How To Be Right: The Art of Being Persuasively Correct (2015)
HOW TO BE A SUCCESSFUL MISCREANT, LIKE ME
That’s a pretty obnoxious and presumptuous title, because in the universe of success, where 1 is a total failure and 10 is Ronald Reagan, I’m about a 5. Maybe a 6, in heels. I hope to die an 8.
But the title is there to answer a question. The number-one query among most people when I’m on my book tours is this: how do I end up becoming a writer—a published one, if possible? The real question: can you make my dreams happen faster?
(Short answer: Maybe.)
It’s a hard question to answer when behind the person asking the question are a lot of people in line for signed books—or to serve me with subpoenas—many of them spending months working out simply so their sinewy frames will catch my attention (which they always do, so never give up!).
So let me answer this, once and for all.
Lie. How does a conservative get a job in media, or anyplace in general? By not telling people they’re a conservative. Maybe it didn’t matter as much decades ago, but with so much bandwidth and so many buckets to fill, the subjects of politics and of who said what are now actual topics for writing and conversation. Even if you’re applying for a job at Five Guys, that manager is going to find your catty tweet on Michelle Obama.
In all my mainstream jobs—Men’s Health, Stuff, Maxim UK—I kept my views pretty close to my vest. I did so to make sure that all they saw was my work ethic, my professionalism, my good looks. Then when I sold them on the goods, I started to reveal my politics. I was, in a sense, a little Trojan horse. But you should never do this in reverse. Ideally, politics should play only a small role in your life. At work, treat it that way.
But we need to start at the beginning, and work forward. Like a resume! In fact, here’s mine. Steal it, delete my name, and put in yours. Then ask for my job.
432 Unicorn Park Road
Pegasus City, VA 22201
Career objective: To make as much money as possible, date a woodland creature, and avoid sleeping on my sister’s floor.
1.National Journalism Center, 1987-88 or so
Lesson: Take a job. Any job. My first gig: I got paid a stipend, and arrived in DC with just a tie and a few hundred bucks. The tie had a stain on it, and a story attached to the stain that I’ll never tell (it involved a man, a clam, and a sandal). I was so broke, I had to look for change in sofas to get my fast food (sometimes while people were still seated in them). A woman who worked as an intern near me used to eat cold hot dogs out of the package—like they were celery. It was profoundly disgusting, but economical. The point: I was dirt broke, we were all dirt broke, but I really didn’t think about it. (Except when I had a date. God that’s horrifying. Ladies, please have mercy on the young man who is neither rich nor supported by his parents. Skip the appetizer. Suggest a cheap Mexican joint. Do shots of tequila.) I was so low on money I ended up squatting in a vacant building. To get in, I had to sneak through a window. I made a border of borax around my single bed to fight off roaches. Amazing I still got laid (it still is, actually). Because when you’re young, that happens to you, simply by accident. It helps to have low standards (it obviously helped my dates).
2.American Spectator, 1988-89
Assistant mailroom maggot
Lesson: Do anything, anything, you’re asked. My first real job that produced a paycheck with regularity was at American Spectator, a much-beloved conservative magazine run by R. Emmett “Bob” Tyrell, a youngish, intense, blue-eyed dandy. I became a staff assistant, which entailed driving Bob around Arlington, Virginia, and getting his car washed, picking up his laundry, and mowing his lawn. Sometimes I had to hit the pharmacy for things I couldn’t pronounce. I was paid roughly 350 bucks every two weeks—and I mean “roughly,” as in with slaps and jabs. It works out to twelve grand a year, I think, if I’m working this abacus correctly. My life as a writer and editor began in a mailroom, doing odd chores, like mailing out other people’s letters. It wasn’t my dream job, but I was young enough to understand it was a good job. I drank with Andy Ferguson, got drunk once with P. J. O’Rourke, and met Ronald Reagan, who stayed sober as I recall. The mailroom may not be glamorous, but it’s a doorway to adventure and close to the washroom.
The bottom line: you have to start somewhere, and somewhere is never pretty. Sadly, we live in a world inundated by people who make it big fast, when they’re young (which is breathlessly detailed by the media). Just remember, however, that studies show that people who peak early decline quickly. Every Justin Bieber becomes a Leif Garrett. Not soon enough, though, actually. The ride down is fast, gross, and smelly—and often ends in a bathtub with a goat.
