A Conversation with Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian, Authors of LA Bizarro
Back in 1997 Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian wrote and published what eventually became my favorite Los Angeles guidebook. That book’s name was (and is) LA Bizarro. A few years ago on this website I talked to Matt about the original book’s undertaking (fun interview with Matt here). Since that time the two authors have now revised, updated and significantly expanded that original tome, and their collective output was published by Chronicle Books just this fall. In the 2009 updated edition of LA Bizarro (available at the time of this writing and sitting right up there at #2 on the LA Times nonfiction bestseller list this week, no less) they talk about the new, they talk about what was, they elaborate on the “merits” of the Orange County-based Viacom/ Paramount/ Rusty Pelican Restaurants, Inc. international chain Bubba Gump Shrimp Company in sordid detail. (Write San Clemente today to find out how to open your own Bubba Gump!)
Alongside pearls of Los Angeles wisdom and hilarious anecdotes, the 1997 edition of the fabled book offered to the casual reader severe eye strain by way of its off-kilter typesetting and color palette (black-on-green, white-on-black). And, though that incomparable strained-eye feeling was perhaps a part of the appeal of the original volume due to the fact that full passages were on occasion very difficult to read – almost as if the authors didn’t really want to tell you what they were in fact telling you at the time – my aging, internet-scarred eyes are oh-so-thankful for the the cozy, old-fashioned, black-text-on-white-background legibility of the 2009 edition. I’m also thrilled because these guys clearly share our sensibilities, and vice-versa: numerous joints we’ve mentioned over the years here and there on our site also appear in this new book (Norwood Young’s House of Davids and the downtown Piñata District, to name but two); inversely, countless joints that first appeared in the original edition of LA Bizarro eventually showed up on our website a decade later, come to think of it. Guys, let it be known: You have an open invitation to blog, right here to our seven readers, any time you desire. Victor’s setting up your logins; your password is the two-word title of LA Bizarro, page 142, new edition.
Today we chat with both authors – nay, tastemakers – about the book’s recently-released revised edition and Los Angeles in general. In the below conversation, Tony’s answers follow the initials “ARL” (“A” as in Anthony, get it?) and Matt’s answers follow the initials “MM”.
Neither of you live in Los Angeles now (Simi’s close; Vermont may as well be Indonesia) and yet you felt compelled to return, research and release an updated guidebook about Los Angeles. Without repeating the intro to the new book verbatim…why is this?
MM: I’ve never really been too far from Los Angeles actually, my whole family is there. And my perspective was actually much sharper from having been away, which was a real bonus for writing the book. For years we thought L.A. Bizarro could have another life, but our first publisher—St. Martin’s Press—wasn’t interested, and after years of our repeated requests they kept saying no, and then we finally just asked for our rights back. And now we’re back on the bestseller list. Ha! That feels good! And we didn’t reprint any part of the book verbatim, we rewrote everything, and there was a lot to say about doing L.A. Bizarro in the twenty-first century which warranted a revised introduction, so we thought. And I think we were right.
ARL: You can be sure it had nothing to do with money. The truth is, there were a few compelling reasons that we returned to update the book, not the least of which was our mutual embarrassment over the first book—the writing in particular. We both cringed when we went back to read LAB 1.0, so getting another chance to clean up our acts, so to speak , was enticing. Also, we felt that L.A. had changed enough in the decade since the first book was published that it deserved a second look, as well as a mop-up on aisle four. Living in Simi is certainly not the same as living in the city, but I think the distance gives me perspective, much in the same way that Matt benefits from being in Vermont. Just taking streets from Simi to L.A. can be a journey of discovery. If I still lived in Mid-Wilshire, I would have done my best to avoid the Valley, much less Simi and beyond, and in doing so, I would have missed a lot of offbeat treasures.
Does anybody ever really, truly leave Los Angeles for good, after living here? I ask in part because, like many residents, I consider skipping town on a daily basis (usually while stuck in traffic on Fairfax, La Brea or La Cienega en route to, or from, the 10 freeway – and/or when restaurant reviewers forget to review actual food because they simply cannot resist name-checking celebrity sightings). And yet the desire to flee is inevitably tempered by the city’s many treasures which simply cannot be found elsewhere. Does anybody leave for good? What do you think brings everybody back? Discuss.
