What Do Angelenos Talk About? We Asked the Best Eavesdropper in the City.

A conversation with the man behind Overheard LA

November 13, 2018 9:00 am

“What I’ve always loved about Los Angeles is how free it is.”

So says Jesse Margolis, the man behind Overhead LA, possibly the funniest Instagram account that’s never shared a single photo.

It’s been in production since 2015, which was about six months after Margolis had his a-ha moment after overhearing a conversation at a supermarket. It’s now up to over a million followers, having launched satellite accounts in London, New York and San Francisco, as well as partnerships with brands like Bumble, Le Labo and Uber.

Last week, Margolis published his first print collection, an anthology entitled We Only Dated for 11 Instagrams. That title comes from Margolis’s favorite quote, which, like all of his posts, appears as simple text on a white background (though the book features illustrations by Emmet Truxe — as well as an introduction from Mayor Eric Garcetti).

The project is so popular that the phrase “This is so Overheard LA” has become a sort of shorthand for recognition of some laughably regional thing that’s just been uttered. Margolis knows this all too well.

“I think people do have a sense of humor about themselves. They might not take their time as seriously as they do in more traditional cities, where people are coming in on subways and working really hard; they’re free to live sort of stranger, more colorful lives. Which, of course, is fun to make fun of.”

We sat down with Margolis to discuss the book, how it got started and what makes us Angelenos such an interesting study in linguistics.

InsideHook: How did Overheard LA start, and how long did it take for you to start getting submissions?

Jesse Margolis: I was playing around on my private Instagram account, doing really stupid stuff like dog memes, latte Rorschach tests and emoji book covers. I was sitting at a supermarket one day and these women were talking next to me, and I sort of wrote down their conversation and posted it. It did a lot better than the dog memes. About a week later, I decided to turn it into an account. I think we probably posted our first submission like a month after we actually launched it. I think it was about a girl who had a birthday party — it was a kid’s birthday party, but the theme was yoga and modeling.

IH: How do you vet submissions? Is there any accounting for whether they’re truthful or not?

JM: It’s comedy, not journalism. Some stuff is obviously real because you hear it all the time. If it’s more extraordinary and absurd stuff, we’ll usually follow up with, “Is this real?”  But at the end of the day, I’m more concerned if it rings true. I’ll do a Google search or a Twitter search to make sure it’s not ripping off someone. But at the end of the day, as long as it’s original, we do the best we can to vet, but there’s no real way to establish it.

IH: Did you have a process for selecting the best bits for your book?

JM: We tried to go with like 50-70 percent of our all-time favorites. The other half is content that hadn’t been posted — really great submissions that we just held on to. Then we divided them up thematically: dating, the digital age, the youth, spirituality and food. We try to just lay them out with different slices of culture or un-culture … whatever you wanna call it.

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IH: Do you think Angelenos have a particular style of speech?

JM: Native Angelenos don’t. We’re quite normal, I think. But I do think the Valley has a certain style of speech and there’s a sort of Southern California way that people start talking, and I don’t know if it’s cause they’ve moved here or if it’s the way people talk on TV. It’s a lot of likes.

IH: Can you distinguish between recent transplants, transients and natives?

JM: I can’t think of words, but pronunciations for sure. A transplant would say, “Los FUH-leez,” whereas a local would say, “Los FEE-liz.” It’s in the way they interact with the local nomenclature and vernacular.

IH: Could you distinguish between a recent transplant and somebody who’s been here a minute?

JM: I think you can the same way as when you’re walking down the street and there’s a German person walking past you. You can just see in the look on their face that they’re European and they don’t think in the same language. For no reason, you can just tell by their style and the way they walk and their facial expression that they’re kind of consuming the world through a different filter. I think you can tell, you know, if it’s someone who’s moved here from New York and has a certain style and edge versus someone who’s sort of extremely enthusiastic and incredibly nice and trusting and just came here from Cincinnati to pursue their dream of being on the CW.

IH: What’s an example of an “Overheard in LA” exchange that you’d never hear somewhere else?

JM: A lot of intense conversations about kombucha. To be fair, that’s probably starting to happen in New York and the Bay Area, so I don’t know if that’s completely spot on. Definitely things about intense spirituality. Like, “I’ve gone to see a shaman who’s injecting me with frog poison,” or, “I’m not seeing a doctor, but the healer I’m seeing has put me on a coconut yogurt diet.” I think that stuff is truly LA — the adherence to sort of New-Age Spirituality and unverified, unscientific healing instead of traditional medicine. And then obviously the film industry. You know, it’s a bit cliché and LA is a lot more diverse and interesting now that it was five, 10, 15 years ago, but you do uniquely hear conversations about acting and fame and the manager of a restaurant talking about how much they wish they had a manager. Stuff like that.

