This week I had the good fortune of interviewing the editors at New York’s fabled website, overheardinnewyork.com. (OINY) My reasoning behind the choice came from the fact that it’s hugely popular (four million pagehits a month), very funny, and sometimes important for us:

Slacker on a smoke break: Yeah, McCain said he is going to suspend his campaign so that he can work on the economy. I mean, really. It would be like me saying I’m suspending my pot distribution so that I can work on quantum physics. —Forest Ave., Staten Island

Or:

Fiction professor: I would find writing about investment bankers very difficult because I find them boring when I meet them. I start to like them when they start snorting coke. Then their dialogue becomes much more interesting. —The New School [I actually think I know who said this, but I won’t tell]

It’s impossible to live in this city without hearing the stupidity of others. And I can’t count the number of times I’ve left an elevator thinking, “God, I wonder what they thought of that!” Anyway, with a brazen attempt at making this piece somehow resound in a scholastic sense, I did, at some point, wonder whether there’s a link between OINY and Hell no Obama. Tenuous extrapolation over, here’s what David Barnette gave me.

12th Street: How old are you, and when/why did you start working for OINY?

David Barnette: I’m probably the oldest member of the Overheard staff. I was born during the Second Punic War. Mom was Carthaginian and Dad was Roman. You know what I’m talking about. In 2006 I started compulsively submitting headlines to the OINY headline contest. Morgan Friedman, Overheard in New York’s publisher, apparently got tired of reading all my entries for each quote and invited me to apply for a job as writer-editor. So, I did.

12th Street: What does your job entail?

DB: Several of us rate the hundreds of conversations people submit to Overheard in New York, Overheard in the Office, Overheard at the Beach, and Overheard Everywhere. And several of us then write suggested headlines for the quotes we think are the funniest. From that pool of quotes, other editors pick the funniest quotes with the headlines they like best and publish them. Then, our readers rate the quotes they like best and we monitor the data.

12th Street: How do you decide on the content—e.g., do you ever decide that something is too crude or offensive to publish?

DB: Hahahahaha! Oh, you’re serious. Sorry.

We don’t publish quotes that are merely crude or offensive if they’re not funny. Clearly, we have a broader definition of what’s funny than many people; those people often write to tell us we’ve crossed the line. We encourage people to savor our hatemail page and tell us why they’re angry at us.

We’re primarily about making people laugh. When readers write to tell us they loved something, it makes our day. We’re like, “Awww!” as if we’re all ironic and cynical. But inside, we’re clapping our hands like gleeful little children.

That said, I think that crude very often is funny. Take the word “booger,” for instance. Comedy gold, all by itself. I know you’re asking yourself, “Why would he pick that?”

Again, sorry. I’m the opposite of un homme sérieux.

12th Street: Have any of the posts caused a lively political debate, either amongst your staff or in the outside (or online) world?

DB: We’ll assume arguendo that “lively political debate” is possible. Maybe if Lincoln and Douglas were still alive. Now, those mofos could debate the ass off a frontier town.

Our debate’s never been political since I’ve been part of the team. We have had extensive discussions of what’s funny and why, though. We’ve also developed some sensitivity to the perspectives of persons of different color, ethnicity, and religious tradition than our own. (Ahem.) Sometimes readers take issue with something and, after some Jesuitical self-examination, we have to admit they have a point. We’re open to the ideas of others, is what I’m saying.

Well, except for the ideas of people from north of the border. They don’t seem to know their country is spelled “Canadia.”  We have a whole page of their mild expostulations.

12th Street: Who submits these New York quotes?

DB: Donald Rumsfeld. Every last one of them. Even when he was secretary of defense, he’d stand at his desk and crank ’em out for hours every day. Amazing, really.

Seriously, we respect our sources’ confidentiality so they’ll keep sending us quotes. I’ll go out on a limb and say that our OINY spies constitute a diagonal slice of New York. And, of course, our spies for Office, Beach, and Everywhere come from everywhere in the U.S. and the rest of the world.

