By Loryn Stone
John Cheese is someone whose insight I personally admire and respect. From the very start of my own internet writing career, John Cheese has been an imperative voice of influence and reason. I’m also delighted these days to call him a friend, because he’s rad as hell! So when he agreed to let me interview him for PopLurker, I most definitely jumped at the chance.
Hey John! Thank you for giving PopLurker this interview! It’s a real treat- we love you over here. All right, so by now, many of your readers know that John Cheese is a character in David Wong’s John Dies at the End series. Is that where the pen name came from?
It’s true that the character of “John Cheese” is in the John Dies at the End series, but that’s not where the pen name comes from. It’s actually a private joke that stretches back to around 1990. The story itself isn’t all that interesting, but the core of it is that Jason Pargin (David Wong) and I used to be in the same art class, and we’d often kill boredom by making up stupid, ridiculous stories to make each other laugh. In one of those stories, he invented a fictitious band called “Ricky Cheese and the Ricktones”. I created a competing band named “Johnny Cheese and the Hambones”. It was a throwaway joke that we made and then promptly forgot after class. Eight years later when I made my first website, I used the pen name “John Cheese” as an inside joke, solely to make Jason laugh. By the time I thought about changing it to my real name, I had already built up an audience who knew me as that, so I just left it alone.
Many of your readers are aware of your personal impoverished upbringing as well as some of your past addiction issues. Is there anything you want to add or discuss in that vein? Is discussing your past crucial to your present, or is it a topic you’re ready to leave behind?
I initially started writing about that stuff because I hadn’t seen anyone else cover it from a “dark comedy” angle before. At least not on any major sites. I’d see discussions on Twitter and Facebook about how the poor are just lazy pieces of shit who mooch off of the government … or how addicts just needed to “get some willpower,” and I wanted to show people what it was actually like. I wanted to address that ignorance and show people that, no, it isn’t that simple.
I haven’t written that way in a while for a couple of reasons. Mostly, it’s just extremely taxing. You have to get into a specific mindset to write about those subjects, and that can often put me in a pretty dark place. Sometimes it’s cathartic. Sometimes, it leaves me in an emotional pit that’s difficult to climb out of. The other reason is the purely mechanical issue of time. Researched, fact-based articles don’t take nearly as long, because I’ve gotten pretty good at finding interesting information, which becomes the meat of the article. Personal articles can take me anywhere from 20 to 40 hours to write, and I simply don’t have that kind of time to devote to a single piece.
But when I do get the time (which is extremely rare nowadays), I feel like those personal articles are my strongest work. If I had the income to support writing those, that’s what I’d probably doing right now. Not many people know this, but I actually have a secret website (it’s currently hidden from public view and search engines), and I’ve been considering throwing it out to the Patreon universe to see if it’s possible.
Why are there dozens of interviews with you from 2012 and none after that? Doesn’t everyone know that their day will be better if they talk to you all the time? But really, I find it very interesting that there was a pop of interviews around that time. Was it your schedule or did something else happen?
In 2012, Cracked was making a push to make “faces” out of the columnists. They didn’t just want people to be “Cracked fans”. They wanted people to be “Mark Hill fans” and “Christina H. fans”. So for a week or two in 2012, I opened myself up on Twitter and Facebook, telling readers that I’d do every interview for anyone who asked, even if their site only had two followers.
That opened a floodgate, and those interviews basically became a full time job for the next two weeks. I’m actually still willing to do interviews, but I wouldn’t have the time to handle a ton of them without getting behind on my work with The Modern Rogue.
A lot of your readers and twitter friends feel like you’re their dad or uncle because of the way your writing touched their lives. You also have an impressive career as an editor giving out writing advice to who knows how many writers over the years. Your blend of hard ass bluntness and sincere warmth and caring about your peoples’ writing is one I find so unique and irreplaceable. How does it feel to be so many people’s mentor?
I don’t consider myself much of a “mentor”. As cold as this sounds, it’s purely about business. These are people who want to make money by writing, and I’ve learned how to do that. The faster I can teach them how to turn their writing into cash, the more content I can create for whatever site I’m working for. No content = no site = no income.
I’m typically pretty blunt with my feedback for the same cold, mechanical reason: time. At any given point, I’m working with a dozen writers, two dozen pitches, 50 emails, managing payments, securing contract paperwork, building writers’ profile pages, editing articles, writing my own, doing the layout for all of those articles, scheduling, recruiting new writers … It’s an 80 hour per week job, and that’s not even counting my attempts to have a regular life outside of work. So when I give feedback, it has to be clearly and quickly communicated.
When I see a writer with potential, I tend to put a little more detail and effort into coaching them, because if I can nab someone who takes very little editing, that person is gold to me. It means I can receive a draft and know that I won’t have to spend 10 hours editing it.
My ultimate goal with every writer is to make them so good that they can quit their day job and make money from home, educating and entertaining people.
Do you think there’s a balance of pop culture to personal writing for you? You write primarily about your own life experience twisted into a darkly funny way, but what are some of your favorite strictly pop culture topics to discuss?