MM: People come back? I can’t speak to that, but I left because Los Angeles just wasn’t giving me what I needed anymore. But yes, it stays with me; sometimes it stays with me like the fond memories of a super fucked up ex that I had a whole lot of fun with, and sometimes it feels like a cancer that’s gone into remission.
ARL: Lots of people leave L.A. and never look back. They are called “smart people.” And you can skip town overnight like Matt or you can draw out the process so it’s excruciatingly slow and painful. That’s what I’m doing. If you follow the trajectory of my migration from downtown to North Hollywood to Chatsworth to Simi, it eventually leads out of California and, hopefully, the U.S. If there is a Canadian reading this who would like to sponsor me as a citizen, send me an email. And some poutine, too.
Let’s tackle a few of the new book entries. “Bubba Gump” is an easy enough target if you wish to discuss the absurdity of chain restaurants, and we can clearly see why you chose it (the editorial staff here prefers Applebee’s for its complete lack of cohesive theme, by contrast). Still, easy target or no, did an international chain restaurant merit five pages in a book about Los Angeles? Five pages! Defend not the entry itself, but the generous length.
MM: Because it’s great. It’s smart, insightful, and fucking hilarious. Its greatness warrants its size, much like Tony. And Tony wrote that one. I’m kind of shocked that you’d even ask, it’s one of my favorite entries in the book.
Don’t get me wrong, I have been waiting for somebody to take down the beast that is “Bubba Gump Shrimp Co.” since my first exposure to the chain roughly a decade ago in New Orleans.
ARL: Did you not notice that the entry is exactly the same length as the Bubba Gump menu?
Moving right along to the uniquely LA, then. You guys are sort of the elder Clifton’s spokespersons at this point – so much so, that the LAT went so far as to photograph the two of you there in a profile piece when the revised edition was first announced back in 2007. I know that I personally discovered the place thanks to the 1997 edition of the book. What is the absolute best table at Clifton’s, and why?
ARL: The best table at Clifton’s is not a table, but the little mini-chapel on the second floor. We like to sneak some jello in there, listen to the recorded sermon, and find salvation.
MM: I’ve got to tell you about my amazing Clifton’s discovery! I have an aunt in her eighties who lives in Newport Beach, and she’s a writer. And she recently unearthed an old manuscript none of the family ever knew about, dating from around 1950. It’s a story she wrote about my maternal grandparents. I never knew my maternal grandparents, they died before my mom was even married. They were Armenian immigrants and genocide survivors, and as it turns out, when my grandparents visited Los Angeles for the very first time in the 1940s, the first restaurant my aunt took them to was Clifton’s! Talk about culture shock: to live a life that has included machete-swinging Ottoman Turks AND Clifton’s Cafeteria! The manuscript my Aunt found was, in fact, the story she wrote about taking them there. Elder spokesperson, you bet your ass!
Your aunt is going to unearth LA Bizarro: 1957 next, or didn’t she tell you that yet.
MM: To answer your question, there is no bad table at Clifton’s. Period. And if you went there because of our book, then that proves that any publicity is good publicity. We were much kinder to Clifton’s this time around. It’s a great place. They’ve been very good to us, and very good sports too.
Did you guys actually venture inside Bar 107 downtown, or judge it strictly by the exterior? Must admit that I actually take umbrage to that hipster hellhole being in the book. You’d be far better served by (and suited for) Bar Costena less than two blocks away on South Main.
MM: I’m not much of a bar person. I prefer to drink at home, alone, like a real drunk does.
ARL: We actually did walk in to Bar 107, but it was during the day and not filled with hipsters at the time. To be honest, we liked the sign out front, so you got us on that one. But you have to admit there are a few other bars in the book, especially the Cedd Moses joints, that are equally guilty of being hipster havens. (And by the way, I don’t know who started the rumor, but it’s completely untrue that Cedd Moses opened Tony’s downtown to try to butter me up.) Interestingly, Matt and I had more than a few spirited discussions about how much we (or I) should be bagging on hipsters. I owe it to Matt for pointing out that I was beginning to sound like a crotchety, resentful old man–which at 48, is quite an achievement—and that perhaps I didn’t want to alienate our readership. Good points, but I contend that our readers are the good kind of hipsters, not the bad kind. Anyone who is truly hip knows the difference…
So in the updated edition, what is your favorite entry and why?
