I was David Wong
If you're new to my work, here's the story so far
My name is Jason Pargin and my work has been read by over 50 million people. That sounds like a lot, but keep in mind that this video of an elephant farting a man's hat off his head has been seen by 70 million. Most of my audience came via my old columns at Cracked.com, published under the pseudonym David Wong (albeit with my real name in the blurb at the end of each piece).
I also wrote a gruesome, ridiculous horror novel called John Dies at the End that was turned into a movie and later earned me a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. I now write novels full time, you can find buy links for all five of them here. My next is due out in October 2022 (pre-order now!) and will be published under my real name. The books have titles like Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick because I worry that if I ever start taking myself too seriously, I will become intolerable.
If you want more details, I have answered your every possible question below. Otherwise, here are my socials:
1. "Why did you write under that pseudonym?"
I initially used a pseudonym for the same reason most do: anonymity. As for why I used that specific name, "David Wong" was a character I'd created in the mid-90s for a series of unpublished stories and screenplays. He later became the protagonist of my first novel, John Dies at the End. He was portrayed as an irresponsible, profane, drunken white guy who uses that alias purely to make himself harder to find in search engines.
When I started a blog in 1998, I posted in first-person as that character, mainly to keep my day job from figuring out it was me. Once my writing reached a wider audience in the early 2000s, I began making my real name public. "David Wong is the pseudonym of Jason Pargin" is thus on the flap of the initial hardcover of John Dies at the End and every subsequent novel, as well as in my profile at Cracked and on my social media pages.
Last year, I announced that I'd retired the pseudonym and all of my books are about to be rereleased under my real name.
2. "Your very first novel got turned into a movie? Do you have famous and/or wealthy parents?"
No one ever actually asks me this, but they should. Most rags-to-riches stories involve someone who was either born with money (Pewdiepie's parents are corporate executives) or connections (Billy Eilish is the offspring of two Hollywood actors, her mother is also a musician). I wasn't, but I'll readily admit that it took a couple of incredibly lucky breaks for me to get here - it's just that they didn't come until my thirties. I feel like the world would be better off if successful people would acknowledge their luck, so here's my whole story for the three or four fans who care:
I was raised in one of the poorest counties in rural Illinois. My father struggled with alcoholism at the time; my parents declared bankruptcy in my teens and divorced soon after. I had no college fund and no connections whatsoever to the entertainment or publishing industries (or, to be frank, any thought of working in them).
If I wanted, I could now cherry-pick details to make my childhood sound poorer than it was; I could (truthfully) say that the floors were rotting under our feet due to termites and leaking pipes, that many of my clothes came from garage sales, that I never went to the dentist. If I wanted to make it sound better, I'd point out that the house was in a low-crime neighborhood, with a big yard and air conditioning. We had a two-car garage and two cars to put in it. We went on summer vacations, as long as they were in driving distance, and I owned an NES console right after they hit the market in 1986. There are people reading this who would kill to have had my childhood and others who would kill to avoid it.
Here is what my old high school looks like today:
It burned in 2017 and has just been left to crumble. You could say it's a symbol of rural America in the globalization era, but there's really no symbolism here - it's literally falling apart. In the 2020 election, Trump won my birth county by 52 points.
3. "So how did you get from there to being the upper middle-class douche you are today?"
Warning: Nothing very exciting happened. I’m telling this story just so I have it down somewhere:
I got my first job at age 16 (Dairy Queen! I even got the cushy counter/ice cream position instead of the grill!) and never stopped working. I attended a rural community college for two years thanks to another part-time job, a scholarship and federal Pell grants. I spent the two years after that at a university in Southern Illinois, paying with student loans and $15,000 in credit card debt. I studied broadcast journalism and landed my first job in the industry before I'd even graduated, working as a morning producer at a local ABC affiliate. That position paid exactly five dollars an hour (they knew people like me needed it for resume-building and offered the literal minimum), so I took another job on the side and, in addition, started blogging in hopes of turning that into a third stream of income.
I left TV news after two years because I found it unfulfilling and also I objectively sucked at it. I then worked two entry-level office jobs (doing billing at a law office and data entry at an insurance company) for 70 hours a week, managing my website on evenings and weekends. I slept about five hours a night and saw my friends like twice a year. That would be my life for most of a decade.
