If you follow my work outside of this newsletter, you know that I talk to a lot of authors about their books. But I still maintain a mental list of authors I dream of talking to—about anything, not just their books. We could talk about the weather! Finger food! Mulch! Whatever! At the top of that list? R. Eric Thomas. Not only did I devour his collection of essays, Here for It, which came out last year, I have also religiously kept up with his newsletters, one aptly titled Here for It, and his latest on this platform, Previously On. So, when thinking about collaborating with fellow Bulletin writers, of course I reached out to him and was like, “Hi, I love you. Would you want to collaborate with me, a human broom with a propensity for telling terrible jokes?” Thanks to the eight prayer candles I lit, probably, he agreed.
Naturally, our conversation gravitated towards pop culture, which Thomas writes about so masterfully that it’s no surprise readers from every corner of the internet continue to flock in droves to his words. My fellow author and Bulletin writer and I also zeroed in on nostalgia, which continues to texture our culture, especially in today’s age of the reboot, and talked about the preservation of pop culture moments from times past.
Also, Caroline Rhea.
Greg Mania: I’m so excited to talk to you. What should we dive into first?
R. Eric Thomas: Well, I want to say the thing we should dive into is whether Dan responded and what happened then and what’s going on with John and how your parents felt about the latest season of The Crown. But that’s probably a little far afield for the scope of this conversation. That said, I write a newsletter about the intersection of pop culture and nostalgia and you write—really well—about memoir, culture, and the funny nature of memory. I wonder what parts of our pop culture landscape you think you’ll be taking with you into the future?
Greg: I’ve always been—and always will be—interested in the pop cultural moments of yore, as I think many of us are. Nostalgia is very much a self-perpetuating machine: there is always something to reflect on, always something in the past to offer us a brief respite from the toils of today. I mean, look at all the shows from decades ago being rebooted left and right, trends long gone coming back, and other artifacts from yesterday being reinterpreted and reintroduced to the next generation. I think going forward will always be fueled by constantly looking back.
I’m curious: have you been embracing this wave of nostalgia that’s been especially prevalent in the past year or so? If so, how?
Eric: Well, because I am an old queen in a slightly less old queen’s body, I always have one eye on yesteryear, reminding people of that thing that happened at the Tonys one time or bringing up catastrophic [Oscar] snubs in the Best Supporting Actress category. Nostalgia is an inheritance that belongs to all of us, of course, but let’s be honest: this is a gay suburb. So, the recent spate of IP refurbishment feels a little like gentrification (LOL, what is this point I’m making?!) I look at some reboots and rebrands with suspicion but I do think there’s a deeper cultural drive to hold on (© Adele, 2021) to something from our collective past as we hurtle towards… the future? The meteor from Armageddon? Unclear.
If you could reboot something from the past, what would it be?
Greg: Is it too early to reboot Ugly Betty???? I know it wasn’t that long ago. Or maybe I just need Vanessa Williams in any capacity.
Eric: Cutting in to co-sign this so hard that I sprained a muscle! Carry on.
Greg: OK, thank you. ALSO, remember AMANDA? I think that was the first time I truly understood what it meant to stan before “stanning” was introduced to the vernacular.
Eric: YES! An iconic character and performance. That show was a murderer’s row of talent completely understanding the assignment (as the kids say these days). Becki Newton, Michael Urie, Vanessa Williams, JUDITH LIGHT! And, of course, a career-elevating performance from America Ferrera. What I loved most about Ugly Betty (which I watched religiously) was that it was a show that completely knew what it was (at least in the early seasons). It was taking from a cornucopia of long traditions—the telenovela, the gay fantasia on capitalist themes, the American nighttime soap, and the fish-out-of-water story—and updating them with specificity, diversity, and authenticity. I think it would make a fantastic reboot with that same understanding of both its past and its future.
In your reboot, would you keep it in the fashion world?