MM: We’d have to establish some kind of standard for what “favorite” is, because that’s too broad a question for my small mind. I think of the book as the sum of its parts, not the individual pieces so much. For me, L.A. Bizarro is our sardonic, skewed, irreverent treatise on Los Angeles, disguised as a guide book.
ARL: We always get this question…and it is always impossible to answer. If I had to pick one thing from the book, it would not even be an entry. It would be the fat family at Reagan’s grave. I wanted that shot by itself on a two-page spread because it sums up America for me in one succinct image. But unfortunately, there are few photos larger than a postage stamp in the book, which I find completely baffling.
That’s a great photo, but I admit that I’m selectively overly sensitive and can’t rightly justify exploiting a family of unwitting tourists for a cheap laugh on our site, so you don’t even get a postage stamp here. Other than the fact that digital cameras are now widespread and affordable, how was the writing process different this time than it was some 12+ years ago?
MM: The process was the same. Sorry, not a very interesting answer. And compared to 35mm film, the digital camera saved me hundreds of dollars, which I instead spent on a digital camera. However one thing that was very different this time around was that we found most of our subjects actually wanted to be in the book. The first time around, virtually no one wanted to be in a book with “Bizarro” in the title. The track record of the first edition—and its bestseller status—opened a lot of doors.
ARL: Search engines are much better than they used to be—and there is a lot more information on the web. Also, Matt and I wrote in The Imperial “We”; there were no personalized and initialed entries. I think this makes for a more seamless read. Finally, our writing sucks less than in the first book, or at least we think so.
One word: Yelp. Go.
ARL: You get what you pay for.
Talk to us about the LA Bizarro website. Is this thing going to be updated regularly (be honest), and what is the “social network” you allude to? Finally, what would Losanjealous have to do to get a mention on the press page (other than print this interview)?
MM: Consider yourself there, you know that. We are actually blogging fairly regularly, and if anyone ever told me that I’d one day be blogging, I’d have said they were a kook. But it’s kind of fun, like talking to yourself in a mirror. We also have a lot of plans for the site, but this is a sensitive subject right now. So everyone stay calm and take a big breath.
ARL: Mention you? We’re going to link to you, motherfucker. We have great plans for the site, including a kind of “Yelp from Hell” where people can share their own bizarre experiences on our “social network.” Personally, I hate that term, but didn’t know what else to call it. And the site was supposed to launch in July, but it’s still not ready and as Matt says, it is a very sore subject. I try not to think about it, but I promise it will be a cool destination very soon. Or by 2012. It has to be, because we do not want to write another L.A. Bizarro update.
When and how the hell do we think blogs became “press” in the first place, and is that a good thing or a bad thing? I didn’t go into this expecting to receive advances of books and CDs when we started blogging about concerts and tacos some four years ago…
MM: Personally I don’t consider blogs “press,” but many, like BoingBoing, take a newsy format while making the delivery of the information feel more personal, like talking to someone at a party. I think that’s good, if it’s used in a nice way. And blogs became “press” only because a whole lot of fucking people look at them. My ass could be “press” if it ran text that three million people were reading every day. I think blogs are actually more effective in many ways for getting the word out because they’re not press.
Don’t let Huffington Post hear you say that; they will shit their pants. Mayhap I should have clarified blogs as “non-MSM”. Also, who cares. Why did I ask this question?
ARL: Blog is an absolutely loathsome word. I have a shirt that says “More People Have Read This Shirt Than Your Blog,” and it’s pretty accurate. Not long ago, there were people on MySpace who used to spout their dull opinions in lengthy entries day in and day out. Who read them, other than the people they were trying to sleep with? Yelp is like that, too, with everyone racing to be the first to review something, even if it’s the fucking 7-11 around the corner. How do you review a 7-11, honestly? That’s why we included that actual Yelp review of a 7-11 in our intro. It still cracks me up.
It is damn funny; that was my first big laugh in the book.
ARL: Who the hell cares where someone buys their lottery tickets? It’s like Twitter. Do I give a shit that you had orange juice this morning or that you can’t wait for the newest stupid vampire movie to come out? And yet there we are on Twitter, tooting our own horn like a couple of snake oil salesmen on the back of a wagon. There’s something about that, and Facebook, that kind of turns my stomach, but we still do it.
