ou just finished making popcorn in the kitchen. You walk back to your living room and there’s a man you’ve never met sitting on your couch. You’ve welcomed him into your home without knowing it. Time after time he’s filled your ears and stunned your eyes—with a charismatic voice and electricity that puts you in a trance. His spontaneity makes you wish he wouldn’t every time he vanishes. The more of him you see, the more you want to, until that want turns into a need, and it’s too late for you to leave.
He has an unparalleled influence over people, flying to Kazakhstan and Japan to charm the mouths of strangers to do exactly what he asks of them. Often, high profile people invite him into their homes to reveal their secrets. His message has already touched someone you know—your friends, your parents, your priest. He lives in an apartment in New York City without a buzzer—but also everywhere, his followers and admirers making him omniscient. He’s grazed your arm even if you’ve never felt it. You’ve given him your allegiance, even if you never meant it.
Since graduating from Boston College, Joe Sabia, BC ’06, has created one of the biggest cult followings in the world with Vogue’s “73 Questions,” which has over 572 million lifetime views and a battalion of fierce commenters typing their minds in the thousands beneath each video. In fact, creating cult followings is precisely what Sabia does for a living. If you’ve sat on your couch and scoured YouTube, chances are Sabia was sitting right next to you—he’s had a hand in phenomena and touched a variety of trends—everything from Celebrity ASMR (where celebrities sit down to explore sensory triggers for W Magazine) to Virtual Dating (where strangers have a blind date in virtual reality, then decide whether they would like to go on a second, real date). Since the inception of The BC—a nationally recognized spoof of The OC that read the conventions of the successful Fox TV series onto life on the Heights—he’s gone on to be a leader in all things viral.
While in the airport headed to the Dominican Republic in 2014, Sabia got a call from Condé Nast Entertainment—the media conglomerate that owns brands including Vogue, W, GQ, The New Yorker, and Vanity Fair. They asked him one question: “What would you do with Sarah Jessica Parker if you had four hours?” Given a few days to come up with an answer, and not really knowing much about Vogue or Sex and the City, Sabia was struck with an idea on a whale watching tour—the reason one of SJP’s questions is about whale watching.
“All I knew was that something that was interesting, that I had never seen before, was an impressive amount of questions being thrown at someone as they’re looking at the camera,” Sabia said.
The spawn of Sabia’s sentiment was a first-person point of view format, filmed in one take, that created a direct line to the audience, instead of a direct line to a mediator, as was the norm for celebrity interviews. Celebrities see it as a club of sorts—a velvet-roped, status-soaked experience: In her video Gigi Hadid began with saying how excited she was, because she had asked to do “73 Questions” “like a hundred times.” Fans love it because it gives them an avenue to come face-to-face with their favorite stars in a place that’s familiar to them—markedly not at a press conference or on the other side of a talk show table.
Initially, Sabia figured he would ask his subject 100 questions, but once he started writing them he realized just how chancy having all of those asked and answered in one take was, so he cut it down to 73 because it was eye catching and had an appealing SEO. Condé Nast liked it, Sarah Jessica Parker said yes (“Why she said yes, I have no idea”) and then added an offer that set the bar for celebrities to come—she invited Sabia’s crew into her home.
“So we did it … and we watched the first take, and everyone on set was like, ‘Oh my god this is so cool,” Sabia said. “I think it was at that moment where I’m like ‘Oh yeah this is going to be a thing.’”
Since, Sabia has had a cocktail in the home of Sean Diddy Combs, decorated cupcakes with Blake Lively, sat on the booth from How I Met Your Mother with Neil Patrick Harris, asked Emily Ratajkowski to draw a self portrait then dedicate it to his friend George from Georgia, had tea with Saoirse Ronan, hung out with llamas at Nicole Kidman’s Australian farm, gifted a David Bowie book to Lady Gaga, watched Emma Stone do a Britney Spears impression, and had a run in with a power tool wielding Kris Jenner while talking to Kendall Jenner. And, not surprisingly given the segment’s following, Sabia’s array of high profile encounters, and his God-like voice without a face, beneath every YouTube video is at least one comment reading “73 Questions with the ‘73 Questions’ guy please!”
