Matt Selman was the Editor–in–Chief from January 1992 to December 1992.
This piece is part of a series of personal narratives written by Street alumni in order to celebrate the 50th anniversary of 34th Street.
In December 1991, I had been a Daily Pennsylvanian beat reporter for two years, with mixed results. (The mixture was between "not very good at journalism" and "please don't fire me.") My beats included at various times: Research (dry), Legal (huh?), the College of Arts and Sciences (help!), and, eventually, Any Story I Turned in with a Funny Headline. I had accumulated a number of bad habits for a young reporter: misquoting sources, wanting my sources to like me, feeling sad when sources didn't want to be friends... Overall, an aversion to accountability in general.
The wise outgoing board of The DP sensed I was not really News Editor material for the then five–day–a–week Penn paper of record, but at the same time they didn't want to totally discard someone who already knew how to use the computer system. So, after a test stint as Entertainment Editor of the Summer Pennsylvanian (a hot Philly hang–sesh with The Fabulist himself Stephen Glass (C ’94)), I was encouraged towards the direction of 34th Street, the Entertainment Culture Gossip Fun Times Goofball Somewhat Beloved & Mostly Just Tolerated Thursday Magazine Supplement.
Now, I wasn't really a "Street" Person in that I was A) somewhat–to–extremely uncool, B) not into indie music or foreign films, and C) not a partaker of any drugs my parents would be upset to hear about. But as a lover of TV comedy, Hollywood movies, and all things predictable, I felt Street was a good fit. (I'd interned at MTV, back when they still played videos!) And, I had a trick to convince the Board to let me run Street: I was going to make 34th Street into Entertainment Weekly. In my defense, I was 19 and thought EW was the pinnacle of journalism: that snark was funny, pop was culture, and lists were actual writing. They fell for it. I was in.
Looking back at the 1992 bound volume, our EW–y version of 34th Street seems very, very soft. Squishy, even. It valued celebrity interviews above actual reporting (see "accountability, aversion to" earlier), reviewed mostly mainstream movies and records, then threw in a few random creative essays and the occasional restaurant review (free food = good review). And then there was Street Society, a gossip column written by the few cool people we knew (not me). An angry guy once came to the DP offices with a bat because of some offending item in Street Society. I told him that our research showed that no one actually read the magazine, and he seemed to feel better.
1992's 34th Street wasn't a failure of execution. (Our movie review headlines were just as punny as EW's.) But it was a failure of vision: ours was not unique, not personal, and not special. We could have done anything! Comedy, story–telling, satire, cartoons, observations of the actual human condition, fiction, political writing, pranks, or really just anything resembling magazine journalism. We had free reign to create something innovative (or at least super weird), but instead did a cover story on Pauly Shore called "Pauly, Totally."
When my reign of middle–brow competence came to an end, I turned to 34th Street alumnus Stephen Fried (C ’79), a lushly hair–ed, overcoat–wearing non–fiction writer of the highest order, for career advice. "Comedy or journalism, you can't do both," he said. "Pick one." I didn't really have the knack for journalism, or even entertainment journalism. And, I had just read a life–changing article about how comedy writers got free lunch every day. (Still delicious after 25 years!) So the choice was easy. I now knew what I wanted to find after graduation: a job like what I had at 34th Street—a job where people working for me had to pretend to laugh at my jokes.
Truly, I had found editing a derivative weekly college entertainment magazine to be the most formative experience of my collegiate life. (Even more than my major in Possibly History I Think.) The weekly cycle of panic and elation and pizza was thrilling. The 3 a.m. Wednesday "will we get the magazine out" lows! The 4 p.m. Thursday "seeing most of the 34th Street magazines thrown out" highs!
And years later, I now realize that running that team of smart goofy goofballs had accidentally introduced me the skills I would use to run a rewrite room at The Simpsons. That is, it taught me how to manage creative people creatively. So, in the spirit of my beloved Entertainment Weekly–style Lists, I now present:
THINGS I LEARNED AT 34TH STREET THAT ARE HELPFUL IN PRODUCING THE SIMPSONS:
- Create a space where it's okay to say very silly ideas.
- Ridiculous digressions are crucial to getting good work done.
- You must have good night pizza.
- Share your passion with your team; you will get even more passion back.
- Never lose your temper in front of people; it is a sign of weakness.
- When you do lose your temper, make sure you unleash it at the right person.
- Befriend the Business People—you will need them.
- Staffers are going to screw up. Don't shame them (too hard).
- Don't be cheap with kind words; you have a magic wallet that never runs out of compliments.
- Eating just one piece of pizza makes you a hero; two is survivable; three is a disaster.
- Gossip is fun, but for the love of God be careful.
- Those DP Sports Folks were onto something with Fantasy Football back in 1992.
- You may expect your audience to love or hate what you create, but the most common response is total apathy.
- Always keep in the forefront of your mind "What are you trying to say?" and "Why do you love this idea?"
- Share credit. You know who did what, that's what matters.
- No matter what kind of writing you do, writing is still re–writing.
So thank you, 34th Street, for launching me on a lifetime adventure of TV cartoons, hanging out in rooms full of funny weirdos, and, most important of all, free lunch.
Matt Selman is an Executive Producer and writer at The Simpsons.