IF YOU’RE MISERABLE, YOU’RE DOING JUST FINE
To be a writer it helps to have something to write about. And a few hard knocks give you depth. There’s a reason why Justin Bieber’s music is fluff, easily forgotten, while, say, Amy Winehouse’s or Kurt Cobain’s stuff has stayed with us. They’re dead. It’s a feeling of depth, of experience behind the words. Get that experience. And remember, a little misery never killed anybody (Winehouse and Cobain notwithstanding). It makes you a better person, and makes your inevitable success that much more appreciated. Just don’t kill yourself, please.
The mailroom, if anything, offered a lesson to me—one that I didn’t learn until a few years later. My first day there, another assistant showed me the kind of unsolicited manuscripts that would come through, and how to deal with them (unceremoniously). “We get stuff from this guy,” he said, handing me a manila envelope. He explained that we don’t publish them, simply send the reject notice, which is what I did. Rush Limbaugh was that guy. How screwed up is that?
The point: Limbaugh had another job at that time (around 1988), but he wrote these pieces and sent them out anyway. He didn’t give up. He kept at it, despite powerless dipshits like me rejecting him because, frankly, I didn’t know any better, and it was my job to be a thoughtless goof in cheap shoes (it still is). The same thing happened to me later in life when I submitted pieces to the Wall Street Journal. A young editor treated me like transient poop on a shoe, hanging up on me when I called to find out if they even read my already published stuff. (I’d say this overinflated preening editor was the David Frum, but it was a long time ago.)
Lesson: Write anything. If you’re terrified of writing—or anything that makes you vulnerable to rejection—relax. That’s normal. Writing is like anything in life that requires effort: you suck at first. Those who never become writers are those who thought they were great writers to begin with. People who talk about their screenplays or novels never ever start them. Simply talking about them is the release they seek. Which is why, if you do more talking than writing, consider something else. Try the pharmacy. You never hear of pharmacists getting laid off, and you save time getting your own prescription.
3.Self-employed; dates: whenever, who knows.
I hated my boss. Here’s why: I was working for myself.
When I left the Spectator after just one year, I moved back home and bought a cheap computer and went to work. God bless my dear mother (whom I think about every day, as though she never left), who was there and supplied me with chore money to help me keep a semblance of a social life. I woke up every morning and wrote my ass off. I gave myself three hours a day to grind away at an amorphous word mountain. I wrote anything: scripts (which sucked), fiction (which really sucked), and satire (which was actually pretty good).
I found that when I aimed low—short little pieces of satire—my results were better. Realistic goals are less paralyzing, and when achieved are every bit as satisfying.
My first published piece was for the San Francisco Chronicle and was a parody of L. M. Boyd’s column called the “Grab Bag.” I wrote four pieces a month for the Chronicle, of which they maybe accepted one or two, paying seventy-five bucks each. My claim to fame is that one piece of satire was taken as real by a syndicated news show. I had created a fake illness, called “Videonam,” a chilling disorder caused by watching too many movies about the Vietnam War (I wrote this in the late 1980s when the Vietnam flicks were everywhere). I created fake sufferers and experts, and wrote it like a frightful health piece. To my surprise, people thought it was real. I found my calling. I had an ear for idiocy, and could trick people, enough that they wanted to kill me. Who knew I was only doing what Rolling Stone does now!
Lesson: Talk to people. One cannot live on a hundred fifty bucks a month—at least not in Northern California, where that only pays for half of a thigh massage (Carlos had the softest hands). I had written some scripts and entered them in contests, but while they had clever concepts, they lacked heart and, likely, craft.
Here’s why: they lacked any real-world experience. All were big, wacky concepts—but for some reason, they had no pulse. I wrote from life, and I lived all of it in my head.
I had never done any real reporting. Reporting—asking questions, listening, and writing down the answers—is key to great writing. Reporting provides you with the foundation for your creativity. Without it, you’re just a cloud of words with no meaning behind them. But interview someone—anyone—and you’ve got a story to tell. No matter who it is. You can publish it. If you listen. So when the phone would ring, I’d pick it up. That’s why my first thirty-four stories were about a telemarketer who loves parakeets. Then a solar panel guy called and I had a whole new genre.
4.Prevention magazine, January 1990-94 or thereabouts
After I had sent maybe a thousand resumes, my buddy Ed told me to try for a magazine called Prevention, published by health cops a few miles outside Allentown, Pennsylvania, which later would be rated one of the worst cities in the United States by USA Today (and in return Allentown rated USA Today the worst newspaper in the country).