I started writing John Dies at the End in 2000 (posting chapters as updates to my site) and it became a viral success over the next few years. The site continued to grow in traffic but I was making no substantial money from it (banner ads paid a few hundred dollars a month but hosting fees climbed at the same rate - I kept getting kicked off servers for using too much bandwidth). After five years or so, JDatE had grown into a novel-length story. I sold self-published copies and then later signed a deal with a publisher of print-on-demand paperbacks for an advance of $500. It sold okay for a while (a few thousand copies, which is pretty good in book publishing) but eventually tapered off.
By that point, around 2006, I had been attempting to write on the side for eight years and there was no sign I was ever going to make a living from it. Our debts were growing out of control, so I decided to give up writing and focus my energy on training for a new career. I took out high-interest loans for courses in C++ coding, Access databases and Windows NT/networking, only to realize I had no competency for any of them. I was 32 years old and felt like I had made nothing of my life.
4. "AND THEN WHAT?!?"
In 2007, within a three-week span, I sold the film rights to John Dies at the End and, in a totally unrelated turn of events, was offered a full-time job at comedy startup Cracked.com (a website that was to be reborn from the old humor magazine that had just folded). Just like that, I'd basically won the lottery. I was now a full-time writer, just months after I’d applied to work at a UPS warehouse and failed to even get an interview.
The movie went into production with Paul Giamatti attached. The novel would be rereleased in hardcover by St. Martin's Press and today is for sale in just about every country that has books - I have a whole shelf full of the various foreign-language editions. A few years later, I'd attend the film's premiere at Sundance. The novel's sequel (This Book is Full of Spiders) would make the New York Times bestseller list and my next book deal came with what, to me, was a massive advance.
Cracked.com would, in my time as part of the editorial leadership, grow from a two-employee operation into a multimedia brand with thousands of contributors worth $38 million. I know the exact amount, because that's how much it sold for in the spring of 2016 (no, I didn't get any of that money - I didn't own the site, I just worked there). I left that job in early 2020 because the stress had ruined my health, but also because I was financially able to. I live in a very nice home in a nice part of a nice city, with my wife and a dog. No matter how much I complain on Twitter, you should never feel sorry for me.
5. "Well, it sounds like you made it up the mountain with no help at all!"
Oh, fuck no. I would have to be the world's biggest asshole to say that.
First, anytime somebody complains that they worked two jobs, they're also saying, "I'm the type of guy who can quickly get hired at jobs." I'm a very normal-looking straight white guy with no disabilities who can easily make people laugh. I couldn't have done any of that stuff above if, say, I'd been born with a severe mental illness or was struggling to learn English as a second language. I got that first fast food job because my dad was on good terms with the manager - that doesn't happen if I'd had a father who was in prison, or dead. With that paycheck, I was able to afford a car that allowed me to attend the community college, which was 20 miles away in an area with no mass transit.
So, no, I didn't come from a family of successful authors or film producers, but I did have two parents who encouraged me to be creative. I had teachers and friends who pushed me to write and gave me the confidence to do it. I was able to get in on the ground floor of the blogging scene because I owned a PC and, more importantly, an internet connection at a time when only 30% of Americans did. I got the job at Cracked because that blog allowed me to make friends with someone who'd worked there during the magazine days and he put in a good word for me. I had a wife who stuck by me through all of that.
If anyone wants to start an argument about whether I got here from luck or hard work, the answer is that I was working a hundred hours a week and also was lucky in ways most people aren't (including possessing some natural talents I did nothing to earn). It's rare that you'll find a successful person who didn't have both. We talk about privilege as if you either have it or don't, but it's a spectrum. Most things are, I suppose.
6. "Wait, did you say earlier that you've had 50 million readers?"
That's a conservative estimate, believe it or not.* I was one of the two main editor guys at Cracked.com during its glory years, from 2007-2020. I wrote some massively viral columns like 6 Harsh Truths That Will Make You A Better Person and How Half Of American Lost Its Fucking Mind (combined, those alone were read by around 30 million people, unless they were all bots or something and hey, you never know). I wrote hundreds of other pieces and edited literally thousands more. At its height, the site was reaching something like 25 million people a month and I was there for almost 13 years. At the time of this writing, this newsletter has... let me check here... 924 subscribers.
*Internet traffic tracking is a mess (one person reading from ten different devices is counted as ten people) but I think 50 million is a very reasonable estimate and it makes for a nice, round number so that's what we're going with. But it's also possible my entire fanbase is literally one automated clickfarm operation.
