In January, Christian Lander was just another wage slave at a California interactive ad agency. Then his blog, "Stuff White People Like," a tongue-in-cheek comprehensive list of everything left-wing, upper-middle-class Caucasians enjoy (from The Wire and McSweeney's to eating outside and self-importance) grew exponentially in popularity to the point that it amassed 20 million hits by the end of March and caught the eye of Random House. Seizing on the site's popularity, the publisher had Lander expand the site into a 211-page, 150-item book, Stuff White People Like: The Definitive Guide To The Unique Taste Of Millions, which was released in early July. Random House isn't the only one who's taken notice: Lander is slated to appear on Late Night With Conan O'Brien on September 5. While temporarily on leave from his day job and on a full-blown publicity tour, Lander spoke to The A.V. Club about being an asshole with a blog, not deserving all this attention, and accidentally appealing to old people.
The A.V. Club: What's the response been like on the tour so far?
Christian Lander: Unbelievable. It's still brand new, so it could all fall apart in Chicago—but the first stop I did, I was in Toronto. And it was just for media stuff, and it was my hometown, so it was really kind of nice to go back. But it was just radio interviews, and some TV stuff, and print stuff. The first speaking one I did was in Boston, at the Harvard bookstore. And it was fantastic. A ton of people showed up, more than I was expecting. More than they were expecting.
Because I'm just this asshole with a blog, they were like, "It's not going to be that many." But the place was packed. People were standing, and people were sitting in the aisles [with a] totally blocked view, just to hear what was going on. It was jam-packed. And then from there, I spoke at Google, which was fucking awesome. It was really cool to get invited in. They have this big wall of the people they've brought in before: Obama, Hillary Clinton, Gorbachev, the Dalai Lama, and Bill Clinton.
AVC: Did they put your picture up there?
CL: No. [Laughs.] No, I didn't get on the wall.
AVC: You didn't even scrawl your name up there?
CL: I was just too overwhelmed by the Google-ness, right? I have a thing where I take a picture—I regret not doing it at the Harvard one—but I take a picture of the crowd before [speaking]. Because I can't believe that many people showed up, and I want to be able to show my wife and friends, "Look! People actually showed up for me!" So that went really well. I was in D.C., at Politics And Prose, this bookstore just outside the downtown court. And 300 people showed up, it was packed again.
A lot of old people too, which is awesome, but they loved it. Like, 85-year-olds. They loved it. I was sort of like, "That's amazing!" Because when I wrote the book and the blog, I was speaking as much as I could to my experience, our generational experience, and it is amazing that it transcends.
AVC: Are older people liking it for the same reason younger people like it?
CL: Yeah I think so. They find it funny, simple as that.
AVC: So it's for all ages, for the ages?
CL: No, no. Certainly not for the ages—it's from the Internet. Nothing on the Internet is for the year.
AVC: Is it going to last for the rest of the year?
CL: [Laughs.] No.
AVC: Since it blew up, you've been saying, "This is it. This is probably going to kill it."
CL: Yeah. It's still fun for me, and I was just This week, because with press requests and the tour, and just the weird stress of it coming out, I've been really stressed. "Is it going to do well? Could I have done more?" It was really tough for me to even write anything, 'cause I spent all this time worrying and moving around doing meetings and stuff, so I wrote one this week. I'll keep doing it as long as it's still fun to me. Internet shelf life is worse than a banana.
AVC: So how eagerly will you go on Jerry Springer in 20 years, or "Where are they now?" segments with the Star Wars kid?
CL: And the Tron guy. Yeah.
AVC: Have you heard from any of those other Internet sensations?
CL: Well, actually, all of them. There's a conference in Boston called ROFLCon. It was amazing. So I was invited, along with Tron guy, the Where The Hell Is Matt? guy, the One Red Paperclip guy, the xkcd comics guy.
