jesse: I’m the opposite. If we were just hanging out, I would be so much more in my head about it and be like — on a microphone where it's an interview, and that's context. I'm like, ‘Oh, cool. I'm allowed to talk, and it's okay. Everyone—’

Alicia: Well, thank you again.