The crew works on very limited time—with only a few days for collecting information, coming up with questions, and mapping movement that encompasses each subject’s personality—so the job requires a lot of thinking on the spot, something Sabia excels at, with a mind that moves faster than a rumor.
“He’s calm and yet he’s … always looking around for ideas—you can see his brain never stops thinking and assessing what’s possible. He’s a great leader on set,” said Marina Cukeric, producer of “73 Questions.”
Named VP of Creative Development at Condé Nast in 2014, Sabia does more than just ask questions. He’s tasked with moving Condé Nast’s brands from images and words to include sight and sound.
“It’s like basically taking something that’s three dimensions and saying, ‘Add a fourth,'” Sabia said.
His mission has been to evolve Condé Nast into a more digitally perfect operation, something extremely relevant now considering CEO Bob Sauerberg stepped down on Nov. 27 after presenting a plan to make the company less dependent on advertising and focus on video, consulting services, and business-to-business marketing. Glamour, which recently killed its monthly print edition, looks to focus on the kind of future Sabia holds in his palm, by, in the words of Editor-in-Chief Samantha Barry, “investing in video growth, investing in digital growth, and investing in not only where there’s a growing audience, but honestly where there’s growing revenue for us.”
Sabia has pushed onward and upward in views through patient experimentation and keeping in mind the company and his own team’s identity. His old boss, former president of E! Entertainment, and founder of HBOlab, Fran Shea, sees his hunger for trial and error—mimicking a painter in studio, with rough-draft sketches thrown haphazardly throughout the room—as one of the reasons for his success.
“He tries really, really hard. He thinks about [the concept] a lot and he engineers it … he thinks a lot about what doesn’t work and why it doesn’t work. He experiments all the time, either on paper or creating it and not uploading it,” Shea said.
Sabia falls under the “concept is king” camp, and his team is marked by the strategic bets they make—like one of their most recent, and most auspicious, on artist Billie Eilish.
On Oct. 18, 2017 Sabia and his team interviewed Eilish, an artist who was relatively unknown, in hopes that she would have gained notoriety a year later. At the time she had 250,000 followers on Instagram and the biggest crowd she had played in front of was 500 fans. On Oct, 18, 2018, she was asked the exact same questions—her follower count had burst to 6.3 million (it is now at 9.4 million), and she had played in an arena for over 40,000 people. The Vanity Fair video showed the 2017 Eilish and 2018 Eilish answering the questions side-by-side and has received over 11 million views in just a few weeks. Shea points it out as an instance of Sabia’s innovativeness and willingness to experiment, Sabia alludes excitement when he talks about it, the perfect example of his visionary approach to popular culture and storytelling.
f Sabia’s many talents—and perhaps the reason for a lot of them—is the unique ability to obsess. As a kid he channeled this obsessiveness to dominate spelling bees, memorize the capitals of every country (a skill that came in handy while bargaining for a T-shirt in Nairobi), and even teach himself how to read and write Russian. As he grew older, he went from hating the piano to playing it three hours a day through all of high school, and continues to pound the keys today, throwing himself into difficult compositions like Rachmaninoff’s 3rd Concerto.
Naturally, nowadays, when people ask Sabia what they should do with their 9-to-5, his eyebrows cower at the question and his mouth replaces it with another one, as he cocks his head and adds an innocent inflection to his voice: “Well, what are you obsessed about?”
But back in college, Sabia was rife with indecision—switching back and forth between the Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, then the Carroll School of Management, then back to MCAS—until he ultimately earned degrees in political science and economics.
“I really thought I needed to be this political person, this lawyer, this Teach For America-so I can get into law school-so I can be a politician—I thought that’s what I wanted,” he said.
Then Sabia, a member of comedy group Asinine, picked up his dad’s video camera and taught himself to film and edit.
“October 13, 2005 is the day I realized what I wanted to do forever … The audience was full in Devlin Hall for screening, and 300 people were there, and they sold out and that’s when I said, wait, hold on, look I can do this for a living.”