CL: She wasn't real. She wasn't true. She wasn't of the people, and believe me, the conference was "the people." But it was amazing. The I Can Has Cheezburger? guys were there. Those guys are hilarious. They were awesome.
We were all there in one place, and we talked to everybody. And it's so funny—a lot of the people on Springer have always had the desire to be a celebrity, and are desperate to reclaim it. Everyone at that conference who made it, none of them thought anything was going to happen from what they were doing. They were all like, "I did it because it was fun for me."
AVC: But a lot of people nowadays are consciously trying to become Internet sensations. There are how-to articles about it.
CL: I know. Which is also really weird, I'm like, "Dude, I'm just an asshole with a blog." 'Cause my dad, he had a copy of one of the books that he wanted me to sign for one of his friend's children, like a 17-year-old. He goes, "He wants to be just like you." And I was like, "What?" Just the weirdest thing that I'd heard. At Christmastime, nobody that I knew was dying to be an associate manager of corporate communications. And now?
It's the funniest thing in the world, it's just so strange. Everyone at that conference just gets it. They have a good sense about themselves, they don't take themselves too seriously. And they know that—it's an interesting medium. Because it's much less regulated in a lot of ways. So your fame is weird. And it was so funny to be there. At that conference, everyone there was a star, because everyone knew who they were.
But everyone at ROFLCon has a sense of humor about themselves. And they're like, "I'm Internet famous." No one considers it a particularly insane accomplishment, they're just like, "I'm really lucky I get to do this. I'm gonna ride it as long as I can."
AVC: Is all this attention warranted?
CL: No. It got popular for whatever reason. And it didn't get popular because it was crammed down the throats of people by some corporation or some mass-media thing.
AVC: You started this in January, and no offense, but it's completely absurd where it is now.
CL: Yeah, exactly. You're right. I agree. That's what keeps me grounded in all this. It was just this amazing thing that caught on that I didn't intend to catch on. So I think when it comes to the attention, I don't feel like any of it is deserved, right? It's not like I set out to achieve this goal. It just happened, and it's amazing. And I'm enjoying it as much as I possibly can. I don't feel like anything in the world is owed to me, and I'm just enjoying everything that's coming with it.
Internet famous. [Laughs.] It's a fucking ridiculous fluke. It's a new phenomenon, it's bizarre, but it's better than reality-TV fame. Just because whatever it is, the people did themselves. Whereas reality TV, they owe whomever the producer is of the show, the exposure, and marketing. It's a little bit better. But no, you're not going to see me in Us Weekly anytime soon.
AVC: How will you know when the site's run its course?
CL: I don't know. I'll know it when it happens, I guess. When it stops being fun for me will probably be it. And it's still fun. I think it'll probably happen. This can't keep up forever. And it won't keep up forever. At some point I'll be like, "All right. It was a good run. And it's over."
AVC: What if it keeps getting bigger?
CL: No, impossible.
AVC: Your website says you're a comedian. What kind?
CL: A struggling one. I'm not really.
AVC: Is it Jeff Foxworthy-type stuff? "If you do this, then you might be a white person?" Or is it unrelated to that material?
CL: Possibly. It's a little different than that, though. I don't want to be an actor. I don't wanna be a stand-up comedian. I just wanna be a comedy writer. Nothing beyond that.
AVC: Do you have any ideas for shows?
CL: Yeah, I have tons of ideas for shows. I'm still working them out. I have some, they're just not fully baked. But then I have half-baked ideas for shows. Like, I have an idea for a show called Fat Guyz. With a zed. It's about two fat guys.
AVC: What happens to them?
CL: Whatever happens. They ride scooters. They fucking—they date women. They have problems. [Laughs.]
AVC: Your site's an acquired taste. For white people who don't like it, what's the most common reason?
