We're roasting our former editor A.J. Daulerio, who has moved across the room to edit Gawker, a social-networking site for editorial assistants. If you have an A.J. story to share, or if you would like to participate in some other way, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Lightly sourced slander is welcome. Our guest now is Will Leitch, contributing editor for New York magazine and editor emeritus of Deadspin.
My favorite Gawker Media site of all time—and there are quite a few contenders, from Sicha-era Gawker to Ana Marie Cox-era Wonkette—is Mark Lisanti's Defamer. Oh, man, was Defamer good. It wasn't just good, either: It mattered. Check out this December 2005 Los Angeles magazine piece on Lisanti and Defamer, which basically paints the entire Hollywood industrial complex quivering in the shadow of a guy typing jokes in a tiny apartment in Los Feliz. It was just one guy, filling an HTML window, changing the world, fully aware of the ridiculousness of it all, obsessed but removed. I wanted to be him so badly when Deadspin started. My goal was simply to do a sports version of Defamer. He had it down cold.
So substantial was Lisanti's and Defamer's power that Aaron Sorkin wrote a Defamer/Lisanti character into a script for his ill-fated Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. The site got in people's heads, and Sorkin was foremost among them; you can make a strong argument that the whole "you write your snide bullshit from a dark room because that's what the angry do nowadays" angle of The Social Network, the movie's whole "these asshole nerd kids" vibe, came from Lisanti's constant hectoring of Sorkin. It was glorious.
It, of course, was too beautiful to live. Sure, Defamer's still around, apparently as a tag on Gawker, with links to slideshows and "top 10 funny Kanye Tweets" and what you missed on Colbert last night, the typical Web bullshit. But, inevitably, a Hollywood gossip site with an aggressively weird and—more to my point here—purposely audience-limiting self-reflexivity could only go so far. When you read Lisanti's Defamer, you were reading to see what Mark Lisanti, smart, wry observer, had to say about the Hollywood news of the day. The site wasn't about Hollywood; it was about Mark Lisanti's take on Hollywood. Sites like that were doomed to die—at least in a full-time, mass-popularity basis—in an SEO-driven, concise-headline, metatags, Google-manipulating world. It's a wonder they ever existed at all. I remember Nick Denton—an extremely intelligent guy who, I swear to God, is a lot nicer guy than you think he is—summed this up a few years back when he was looking for a new Gawker editor: "We're not looking for another cute girl from Brooklyn." (I'm paraphrasing.) The site, the company, was going big-time. Lisanti was never gonna survive in that, not the way he did Defamer. Neither was Ana Marie Cox. And neither was I.
Now, I'm being more than presumptuous putting my name with those two: I mean not to make any sort of talent comparisons. But Deadspin, when I ran it, because it was so patterned after Defamer, was really about Will Leitch, writing about sports—or, more accurately, whip-smart commenters scrolling past four paragraphs up top so they could write funnier things about sports—than it was about the sports themselves. It was about the world that revolved around sports, about consumers, about me, about you, about this shared experience of being self-obsessed outsiders. It was about a community, really. But a community doesn't pay the bills. And as much fun as Deadspin was—and as truly, pathologically obsessed with it as I was—this wasn't an art project. It needed to eventually pay for itself, and even though Deadspin more than did that in its early days, it was only a matter of time until everyone else realized, "Oh, blogs aren't so crazy after all" and went all Yankees and Red Sox on our Billy Beane A's, taking our principles and putting more money behind them. Five years ago, the word "blog" was not allowed on ESPN.com: Now, blogs are half the damn site, and of course there is Grantland.
I would have never been able to adjust to that. Lisanti and Cox didn't, and why would they? Now Defamer is a tag on Gawker and Wonkette is owned by some other company and has polls on its front page that ask whether or not you will go see "What To Expect When You're Expecting" in theaters. (I mean no offense to Ken Layne and some of the other talented folks doing good work over there. It's just not what it was, that's all.) That what would have happened to Deadspin, had I stayed, and probably worse: The site would be shut down, irrelevant, or a shell of itself. It's what happens.
But not with Daulerio in charge. I had to fight to get A.J. on staff when I was still in charge of Deadspin. Nick had been pushing Deadspin to have more staff for years—to be more than just some girl from Brooklyn typing almost everything—but he didn't want A.J.; he had been burned by the Oddjack implosion.
(Side note: Nick was right to be angry at A.J. about Oddjack. He was a terrible editor of Oddjack. Back then, you were paid for a certain number of posts a month, and they were staggered. If you did more than 240, you were in a first payment tier; more than 180, second, so on. You essentially needed to average 12 posts a day to be in the first tier. Well, A.J. was notorious for doing only seven or eight a day, so on the last day of the month, he would just go crazy to reach his full-time number, writing like 61 posts or something. I am nothing if not productive, and I'd always end up helping him on that last day, writing 10 or so myself under his byline. Those 46 Oddjack readers must have wondered why, every fourth Friday, Daulerio made so many references to Woody Allen and corn detassling.)
