Aaron Karo has made his mark on today's college-age kids by writing a column he started on a whim. Dashing off his freshman year thoughts to a group of 20 friends via email, his Ruminations newsletters quickly became more and more popular, now reaching 40,000 readers via email and Karo's website. The column features his often short, stream-of-consciousness thoughts on everything from roommates to dating to a topic near and dear to his heart-drinking, which is featured prominently throughout both collections of his work, Ruminations on College Life and his latest, Ruminations on Twentysomething Life. Since graduating from The University of Pennsylvania, Karo has spent his time in New York, trying his hand at Wall Street before leaving that tucked-in-shirt world for the comforts of working from home, as a writer and comedian, appearing at various comedy clubs and on VH1's I Love the 90's, as well as signing a deal with Twentieth Century Fox for his own sitcom, The Whatever Years. The self-proclaimed "recovering frat boy" seems to have almost turned over a new leaf, even tearing up slightly at his book party when thanking his friends, girlfriend and mom. Aw. But lest you think Karo's gone soft on you, read on for his take on fans, friends, and women in wife-beaters.
How exactly did the first Ruminations get started?
It all started in September 1997 when I was a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania. I had trouble sleeping on Sunday nights after a weekend of partying. One sleepless Sunday night, I got out of bed, sat down at my desk, and sent an email filled with my funny thoughts and observations to twenty of my high school buddies. My friends got a kick out of it and I continued to have trouble sleeping, so I kept writing. Eight years and two books later, my email column now has over 40,000 subscribers around the world.
Did you ever expect to get up to 40,000 subscribers? What do you attribute your success to and where did the bulk of those 40,000 come from?
I think it’s safe to say I didn’t expect all this to happen. I attribute the universality of my observations and anecdotes to my success. When I began writing about being a frat boy at Penn, I never realized that college students across the country were going through very similar experiences, even if they went to completely different schools in completely different parts of the country with completely different cultures. But it turns out, the college experience is pretty universal and, somewhat by accident, I happened to capitalize on that universality by making fun of it. As far as where the 40,000 came from, well, you can trace them all back to twenty friends from Plainview, New York. At this point, though, my subscribers are people of all ages from around the world. I have a burgeoning following in Pakistan even. It’s pretty ridiculous.
What kind of feedback do you get from your readers? Do they argue with you?
The best part of my "job" is reading my email. The feedback never stops and it’s instantaneous. You know what it’s like to have 1,000 people correcting your grammar? I do. But it’s all in good fun. My readers share with me very personal stories, even though many have never even met me in person. I’ve had readers tell me my columns helped them recover from and deal with abortions, attempted suicide, and being stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan. A reader wrote her MBA application essay about how I had inspired her. Another thanked me in her graduation speech for helping getting her through college. Two fans met at one of my appearances and recently got married. I wrote a joke in my column about how I’m constantly dropping my Chapstick. Within 48 hours, a whole carton of Chapstick arrived at my door from one of my fans who happened to work for them. Now that’s feedback.
You balance being a stand-up comedian with your writing. What’s the main difference about being funny on stage versus being funny on paper?
It’s subtle. I think you can afford to be a little drier on paper. On stage you really need to clobber the audience with a punch line. Only a small percentage of my stand-up act is taken from my column.
A lot of your ruminations are about getting laid, meeting chicks and generally living the single life. You now have a girlfriend; how has being in a relationship changed you and what you write about?
Having a girlfriend means it’s now a requirement to have tissues around the house for the occasional crying and sexual clean-up. As far as changing what I write about, this may seem strange, but I don’t really think about it that way. I write about whatever is going on in my life at the moment. I used to write only about college, then I wrote about working in an office, which I had never done before. Before I was single; now I have a girlfriend, so I write about that. The more change, the more material, the better.
Before dating your current girlfriend, what were your best methods of picking up girls? Did you meet women through doing comedy?
I didn’t really have a “method” and I doubt many guys actually do. I don’t care what anyone says, if you’re twentysomething in New York, the best place to pick up chicks is a bar. I’ve never really heard a true story of someone picking a girl up at church or Pick-a-Bagel or anything like that. The best way to meet girls is through your friends and their friends and so on. Most random hook-ups are with your friend’s camp friend’s cousin, you know? It’s not really all that random. And of course the alcohol helps. A lot. Oh, and yes, being on the road, headlining and doing a killer set very, very much helps with the meeting of girls.
