Q&A With Michael Ausiello: TV Fan, Media Journalist, and Neo-Celebrity (But Don't Try To Tell Him That!)
September 30th, 2009 11:15am EDT
Michael Ausiello, "Entertainment Weekly's" TV writer, is the "outbreak monkey" of his field. There is a new virus that is affecting the field of media journalism, and that plague is celebrity. The new neo-celebrity status of these journalists has a patient zero - the person we see as the beginning of it all - and that is Ausiello himself.
The line between celebrity and non-celebrity has blurred in the past 15 years thanks to a change in how we interpret and apply entertainment and media into our daily lives. This change has created a domino effect that has also hit the field of journalism. We need journalists to keep us apprised of the latest gossip, news, and scandals.
These days information is available 24/7, and there is nothing we wish to leave untouched. As a result, media journalists, those tethered between the worlds of entertainment and reality, are becoming celebrities themselves. We look to them for television spoilers, news, and any and all insider information. They hold the answers we covet at the office water cooler and re-tweet in line at the coffee house.
Check out part one of uur candid interview with Michael Ausiello in which he talks about his beginnings, his job, and his ideas on celebrity.
PART 1: THE PROFESSIONAL FAN
Like many popular figures, Michael Ausiello is an anomaly of sorts in his field. He is as invested in the content he writes about as the fans who rabidly consume it. Above all else he is a fan of popular culture and has been since he was a child. He confessed to having a "deep interest" in soap operas at the age of nine. Unlike most children who will take what they love and playact, he decided that he wanted to be a creator and write his stories. This childhood desire did not wane as he passed through high school. Instead, it led him to major in journalism - with a minor in film - at the University of Southern California (USC), a well-known breeding ground for Hollywood. His educational decisions successfully jumpstarted his life in the industry, straight into a position with a soap opera magazine. This road may sound easy but the reality is far from it.
Sarah Lafferty: Was your devotion to popular culture, along with being a fan, part of your decision to make a career out of the entertainment industry?
Michael Ausiello: Without a doubt. I think the fact that television [and] pop culture in general played such a huge part in my childhood influenced what I wanted to do and sort of where I wanted to go with my life...I wasn't passionate about anything else as much as I was about television and watching television and appreciating television. I always watched TV with a critical eye and I was always interested in who wrote a particular episode or directed an episode, and I just always kind of had an interest in the behind-the-scenes aspect of it. My first sort of TV obsession was "Santa Barbara," and I was just as much of a fan of the people behind the scenes producing that show as I was the actors. I remember I would write fan letters to the producers whereas other people would be writing fan letters to the actors, and I think that says a lot about who I was and maybe where I was headed.
Do you consider yourself a media writer, a journalist, or a popular culture encyclopedia?
Definitely not a popular culture encyclopedia by any means. I'm not one of those people who would ace a Trivial Pursuit contest about pop culture. I could ace maybe specific things that I am obsessed with like TV shows that I loved growing up and things like that but definitely not a pop culture encyclopedia...I don't know what category I fall into. I definitely think of myself as a journalist, but I also consider myself a fan of TV. I feel like I've crossed the line there a little bit and that's what makes my job fun because it's not sitting around writing serious hard news stories. I feel like it all comes from the point of view of a TV fan. I think journalist is probably the easiest way to describe what I do.
Give me give me a typical day.
A typical day is I come to the office, and the first thing I do is check emails, check to see if any interesting tips came in overnight. A lot of times I will find out about things after work and I won't be able to do anything until the morning, so sometimes the first thing I do is report on things I didn't report on the night before for whatever reason. I get letters and emails from people, students that say, "I want to shadow you for a day, I want to see what it's like to do what you do," and my response is always, "I think it would be really boring." Because, really, my job is essentially reading emails and talking on the phone and then writing stories. Yes, there are times where I go cover the Emmys and I'm on a red carpet and I go to Comic Con or whatnot and that's exciting and that's different but for the most part I'm sitting behind a desk and I'm following up on tips and I'm tracking down a story and then posting my story. So, that's essentially what my day looks like.
What do you do when you're not writing or researching?
I'm doing my Ausiello TV podcast, various video interviews, on-camera stuff. A lot of times I do additional research too, talking to other reporters here, picking their brains to see what they're working on to see if there are any leads that I can follow up on. Watching TV - that's the other thing that I do. But that's mostly, that's it.
Because you're a fan of and also writing about television, can you ever disconnect from your job?
A real problem that I have is creating a boundary between my work life and my personal life because TV overlaps so much. I go home and I have to watch TV, and a lot of it is TV shows that I have to watch for my job, so it's hard to create boundaries and to separate it for that reason, which is something that I'm trying to work on more because I feel like sometimes my quality of life suffers a little bit because I'm focused on my job 24/7. Obviously, tips come in on my Blackberry and whatnot so I feel like I'm always constantly working even when I'm on vacation.
