If you get your news from Jennifer Mills, you’re going to get headlines like this, “Woman’s Computer Only Does Glitch Thing When IT Isn’t Looking,” “Woman Almost Panics But Doesn’t When Earring Gets Stuck in Couch Cushion,” “Picture of Dog With Funny Caption Makes Woman Laugh.”
For 21 years now, Mills has published Jennifer Mills News online, a banal-as-it-gets weekly compendium of her daily life told in classic newspaper style. It’s understated and quietly very funny, especially cumulatively as you keep reading it. And if that sort of thing appeals to you, you can see all 21 years printed out and wallpapered at Brick Aux Gallery in Williamsburg now through March 19.
Mills — who in her day job is a writer and producer on the NPR news quiz show, “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” — is also this week’s guest on “Brooklyn Magazine: The Podcast.” We talk about her day job and her love of QVC, as well as her commitment to a 21-year bit. We discuss her background in making art, and we talk about life in Brooklyn.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity. You can listen to it in its entirety in the player above or wherever you get your podcasts.
So I guess, the first and most important question I have is how far into “The Power Broker” are you?
Well, I’m zero pages in. There has been a huge development since I purchased “The Power Broker” to read. I’ve moved it from the bottom of my bookshelf to my kitchen table to prop up my computer for Zooms to give it a little more height, so it’s getting some use.
There you go. It was not a un-worthwhile purchase.
For people who are listening, I asked you that question because this is part or it has been recently mentioned in Jennifer Mills News. And now you’ve got a gallery show of the Jennifer Mills News experience. What is the gallery show?
The newspaper — I like to call it a newspaper, not a newsletter — has been something I’ve been doing pretty much weekly for 21 years. And it’s all printed on a single piece of printer paper. So the gallery show is all 21 years of all of the issues printed and hung.
Every single one?
Every single one, yeah. I think one issue was lost to time, so no one will ever know that one, but every one but that one.
That’s incredible. How many pages is that?
Well, I can tell you it’s a full ream of paper and it’s two toner cartridges. So whatever that is.
It’s interesting that you print them out because I know that you do it on Tumblr. It’s online. That’s where I’ve experienced it. Do you mail these out, or is this the first time you’ve printed them all at once?
This is definitely the first massive printing. When I started, because I was 17 in 2002, emailing wasn’t as big as paper stuff, so I printed everything when at the very beginning and handed it out that way. But since it’s moved to digital, but it’s really fun to see them in paper again because that was their original forum.
For people who are not familiar, these are very funny. They’re understated to the umpteenth degree. And I’m guessing pretty authentically autobiographical. You have seemingly banal, but also pretty funny, headlines about whether it’s buying a copy of The Power Broker or getting your earring caught on a couch pillow or whatever. Is this actually your life?
Absolutely. Believe it or not, every article is true. Everything has always been based on something of the week that is entirely forgettable. But those kind of things that we sort of stumble into along as we go, that feel significant in some way, but then we instantly forget them. And I just try to elevate them to a breaking news story.
You mention your age at every mention of your name. There’s nothing but journalistic integrity here, which I as a journalist respect.
First of all, what prompted you to do this? You said you were 17. I don’t know that I’ve done anything consistently since I was 17 aside from blinking. What prompted you to start this?
Well, you’re very good at blinking, so.
I’ve had a lot of practice now.
Well done. I used to get to school really early and I would kill that time in the computer lab. Something unique about our computer lab was that we were allowed to print anything that we wanted to. And that was really exciting to me. So one day I was just like, “What can I print?” And I just had 20 minutes and I wrote the first newsletter just pretty much to have an excuse to print, and I think I printed out 11 copies and it was really, really weird. The newsletter, the first one, is super bizarre.
What’s it about? What was the news of the day for 17-year-old Jennifer?
Well, I remember that morning pretty specifically. The headline off the top of my head is something about how I saw a ghost in the shower or something. It’s out there. You can fact check that. But a door slammed while I was getting ready for school that morning, and I’m very startle-able, so I thought it was a ghost. I was like, “Wow, what an interesting thing that happened to me this morning.”
And I’m not really like a person that’s super into ghosts. It was on my mind that I had thought a ghost had been in the shower or something. So I just wrote it up as an article and that’s what happened. I guess, I saw a ghost one morning, I thought, and then there was free printing at school. So it all came together.
Then you commit to the bit for 21 years.
Yeah, it’s a long game to convince everyone that I might have seen a ghost when I was 17.
What do you want people to take away from this exhibit?
