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Sun November 11, 2012
Author Interviews

The Adventures Of An Investigative Satirist

Originally published on Sun November 11, 2012 4:39 pm

Daily Show host Jon Stewart recently called writer Jon Ronson an investigative satirist. As Ronson himself puts it: "I go off and I have unfolding adventures with people in shadowy places. I guess I tell funny stories about serious things."

Ronson has collected many of these stories in his new book, Lost at Sea. He talks to Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, about the characters and places he has encountered along the way.


Interview Highlights

On meeting the rap duo Insane Clown Posse

"It turns out that after 20 years of these incredibly violent songs, they announced that all this time they had secretly been Evangelical Christians embedding messages about their love of God deeply into the lyrics of their songs — I'd say very deeply."

"I think they hate the fact that their expression of their souls is something that is just mocked and ridiculed by so many people who come into contact with them. It's like they're trapped being them. And they thought [their song] 'Miracles' would bring them out of it. [They] said to me at one point, 'If Alanis Morissette had written this song, everyone would have said it was genius.'"

On shadowing a vigilante superhero and facing drug dealers

"He's kind of obsessed with fighting crimes, but quite often there's no crime to fight, so he gets more and more frustrated. I was with him, his name is Phoenix Jones, and I was with him on patrol for a few nights. And he was so frustrated that he couldn't find any crime to thwart that he decided to confront — with me not realizing what his plan was — to confront a gang of armed crack dealers. Just me and Phoenix. And Phoenix had a bullet-proof super-suit on, and a mask. I had nothing, I had, like, a T-shirt. And we approached these crack dealers and they were aghast. They were like, 'What are you doing? Coming to our block in your stupid costume?' They said, 'This is not fun and games to us, this is how we feed our family. How we feed our family is not how you feed your family. If you don't go, we'll kill you.' So I found myself nodding in agreement to everything the crack dealers were saying, in the hope that they would shoot around me, which was kind of my aim at the time.

"I've never been so frightened in my life. I've been in some dangerous scrapes, but this was the most frightening. And they got to us, and one of them said, 'We really should kill you. We should kill you, but if you're stupid enough to die for this, I guess we're just going to have to go home.' And they did, they dispersed, they all went home. So Phoenix won."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Jon Stewart recently called the writer Jon Ronson an investigative satirist, or as Ronson puts it himself...

JON RONSON: I go off and have unfolding adventures with people in shadowy places. I guess I tell the funny stories about serious things.

RAZ: Jon Ronson has collected many of those stories in his new book. It's called "Lost At Sea: The Jon Ronson Mysteries." And he starts the book off with a visit to Detroit where he came upon the rap duo Insane Clown Posse.

RONSON: They're a very violent rap group from Detroit, extremely violent, very misogynistic and all about shooting people, shooting women in the head. And they've been doing this for about 20 years. And it turned out that after 20 years of these incredibly violent songs, they announced that all this time they had secretly been Evangelical Christians embedding messages about their love of God deeply into the lyrics. I say very, very deeply into the lyrics of their songs because nobody noticed.

RAZ: These - this duo, they wear clown makeup, and that's why they're known as the Insane Clown Posse.

RONSON: Yeah. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope. And their fans are called juggalos.

RAZ: Juggalos. OK. And so you fly to Detroit to find out what this is all about. And what did you find?

RONSON: Well, I mean, they were very sweet. They came out after they announced that they were Evangelical Christians all the time. They brought out a song called "Miracles," which was their list of God's miracles that just moved them every day, just a list of things we see on the street which are evidence of God's miracles.

Unfortunately, they thought this song - they said to me, you know, when we put this song out, we thought everybody would be going: I never knew that Insane Clown Posse could be so deep. But instead, they were just mocked and humiliated all over the Internet.

And they hate - I think they hate the fact that their expression of their souls is something that's just ridiculed by so many people who come into contact with them. So they said - it's like they're trapped being them. And they thought "Miracles" would bring them out of it. He said to me at one point, you know, if Alanis Morissette had written this song, everybody would have said it was genius.

But I did really feel for them because, yeah, they're medicated, they've got anxiety. Everywhere they go, they're mocked. They're on the outside. And, you know, as we know, there's nothing worse in the world than being the recipient of mass humiliation.

RAZ: I want to ask you about one more story in this book, and it's the story of Stanley Kubrick.

RONSON: Mm-hmm.

RAZ: Because you were contacted by a - an associate of Stanley Kubrick when he was still alive.

RONSON: Yeah.

RAZ: Clearly, he was interested in a documentary that you made, and you never found out why.