I was living outside San Francisco, number three on the list as most livable. Now: a shallow person might ask, how can you move from something so amazing to something so awful? The point is: who gives a damn? You can be happy as a clam in a grim place. And be grim in paradise, which was my current state. (Note: Clams are happy, right? And look where they reside. Not a Whole Foods in sight.)
I looked up the ad in Editor & Publisher and applied for the job—thinking that because its name was Prevention, it was about fire safety. But, to my surprise, Prevention was actually the world’s largest health magazine. I didn’t know that because I wasn’t their core audience: a sixty-year-old woman with cellulite, osteoporosis, or a cat. Or a cat with cellulitic osteoporosis (something I just invented, and will likely have to face someday soon).
I got a call for an interview from a lovely woman named Carol Petrakovich. A week later, in November, I flew to Allentown, deposited into a cold, barren grid of booze-holes and cemeteries. How odd that a grim little place would end up offering me a decade of great experiences, great living, great friendships. I’m sure many people refused the job I took because it was in, well, Allentown. That was their loss. Never let location stop you from work. It’s ending your journey before it even starts. So say yes, even if that yes leads you to a tiny apartment across from a graveyard in a desolate street surrounded by ramshackle hair salons and make-believe notaries. The bar on the corner looked like someone’s living room. The waitresses at the Italian restaurant had voices like cereal. Hard and crunchy, that got soggy with milk.
At twenty-four, this milieu is useful. It makes you earn every dime. And it makes you clever in matters of enjoyment. Most of all, it makes for a decade of contemplation about how the hell you’re going to get out of there.
My first editor, Mark Bricklin, may have been the most commercially innovative editor I’ve met in my career. Editorial director of Prevention, he thought in “cover lines,” happily sitting for hours pondering the basic desires of the average consumer. For him, a magazine was the answer key for the puzzle called life. Every month an issue would have maybe ten or so cover lines—headlines that beckoned you to buy the magazine by promising answers to your problems. Sex life? Check. Weight loss? Check. Stress? If you don’t have any, we’ll create it, just to solve it!
He taught me techniques that were great for getting attention, and then getting the attentive to see things my way. (Note that these techniques don’t seem to work on police or prison guards. But try them on your dry cleaner!)
But in order to create a cover line, you had to have a story, and within that story real substance must lurk that you could base that cover line on. If that cover line said, “5 ways to lose 5 pounds,” you’d better have five concrete ways to lose the pounds, or you would spend all week answering letters to the editor from disappointed fat people.
Bricklin was the king of the hot spot: a belief that every paragraph in his magazine had to contain one memorable sentence that made you feel like you were handed some form of currency, something you could use later, or if not for yourself, then to repeat to someone else.
Under the tutelage of Bricklin and another great editor, Mike Lafavore (who helmed Men’s Health), hot spots became my low-carb bread and fish-oil-based butter. Of the most memorable ones spawned from that era, I will always remember three.
“For every single M&M you eat, you must walk a block.”
I’m not even sure if it’s true—it can’t be too far off, I’m thinking—but damn if it didn’t get me off chocolate and onto healthier things (candy corn, ketamine).
“The milk leftover in your cereal has more nutrients than the cereal you’ve eaten. So drink it.”
Apparently the vitamins leach into the milk, so you should slurp it down, or else the breakfast becomes a waste. I would rub it in my hair. Which is why, at fifty, I have the locks of a ten-year-old Asian gymnast. (I keep them in a safe under my bed.)
“For every ten pounds you lose, you gain a half inch ‘downstairs.’ ”
(It’s a simple optical illusion—the flatter your stomach, the longer your penis looks. This single truth might be the greatest primary mover to get men to lose weight—more so than a threat of a heart attack.) This was also the impetus behind “male grooming” and Magic Mike movies.
So why does this “hot spot” idea matter? Because you can use it elsewhere. I do. Within every paragraph of my every monologue, there is a hot spot—a single thought that serves as an unforgettable truth that sticks to your head like a wad of gum. I try to produce at least five a day. I leave them under coffee shop tables. Look! Here’s one! “There is no place on earth where a gun ban has reduced murder rates.” I got that from John Lott, a researcher who knows more about guns than I do about cheap wine (a lot).
The key here is not simply to state a fact, but to make the fact memorable—something that sits in your head longer than a burrowed earwig.
