Max Joseph is perhaps best known for being Catfish’s resident naysayer, an oft-proclaimed “silver fox” who holds a point-and-shoot camera to get the show’s authentic documentary shaky-cam feel. The third season, which kicked off last week, has a noticeably darker feel to it, with Max and his partner in cybersleuthing, Nev Schulman, investigating cases motivated more by sociopathy than by identity disorders. Joseph spoke with Vulture last week and explained why he feels like #TrueDetectiveSeason2 come to life, how every human being needs a therapist, and what he thinks about fans who refer to the show as Fatfish.
How’s your press day going?
Good. I just did a fun stint at Good Day New York. They had a full bar for Cinco de Mayo to promote complete depravity.
That’s entirely appropriate, with Catfish coming back with a new season of people lying to each other.
Sure. Why not?
Well, happy Cinco de Mayo! Speaking of celebrations, can we talk about the forever-evolving relationship between you and Nev, which is often a completely different story line than the one focused on whoever’s being catfished?
The arc of our love story?
Yeah, but not just your affection for each other — also how you each treat people like you’re playing good cop/bad cop.
This season is funny because we were watching True Detective simultaneously as we were shooting the season. Turns out it’s particularly darker, and a lot of these Catfish stories take weird twists and turns that are not exactly about about romance. [The catfish] are in it for these other strange motivations. We did feel a lot more like detectives this season. That feeling that detectives get once they’ve seen the dark side of people enough in the way they can get a little numb and feel like humanity is just a dark reservoir of catfish. You know?
You see yourself in these murky waters where these things don’t have a clear, satisfying ending.
And also just kind of the way detectives work. It’s not even a plan that one person becomes the good cop and one person becomes the bad cop. It just happens that way sometimes, and you understand it when you’re in these situations because our show is about breaking through to people and getting them to see themselves and understand their decisions and their actions. No one believes that they’re a bad person at the end of the day. Everyone has a justification for why they do [bad] things. On the other hand, a series of bad decisions can paint you to be a bad person. A lot of times we find ourselves explaining that and there are different ways to get through to people.
Do you feel you have gotten “harder” in the past two seasons? Last season, we called Nev “The Most Optimistic Man on TV” because he was always assuming it was true love for these people. Now I feel like you both are more practical about what’s going to happen.
Nev has changed more than I have. He is no longer Mr. Optimistic, and sometimes gets more upset than I do. But we can’t both be upset. It’s kind of like a seesaw. Basically, you know the first time we meet someone, it’s like they’re trapped in the iceberg and someone has to be the hammer to crack the iceberg. To get the crack started, the other person needs to be like the sun, and warms the ice up so it just melts. That’s the interplay. That’s got to be the way detectives work as partners.
In last night’s episode, you both get so angry that your producer has to tell you to both to chill out.
Yeah, there’s a little bit of excuse fatigue. We all have excuses. We could all take all of the things that have happened to us over the course of our lives and use them as excuses for being cruel to others. And sometimes we just get tired of hearing the same excuses from people. That’s why we end up saying this a lot: “You don’t seem like a bad person, I don’t think you’re a bad person, but we’ve now seen objectively that you’ve done X, Y, and Z. And that is not a good track record of a good person.”
But what happens when, three seasons in, you’re telling someone they’re making bad decisions and they don’t care? You have people more often saying, “I catfish people and I’m proud of it. I want my 15 minutes of fame.”
That was a major conversation that we continuously had this season: Are we just promoting bad behavior? We are regulators to some degree, but are we making these bad people famous? And that happened a little bit with last night’s episode. We were like, Oh my god, are we creating a monster here? Are we giving her this fame that she wanted? Is she just using our show as a platform to promote herself and her bad behavior? We don’t want to be creating monsters. Sure, she might get 45 minutes of fame, but what will she do with it? Will she really extend it to more? We haven’t really seen anyone do that. It makes me sad because I liked her a lot. And when she came out as a catfisher, I literally said, “Oh my god, that’s so lame. You’re so lame.”
Do you ever leave a situation where you’re like, Hey, you should really just get a therapist?
