Medium has come to represent the best of new communications technology. It’s not just an online publishing tool — it’s a network of ideas, a place to engage in discussion. President Obama uses it regularly. Bono used it to lay out a plan for Africa, and Melinda Gates responded. The Heritage Foundation used it to publish their annual report.
Medium is an ideas exchange, where thinkers, creators, and storytellers come to find their audience, move ideas, and move people. It allows your audience to respond, react, and build on your ideas. Increasingly, it’s a platform for influential people and organizations to publish, converse, and engage.
Put shortly, publishing on Medium gets your message read, discussed, and spread. The best part? Anybody can be good at it.
Join us on Tuesday, December 15 at 2 PM ET as we’re joined by Medium’s own Gabe Kleinman, who will interactively walk you through what it takes to be good at Medium.
- The basics of publishing
- How to create engaging and successful posts
- Tips on experimenting with different types of content
WHEN: Tuesday, December 15 at 2 PM ET
This article originally appeared in the Fall/Winter 2015 issue of Change Agent
My name is Taj Carson. I have a confession to make. I’m a scientist, and worse than that, I’m a social scientist.
I come from academia, where we are convinced that if you measure human behavior using the right instrument, one that is reliable and valid, you can predict human behavior and make clear, undeniable statements about the truth.
I thought there was a truth that you could measure. And that you could measure it using human beings. I learned the hard way that people are messy, complicated, chaotic creatures who unfortunately have feelings and motivations that are changing all the time.
So how do you measure these disordered, hectic creatures in a meaningful way? How do you gather data, a scientific and methodical process, from subjects who are the exact opposite? That is what I’ve spent the past 15 years working with my clients to figure out.
“Errors using inadequate data are greater than those using no data at all.”
I’ve finally arrived at a place where I can say with confidence that we can measure anything—human behavior, relationships, communication. We will do the best we can, with the resources we have, to collect the information we need to tell the story of what the client is doing and why it matters. This may sound unscientific, but that’s because it’s not a perfect science. People aren’t lab rats. We are messy, complicated, chaotic … you get the picture. People think of communication as an art. It involves the most amazing of human activities—storytelling, compassion, advocacy—used to make our world better, to help each other, to create change.
So what is the role of evaluation in the world of communication? Does it have a role to play at all? It can be really hard to see its place, so sometimes we don’t collect any data because we don’t think it’s appropriate.
Or, if we can’t see the big picture, we collect data without thinking it through. We collect random information, or we pull up Google Analytics data because it’s easy. But as Charles Babbage put it, “Errors using inadequate data are greater than those using no data at all.”
When evaluating communication, measurement must be a priority. When it isn’t, we end up with no data, the wrong data, or bad data. When this happens, we are unable to explain what happened. We can’t tell the story about who we motivated to learn, to understand, and to act.
You can evaluate communications work effectively. Think about public health work. To evaluate its effectiveness, you must measure communication. Public health folks are always telling people how not to get sick, how to avoid getting HIV, how to prevent child abuse, how to have a healthy baby. And these campaigns depend on being able to measure who got the message, how they got it, what they understood, and how and whether they acted on it. Public health officials depend on being able to measure communication. So how should the social sector go about it?
There are three steps to keep in mind:
1. Start by doing something profoundly ordinary and unscientific.
Make a plan. What do you expect to happen as a result of your work? Who will be impacted? How will they be impacted? What are the outcomes you expect to see? And very importantly, where does your influence end? That’s as far as you want to measure because you don’t want to measure something you can’t influence.
One of my favorite tools for doing this is the logic model. It’s a great tool for helping you to think through what you are doing and what impact you expect it to have. The Kellogg Foundation has a logic model guide that has been around forever. It’s a great guide to what they are and how to develop one.
The logic model can be used to test your thinking internally, making sure that all your activities connect to short and long-term outcomes, and to help you identify breaks in the theory of change if you aren’t seeing the results you expect. Did some activities not get implemented as planned? Did you not see the short-term outcomes you expected and therefore miss your mark on long-term change?
It can also be used as a simple visual tool to give to stakeholders and potential funders. A good logic model can give someone a good sense of what you are doing (and why) in one page. Seriously, I’ve mapped out some very complex programs in just one page. It can be done.
As the Cheshire Cat told Alice, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.” Make sure you have a road map.
2. Measure with specific goals in mind.
Once you know what you are doing and what impact you expect, you can measure it—not just with analytics, but by collecting information from the people who receive the message.
Analytics are easy to track because the data is collected automatically. But they can’t tell you everything. Even a simple online survey can be used to get feedback about your campaign and determine whether or not you are reaching your intended audience. But we are talking about changing people’s hearts and minds, so to really get to your outcomes, you will need to get some important information from people.
Look at your outcomes. Are you teaching people something new? Get some people in a room, ask them some questions, then have them interact with your website and ask them the same questions again. Do they know the answer now? It can be a survey, or you can do this as a more informal conversation.
Behavioral change is harder, but still doable. How easy it is to get information about changing behavior depends on many things. One is how narrowly defined your target population is. If you are trying to reach out to a particular community, it’s easier to go out into that community and ask people about the messages they received. If your reach is nationwide, things like online surveys are more likely to be your tool of choice.
You can be innovative, too. There are some interesting methods, such as case studies, network analysis, and the success case methods. Start poking around and you may find something other than a survey or a focus group that will tell you what you need to know. Some of these methods (such as network analysis) are better implemented with an evaluation professional. There are lots of ways to collect information.
Think about where your people intersect with your message, and then reach out to them.
3. But it doesn’t end there. You must then share your story.
Sometimes we collect data, but we find that no one is listening, or the information doesn’t get to the right people. Or people sit on the data because the data seldom tell a simple success story. Many times, like with all good information, we learn about what went well and where we fell short. And you have to be brave to share that information. But share it you must, because you have to tell the story.
You are storytellers. And this is an amazing time, because data geeks and storytellers are coming together in the field of data visualization. People are using data to tell amazing and beautiful stories about everything under the sun.
We use the principles of visual storytelling all the time. Once clients are clear on what they are doing and what impact they expect to have, the story follows. Then we just need to make sure they have the data to talk about each step with. Do they collect information about their activities? We can tell the story of how much they did and how many people they reached. Do they know what changes they expect?
We can tell the story of what people learned and how they behaved differently. We weave in strengths and challenges that people encountered and that the program overcame. And then we visualize it. What that looks like depends on the audience. Sometimes it’s an infographic. Or it might be a graphic memo that is visually rich and easy to digest.
Once you collect data, analyze it, and use it to tell the story of your work and the changes it brought, you can better understand the impact of your work, get valuable information about how to improve it, and demonstrate the value of what you do.
As Stephen Few put it, “Numbers have an important story to tell. They rely on you to give them a clear and convincing voice.” So measure away, and give those numbers the voice they deserve.
Dr. Taj Carson, Ph.D. is the CEO of Carson Research Consulting in Baltimore, MD. Dr. Carson’s work focuses on objective assessments of foundation and nonprofit programmatic and organizational effectiveness to give them the information they need to engage in more focused strategic planning. She has experience working with local, state and federal government, nonprofits organizations and foundations, focusing on the unique issues surrounding measurement and evaluation.
Dr. Clarence B. Jones, personal adviser and the draft writer of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., brought the house down at ComNet15 during his riveting conversation with The Washington Post‘s and MSNBC’s Jonathan Capehart.
Touching on the work that went into the March on Washington, the crafting of the “Dream” speech, race relations in America today, and what it takes to create social change, Dr. Jones offers inspiring insight into the civil rights movement and its applications to today’s world. Some of his advice? Foundations cannot be risk averse if they’re serious about change.
Illustrated Notes by Zsofi Lang
Joanne Krell: My name’s Joanne Krell, I work for the Kellogg Foundation. I lead communications there and I’m a member of the ComNet board and I am delighted to introduce this morning.
First, I want to tell you, recently a favorite uncle told me about a sales conference he worked on some time ago. It had a pretty typical motivational theme, something like Dare to Be Great; we’ve all gone to conferences that say that and, Dick Cavett gave the keynote.
And for those of you who don’t remember him or don’t know him, or maybe you all know him from his New York Times columns, he hosted a TV network talk show in the 70s and 80s featuring in-depth interviews and notable personalities, sort of the Jimmy Fallon of his day.
In his sales conference keynote, Cavett showed clips of three favorite interviews with Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, with Katharine Hepburn, and with Groucho Marx, and he gave some commentary about each. He started his premise by explaining that many interviews with famous people focus on what makes them like the rest of us.
But Cavett wanted to explore what made his subjects different. He wanted to understand the passion and the drive and insight behind their extraordinary work and that same question is relevant to our theme today.
The fact is if making ideas move was an established science, we’d have learned to move as journalism or marketing or public policy majors. We attend conferences like this because making ideas move is more than just science. There is art at work, and one key to understanding art is understanding the artist.
It’s fair to say that our keynote speaker this morning has married art and science to make ideas move on a mythic scale. So effectively, in fact, that he’s influenced generations and the course of the nation. As the former counsel and draft speech writer and personal friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Clarence B. Jones played a key role in planning the 1963 March on Washington and he had a guiding hand in developing Dr. King’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech.
