In November 1995, The Communic8r, a Toronto rave-culture magazine, ran a full-page submissions call from an underground student newspaper known as Punch.
“We like it raw, and we like it good, so don’t worry about being extreme, just worry about the quality,” read the message from Jesse Brown, the editor-in-chief of Punch, who was starting his final year at Northern Secondary.
At the top of the page, a pair of pejoratives attributed to Northern’s principal — “Obscene. Destructive” — were wielded by the paper as a badge of honour.
If you’ve ever scrolled down on the About page for Canadaland, which Brown founded in 2013, you’ll have seen that it’s littered with similar quotations, like “Haters… the malevolent” (attributed to Amanda Lang) and “Libelous bilge” (to Conrad Black).
So how much has changed in Brown’s approach — to media and to life — in the last 27 years?
Jonathan Torrens first met Brown in 1996, when the latter appeared on Jonovision, Torrens’s quasi-eponymous CBC talk show for young people, to discuss his time publishing Punch.
They met again in 2019 when Torrens appeared on the CANADALAND podcast. Beginning as an overview of Torrens’s career — from featuring on Street Cents and Trailer Park Boys to becoming Brown’s favourite punching bag on Twitter — that episode turned into a consideration of two very different ways of being in the world, with Torrens puzzled by Brown’s unflagging cynicism, and Brown equally vexed by Torrens’s relentless good nature.
On this week’s CANADALAND, they continue that conversation but also invert it — with Torrens stepping in as host, to ask the questions about what it is that makes Jesse Brown tick:
The following is an edited and condensed version of the interview.
Only if I can interview him.
— Jonathan Torrens (@TorrensJonathan) April 29, 2022
— Jesse Brown (@JesseBrown) April 29, 2022
Jonathan Torrens: Dozens of Canadians insisted that we revisit this conversation. And I thought it would be fun to turn the tables and have a chance to get to know Jesse Brown a little bit. When this possibility came up, how did you feel about it?
Jesse Brown: My hesitation is I don’t know that anybody cares. Maybe you’re asking, like, am I nervous about it? I don’t know. No.
Torrens: Asking the questions is kind of a default for me, just in life. I ask them to get out of social situations, I ask them to deflect from myself. So I’m trying to find common ground. Do you, too, experience cringiness at the thought of people listening to you blather on?
Brown: I subject many people to my blather in professional and personal situations, so I think I’d just be too aware of the collective eyeroll of many who know me if I were to say, “Yes, I can’t stand to make somebody listen to me talk for a very long period of time.”
Torrens: And yet when Amy Dempsey wrote an article about me and whether I was okay during the pandemic because I seemed unreasonably chipper, you were the one counterpoint who represented the eyerollers of Canada. Why is it you think people would roll their eyes at you?
many words about whimsical manchild @TorrensJonathan plus some photos from an ED pamphlet https://t.co/J2DH9KD56O
— Jesse Brown (@JesseBrown) April 22, 2021
Brown: I think of the podcast-listening experience — for everything else we try to do, like, “This is a very important show about current affairs” — it’s just people deciding who they want to spend time with. You’re just deciding which of the hosts of all the different podcasts you want to hang out with. And as a listener myself, I know that you reach a saturation point where it’s like, “I’ve hung out with Marc Maron enough,” you know? Like, “It’s been great, but I know what he’s gonna say. I’ve heard it all. Let me find somebody else to hang out with.” And I wonder about my best-before date.
Torrens: I have a podcast, we’re approaching 300 hours, and I’ve started calculating the number of anecdotes I preface with “You and I have talked about this before…” Like, at what point do you say, “That’s enough of me”?
Brown: Like, you want a date? Or a number of episodes?
Torrens: It sounds like this is something that’s been reverberating around in your head as well.
Jesse: This is actually what you asked me about when you tried to turn the tables on me in our last conversation. I think you were questioning me about my ornery disposition and whether or not I’ll run out of orneriness and not be able to do anything else. I don’t know if it’s orneriness, but I do feel like we’ve been trying to make Canadaland less about me. And on the Monday show, what’s interesting about it for me is all the different people and all the different stories that we’re now featuring. But yeah…
Torrens: So that’s the option, Jesse, have more people who are less ornery, rather than you just simply being less ornery?
Jesse: No, I’m looking for people who are ornery in different ways. Like, my favourite people are very ornery.
Torrens: Tom Green, when he was comin’ up, would be doing streeters with human feces on a microphone, and then he would have a dead raccoon in a suitcase. Every time he did something, he had to ratchet up the audaciousness, and I know for a fact that put a lot of internal pressure on him. And I wonder if the anger-balls of the world feel that same kind of pressure to be even angrier?
Brown: What could I possibly have to be angry about? I mean, things have gone pretty okay for me. But I guess all journalism is “This is wrong, and here’s what it’s all about.” That should be informed by a certain amount of anger. But it’s not like we sit around asking, “How can we get it angrier?” There is an element in criticism of, like, if I’m gonna take issue with something, I gotta mean it.
Torrens: Is that what gives you oxygen?
