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Humorist and cultural commentator Joel Stein became a columnist for Time magazine while still in his 20s and has been a frequent contributor to national magazines and major city dailies alike, as well as a quippy talking head on TV clip shows. Now Stein has written the book Man Made: A Stupid Quest For Masculinity, inspired by the birth of his first child. For Man Made, Stein endeavored to learn how to be a better father to his son by studying the ways of “real men” up close. Stein rode along with firefighters, camped with Boy Scouts, played catch with ex-Dodger Shawn Green, fought UFC vet Randy Couture, and tried about a half-dozen other jobs and hobbies, all in an effort to overcome his wimpy tendencies and embrace the macho. Stein spoke with The A.V. Club about his experiences working on the book, his philosophy of adulthood, and his thriving career as a pop journalist.
The A.V. Club: You open Man Made by talking about the birth of your son, and then jump right into your series of adventures, as though they all happened right away and close together. How long did you actually spend on the entire project?
Joel Stein: The first thing I did happened in… November of 2009. Thank you, iCal. And the very last thing I did happened about two years later. Then came the writing—finding a way to tell the story. There’s a page at the very end that I regret not putting up front, where I say, “The order of some the events have been changed in a way that I would characterize as journalistically unethical.” I switched the order of stuff, because it helped me tell the story. You could never get away with that in a magazine article, and I question whether it’s really okay, because you’ve led people to believe, obviously, that this happened in a certain order. I think if that last page had been the very first page, I’d feel a little better about it, but it’s still kind of weird. I mean, all the facts are still the same. But I switched them around so that my big fight happens at the end, because I thought that was the most dramatically interesting, and the thing I was working towards.
AVC: Your son’s age fluctuates throughout the book. He’ll be walking in one chapter and an infant later.
JS: I worked pretty hard to clean that up because it was a huge mess. It sucks when people notice it, because I did try, but I didn’t want to lie and say that my son was doing something when he wasn’t, so I wound up just cutting a bunch of stuff about my son. But I guess I must have screwed that up a little bit. [Laughs.] The more I moved events around, the more I had to go back and cut out the references to him. And I still never got it quite right. It’s something I knew was going on that I tried to fix.
AVC: What job in the book did you find most difficult?
JS: Physically, the most difficult was definitely army boot camp. But I also liked it the most, and the more I did it, the less difficult it became. The most miserable was probably hunting, as nice as my guide was. I also hated doing home repairs with my father-in-law. But I think hunting was the worst.
AVC: What about seeing a dead body when you were with the firefighters? Was that difficult?
JS: No, it wasn’t. [Laughs.] I found out I have no emotion. I thought that seeing a dead body would be a life-changing, nightmare-inducing experience. I can’t figure out why it wasn’t. Maybe it was just the way the other firemen reacted, or the fact that it was a homeless guy, and I’ve walked by homeless guys who were sleeping lots of times. Or maybe it was just that he looked peaceful. I don’t know, but it wasn’t that bad. I feel bad about not feeling bad. I bet if it was someone riddled with bullets or who hanged himself? I’ve been more upset by seeing versions of this stuff on television. Like on Mad Men? When that guy hanged himself? That was more disturbing to look at than the dead body. This dead body just looked like a sleeping homeless guy. But I’m sure if it’s someone you know or if it’s more gruesome… I’m making excuses for my psychological issues. [Laughs.]
AVC: Perhaps if you’d stumbled upon the dead body rather than being told, “Hey look, that’s a corpse.”
JS: That’s true, I was warned. I would have never found that dead body on my own. If we were sent to this block to find a dead body? I could’ve done 10 searches up and down the block and never found it. But these firefighters pulled away this huge cement flowerpot, and this guy was right behind it. Obviously the homeless situation in our city is such that this is happening somewhat regularly.
AVC: You mentioned the home repairs with your father-in-law. Has he read the book, or at least the parts where you make fun of him?
JS: Oh yeah, of course. And so did his wife and his son. He found it funny, but they found it hilarious. I think it was a bunch of stuff they’ve thought about him and have never said out loud. They were glad to have someone else pick on him. And he immediately went with what everybody goes with when you write about them, which is, “It’s funny, but y’know, a lot of it’s not true.” And then I was like, “Okay, let’s go over it. Tell me one thing that’s not true.” And of course there are no facts that aren’t true. It’s just that seeing it from someone else’s perspective, it feels a little skewed. But I think a lot of people see him like that. He stayed in our house for the month of February, and all he did was spend time in this one part of our yard that I never go into, and try to fix it up. Like, all day. He never went anywhere.