12th Street: What does OINY tell us about human nature? Is that a positive thing?

DB: Human nature’s a chiaroscuro sort of thing, isn’t it? But OINY exists to capture what people say that’s funny, especially the stuff we don’t like to admit we say. It’s a documentary of how people talk today. And really, it’s a tribute to New York, where all kinds of people from every part of society bump up against each other on the street. Hobos, conductors, and suits, oh my!

This headline perhaps best captures my view of OINY: “I’m Sure It’s a Fucking Triumph Of the Human Spirit.”

12th Street: How do you tell if something is a piece of creative writing or fact?

DB: We hired Tom Servo from Mystery Science Theater 3000; he makes that call for us. He’s tough, but fair.

I won’t say we never get played, but real conversations sound different from jokes, or, as you say, creative writing.  We don’t print jokes or the fragmentary anecdotes people send us with no dialogue. Our guideline is worth quoting:

Our New Motto
Perceptive woman: Anytime you overhear people, if you only hear a second of what they say, it’s always completely stupid.  —Greenwich Village

Real conversations have the loveliest non sequiturs, whether or not the speaker is mentally ill. Like this guy.

12th Street: Do these quotes still make you laugh? Cry? Do you see your tastes changing over time? Do they still surprise you?

DB: My motto has always been “You might as well laugh.” So, I do. I have to say that some quotes initially make me sad or angry, but that I get over it and find the humor. I think that over time my tastes have become more nuanced, if you’ll forgive an overused word.

My own sense of humor tends to be silly. We do get deeply silly quotes that surprise me and make me laugh, along with God knows how many that’s-what-she-said quotes that generally leave me unmoved. But this quote still makes me laugh:

Presenting Our Catch Phrase for the Day
Woman #1: Ah, look at those beautiful puppies.
Woman #2: Puppies are bullshit.  —Bay Ridge

12th Street: Would this website work in any other city?

DB: Yo, what the fuck you talkin’ about?

I guess the straight answer to that is that there are other overheard-conversation websites out there in other cities. Since I stick to my knitting, I don’t know how well those other sites work. “Hands to work, hearts to God,” as the Shakers used to say.

But people look to New York for what’s cool, as well they should. Do you think Sex and the City would’ve taken off if the city in question were Cedar Rapids? And at Overheard in New York, you can hear real New Yorkers talking about real stuff in their real voices. You can’t tell me that’s not cool.

12th Street: There are a few David Barnettes out there, so it’s hard to find out what your “secret identity” is, as it says on the editors page. What, if you can tell us, is your outside life? Is there anyone out there who knows you in both roles?

DB: Psh, “outside life.” As if such a thing exists. I have deliberately chosen a minimal Web presence.  My “secret identity,” like most such secrets, is a Romulan cloaking device for a spacecraft of utter banality, an interstellar Starbucks, as it were. I refuse to go to reunions because relating my own autobiography bores me. I love making stuff up, though. Well, except for my answers to your questions, which are mostly factual. Eventually.

And does anyone out there really know anybody? You know, how after the murderer is arrested the neighbors all tell the TV people how he was such a polite guy who kept to himself? It’d be like that with me, except I’ve got that pesky murder habit under control.

12th Street: Anything to add?

DB: Yes! You know, the holidays are right around the frickin’ corner here. Buy the Overheard in New York book here, the Overheard in the Office book here, and, further, if you’re not walking around in awesome Overheard in New York gear, you should be ashamed of yourself.

12th Street: That’s it, and thank you very much for your time. It’s a privilege for us.

DB: This was fun. Thanks. I should also say that your site rocks. We’re flattered that you like ours.

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What Would Palin Think?

What Would Palin Think?

Last week 12th Street was considering its public stance.

