When I was in high school, the entirety of produced media was not yet available on the internet. I couldn’t go to theatre rehearsal after school and just catch the new episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer that I’d missed on Hulu the next morning. So I perfected a system of recording on VHS tapes every television show I watched, on multiple televisions in the house if things aired simultaneously. And god bless my grandmother, who would switch out tapes for me if I were recording, say, Boston Public on FOX at 7pm and The Practice on ABC at 8pm so they could be catalogued separately.
This is all to say that my obsession with pop culture and television has existed since I was very young. It’s only natural that it led me to writing for television...After I got over the idea that I was going to take charge of the Goosebumps franchise from R.L. Stine, that is. But what was unexpected was my urge to write about pop culture.
When I think about it, the instincts were already there: I watched Seinfeld in high school because every lunch day consisted of conversations about the previous night’s rerun. I spent study period on Buffy message boards. After The O.C. debuted with a summer season, I spent senior year of high school talking about it with, shockingly, the football players in math class. I had a column in the school newspaper where I talked about pop culture and critiqued our school’s theatre productions (some of them deserved it, but I’ll admit that Footloose was actually good and I was just mad I wasn’t cast in it).
Then, in 2003, came Chuck Klosterman’s “low culture manifesto” Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs. I discovered the book via The O.C. when Adam Brody’s character, Seth Cohen, is seen reading the book in his bedroom. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was obsessed with Cohen at the time (although much like Xander Harris on Buffy, as an adult I would come to realize he’s an asshole wrapped up in the wish fulfillment of the series’ straight white male creator) and his pop culture tastes led me to an obsession with Death Cab for Cutie, The Strokes, and in turn, Klosterman’s writing.
I bought the book based on the (superb tbh) title and The O.C. connection alone. It was there that I experienced my first piece of cultural criticism (aside from At the Movies, the movie review show hosted by Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and then Richard Roeper after Siskel’s death in 1999.) My off the cuff high school and completely-embarrassing-to-read-as-an-adult newspaper column was partly inspired by At the Movies (it was mostly movie reviews), BuffyGuide.com, and Television Without Pity, but it wasn’t until Cocoa Puffs that I realized you could write essays that weren’t just movie reviews or recaps of television shows. You could write seriously about Britney Spears and Saved by the Bell and Tom Cruise.
I read the book cover to cover every few weeks. In college, I began reading GQ, Esquire and other magazines Klosterman had written for while working at Borders, and later Barnes & Noble while an undergrad in Chicago. As an adult, I discovered that cultural criticism was a widely respected profession, and that even my favorite author James Baldwin had written some of the best that had ever been written. But I will always be grateful that Klosterman showed me I could write thoughtfully about what others considered superficial, and that people would actually read it.
As I pursued a theatre degree, then an MFA in screen writing at Tisch, then worked as a barista and bartender upon moving to Los Angeles to be the next Joss Whedon or David E. Kelly, I decided to put my love of pop culture to use, and start writing about it on the internet. But writing about pop culture daily doesn’t mean you’re doing the kind of writing you love, it means you’re churning out pieces on celebrity gossip or hot takes where you have to pretend you’re really, really upset about something you couldn’t give a fuck about, like Kendall Jennner coming out as “straight” in Vogue or whether Bruno Mars is guilty of cultural appropriation. I got burned out. Thankfully, that burn out coincided with an appearance on Jon Lovett’s podcast, Lovett or Leave It, and, subsequently, an offer to develop my own pop culture podcast on Crooked Media. I’m now on my fourth year of hosting my own culture manifesto on my podcast Keep It, where I talk with my co-hosts trivia robot Louis Virtel and unhinged comedian Aida Osman about the highs and lows of pop culture.
I don’t know that I particularly missed writing for the internet, though I did enjoy profiling celebrities like Chadwick Boseman, Issa Rae, Travis Scott, and Kiki Layne in the interim. But the pandemic hit and I found myself at home with a lot of time on my hands. For the first time in years, I re-read Cocoa Puffs. It was still hilarious and incisive, but it was striking to realize how much of my first introduction to cultural criticism came from a straight, white guy born in Minnesota who loves a lot of the things I do, but also made me think I should care about ’80s metal more than I should (except Van Halen, they actually do slap. I like the Sammy Hagar era a lot more than Klosterman does, though) amongst other opinions that I now vehemently disagree with as a black, gay man who consumes culture. Still, I don’t regret loving the book so much a decade ago. I’ve read every Klosterman book since and it’s only fueled my desire to write in my own way about the pop culture I grew up with, think nostalgically about, and still devour to this day.
So this Frank, my low culture manifesto.