A.J.'s work at Deadspin was immediately terrific, though; you can see the Daulerio Deadspin already starting to form in his dogged pursuit of what Charlie Weis did or did not say about "hoodlums and thugs" back in 2008. (The three months in which A.J. and I ran the site together, like back in our The Black Table days, remain among the most fulfilling of my career.) But when I left, Nick, still seething over Oddjack, didn't want to give Daulerio the gig. Daulerio told him he'd "give [his] left nut for this job." I've never quite understood why that worked, but that's what did it.
Daulerio played nice for a while, but it was obvious pretty quick that the Leitch-era Deadspin needed to be dismantled. I had been loath to ever give up a modicum of control over the site, had no idea how to run a budget, and consistently ignored stories I found too unseemly, "traditional," or just plain boring entirely. (If I couldn't find something funny to say about something, I just didn't write about it. News judgment!) That is no way to run a mass website, one that's not an art project, one that doesn't have that inherent ceiling, one that's not doomed to die. A.J., instinctively, knew what worked online and what didn't; I, frankly, had never thought to care. A.J. was also fearless. I was—am—desperate to be liked; A.J. couldn't have cared less. This was vital, because for Deadspin to survive, he would have to kill off the old whole "hey, kids, let's put on a play!" vibe, whether it was the commenting community or the "c'mon, let's everybody be nice! Hugs!" sensibility. A.J. made a lot of decisions that made a lot of people angry, including me. (I do understand Chandler's dislike of A.J., let's say that.) But they were decisions that had to be made. A.J. told me early on in his tenure that he just wanted to make sure not to kill off the site. He knew. He saw what had happened to sites that refused to adapt. I would have never had the stomach to do it. A.J. was born to.
And look at what has happened: Not only did Deadspin survive; it thrived. I don't mean that in a pageview sense, though of course it has succeeded beyond what A.J. or Nick or I could have ever imagined, in that way. I mean as an actual institution of legit journalism and commentary. I still can't believe that Tommy Craggs, Luke O'Brien, and Tom Scocca—three writers whose work I admired long before Deadspin ever existed—are on staff at Deadspin. At Deadspin! There is a staff of, what, 34 people at Deadspin now? (A.J.'s management style and knack for staff construction has revolutionized not just Deadspin, but Gawker Media; a move to the flagship is, when you think about it, an obvious next step.) A.J. realized early on that he needed to keep the site going with the big-hit stories, your Favre, your Erin Andrews, your Sanchez, your bathroom sex, which allowed the longer-form work, both investigative and personal, to survive. It was like an actor who does an Alien sequel for the studio so he can do his weird indie film on the side. A.J. has honed this to the point that the indie films are now becoming blockbusters.
He has revolutionized the site. Thank God. It would be dead otherwise. And considering that until the day I'm put in the ground I will be known as the Deadspin guy who got yelled at on national television by that crazy old guy, I'm relieved. It's a lot easier to say, "Yeah, Deadspin, I started that," than, "There was a site I used to run that was a thing a while ago, but now it's a tag on the Bleacher Report." A.J. kept Deadspin alive. He made it amazing. Sure, he had to burn down the village first, but thank heavens he did. As a simple reader and observer now, I'm amazed at how consistent and compelling it has become. Honestly, I'm proud of my friend, and, all told, personally thankful.
* * *
A word about the above photo, which is generally considered among our mutual acquaintances to be the perfect, sad summation of our friendship. It was taken during our semi-famous trip to Rick's Cabaret, back in 2008. My favorite story about that night is about the photographer Daulerio convinced to take pictures gratis. The kid, some doughy, earnest college boy who lived in New Jersey, showed up all harried and haggard; his older brother had driven him all the way from campus to his parents' house to pick up his equipment for this terrific opportunity (photos for Deadspin!) but he couldn't get in the bar because he wasn't 21. We got him in, which was when he realized he was not shooting a "cabaret show"—like Daulerio had told him in the email—but in fact a strip club. He tried to leave immediately, but Daulerio, as he tends to do, persuaded him to stay; the kid agreed, as long as he didn't have to drink, wouldn't be forced to have a lap dance, and would be home by midnight. (It is possible he was attending a religious college.) Daulerio laughed and agreed, and within an hour the poor kid was doing shots and being ground upon. We never heard from him again after that night. I assume he's a heroin dealer by now.
* * *
We close with three personal anecdotes.
A.J. and I of course have been friends a lot longer than we've been former editors of Deadspin. We met in 2001, when we were both starving wanna-be writers, new to New York and desperate to make something of ourselves, desperate to be a part of something. A.J. is now known as an editor more than a writer, but I saw how good, how impassioned and crazed a writer he was instantly. As we became friends, like any good pair of homoerotic writing pals who wanted to pretend we were at the beginning of some sort of vanguard (rather than the underemployed alcoholics we were), we found ourselves constantly trying to impress and outdo each other, often spending our whole workdays at awful jobs writing long, ridiculous short story emails back and forth.