RONSON: Yeah. I made a documentary. It was pretty much the first documentary I ever made. It was for BBC radio called "Hotel Auschwitz," and it was about the marketing of Auschwitz. And shortly after it aired, I got a call out of the blue from a posh-sounding man saying: My employer would like a copy of your documentary.

And I said: Who's your employer? And he said: I'm afraid I can't tell you. And I said: Oh, go on. And he said: OK. It's Stanley Kubrick. And obviously, I got, you know, excited. I sent the tape off, and I waited for something to happen. And nothing happened.

And a couple of years later, Stanley Kubrick died. And then the person called again, and he said: Do you want to come up to the house to get lunch? So I went up there and it looked like - it was this giant mansion, and it looked like the Inland Revenue had taken over years ago. It was just...

RAZ: The IRS, basically, of Britain.

RONSON: Yeah, the - yeah. It was just kind of full of boxes.

RAZ: And papers.

RONSON: Yeah. And photocopiers and fax machines. And nothing fancy. Just boxes and boxes and boxes, over 1,000 boxes. So I ended up spending years, in the end, actually, going back and forward to the Kubrick house looking through every single box.

RAZ: At a certain point, his assistant says: Come check out the library.

RONSON: Yes.

RAZ: And it's this beautiful library. From a distance, you see just amazing, thousands of books. And then you get closer...

RONSON: And every book was about Napoleon.

RAZ: Every single book was about Napoleon.

RONSON: Yeah. And I said I feel like Shelly Duvall in "The Shining," you know, finding the "all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" over and over again. And it was because they spent years in the late '60s researching everything about Napoleon. Not just every book that had ever been written, which were all in this library, but they also had little cards.

And you could turn to any date in Napoleon's life and written on the card would be what Napoleon and what Josephine and what some of the other key players in Napoleon's life were doing that day.

RAZ: He actually devoted decades of his life to learning every detail about Napoleon, presumably because he was going to make a film about him?

RONSON: He was going to make a film. But because of this process, this pre-production process, it took him so long that a film called "Waterloo" was written, pre-produced, produced and released, I think starring Rod Steiger as Napoleon. And it was a flop. And so Kubrick abandoned his Napoleon film.

RAZ: I'm speaking with Jon Ronson. He's been described as an investigative satirist, and his new collection of essays is called "Lost at Sea." Jon, sometimes you actually put yourself in dangerous situations.

RONSON: Yeah.

RAZ: I mean, for example, you hung out with a guy who dresses up as a superhero in sort of attempts to thwart crimes.

RONSON: Yeah. He's kind of obsessed with fighting crime. But quite often, there's no crime to fight, and so he gets more and more frustrated. And I was with him - his name is Phoenix Jones, and I was with him on patrol for a few nights. And, yeah, he was so frustrated that he couldn't find any crime to thwart that he decided to confront - with me in tow and with me not realizing what his plan was - to confront a gang of armed crack dealers, just me and Phoenix.

And Phoenix had a bullet-proof super suit on and a mask. I had nothing. I had, like, a T-shirt. And we approached these crack dealers, and they were aghast. They were like, what are you doing coming to our block in your stupid costume? This is - they said: This is not fun and games to us. This is how we feed our family. If you don't go, we'll kill you. So I found myself nodding in agreement with everything the crack dealers were saying in...

RAZ: I would imagine.

RONSON: ...yeah, of course - in the hope that, you know, they would shoot around me, which was kind of my aim at the time. I'm like, as long as they shoot around me, it'll be fine. But Phoenix just refused to leave. They all walked off, and they regrouped on the corner. And then one of them came back, and as he passed just kind of whispered: If you don't leave our block, we're going to show you what the burner do and then carried on walking.

And I said to Phoenix: What's a burner? And I remember, you know, I remember from "The Wire" thinking that the burner was a stolen mobile phone.

RAZ: Mm. Cell phone.

RONSON: Yeah, which immediately didn't, you know, didn't seem contextually right. But that was my hope. And Phoenix said: No. A burner is a gun. And then they all started walking towards us, about nine of them in a row with their hands down their trousers as if, you know, their guns were underneath their waistline.

And I've never been so frightened in my life. You know, I've been in some dangerous scrapes, but this was the most frightening. And they got to us. And one of them said: We really should kill you. We should kill you. But if you're stupid enough to die for this, I guess we're just going to have to go home. And they did. They dispersed. They all went home. So Phoenix won.

RAZ: To read more of Jon Ronson's investigations, you can pick up his new book. It's called "Lost at Sea." Jon, thanks so much for coming on the show again.

RONSON: Guy, it's great talking to you again. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.