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The guy from ‘73 Questions’ answers 73 questions

The set of actress Margot Robbie's video for "73 Questions," a Vogue video series where Boston College alumnus Joe Sabia asks celebrities 73 rapid-fire questions.Courtesy of Joe Sabia

You’ve probably never seen his face, but there’s a good chance you have heard his voice.

Joe Sabia is the unseen host of “73 Questions,” a long-running Vogue video series that enters the homes of celebrities and films them, staring straight into the camera, answering 73 rapid-fire questions in one take. It started in 2014, after Condé Nast Entertainment called Sabia, then a freelancer, and asked him what he would do if he had four hours with Sarah Jessica Parker. His idea? The Energizer Bunny of interviews. Parker suggested the video be shot in her home, and the rest is history.

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Sabia, a 2006 Boston College alumnus, was soon after hired at Condé Nast, eventually becoming senior vice president of creative development, and helping to dream up a bevy of other viral series. There is “Tinder Takeover,” where celebrities assume control of a stranger’s Tinder account, “Autocomplete Interviews,” where stars answer the search engine’s most popular fill-in questions about them, and “Lie Detector Test,” where celebrities are hooked up to a polygraph machine. He interviewed singer Billie Eilish on the same day for four years in a row as her celebrity ballooned. (The fifth year interview dropped this week for Vanity Fair.)

The standout, though, with millions of views per episode, is “73 Questions.” While he left Condé Nast last year to head up his own creative agency, Studio Sabia, Sabia still helms the perennially popular series, for which he’s interviewed dozens of A-listers in their natural habitats. Reese Witherspoon bouncing on her outdoor trampoline, Zac Efron barbecuing, and most recently, Adele unpacking produce for a vegetable soup are just some of the highlights.

These are videos, like all of Sabia’s work, in the service of storytelling, but, he explained, they’re not as straightforward as they look. The videos involve rigorous research, meticulous choreography, and multiple takes to come out as seamless as they seem on YouTube — but they capture a rare look at the lives of the ultra famous, as unfiltered as we’ve ever seen them. It’s also given Sabia a perspective on celebrity that few “normal” people ever get.

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“They want to be humanized and show their interests, passions, and love for things as much as anyone else,” said Sabia from his New York City apartment.

The Globe caught up with Sabia about what it’s like to shoot “73 Questions,” his most memorable celebrity stories, and digital storytelling.

1. How do you come up with each of the 73 questions?

There’s a fantastic team at Vogue who takes the first pass at assembling a big bucket of questions. That’s based on their fandom and their research, and it’s also a good way to see what the publicists are into, what they’re not into. When that big bucket gets culled down to 100 or so, I come in and fill in some of the gaps.

2. What does the research process for questions look like?

Lots of previous interviews. Reading into stories, going on YouTube and finding everything that’s there. A lot of the questions need to be Vogue-y. It’s a lot of questions about beauty and fashion.

3. What’s something that ruined a take of “73 Questions”?

There was one time with Gisele [Bündchen], where on the final take, her kids unexpectedly ran out and started climbing all over her. But she pulled it off. She didn’t stop. [Tom Brady] had to go to the airport right after that, so if that take was ruined, we would have lost Tom Brady.

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4. If somebody did a “73 Questions” of you and toured your house, what is the first thing they’d see?

My windows, looking at a bunch of NYU kids waiting in line to get into their classrooms. They’d also see a ton of magnets on my fridge and art from my genius 10-year-old goddaughter.

5. What’s your favorite refrigerator magnet?

Probably me and my best friend, George, and his wife from the country of Georgia. I’ve been there 20 times and it’s a home away from home for me.

6. What’s something you’d hide before the crew showed up?

Dishes and clothes on the floor.

7. What’s one of your interview tricks to make a shoot more natural?

Just be a normal human. Ask “How was your day?” before getting into it. Preheat the oven a little bit by saying how excited you are to be there and what your experience was like traveling to the city to be there. Have a tremendous amount of patience knowing that this is often not the easiest thing in the world for people. And have a really chill crew — we are going to people’s homes, the energy needs to be right, the vibe needs to be right.

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8. Which celebrities would you like to have stayed in touch with?

I imagine staying really good friends with people like Daniel Radcliffe and Roger Federer, but when you’re dealing with celebrities of this caliber, they’re extremely busy people doing their thing. I would love to be drinking buddies with Adele. I’d love to go to regular magic shows with Neil Patrick Harris. A lot of these people would be a bright source of light in my life if I was suddenly best friends with them.

9. What have you been obsessed about lately?

Writing my own music to sheet music.