IH: LA’s history of cults and bizarre health trends — or as you said, “unverified” health trends — has been here since the ‘20s. What is it about the region that you think attracts that element?

JM: I think people come to Los Angeles to find themselves in the same way that people go to New York to prove themselves. There’s something about not fitting in where you’re from, and I would imagine there is some sort of Hollywood tie-in, because the time that there’s been a film industry is the same amount of time that there have been an upswing of cults in Southern California. It’s also a place for untraditional people: it’s not necessarily conservative, it’s not necessarily religious. I think in the absence of those things, you tend to look for religion in other forms. Whether it’s strict veganism or some guy in Glendale who tells you, “You just need to breathe and eat mangoes and nothing else.”

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IH: What are some other common topics of conversation?

JM: Definitely dating. Dating is a modern struggle for everyone, but in Los Angeles it’s particularly perilous. The phenomenon of social media, the sort of ‘meta’ aspect of the account, whether you’re talking about Instagram, on Instagram, or the way people are trying to form their own identities in the digital age. You can always count on vegans submitting or being submitted — they provide some good, odd, what I would call ‘only in LA’ [conversations].”

IH: Do people in LA talk about traffic as much as outsiders think we do? (E.g., “The Californians”?)

JM: I think it’s kind of a cliché. I mean, yes, today someone was 20 minutes late to a meeting because of traffic, but I feel like LA is changing and improving in a lot of ways. Uber has just transformed the city in terms of your ability to move around and not be stuck with parking. But yes, The Californians is one of the greatest things of all time and if Overheard could just come close one day to being as funny as that, I’ll be quite happy.

IH: What’s a common misconception people have about Angelenos that this project has demonstrated to you?

JM: I think it’s more what you don’t see in the account. The things being lampooned on the account is this sort of ‘we’re all a little bit like that.’ What’s interesting about LA is it’s much more diverse and layered and unique than it ever has been. I think it’s a challenge to showcase that on the accounts, because that’s not always funny. LA is now a city that has great food and interesting neighborhoods and a lot more people from New York and Europe and Australia and Asia. There are a lot of clichés that are true, like the weather and traffic and actors. But there’s also this other part of it where there are smart people who can contribute and observe the absurdity.

IH: Angelenos are commonly seen as perpetually young. Do you find this to be true in how older generations talk?

JM: I think that’s one of the clichés that is true. LA is obsessed with youth. I think a lot of places are, but in LA it’s quite profound. But Instagram skews young. One of my favorite quotes ever is some 60-year-old tourist couple at the Price Is Right. And the guy has gotten kicked out cause he had weed on him. I sort of wish the account had more interactions with older people, but I think they’re just less likely to be aware of it or actively submitting than someone in their twenties or thirties.

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IH: What phrases or styles of speech are trending right now?

JM: People are speaking in acronyms, which should be a hate crime.The word “literally” is a problem and I’m guilty of it. It’s become sort of an active meme, you know this sort of thing in speech that we all lean on for some reason. One of my favorite quotes of all time that we had is just two words: “literally possibly.”

IH: What phrases are you completely tired of hearing?

JM: “Amazing.” I’m sick of it. When you say this word for climbing Kilimanjaro and looking out on it versus your boba. I mean this is gonna sound cheesy, but I think it’s more we’re not looking at each other when we talk than the style of speech. But yeah, the acronyms are an issue. Like ‘AF.’

IH: What are the best places in LA to eavesdrop?

JM: Definitely cafes and restaurants. People are pushed up next to each other and we do have public transportation, but not in the way other cities do. Uber pools. We get a lot of great stuff from there. We actually have an account called Overheard Uber, which we just launched like five months ago. I think airplanes are funny. Anywhere you’re stuck. I think most of us have eavesdropped, but there’s something cheesy about eavesdropping, you’re really just sort of put into a forced listening space where you’d like have to have headphones on or ignore it. Like I didn’t go to eavesdrop on those two women in the first conversation I ever posted. I just happened to be sitting there and they came over and started talking about their friend Lisa who was obsessed with schwag and freezing their eggs. The conversation sort of invades your space and then you decide whether to ignore it or try to be entertained by it.

IH: If you could boil it down to a few words, what has this endeavor taught you most about Angelenos?

JM: I think people in LA are wonderful. Just like how much better the city is and has become in terms of how free it is, how nice people are, how much just interacting with people via DM and how generous in spirit they are. I think it’s actually given me a more positive, optimistic take on Los Angeles, which is a much different city than it was five or 10 years ago.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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