More recently, he’s continued to make ideas move through his books including “What Would Martin Say?” and “Behind the Dream: The Making of the Speech that Transformed a Nation,” and through his on-going work as the University of San Francisco’s inaugural Diversity Scholar Visiting Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Clarence Jones will be interviewed this morning by Jonathan Capehart, a star who makes ideas move in his own right. He served as a policy advisor to former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. With the New York Daily News editorial board he was awarded the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing, and he’s currently a Washington Post columnist, a member of The Post editorial board, and a frequent contributor to MSNBC.
Jonathan makes ideas move because he calls things as he sees them and he has the trophies, or depending on your perspective, the scars to prove it. In fact, if you see him at the break, you should ask him about his recent correspondence with Donald Trump.
In the meantime, please join me in welcoming Dr. Clarence B. Jones and Jonathan Capehart.
Jonathan Capehart: I’m so glad you gave Dr. Jones that standing ovation.
Dr. Clarence B. Jones: For both of us.
No, no, no it’s for you. I’m going to say something to you that you said to me, earlier, just before you made me cry, don’t interrupt me.
I first met Dr. Clarence Jones in New York City when I was on the Daily News editorial board in the 1990s. He was and is a handsome, elegant, unassuming man, unassuming in the best possible way. So it wasn’t until I was reading “Parting the Waters,” Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning tome on the start of the civil rights movement right up until the March on Washington, that I learned who he was, who he is.
In those pages I learned that the man I’ve gotten to know was integral to the planning of the 1963 March on Washington and the drafting of the “I Have a Dream” speech. The intense preparations for both caused Dr. King and his family to move into Dr. Jones’s New York home a month before the event that changed the course of history. In those pages I learned that the man that I quietly admired was the person who smuggled Dr. Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” out of the prison earlier that year.
It was Dr. Jones, lawyer, counselor, and speechwriter to King, who walked out of Chase Bank in New York City with a suitcase stuffed with $100,000 in bail money to secure the release of Dr. King and as many other demonstrators as possible in Birmingham, a suitcase handed to him by Nelson and David Rockefeller in the bank’s vault on 5th Avenue.
I saw Dr. Jones at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem not long after reading those pages, and what I forgot to mention was I was reading “Parting The Waters” a couple of years after meeting Dr. Jones.
I went up to Dr. Jones in Canaan Baptist Church and I said to him, “You’re that Clarence Jones?”
I mean, I said this with a mix of awe and incredulity because I had to learn about him in a book. He didn’t … he didn’t feel the need to tell me. The man to my right not only had a front row seat during one of the most consequential times in our nation’s history, he was and remains an active player. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Clarence B. Jones.
So, I’m a … how many of you knew who Dr. Jones was before today, before the various introductions? So less than half of you, and that’s why when I was asked if I could think of anybody who could moderate this discussion I said, “Me, let me do it. Please let me do it, please let me do it,” and I told Sean earlier I would have walked across the country to be able to do this.
So Dr. Jones, it’s been 52 years since the March on Washington, since the “I Have a Dream” speech, since “The Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
We’ve seen enormous progress in that time, President Obama being probably the … the biggest and best sort of manifestation of that. But we’ve also had Staten Island, Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, North Charleston, Cleveland.
How would you describe race relations today given those two things?
First of all thank you for that generous, nice introduction. As a generic statement before I directly respond to your question, we marched, we worked so hard 52 years ago in hopes that those today would not have to march. So clearly the fact that they do means not that we were completely unsuccessful, but we were not as successful as we would like to have been.
What’s happening today in our country is not only a reflection of some of the things which were not sufficiently addressed during that period of time, but also a reflection of what I refer to and I mentioned to you, is what I call the deer in the headlights syndrome on the part of white America, and this is regrettable.
I don’t want to take too much time, but I would like to give you a quick example if I might.
Is this the … the story?
The AG story?
Okay, buckle up.
In 1963 the New Yorker Magazine, published major excerpts from James Baldwin’s “The Fire Next Time.” It created a firestorm in the country’s literary circles. As a result of that, the Attorney General of the United States, then Robert Kennedy, invited James Baldwin down to Washington to have a meeting with him.
As a result of that meeting, the Attorney General asked if James would convene a meeting of opinion makers that the Attorney General would have an opportunity to meet to get a pulse of what was going on in America.
So a meeting was convened at which, James of course was there, Harry Belafonte, Lorraine Hansberry, the playwright, Rip Torn, a white actor, Dr. Kenneth Clark who was responsible for the doll tests, and the Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation, Lena Horne, someone from New Orleans, Louisiana by the name of Jerome Smith, and myself.
And it was a very heated, animated discussion. During a part of that discussion Lorraine Hansberry said to the Attorney General, “You know Mr. Attorney General, the person you should be listening to here is Jerome Smith.” He had just come back from the front lines in Louisiana.
So there was a discussion about how the Attorney General told all of us and particularly Jerome Smith how much they had been doing for civil rights and particularly, protecting civil rights workers. Jerome Smith, with tears streaming down his face, told the Attorney General, who was about five feet away from him, “Mr. Attorney General, you are full of shit.”
Okay? He was red faced, but as a reflection, he reacted like deer in the headlights, a deer in the headlights, and Jonathan, you’d have to be deaf, dumb, and blind not to acknowledge that there’s been major progress, but on this issue of race and race relations in America, regrettably, still a large part of America reacts like a deer in the headlights.
And why is that? Is it because we as a nation don’t want to have the conversation? Or maybe I should say, is it white Americans that don’t want to have the conversation?
No, I think it is because for a whole combination of reasons in our educational system that there’s never been a clear, unambiguous study of an examination of the institution of slavery and its concomitant doctrine of white supremacy and their subsequent impact on generations of white and black Americans.
For example, I mean, how can there really be a serious discussion about the confederate flag?
It doesn’t compute if you have studied and know anything about … we had a civil war. The confederate flag was the emblem, it was the symbol of the confederate states who prepared to go to war in order to ensure that the institution of slavery and this doctrine of white supremacy would remain a part of the United States. Six hundred thousand people, Americans, lost their lives in the Civil War.
And so I hear people say, “But the confederate flag is a symbol of the great sacrifice,” — hello?!?
I mean, okay? Slavery and the confederate flag, which it symbolized, was one of the major tarnished, stained institutions on the history of this county, and our inability to deal with this is part of the problem we’re facing today.
Well, let me ask you this — this is something we were talking about before. There was a poll that came out a couple of months ago, asking the American people what they thought of race relations, and in fact the number has gone up, meaning more Americans feel that race relations are worse than they’ve ever been, specifically since the election of President Obama, as if electing the nation’s first black president would erase racism.
But we’ll leave that conversation for another day. When I read, read the story, I took the glass half full view of this.
I would agree with that.
And that is talking about race and racism is uncomfortable, it’s messy, it makes people angry, it has all of these negative emotions. And so to me, the rise in the number of people saying that race relations are worse is a positive thing, because if you know that it exists, you can’t say that things are better, especially after Staten Island, Ferguson, Cleveland, Sandra Bland, the pool party in Texas, all of these things.
Am I wrong in having this interpretation? Am I being short-sighted in having this interpretation?
No, you’re not wrong, you’re not being short-sighted.
It’s a reality that is part of the media, part of our culture. That observation is very astute. By the way, let me just say that what we’re talking about here today, Sean and the people who are running this organization, you’ve been very gracious in permitting me to sit in some of your meetings and so forth.
So when I tell you this issue of race in America is the most critical issue, I know who I’m talking to by the way, you’re foundations here. So I’ve sat in some meetings and I’ve heard some things, like “What should foundations be doing, how should they manage their money and their programs,” and so forth.
I heard some phrases like…and I know the gentleman who said this, and I’m not downright criticizing him, he was just stating a fact. He used the concept of, sometimes we have to be concerned about being risk averse, you know. And then I heard other discussions about [whether] foundations’ management should be prepared to stand up for their core values.
So here we are in 2015, and here we are, Jonathan Capehart and I are having a discussion telling you that this is one of the critical issues in your time. So I hope you’re still going to talk to me after this.
Okay? But I want to tell you there’s no way in hell you can be risk averse in the management of your money if you’re serious about making a difference about race in America.
And you already know this because I heard in some of your discussions that if you are with the foundation, managing the foundation, or you’re advising the foundation about their communications, you have to be concerned about the core values on which the foundation was founded, and there was a part of that discussion which says, well, you have to be prepared to act and stand up for your core values.
Hey, the money you manage was made possible by provisions in the tax code, okay? The monies you manage, quite frankly, as I said, were to enable you to do things that will make a difference, and yes, there is climate change so I don’t want to sound like I’m being stupid here, but you know, there were major issues of the environment.
I was so impressed, and I think this young gentleman here was talking about the five states of water and so forth. I’m not saying, well, you know, race is the only matter. That’s not what I’m saying. Some of the issues you address are very critical, but I am saying that in terms of real time, of what’s like the sword of Damocles hanging over our country today, we have got to address this issue of race in America.
You know, one of the, goals of the “I Have a Dream” speech was to get the nation to see that its fellow citizens were not being treated equally, either morally or legally.
And so could you talk about the crafting of the “I Have a Dream” speech? Was the goal to, persuade? Was the goal to cajole? Was the goal to do both those things?
Well, Dr. King and his family stayed in my home for almost five weeks, before August 28th, and so I had a chance. It was essentially supposed to be a place for him to have a vacation. But in any event, prior to the March on Washington, two or three days and the day before, we had talked about what he might say, and he had made notes and I had made notes and so forth.
