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Talking "Inventory" with The A.V. Club

Av club_inventory book cover On Monday night, writers and editors of the popular pop culture site The AV Club came from New York and Chicago to descend on Union Hall in Brooklyn, where they celebrated the release of their new book "Inventory" with a full house of adoring geeks who treat film, TV, and music critics like rock stars. In readings from "Inventory," the new book of pop culture lists, AV Club members Keith Phipps, Josh Modell, Kyle Ryan, Tasha Robinson, Nathan Rabin, Andy Battaglia, and Amelie Gillette told us what songs should never be covered again, alternate film endings we should be glad we haven't seen, unconfirmed celebrity rumors (in PowerPoint form), bonding with Bronson Pinchot, and more live excitement on stage.

We spoke with AV Club editors Keith Phipps and Josh Modell this week about "Inventory," making lists, and why theater isn't considered "pop culture":

Blog Stage: The place was packed Monday night! I underestimated how popular you guys are.

Keith: I did too. (laughs) I had no idea that we’d have that crowd. That was awesome.

Have you had that kind of response in other cities?

Keith: I think this was the biggest crowd we’ve had, and certainly the heartiest response I think we’ve had too. I actually was polling everyone, and a lot of people were not from Brooklyn. People came in from Queens and New Jersey, which was awesome.

During this book tour, you've been forced to make the transition from writers, who tend to hide behind the scenes, to being the center of attention on stage. Can you describe that experience?

Keith: It’s been really weird. I wasn’t expecting it at all, and I guess one thing I’ve learned is that any fear you have of public speaking kind of gets negated by the need to perform once you're on stage. Not that we didn’t have our nervous moments or whatever, but when it's sink or swim, you better swim.

But in terms of the reception, it’s just been really cool. I think we’re faithful to our readers, and in some ways our readers are faithful to us so, it’s really cool to meet those people.

How did you prepare yourselves for your stage debut? Did you have to take any public speaking classes or learn acting warm-ups, for example?

Josh: Oh no, you’d be shocked by how little we prepared anything, even as far as the presentation. I think we were all surprised to learn that we were sort of good at it, or not necessarily good but not bad at it. Once we got up there, everyone’s been so receptive and we're talking to our people, so it becomes less like a rock star thing and more like a room full of like-minded people.

That makes sense as a live translation of your online site, which encourages lively discussion between the writers and readers.

Keith: It’s one of the most gratifying parts. I love the back and forth between us and the readers [via online reader comments]. And as much as I take a lot of pride in my work and my review should just stand on its own, I also really love that it's the beginning of a conversation.

Is there any fear that while you can keep the conversation going continuously online, in print [as in writing "Inventory"] it's more permanent and one-sided?

Josh: I don’t think the approach really changed much at all, to be honest. We never approached [the lists] as definitive online, and I don’t think we really do in print either. I’ve been joking with people that are coming to get the book signed that they can write their comments in the margins of the book, and have debates among their friends.

Keith: I agree with what Josh is saying. I mean, we don’t necessarily think about the comments [ahead of time]. We love the comments, but when we’re actually putting the piece together I don’t think we're really thinking about the commenters that much. Occasionally, we’ll turn to each other and say, “We’re going to get a lot of shit for this.” But it works out just fine.

Josh: We definitely encourage people to say, “Hey, you missed this.” And we can just fall back on saying, “Yeah, well, it was never a complete list, so thanks for participating.” We’re only human. We’re not an encyclopedia.

So why turn the weekly online "Inventory" column into a book?

Keith: Well, "Inventory" kind of began as just sort of a way to organize our thoughts on various subjects, and we all like lists and liked doing our own, and kind of wanted to do something a little different. And people responded to it. And the easiest way to answer the question is it's one of the most popular features on the site.

What lists caused the biggest debate among the AV Club writers when you were putting the book together?

Josh: Well, there’s the one that’s cited in the subtitle of the book, “10 great songs nearly ruined by saxophone,” which I had to essentially write by myself because everyone else was not willing to A) go way out on a limb and diss the saxophone, and B) just thought it was too mean.

Keith: But it’s also the one that gets a lot of attention, and I think it also is one of the reasons that it's part of the title. It speaks to the book's sense of humor, in that none of these lists are really controversial in any way. I mean, we're not talking about history's greatest dictators or anything like that.

Josh: I’m personally annoyed by the bleeding saxophone of "Young Americans" and wanted to make a list out of it. We have small debates. One of our favorite lists in the book is “24 great films too painful to watch twice.” It’s hyperbole. It doesn’t mean you absolutely won't watch them twice. But like I said, none of them are really lighting a fire in the political arena or anything like that.

You’re not just coming up with lists of top 10 films. You're avoiding the typical list topics, and "Inventory" contains a lot of very obscure pop culture references. Is there any topic to small to turn into a list?

Josh: I think they’re kind of endless.

Keith: The book was able to dig into the really small pockets. We love to be champions of things that we're excited about. That’s way, way more gratifying to us than saying, you know, National Treasure: Book of Secrets sucks.

The term “manic pixie dream girl" has now become part of the language of film, it seems, since the original list "Wild things: 16 films featuring Manic Pixie Dream Girls" describing that type of character (a "bubbly, shallow cinematic creature that exists solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures") was published online at the AV Club. Why do you think that phrase took off and embedded itself in people's minds so successfully?