We did an interview with an author who is no stranger to controversy. John Reed, author of Snowball’s Chance and organizer of next year’s 9/11 Toga Party, was delighting us with snippets of his upcoming book, Tales of Woe.

We’ve got to wait until 2009 for MTV Books to release that one, but if you like tales of “suffering, suffering, suffering,” of the kind normally reserved for your worst imaginings, then this will be the book for you. A man who had sex with his bicycle is caught (on the saddle?) by the hotel’s maids, then convicted and put on the sex-offenders list. This is “one of the few light stories” in the book, Reed said.

What he told us next, however, demanded a little more debate.

I asked John if we were ready for Woe. This was his answer:

Tales of Woe, MTV 2009

Tales of Woe, MTV 2009

“Uh, I thought I was prepared, and I certainly wasn’t. The stories in this book are sicker and more upsetting than anything anyone can possibly imagine. And, by the way, anything you can imagine, any horrible thing you can imagine happening to a person—it’s happened. Some people are not going to be happy about it. There’s a double dog rapist (a guy who raped two dogs) that scares me. There’s no law against raping dogs in Alaska, which is of course yet another reason to get behind Palin. We should decriminalize dog rape nationwide. And then, who knows … the world.”

At first glance, you might think this is funny. A natural thought after reading this might be, “I wonder whether they make the dogs pay for the rape kits in Alaska.” Several people I spoke to about this paragraph actually asked that question immediately, including one of the editors here. This is good, risky satire [note: this link isn’t PG], the type of controversy that—coming from England, where our tabloids are ruthless—I’m very fond of. (See here, here, and here. And here).

But give it a second read, and ask yourself: is he referring to the pitbull/lipstick comment? Is he saying it would be alright to rape Palin?

No. Or at least not intentionally. But that’s what it could be taken to mean. And if someone out there might read a pro-rape-of-Palin sentiment in this paragraph, is that something we want to risk?

Well, the Electronic Frontier Foundation is fairly clear on this issue. If you go through their Bloggers’ FAQ to their post on Online Defamation Law, it’s spelled out pretty clearly; libel is a “false and unprivileged statement of fact that is harmful to someone’s reputation, and published ‘with fault,’ meaning as a result of negligence or malice.”

Further down the post is the following:

“Libelous (when false):

  • Charging someone with being a communist (in 1959)
  • Calling an attorney a ‘crook’
  • Describing a woman as a call girl
  • Accusing a minister of unethical conduct
  • Accusing a father of violating the confidence of son

Not-libelous:

  • Calling a political foe a ‘thief’ and ‘liar’ in chance encounter (because hyperbole in context)
  • Calling a TV show participant a ‘local loser,’ ‘chicken butt’ and ‘big skank’
  • Calling someone a ‘bitch’ or a ‘son of a bitch’
  • Changing product code name from “Carl Sagan” to ‘Butt Head Astronomer'”

I like the EFF. Anyway, this is clearly not libel. However, should it be shown, beyond a reasonable doubt, that John was sanctioning rape of Alaska’s governor (which, I might repeat, he certainly was not—although I wouldn’t say he’d be too afraid of a comment like that), perhaps that would attract attention that we would otherwise avoid. We all know what that’s like. What would Palin think of this post? I bet she’d understand the power of words used creatively.

Anyway, I welcome your comments on this matter. And you can read the rest of the interview here. In the W&D Program, learning how to give a close analysis of a text is the cornerstone of our classes. They’re training us to be aware of this stuff, and to understand its impact. I think this harks back to the controversy over Nirvana’s song, Rape Me. Kurt was attacked by some feminists for its lyrics, and accused of taking a jab at the media for abusing his celebrity status, but he said it meant “You can hurt me, but I’ll survive,” and was, in fact, an “anti-rape” song.

In the end, after a long debate, we didn’t run the Alaska stuff, but I ask you: Did we make the right decision? I’m undecided. Convince me.

If you comment, please keep it decent. Thanks.