10. What was the hardest part about leaving Condé Nast?

The team. I really miss the stellar creators who all had a hand in doing something really special with digital media.

11. What’s the best part about running your own company?

Freedom [and] autonomy to dictate all the things that I want to do on my own terms, and reconnecting more with my sensibilities of being a creator and artist.

12. What song are you listening to on the way to the interviews?

I can call out two moments where I remember distinctly [being] holed away listening to music. Franz Liszt for Hailey Bieber and Jim Croce for Tracee Ellis Ross.

13. What about a podcast?

I don’t want voices and opinions in my ear before “73.” I’d rather have music to set the mood rather than conversation or narrative deep dives.

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14. Adele’s video was on the longer side, with more than 73 questions. What was different about her?

We definitely have noticed more conversational flow to things over the course of time with “73 Questions.” It’s evolved to more of a sit down, natural interview. Let’s have this be a little bit more realistic and not so surface level. Adele, you really see something that feels more like a conversation than an interview.

15. New York or LA?

New York.

16. Where’s your dream vacation?

One I’m hoping to take in April is Paris. I really want to be in Paris with my girlfriend and great friends.

17. What’s your favorite quote?

One is, “You die twice, first your body, and then second, the last time someone mentions your name.” I think Banksy said that. I also say out loud, “You either have fire or you don’t.” Meaning that the things that we make either have impact or not. What’s the point of anything if it’s not impacting the way that people feel about something?

18. Comedy or drama?

Both, in the same experience.

19. What vibe did you get from Elizabeth Holmes when you interviewed her in 2015?

That she was one of the most powerful women in the world when I met her.

20. What made you want to start learning to film and edit video during college?

It was one of the most empowering feelings, to dictate your own vision on your own with a laptop. Some of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had in my life is the satisfaction I received in spending a lot of time and late nights, sleepless nights, to have a product that can entertain people. That was magic.

21. Why did you choose to go to BC?

Because I couldn’t get anywhere else. I held unreasonably high standards for myself — it was Ivy League schools or it’s nothing, and I got rejected from all of them. I found out very quickly that the best thing that ever happened to me was getting rejected from all those other schools, because BC was a great place. It was where I belonged. The web series that we had there proved that the school was pretty awesome, if so many people were willing to be a part of it.

22. How did you come up with the idea for your web-series “The BC,” the spoof of “The O.C.” that you made in college?

“The O.C.” was the biggest show on campuses everywhere. I approached my friend Woody Tondorf and I said, “How funny would it be if we changed ‘The O.C. into ‘The BC?’” When we thought about it, we were like, “Well, I guess a priest needs to be the star of the show.” We did a shot-for-shot trailer match to “The O.C.” trailer, and we put it up on CollegeHumor as a joke, and it went viral.

23. What was it like to have your first brush with going viral, before there was really a word for it?

It was harder to share video back then because of website bandwidth. So getting 3,000 clicks on a video, that was the definition of viral back then. It still felt like it won the Internet for a week.

24. It’s been 10 years since you gave a TED Talk on the evolution of storytelling technology. How has your outlook on storytelling changed since then?

Look at TikTok, look at Oculus. It’s never going to stop. The new mediums that are out there are never going to stop people from flooding it with extremely creative ideas.

25. What’s the secret ingredient to a compelling digital story?

In today’s attention economy, the definition of compelling is what can keep someone’s attention without checking their phone or switching to something else. For a lot of the nonfiction work that I do, it’s a really strong, unique concept that feels like it hasn’t been done before. Everything else can’t come to the surface unless you have that strong idea that rises above the noise.

26. How do you stay one step ahead of the Internet?

By not trying. I never see it like that — if anything, there’s millions of pockets of the Internet who are ahead of me. If you’re trying to make content for the Internet, you need to be on the Internet. You need to be watching as many things as possible. If you’re not doing that, that’s one hell of a way to stay behind. Because how else will you be creatively literate?

27. You made a video for the 2012 Obama campaign. How does storytelling for politics differ from entertainment?

There’s a lot more at stake with getting the messaging perfect. With “73 Questions,” there’s plenty of spaces that people don’t want to go to or cannot go to. But when a presidential election is on the line, that must all stay consistent within a broad and more controlled narrative.

28. What is a common thread between all of Condé’s most well-known franchises — “Tinder Takeover,” “Lie Detector,” “73 Questions,” “Autocomplete Interview,” etc.?

Experiences matter. Relatability matters — not just in a celebrity laughing or having fun or having an experience, but also in these digital platforms that we all exist on, whether it’s Twitter, whether it’s Google search, whether it’s Tinder.