But a couple of days before, in fact the night before at the Willard Hotel, he was upstairs drafting a speech and I asked him to come down because there were a number of people who worked close with him like, God, I’m getting old now, um …
Walter Fauntroy, a labor leader from New York, and Ralph Abernathy, the professor from Morgan State, and some of them offered advice and said, “You know Martin, when these people come here tomorrow, they’re coming here to hear you preach, you know,” and others said, “No Martin, you know they’re not really coming here to preach, you know, they really want to come for leadership,” and so forth.
And so there was a lot of controversy, back and forth, and during the meeting I made some notes of their discussion. In the interest of time I’m just going to say I made some notes, but anyway the meeting ends.
Dr. King was one of the most brilliant, extraordinary people; it’s not that he couldn’t write anything without Clarence Jones, you know. Don’t come away thinking that, that’s not at all [true].
But he had, you know, a lot of things to attend to, so I drafted out on yellow sheets of paper what I thought he might consider using as the opening paragraphs of his speech, you know, if he liked it and so forth. But it was really like a tool that I wanted him to be able to know that whatever he’s struggling with upstairs and writing, that as a safety net he had … I don’t know how many paragraphs, but several paragraphs of opening the speech.
Now in those paragraphs, months earlier I just had an experience at the Chase Manhattan bank with Nelson Rockefeller, but what you didn’t tell them is that, you know, they gave me $100,000, but they also, as I was quick to run out of the bank to go down to Birmingham for the bail, they said, “Hold on Mr. Jones, you gotta go over and consult that man over there.”
That man over there said, “What’s your name?” I said my name. “What’s your middle initial?” “Clarence Benjamin Jones.” So he’s typing out something, I said, “What’s that?” He said, “That’s a promissory note.” I said, “I’m a lawyer, I know what’s a promissory note.”
It was a demand promissory note. For those of you who don’t know, promissory notes in general have a day certain, “I promise to pay on or before such and such a date.” A demand promissory note is payable on the demand of the creditor, okay?
So I’m signing a demand promissory note, but when I left, I was so upset about it. I go to a telephone because Harry Belafonte had made arrangements for this. I call Harry Belafonte on the phone. He said, “How did everything go?” I said, “Harry, I got the money but you didn’t tell me I’d have to sign a promissory note.” He said, “Better you than me.”
I said, “You got much more money than I have.” Anyway, in the drafting of the speech, I remembered that and so in a paragraph I said, “When we are going to assemble here at the foot of the Lincoln Memorial, a hundred years after the emancipation proclamation, we’d like the American people to come and say to the nation, ‘You gave us a promissory note, but it was a bad check. You gave us a check and that was returned for insufficient funds.’”
So I wrote, “We refuse to believe there’re not sufficient funds in the vaults of justice to honor this note,” okay? So I drafted all that.
So … the next day is the actual March on Washington, and I’m standing like 50 feet behind Dr. King and I’m listening after he gives his perfunctory remarks and he begins to speak. And I’m listening very carefully. I said, “Oh my gosh, he’s actually using what I suggested.”
So I said, “Yeah, that’s good, you trusted me and so forth.”
And so to make a long story short the first seven paragraphs of the “I Have a Dream” speech for [various] reasons, he didn’t change a sentence, didn’t change a period, anything, exactly as I drafted.
In fact Dr. Jones, I mean, if there are things that people remember about the “I Have A Dream” speech, it’s the front portion, the promissory note, the vision, and then it’s the end portion, the “I have a dream” portion, and if you read the news reports from the time, the speech in the middle was sort of criticized as being sort of slow and perfunctory and technical and then I believe it was Mahalia Jackson who yelled out to Dr. King, “Tell them about the dream Martin.”
Yeah. Most people don’t know…
That was all extemporaneous. That was all off script, and what happened is that after he got finished reading the paragraphs which I had written and some other paragraphs that he added, Mahalia Jackson, who had sang for him, sang for the March earlier, interrupted him and said, “Tell them about the dream Martin, tell them about the dream.”
And so I’m watching him because I’m standing behind him and I see him, he sort of looks in Mahalia’s direction, but when she yelled to him he took the written text, he moved it to the left side of the lectern, and he grabbed the lectern and looked out on all those people. I’m standing behind him now and I say to someone who was standing next to me, I don’t know who it was, what color they were, male or female, but I said, “These people out there, they don’t know it, but they’re about ready to go to church.”
Now, let me tell you something, Martin Luther King, awesome, awesome man. In terms of today’s technology, Dr. King could mentally, as he’s speaking, he could mentally cut and paste in real time.
Okay? So as he’s speaking, and if you knew the speeches, as he’s speaking he would insert material from other speeches that he gave at other times but it would be done so seamlessly. So he had used the “I Have a Dream” speech on June 21st in Detroit Michigan where there was a demonstration of 100,000 people. He had used that speech in Cobo Hall, but it didn’t get any kind of reaction like it got there because it was the context in which he had used it.
I mean come on.
So, given what you’ve said about Dr. King and technology, it’s a great segue into my final question before we throw it out to Q&A.
So the civil rights movement, the “I Have a Dream” speech, they both have been sort of the template that other subsequent movements have used. Those two are the model, but times have dramatically changed, especially with social media.
So I’m wondering — I would like to have your perspective on how today’s advocates, the folks in this room, can connect with the larger public to achieve their goals and specifically, are there fundamentals that must be observed, and nurtured no matter how much things change?
I mean, we’ve got Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, all these other things that allow people probably right now to live tweet what we’re saying, whereas back in 1963 it might take a few days for what happened here to get out to the larger public.
But that being said, are there still things that must be done no matter how fast technology changes?
The current Black Lives Matter movement, for example, a reflection of the police thing and so forth, the various movements which are occurring today, particularly in so far as they presumably want to make a material change in race relations and conditions in America, unless a constituent part of that movement consists of voter registration and voting, with all due respect, it doesn’t matter how many placards you have, it doesn’t matter.
If you’re carrying a placard as part of the Black Lives Matter movement and you’re not registered to vote and you haven’t voted, well, that’s a contradiction in my terms.
Why do I say that? Because power, it’s about power and in this system of government … by the way there may be a better system of government than there is here, I don’t know where it is, I mean, the United States is the greatest country in the world, I have no problem saying that. Power.
I had a private meeting with the director of the FBI. It was prompted because he gave a speech at Georgetown University that blew me away, so I picked up the phone and called him. Lo and behold …
James Comey’s speech.
Yeah. So he called me back and I came down to Washington and I had a private meeting with him, and we talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and so forth, and at the end of the day I said, “Yes, we have to deal with this question of the persistent doctrine of white supremacy among our law enforcement and everybody, but we came away from that both agreeing there’s only so much that law enforcement can do, there’s only so much that the FBI can do, there’s only so much …
What’s going to make a change? It’s not so much just, you know, talking and talking and speaking and marching. You’ve got to vote, because it’s about power. It’s about political power, and if there ever was a time for America to exercise political power …
I mean, can you believe we just had another tragedy of guns? Okay? We just had another tragedy. I mean, how long are we going to sit and permit this kind of thing to happen without the congress of the United States addressing it?
And the congress of the United States is not addressing it because they don’t feel that they have to, and they don’t feel that they have to because they’re not getting the heat, they’re not getting the pressure from people who have the power to make them vote. So, very important that we vote, my brother.
One more question before we go to the Q&A, one of the things about the Black Lives Matter movement is that they’re very proud of being from the people, grassroots. Sort of in a way like the Tea Party, they don’t want any recognized leader. Is that a mistake? Should there be a recognized leader of the Black Lives movement and some visible structure?
Well, let me just say this. It may not be a mistake for 2015. The fact that it was important to have a leader 52 years ago may not be the same kind of paradigm today. So I’m less concerned about whether there is a recognized leader. I’m not so concerned about that as I am to the extent that they have some kind of collective, “we’re all going to act together” kind of syndrome, kind of mantra. That’s okay.
I repeat, leader or no leader, unless they focus on registering and voting, I sound very critical but I have to speak. Hey, when you get to be 85 you can almost say anything you want.
I look at the Black Lives Matter young adults, and I said to some of them, “We marched in hopes that you wouldn’t have to march.” So I don’t want those people who might hear this to assume that I’m trying to preach to you. No, I respect what you’re doing. I have admiration and affection for what you’re doing, but I am offering some advice that is very pragmatic that I don’t believe can be ignored.
Movements that do not focus on the acquisition of power are movements only. You have to make a difference, you have to get the leaders in power to make a change, and in our system of government that’s registering to vote and voting. I’ve preached enough I guess, so I’m sorry.
Teddy: Thank you, Dr. Jones for everything you’ve done. My name is Teddy and I’m originally from Boston, so I grew up during the segregation there and, as I tell friends, the south had nothing on Boston during this time. It was terrible but, my question is when you’re talking about voting and it being the most important thing, here we are in a time where all of these efforts are being made to prohibit voting again, which feels like a repeat, whether it’s North Carolina or Ohio, some of the legislative actions that are coming.
On that note, as foundations, should one of our highest priorities be voter education, voter registration, and trying to counteract some of the voting prohibitions that are coming around?