Those 300 people sat in the squeaky chairs of Devlin Hall outside the bounds of history class to see the premiere of a hand-stitched show that everyone was talking about—producing headlines like “Soap and the Campus: A Web-Site Spoof Succeeds,” “A Star is born in ‘The BC,’”and “BC is so the New OC,” Sabia and his Asinine cohorts (specifically, Woody Tondorf, Mike Cherkesian, Sean Hanlon, and Michael Fox, all BC ’06) created a spoof of the Fox Television sensation The OC called The BC. It got hundreds of thousands of viewers, which was completely unexpected. While The OC starred the likes of Adam Brody and Rachel Bilson and follows a fallen teen from a working-class community who is taken under the wing of a well-off lawyer in Orange County, The BC starred college kids and a Jesuit priest, who takes in a troubled BU student after his father stops paying tuition.
“One day in March, in between watching how obsessed this campus was with The OC and visiting the Taco Bell at BU, I said to myself, ‘What if instead of a rough kid from Chino, it was a rough kid from BU? And instead of a pro-bono lawyer taking him into the glamour of The OC, it was a good-hearted Jesuit who took him into the haven of The BC?'” Sabia said, in a Heights article in 2005.
The show was consumed by the whole campus and also consumed the whole campus—the bigger it got, the more BC groups were included. Notably, the NCAA title-storming basketball team consisting of Jared Dudley and Sean Marshall appeared frequently for comedic asides, Rev. Donald MacMillan, S.J. talks rap music, Baldwin the Eagle plays psychotherapist to then-Director of Athletics Gene DeFillippo, Dudley gives Tim Russert tickets to a game in exchange for status as host of NBC’s Meet the Press, and a slew of deans are shown playing video games. Doug Flutie recreated his Hail Mary to save the beloved MacMillan—who was kidnapped by the board of trustees—and the cast of the show played “Mary Had A Little Lamb” on the bells of Gasson Tower.
“It made BC look good, and it made education here look like it was fun, not just a job,” MacMillan said.
Sabia’s parody, created in the absence of prior expertise and YouTube, is all on an independent website and uses QuickTime. Bear with me as I try to explain the topography of the internet in 2006, because back then I only used the computer to lose at Minesweeper and watch Barney’s Best Manners, but, essentially, the Internet was a relatively undeveloped plot of land—a last frontier that copyright law wasn’t elastic enough to fit, and where data wasn’t yet king. We’re talking pre-Vevo, pre-YouTube, pre-Instagram as a career internet.
The BC might be the only place on the Internet to find Jesuits singing Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” and a BC remix of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” called “St. Ignatius Started the Fire.” It also got the attention of big names, specifically Bob DiLaurentis, executive producer of The OC, who said it was “hysterical.” Sabia, Tondorf, and MacMillan were even invited to visit the show’s set by DiLaurentis and his daughter, a BC alumna.
With that the skinny guy with a camera who never lived in the Mods and often wore hats that were egregiously 2000s, was now on everyone’s radar. Sabia spent upwards of six hours a day working on the show, which paid off when an alum reached out to him to connect him with a woman at HBO. By Spring Break he was taking JetBlue (because its planes had TVs on the backs of the seats) to take interviews in LA.
“And [HBO] said ‘We want to hire you right out of college,’ and that was it—it was the best senior year anyone could ever have,” Sabia said.
It was that simple. Sabia turned an idea into an obsession, which turned into an interview that turned into a job and gave him direction in the dizzying world after graduation. He went on to work at HBOlab—an experimental incubator for TV talent—and was soon described by The New York Times as the “whippersnapper at HBO who speaks to the Web the way Dolittle does to animals.”
Though he’d landed a dream job in a campus sitcom director, producer, star, and writer’s paradise, Sabia remained restless. But it wasn’t drinking a Sex on the Beach or on Rodeo or Melrose that Sabia found repose. Instead, he was excited most by what was going on illicitly in his basement.
He and his roommate Paul Gulyas had been messing around with nearly 100 hours of footage from the hit crime show The Sopranos and created a seven-minute recap of the first six seasons. Gulyas came up with the script, which touched on major plot points, and Sabia edited the video.
One day, Sabia pulled his boss aside and asked if he could show her something he was working on. Shea, used to playing the sage, called it a common occurrence—but what Sabia showed her wasn’t ordinary at all.