7. "Didn't everyone at Cracked get fired or something?"
In 2017, the digital publishing industry collapsed and, in December of that year, Cracked's parent company closed the office and laid off 80% of the staff. That's a fate that would be suffered by many great websites over the following years. I remained on board until early 2020, trying my best to keep it going in some stripped-down fashion. I left in the spring of that year on good terms. Cracked is now under new ownership and they're still trying to make it work, I have lots of friends who still work there.
The exact reasons for the 2017 collapse are boring and mind-numbingly technical. It boils down to the fact that two giant companies, Google and Facebook, came to dominate online advertising and also controlled the flow of traffic in ways you’re probably not even aware of. After the 2016 election, each company radically altered their model to direct traffic to political commentary, outrage pieces and breaking news, choking off revenue to sites like Cracked (as well as College Humor, Funny or Die, The Onion, Clickhole, Upworthy and a bunch of others, all of whom wound up laying off staff in the aftermath). Pretty much every single friend I had in the industry was out on the street at some point. It sucked! It still does!
8. "So where are all of the former Cracked people now?"
Former Cracked podcast host Alex Schmidt now hosts the Secretly Incredibly Fascinating podcast, where I appear as a guest every few months.
My old boss Jack O'Brien now hosts The Daily Zeitgeist podcast.
Daniel O'Brien writes for Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and co-hosts the Quick Question podcast with Soren Bowie, who writes for the animated series American Dad.
Cody Johnston and Katy Stoll have the massively successful Some More News series on YouTube.
Katie Goldin hosts the Creature Feature podcast.
Adam Brown still has the Unpops network of podcasts.
Kristi Harrison wisely left the industry altogether.
9. "Is it true that you used to be a huge piece of shit?"
No one has ever actually asked this, at least not phrased this way. I got a lot of angry messages in my Cracked days about being part of a leftist woke mob of SJWs and that was ... not something anyone would have said about me prior to, I don't know, 2005? Whether or not you find me more problematic then or now depends on your politics, I guess.
I spent my formative years in a deep-red part of the country consuming something like six hours a day of right-wing talk radio (when I went off to the university, I assumed my mission in life was to trigger the libs there). I then entered an early 2000s internet comedy scene that was entirely about mixing cleverness with shock value. Because the early web users were primarily white, male and nerdy (that is, disproportionately tech-savvy, libertarian and atheist) a lot of writing of that era followed the ethos of South Park: That all taboos and superstitions are means of social control, and that political correctness was just the lefty version of both. It was one big contest to see who could be the most offensive, who could cross boundaries in the most spectacular fashion. Message boards used to have a lot of Cartman avatars.
I mean, that's how we saw it - in reality, it was a lot of calling things we didn't like "gay." There's a famous quote from Richard Needham about how people who are brutally honest usually enjoy the brutality more than the honesty and I think that just about covers it.
I don't want a medal for having grown out of it, these days even huge corporations want to be "woke" so how brave am I being? If you say that I sound like a wobbly pudding sack of a person who just conforms to the politics of his peers, my only rebuttal is that progress only occurs when people are willing to change their minds, so let's hope there are more pudding sacks out there. I was among the loudest and angriest ("The Iraqis will greet us as liberators!") but still came to realize I was wrong about a lot of things. Again, I'm not asking for a pat on the back for finally realizing that climate change is real and that gay marriage won't ruin society.
10. "What are your books about?"
I am current writing two series of novels. The John Dies at the End series so far includes:
John Dies at the End
This Book is Full of Spiders
What the Hell Did I Just Read
And the upcoming fourth book is called If This Book Exists, You’re in the Wrong Universe.
These are about a trio of frequently unemployed twentysomethings who accidentally take a drug that allows them to interact with the unimaginable horrors that secretly inhabit our reality.
My other, more critically-acclaimed novels are a series of somewhat satirical sci-fi thrillers, there are two so far:
Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits
Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick
These novels are about a team of professional liars with military PSYOPS training who must use the power of deception to run a lawless city full of criminals and vigilantes who've been given superpowers via experimental technology. The team is led by Zoey Ashe, a young barista who accidentally inherited her father's crime empire and also owns a cat that smells like shit. This one is in development as a TV series, the third so-far untitled novel is coming in 2023.
That about covers it.