In the 1960s, all of your foundations, collectively, you have a precedent, there was something called the Field Foundation. The Field Foundation had worked on a program of underwriting efforts to register people to vote during the 1960s.
The principal benefactor of that was Stephen Courier, and I think he and his wife died in a plane crash in the Bahamas, but the Field Foundation was the original template of foundation resources being directed to voter education and registration, and that made a difference, it made a difference in the 1960s. So the answer to your question is yes, it’s important.
Now, I should also I’ve a little bit of a legacy of Dr. King really stuck in me, right? So, I believe if he were alive that he would listen to the lawyers and he would listen to the advice of people like me, but at the end of the day he’d say, “You know what Clarence,” we can’t tolerate this anymore.”
So I believe that he would say, say in North Carolina, he would call maybe for 250,000 people, I don’t know, to surround the North Carolina statehouse, maybe 500,000, to quietly surround the North Carolina statehouse and to make known to the people in North Carolina that no business, no business will be conducted in this statehouse until you rescind these laws. That’s what I believe he would do. Non-violent protest.
Now, it’s always perilous, and I always counsel other people to do what I just did, and I always try to say, “You’ve got to be very careful, don’t be so presumptuous to say what Martin Luther King would or would not say,” but I’m going to express that belief so that’s what I think you should do.
LaMonte: My name’s LaMonte Guillory, the Communications Director for the LOR Foundation. My question is regarding the Black Lives Matter movement and I’m curious, how do we transition to all lives matter.
I’m in an inter-racial marriage. My wife is white, my kids are bi-racial, and there’s a significant movement, and it’s very important that black lives matter, but when I’m having that conversation with my kids or people that are not black, how do we transition that movement to say all lives matter?
Thank you for that question. I will offer, before I give my answer, Senator Elizabeth Warren last week gave an extraordinary speech at the Kennedy Center in Boston in which she dealt exactly with this issue, so I recommend that you go online and read the text of that.
But in direct response to your question, I believe that the Black Lives Matter movement at this time and place is not intended to say that white lives don’t matter.
It’s not intended to say that white lives don’t matter. It’s intended to say that in the recent period of time we have looked at the application of law enforcement and it appears that there’s been unnecessary, repetitive use of lethal force against young African-American men and in some cases, African-American women.
So to elevate the importance of that circumstance, these young people want to remind America that black lives matter, and by the way, white people who care about white lives matter with respect to law enforcement and other circumstances should support the Black Lives Matter movement because unless, listen to me carefully, unless this unmistakably racist application of laws against young black men is stopped immediately, guess what? White lives won’t matter.
Jesse: Good morning, thanks for, being here. It’s such an honor to share this space with you. My name is Jesse Beason, Public Affairs Director at the Northwest Health Foundation. My question is, much of the data suggest that philanthropy over the course of past 50 years has actually underinvested in black-led and other communities of color, in particular when it comes to civic engagement, especially past any four-year election cycle.
Do you think that philanthropy has a responsibility to resource those organizations almost in a course correction about what they haven’t been doing over the past years, or do you think that black-led organizations or other organizations of color have to take it on their own and develop their own resources in order to tackle the issue that you addressed, which was, the acquisition of power? Thank you.
As I said earlier in my remarks, I cannot think of any more critical issue today. I refer to the deer in the headlights syndrome with respect to race in America.
At the risk of a little self-promotion, I teach a course at the University of San Francisco. It’s a 15-week lecture course from slavery to Obama and this course, this year for the first time, is being designed to go online so it can be made available to students other than those at the University of San Francisco, and one of our principal focuses in doing that is to make it available to historically black colleges. And it is being reconfigured so it might be useful to more schools than in the Francisco unified school district.
Those of you who were foolish enough to give me your cards, you are going to hear from me, and those of you who do not give me your cards, then give me your cards so I can show you what we’re doing on this issue.
But it’s important, it is … hey, remember I said earlier your foundations have core values? You want to be responsive to some of the issues today, you cannot sit on the sidelines. You have to find a way of creatively providing funds to those organizations that you can determine your own …
I am not suggesting that you suspend due diligence, I’m not suggesting that you suspend the traditional, you know, examination that you’re dealing with somebody credible instead of a scam, but what should be that determination? Hey, what are you holding the money for? What’s the money for?
Of course you need to apply these funds to enable what you just suggested we do.
Eric: Martin Luther King, if the shooter had missed that day, if he hadn’t gone out on the balcony that day and stayed inside the room and he had lived, what was the unfinished work? How would he have spent the rest of his life? You knew him and you’ve partly answered that question, but I’m trying to ask in a fresher way.
Well, had he lived, this January 15th he would have been 87. I’m fairly certain that he would have devoted his time to the question of poverty and income inequality. Clearly he would have been focusing on, you know, law enforcement, racist or unequal application of law enforcement. But I think his priority would have been income inequality and getting government and private institutions directed to address some of the critical issues.
Think about it, the richest country in the world. The richest country in the world and you mean to tell me that there’s a United States veteran sleeping on the sidewalks in San Diego or under the bridges in San Francisco because there was no housing for them, they have no food? There’s a disconnect. How is it possible? How is it possible that we can permit this to happen?
So you foundations can do such and such, you foundations, which collectively by the way, last year foundations gave $358 billion. That’s all the foundations in America, okay? And what you gave from that was 2% of our domestic national product, 2%.
I understand you’re having your conference in Detroit next year? Could not agree more that that is one of the best places you could hold your next year’s conference.
Because you know as well as I do you’re either part of the problem or part of the solution, okay? And holding your conference in Detroit next year indicates to me that you want to be part of the solution. So I want to commend you on that.
Chloe: My name is Chloe Looker, I work with the Environmental Defense Fund and I just want to say thank you for speaking with us today. It’s extremely inspiring to hear you.
I work with an environmental organization, and although sometimes the connections of racial justice and environmental issues are not super-clear, we also know that issues of pollution, and environmental justice, you know, disproportionally impact communities of color.
So I’m wondering if you have any insights about how big environmental organizations like the one I work with, can work with communities of color in a more authentic way to try and solve some of these issues.
I think your question is pregnant with the answer. I think it’s a challenge for, I don’t know what particular community, but I think the challenge for those organizations that are committed to environmental change is to look around in the community in which you serve geographically and to find out what credible community organizations within the African-American community, within the Hispanic community, what organizations that you believe, based upon what they are doing, seem to parallel what you are doing.
I think it’s to be very proactive and to try to find out who those organizations are and to find out whether or not what they seek to do is compatible with what you seek to do and try to find a way of funding them, try to find a way of helping them.
Jed: My name is Jed Walker from the Atkinson Foundation.
First of all, obviously thank you for being here and thank you for all the work that you’ve done. People like me wouldn’t be here without you.
Thank you so much.
Jed: So, that being said this is a conversation about a conference on communication, specifically, and in organizing around issues of police accountability and all of these sort of racially charged political issues, if I had a dollar for every time someone quoted Martin Luther King and told me that I wasn’t being very King-like in doing this kind of work, I would be able to solve the problem of veteran homelessness across the country.
So how do we take our message and make sure that it is not corrupted, and that people do not continue to misuse Dr. King’s words in a way that is disgraceful to his legacy?
What an extraordinary question, thank you for asking that question. I think it is a challenge. I know that some of you are direct managers of foundation assets and many or most of you also dealing with the communication with the outside world about what your foundations do.
Actually, you know, what you just said is really maybe the jugular vein. Let’s assume that a foundation and its board and its operating management, you don’t have to convince them that there assets that should be employed to do what they want.
What you may have to convince them and to show them is how they can effectively communicate their message of how they best want to do something, and this is a really a challenge.
There is a challenge to avoid you not being taken by charlatans and to enable you to feel very comfortable that where appropriate, yes, you can quote Martin Luther King Jr. or anyone else where appropriate to make the point that you want to make. I guess I’m giving you a non-answer, by simply saying, you know, it is a major issue.
What you have said in your question is a challenge, and I think that others in this room who may be similarly challenged as the person who asked that question, I think you really have to think about that because that is an issue. How do you effectively communicate and how do you communicate so that the kernel of what you say is accurate and sincere and doesn’t have the feel of inaccuracy, or at worst, hypocrisy?
Angelle: I’m Angelle Fouther with the Denver Foundation, and it’s great to have you here. Dr. Jones, earlier you mentioned that we need to put the heat on, or sort of force the hands of our elected officials.
To make change, I am just wondering, when I take a look at a lot of our elected officials, our congressional assembly, I’m most often just shaking my head wondering if they’re going to get anything done.
And, my question is, when you compare the political leaders that you worked with and your congressional leaders from the civil rights movements to those that we have in office today, what differences do you see, in terms of our challenges and our opportunities to make them or to work with them for a change?
Well, let’s just take the republican party, okay?
Jonathan: We only have seven minutes.
Where … where are the Senators Jacob Javits from New York or the Senators Case from New Jersey? Where are some of the leaders in the Republican Party who were very active in civil rights? I believe that the issue with civil rights is not a democratic issue, is not a republican issue, it’s an American issue.
It’s an issue of conscience, and I also I’m aware, so I don’t want anybody to say, “Well, you know, Mr. Jones ought to know better.” I’m not trying to counsel. By definition, the reason you’re able to get your 501c3 and so forth is that in most instances, you’re not going to engage in any political activity. I understand that and I’m not suggesting that you do that.
