How Things Begin (The Approval Matrix, part 2)

NUSSBAUM I remember during the first Matrix, there was this Uggs fever in New York. I put them on the slightly highbrow and slightly despicable side. A picture of an Ugg. It just said Ugg. A one-word thing.

ROBERTS Ugg spelled U-G-H?

NUSSBAUM It just said U-G-G-S. On the other side was some “brilliant” fashion thing. So we started pairing things. Initially, the illustrations were way too literal. They would just illustrate the thing we were talking about it. But I think The Matrix works better when there are some big and some small things, some visuals that are jokes themselves.

ROBERTS You said there were big things and small things. What do you mean by big and small?

NUSSBAUM Just visually. Sometimes there would be one big blown-up thing to add visual interest to it. We were constantly sending notes to the photo department saying, “if there’s a thing about something being slow, just show a snail.” Silly dopey things like that. Finding a visual that made its own joke, as opposed to simply being straightforwardly: We think this book is good, we think this TV show is bad. We wanted something that would kinda make it work together. And then of course there were debates about what constituted highbrow and lowbrow. The way we actually created the Matrix was, it was mostly the people who worked in culture — it was myself, Chris Bonanos, and, once we hired Adam Sternbergh, he was very involved, and he really helped sharpen the voice. Because he used to be a comedian and he was incredibly funny at coming up with these compressed one-liner ways of saying things. At the time, I was top-editing it, and then later, he took that on, and now there are other people doing it: Emma and Ben. I would send out a big mass email, trying to get stuff from all of the different people who did different areas, classical music, art, etc. But the truth is, it was just a few people contributing initially. People would send in their jokes or their elements. They would send us something that was highbrow/despicable. And sometimes, more specifically, it would say “highbrow/despicable but very close to the brilliant/despicable line”, describing where it should go on the Matrix. Then I would top-edit the jokes. And often at the end of the day, when we were closing the thing, the three of us would gather in Bonanos’ office and we all just would hash it out and try to sharpen or improve some of the jokes in the way that you do. We would do it collaboratively and try to get it to work. Then I would send it by Adam Moss and he would add or sharpen things further. It was often an incredible crunch because it was such a visually-complicated thing to lay out. And very last-minute. Because they would be trying to get a photo of something odd or difficult.

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