Brown: If I actually am pissed off about something, I’ll have a lot to say about it. It’s an interesting challenge, because the things that I get pissed off at are pretty esoteric and niche. So, speaking to a general audience of smart people who might not give a damn about the thing I’m angry about, it’s kind of like, “How can I convey my irritation in a way that will get other people angry about this?” That can give me some juice, yeah. But there’s nothing like a good story.
Torrens: What makes you angry?
Brown: Oh, man. I mean, I think that the project of the show and the company in a way is to try to take this place that we’re living in seriously and not just consider ourselves bystanders to news and history, like “Oh, we’re in the nice place off to the side of the big, bad place.” The kind of operating principle is “Look at your own home, and regard it for real.” The thing that’s frustrating is we live in such a low-engagement society, whether it’s the voting levels in Ontario or just trying to get people to take themselves and our policies seriously. And how much powerful people get away with, just out of apathy. If you look right at it, it’s endlessly frustrating.
Torrens: When you were on Jonovision at 18 years old, you were talking about the student newspaper, Punch, of which you were the editor. You once proudly published a quote from your principal that called Punch “obscene” and “destructive.” So the seeds were there early on for this to be your path in life. Most teenagers aren’t as engaged or as worked up. Why were you?
Brown: It’s a good question. I had a pretty privileged upbringing, nothing really to be angry about in any kind of concrete way. I think there’s something that happens — not to every adolescent, but it kind of should happen — where the world is sort of revealed to you and you realize that it’s much more stupid and mean than you were educated to believe growing up. And this is where a lot of angry music and bad haircuts come from. And a lot of that, I think, with age, it’s a good idea to find context and to kind of forgive the world some of its hypocrisies and to understand the compromises that created the way things are. But there’s a piece of that that’s worth hanging on to that I think some people let slide.
Torrens: The media has shifted since those Punch days — but your tone hasn’t really. Last time I was on, I said I was worried that you’d cynic’d yourself into a corner and what was the long play? Is it hard to remain cynical? Where do you find the stamina for that?
Brown: It’s so easy. It’s terribly easy. Look, we’re both parents, and I think you can’t be cynical and be a parent. But if anything, that just makes you more invested in, I don’t know, wanting things to be better.
Torrens: Well, I would argue as a parent, one thing that changed in my life is I want things to be simpler. I want to be around more. I feel like time is my wealth, and the more of it I have, the better I feel. So I can only imagine: if you’re angry in your life and work, isn’t that exhausting?
“That word has become so popular these days, to be ’empathetic’… It doesn’t really accomplish anything, that you feel someone else’s pain or joy”
Brown: Yes. It is. But I know no other way. Anger is a very personal thing, and I think that some stuff gets implanted in you very early and, yeah, there’s parts of it where you kind of have to maybe put away childish things and try to be at peace. But then there’s also, I don’t know, like, what’s your juice, what’s your fuel? To try to keep this company going every day, it’s like, I once heard a film producer talk about, like, what is producing? And it’s like everything wants to collapse always — the natural state of any endeavour is for it to fall apart and just not function. And we do function, and we put these things out on time, and some of them are really, really good. Every day is like, “All right, let’s get behind that boulder and just, like, it might like roll downhill and roll over my feet today, or I might get it another inch closer to wherever it is we’re going.” I don’t really think about getting it to the top. I don’t really think about selling the company or retiring. It’s this thing of, like, I guess I’m just gonna do this forever. So I don’t know how you can be cynical and wake up and do that every day.
Torrens: Do you think the Jesse Brown that people perceive is close to who you really are? Like, I remember Wayne Gretzky saying there’s “Wayne Gretzky” and that’s the enterprise, and then at home there’s “Wayne” and it’s a very different thing. And that’s how he compartmentalizes. Do you think “Jesse Brown” is a good representation of you?
Brown: Yeaahh, to an extent. You don’t get everything, and you don’t want everything. And it’s important for me and for people in my life that it’s not everything. So you kind of have to decide what to hold back. But I live in fear of constructing something that’s false and then having to maintain it. It’s not about any kind of integrity; that just seems like a lot of work. When podcasting was new, part of the excitement of it for me was like, “I’ve given up my dreams of being an artist, but I wonder if a podcast can be a medium to express, like, a lot of myself?” Overall, a lot of me has gotten on to this RSS feed.
Torrens: In an interview with Sarah Berman on this show last year, you alluded to “deep-seated personality flaws” that have cost you “friends, sleep, and wellbeing.” But you also conceded that you “might be a lot poorer if [you were] a better person.” What did you mean by that?
Brown: I don’t remember the context. Like, it’s hard for me to sort through my deep-seated personality flaws and recall which one I was referring to. I mean, that would seem like a funny thing to say at the time. But it does feel like it’s better for me as a media critic and as an interviewer if I don’t care about what people think of me. You know, it was always a latent part of my personality that my friends saw that I could be kind of nasty or cutting, and it was definitely freeing when I could just say what I felt, you know. It was fun.
Torrens: When you say you’ve lost friends and sleep, is that true? Does that weigh on you?