I am suggesting, however this: there is sufficient statutory room for you to use your resources to educate your community, educate the public about those issues and about the persons in their community who could make a difference without necessarily the foundation taking any particular stand that you’re opposed or against any particular political official, you see what I’m saying? But I think you really must take the resources to educate, you know.
These are the issues, these are the positions that people hold, and you’re not, by providing that information, suggesting to them that you should vote for A, not vote for B. That’s not what I’m suggesting. I’m really suggesting that knowledge can set you free.
Dan: Thank you Dr. Jones for being here. My name is Dan Oppenheimer, I work for the Hogg Foundation for Mental Health in Austin, Texas. I kind of want to ask you a favor.
I don’t have any money in my pocket.
Dan: My wife and I are involved in an effort in Austin to change the name of our kid’s elementary school which is Robert E. Lee Elementary, and I think it might actually make a difference in our effort to exercise power if you could, if you felt comfortable from the stage, saying something to that, because my perked ears up when you talked about the confederate flag.
So if you have anything to say about Robert E. Lee elementary school in Austin Texas…
What I’ve said, if Robert E. Lee, is the Robert E. Lee you’re talking about …
And if he was a general of the Confederate army …
Dan: That’s the one.
Is that the one? Well, I think that school and its trustees, they need to have a “come to Jesus” moment because they know, there’s no question about it, they know what Robert E. Lee and the Confederate flag stand for, and how dare a public school or any school bear the symbol of this flag, which was the flag of the institution of slavery? That’s what it was about.
I am sorry, there was no nice way of saying it other than saying it as it is.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan, I like to quote him all the time, he said, “Everybody is entitled to their opinion, but you’re not entitled to your own set of facts,” okay?
What I have just said about the Confederate flag and slavery is not my opinion only, but is based on a set of demonstrable, empirical, historical facts. The flag of the Confederacy was the flag of the institution of slavery and adoption of white supremacy, period. And how dare someone want to defend the flying of that flag, aside from desecrating the 600,000 people who lost their lives? I mean, please, there is some element of decency and morality, all right?
I know why this flag in South Carolina was taken down, because the people in South Carolina in Charleston and that state, they were overwhelmed by something they never thought they’d ever have to deal with, and that is the sense of forgiveness and grace on the part of the survivors of the victims, okay?
In the face of the most horrific form of massacre the people, the black people in the church said, “We forgive you.” Not all, some people in the church said, “We don’t forgive you,” but the fact of the matter is it was so clear, it was so clear that anybody who doesn’t act like that in the name of or in commemoration of the Confederate flag is saying they want to bring back or they want to celebrate the institution of slavery and white supremacy, and hello, that war was fought and lost, okay? I mean, this is 2015, get over it.
Grace: Dr. Jones, it’s an honor to hear your thoughts this morning, good morning. My name is Grace Maseda, I’m Marketing and Communications Director for Helios Education Foundation.
Okay. Are you going to give me your card before you leave?
Grace: Count on it. While we have visually integrated schools, there is a significant achievement gap between minority students and their non-minority peers. This is perpetual, it cuts across geography.
I’d like to hear your thoughts on how we address that challenge. Because without equal education, a foundation which propels our students, white, black, gay, straight, wherever you come from, we are not equipping our future leaders, our society and our country, to move forward. I’d love your thoughts on that.
Yeah, again your question is pregnant with the answer. You’ve answered your own question in the question.
What I’m saying is that, clearly, clearly the way you have described the issue requires the most aggressive active application of resources to try to address that in your community and other communities. You’ve described accurately, objectively an issue and a problem. So the question is how do you effectively apply the resources to address it?
Jonathan: So we’re out of time, but in closing, in talking about the humility of Dr. Jones, so in 2008, Dr. Jones wrote this book, “What Would Martin Say?” and I didn’t read it until August when I went on vacation. I was looking for something to read on my vacation and this is before this even came up.
And so I pulled it off the shelf and I was like, “Oh yeah, let me … oh, Dr. Jones,” and I opened it up and I had forgotten that you had written an inscription.
And it says, “Dear Jonathan, you may remember me as an investment banking consultant. I watch and admire you often on TV. I hope you take the time to read my book. This is the first of two books, the other one is on the writing of the, ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. I’m working on the second now. Best wishes, Clarence Jones.”
When I pulled this off, I remembered “You may remember me.” What do you mean, “You may remember me”?
Of course I remember you, and that speaks to what I was talking about the humility of this great man, who has done and continues to do so many terrific things, a man who without the work he did 52 years ago, I certainly wouldn’t be sitting here, we certainly would not be sitting in the same room together. And for that, Dr. Clarence B. Jones, thank you.
Thank you very much. I am so proud of [Jonathan Capehart], so proud of him.
Sean [Gibbons], I want to thank you and the directors of The Communications Network for inviting me here to give me an opportunity to speak to all of you today.
There is an African proverb that says that if the surviving lions don’t tell their stories, the hunters will get all the credit.
And so I’m grateful that as a surviving lion, you’ve given me an opportunity to speak about one of the extraordinary members of our pride, for example Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and so I thank you from the bottom of my heart for inviting me, and even if I’m not officially invited probably if you let me know I’m going to come to your next conference.
You hear me talk to you, but you should also know the effect you’ve had on me. I was profoundly moved in some of the discussions that I had. I’ve been profoundly moved by people who’ve come up and talked to me and people have been so gracious and say, “Mr. Jones I’m looking forward to seeing you on Friday morning,” and so forth. I look at that person, and I see he must be about 30 years old or 35, they know who I am and so forth.
But anyway I want to personally thank you. I shared with Jonathan, you know, the President of the United States had me into the Oval Office and took a picture on February 4th next to the bust of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and there were several people in the room.
Then he invited other people in the room and he said to the people, “You know why I’ve invited Dr. Jones here today? It’s that without John Lewis,” and he mentioned a whole lot of other people, “I wouldn’t be in this Oval Office.” And so that meant a great deal to me, and it means a great deal to me that you’ve invited me here today, thank you.
Thank you for coming.
Elliott Kalan, the Emmy-winning former Head Writer of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, sat down with the Meyer Memorial Trust’s Kimberly A.C. Wilson to talk community building through podcasts, Abraham Lincoln, the process of writing for Jon Stewart, and more.
Illustrated Notes by Zsofi Lang
Jesse Salazar: Everyone in communications knows how frustrating it can be when your colleagues are absolutely certain they know how to do your job. Yes, they have met a journalist before, or they once wrote a blog post, or they read The New York Times. Well, our next speaker has the same issue but with comedy. People are always trying to be funny around him, but the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences has four separate times determined that he is, in fact, the best comedy writer. I don’t need to tell you how amazing The Daily Show is. I’m sure you’ve seen it at some point, but you’re about to hear from a guy who spent the last 12 or 13 years helping Jon Stewart turn The Daily Show into television legend. Steve Harvey once said, “You can take lessons to become almost anything, flying lessons, piano lessons, singing lessons, but there’s no class for comedy. You have to be born with it. God has to give you that gift. Well, Elliott Kalan is a gift from God, and I hope you all enjoy your gift.
Elliott Kalan: Hi. Thanks, everybody. That was about as overhyped as I’ve ever heard anything.
Kimberly A. C. Wilson: It’s going to get worse.
That was amazing.
I’ve got my phone here because I’ve got Twitter questions coming in, so I’m going to be that person who occasionally looks down to see what’s going on.
I’m going to keep checking my phone just to see …
… what time it is or did this podcast download properly.
Just be ready for that.
I thought we would start with something fun. I wanted to play a little game of quick fire one word, and you give me your one-word answer. Does that work?
Wait, first I should say thank you to everybody for having me here. OK, I had to say that, so only one word?
Only one word, and this may be hard. Comic books.
Toilet, but I’ll have to explain that. There’s a good reason for that, but it’s not … Anyway, maybe we can talk about that.
We’ll come back to Abe’s toilet. Writing.
Judas Priest, which is two words, but it’s a name, so that’s one word.
I’m going to let you have that one, so metal generally.
Metal, yeah, but these days particularly Judas Priest.
I don’t know. There’s no one word that sums him up. It’s impossible. He contains multitudes.
He does contain multitudes.
I’d say the boss.
He would say that Bruce Springsteen was the boss, but I would say that he is.
You’re both right.
Yeah, there’re multitudes of bosses in the world, I guess.
Multitudes of bosses.
There’s room for multitudes of bosses in the world.
How did you end up writing for Jon Stewart at The Daily Show?
I started there, I think as Jesse mentioned, about 13 years ago as an intern when I was in college. I went to NYU for college to study screenwriting, which so far has not paid off. If there are any film producers in the audience, get in touch with me. I interned there my last semester of school. My dad met somebody who worked there who was one of the directors of the show, who’s maybe the nicest man in the world, and because my dad has no shame and will say anything to anybody, he was like, “Oh, my son likes that show a lot. He should intern there. Why don’t I have him send you his information,” and he, being the nicest man in the world, said, “OK, sure.” I got that internship, and then made some kind of impression as an intern, and they asked me to stay on as a production assistant because a position opened up, and then I just kind of kept weaseling my way up the ranks, stabbing people in the back and stepping on people. It was a real Wolf Hall type scenario. The opportunities kept opening up there.