AVC: Were you grateful for the help, or do you find it emasculating? Do you think he was silently judging you?
JS: It didn’t feel very judge-y. It definitely feels like light mockery. Like I’m so clueless that I don’t know the stuff that needs fixing in my own home. He’d ask me questions like, “Is it this type of thing or that type of thing?” And I would be like, “I don’t know.” He’d go, “How do you not know? It’s your house.” So there was a lot of that. But y’know, that’s what this guy likes doing.
AVC: Most of the men you shadowed for the book were Californians. Do you think you would’ve had different results if you’d followed a firefighter from Dallas?
JS: That’s what my wife had kind of assumed, until I brought her to meet the firefighters. She thought they’d be cool L.A. dudes who just happened to be super-manly. But she grew up in upstate New York—way-upstate, right on the border of Vermont—and she was like, “These guys could be from the middle of the country.” She was very disappointed. They were the kind of real men that can be found anywhere. There is a difference, though, between firefighters on the west coast and the east coast. Firefighters on the east coast have a cowboy, Rescue Me mentality. “We’ll do whatever it takes!” Firefighters out here are much more like the military. More team-oriented and rule-following.
AVC: What about the Scoutmaster? Do you think your scouting experience would’ve been different in Georgia?
JS: It would’ve been a little different, just because I happened to go with a bunch of rich L.A. kids who were teamed up with an inner-city group. Maybe in Georgia, that dynamic wouldn’t exist. Or maybe it would? I have no idea. Scouting is definitely more foreign in any “blue state,” but I think that the scouting culture is so powerful that it would’ve been a pretty similar experience.
AVC: Is there anything that you tried and failed to set up that you really wanted to do?
JS: Yeah, a couple things. But I’m not sure they would’ve been right, ultimately. I mean, there’s a million things you could do, but the ones I chose were more idiosyncratic and personal. Like, I don’t think it was right for the book, but I made a couple futile attempts to contact the Hells Angels. That didn’t pan out. I had talked to the Elks, I think it was, or maybe the Masons? And I was gonna do a whole thing where I joined a bunch of those organizations and hung out with old men. I think that might’ve been good, actually, but it was just a little more work than I had time for. I thought about doing some kind of cowboy or farming thing—one or the other. Never did that. And then there were a bunch of extreme things I think would’ve been interesting but maybe not quite right for the book. Like, I wanted to cross the border from Mexico to here, illegally. I wanted to spend a couple days in jail. I wanted to join a gang and sell drugs. In the end, the book stayed more on the side of looking at what real men do in this country, just normally and for fun. And those other ideas were a little more like a History Channel reality show. Ice Road Hell Logging or whatever.
AVC: If you’re writing a book about what it means to be a man in America, how does going to jail fit in?
JS: Oh, I think it’s perfect. I’m getting excited again just thinking about it. It’s such a concentration of pure masculinity. No women are ever going to be here, in this little male society. Very Lord Of The Flies. I wanted to see what happens. Even in the frat house or the firehouse—when it’s just one type of person—you build your own complicated rules, so I couldn’t imagine the level of rules and etiquette and all that stuff that there is in a prison.
AVC: This ideal of masculinity you’re pursuing throughout the book stands in contrast to the kind of person that you feel you are. Do you think there’s a constant to manliness? Or are there distinct skill sets that don’t translate from one macho guy to another? Do you think Shawn Green could be a day trader?
JS: Hmmm… somewhat? Like, Shawn Green’s really competitive. Actually, when I talked to the day traders at that firm in Chicago, they were really interested in finding new talent, and they have psychological tests that they give people, to try to predict what makes a good day trader. And they found just about zero correlation between almost anything—even intelligence—but the one thing they found was that people who’d excelled at playing college sports made good day traders. So I think there’s definitely a correlation between fast thinking and competitiveness—those two things. And there are probably a lot of other correlations, too. But almost all the dudes I met also had some very unmanly characteristic, or refused to do one or many of the things that I do in the book. Like [UFC President] Dana White won’t camp or hunt, and he doesn’t like sports, yet he was maybe the most testosterone-y person I met in the book.