In the heart of my Cracked writing, I tried to balance personal articles with pop culture articles, because I felt that if I focused solely on the personal stuff, it would get really boring really fast. If you go back to my stuff from 2012 to 2014, you’ll notice that I often bounced between those two types of articles from week to week. “OK, I wrote about withdrawal symptoms last week. Let’s do an article about stupid, obscure YouTube videos this week.”
It’s probably an age thing, but I’ve kind of fell out of pop culture over the last 5 years (maybe a bit longer). When I get some rare spare time, I tend to spend it playing pool in my garage, rather than going to a movie or sitting down to watch a TV show. I spend the majority of the day on my ass in front of a computer, so when I do get some time to myself, I like to be on my feet. Pool is perfect for that.
The pop culture I like today tends to be dark comedy. I think that Bill Hader’s Barry is the best show I’ve seen in the last decade. I enjoyed Pop Star: Never Stop Never Stopping more than The Force Awakens. But when I discuss pop culture with friends, I don’t like to talk about specific movies as much as the creation of those movies. I like discussing the writing, the formula, the production. To me, that’s way more interesting than the actual plots.
Do you have any hobbies or are you part of any fandoms that might surprise your readers? You’re quite open about many aspects of your life, but do you have any niche loves that people wouldn’t expect?
I’m a fan of sappy music. Rob Thomas, John Mayer, Dave Matthews, James Taylor … which is weird, because I’m also a metal-head at heart: Pantera, Killswitch Engage, Breaking Benjamin.
One that people might find weird is that if I turn on a single episode of C.O.P.S. or Forensic Files, I’ll end up watching it for the rest of the night. Like I have to force myself to stop and go to bed; otherwise, I’ll watch them until the sun comes up.
As far as hobbies, that’s definitely pool. I play every chance I get. Even if I’m not playing an opponent, I’ll just stay out in the garage and shoot 50+ racks of eight and nine-ball by myself. I’ve made a couple of trick shot videos over the last year, but if I ever get the time, I want to make a bunch of “how to” videos, teaching people how to make insane trick shots. If I could do that for a living, I totally would.
What have been some reactions over the years to the work that you do? Was your family supportive in the beginning when you told them you were writing professionally on the internet? Does anyone you know just kind of not get it?
My immediate family knows what I do and how big it had gotten, especially back in the 2010-2014 era (that’s when I was doing insane traffic on a weekly basis). Extended family didn’t quite get it, but we didn’t discuss it very much. Some of them had heard the term “blogger” and thought that’s what I did — they assumed it was like an online diary or something. Others knew I was a writer, but they didn’t know how big Cracked was at the time (for those who don’t know, it was the highest traffic comedy site in the world for several years).
A lot of my friends who aren’t internet savvy didn’t get it, either. I’d see someone out in the wild and we’d make small talk like, “So, where are you working these days?” I’d tell them, and some would respond with, “Yeah, but like, what do you do for a living?” And it just blew their minds that I was working for this bigass corporation without ever having to leave my living room.
The weirdest it ever got, though (and I mean that in a good way), was when my kids were talking about my job at school, and some of their friends reacted with, “Holy shit, your dad is John Cheese?!” It seems like the younger generation puts more weight on the value of internet creators. Whereas older people are more like, “Well, it’s just the internet. When are you going to get a real job?” It’s hard to not get defensive and say, “I spent 20 years worrying about my electricity being shut off while working a ‘real’ job. I own my own house, now, you presumptuous dick.”
From your earliest personal material, to Cracked, to your current work at The Modern Rogue, what was your favorite piece that you wrote to date? What was your biggest hit piece with the most reads that you can remember?
My favorite article to write (this changes with my mood) was “A Review of My Pants: Because Kohl’s Refuses to Post It“. Mostly because I had a huge clusterfuck with an online order, and I was willing to just leave it alone and forget about it. But I kept getting a bunch of emails, asking me to post a review of my order on their site. So finally I got annoyed and did it — and they immediately removed the review. The fact that our site got way, way, way more traffic than their review pages made me laugh like an idiot. If they had just left it alone, I never would have written a review at all. If they would have left my review on their site, it would have gotten a couple hundred views at most. The review I left on Cracked ended up going viral.
The article that got the most traffic is one that I actually regret writing, because I’ve changed my attitude and language over the years. For instance, I don’t use the word “retarded” anymore. I also think that making fun of people is the easiest form of “comedy,” (as well as being a douchey thing to do) so I no longer write those types of articles. It was my very first piece for Cracked, back in 2008, called “The Top 10 Celebrity Sex Videos Nobody Wanted to See“. They don’t have hit counters on the site now, but the last time I looked at the traffic, 17 million people had read it. If I were to write that article today, I’d cut every instance where I make fun of somebody’s looks, and just concentrate on the cartoonish awkwardness.
Outside of that cringe-worthy article, the biggest one I wrote (that I’m proud of) was “The 5 Stupidest Habits You Develop Growing Up Poor“. The last time I looked at that article’s traffic (a year or two ago), it was around 8 million views. I did a national radio interview about it, and at one point, PBS wanted to send a camera crew to my house to do a 30 minute segment on it. That fell through, but the offer alone was still cool to me.