I’d been a fan of the show since it started with Craig Kilborn, and very much so, even more so, when Jon took over. When I was in college I used to watch it at 11:00 when it first aired, and then I’d watch the 1:00 rerun of that same show because I wanted to see it again. I wanted to figure out how it worked and everything like that. I didn’t think I’d ever get to work there. Even when I was working there, I didn’t think I’d ever get to write there. Then when I was writing there, I didn’t think I’d ever get to be a head writer there, and then that happened, too. Then, like Alexander, there were no more worlds left to conquer. It was a lot of hard work and a lot of opportunities opening up. I feel like I can take like 45 percent of the credit for my position there.
It seems like a lot of work and kind of a trajectory that was …
Maybe 85 percent of the credit.
Yeah, OK. In his opening monologue on Monday night, The Daily Show’s new host, Trevor Noah, called Jon Stewart “more than just a late-night host. He was often our voice, our refuge, and in many ways, our political dad.” When I heard that, I thought, “Wow, that means Elliott Kalan is actually the voice of dad,” which made me feel like we were having an opportunity to talk to somebody who’s really plugged into creating that voice.
In a way. By the time I was working with Jon, his voice was so complete in and of itself in a lot of ways, it feels like I was helping … I don’t want to keep saying “dad.” I think that sounds … Even though when I was watching the show when I was younger, I really kind of felt that way, and my own feelings about the show and being there for so long and having … It was a real family atmosphere there, so complicated. There was a feeling sometimes that Jon was show dad, and when he went off to make his movie and John Oliver took over, it was like, “Why did dad leave us?” But then he came back. It was helping him to best continue to express that voice in a way that was consistent to itself but also not redundant or repetitive, I guess.
I would say to people who were submitting to be writers, “Show us how your voice fits into the voice of the show. What do you bring to the show that’s different from what we have now but is not so wildly different that it clashes with it?” My job as a writer was to write the jokes that Jon wanted to tell but wouldn’t necessarily think of himself, or a joke that he would have thought of if he had the time to sit and focus on it but didn’t have that time. Much of the time I was able to get his voice right, and then other times too much of my voice would sneak into my scripts, and there’d be a joke about gremlins or something like that, or Ghostbusters. That was not going to get on the show.
Server: Sorry to interrupt. What can I get for you to drink?
Before we went on stage, Kimberly asked if we could get a drink at some point during it. I just want you to know that this has nothing to do with me. I’m totally throwing you under the bus on this one.
That’s OK. Since you’re here, I’ll take a tequila. Thank you.
Server: For you, sir?
I don’t want you to drink alone.
I’ll have a Jack and coke.
Server: All right, perfect. I’ll go ahead and get that started.
Thank you. Put it on Sean’s tab.
The second half of this is going to be much more focused.
It’s going to ramble a little bit. I want to pick up on what you were just talking about because one of the things we have in common in a room full of communicators and writers, is all of us have been in a place where we’re really writing somebody else’s voice, and you described that challenge of both writing for somebody but also having your own unique voice that’s your own that weaves into the voice of the people you’re writing for. How do you do that?
It can be tough, and I’m sure people here have had that problem, too, where you would say something a certain way, but the person you’re writing for would not say it that way, would want to make a slightly different point, and sometimes it helped to think of whoever I was writing for, whether it was Jon or one of the correspondents, as a character rather than as a person. Maybe that was because my school background was in screenwriting. It was like, OK, the character of Jon is in this situation. What would he say then, or how would he put it? That would help me to break out of the structure of my own voice, that it was less I’m writing a thing for someone to say but I’m writing for this character to say. Jon is not a character. He’s a person, but to think of another person as a character helps sometimes to … I use it sometimes to, if I’m in a disagreement with somebody or someone and I have had some kind of bad air between us, I go, well, if they were a character, why would they act that way? What would cause them to feel the other way? It works sometimes. Oftentimes it doesn’t work, but sometimes it does. It helped to depersonalize it a little bit and make it a little easier.
Also just always being … always listening to the person you’re going to be writing for, or if it’s an institution, the sense of that institution, so that … Sometimes writing stuff for Jon, I knew that if he’d used a phrase a couple times in meetings, that’s a good thing to put in. If he had expressed a particular idea, then I could maybe hone that idea slightly, but I wanted to include that because if he’s saying it around behind the scenes, then it means he feels that way, and he’s going to want a joke off of that, or a point off of that is going to be that much more valuable to him than if I just wrote an amazing joke about Ghostbusters, which I did many times, and they never got on the show. Every now and then I’d get a joke on about Predator 2 or some other ’80s sci-fi action movie.
But not Ghostbusters.
For some reason Ghostbusters never made the cut when I was … Other people wrote Ghostbusters jokes, they ended up on. Not me. I don’t know what it is. Just a bad record. There was always that tension between what would be the type of thing I would say or the type of joke I would want to make, and would that fit Jon’s voice. If it didn’t fit Jon’s voice, then it would have to go. There’d be a certain amount of … alienation is a weird word to use for it, but kind of like that where you feel distance from the work, and you have to find your way to it so that you don’t feel that distance, and you can write it truthfully to the voice that you’re writing in, if that doesn’t sound too abstract or conceptual or anything.
It sounds very writer-ly.
Oh, yeah, well I’ve been practicing being a writer since I have all this time on my hands these days, so…
It sounds like Jon was a great teacher for you.
Yes, very much.
Both in terms of your style, but also in terms of the lessons that he taught about how you could be a better writer generally, not just how you could be a better comedic writer.
Yeah, very much so. I feel like the role all these show obits that were written when he announced he was leaving were all about what a political teacher he was or a political communicator. A thing that didn’t get touched on very much because I don’t know if it’s as noticeable if you’re not in the room with him every day is he had a very big emphasis on what he would call doing things actively, that we have to actively manage this, we have to actively write this. Let’s look at this actively, meaning rather than just writing by gut or by instinct or sitting back and letting things happen or doing the show in such a way that it’s like — “This story happened. We know how to cover these. All right, we’ll do this, we’ll do this, soundbite joke, soundbite joke, great, we’re done. OK, everybody” — that you’d be actively thinking all the time, how do I make this as good as I can?
How do I look at this situation and find a, if it was a management thing, find a solution to it, rather than just reacting to what was going on. If I know something is going to happen a couple weeks down … if we have a presidential election coming up in a couple weeks, let’s start actively thinking about things we can do while we cover that. We’re going to build up to it rather than just waiting for it to happen, and then doing something off of that. I feel like that’s the thing that I took from it the most and applied to my own writing the most —that I can say I want to become a better writer, instead of just writing a lot and hoping that I get better, which will help a little bit. I’m going to look actively at my work and say, how do I do this and how can I do it better?
One of the things I did was, for instance, I came up with a series of steps that I could go through to write a joke when I was having trouble writing a joke. I’d be like, I know there’s something funny here, so what does my brain do unconsciously when a joke pops in on its own? How can I do that consciously? Formulating that as a series of steps I could go through would help me, and it felt like the show process throughout the day had been designed in a similar way. Like how can we have a series of steps to go through so that we are not either waiting for things to happen, but we have a way to guide us through the day. Very confusing, but doing things actively, and that was the thing that he taught me that I feel like has made the most difference for me and the most impression on me, that I don’t just have to float though life like, “I’m a writer, I guess. All right, wrote that. Got to go. That’s it.” I can look at my own work and say, “How can I make this better, and how can I make my writing process better so that I’m a few steps ahead the next time I try to write something.”
This is all very dry.
No, for writers, what does that look like? You were talking about the way the day was laid out to make that easier.
Our daily process was … it was based around meetings and scripts and meetings again. It’s like we have a meeting where everybody talks about things, and Jon tells us what he wants to do for that day’s show, and we discuss it and try to figure out jokes for it. Then that gets assigned to writers, and they write a script. Then Jon and the executive producers and the head writer read that script to give notes, and then those writers go off again and rewrite based on those notes. In that first meeting, we might be set in one place, and then after the script, when we have that second meeting with the notes, we might have veered off in a totally different direction. Veered off makes it sounds like we’re wildly out of control, but we might have decided to turn in a different direction. Then they would write that, and we would go back and look at it again and get more notes. There’d be another rewrite, and there’d be a rehearsal. Then there’d be another rewrite after that.
At each stage we were focused on … Oh, here are the drinks.
This is awesome.
You came just in time. I was talking for too long.
Server: All right.
I’ll finish in a second. This is the best stuff, because it’s all like dead air, right? Thank you very much.
Server: You’re very welcome.
You did a great job.
Thank you. Cheers.
A good way to illustrate my piece. I came up with this joke-writing process. It’s like, OK, there’s a soundbite. John Boehner said something dumb, and I know there’s something absurd about it, but a joke is not popping into my head the way it sometimes does. I know there’s something crazy about what he said, so let me describe that to myself in a straightforward way, not as a joke. What’s the most absurd way he said it? OK, now that I know what the kernel of it is, what’s the way I can communicate that? What are the different joke forms that I know? Does Jon talk to him directly? Does Jon continue John Boehner’s thought in a way that heightens that absurdity? Does he make an analogy, or does he … After I pick the form that I think is best for what he said, what type of joke would come off of that, then how can I, looking at that joke now the way I have it, how can I make it less expected? That was the first thing I thought of. What’s the second thing I’m thinking of so that I’m that much farther ahead of the audience.