29. Why do you think the question-answer format remains so compelling?

In the language of interviews, [”73 Questions”] is spoken with a digital dialect. What that means is a reinvention of what has been seen before into something more authentic and engaging. The way that they look at the camera, the way that you’re inside their home and not onstage with the talk show host. You’re really in their space and they’re talking directly to you, and that’s very intimate.

30. Who is one celebrity who was exactly what you were expecting?

Daniel Radcliffe. Adele. All the athletes. At the end of the day, what you see is what you get, and no one’s pretending to be anyone they’re not.

Joe Sabia with Adele, who was recently the star of a "73 Questions" video.Courtesy of Joe Sabia

31. Who was one celebrity who seemed totally different from their public persona?

Liam Gallagher has such a renegade, middle-fingers-to-the-sky attitude, but for him to show up and do “73 Questions” shows that he was a real dude. Cardi B is really special to point out — for Cardi to want the interview in her grandma’s house, for her to be in very comfortable clothing with a sleeping child, I wasn’t expecting that. I was expecting huge personality. But she was very low-key and she was herself and I thought that was really beautiful.

32. How does the choreography work for these videos?

A lot of planning and trial-and-error. We sketch out a rough plan, we do a “stumble through” — we’re talking and we’re not even shooting during the first or second take. We go through it multiple times until it’s smooth and not unbearable for audiences. The day before or a couple of days before, we have a chance to see the home so we know what rooms we can go to, we know rooms we cannot. We try to come up with a flow that evenly spreads this out so you’re never feeling static in any one location.

33. What’s the number one question you get about “73 Questions”?

Who was your favorite? And then the second question I get is: Who is your least favorite? I don’t get into that.

34. Can you give us a hint of the next “73 Questions” star?

A human being who is living with life experiences.

35. You’ve said “73 Questions” was built for Sarah Jessica Parker. Is there any celebrity you think would not be a good fit for “73 Questions”?

If any celebrity is willing to be authentic to themselves, this format can work for them. It just may need to be directed in a different way from other people — Lady Gaga sat down for 90 percent of the interview, because that’s what she wanted. The only rule here is that you need to be into the idea. I’m trying to think of someone who only exists in bite-size pieces — Larry David would not do this. The answer to your question is Larry David.

36. If you could say anything to Sarah Jessica Parker seven years after the release of the first “73 Questions” video, what would it be?

Thank you for saying yes.

37. Who’s made you the most starstruck?

Blake Lively was such a stunning and amazing individual. Everything about her oozed so much confidence and beauty.

38. What do you think is the biggest difference between celebrities and normal folks?

There is an awareness of public. They have full schedules, and for many, an extraordinary amount of pressure on them. For those with the most successful careers, there’s always a plan and a brilliant team around them. There’s a lot riding on their career, and it’s not just about them, it’s for all the people who are surrounding them. So that’s not a normal type of pressure that people have. They’re effectively running companies, when you think about it.

39. How does it feel to see all the 73 question parodies, TikTok references, etc.?

A lot of the content of “73 Questions” becomes immortalized for the whole career of someone. There’s a lot of good material in “73 Questions” — a lot of facts, a lot of interesting stuff that may mean something else years later. I think TikTok is good at resurfacing something with some added commentary. It’s always interesting to see what they notice, what they observe.

40. What do you do to get in the “73 Questions” zone?

I wake up really early and drink a ton of coffee. Most of these shoots are in the morning, so I’m up four hours before hair and makeup. Getting in the zone is reading through the script, making sure the choreography is right.

41. How much do celebrities take the lead? Like did Daniel Radcliffe suggest Ping-Pong, for example?

I would say a majority of the time we propose a plan. If it’s not a home, then it needs to be somewhere. Sometimes we will look at special locations, like Ping-Pong for Daniel Radcliffe, or this kitchen that we used for Blake Lively.

42. What’s the best thing to ever happen after the cameras stopped rolling?

When you know you have your take, it’s the best feeling. Often I’m high-fiving celebrities. Some people don’t want us to go. Nicole Kidman and Cindy Crawford, they were like, “Guys, come on, let’s have some drinks in the kitchen.”

43. You’ve said one of your dream “73 Questions” guests is Billy Joel. What question is first on your list for him?

The first question I would ask him is: “Why did you agree to do this?” And then I would say, “Why don’t you write more music like the classical piano you did in 2001 that no one’s ever heard about?”

44. What’s the best thing the Internet has done for storytelling?

Democratize it. It’s an infinite inspiration machine. All the technology made it easy to make things, but it was the Internet that held up a giant billboard that said, “Your work goes here.”

45. You cataloged over a thousand cultural references from “The Office” with Aaron Rasmussen to advocate for copyright reform. Why are you so passionate about fair use?