Have you ever left an interview forgetting to ask an important question?
Oh, yes, all the time! Constantly it happens and I kick myself after it's over. I interviewed Alan Ball about the True Blood finale and after I hung up I was looking over my notes and of course there was a question I meant to ask and totally forgot to ask and I ended up kicking myself for it. So, yeah, it happens quite a bit. It happens a lot when I'm in a red carpet situation and actors are being thrown at me and producers every two seconds and if there's someone new coming up to me it's really hard to keep track. I've got all these questions in my head, trying to remember to ask them and sure enough when the 30 seconds or 60 seconds of the interview is done I want to call them back and say, "I want to ask one more!" or "I forgot to ask you this!" so that can be frustrating.
Do you find that it becomes easier, as you really began to roll up interview by interview, to ask people touchy questions or to ask people about more insider information than you would have in the beginning?
Honestly, it doesn't always get much easier. It depends on the actor; it depends on who you're talking to at any given time. If there was an actor that I talked to pretty regularly or someone that I have some sort of relationship with, yes, it can be easier to go to those difficult places but if it's someone new, if the person I'm interviewing I'm not familiar with or I don't really know what to expect or how they might react to something, it's still difficult and I feel like I'm always a little scared. I have some trepidation before I ask it, but deep down I know I have to ask the question because, ultimately, I have to answer to my readers...my readers are going to be the first ones to call me out on, "I can't believe you just did an interview with this person and you forgot to ask A, B, or C!" I sort of feel like they're almost my bosses.
Exactly, especially sense the line of communication is a strong element, thanks to technology.
In essence, because they're the ones I answer to and if you look at the comments section the criticism starts rolling in. I remember a couple years ago I was at the Emmys and Sarah Jessica Parker won her Emmy - I was in the press room - and she won her Emmy right after it was announced that the Sex And The City movie wasn't happening because Kim Cattrall backed out of it and people were asking all of these softball questions about Sarah about winning her Emmy and it was driving me nuts! I was like, "I cannot believe no one is going to call out the elephant in the room." So, I grabbed a microphone and I asked, "So, is it a bittersweet victory for you tonight? Because you won the Emmy but on the other hand everybody knows that the Sex in the City movie is now probably not going to happen because Kim won't do it. Does that make it a sort of bittersweet night?" And I just remember at that time I was shaking when I was asking it because I knew coming after all these questions "How exciting is it," "Where are you going to put your Emmy?", that I could be perceived as the villain here, but at the same time we've got a roomful of journalists here and to me that's the most interesting question. Clearly, there was some tension in the group. Sarah was obviously disappointed that the movie wasn't being made and it was no secret that it was because of Kim. So I had to go there and I was glad I did because what ended up happening was that was the question that got picked up from everything else in the pressroom.
Is it easy to question actors on material from shows, or do you feel more at ease with the producers or the writers?
Again, case by case basis. It depends on who the actor is. It depends who the writer or the producer is. I enjoy talking to writers or producers more just because they know more. A lot of times you'll ask a question of an actor and their typical response is "I don't know. They keep me in the dark. You probably know more than I do." And because my job is to get the most information that I can on the individual shows it makes more sense to go right to the producers and it makes my job easier to talk to the producers because they know more. But as far as on the red carpet situation, I enjoy talking to actors. They're fun and certain actors I feel like I have a rapport with. I love interviewing Neil Patrick Harris on a red carpet. I love running into Connie Britton on a red carpet or even talking to them on the phone. But I just enjoy being around actors and, I don't know, maybe it's because part of me always wanted to be an actor - it could be! I enjoy talking to actors but I feel like I get a lot more information talking to the writers and producers.
Who, right now, is your favorite writer on television?
Probably a toss-up between the people over at Big Love and Josh Schwartz and his team over at Chuck. And if I'm going to go strictly on consistent excellence, "Big Love," to me, didn't have a bad episode all last season and it's almost like a miracle when that happens. When you stumble on a show that week in and week out is consistently great. The same thing with "Chuck." Week in week out it feel like the same person is writing each episode. One thing I hate about TV shows is you never know what you're going to get week in and week out. Another example I think is [Mad Men's] Matthew Weiner - you can tell that that's his show. He has control of production and that really has that one-person voice that's dictating that show and you can feel it in every episode. But I feel like "Mad Men" gets a lot of attention so I'm always quick to sing the praises of "Big Love" because I feel like people are quick to sort of write it off. I feel like they saw it in the first season and never watched it again. To me it is so underrated and the Emmy nomination was really kind of a nice surprise because I felt like "I'm not alone. Other people see it for the incredible piece of art that it is." I really do believe that.
Have you ever gotten spoilers that you decided to not pass on to readers?