CL: There's a couple. One of them is, "I'm white, and I don't like anything on this list. So I find this very offensive." I always find that particularly funny, because it's like, "So you're offended that I've made a generalization about your race that doesn't apply to you? I think every other minority on earth has been through this in the last thousand years, so good. I'm glad you feel that way." And then the other thing is people who get offended by the whole idea of stereotypes in any capacity. I got an e-mail from someone in Canada who reported the site to a hate-crimes commission. Actually submitted it and said that they wanted to get the Canadian government involved to shut it down as a hate crime.
AVC: Did anything come of that?
CL: No. One of my commentators left this; it was the best comment they ever said: "There's a big difference between these stereotypes and other stereotypes. The difference is, white people don't get denied jobs for liking yoga. These aren't hateful stereotypes, they're not demeaning stereotypes. There's a big difference in where it's going. There's not a hateful aspect." So I think that sums it up perfectly, about why those people are wrong when they get upset about it.
AVC: A lot of angry people like it, too, though, including white supremacists. The white-supremacist forum Stormfront linked to your site.
CL: The guy posted it, and then people listed their own things that should be on the list. One of them was "living with my own kind." All these awful things were in there. It was just like, "What have I done?"[pagebreak]
AVC: Surely you could have seen something like that coming, though.
CL: When I started this, I didn't consider more than five minutes ahead. It surprised me where it was coming from. The funny thing is, I knew about Stormfront before. In the late '90s, I was playing a videogame called Tony La Russa Baseball. Loved it, one of the best baseball games for a computer ever, and it was made by a company called Stormfront Studios. So I typed "Stormfront" into Google—sorry, at the time, AltaVista—and they had the domain first. That's how I first came across it.
One of the things with my site that I thought was great was that it took the idea of racial difference and it approached it from a non-hateful way. So when people do spin-off sites, like Stuff Educated Black People Like or Stuff Asian People Like, it was written by black people, or it was written by Asians, and it wasn't done in a way to be offensive. It was meant to sort of say, "Here are the things we like as a people, and it's kind of stupid."
AVC: Another angry person has copped to liking it: Kanye West linked to your site. Have you heard from him?
CL: No, but I'm trying my best to. I want him to write an entry on himself. I just want him to write the word "sweaters." That's it. Just write, "Sweaters. —Kanye West."
AVC: The site reads as a guide for non-whites on how to deal with white people. Was that always its intention?
CL: Absolutely, in a hilarious way. It's funny when I'll get an e-mail from someone who's black saying, "I wish I had this before I left for college, it would have saved so much time." So there is actually a good mix, because people get the joke, and that it is as much about class as it is about race. People who are in this upper-middle class, they relate to it. And the fact that is, that class is still overwhelmingly dominated by white people. As much as we'd like to think it isn't—"No, it's dominated by this perfect coalition." No, it's white people.
That's where the humor transcends race a little bit. People can relate to this. They say, "You know what? I'm black, but I've been called white my whole life because I like these things." I'm not making a judgment about the things themselves, but about the way people approach the things. That's where the audience is. And then, a lot more old people than I thought. [Laughs.] Which is great, though, I love it. That's fantastic that they get the jokes and they find it funny. I'm thrilled with that.
AVC: What items on the list hit too close to home for you?
CL: "Knowing what's best for poor people." That was the one where I went right after myself big time––because I'm so fucking guilty of that. So much of my life, I believed that people in these situations had no free will, like they shopped at Wal-Mart just because they have no choice. It was unbelievable, and I thought, "Oh, if only they had money and education, they could be just like me."
And I was like, "How arrogant and awful is that?" So I had to call myself out on that one. Fixed-gear bicycles, I'm really bad on that one. And indie music, these are some of my most obnoxious traits that I have to call out. I will talk to you for an hour about my bicycle, why it's so great, and why I love it. And we could go out on the street and I will review everyone's fixed-gear bicycle that goes by, and tell you everything that I like and dislike about it. So, yeah, it's pretty pretentious. And indie music, I'm such a fucking dick about it, just judging people immediately on the music that they like. Like I say in the book, if I know a band you like, I own you, it's over, it's over, it's done.