“Oh my god, that was probably the best piece of marketing I might have ever seen working at HBO—and HBO does amazing marketing,” she said.
“Seven Minute Sopranos” was particularly impressive to Shea given the timing of the idea—it came right before the premiere of the seventh season. But back then, people weren’t using YouTube like Sabia—ever controversial—wanted to. Staring at Sabia’s screen, Shea was looking at promotional gold, but also at a potential lawsuit.
“He was using David Chase’s work, essentially, to promote himself—you could see it that way, right? At the same time, he was helping the franchise because of the timing of the piece,” Shea said.
Shea flew from department to department and was met with various answers to her questions about the potential gem Sabia had revealed to her. Some voices thought it was amazing, other screams were sorely against it, and she didn’t even ask legal because she already knew what their answer would be.
“And my boss goes—I’ll never forget what she said—‘I’m not going to tell you not to do it, but if you do, put it under your roommate’s name,’” Sabia said.
With that, Shea walked away, and Sabia pressed upload. The recaps blew up, and HBO’s lawyers suited up. Then, writer and producer David Chase was shown the video on set of the show’s finale—instead of commanding the legion of lawyers to pursue the two basement-dwellers, Chase “laughed all the way through it.” When it came out that a kid who worked in HBO’s lab was partially behind the sensation, people were shocked.
ost in Los Angeles, and excited about going viral for the second time before he was 25, Sabia had an itch to quit his job and take full control over his own content. But first, he headed to Texas to win an international pun competition with an “unpresidented” performance that received a perfect score for crafting a monologue about the 43 presidents of the United States that he wrote in just an hour.
“LA was a weird time, I had a lot of down time, didn’t have a lot of friends, so what else was I going to do besides fly out to Austin, Texas, and try to compete?” Sabia said.
Next, Sabia quit his job at HBOlab and created a quiz during the ’08 election with a friend called “Sexy Politics.” If users answered a question right, a model would take off her clothes. News Corp acquired the company and Sabia had a brief stint at MySpace (“It was like a milder form of like hell, probably.”) in which he used most of his time to refine his coding, Photoshop, and editing skills. With a lot of tools in his box, Sabia officially went freelance—and would remain that way for the next five years.
Sabia seemed to want stability to chase him, to always be nipping at his ankles but never bite him. When big business flirted with him, he jumped into freelance life. According to Shea, Sabia saw himself as a maverick of sorts, who could only create the kind of art he wanted to independently, and when he was able to assemble his own team.
In a few years, Sabia would build a reputation—a reputation that would have big companies like Google, BBC America, HLN, Interscope Records, Nokia, Toms, BBDO, Virgin America, and Comcast knocking on his door just to get him into a room with their teams to create stories.
As he bounced from project to project, curating a portfolio filled with eccentric work, he never saw what he was doing as simply a means to obtain more work and was never worried about being compensated for it. Everything he did was kind of out of curiosity. When he saw an ad for Google Wave which showed its creators on stage, just talking about their product, he imagined a much more exciting demo using audio from Pulp Fiction, and created it with no contract. Just being curious about a good idea led Sabia to snag Google as a client. At Google, he worked with Lady Gaga and conceived of and directed the first-ever Google Zeitgeist video, which recaps the year at the end of every year.
“All I know is that if I just kept on building a great story for myself with types of work that stand out, that I’m excited about, that I feel is doing something that has an impact on culture, then I always knew that that can be translated into a diverse array of ways to get paid.”
Eventually he gave a Ted Talk, launched a campaign “Stop pitying Africa; Unlock its potential” with nonprofit MamaHope by filming a video of a 9-year-old recapping Commando with Arnold Schwarzenegger, then did a follow up of African Men sarcastically talking about their lives in terms set forth by Hollywood, then created a recap of Obama’s first term in office for the 2012 Obama campaign.
But first, new to freelance, he drove to Mongolia.
“I’m obsessed with travel, obsessed with geography, I’m obsessed with just going like, to Eastern Europe, and so I just thought a 10,000 mile trip would be amazing,” Sabia said.