Similarly, is there anything or anyone you consider off limits or wouldn’t write about, or does anything go? Do you ever write something, then decide not to include it?
I think I mentally filter out anything that would really offend a friend or family member, or get me arrested, before my fingers hit the keys to write. But I usually don’t delete anything once it’s written.
You touch on being asked to go back to your high school and speak to students, and I imagine that lots of students write to you for advice and perhaps look to you as an older, wiser big brother type. How do you deal with their questions?
I actually spoke to the graduating seniors of my high school last week. It was awesome! I really felt honored to be invited back to do something like that. But I do get a ton of questions from those younger than me, especially high school kids terrified of going to college or college kids terrified of graduating. And, just like I did at my high school, I always speak the truth, even if it’s not politically correct. If you don’t tell them what to expect and what’s really gonna go down, you’re actually doing them a disservice, in my opinion.
You’re about to start an "anti-advice" column for Penthouse called The Recovering Frat Boy. What kind of "anti-advice" will you dispense, and how recovered of a frat boy are you?
Yes! My new column premieres in the October 2005 issue. I’m pretty excited because the last time I wrote an advice column, it was for Seventeen Magazine. So this one will be a little more my style. I’m going to take questions about booze, chicks, sex, taxes, and baseball, give a few pointers, and then probably ramble off in a direction of my choosing. I think the difference between being a frat boy and a "recovering" frat boy is the fact that I’m not under the illusion that I’m still in college. I’m never gonna be a student again, nor do I want to. But that doesn’t mean I can’t party hard and chase tail in New York—which is what a recovering frat boy does.
Speaking of being a frat boy, your first book was dedicated to your frat brothers, and many of them are still part of your social circle. Are frat brothers and sorority sisters the bulk of your audience? The stories you describe seem to be from a very particular culture, that bar-hopping, partying, early-20's scene. Do you have to be part of that scene to appreciate your humor?
Well, I write about the "bar-hopping, partying, early-20’s scene" because that’s the scene I belong to. I’m certainly not going to write about the skeet-shooting, yodeling, late-40’s scene am I? The fact is, twentysomethings everywhere, across the country and around the world, enjoy going out with friends, having a few drinks, and attempting to get laid. The culture varies but the core experience remains the same. That’s why my audience varies from eighth graders in Connecticut (seriously) to grandmothers in Tempe (again, seriously). Most people are gonna go through what I’m currently going through at some point in their lives and are curious about it or they’ve have already gone through it and are reminiscent. And then there are the current and former frat boys and girls who do make up a good portion of my audience. But as much as I’d like to think of my entire readership as blonde sorority nymphs at San Diego State… that’s probably not the case.
Have any of your friends or people you’ve written about complained to you about their portrayal, and how do you deal with that? Do your friends want to be included in your columns or do they ask to be off the record?
My friends (and any other acquaintances that happen to be mentioned along the way) look at being mentioned in my column as a badge of honor. People want to be in it. I once joked about how my friend Jud got robbed his very first week living in New York. People were coming up to him like, "Yo dude, that’s so awesome you got mentioned in Karo’s column!" He was like, "Uh . . . I got robbed, remember!?" Some of my more frequently mentioned friends, i.e. my friends the Triplets and my former roommate Brian, have even become quasi-celebrities in their own right.
You continue to send your newsletter out via email rather than start a blog or post them on your website; how come?
I started writing my email column in 1997, before blogs became super popular, so that’s probably a major reason. I’ve kind of gotten used to my way of doing it. I think another reason is that I enjoy writing my column and blasting it out to my readers on my terms, rather than passively waiting for them to come to AaronKaro.com (which they do to read back issues and get stand-up dates anyway). So I’m definitely an "email columnist," not a blogger. Oh, and just to be clear, I do post my columns on my web site as soon as I blast them out via email.
You’ve been in New York since graduating from college; how does your New York life differ from your college life, and how is it similar? Is it easier to find material here to write about?
My rent has gone up about 400%, but besides that, not much else has changed! Graduating was definitely a boon to my material, though. There’s only so much you can write in four years that’s specifically about college.
Do you plan on writing Ruminations indefinitely? Can you see yourself at 40 writing it?
Right now I have no plans on stopping. Thirtysomething Life, Mid-Life, Geriatric Life, After-Life, they’re all fair game.
Do you have a schedule for when you write the column? What is your writing process like—do you jot down notes and ideas as you go, or do you write the column all at once?