The concept is so very ludicrous and yet so ridiculously topical right now. I think a lot of people have the exact same sentiments as you; speaking for myself and my fellow “non-press” blog editors here, we feel the same way. But what do you do about it? Shun Twitter, shun Facebook and risk fading into the background as a result? The “share this” widget is ubiquitous on websites now – hell, your site has it, our site has it, CNN has it – I’m actually waiting for CNN to become one of the places where I can share my posts, tweets and crappy homemade videos with copyright-infringing soundtracks, firsthand, and I don’t mean in the “iReporter” section, either. Once we get to that point I’m moving to a cave, I don’t need all this information.
ARL: And thanks to WordPress and Blogger, anyone can be a blogger. And they are. I preferred the good old days when crazy people had to walk down the street yelling at the top of their lungs to be heard. Much more of a challenge reaching the masses that way. Blogging, Facebook, Twitter—it’s all masturbation in one form or another, including what I just wrote.
(Who started this topic again?) Though I’m inclined to agree with you on the FB and Twitter fronts, I don’t entirely agree with that blanket statement, being a blog editor and avid blog reader. I’ve witnessed countless non-masturbatory events and truths on all three of those mediums – particularly blogs – time and again, and you probably have as well. Still, I do know that I get incredibly embarrassed for CNN when one of their top 10 headlines points to a story that ends up telling me Nicole Richie recently tweeted that she has a cold. Hey, CNN dicks: I don’t follow Nicole Richie on twitter for a reason, figure it out. Fuck that noise; I would actually prefer no headline. Makes your blood boil if you think about it too much.
On that note, here’s hoping you guys plaster our official blog website URL (http://www.losanjealous.com) all over your Twitter feeds and Facebook walls this evening. Back to the book: Do you see yourselves updating LA Bizarro again in five years? Ten? More/less? Will we even have books five years from now?
MM: We won’t do print again. Not like this anyway. That’s why we want to develop the site into a living, breathing, L.A. Bizarro that’s never static. And we’re also talking to TV. Not to our screens, I mean to a real genuine Hollywood producer who knows his shit.
LA Bizarro television? That could be fun. Maybe you could even team up with Huell at some point down the line: guy has an uncanny knack for making the non-bizarre bizarre.
ARL: Frankly, I will put in a gun in my mouth if we are doing this again in five years. That said, books are not going anywhere. Ever. I love books. I have absolutely no desire to read anything on a fucking Kindle (unless Amazon sends me a free one). I love paper, the physicality of a book, the personality of a magazine, the permanence of ink on paper. Just as photography didn’t kill painting—like they thought it would—and TV didn’t kill movies, digital media will never completely replace printed or analog material. On the contrary, it will better define what those mediums can best offer. Look, Polaroids are coming back, baby, and that says something. Digital media is convenient, but it lacks the intimacy and warmth of celluloid, paper, and vinyl. That will never change.
Well said. We’re nearly finished, so what one thing should everybody know about this book at this time, that you haven’t told anybody else?
MM: I sleep with it under my pillow. And sometimes rub it against me in private.
ARL: The book is gay. There, we said it.
Can you give us an exclusive outtake that didn’t make the book, right here, right now, replete with photo? We can’t pay you a god-damned thing, but we had to ask.
MM: For better or worse, everything made the book! Sort of like the Native American, leaving no waste, using every part of the buffalo. It was only supposed to be something like 218 pages long, and it’s 368. Out editor kept adding pages, because he didn’t want to cut anything. That’s why the paper is so cheap. Chronicle wanted to add all the extra pages without increasing the price, so they downgraded the paper. I don’t think it’s made much of a difference to anyone though. The paper, I mean.
ARL: 99.9% of what we wrote made it into the new edition, and that’s saying a lot because we wrote way too much. That’s why the book turned out to be twice as long as it was supposed to be. Even so, there were a couple of places that didn’t make it into the book. One of my favorite entries in the first book was the compendium of deaths at Disneyland, but that was shitcanned for the new edition, along with a great new entry on girls who flash their tits for the snapshot at the end of the Splash Mountain ride. We even had the photos, but apparently the publisher was doing some kind of project with Disney and didn’t want to rock the boat. And yet the Scientology entries slid right through, which is kind of odd when you think about it.
The completely revised and updated 2009 edition of LA Bizarro: The All-New Insider’s Guide To The Obscure, The Absurd, and The Perverse in Los Angeles by Anthony Lovett and Matt Maranian is now available at Amazon and fine booksellers all over the Southland, just in time for the holidays.
» LA Bizarro (official site)