Though YouTube currently occupies an important place in business, and an important place in Sabia’s professional career, around 2009, it was mostly just a “weird way to get attention.” Since sitting in Devlin Hall on Oct.13, 2005, Sabia knew that that attention is exactly what he wanted—he was the right guy to capture people’s attention for a few minutes and make them feel empowered, or at least just make them feel like they enjoyed a part of a day that maybe wasn’t so good. So YouTube was the perfect medium for him, and he was the perfect user for YouTube—everything he touched went viral because he had watched a lot of internet videos. He was (and is) addicted to making the unseen.
“I swear to God, the most interesting things in my life have happened because it starts with: ‘I have this weird idea.’ Everything,” Sabia said.
While driving across the indecisive terrain of Europe and Asia, that served up mountains, deserts, and steppes—and for 100 miles of which Sabia’s car had to be pulled by three different buses—Sabia had yet another weird idea: What would happen if I went to Kazakhstan and filmed a bunch of people saying a line at a time of Tupac Shakur’s “Changes”?
What ended up happening was that Interscope Records saw the internet sensation and flew him out to Japan to do the same thing with Weezer. In Japan, Sabia carried a handwritten note with him—translated by a stewardess right before he deplaned—that said, “Hello you may not know who I am but I’m a very nice person, can you please say what I am asking you to say even though you don’t understand it?” and, of course, a camera. Most people he approached eagerly agreed to say the words.
“It’s all about good will, this is just about people coming together to make people feel good,” Sabia said.
If the rush of having full autonomy to make YouTube videos around the world that would rack up millions of views was Sabia’s high, returning to California induced a staggering withdrawal. He wasn’t connecting with the Cali lifestyle, his chakra was unaligned, and the West Coast aura just didn’t look as good on his East Coast frame. California was just a bit slow and Sabia had been practicing for years to sprint in the big race.
“I had a saying back then, I don’t really believe it now, but if in New York City everyone is running, then that means everyone’s napping in San Francisco and in a coma in LA … it’s just kind of one of those things where cities are about speeds and where you are and the ambition you have is about how fast you want to go. This city is perfect for people who want to run,” Sabia said.
Before he got to New York City in 2011, Sabia had to make a great naval passage—much like immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s, who passed through Ellis Island in the Upper New York Bay, locking eyes with the Statue of Liberty before stepping foot in the city. But Sabia’s boat ride was just a little bit different—it was a networking boat cruise to the Bahamas with an organization called Summit Series. On the cruise he met Jon Batiste, an up and coming musician and piano virtuoso, who also lived in New York.
Batiste, who’s played with Prince, Stevie Wonder, Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz, Ed Sheeran, and is the bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, became the door through which Sabia began CDZA. He introduced Sabia to the two guys he began the musical collective with, Michael Thurber and Matt McCorkle, who are still his best friends today. CDZA stemmed from Sabia’s idea to have a medley of conservatory trained musicians singing the lyrics of songs that weren’t lyrics. He and his crew took all of the dua diddy dum diddy dos and la da da das and mashed them into a video that got 1.5 million views in less than a year. Then YouTube, who Sabia had worked with as a consultant, funded the channel.
It was there that Sabia got a taste of something that was lacking in his life as a freelancer: consistent collaboration, working with one group toward one goal and seeing it through instead of having to pack up and moving to the next job when the product was finished. CDZA did things like going out into the streets to raise money by turning bodies into human juke boxes with coin jars in front of them that said “Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga: fast and slow,” and Google translating the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song into 64 languages, and then back to English. Looking at the CDZA page from back in the day feels like getting the golden ticket to peak into the consciousness of Sabia, the Willy Wonka of Internet videos.
Enter Condé Nast.
Shea remembers getting a call from Sabia when Condé Nast offered him a permanent job. He, being the creative maverick she describes him as, was terrified about going corporate because he thought he would get antsy. But he was also extremely ambitious and wanted to work with interested people, technology, and celebrity, so, she pointed out something important.
“It’s easier to call up Lindsay Lohan if you’re calling from Condé Nast than it is if you’re Joe calling from your apartment,” Shea said.