AVC: How old is your son now?
JS: He’s three.
AVC: Is he still moving in a boyish direction?
JS: Yeah, but it’s mixed, just like the guys in the book. He’s super into cars and trucks and fixing stuff, and interested in how stuff works, and he’s also kind of fearless about certain things, like the ocean and amusement park rides. But he’s very non-confrontational and wimpy on the playground, and very clingy to his parents, and very affectionate. So I’d say he’s mostly a wimp, but into some guy stuff. He’s not that into sports; he’s more like a cars-and-trucks kid.
AVC: You give an example in the book about seeing boys wrestling with each other, and being unsure whether that’s just boys being boys or something that a grown up should put a stop to. Have you come to any conclusions on that?
JS: I think about it a lot. Even on a less dramatic level, I was walking with my son through this Thai street fair, and they had put a ring in there, and they were Thai kickboxing. I was carrying him, and I had his face turned the other way, and I was thinking to myself, “Why am I afraid to let him know that people do this?” Same as when fights break out, and I look at the newspaper in the morning. If there’s anything violent, I make up some bullshit story about why it’s happening. My rule of thumb for that seems to be, “If I saw adults doing it, what would I do?” Or more accurately, “If I saw adults that I wasn’t afraid of doing it, what would I do?” [Laughs.] So yeah, if kids were fighting, I would get in the way, right? I mean, there’s like the pushing and shoving that guys do in school, and stuff that’s harmless, but two kids truly trying to hurt each other fighting? I don’t know why you would not interrupt that.
AVC: It must be hard to be a teacher, trying to adhere to all these different rules they have now about bullying, while also not wanting to interfere with what’s natural.
JS: I guess, but what’s natural sucks in general, right? [Laughs.] We’ve spent millennia getting rid of what’s natural. I don’t know. I want my son to know how to defend himself, but if I see two kids fighting, I’m not going to just let them fight, just like I won’t let them jump off something high. Kids are idiots. I know this is not what I was trying to learn in my own book, but I still can’t stop myself. Why would you let them fight? If they’re really angry and trying to hurt each other, that seems insane. If you owned a bar, if two people got in a fight, you wouldn’t just be like, “Oh, guys are guys.” You’d throw them out.
AVC: You mentioned jumping off something high. From your experiences watching parents and kids on the playground, are dads more willing to let their kids do risky things than moms are?
JS: I think that’s true with men in general. I think women don’t get it. I think moms see all downside, and we see a lot of upside. Like, my son’s a wimp so I don’t really have to deal with it, but I noticed even with the wimpy things he’s totally capable of doing, my wife will interrupt him. I think women don’t see the thrill and the confidence-boosting nature of this stuff; they just see, “Oh my God, you could get hurt!” Whereas we see the awesomeness of it. I think that’s part of the greatness of being a guy that I kept seeing over and over again in the book.
AVC: You were recently the source of some Internet controversy regarding the piece you wrote about young-adult literature.
JS: Right. That was crazy. It was like 300 words!
AVC: In Man Made though, you write about being a teenager and being more into culture you’d characterize as feminine. Isn’t it harsh to judge adults who enjoy reading The Hunger Games? If there are degrees to being a man, isn’t there some flexibility to what it means to be “adult?”
JS: I guess I’m arguing against flexibility. [Laughs.] Yeah, I’m definitely arguing against a flexible definition of adulthood. Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with reading the occasional young-adult novel. I read King Dork for work, and I thought it was pretty awesome. I guess Catcher In The Rye would now be called young-adult writing, and I would obviously think an adult should read that. But no, it’s part of the same reason I wrote the book, because I think there’s something to be gained from being a man and being an adult, and that if we wallow in our childhoods for the rest of our lives, we’re missing a lot. I’ve actually tried to transition myself out of rock music, to start listening to classical music. I think by not becoming an adult, that’s a lazy way of not fully enjoying or experiencing life. Like I won’t go see The Avengers. I don’t feel like, as an adult, I should be responsible for knowing the difference between The Hulk’s relationship to Thor and Captain America. I don’t feel like I should be having that discussion at dinner parties.
AVC: But can’t people enjoy The Avengers one weekend, and then an arthouse film the next? It’s not either/or, is it?
