Exclusive: Former Gawker Ed Richard Lawson on the Art of the TV Recap

Richard Lawson, recapper extraordinaire, started off at Gawker in the ad sales department. Doubling — unbeknownst to anyone in office — as a Gawker commenter via online alter ego Lolcait, his comment contributions (in part thanks to a slight lapse in etiquette by Foxy Brown) caused a veritable internet sensation. When Lawson eventually revealed his identity, he rose through the Gawker ranks: first selecting “best comment of the week,” and later plucked from sales into editorial. Since his holy ascension, the epic recaps he has crafted of Real Housewives, Real World, NYC Prep, The Hills, Gossip Girl, et al. have been an enormous success. Showcasing brilliant farce and sweeping narrative, Lawson has inspired inappropriately loud guffaws in offices across the land. He has recently left Gawker for TV.com, and has taken Sereenz, Garbanzo Bean, and Ol’ Crackerjacks with him.

Flavorpill:
So, why TV.com? Why leave Gawker now?

Richard Lawson: There was some practical stuff — money and health insurance and all that bullshit — but because I came to the site from a really roundabout, indirect, accidental way, I never really felt like I fit the profile as well as I should have… To the site’s credit, it’s getting bigger, more national recognition, the readership is growing, and I think with that comes a certain onus of news-iness. And I’m not someone who has any kind of a skill or ability towards journalism — and I’m not interested in doing it. I don’t want to source; I don’t want to fact-check, I don’t want to dig trying to find a story; it’s just not writing I care to do.

Not that Gawker doesn’t have room for weirdo flights of fancy, which were my thing, but I think that increasingly it was standing out as odd, as sort of the style break. I think there’s a certain Gawker voice that I had to teach myself to write in. It’s not really my voice. I mean, I don’t think Gawker is nearly as negative as it has a reputation of being, but that element is still certainly there. I think it’s going to be kind of a challenge to re-train my brain to not be knee-jerk negative right off the bat. But that’s what I’m excited for, to get the opportunity to, frankly, not be pointing at the mainstream and saying it has no clothes. It just felt nice that the editorial aspect of TV.com is new, so I have the opportunity to help cultivate it rather than fit into it.

FP: Like a pioneer.

RL: Yeah! Which is scary and might be a huge mistake because who the hell knows what TV.com is, but in a year’s time people will know what it is. I mean, it could blow up in my face, but I’m 26, why not try something new. I mean it’s all writing. Plus… I get health care.

FP: I’m curious about the “persona” aspect, because so much of what you write is personal and anecdotal… what elements did you have to construct to fit in?

RL: It’s not that I’m putting on any sort of mask or character, it’s just that I think that my natural inclination is not to second-guess things. I think that as much as it’s good to be kind of skeptical, I’m much more willing to take things at face value than the Gawker mandate is, and that’s what I sort of shifted. Everything else is me; I think in some ways my more anecdotal stuff, like putting in little weird personal asides in, has a lot to do with the fact that I want to maintain some level of humanity. Like, I’m just a person, this is just a job… I think I never felt authoritative enough, I never felt true enough in my convictions to have that Gawker stamp on it and say “this is what’s culturally correct” and I think that you do need to have that authority, otherwise the site seems kind of weak.

FP: Given that page views are emphasized as paramount, how much does that shape the way you provide content?

RL: It’s there, in terms of you wanting to keep your job, and I was never on a page-view-paid basis, which is another reason I left, because they were going to institute that again.

I think… a lot of readers want to have their cake and eat it too. The site is gossip, and if it’s gossip, we’re going to put it up there. You can’t cherry-pick that, as much as you might want to. I wonder if that’s how my more personal text almost backfired on me because people expected me to be something that I couldn’t always be… I couldn’t always be nice and sensitive because that wasn’t my job. And that opens a whole other door of commenters thinking they know who you are as a person when they don’t because they read stuff I write for; that’s my job. And a lot of it veers into the realm of personal, yeah, but people passing character judgment is like… no.

FP: It’s still virtual.

RL: Yeah, it’s all virtual. It’s a weird circus to keep up… one thing falls and you kind of spend a week feeling shitty about it. The effort required to hold up that fake cultural institution is a great experience, but it became too much work. It distracted from the actual writing of things.

FP: You’re constantly cross-breeding media references… have you always had a strong interest in media?

RL: I’ve always been super-into movies and TV since I was a kid. I’ve subscribed to Entertainment Weekly for fifteen years, since I was 11. It’s just something I respond to and see a lot in. My friend says I have an IMDbrain. She’ll be like who is that third lead actor on that episode of Charmed, and I’ll know… I mean, it’s just a hobby of mine. I like to read IMDb for fun and I like to remember things. I watch a lot of TV. I’d be watching a lot even if it wasn’t for work, but at least now I have an excuse. I never understand those people who “don’t own a TV.” When they sort of wear as a sort of smug thing… You know, fine. I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t want to participate in the cultural conversation. That just seems crazy to me.