Oh yes, it happens all the time. And it's always sort of a tough call because right now there's so many people that do what I do whereas 10 years ago or 8 years ago, when I first started doing the spoiler thing, there was really only me and Kristen at 'E!Online' and now the business of spoilers has just exploded so I run the risk of someone else reporting it if I don't and getting scooped. But I think even in that case when it comes to big spoilers I can't betray my readers like that. And I do feel like there are some spoilers that just cross the line. An example of that is when I found out that Kutner was going to kill himself on House last season. I knew it was going to be a huge story and I was trying to find a way of getting the story out there without ruining it because it was a huge twist and I didn't want to ruin that experience for the viewers. Also, I would admit there was a business side to it, too, because I didn't want to alienate the people who work on the show that I have to deal with, the publicists and the producers, and so you've got to weigh a lot of different things. There, ultimately, I thought it would be a fun and effective way to do it to create a blind item and say there was "a character on a hit show that's going to commit suicide and let's guess who it is" and just kind of leave it at that. And that turned out to be a highly successful blind item, a lot of speculation, a really fun way to take a spoiler and turn it into a little bit of a game without ruining the experience for the viewers.
Do you think that spoilers have negatively affected television as far as narrative suspense is concerned?
I think it can be negative. I think on the one hand it is, I'd like to think that on the one hand it has added a level of excitement about TV and only added to the anticipation. On the other hand, I do think there's such a thing as something that's too spoilery and it can negatively impact your viewing experience, and that's what I try to stay away from. I remember growing up and being surprised by the big soap opera cliffhangers like Dallas or Dynasty and I never had an inkling of what the hell was coming up, and I just remember the excitement when those episodes were on - "Oh my god, how's it going to end? What's the cliffhanger going to be?" And there are still those experiences on certain shows but there's so many ways to get the information out now that it's really difficult to keep a secret. That's just the reality of the world we're living in, and for someone who has to know all of this information beforehand it's even more frustrating because it's kind of my job to know what's coming up and it's really hard to not pay attention or to not have to take in all the information. I'd be lying if I didn't say it didn't make it less fun to watch TV.
Do you have any shows that you will specifically say, "This is my favorite show right now, I don't want to know anything"?
Not really, because I think at the end of the day my passion for my job and my competitiveness and all of that kind of overpowers my love of television. If I had to choose between breaking a big story or being totally surprised by the outcome of a story, I would choose to break the story - again, provided that it doesn't completely ruin the experience for viewers. But even if I think it's a great story, I want to know what's happening in the plot ahead of time so that way I can strategize and plan how to cover the story after the episode airs. If I'm home and I'm shocked that something has happened my first instinct isn't, "Wow, that's cool, I'm so glad I was surprised." It's, "Damn, I wish I had known about it ahead of time so that I could have had a story ready to go."
Who has been your favorite interview to date?
It's hard to say "to date" but my most recent favorite interview was Lucy Lawless at Comic Con. I did an interview with her talking about Spartacus and it kind of went into a place I never expected and we were suddenly talking about merkins. I wasn't familiar with what a merkin was, so Lucy Lawless gave me kind of a crash course on it. I had so much fun doing that interview and that was one of those times where it didn't feel like work to me. It was just one of those times where it I felt like I was just sitting back talking to someone, having a great time, and I was really proud of how the interview came out. I just had a really good time watching that interview. It was just a lot of fun and I think that my favorite interviews are with the people that I have relationships with. I love talking to Connie Britton, I love talking to Neil Patrick Harris, I love talking to someone like Amy Sherman Palladino from Gilmore Girls, who is just a nut and that's what I love about her. She's just so unpredictable and she's someone you can just have fun with and those are my favorite interviews. Ana Ortiz, pretty much the whole cast of Ugly Betty, really. It's really hard to single out one. I love talking to J.J. Abrams, someone who I've just had a long relationship with, dates back to the Felicity days.
What has been your favorite set visit?
I'd have to say my favorite set visit is when I visited the set of Scrubs and actually got to appear in an episode. That always kind of kicks the set visit up a notch when you're actually in the show and I had my dressing room and I had speaking lines and I was around a group of people that I really enjoy like Neil Flynn, that's another guy that I just love being around who's so fun, he plays the janitor on "Scrubs," and just the whole cast. Bill Lawrence sets such a tone that it's a fun place to be, and that was a really cool day and by far the best set visit I've ever been on.
What is your fantasy interview?
I'd love to interview A Martinez and Marcy Walker from "Santa Barbara." I'd love to get the two of them together and pick their brains about "Santa Barbara," and I've actually been thinking about doing something like that since it's the 25th year since the show debuted. I was thinking about how I could make that fantasy come true and I'm still thinking about it and I feel like I can make it happen. I just have to do the legwork involved there but that would be - from a childhood fantasy standpoint - that would be a whole full-circle moment for me. I think the fan part of me would totally overtake the journalist in me.
[Click here for Part 2 of this interview]
Story by Sarah Lafferty
Starpulse contributing writer
Follow Sarah on twitter at starbuckscout.
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