To quote from the New York Times: "Joe Sabia is a whippersnapper who speaks to the Web the way Dolittle does to animals." While Joe wears many hats, in creative circles he is best known as a digital guru who interviews stars that the rest of us mere mortals only get to see on magazine covers.
Joe put his mark on the entertainment industry with Vogue’s hit 73 Questions series where he asks celebrities a series of probing, irreverent questions in a single shot while being given a tour of their homes.
Recently, after six years with Condé Nast Entertainment, Joe stepped down from his high-powered job as Senior Vice President of Creative Development to focus on his own company. To his fans’ delight, the content maven will remain the voice of the show that made him famous.
Joe is an old friend, but despite our rapport and history, I am still a bundle of nerves as I dial in for our hour-long interview.
Should we kick it off with a few of the classic 73 Questions?
[laughs] Oh no. Right now the worst thing you can do is try to ask my 73 questions!
How come? Have you never asked yourself these questions?
I would be terrible at answering them if I don’t have a chance to prepare. I’d definitely struggle because I need time to think about my answers!
Alright, change of plan then. Which episode of “73 Questions" is your favorite?
It’s hard to name just one... but I’d say my favorite episodes are the ones where the energy is just off the charts. Episodes like Emma Stone, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Roger Federer come to mind.
Which was the most surprising “73 Questions”?
I’d say the interview with Liam Gallagher (the co-leader of the legendary band Oasis) was most surprising just because he showed up with no preparation, did the whole thing in one go without rehearsal, and then left! I only was with him for less than 20 minutes!
Have you ever been bored of asking these same questions to the stars?
Never. After more than 70 episodes, it’s still just as fun as it was since Sarah Jessica Parker. And it’s cool because the format has evolved over the years.
People almost forget that the format was originally designed for Sarah Jessica Parker’s personality, in an interview lasting 5 ½ minutes. But since then, celebrity personalities run a wider range, the interviews go well past 20 minutes, and the material has become even more in-depth, genuine and feeling like a conversation. Every time a star agrees to be featured, we all get excited. We're grateful that it has become such a big machine.
Out of all the formats you have created, which one is your favorite?
Hm. I’d say one of them is “Technique Critique” on Wired - where experts from all facets of professional industries critique how movies and films depict their craft. That show holds a special place in my heart. Also, getting to interview Billie Eilish every year for Vanity Fair in the “Same Interview, One Year Later” is truly special.
How would you define “Digital Artist”?
I’d define a digital artist as someone who creates things primarily on and for the Internet.
What’s the hardest part of that?
In this industry, there’s so much out there to compete with. People are making amazing things every second. But the hardest part about being a digital artist isn’t just about having an amazing idea - it’s about making it come to life the right way.
You might be on a tight budget, or your celebrity is only available for 10 minutes and you have to scale everything back to fit the resources and constraints on hand. A lot of things need to go right to make the concept come to life the way you need it to. I always say that the concept itself is only 1% the battle. It’s the execution that is 99% of the real work.
Where does your creativity typically get a spark? When you're in the shower for example or when you're brushing your teeth?
[laughs] Well, "shower thoughts" are definitely a real thing for some people. But for me, I think the times I feel most inspired are when I’m talking to other artists who I admire, or simply just watching videos on the Internet. I have watched many, many, many internet videos in my life. They give me all sorts of ideas.
How do you store and write down all of your ideas?
I would like to say I’m someone who writes things down pen to paper, but I think I may have been traumatized from an experience where I left my journal in the back of a bus on Turkish-Georgian border. (That’s why I’ve been journaling everyday for 8 years in Google Docs!)
But when it comes to video concepts, specially? The notes app is great! I store everything from 15 years of thinking in there, and then satisfyingly cross a project off when I get around to making it.
Do you believe in the theory that ideas float around until they choose a body that matches their energy to occupy?
Hmmm, is that the Buddhist approach to digital video philosophy? [laughs] I’ve never thought about that before! I think for me creativity is more about experiential inputs. What are you reading? What music do you listen to? What did you take away from a conversation? What did you watch at 3 o’clock yesterday? I believe these inputs are constantly subconsciously combining and remixing with each other to spark ideas and creation. To me, this is my best definition of creativity.
Is there a project you’ve made that best embodies this definition?
From 2011-2013 I co-founded a YouTube music group called CDZA, where we would come up with crazy musical video experiments. It was this massive collection of over 100 conservatory-trained musicians, all making one-take music medleys riffing on current and past pop culture. What we were doing covered so much ground, so many musical influences.
One experiment had us inventing a new way to earn money on the streets by turning tip jars into live juke-box style music selection. Another was taking every lyric from the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song, putting it through every language in Google Translate, then back to English, and then performing the results.
We even were Google’s unofficial house band for a lot of their events and performed at the first ever YouTube Music Awards. This was special because we existed beyond YouTube in a real-world experience, with a living breathing audience in front of us.
What technological platform do you have your eyes on right now?
Tiktok is definitely one of the most interesting things in video right now. There are so, so many clever ideas there.
What’s one big thing in technology that’s right around the corner?
They are already here, but Deep Fakes and artificial intelligence will pose some of the most significant transformations in media and storytelling. I am not sure the world fully understands the impact they will have. It’s completely wild that in the near future anyone with access to this technology will have the ability to manipulate video footage in a way that’s 100% indistinguishable from reality. I’m not sure enough people are talking about what this will do to our sense of truth and reality in the near future.
And what’s next for you?
Freak out about deepfakes! [laughs] Just kidding. I want to continue making things I’m interested in, to collaborate with people who I am fans of, and from a consulting standpoint, help others feel more confident with their creative choices.
And who knows! Maybe get into creating podcasts? Why not??