A week ago, The Hollywood Reporter reported that Instagram star the Fat Jew, a.k.a. the Fat Jewish, a.k.a. Josh Ostrovsky, signed with CAA, one of Hollywood's largest agencies. The announcement opened up the floodgates for complaints that Ostrovsky has consistently stolen jokes or deliberately not credited people for content he posted to his account. Comedians led the charge, but soon many websites began accusing him of joke theft, arguing that he was just the face of a larger problem with the internet, especially Instagram.
On Thursday afternoon, Ostrovsky addressed the situation for the first time. Speaking exclusively with Vulture, he discussed the changing nature of social aggregation, how he has responded to the complaints, and whether he thinks he is a joke thief.
To start out, can you go into detail about how your Instagram operation works?
Absolutely. It's important to note that Instagram — social media in general — is just a part of what I do. It's not the focus. I've got White Girl Rosé, I've got a book coming out, I've got plus-size modeling, I've got all kinds of different stuff happening. Social media is one part of the business ecosystem. I'm a commentator. My interns and I find pop-culture stuff that's hyperrelevant and that's going to resonate with people, and when it feels right, we put it up. At the end of the day, I get it: I should have been providing attribution for all posts. It's always been important to me. The internet is a vast ocean of stuff, and sometimes it's hard to find the original source of something. I now realize that if I couldn't find a source for something, I probably shouldn't have posted it in the first place.
I'm working to add attribution to every one of my posts, and will continue to do so. My email address is up. I urge people to reach out and say, "That's my thing." I would love to give credit. I want people to shine on social media, I always have. And I will never again post something that doesn't have attribution, because I realize now that when the stage is large enough, and the voice is large enough, these things matter.
So starting this week, it's your intention to go back through everything — and if you can't find a source, you'll take stuff down?
Absolutely. Yeah, for sure.
How did the situation get to this point?
I come from a writing background. That was my genesis. I've been doing moronic stuff since before social media existed. I was sitting in hot tubs full of pasta, and interviewing rappers about whether they liked sleepovers and making them uncomfortable. Instagram started for me as something to connect me with people who were already my fans. But as the stage got larger, the practices being exploited at that time weren't the right practices for a larger stage.
There's definitely part of me that feels remiss that I didn't realize the platform had grown so much, especially as my voice got louder. Like Ben Parker, Spider-Man's uncle, said, "With great power comes great responsibility." I can't believe I'm actually using that quote, but it really is true. I don't think I realized how much my voice was resonating. Everything was moving so fast. So now it's important for me to listen to the dialogue and say, "I'm gonna go back and attribute everything, because honestly, that's good." I want to put a light on people who say funny stuff, just like I want to put a light on how terrible of a dresser Adam Sandler is. It's good for me, and it's good for the internet. And I love the internet more than I love any member of my actual biological family.
Did you ever consider getting an intern who was dedicated to proper attribution?
Absolutely. Again, Instagram is just part of a larger thing I do. I have an army of interns working out of the back of a nail salon in Queens. We have so much stuff going on: I'm writing a book, I've got rosé. I need them to bathe me. I've got so many other things that I need them to do. It just didn't seem like something that was extremely dire.
You also post pictures of yourself. Was the hope ever that people would think all of this was originating from you?
No, [it wasn't]. It was never my intention for anyone to think all of this was mine. That's not the nature of the internet. I want people to shine. I like when like some Monster Energy–wearing weirdo emails me and says, "You put up my tweet, now I'm the most popular kid in my school." That's amazing, that's what I'm going for. But things go through the internet wash cycle, and it's hard to find where everything's from. I hope that people email me and say, "Can I get credit?" I never intended for anyone to think that these were mine.
Can you understand why people might have thought it was all stuff you were creating? Even when you talked to Katie Couric, you said you make a lot of them yourself.
I've consistently maintained that I'm a commentator. I'm a curator. I'm at the forefront of what's cool and what's hot and what's funny. It's complicated in that some of the stuff is made by me, some of the stuff is submitted, some of the stuff is found. It's a hodgepodge. In that Katie Couric interview, I talk about how some of it is being submitted by Ukrainian teenagers. But also, I do make original content all over the place. I made a video about teaching homeless people to take spin classes. I do rapper interviews. I've been sitting in hot tubs of guacamole for years. I like to think I'm a trusted voice of pop culture, and that people understand that this is a mix of things — some of it is me, some of it is just me talking about it.
Speaking of your own content: One thing that continues to come up is your Comedy Central deal, which seemed to fall through because of this controversy. What happened there?
The Comedy Central project was a scripted show. Eighteen months ago we started developing the pilot, and then mutually came to the agreement that we didn't love what we were creating together. It sort of just died a natural death.
Do you think of yourself as a comedian?
No, I don't, honestly. I think of myself as a commentator, as an entertainer. I mean, my dad doesn't exactly know what I do. He tells his friends I'm an adult entertainer, which is probably not the best thing to tell them. It's all so new. For me, it's about commentary. It's about shining light on things that are chill and taking a piss on things that are ridiculous. I'm sort of a Renaissance man of pop culture. There are elements of comedy, but that is not the genesis of what I am. I'm a satirist. I'm a commentator. I'm a performance artist. I'm an idiot.
A few years ago, you tweeted out David Cross's phone number. Do you feel like that started a certain antagonistic relationship with the comedy community?
No, that had nothing to do with comedy. Again, I'm a performance artist. I love conversation. That's why this entire situation is okay with me in some ways — because I like discourse. Tweeting his number got people talking. It had nothing to do with comedy. That was just, like, something that I was trying to do to spark conversation and be fun. David Cross hates me, and I'm dead to him, and he's totally in the right for that. He had thousands of horrible teen trolls calling him in the middle of the night. That was a shitty thing to do.