It was like this process that I could take myself through so I wasn’t just like, “Ah, Ah,” and setting a time limit for myself like if I don’t come up with this joke in four minutes, I’m going to move on to something else, then maybe I’ll come back, and I’ll leave the front part of my brain. I’ll move on to something else, and I’ll let the back part of my brain think about it for a while because maybe he’ll come up with something. By making that process I feel like it allowed me to improve my writing as I was writing, and also, when I handed in a script it was farther along in the writing process than if I had just put down the first thing that I thought of, or said, “Ah, I can’t think of a joke. I just won’t put this in.”
Many times those jokes didn’t work anyway, so I don’t want people to think it’s a foolproof strategy.
Are we talking about Ghostbusters again?
A lot of it’s Ghostbusters, yeah. I cannot overemphasize how often I would turn to Ghostbusters as a source of humor, but purely out of love.
Thank you. Now I’m trying to bring that type of active focus into other types of writing to make it so it’s not just jokes but it’s other things. I feel like that’s what I picked up the most.
Other writing that you’re doing now?
Yeah, not other people’s writing. Not like reading Shakespeare and being, well, maybe if he did this instead. I’d say it’s pretty obvious that they die at the end. What if instead they did something different, you know?
It might work.
Maybe. Now I’m going to want to go off and improve all his plays. This is a total tangent that is not going to be productive to anybody, but this summer my wife, my son, and I went to England to visit my sister who lives in London. We took a day trip to Stratford, and we were looking at Shakespeare’s grave, and it struck me that what I do and what he did are two totally different things, but at the same time he was writing ambitious stuff at a very fast rate for what he thought was a very temporary audience, not expecting it to outlast the season that it appeared in, and was just kind of like probably not too many steps ahead of where he needed to be when he was writing, whenever he was doing it, and he just happened to be a genius, so things came out differently.
They came out great, but I felt this real kinship with him of, like, oh, yeah, well, we’re all writers, I guess. It’s not like when Shakespeare was writing he was like, “I’m Shakespeare. In 400 years people are still going to be quoting me.” He was like, “I got to get this thing written. These actors are not going to do it the way I want them to, and I’ve got to … whatever. I’ll just get it out. I’ve got to do this thing. How do I focus?” It was very inspiring to me to be like, well, no matter what you’re writing, you’re still a writer under the same pressures.
I love that that’s the parallel, the genius.
But then I don’t think anyone’s going to come visit my grave in 400 years. That’s where the parallel ends, but as far as he knew he was like, “I’m making a pretty good living as a writer these days. This is really good. I went from solidly lower middle class to solidly upper middle class. This is pretty nice.”
I like that analogy. One of the things that you talked about, other writings that you do. I’m sure a lot of people here who are fans of comic books are familiar with your …
A lot of comic books fans in the audience.
A lot of comic book fans in the audience, I’m sure. We’re doing strong here, so I know that they’re here. You’ve written for Marvel Comics, and you’ve written Spiderman, which is a huge thing.
That was my dream, yeah.
That was your dream? Tell me about that.
There was a year, a few years ago, in the same year I won an Emmy, and I got engaged, and Marvel bought my first story that I sold to them. The Marvel sale was very strongly the second-best thing that happened that year. It went engagement, and then right underneath that was selling a story to Marvel, and then the Emmy was … it was still great, but it was not on the same level because I’d been wanting to do that since I was a kid. If there’s two ethical figures in my life who teach me the way to live, it’s Spiderman and Abraham Lincoln, and I’m never going to get the chance to work with Abraham Lincoln, so I’m working with Spiderman instead. That was pretty fantastic. That was amazing, yeah. I should said “amazing” and not “fantastic,” because he’s the Amazing Spiderman. I can use “Amazing,” “Spectacular” or “Web of” to describe Spiderman because those are his title prefixes. Fantastic is a different set of characters.
The Four, right?
OK, well, tell me … Since you’re on Abraham Lincoln, you’re also a huge fan of Abraham Lincoln.
You’ve named your son …
His middle name is Lincoln, yeah. I wanted his first name to be Lincoln, and my wife would not hear of it, so that was not …
She’s colluded with you on your obsession with Lincoln.
Sure, yeah, well, it’s such a … it’s like a freight train barreling down the tracks. You got to either get on board or get out of the way. That is how it is with me and Abraham Lincoln. The only joke I regret writing at The Daily Show, although I’m pretty proud of it, but I regret it still, is one that was an Abraham Lincoln joke that was like … it was a fairly tasteless joke … not tasteless. When Barack Obama had just become president, there was a news story about what dolls his daughters were seen carrying around. They were like, it’s important to cover this on the news. It’s important to cover this stuff because First Children are often beginning national trends. When Amy Carter did some such thing, other kids started doing it, too.
I wasn’t a writer yet at the time, but in a meeting I suggested the joke that in the 1860s Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willy Lincoln, began the national craze of dying of cholera. That’s a solid joke, but it’s a joke about the death of his son, and it’s something that … really, he was never quite the same afterwards, and his wife spiraled into madness. I feel so bad about it. It’s really terrible. If there’s an afterlife and I meet him, how do I explain … I know you understand. It was a solid joke. I was making a solid point, but, no, he was the most interesting person who ever lived as far as I’m concerned.
OK, so you’re interested in him. Tell me about the toilets, because when you …
When I said “toilet,” I was worried people were going to think, “Oh, he doesn’t think well of Abraham Lincoln,” when in fact I think very well of him. This is the type of writing I never got to do on the show. It was such a busy job, and I’m sure plenty of people here have their own writing that they want to in addition to what they do professionally. It’s hard to find the time and the energy to do that. My first piece of advice is leave your job. It really helped me to find the time. My second is just finding that time anywhere. Like the comics you were talking about I was writing on the subway almost entirely, handwriting in a notebook, and then I’d have to find the time somewhere to type it up. I was almost missing deadlines, not because I hadn’t written it but because I didn’t have the time to sit down and type it.
There’s a story I’ve been wanting to write for a long time, and I finally got to write it just a few weeks ago. It was a short story about … I was trying to think of … Abraham Lincoln is such a monumental, historic figure in a way that it’s hard to remember what a human being he was, and it’s very easy to not treat him like a human being. It’s that way with all historical figures or all celebrated figures, and I wanted to write a story where Abraham Lincoln is using the toilet, and what’s just going through his mind during that time. For years I’ve been wanting to write this, and then a few weeks ago I finally got to write a first draft of it, and I was very happy with it. It’s the classiest handling of Abraham Lincoln using the toilet that I think could come out of it. I feel like I found a way to get through it to a really beautiful thing at the end.
I’m going to be telling lots of stories about visiting famous people’s graves, I guess, but my wife was kind enough to come with me to Springfield, Illinois, so I could see his tomb and his house and everything. At his tomb, it struck me — I’m never going to be able to meet this person — in a way that it hadn’t before, that he died over a hundred years before I was born. No matter how much I learn about him, I’m never going to know him, so similar to knowing Jon or Spiderman — these characters or people that I feel like I’ve gotten a sense of how they think or talk because I’ve spent time with them — I wanted to put myself in that position with Abraham Lincoln. It was like, well, what’s the most humanizing experience I can think of for him? Oh, it’s using the toilet. It’s not going well, and it’s a story no one will … I’m going to submit it places to get it published. No one’s ever going to see it, but I was very happy with how it came out.
Did you actually visit his toilet?
Well, at his house in Springfield, there’s an outhouse there, and the park trooper said it’s not the original outhouse because we asked him, but it was one at a farm where Lincoln had done work. The farmer was a client of Lincoln’s at one point, and they knew Lincoln had eaten dinner there at least once or twice, so they have a reasonable assumption that he used it. I was impressed by the drive for historical accuracy, that they weren’t going to just put up any outhouse.
It had potential.
It was potentially one that he used, but that they had to be very open about the historical provenance of this is very clear. It was never actually at the house, so …
I think that was an eew. I like the analogy between Lincoln and Jon and Spiderman. It sounds like the beginning of a great story.
Aside from my parents, you say, oh, who are the people who had a big impact on your life. Oh, Lincoln and Jon and Spiderman, I guess, yeah, so …
That’s good company.
One of them is a real, living person.
You’ve met him, at least.
That’s the thing. Spiderman’s a fictional character, but I’ve written for him, so I feel like I know him in a way or I’ve interacted with him a way.
You’ve put words in his mouth.
Yeah, exactly. My relationship with him is not totally different from my relationship with Jon. What’s Spiderman going to say in this situation that he would believe, and he’s going to say jokes anyway. Yeah, very similar. It might be the same guy. We’ve never seen them in the same room together.
I like this idea. What is it that comics have taught you about storytelling?
A couple of things. Pacing is a big thing, and voice, and getting a character’s voice clear, because as a comic book reader, you know when a character is speaking out of voice because you’ve spent so much time with them. You have this idea in your head of who this character is from all the years … too many years spent reading children’s entertainment books, which are really good, though, a lot of them. Also, how to see someone develop over time. A lot of the comics have been around for a long time, the big ones anyway, and you’ve seen these characters grow, sometimes minimally but in some ways over time to become sort of a fully formed personality. If anything, it’s taught me less about writing and more about just interacting with people. The idea that they change over time, and there’s not a specific event that makes someone who they are necessarily, but just adding up all the different issues of somebody.
