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An Interview with Randall Colburn

I've been reading The A.V. Club for as long as I can remember. I think my father introduced it to me first, and I was both confused and dazzled by the scathing and clever writing, which was replete with references I didn't get but yearned to understand.

In the years that followed, I looked to The A.V. Club for confirmation that my opinions about various movies, music, and TV shows were, in fact, "correct." I was giddy when their review of Paper Towns matched my thoughts on how the film was anticlimactic, and I could hardly contain my glee when I discovered that Nathan Rabin agreed that Kreayshawn's Somethin' 'Bout Kreay was an overlooked gem. Eventually I learned to trust my own thoughts without needing validation, but I still used The A.V. Club as inspiration for my own reviews in the high school newsmagazine. It even prompted me to start an actual A.V. club at my school, which was both a blessing and a curse; I didn't have many friends but I can discuss at length Tarkovsky's influence on Terrence Malick, so that's not nothing.

I am particularly inspired by Randall Colburn, the Internet Culture Editor at The A.V. Club. Covering everything from Joey and Shooby's bromance on The Circle to who really draws those Wikihow pictures, he always sheds light on an obscure corner of pop culture or provides a fresh take to topics that are well-covered. I'm also a really big fan of the cat photos he posts on Instagram. It was a pleasure to talk with him about his background in playwriting, his time as an evangelical, and the unique humor of the internet.

Who are your biggest inspirations? 

My answer is a bit tricky as I began my writing career as a playwright and only in the last several years leapt into journalism and criticism. I will say that I’ve had a burning obsession with pop culture for as long as I can remember, but, being a creative kid in the pre-internet suburbs, I didn’t encounter anyone who wrote about it in a way that spoke to me until I read Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs in 2003. Not only could one monetize their intricate ramblings about TV and movies, but they could make them about the stupidest TV and movies—stuff like Saved By The Bell and Left Behind, the garbage I spent my youth consuming and regurgitating. Honestly, reading The A.V. Club in the mid-2000s was equally eye-opening, as were David Shoemaker’s incredible writings on dead wrestlers and the oral histories Legs McNiel wrote about punk and porn (with Gillian McCain and Jennifer Osborne, respectively). In criticism, as well as in film and TV, I’ve always been drawn to writers who could weave a thoughtfulness or emotional weight into crasser, more offbeat topics. 

Now that I’m firmly entrenched in the world of pop culture criticism, I’ve developed a fondness for the work of MEL Magazine and The Outline, publications that regularly cull universal truths from that which more “serious” journalists might consider profane or disposable. Shout out, too, to The Ringer’s Juliet Litman and HuffPo’s Emma Gray and Claire Fallon, who are some of my favorite voices dissecting reality TV, which I love. Honestly, I just like any writer that doesn’t write about culture like it stopped growing or being good with their generation. I also like writers who understand that the lines are blurrier now—scoffing at social media, memes, and online culture is disregarding the ways in which they encompass and complicate everything, from high art and low art to language, politics, and religion. 

What work are you most proud of? 

I’ll always be proudest of my stage work, I suppose, since I spend literal years on each play, the likes of which have reached far fewer people than the offhand articles I fire off in 30 minutes. In the realm of journalism, however, I’m probably proudest of the pieces in which I’ve explored the intersection of pop culture and evangelicalism. I was a tongues-speaking evangelical for a spell during the George W. Bush era and, though I no longer believe, I feel there’s worth in bridging the sizable gulf that exists between secular and faith-based works of art. The tension between the two remains a constant source of fascination for me. A few of which I’m particularly proud you can read here and here

What’s the most challenging part about your job? 

Keeping up, honestly. My job is weird. I scour the internet for weird stuff that a) everyone is talking about or b) I think they should be talking about. Then I have to figure out how to write about it in a way that adds a wrinkle to the conversation, pivots the conversation, or, at the very least, sustains the conversation. That might make it sound more lofty than it is—sometimes something is just funny, you know?—but it’s a fun challenge, I think. My position also allows me to write long-form analysis across various verticals—film, TV, books, podcasts—but primarily I’m responsible for short-form content, nuggets of curiosity that provide (hopefully more than) a moment of laughter or reflection. There’s no shortage of it online, but the internet never stops. It’s easy to lose your breath in the scrolling, the discourse, the vitriol. 

What’s the most rewarding? 

Bringing more eyes to someone’s passion project, or musical endeavor, or comedy bit. I admit The A.V. Club’s Great Job, Internet! section can be bitchy as hell sometimes, but every day I try to highlight and extol at least one video or account that, dumb as it may be, somebody put a hell of a lot of effort into. 

This extends to music as well. We’re such a monoculture-obsessed society these days that it’s harder than ever for an artist with few resources to get coverage. Many of the publications that used to cover young, interesting bands are now too busy chasing clicks with stories about pop and rock A-listers. It’s disappointing to me, and I do my best to use whatever digital real estate I can to highlight unheralded artists I dig. If I can help score them a few new fans, that’s a good day. 

Using a metaphor, how would you describe the editing process? 

Drowning puppies. To paraphrase the playwright Horton Foote, we cut all of our best writing. I will say that something writing short-form, time-sensitive content teaches you is how to be less precious with your work. Often, our most beautiful prose is a hindrance to a piece’s clarity. And clarity, at least in this business, is key. 

What do you think is the most important skill for a young writer to develop? 

A thick skin. The ability to keep writing in the face of rejection. Because, unless you know all the right people, you will be rejected. Many, many times. 

Also, be malleable. If you want to write for multiple publications across multiple verticals—which, if you want to make it a freelancer these days, is pretty much necessary—you need to be able to adapt your voice to the style of whatever brand it is you’re writing for. When playwriting was my primary focus, I made the bulk of money writing ad copy, corporate trade profiles, jokes, student study guides, technical babble, and news stories. If you can tailor your voice to the employer, you’ll go far. 

What aspect of internet culture fascinates you the most? 

The way it’s shaped comedy. The stuff that’s made me laugh the hardest this decade wasn’t on film or TV, but on Twitter. The whole language has changed. Nobody, aside from maybe Tim Robinson, has been able to replicate onscreen what makes somebody like @dril so funny, and that’s because @dril and his ilk have taken the shorthand spawned by social media and mangled them to hell. There’s still comfort in the old joke structures, but they’re quaint and slight compared to, say, the online pranks performed by a genius like Stefan Heck. 

There’s plenty I hate about internet culture—the relentless discourse, the thoughtless hot takes, the performative preening, the bad-faith trolling and harassment—but it can offer just as many good surprises as bad ones, so long as you’re careful about who you follow.  

What’s been the most transformative experience of your life? 

My years as an evangelical, honestly. That might seem odd since I no longer subscribe to the faith, but the whole thing was basically the culmination of my personal identity struggles. Not only did I come out the other end more assured of what I wanted out of life,  but I developed a renewed sense of empathy and a broadened perspective that’s come to form the backbone of both my creative writing and my cultural eye.


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