You are a thousand percent dead-on. These people are not dumb. Most just don’t have therapists. They can’t talk to their parents for one reason or another. School is not a safe place. Their teachers are overwhelmed and can’t deal with all the pressures that teachers deal with. The kids at school are mean. They can’t trust their best friends because their best friends are leaking all their secrets on social media. The only people that they can really trust and talk to in confidentiality are perfect strangers on the other side of the country. The reason they stay in these relationships for so long is because they’re getting something out of them that’s more important than sex. Nev and I both grew up in New York City, and we were both upper-middle-class Jewish kids from New York, and we’ve been both been in therapy since we were in middle school.
Everyone does need a therapist.
We are giving them a kind of low-level, amateur version of therapy. And it is just a taste of it, and we’re probably doing it all wrong. In fact, everyone who is in the show does speak to a therapist when the show is over. So that’s a positive.
Essentially, everybody needs a therapist more than being advised to stay away from the internet.
I might also throw exercise out there, too. Most of the people on our issue are dealing with image issues. Instead of actually eating right and actually working out, they take a shortcut to that and pretend to be someone who is in shape.
The number one issue on Catfish is always: True life, I am heavier in real life than I say I am online.
There are people who call our show Fatfish, because it’s all about people who are ashamed of being overweight. That shame is a really hard to thing to talk about, especially as two guys, because we definitely have it much easier than girls do. And you want to promote self-acceptance, but at the same time, you want to promote healthy living. It’s a very fine line to walk. Second to body issues is sexuality. And beneath that is weird revenge. And beneath that is sociopathy, like, I do it because it’s more fun than a video game.
How big is the revenge thing?
Because of the show, a lot of people are way smarter about not getting catfished. It fortunately and unfortunately has made it very hard to find stories. We’re finding this season that there’s a lot more that fall into the “I’m doing it for fun” category, which is kind of the most frightening because these people are not in touch with humanity. If you spend all day in front of a computer, then no one seems real. They are all just profiles and comments and likes. If you live in a big city and you’re surrounded by people, you’re way more in touch with humanity than you would be if you lived in a very remote area and just spent all day long on the computer. People will stop seeing real. It does kind of become like a video game.
When does it become illegal?
We’ve actually touched on a number of scams this season. Catfishing is still in this legal grey area. If you’re getting catfished and you go to the police, they won’t do anything, because there’s nothing technically illegal about this. I think in the future there will be laws against internet fraud and identity fraud online. We’ll look back at this moment in time as like, Hey, remember when the internet was like the wild wild west?
The Nigerian spam email that you get asking for money? That still happens. People still get scammed all the time.
I spend some time around kids and my friend’s kids, my nephews. And when you’re a kid growing up and you’re just kind of learning about the world, the worst thing you can call someone else is a liar. You are telling me the world is one way and it’s not.
Especially if you’re a kid and you’re not allowed to say bad words. That is the worst word you can say.
I think we forget that as we get older because practically everyone lies. Everyone is putting their best foot forward! There is a fine line between exaggerating and embellishing and actually catfishing someone. Someone pointed out to me yesterday that even the preview to the movie Catfish is a catfish. Because the preview to the film it made it seem like it was going to be this horror film, and then people saw the movie and it wasn’t a horror film. And so in a way, even the marketing campaign for Catfish catfished people. It just goes to show that we all are guilty to it to some degree.
Catfish seems to change every season because society is changing. It will evolve into a totally different show as it goes on, which I think is rare.
It is crazy that we seem to have affected the landscape that we’re investigating.
You are now in your own story in terms of the way people are playing the game.
It’s good and bad. In a lot of ways, I think it’s good that we’re finding the sociopaths now. I really shouldn’t use the term sociopaths, because who knows if they actually are sociopaths, they might not be. But whatever they’re exhibiting is close to it in the sense that they don’t seem to feel a moral obligation to other people. They seem to be without emotion or sympathy or compassion. But what that is a sign of is that we’re finding the dregs at the bottom of the pool. We’ve drained the pool, and I feel like there are less catfish out there, and the people that are still out there are the people who are really good at it.
On your way toward Carcosa.
The good news is that we didn’t lose ourselves to the darkness. We didn’t cross over into Carcosa.