Keith: Nathan Rabin's been putting that phrase in one of his columns, and we decided to expand it and do a whole list around it. I think it's just one of those things where the truth of it is kind of too hard to ignore. That’s kind of why it caught on. It’s been really gratifying to see it kind of take off and take on a life of its own.

Josh: It was immediately understandable and recognizable to people, and yet before Nathan made that phrase up, we didn’t have a name for it. It's like, “I’m walking on this sidewalk and we all have this sidewalk, and no one's ever called it anything before. And I go 'sidewalk' and we go, ‘Oh yeah, I know what that is'.” And I think it has its own Wikipedia entry now. It’s definitely made its way out into the world, which is really funny.

It takes a very authoritative voice and – for lack of a better word – big balls to be a successful list-maker. How did "Inventory" become a signature feature on the AV Club site?

Keith: I think we sort of skirted the "needing to have balls" issue by doing such obscure things. I mean, we did come out with “best films of the decade” and “best music of the decade” [this month online], but these [lists in the book] are just sort of strange groupings. I think these are just a little more fun. I think a lot of these inventories you could really almost write in essay format even; you don’t really have to number them. I don’t really think they're definitive, but I think where they get interesting is sort of the little twist we put on them. But then we'll do the saxophone list and make people angry. People who play saxophone get very upset.

Josh: People always get upset about whatever we do.

Keith: The dirty secret is that our main goal is kind of to educate and warn people about things that interest us, more than start an argument or anything of that nature.

I was surprised to hear you say on Monday that the AV Club gets a lot of criticism for being too negative. The AV Club strikes me instead as a never-ending love letter to pop culture, and any negativity is only because you want films and TV and music to be as good as they possibly can be.

Josh: I think you got it, actually. That’s what we want to do. We wouldn’t be a success with all this stuff if we didn’t love it. There’s the column called “The Hater” and so I don’t think we're a hundred percent snark-free, but it’s a crutch we don’t lean on too often. But we’re really there because we love this stuff.

Besides "Inventory," your "Random Roles" column, in which the interviewer asks actors about some of their past film and TV roles, is probably the most interesting feature on the website for our actors. How did it come to be?

Josh: We used to do a feature – actually, we still do a feature occasionally – called “Random Rules,” where we have people flipping around their iPods. And Sean O’Neal, who’s our Austin City Editor, came up with the idea of “Oh, why don’t we switch the name and the concept a little bit and just kind of go through an actor's career.”

We prefer not to do interviews where we're solely focused on the new project [an actor is promoting], where we're getting kind of stock answers from people. When you can go back through their history, people tend to open up a little bit more, and the really good ones are when you get the anecdotes, which are great, that often haven’t been told. With more space between now and whenever they did the role, you get a little more from people, I think.

The recent Bronson Pinchot "Random Roles" interview [in which actor Bronson Pinchot talks smack about both Denzel Washington and Tom Cruise] got a lot of press attention. How did you get him to talk so candidly?

Keith: I don’t think anyone had talked to him for years. I think he was just ready to say what was on his mind. We just strip it to the bone. What we like to do is talk about the work. We don’t really care about the personal life. I mean, we do, and I probably read celebrity gossip columns as much as every one else, but in the context of the AV Club it's just not what we're interested in at all. I think most people are really happy to be in discussions with someone who kind of knows their work and can converse intelligently with them about it.

Why do you think theater is not considered part of "pop culture?"

Keith: I think it’s a question of geography more than anything else. Chicago’s got a great theater scene, and I’ve heard rumors that some theater gets put on in New York as well. I don’t know if that’s true or not. But for most of the country, I think it's kind of harder to cross over to become a pop culture item of discussion.

I can only really think of two places where theater really gets national airing – the Tony Awards and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade – when the rest of the country is made aware of what’s going on. I think I probably know what was on Broadway in the mid-80s better than I do now, because of the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. I was really aware of Cats and all the other timeless masterpieces of the stage. (laughs)

But now that the AV Club has launched localized sites, like AV Club New York, does that open the door for more local theater and event coverage?

Keith: Oh, totally. I’d love to do more than we already do, and we do branch out into it a little. But it’s a question of manpower and a question of resources. If it were up to me, we’d have a theater expert in every city, but it's not always possible, unfortunately.

You've gotten a lot of stand-up comedians, like Patton Oswalt and Zack Galifianakis, to contribute their own lists to "Inventory." How did those relationships develop?

Keith: We're all fans of stand-up comedy, obviously, and Patton Oswalt was a fan of the AV Club, which is amazing. He’s just a reader, and we're a fan of his, so you get to be in that ultra enviable position where you're like “Oh, I like you!" "Oh, I like you too!” I don’t know if I just answered that question or not.

But it’s really been interesting [on this book tour] to get a taste of what it’s like to be up onstage and the pressures of that, and to do interviews. And to have people who don’t know you, but actually do know you through your work – to meet them has been really interesting. It’s kind of starting to wind down, unless someone wants to book us on a speaking engagement tour or something.

Does it make you want to keep going out on the road and expand the book tour?

Keith: Yeah, we’re going to fade out the publication and just start touring. (laughs)

-- Daniel Lehman

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