AVC: What's the procedure for deciding what gets on the list?
CL: Me. It's a mirror.
AVC: But in a way, aren't you're the worst person to make the list, since you are white? Shouldn't a non-white compile the authoritative list?
CL: No. I'm the dude that's selling out my people. You know what I mean? I'm giving away all the insider secrets.
AVC: Which aren't really secrets.
CL: No, they're not really secrets, but they're insights that help explain what's happening. I'd say it's me, mostly, and a lot of people I went to grad school with. And liberal arts Ph.D. programs are beyond goldmines. Then I just listened in on the farmers' markets in Los Angeles.
AVC: Obviously the site is meant as a joke, but how much anger is there behind that joke?
CL: It's comedy first and foremost. I value humor over all else in this book. I just want it to be funny. But yeah, there's anger about it, there's a lot of things I'm angry about. One of them is sort of saying, "Look at our generation. What do we have? What's left?" Stuff is all we have. We can have music, and we can have fixed-gear bikes, but at the same time, there are people exactly like us in every city and college town in the whole country, Canada, and parts of Europe. And we're being sold to in the same way as everyone in the mass media sells to everyone that we sort of despise.
But you're just as guilty of the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses' mentality as your parents or grandparents. It's not a display of wealth. It's about a display of authenticity and taste. And so it's just my anger about that competition. And what I'm angry about is, I just can't stop myself from doing it.
It's like what else do I do? Just move to a gated community? Just lock it up and call it a life, and say, "The rest of the world can just burn to the ground. I don't care. I'm safe here"? I don't know any other way. What's the alternative?
AVC: How interested do you think your readers will be in your next project?
CL: Oh, not at all. I don't know. They might be. I have no idea how to follow this up. I have other ideas, but I don't think that there's anything I can do that's going to match the chord this strikes at this time, and I don't expect to. I don't expect to have a series of this.
I just hope it leads to a regular job writing comedy somewhere. And I'm totally happy with that. It's a life goal achieved, and if it never gets recreated again, that's fine. I don't expect the world to throw itself at my feet, or for this to happen over and over again. I know this is very temporary, so I'm just enjoying what I can. The book's going to give me a little time to see if I can make it as a full-time writer, which is great, and if it fails, then I'll just go back to work.
AVC: Speaking of, how did you leave things at your job?
CL: I set my desk on fire. And there was this bridge on the way out, and I literally burned it. Actually, it was fine. What a weird situation, for someone to leave their job. Doesn't happen every day. And my company was an interactive ad agency, we're big on the web, so they understood. They're really proud of me. And it's really cool that they can say "He was working here when it all blew up." So there were no hard feelings whatsoever. Everyone understood, and they were like, "I'd probably do the same thing. Scratch probably, I would do it." No, I left on great terms, everyone's really happy for me. And when the next project tanks, they'll be happy to have me back.
AVC: What is the next project?
CL: I don't know. It's sort of hard to look ahead, when as of January 17th of this year, I didn't even have this project. So everyone's like, "When's the next project?" And I'm like, "I don't even know. I just finished this one. And I didn't even know this one was going to be this big." There's a lot of stuff kicking around, and I'll get to one eventually, but now, I'm just trying to focus on this. I don't know what will be next, but I'm sure it will be fun, I hope.
AVC: What if it isn't?
CL: Worst case, I'm pretty sure because this is on the New York Times bestseller list, I can get a job as an MFA professor teaching at some community college somewhere. I love teaching; that's one thing I miss about grad school. I feel like with this, it's kind of hard to turn me away as a writing professor. It's like, "Here's my résumé." I would happily go back to doing that, because I love teaching so much. This way I could do it and sort of choose where I live, and not need to finish my Ph.D.
AVC: Everyone wins.
CL: Except people who are getting Ph.D.'s and I'm taking jobs from them. But hey, that's what they get.
AVC: Welcome to America.
CL: Survival of the fittest.