Who are some other writers and authors that you greatly respect or whose work inspires you?
David Wong is my favorite writer, and not just because we grew up together. The best writers aren’t the ones who can string together the prettiest words in the most artistic way. They’re intelligent people who are able to articulate unique insights. I’ve never met someone as observant as him — and I don’t think there are many people in the world who can convey a point more clearly or powerfully than him.
The strongest joke writers I’ve ever seen are Katie Goldin, Lydia Bugg, Seanbaby and Daniel Dockery. If all four of them don’t become rich for writing jokes, this world doesn’t deserve comedy. The strongest overall writer I’ve ever worked with is Mark Hill. He’s turned in many drafts that I’ve published without touching a single word, and that’s extremely rare. I often warn new writers, “If Jesus Christ appeared right now and handed me an article about how to walk on water, I’d rewrite his intro.”
What’s an article or column topic you never want to see in front of you again? What drives you crazy or makes you rage? What deserves most to be punched in the fuck?
It’s not necessarily a single topic that drives me nuts. It’s writers who don’t read the site before turning in a pitch or a draft. I’ve worked with hundreds of writers over the years, and that’s the single biggest problem I run into.
But if I have to point out exact premises, those would be either 1) “I’d like to watch a bunch of bad movies and then write about how bad they are” or 2) I start by talking about _______, but over the course of the article, I go slowly insane.”
On “pure comedy” sites, in the hands of a really good writer, those can totally work. But on sites that center on researched, fact-based premises, those articles just confuse and piss off the readers.
Do you have any crazy or unique fan stories?
I’ve had my life threatened several times over the years. On two occasions, they were serious enough that I reported them to the police. One guy posted my address online and insinuated that people fuck with me and my kids. Fortunately, it was an old address. Hopefully nobody messed with the person who moved into that apartment. Especially since it was in kind of a meth-head neighborhood.
There are a few stories that go way beyond those, but I don’t want to give attention, acknowledgment or reinforcement to people with severe mental problems.
What are you up to in your free time these days? Playing any new games or spinning donuts on your riding mower or anything?
Outside of playing pool, I tend to gravitate toward video games that let me shut my brain off. Sometimes, I do the dungeon runs in Hearthstone. Other times, I jump on World of Warcraft (yes, people still play that) and just mindlessly grind out quests or solo old raids. Sometimes, I’ll pull up Civilization 5, because I think it’s still better than 6, and spend an evening working toward a nuclear shitstorm.
I have a really hard time with newer games, because I’ve just seen the formula for so long, I get bored very quickly. I don’t want to see another WW2 shooter … or shooters at all. I suck at them, and I don’t have fun dying over and over. I don’t like games where the sole selling point is, “It’s so ridiculously hard, you’ll throw your controller in frustration.” That’s not a good time to me. I tried the Dark Souls series, and it didn’t take me very long to turn it off, thinking, “OK, this is meant for a completely different species of gamer.”
I have the most fun with old school, turn-based JRPGs. They’re not very difficult, but the good ones give you a feeling of power growth over time. You can walk away in the middle of battle and not come back to a pile of corpses. The cut scenes tell you a simple story without completely taking over the game. The sad part is that they’re extremely hard to find anymore. At least the really good ones are.
Where do you see internet comedy in the next ten years? Hell, the next five years? What are the biggest changes from your early days of online article writing?
At this point, I don’t know what to expect, because it’s not really about the content right now. It’s about the advertisers. Most of them don’t pay worth a shit, but without them, many sites can’t survive. Users have gotten justifiably fed up with malicious ads and auto-playing horseshit videos, so they outright block them … which in turn blocks revenue from the people who are paying the writers and editors.
The way I see it, the only way around that is to outright kill off 3rd party advertisers and make them come up with a new model that isn’t malicious and intrusive. That’s why when Brian Brushwood and I first discussed building The Modern Rogue website, we were both pretty adamant about basing the site’s revenue around Patreon and our store. If we control the products, we control the ads. If you can guarantee the reader that they’re not going to get fucked over by a malicious advertising network, they’ll come to the site, and they’ll support your work.
But instead of going that route, most sites have defaulted to, “In order to view this site, you must turn off your ad-blocker.” It’s creating a war between sites and their readers, while 3rd party ad networks sit back and watch from a distance. The only way I see it getting fixed is by creators and consumers cutting off the ad space from disruptive, dishonest advertisers and forcing them to come up with a cleaner business model.
“Free” is not a sustainable model … but neither is ads that scream in your face and freeze up your computer. Once that gets fixed, I think it’s entirely possible that we could see another internet bubble that favors creators.
Got an interesting job, hobby, or life experience? Tell us about it! Just email PopLurker and let us know what you’re up to. Or, follow Loryn on Twitter or her personal blog. Loryn’s debut novel My Starlight, a young adult novel about anime, cosplaying, fandom, love, loss, and friendship will be released August 3rd, 2018 by Affinity Rainbow Publications.
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