Well, I think the newsletter is at its best when people are just enjoying it. And hopefully, what they see is not one woman aggrandizing herself as the most selfish woman in the world by writing a newsletter of her own namesake. My hope is that all these things have happened to all of us, and there’s this moment of recognition that I think is possible in some of these stories. So I’m just excited to have everyone relate to each other on that teeny tiny level of like, “Oh, that happened to me once.”
Yeah, there’s a universality to it.
I hope so. And as for what it could become, I’m just sort of open. And even if it just keeps going in its form, it changes every week because the new issue comes out. So it’s hard to imagine it as a book sometimes because it would keep getting updated. But I think it could do anything. Or just be what it is.
How did you link up with Brick Aux? It’s on the entirely other end of Brooklyn. It’s practically in another state. What’s the relationship there?
Well, let me be clear, no one asked for this show except for me. So I had to find a place that was willing to let me put it up. Theresa [Buchheister], the director of Brick Aux, is just incredibly open to experimental stuff and was super supportive. So it was just a great space to bring a weird project to, and it’s been awesome working with them.
Does it take on deeper meaning? Each issue, I guess, is trivial moments in your life, which may or may not be relatable to other people. It’s silly. There’s a dash of The Reductress style to it. Does it take on some deeper meaning or added weight just by the sheer volume that you’ve done it? Does it take on more weight when you look at it at this scale, or is it just what it is?
It might just be what it is. Because I can’t imagine it really being heavy or having any weight. But I did have the experience in putting them all up is like, oh my God, I am how old I am. You see the progression of 21 years and you realize that you’ve lived a life, I guess. Whatever was in that life, who knows?
You’ve started in high school, you’ve done it through college, you’ve done it through grad school and your career. What would you tell 17-year-old Jennifer Mills, if you could, about now you? Like, “Oh, you’re going to keep doing this,” or what would you say? What would you want that person to know, if anything?
I think I would say, “One day you’ll email this and everyone will always be on the computer.” Because I think when I was 17, I kept thinking about the future and I was like, “I guess I’ll put these in envelopes and mail them later in life.”
Well, you did have the idea, “I’m going to keep going, I’m going to just see how long I can do this.”
So I guess what I would tell myself as a 17-year-old is that I had hoped when I was 17, I remember in the second issue that I wrote — because I immediately wrote a second issue the following Friday — I remember thinking at that moment, “Well, I’ve made two. What if I make it for 20 years? What if I’m still doing this when I’m a grownup?” And I remember that moment, which is really why I wanted to put on the show because I kind of wanted to give my 17-year-old self that gift. And I think I would tell that young woman, “You did it. You thought you might do it when you were 17, and here you are.”
And here you are. I tried to do as much research as possible before this. There was, aside from the Tumblr and a couple of bios out there of you, there’s not a lot of info that I could find. But you do write and produce for NPRs “Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” Is that your day job?
That’s my main gig. I’ve been there I think for five or six years. I really enjoy working there. And there’s not a lot about me online, and that’s absolutely by design. I’m obviously in an antiquated, “I’ll email you a PDF of this thing I do.” I don’t get a lot of joy from deep, deep internet time. Yes, there’s nothing out there about me.
And yet there’s everything out there about you because you’ve been doing this for 20 years. But it is both personal, I guess, and not especially revealing. I don’t know that you get into your romantic life.
[Shakes head “no”]
Talk about, “Wait Wait…” You’ve been there five, six years. What’s working on that show like? I know Peter Sagal, the host, is based in Chicago. So is this remote work? What’s the course of the week leading up to the show like for you?
Most of the team is in Chicago and myself and one of our other producers is out here in New York. So we do kind of all work together remotely. I would say uniquely, this show has a really wonderful feeling of friendship. What a lame thing to say, but it’s a small group. That was really bad.
Friendship is so lame.
Oh, friendship’s cool. But the sentence, a wonderful feeling of friendship is awful. We really respect each other. We really like working on the show together. And so I think that there’s just truly a lot of joy that goes into making it. We like to make each other laugh, and we work really hard. We start on Monday, starting to find all the stories that go into the show because the show burns through a ton of news just in the way it’s designed.
So we spend a lot of time early in the week finding that news and moving towards Thursday. We are super collaborative in the writing process, so we do a lot of it out loud during readthroughs or out-loud joking. So it’s super collaborative. It’s just really great. The executive producer, Mike Danforth is really the reason that it feels like that. He’s very good at making people like each other. And obviously, there’s a lot of other things that go into producing it. Because as you know, it’s public radio, so you’re also sort of running a little business and doing a lot of the technical things too. But I really love working on the show. It’s super silly and it is that show, it’s great.
And before that, you were at Stephen Colbert, is that right? “Late Night with Stephen Colbert?”