Greg: If I remember correctly, Betty ended up accepting a job offer in London with Daniel trailing not far behind. I think the fashion world—when not taken too seriously—is inherently funny by nature, so I think it would remain in some capacity if not at the forefront, then in the periphery. Honestly, as long as we can somehow write in a character for Caroline Rhea I’ll be satisfied.
CarolineRheaFan1000: Yes! Again, I co-sign so hard that I break the co-signing lever that was not previously here. Caroline Rhea as a grown-up Emily in Paris with a fake accent running a magazine edited by late-thirties Betty, always encouraging Betty to “do TikToks” and “pivot to Snapchat.” Hello, Hollywood? Are you listening?
Greg: I feel like us casting anything would just be us pulling up an old episode of Hollywood Squares and just closing our eyes and pointing.
Eric: Absolutely. “Can someone get Paul Lynde on the phone?! I don’t care if he’s dead!” One of the things I think about a lot with respect to nostalgia and the present is whether there will be Hollywood Squares-type references or Caroline Rhea-style icons from today that we’re pulling from twenty years from now.
That’s one of the overarching questions of my newsletter—what is the Future Nostalgia? (Please don’t sue me, Dula Peep!) And whatever it is, will it have the same niche stickiness that older stuff has, especially in this era when everything is accessible all the time?
Greg: That is such a great question, and one that I ponder constantly. I just got a tattoo of Phyllis Diller on my forearm—another Hollywood Squares vet!—and after I got it, I wondered if anyone who’s looking at my tattoos on the train or wherever I am will know who it is. Like, my parents knew right away because of the hair and gloves, but one of my younger friends was like, “Who is that????” We don’t speak anymore!
Eric: Cut that negativity from your life!
A side note: one year for Halloween I dressed in a Diller wig, with gloves and maybe a cigarette (I can’t remember) but wore a red motorcycle jacket because I was “Phyllis Thriller.” Literally no one knew what to make of it, but I feel like I won a spiritual victory.
Greg: I have to go lie down now with my heating pad; the ingenuity is just too much to digest. Also, please text me a picture of this costume.
I wonder, though, do you think it’s inevitable that these references we’re pulling will eventually get lost in the folds of history? Or, will they be preserved thanks to the digital age?
Eric: I think the answer—at least I hope the answer—is both. Things will keep getting forgotten but hopefully the advancements in technology and our cultural yearning for our roots will keep prodding us to rediscover, to dig deeper. When I was young, the way I found older stuff was in the library: VHSes and cassettes and books, and later CDs and DVDs. Now I can just get on YouTube and type “Myrna Loy???” or some old-timey gay nonsense and there we are! That makes me very happy.
Speaking of people discovering stuff—what have you got coming up, or what do you insist people dig into your back catalog to find?
Greg: Yes! I have fond memories of my library serving as my cultural nexus. I hope libraries continue to offer that space for folks, young and old, forever. As for me, I think anyone who has fond memories of trends from the mid- to late-aughts (chokers! Chunky highlights from the box! Anything Alyssa Milano wore in Charmed!) would enjoy my debut memoir, Born to Be Public, which I continue to hawk because my agent is out on submission with my next book and I need to come off as an established, successful-adjacent author to editors instead of an idiot with grenade-combed hair who can’t spell.
You, however, an actual, celebrated multi-hyphenate and my personal hero, recently announced your second book, Kings of B’more, which also serves as your young adult debut. Tell me about pivoting from essays to YA.
Eric: I am loving playing in a fictional world after working in non-fiction for so long. Reality is famously very resistant to editorial influence, so it’s been very fun shaping a world set in the present but full of nostalgic gestures, queer nonsense, and joy. It’s out May 2022 and available to preorder now! And everybody should pick up your memoir Born to Be Public! Now! In fact, we should abruptly end this conversation so that people go get the book (and sign up for your newsletter, Save Our Serotonin and mine, Previously On)!
Thanks for chatting; let’s do this again!
Greg: Till next time!
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Photo credits: Cast and creative team of Ugly Betty from Getty; Portrait of Phyllis Diller by Allan Warren