Back in college, I would jot down notes and ideas on random pieces of paper or bar napkins and then cobble them together on Sunday nights when I wrote the column. Soon I start logging all my ideas together on pieces of notebook paper in a big folder. That way, if I didn’t use a joke on the first go-around, I still had it. After graduation, to keep in step with the growth of the column, I got more technologically advanced. I started using a voice recorder when I thought of an idea. I also began logging all of my ideas in a giant Excel file (that way I wouldn’t lose some of those Wall Street spreadsheet skills!). To date I have 3,831 ideas/jokes organized by topic and date. These days I don’t even use the voice recorder because I got a cell phone with a voice memo built right in. So if I think of something, I just speak it into the phone and I got it. I also tend to write the columns a few days in advance these days, just because there’s a lot of work to be done as far as updating AaronKaro.com and utilizing the software I have to manage a mailing list so big. So now I write the column all at once, using jokes from my Excel file, then send it out to a small, rotating group of proofreaders consisting of my sister, my mom, my friend Kim, and my editor Sara from Simon & Schuster. Once I get the edits back, I go through the column again and send it out . . . and then wait for the emails to pour in.
Do you ever sit down to write and not have anything to say, and if so, how do you combat writer’s block?
Not really. With 3,831 ideas to choose from, it’s hard to have writer’s block.
My Blog is Poop runs a feature sometimes called "Guess the Karo" mocking your column and having readers guess which answers were really from your column and which the blog’s author made up. How do you feel about this and how have you or would you respond?
God bless the Internet!
Along the same lines, what’s the worst comment or response to your column you’ve ever received? And the best?
Interestingly, the amount of positive comments I receive has steadily increased while the amount of negative feedback has drastically dropped. I don’t know if that’s a result of being more established, or perhaps I’ve just become a better writer? I’ll never forget my sophomore year in college, when was I just starting out, I got this scathing email from a student in the Midwest who wrote to tell me that I was an "Ivey League asshole" who didn’t know how to party and how "Ivey League sports suck" and how I don’t know shit about anything. And I remember thinking, wow, I wonder how many times he’s gonna spell "Ivy" wrong? My favorite response was probably when I started receiving all this email from the same domain in Austria. Eventually, I asked one of the people who emailed me what was up. It turns out they were English students at a college in Austria and their teacher had assigned my column as required reading, you know, so they could learn American slang? So somewhere in Austria there are a bunch of kids running around going, "Yo dude, what’s up? Let’s get wasted!!"
You worked on Wall Street for a little over a year, and I gather that you hated it, yet you must have a lot of peers who do work on Wall Street. Do you have any tips for surviving dreary office jobs?
It wasn’t so much that I hated it, but more that I hate tucking in my shirt, waking up early, and shaving…so Wall Street probably wasn’t going to work out anyway. I do get a lot of emails from people my age who feel "trapped" in their cubicles but who have a passion for writing, or dancing, or hot-air ballooning or something like that but they are just too hesitant to pursue their passions. I totally feel their pain. I try to do my best to convince them to experiment—write or perform on the side when you aren’t working, that way you don’t have to risk anything to see if that passion could be a career. Of course, graduating from the Wharton School at Penn, many of my friends are hard-core Wall Street and absolutely love it. For them, I guess there’s no hope.
How much of your real self goes into your columns and how much of the public figure "Aaron Karo" is a persona you’ve created? Has the increasing popularity of your column made you feel you have something to "live up to" or has the act of writing the column remained the same?
Let’s see if I can explain this . . . I actually think it’s the opposite of what you’re suggesting. To a point, the column is actually more "me" than the "regular me." Because I use my column and my stand-up as a conduit for some of the thoughts that I would never share out loud under normal circumstances. So in a way, what you’re reading is actually 100% pure, unadulterated, Grade-A Karo.
Since underneath the humor, there is a tone of imparting advice, especially to those younger than you, in your column, what are your top three New York City summer survival tips?
1) Never order a beer that comes with a slice of lemon.
2) Don’t bang your hot intern until the last week of NYU summer housing.
3) Guys in wife-beaters: hell no. Girls in wife-beaters: thank you God.
Aaron Karo will be appearing at the New York Improv on Thursday, July 21st. Visit AaronKaro.com for details and to read his RUMINATIONS column. Ruminations on College Life and Ruminations on Twentysomething Life are available now.