Sabia realized that Condé Nast could give him the freedom he had experienced for the past five years as a freelance artist, but he would have his own a team, much like at CDZA. That’s when he knew it was a company worth being a part of, and so, the prodigal son returned to the office from working out of cafes everyday.
“Its developed for me a whole sense of mission. I never really predicted I would be in this position—I don’t think a lot of people would have ever predicted that,” Sabia said. “I remember when I found out I was going to take the job my friends go ‘are you sure about that?’”
While Sabia was born out of a remix culture—parodying and cutting up everything he could get his hands on—he now has the resources to just create. Looking online and seeing parodies of “73 Questions” feels right. He was floored when he saw Julia Finkelstein’s “73 Questions” with Ariana Grande spoof. The video, just two weeks old, already has over 3 million views, an example of borrowing and reinventing that energizes Sabia.
“I started out by grabbing clips without permission—I did that, I totally did that, but I would create new art out of it. I would create transformative art out of things I did at home, art that said something art that educated, art that could be used as examples for protecting the ability for artists to use art that they don’t own,” Sabia said.
s VP of Development at Condé Nast, as in everything he’s done, Sabia prioritizes creating human connections—and searching for something “sticky” that people will remember. In seeking those human connections and great ideas, Sabia has seen a lot of success in creating formats with another level of importance.
“He’s very bright, he knows business now … He knows how to work it—it’s always a positive twist that he puts on things,” MacMillan said.
When Sabia was a junior at BC, being a passionate guy whose face pretty much everyone knew given his extensive involvement on campus, he ran for UGBC vice president. Despite getting a Heights endorsement, he lost. But, because of the absence of a title, Sabia was able to go abroad to Rome.
“There was a lot happening in [Woody and Joe’s] heads that I didn’t know about back here in the United States. Joe was constantly creating and writing and coming up with things,” MacMillan said.
Because Sabia went abroad, he came back senior year with new ideas to continue The BC, because he continued The BC he went out to Hollywood, and because he went out to Hollywood—well, you know the rest. Sabia says that all of these things happened because of the singular moment of losing an election.
“What feels like world ending for anyone who’s 21 is a door opening somewhere, or something that could be really great,” Sabia said. “Because if I won that election I would probably be in law school and I’d probably be realizing into my third year that I hate law school.”
Now, Sabia sits on the 21st floor of One World Trade. The white cover of New York Times Bestseller Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, glistens on his desk. The book’s author, Yuval Noah Harari, posits that the cognitive revolution—the watershed moment in human history—came about because of a genetic mutation that gave homo sapiens the ability to think and communicate in unheard of ways. Specifically, this mutation gave homo sapiens the power of storytelling—to craft illusory worlds and forge tales to link themselves together. And armed in the power of stories, homo sapiens were able to collaborate and advance, beating out other animals and establishing a dominant position in a rapidly spinning world. Humanity survived, in other words, because of stories.
“There’s never been a time where it’s been this easy for someone to think of something from their brain, translate it from their eyes to their hands, shoot something, make something, and express themselves.” Sabia said. “It’s never been easier for people to do it, but it’s also never been harder to stand out.”
question is the most vulnerable type of sentence. It puts all the onus on the answer, which comes from another mouth, essentially undressing the asker. To form a question, a person must first confront the realization that there is something they do not know. After that, the anatomy of the question can be formed. It usually begins with a triggering word—the obvious “what?” “where?” “why?” or “how?”—followed by an auxiliary or modal verb, a subject, a main verb.
Most people know Sabia as only a voice. He exists primarily in the cadence of his questions, the flick of inflection at the end of a sentence that’s coated in curiosity and perpetually prompting a response. But those who have met him know that there’s something unique about his eyes.
When you’re interviewing him, his eyes grasp yours and hold them as collateral, so that it’s hard to look away to take notes or read a meticulously typed question off your computer screen. Sometimes he can’t help answering your question with one of his own—the answer to “where are you from?” is not “Connecticut” but “Connecticut, wait, what about you? Where are you from?” But when you ask a particularly good question his eyes flash around the room as he thinks, until they come to a stop looking into yours, and, suspended again—waiting for him to fill the silence—this master of questions floors you with his answer.
Featured Image Courtesy of Condé Nast Entertainment