I felt guilty for a long time for having these “trivial” interests. It’s nice to not feel so guilty for enjoying that stuff now. I didn’t have hobbies growing up. Everything, like piano or tennis, I did kind of grudgingly. It was always like, I’d rather be home watching television. Which seemed like “not the right thing” to be doing.

FP: You have some background in theater — is that something you plan to go back into, or has TV become your medium of choice?

RL: I feel farther away from theater than I was three years ago, certainly, but it’s not something I’ve ruled out at all. I’d love to be one of those writers that does a little bit of everything. I’d love to get into TV writing or write a screenplay. I still love theater. It’s just such a hard living, hand-to-mouth kind of existence. When I first moved here, I realized only a few months in, that’s not how I want to spend my life. I don’t think that means I love it any less. It means that my priorities are a little bit different. I don’t want theater to be something I just did in college. I mean that’s fine — it was a great four years — but I’d like to keep doing it.

FP: It seems that you’ve really imbued theatricality into your recaps of these shows that thrive on the banal. Would you say theater has an influence there?

RL: When I would do recaps of Real Housewives of New York, especially the whole Luann crazy backstory bullshit, it was an avenue for me to create a new character and write monologues for her every week. I was writing play monologues, basically. There’s a great play by Adam Rapp called Nocturne which is a two hour monologue and it’s just beautiful. Drama teachers will tell you not to write those kind of plays; you know, they don’t get produced easily. But I love the monologue format, and I’ve thrown in scenes with dialogue and stage directions in the recaps. I wish you could take all the forms and meld them together. The recaps are a testament to how good Gawker can be with writers. I mean, that shit would not fly at any other site.

FP: How did the recaps come about in the first place?

RL: The site had done some really provisional recaps of Gossip Girl season one when Emily [Gould] was aboard, and I thought it would be fun to do a post-mortem. It started pretty humbly. And then I found I had this space every week and so I kind of started going for a jog and that became really addicting. I was just like I’m gonna go rogue on this, and did. And much to my surprise, people liked it. I’m sure many people read them and thought “this is horrible.” But enough people liked ’em that I kept going.

I wonder when Nick caught on and actually read one. If those things had been getting 2,000 page views, versus whatever amount we’re getting, he would have been like “do not put this on my site, this is beyond the pale.” But you know, bottom line, they were doing well, so, I guess they didn’t mess with it. Nick tried once. He wanted me to write a “topical” recap about a fashion week episode of Gossip Girl because there was a shot of a seating chart and there were all these media people and he was like “write about that, mostly.” And I was like… no. I will not. But that was the only time. And then he kind of let me do whatever.

FP: Why are you so surprised that people respond to the recaps?

RL: I guess I didn’t expect anyone to like them because I like them so much. I’ve been writing for years and nine out of every ten things I write, no one else ever sees, like beginnings of plays or poems or short stories. And do to something then that made me just as happy as writing on my own for money, and for other people to read it and respond as enthusiastically as I did to it, but then to also take it elsewhere and find other interpretations… Or, not interpretations, I mean, it’s not Ulysses. I mean, just sort of responding to it in different ways. It was a welcome surprise, like “there are like-minded people out there”. I thought it was just going to be too weird.

FP: What’s your take on high/low? Do you draw lines between different media?

RL: I think high/low exists, but I hate people who say about a recap, or in actual conversation, “How do you watch that garbage? It’s so stupid. I’m so above that.” And with certain things… I don’t like any of those VH1 reality shows. It’s not that I condemn people for watching them, I just don’t see the appeal. It’s such a new thing, because we have so much damn stuff out there, that we are able to make that distinction about an intangible. Years ago, movies were just movies.

FP: It’s interesting that you don’t necessarily separate literature/theater from pop culture. I remember you referring to one of the Housewives incarnations as “Chekovian.”

RL: It’s all created entertainment. It’s so much fun to assign these terms to things, because why the hell not? Why can’t they be thought of on the same scale? I don’t see a difference. I think there’s more artistry in a Chekov play than in The Real Housewives of New Jersey, but I don’t think there’s any less skill employed. It still takes work, and just as much intuitiveness about people to edit together that show, as it took Chekov to write those plays. High/low exists, but one isn’t actually higher than the other, they’re both on the same plane, just different.

FP: That’s a very democratic approach.

RL: Well, I don’t want to make myself feel bad for liking those things. I feel like I should enjoy going to see something at Lincoln Center as much as I enjoy watching Real World: Cancun. I like both, and I should be able to without feeling snooty about one or guilt about the other. And it’s fun to know that other people appreciate that mix as well — it’s not one-or-the-other. But when I meet those people who are so adamant towards one side or the other, it’s disheartening. It’s like, experience the other half!