That was finding a cause after inspiration. I was already dedicated to doing something with 1,700 clips from “The Office.” As I put it together, I saw it as an opportunity to advocate for something that means a lot to me, which is a more loose interpretation of fair use to allow creators to do something without fear of a video being taken down or punishment.

46. How do you take care of your mental health when your job is vying for clicks?

I started running a lot. Runner’s high introduced me to a whole realm of higher thinking. Cooking helps, too, and listening to music and podcasts. Getting away, leaving the city too, is really important. And getting off the Internet.

47. How do you overcome idea block?

Sleeping on something, waking up and seeing how you feel about it a day later, is probably the most effective way to assess quality. Getting feedback from trusted individuals is key, too.

48. Coffee or tea?

Coffee.

49. Streaming or movie theater?

Streaming. It’s just too convenient.

50. You’re an international pun champion. What’s a pun you’ve made that you’re proud of?

I was coming out of Carnegie Hall and this one guy said, “I’m glad we saw Beethoven, but I’m so tired of Beethoven’s Fifth.” I responded, “Yeah. Last time you saw that, you were like, nah, nah, nah, nah.”

51. You have spatial synesthesia. Describe it to me.

Days of the week, months, days of the month, hours, minutes, alphabet, age, years, all of these ordinal sequences, I have 3-D maps in my brain of all of these different sequences. I cannot not see these maps that I’ve had since childhood.

52. Does that make deadlines easier to keep?

If something happened in the year 2014, I’m able to see the year 2014 visually, so I think it helps memory recall.

53. What was your favorite dish when you had your Italian restaurant in the country of Georgia?

The Carbonara was really good. And the pizza.

54. What’s your favorite song to play on piano?

My own music, or classical piano.

55. You write your own music?

I do. It ends up sounding like show tunes for the female voice. I don’t know why. It’s very weird.

56. If you were to write a musical, what would it be about?

The life of Franz Liszt, who was a 19th-century composer.

57. What’s one thing we don’t know about Anna Wintour?

She’s extremely punctual, and invites comments and opinions from every single person in the room.

58. What about Adele?

It was her idea to do 95 questions.

59. The Kardashians/Jenners?

They are extremely aware of what they’re doing from a business perspective. They’re very skilled. Kim really impressed me because she’s so bright and she knows exactly what she’s doing. And the mom was there on every shoot.

60. What’s changed the most about Billie Eilish over the four years you sat down with her?

There’s this arc of watching her realize that she’s kind of taken over the world. That awareness of her power and influence was the most interesting way to watch someone grow up.

61. Where in Boston would you shoot a “73 Questions” video?

Fenway Park. Get on the field. Let’s do it.

62. What’s your favorite place to go to in Boston when you come back to visit?

Downtown and Beacon Hill on a warm evening.

63. What advice would you give to your college freshman self?

Take harder classes.

64. Who is the cutest celebrity pet you met?

Emma Stone’s golden retriever Ren, when he dressed up on National Dress Up Your Pet in a Raincoat Day.

65. Best party trick?

Playing songs on my hands and doing pun routines. If there’s a piano, I’ll play it.

66. Best comment you’ve ever gotten on a video?

I wouldn’t say comment; I would say people making their own versions of this is really special.

67. What do you think is the best answer one of your questions has ever gotten?

When I asked Diddy, “How would you describe yourself?” he responded, “I’m vivacious, eccentric, and a Scorpio.”

68. Does something ever change drastically from take to take?

There’s certain people that refuse to give their answers until we’re ready to go. So that means we’re rehearsing and they’re either not giving answers, or like Sarah Jessica Parker, she’s saying “blah” over and over again. Some people end up mixing things up. We encourage them to, and when they do we have to keep track of where they are. It makes pacing things tricky. But who am I to stop them from doing whatever they want? This is their interview.

69. What’s one question you really wanted answered but got nixed by a publicist?

I wouldn’t ask this for obvious reasons, but I would probably ask, “Who does what you do, but a lot better?”

70. What’s the best part of working on “73 Questions”?

Seeing how many people trust this to be an experience that they see as a milestone along their career. When someone comes up and says, “I’ve been waiting for this, finally it’s happened,” it’s pretty special. And aside from that, it’s seeing people upload their own versions.

71. Is it weird when commenters ask you to be a guest on “73 Questions”?

That’s like the top comment. It’s Lana Del Rey, Harry Styles, and me. But whatever.

72. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

Following my interests in the search for projects that I can be obsessed with.

73. Where do you see the Internet in 10 years?

Full of memes. If I were to think a little bit more about that, I would say that I see everyone making something. I see everyone expressing something about themselves through making something.


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com