Yep. I was there for I think two years working in their graphics department. My background is in art, and that was so much fun. I just like working with a team to create the over-the-shoulder collages that pop up during the segments. And I think my favorite piece that I worked on, because that was all very collaborative too, is we made a PhotoShop collage of Elmo wearing skinny jeans, and that was just one of the highlights of my career was the outcome of that. Close second was a eagle wearing pleated khakis.
You said art school. You went to the Art Institute of Chicago. Right? And I was going to ask, what is the trajectory from a super prestigious art school to a public radio humor show?
Yeah, what direction is that path? Up or down?
How did that happen? I’m guessing you didn’t go to study this. Do you have a specialty or an expertise?
It was the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Art institute’s a different school. I was studying performance there, which actually totally relates to this now because it’s really just about making art over time, so that makes a lot of sense with radio or television. And I sort of focused my masters there on where comedy and art come together.
It was a really natural precursor to working with images on “The Late Show.” And then because “The Late Show” is so political, and it was a highly produced show, “Wait Wait…” Made a lot of sense. And going to “Wait Wait…” really allowed me to use a lot of my different tools. So it’s really fun and experimental. So there’s a lot of different things we try. And so it kind of weirdly eats everything that came before it in a way that kind of makes sense.
When you’re working on the show, you’re doing that remotely. What’s a typical Park Slope day? If you had some people visiting you in Brooklyn, where do you take them out?
Oh, I love the park obviously. I like to get cheap coffee at the bagel place across from me. It’s one of those coffees that taste bad and good at the same time.
I love a bodega coffee.
Exactly. Just a good old-fashioned walk around here is really great. I’ve lived here for a long time, so it’s kind of nice in that Brooklyn just feels like a neighborhood, and I think the novelty is, it’s just a home. I go to a lot of comedy clubs in the area, really like Union Hall, and I discover a lot of really cool comedians there that sometimes I end up working with down the line, so that’s great.
We’ve had Josh Gondelman on this podcast a year or two ago. And I know he’s a regular on “Wait Wait…” Did you pull him into that? How did that work?
I think Ian Chillag, the other producer in New York, and I had been seeing him around a lot in New York, and we just love him. He’s so wonderful. Something else that I really like about my neighborhood, this is all just totally coincidence. Ian lives about three blocks from me. And in between us, Philipp Goedicke who writes the limericks for “Wait Wait…” At the Community Bookstore, which is directly in between us.
I met Philipp at a party once. It was a long time ago, but we’ve semi stayed in touch, at least through social channels. But what a gig, writing limericks for public radio.
This is so wild that we all live within three blocks of each other. We’re the only ones that work on the show out here. We live so close, we see each other all the time just running into each other. And I would also add Ian has a podcast called “Everything Is Alive” that I help him produce. And that’s something that we do on the side from “Wait Wait…” and it is just the most fun podcast to work on. Ian interviews actors who play inanimate objects. So we’ve interviewed pillows and Josh Gondelman was a chainsaw. We talked to all these wild objects and it’s just the most fun to make and hopefully to listen to.
Anything else you want to shout out? What else in terms of what you’re working on? This exhibit, it’s through March 19. People can go out and see that. You still create art? That you originally went to school for. I, at least I’ve seen that some on your Instagram page, sporadically updated. What art are you making?
Well, the last big project I did was on Instagram. I make these teeny tiny little paintings. And one thing that I really believe in is just giving my art away. So I sell art for a dollar or just give it, which I think is important to me. I absolutely support supporting art that’s not mine financially. So buy really expensive art from everyone else, but then take my art for free. So when I get back into that again, hopefully there’ll be some more free art roaming around in the world.
I love that. Any other updates or anything you want to plug?
Just a recommendation that I would throw out as something really wonderful to take in. Tuning into QVC, The Home Shopping Network. Quality Value Choice is just real ripe for inspiration and 24/7 programming that will just blow your mind. So everyone check that out too.
Do you get material from there?
Working on a news show, do you get oversaturated following the news and bummed out? Do you have a method of news detox?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, following the news constantly for years, because it’s been part of my jobs, it can be totally exhausting. And that is why I watch QVC because it is the absence of news and it’s these wonderful women having to fill four hours of space talking about one blender. And to see them just reach into the bowels of their creativity to say one new thing about this blender is the most amazing experience.
Have you bought anything off QVC? I have bought two things.
What did you buy?
I’m really ashamed to say.
No, no, no, no, no. No one will know.
I bought a pair of blue light glasses when those were really in. And they’re horrible. They give me a headache and they look awful. And then I bought a pillow because they were really on about that pillow for a long time. I had to try it.