Do you not mind doing shitty things?
No, that's not my thing. Not at all. The David Cross thing was a momentary lapse in judgment. It was 2009. I don't think anyone understood the power of social media. I don't think when I put his number up I realized that thousands of teen trolls would call. I had no idea people were even reading it. It just seemed like an echo chamber of me talking to myself. I'd been doing prank phone-calls for years, I auditioned for the Jerky Boys movie. I've been ordering ridiculous things from the bodega guy for years. It's all part of my performance art, and fun.
One of the primary criticisms of your work is that you appear to take other people's content and crop out their usernames. For example, Patrick Walsh's "Crush Pussy Schedule," or Ben Ronson's photo. Have you or your interns ever cropped the names of sources out of photos?
I have never done that. Not once. I want people to get credit for stuff. You have to understand that the internet is like this giant Jacuzzi of insanity, and it's just filled with so much stuff. I would never take someone's name off something. That's not who I am or what I'm about.
The most frequent example given by critics is Devon Magwood's "going to dress like a lion" tweet. You said you haven't cropped a thing, but that seems like a special case because of what it was about. Do you remember when you first saw the image? Why weren't you more diligent about figuring out who first did it?
It wasn't a matter of diligence. I was drinking a daiquiri nude and looking at the internet, and honestly, I didn't know where it came from. The minute there was some chatter on the internet about the fact that he had made it, I immediately attributed to him. I got called out. There will never again be a photo that's unattributed. And honestly, if I can't find a source, I won't post the image, because that's not what I'm all about.
Part of what's rubbing people the wrong way is that you talk about the situation so casually, making jokes like, "Oh, I was just drinking a daiquiri nude." There seems to be a disconnect between how seriously comedians are taking this and how seriously you are.
There is no disconnect. I'm just giving you some context for what I was doing at the time. That doesn't speak to my mind-set. I take it just as seriously as anybody. That's why it's important to me to go back through thousands of photos to make sure everything is copacetic. We are all on the same page about the seriousness of this. We're coming from slightly different perspectives, but we want the same angle, and we're going to get it.
Beyond just resolving to fix the situation with Magwood — did you feel bad when you learned that the content belonged to him?
I don't think it's a matter of good or bad. To me, it's a matter of logistics. It's a matter of trying to make it right. He reached out and was like, "Dude," and I was like, "Dude," and gave him credit. That's what I want. I'm into funny stuff, and he's probably a really funny guy. I want him to get followers, and he got followers off that. Things like that are never going to happen again, so it's not a matter of right or wrong. It's just a matter of what's going to happen moving forward.
But dismissing the problem as one of logistics is the type of thing that makes people feel like you don't understand what's wrong with the situation.
I understand that perspective completely, which is why I'm taking this seriously. I don't normally take stuff seriously. I'm not into social change, but this is something important to me. I realize my voice has power, and I want to use it in a responsible way that everybody feels good about. That's not generally my thing, so taking this seriously is definitely a different perspective for me, but I think that that speaks to how much I understand the other side, and how much I want to make it fucking killer.
Another example that has been circulating is a joke that got tweeted a few years ago by Matt Besser, who is the co-founder of the UCB Theatre: "How many potheads does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None, we're just trying to keep it mellow in here." You later tweeted the same thing word for word. I'm a big believer in parallel thinking, but if it's word for word and not an image, someone had to either type it directly or copy and paste it.
That was a joke that I'd heard. I heard it, and it was funny, and I wrote it down. The internet was a different landscape then. It didn't feel like things were researchable. My approach was different then than it is now, and different than it's going to be moving forward.
Do you think you've ever stolen a joke?
I mean, no, not intentionally. If something was heard and written down, then that's probably what happened. I didn't realize that if you don't have a source for something, then you couldn't necessarily post it. I don't think that was always clear. I'm very on the cutting-edge of the internet. I'm up on a lot of the newest shit first. So, if I didn't realize all this about attribution and sources, there are probably other people who also don't. I'd like to set the standard. If I'm the person who has been made to realize that, then everybody else can follow.
As you said, you didn't intentionally think, I'm going to take this thing. But you're aware that other people have perceived what you are doing is stealing jokes, correct?
Yeah, I'm not sure. I can't speak for anyone but myself. I only know what my perspective is: I want everyone to be heard. That's why I'm going back and adding attribution. If I can be someone who eventually helps this problem get solved, then I'm so fucking down for that. While I am ridiculous and almost purposely antagonistic at times, and over-the-top and not giving a fuck in many ways, I give a lot of fucks and I'm very cognizant of what is going on. I want what's right. I want everybody to feel good.
With all your projects, it's clear that you want to be known as different things. In ten years, if the first thing on your Wikipedia page says, "Instagram celebrity and joke thief," how will you feel about it?
If this situation is a part of internet history, I just want to make sure that in ten years, I'm on the right side of it. There's a large disconnect in how people view this issue. There are many people who say, "Oh, it's the internet. It doesn't matter. Everything is shared at the common space." Then there are a lot of people who say, "This is my livelihood. This is what I do and this is my craft, and you're infringing on it and you're being a dick by monetizing it."
I could look at myself as being in the center of that in a bad way, but instead I see myself as someone who can bridge the two sides. I want the people who don't take it seriously to take it seriously, and I want the people who take it seriously to, at the very least, understand where the other side is coming from. Then we can all get on some chill common ground and start looking at weird pictures of Donald Trump again.