How do you make a hot spot? Simply write down the point you want to make, then do something else to distract yourself.
Return twenty minutes later and ask yourself, “Who wrote all this stuff? And why is it stuck to the bottom of the table?” If you realize you know the answer, you’ve got a hot spot.
For most of us, our subconscious has a better work ethic than we do.
5.Fox News Channel, 2006 to present
Anchor, Viewer Discomfort
I wouldn’t have gotten the job at Fox News Channel (FNC) if I first hadn’t ended up at a weird place called the Huffington Post, a persistent rash of vacuous opinion that sprouted up in 2005. True, I had edited three major magazines before that, but none that anyone at FNC cared about. Few of their execs read Maxim, Stuff, or Men’s Health. What sparked their interest, however, was this raging weirdo (me) who was wreaking havoc on their coterie of progressive quasi-celebrity writers.
The Huffington Post stint made it appear as though I came out of nowhere. No one knew me. So my writing shocked people for its sheer absurdity, and brutality. My mother knew different.
I got the HuffPo nonpaying job as a lark: brilliant writer Matt Labash asked me to replace him—Arianna Huffington had asked him to play the role of a token smart-ass rightie, and he couldn’t do it, so he gave my name to her. She emailed. I added her to my spam list. I could have said no, but instead I knew what was important: infiltration, and standing out. I looked at HuffPo as a perch on which to perform as a rare right-wing surrealist in a vanity project started by a Greek shipping heiress turned progressive redistributionist married to a rich Republican in a closet (which sounds like a movie pitch, actually). It was a great spot, even if everyone else thought I was nuts. But you must say yes, and embrace the hate and nonsense—for, as I like to tell the neighbors, there will always be someone out there watching. For me that person was Andrew Breitbart, who was running the HuffPo for Arianna. We met over the phone, and became inseparable minds until his untimely death.
My first HuffPo blog post was a recipe for lemon squares—a splotch of absurdity in a sea of earnest left-wing bullshit. I followed that up with even more bizarre posts—about weird sex parties that went awry, field trips that involved kidnapping, constructing ice cream trucks designed for mayhem, a heartfelt commentary on Bill Maher’s graying pubic hair (found it in my office ashtray).
After pissing off hordes of leftists and attracting fans who were conservative, libertarian, and/or perverse, I put out my own site, called the Daily Gut, a sinister mess of weirdness that functioned as a storefront for anyone interested in hiring a freak. I hoped someone would find me—and FNC did. I met a guy at a bar (a common theme of mine) and ended up flying to New York, meeting the brass, shaking a very important hand, never washing that hand, then getting my own late night show. Red Eye was the first (and hopefully not last) of its kind: a renegade, reckless patch of subversion—and not from a liberal perspective. It was—and remains—the most perverse programming ever put on TV. As Reason’s Nick Gillespie describes it: “For years now as the host of Fox News’ Red Eye, Gutfeld has been the ringleader of the most interesting late-night show on the small screen.…As far as I’m concerned, Gutfeld is to our era what Mike Douglas, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore was to theirs: a talk-show host who pulls together weird, wonderful groups of guests and forces them to crack wise and call out bullshit as they see it in a freewheeling way.” In short, Red Eye was Fernwood 2 Night meets The McLaughlin Group, with a splash of Pee Wee Herman. It was a mess—especially that splash—but a gloriously interesting one at that. I’ve since moved on (oddly, by choice) but those eight years were the most fun I’ve had without a shotgun.
WORKING FOR FREE
Sometimes, doing something for free is worth it (which is what the Huffington Post, which didn’t pay its writers at the start, was hoping everyone would think). But you should only do it with these three conditions in mind.
✵Give yourself a time frame. Tell yourself you’ll do it until you land a real gig (four months, tops). It’s a pay-yourself-forward kind of thing: I know that the four years I spent doing brain surgery for the Taliban will pay off big-time should I ever get past my squeamishness and decide to go to medical school. You never know what will turn up when you’re working for nothing.
✵Do not pay them to let you write for them. That’s called self-publishing, and it’s a surefire way to fill up your garage with four thousand books with the same exact title: My Life, My Dreams, My Third Nipple.
✵If you write for free, remember never to take their advice seriously. Tell them if they don’t like it, to jump in a river of spit. If there is no money, there is no convivial relationship that allows them to tell you what to do.