Brown: Yeah, for sure. There have been occasions where I have felt like, if I’m worth anything as a critic or as somebody who’s trying to tell the truth, I can’t just criticize people I don’t know or don’t like. Sometimes I felt like, “It’s necessary here for me to say something critical about somebody who I am friends with or work with” or something like that. And that has led to conflict and hurt feelings and broken relationships. And I’ve definitely, in cases, wondered, “Was this noble or honest, or was it a performance of honesty and uncompromising truth and I sacrificed a friendship to perform that?”
“Peace of mind would be nice, but what’s the value proposition of contentedness?”
Torrens: When the pandemic started, you published Isolation Interviews on this show. In one of them, you mentioned you have a hard time with empathy.
Brown: I think that I have, like, decent EQ. I think I’m literate and aware of people’s emotions, and I care about how people feel. But I don’t think I feel what people feel. I think that maybe I’ve made an asset in this job out of being willing to let things be really uncomfortable. A lot of what I’ve tried to do professionally is purpose the things that are maybe not great about my personality towards a positive outcome, or towards a service that I could provide. But if you’re asking me, like, “Do you not feel empathy?” The nerves aren’t dead. And certainly, you know, family and parenthood, that brings things right to the surface. But that word has become so popular these days, to be “empathetic” — but like, let’s be moral. How about that? Let’s actually make decisions that take people’s feelings into consideration. There’s no prize for feeling bad on behalf of somebody else. It doesn’t really accomplish anything, that you feel someone else’s pain or joy or whatever they feel. It’s become its own kind of bullshit.
Torrens: How much of the noise appeals to you? Do you go to the Giller Awards and the dinners and things you have to show up at? Do you like all that?
Brown: Man, I go to things like journalism galas pretty much any time I’m invited. I love walking into the room and just feeling like, “Oh, there’s so much hate and there’s so much enmity towards me.” And then people are lovely and say nice things like “Oh, it’s great to see Canadaland doing so well.”
Torrens: When I was on the show last time, you asked me what “Canadianity” is, which is the word that Jeremy Taggart and I use on our podcast, Taggart and Torrens.
Brown: It’s the word that you made up, yeah.
Torrens: So you made up a word, too: “Canadaland.” What does that mean?
Brown: There’s a wonderful sense of place in a lot of American storytelling and journalism, where, like, “New York” and “California” have a certain meaning. You can sing songs about these places, and they have this deep resonance. And we just can’t do that here. You can’t be like, “Yeah, that’s Winnipeg hard.” We just don’t take ourselves seriously to an extent that that becomes possible. Anyhow, I’ve heard people talk about Chicagoland in this way that always felt really lurid and interesting and engaging to me, and is suggestive of this deep, sprawling corruption and, you know, “Forget it — it’s Chicagoland.” I probably heard a couple of people in Internet speak be like, (in a chipper voice) “I’m from Canadaland.” I felt like there was a way to use that term and point it towards some kind of an indictment or give it some grit, give it some tension.
Torrens: So does it have an eyeroll baked into it?
Brown: The idea is to get away from an eyeroll. Your project is like, “What does it mean to be Canadian-ish? Let’s try to figure that out.” And I’m trying to suggest something like “Canadaland — let’s put it under a fuckin’ microscope.”
Torrens: Is it what you meant? The business, the enterprise, the word?
Brown: No. It’s so much more than I intended or could have made it to be. My greatest dream when I started this, which I thought was really unrealistic, was like, “I wonder if this could be my job and not just my podcast?” And then, as a reach goal — when you’re doing crowdfunding, you’re supposed to have a reach goal, some grand, global vision to shoot for — I said, “All right, we’ll become a podcast network if we reach $10,000 in crowdfunding.” Thinking, “As if that’ll ever happen.” And then it did. And then I had to make it. And then I had to find people to make it with. And it’s been really difficult and bumpy, but we’re doing it. But just when I feel like it has a life of its own, it seems like something happens where I’m like, “Oh shit.” And then I’ve got to scramble to keep it going. And so, yeah, that’s kind of how I’m livin’.
Torrens: Here’s my last question: Are you happy?
Brown: Mostly not. You know? I mean, there’s… Mostly not.
Torrens: Mostly not.
Brown: Mostly not. But who the fuck cares? Like, is that the goal? There are moments of intense joy. There’s moments of pride. There’s moments of accomplishment. I really like food. There’s pleasure. You know, I feel contented, I feel fortunate and blessed. There’s a lot of positive stuff that if I were in your weird Eat, Pray, Love corner of public communication, I could have various aphorisms and encouragements. But who needs to hear that shit? Like, it’s not useful. Peace of mind would be nice, but what’s the value proposition of contentedness, you know? Who does that help? There’s lots of pleasure and joy in my private life, but like, no, I walk around unsettled all the time. All the time. And I’m not necessarily trying to correct that.
Torrens: Did you say “I’m not necessarily trying to correct it”?
Brown: Yeah, I’m not necessarily trying to feel otherwise.
Top photo of Jesse Brown on Centreville’s log flume ride by Tristan Capacchione.