JS: On some level it is. There’s that great David Foster Wallace commencement address about how, on some level, there is an either/or. You are choosing your input. It’s not bad to know about a bunch of different things, but every time you choose to know about one thing, you are choosing not to know about something else. It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t listen to any rock music, or I shouldn’t know about some young-adult novels. But especially with reading, I don’t read that many books a year, so I want to choose wisely. I would assume that a well-written book written for adults is going to be a richer experience than even the best-written book for young adults. And maybe there’re exceptions, but the impression I get is that the adults who are reading young-adult novels are reading a lot of them.
I mean, the Internet is such a hollow echo chamber that I know I probably only pissed off a very small, specific group. But when you piss off small, specific groups, it’s pretty amazing what happens on the Internet. In the old days, you’d write something in a newspaper, and a wide swath of people would read it, and only a small percentage would get pissed off. But now I write this thing meant to piss off a small group of people and to inform everyone else, but only the small group of people see it, because they pass it around to everyone like them. Because people love to get pissed off. [Laughs.]
AVC: What do you see as your job? Do you have a model for your career?
JS: I did when I started. I guess my dream was to be like Dave Barry, or to do what Herb Caen used to do in the San Francisco Chronicle. To be someone who was part of a community and wrote the humor columns for that community. And then I kind of got a bigger, more national version of that at Time. Mostly, I’m just psyched for that to continue as long as it can. I know it’s a job with a limited duration, because I’ve been fired from it before and will be again, I’m sure. And it’s hard to find somewhere else to do it. Entertainment Weekly let me do it for like six months, and then the Los Angeles Times for like four years, but it’s hard to find a permanent home for a humor column, for sure.
AVC: Do you have long-term career goals?
JS: Oh, I don’t have any plans ever because I feel like I’m not really in control of what opportunities pop up. I guess I should be more proactive about my career. I really like writing about food and travel, so I’m trying to get a little bit of that going. I sold this book as a movie, so I’m writing my first screenplay for Fox. It’s with Shawn Levy producing and Jake Kasdan directing, and supposedly me writing what will be the first draft. That’s due pretty soon, and I’ve never done that before, so that’s a pretty scary challenge, writing that.
And then other things have come up that I’ve just been curious about. Like I’ve always kinda wanted to try sitcom writing, so I got to do that for a little bit. The occasional stuff I get to host on TV is easy and kind of fun in its own way. I just feel like, especially with the state of the media, you have to be open and willing to try new things.
AVC: When you get offered a chance to appear on something like Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, are you thinking of it as a fun little diversion, as a boost to your career, or as something else entirely?
JS: To be honest, I think, “Oh you’re gonna pay me to Skype? Yeah, of course I’ll do that.” [Laughs.] That’s 90 percent of my thinking. The other 10 percent is that I’ve noticed that the more stuff I say yes to, the more work it leads to, in really weird ways. Making dumb jokes about Who’s The Boss? on I Love The ’80s somehow makes editors remember that you exist and offer you a writing assignment, which is insane, because they’re completely unrelated.
But yeah, I used to have such a strong definition of myself. “I’m a magazine writer, I don’t like going on TV. It makes me uncomfortable, and I don’t get anything out of it.” That’s not where my ego’s at. I used to turn stuff down all the time that I didn’t find fulfilling, and then I realized that some of that was out of fear, and that I don’t have to find everything that I do equally fulfilling. It all begets each other, to some degree. And it’s not like I’m Thomas Pynchon, where I’d be cheapening my brand because my brand is so respected and valuable. I write humor columns; there’s not much to protect there.
So that’s how I think of my job. Also, just from being stuck in a writers’ room on a sitcom for six months, I realized that all of my cool experiences were from reporting. I don’t want to spend too much time away from my family, but I’m looking for more opportunities to go to weird places and write about it. It’s not like I would do anything, though. I would never be on a reality show. You have so little control, and it’s so intrusive.
[Laughs.] That’s such a lie, though, because I did try out for The Real World when I was like 22 or something. I want to write a story about all the people who tried out for The Real World. Aisha Tyler, Dave Eggers… I have a list of like 10 people who you’d think would never want to be on The Real World that all tried out for The Real World.
AVC: There’s your next book.
JS: Yep, that’s it.