Even back then, A.J. stayed up a lot longer and partied a lot harder than I did, and it was fairly common to open up my email in the morning to a crazed Daulerio missive from around 3 a.m. or so. Here's one of them:
Hello Mr. Leitch, sorry about the lack of communicado. (Ed. Note: He had emailed me four times in the previous three hours.) Weezer/DC was fucking incredible. 4th row, with hot 15-year-olds showing their g-strings. After the concert we went and got steaks and a couch dance. Rock!!! Next day, made some potatos and eggs for my family and then took the train up with them and their 13 friends. Then brought the buzzing Daulerios up to the roof so they could wave down to their friends at Sweet and Vicious—(ME: Dad, please don't yell off the roof at them. AL D: Oh, I'm yelling off the roof—Yo GUYS! THIS IS HIS APARTMENT! WE SHOULD DRINK UP HERE!. Anyway, ugh.) Then left for birthday/engagement party. All was going well—two Grey Gooses, reasonable conversation with pretty/rich peoples, some tiny hors d'vours involving goat cheese and baby carrots. And then...
I went nuts. Within the next hour I proceeded to drink two more martinis(Free open bar til 10 p.m.! ROCK!!!) but only had one more tiny goatcheesebabycarrotthingee and then thought it would be an "excellent idea" if I did some cocaine. A LOT of cocaine. So, pretty soon me and my new sweaty drug buddy named Anthony are sharing the bathroom on this beautiful SoHO hipster roof deck/bar thing snorting $100 worth of coke up our noses with my ratty, wet dollar bill that had been squished way down in the bottom of my pants that I'd just picked up from the cleaners. But, it led to this colorful exchange:
ANTHONY: Dude, don't you have a twenty?
ME: No, I only carry ones—and hundreds of course.
(Anthony attempting an awkward high-five in the
ANTHONY: Me too, dude. Me too.
ME: I don't high-five, though.
(Anthony then quickly changes from the high-five into an elbow pound. I then visualize in my mind which one of us would be Canseco and which would be McGwire. I decide I'm gonna be Jose. I decide Anthony looks more like a rotting Luis Gonzales than Mac so I settle on that image.)
It's about 11 p.m. and I have officially turned into Henry Hill. My eyes are the size of coffee saucers and my hair is going fifteen different directions because I can't keep my hands from pulling at it. There is no more food and I can taste my teeth.
I made one more visit to the bathroom with Anthony and then snorted up a line of coke that was about the size of an earthworm. Well, I almost broke the door off of its hinges when I exited the bathroom—by this point the whole "you go first, so it doesn't look that obvious" propriety was completely disregarded.
Anyway, [girlfriend] fell asleep about 2ish and I've still got a lot of coke left in me and I'm ALL BY MYSELF. Well, I started working on my Knot magazine column which became very frustrating and instead turned into a 1,100 word e-mail to [editor Jennie Dorris] about the joys of grilled peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and how more miners should become trapped in holes because it's good for the morale of the
country. Well, she enjoyed it. I am scared that I've completely fried my brain at this point, so I decide
ather than write I'll watch a movie to calm me down. Well, I settle on Black Hawk Down. I watched the first
ten minutes and have been an anxiety freak since then. Yes, my name is A.J. Daulerio, I've been up since 2
Well, time to do work and eat something. For some reason I have an overwhelming urge to smash up
smarties and snort them off my monitor. Is that bad?
That email is dated July 29, 2002. I have no idea how Daulerio is still alive.
* * *
In late 2004, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was devastating to our family; I almost moved back to Mattoon to help her through chemo. One night, the day before Mom's first treatment, she called me.
"I don't know what you're talking about, Mom."
"We got your gift. It was wonderful. It was the first laugh I'd had about two weeks."
I had no idea what she was referring to. Turns out, unbeknownst to me, A.J. had bought my mother an electronic "fart detector," which beeps and whirls and blares "FART DETECTED! FART DETECTED!" the minute someone new walks into the room. He'd shipped it to them the day I told him about my mom's cancer.
Typical A.J., he had forgotten to sign the card so they would know whom it was from. It's still in my parents' basement. Farts are still detected.
* * *
In 2002, when A.J. and I were both starving and convinced that whatever ephemeral career we'd imagined for ourselves when we came to New York was never going to happen, I, stoned and playing a video wrestling game, asked Daulerio, "Are you gonna stay and do this?"
"What do you mean?" he said, bodyslamming Rob Van Dam.
"I mean, if it never works ... if it never happens ... if it turns out that we're 45 years old and pathetic and still trying to make a living at this ... will you keep doing this?"
"What else would I do?"
"I dunno. Give up. Move home. Go to law school or something."
"Even at 45?"
"Especially at 45. This is it, whatever this is. We're fucked now, it's all we can do."
"I agree. Thank you," I said.
A.J. turns 38 in March. We're fucked now, it's all we can do. Thank you.