There’s hundreds of issues in someone’s life. I mean like comic book issues, not like emotional issues. Some people do have hundreds of issues, but there’s a comprehensive person that comes out of it over all that time. In writing comics, writing something that is a moment in time but is informed by all the things that came before it, and that might be applicable to institutional stuff just in knowing the context of what you’re writing. Even though you’re writing this one thing, it’s informed by the history of the organization, or the history of the thing you’re writing about. Everything is in an ongoing context and not just in one moment in time. I’m being very philosophical in this one, yeah.
I’ve run out of stories of visiting famous people’s graves. That’s not true.
There are more.
There are more, but none of them so far have been applicable.
More graves, really?
Well, like Teddy Roosevelt’s grave and Franklin Roosevelt’s grave. You can’t see them otherwise. That’s the place they are, but anyway … they’re not going to come to you.
Among the other things that you’ve been doing, in addition to The Daily Show, you created a podcast called Flop House.
Basically, it was created by two friends of mine, and I joined very early on.
OK, this is the Flop House podcast, and it is a podcast about …
Bad movies, yeah.
Not just bad movies, but epically …
Hopefully, the worst movies we could find, yeah.
You have a fanatical following of fans.
It frightens my wife greatly, yeah.
You’re serious. Really you’ve created a community, and comic books also sort of have communities that are built around them that are super emphatic about their love of the characters and they follow every step. One of the things that we try to do here with some success is to try to build communities around our ideas, around issues that our foundations are funding. Do you have any secrets about how … or tips about how to build community?
Not really, but with the podcast, for instance, it’s something that we did just from our own passion of that subject of movies in general and bad movies in particular. Because the Internet exists now, and anyone can put anything on the Internet, and it’s available for people to find if they stumble on it or are looking for it — it took us a period of years. We’ve been doing it now for eight years or something like that, seven or eight years. It was like a specific gravity of that subject has pulled in all these people who felt like we were … The thing we hear the most is, when people listen to it, “It feels like I’m hanging out with my friends when I listen to it.” There was a sense of having a specific interest and building an atmosphere where people felt a kinship to it or felt like it was representing a part of their life or representing what they hoped it was like when their friends hung out with them, and then just letting that happen.
Since then we’ve been trying to cultivate it more just in … A while ago we put up a Facebook page for the podcast. A lot of our fans came and turned it into mini Facebook within regular Facebook where they talk about stuff that’s totally unrelated to the podcast, and I can’t find anything. Sometimes I’m looking for a specific post, and I can’t find it because there’s all this other junk that I don’t know anything about. There was a certain amount of just letting it happen, which is not the ideal thing when you’re actively trying to do it, but focusing more, I think, on the thing you’re saying and the thing you’re creating and less on how to drive people to it, but more than that, making sure it’s something that people want when they see it.
The community builds out of that.
Yeah, and it feels like we have a very tight community and a longer-lasting one for that reason that we weren’t constantly tweeting out or constantly actively … What’s the word? Not evangelizing, but …
Promoting this as a …
Yeah, because we’ve done very little promotion. In fact, criminally little promotion.
It’s a private page.
You have to be a member of the Facebook page to post there or read stuff, but that it was … what was the thought I was thinking of? I totally lost track of where I was going. I blame that. That’s the problem. I blame you, but providing that thing that people felt like they wanted or felt but didn’t know it until they saw it, and then being nice to those people and not going after them. There are plenty of times when I’ve either followed somebody on Twitter or I’ve started listening to a podcast or something, and their own promotion becomes so heavy that it drives me away. I think that it helps that we haven’t been doing that. There’s probably a middle ground where you can promote it at a point where people are intrigued but not repelled, but if you go too far, then people get repelled. They’re like, “I get it. OK, I get it. I believe in what you’re doing, but I never want to donate money to you again because you won’t stop bothering me,” or like, “I like this, but I don’t like the things around it.” It’s, I guess, respecting the people that you’re trying to drive to you enough that you don’t try to force them. It’s all very zen. It’s the kind of thing you can really do when you’re not trying to do it. I guess that’s my advice — don’t try so hard.
That’s good advice. We’re going to go to questions in a minute, and I just wanted to give people a heads-up, if you have questions, just stand up so that they can hand you the microphone, and they will come to you. Be sure to introduce yourself and your organization, so we can be sure to get you on the air.
If we don’t have enough time for all the questions about Abraham Lincoln, then I’m happy to talk to people afterward about it. I can’t not talk about him.
We have a couple of Twitter questions that got in early. You left The Daily Show in July.
In early August.
In early August.
One week into August. Jon’s last show was also my last show.
For a number of reasons. Mainly because I just didn’t get to see my son very much, and he’s just a little boy. He’s a toddler, and he’s very cute. I would see him for an hour in the morning, and then by the time I got home he was asleep. I’d see him on the weekends, and it was like, “Oh, I’m getting as much time with him as I would if I was divorced.” That’s not the way I want my life to be. I was with them for a long time until just recently.
Until just recently.
I’ve been very excited about the new show they’ve been doing. I was excited knowing it was coming up.
Did you check it out?
I saw the first couple of episodes. I haven’t seen last night’s yet, but I think they’re coming into their own very quickly and very nicely. Every time I watch it or I talk about it, my wife goes, “Do you wish you were with them?” I go, “No, I don’t need to do it anymore. That’s OK. Maybe someday.”
What happens when news happens? What happens to that muscle? I’m a former journalist, and when news breaks, it immediately shows up from reporter friends who send it to me before it even breaks, and my first impulse is to think, “Is my bag packed? Can I go and cover this?” What do you do when you hear now news that previously would have sent you right into your writer’s room?
I unconsciously start thinking about, how is Jon going to want to talk about this? What’s he going to feel about this? What can we say about it? I have to remind myself, “You don’t have to worry about that right now.” It’s such a big relief. It means I can spend time looking at news stories that we would not have done on the show because there’s not a lot of humor potential in them, and I don’t have to look at other stories that we would be doing on the show. There was the big three-hour CNN Republican debate, and we were supposed to record an episode of the podcast that night. We had to reschedule it because one of the co-hosts, Dan McCoy, is a writer for the show, and he was like, “Oh, I’m going to have to stay late to watch that debate.” I was like, “Oh, there’s a debate? Fine. OK.” There was a very freeing feeling to that, but there’s still a sense of how are we going to handle this? I have to put the brakes on for the moment.
There’s a story I read once about one of Bob Hope’s writers when Kennedy was assassinated, that he was driving over to see Bob Hope about something. I don’t think it was to inform him about the news, but in his head on the drive, he kept thinking about jokes about the assassination because he was so primed to write jokes about current events that he just couldn’t stop his head from doing it. I remember reading that story, and it made me feel so much better about my own reaction to those types of things because it’s like, oh, other people have had that problem, too. That’s great. You build it into this program in your head, and it just keeps running, you know?
You’ve managed to tame that.
Has anything happened in the last month that has made it difficult for you to curb that impulse?
No, because I think about …
There’s been no tempting news?
When I weigh that against being able to write that Lincoln toilet story, and it’s … At this point in my life, that’s what I want to be doing, so, you know.
There’s always going to be the math there.
Yeah, or thinking about how much time that took away from family. It’s like the program starts running, and then I go, “Oh, you don’t need to do that. There’s this other stuff you’re going to be focusing on for a little bit, at least.”
That’s awesome. I’m going to start with a couple of Twitter questions that we’ve got already.
I’ll try to answer more shortly because I know I have a tendency to continue talking forever.
I’m going to start with comics.
This is a question from Jesse Salazar who was up here earlier.
Yeah, he was here.
He was saying those nice things. Go ahead.
He’s the vice-president of communications for the Council on Foundations, and he wanted to ask you about Ta-Nehisi Coates, who is the newly coined MacArthur Fellow and writer who will write the new Black Panther comic. He’s officially a genius, and he’s going to write the new Black Panther comic. What is it about comics that makes them so ripe for shaping social debate?
Maybe because they function as dramatic metaphors for things in a way that can be very symbolic, kind of blatantly symbolic, but you can’t get away with as much when you’re dealing with realistic human beings and stories. One of the things that I always loved about Marvel Comics growing up is that the characters, when they were punching each other, would always be shouting their philosophies at each other. There would be a lot of, “No, the stronger must dominate and punch,” and then Spiderman would kick the guy in the chin and be like, “Well, what about ordinary people?” They would just be bellowing how they felt at each other, and it meant that they could be having these very basic debates about how the world works while wearing circus costumes and hitting each other and things like that. Maybe because the world is so heightened already, it allows you to tackle those issues in a way that doesn’t feel like you are either approaching them from the wrong scope, or … I don’t know.
Tuck your social commentary in between …
Kind of. You can do it … you can just come out and say things because the characters are saving the world on a regular basis anyway, so to have them try to solve some huge, world-changing problem is a way that you can usually do it in a movie or a short story without it feeling silly. It still feels silly in a comic, but it feels acceptably silly. I’m looking forward to that book. I’m wondering what it’s going to be like. He’ll have to figure out the tension between the fact that the Black Panther is not African-American because he’s African. In the past I think they’ve tried to do that, and they’ll have him be in New York or something, but it feels a little … It’s not where he’s from. He’ll figure it out. He’s a genius. He’ll figure it out.
The gold standard of that book for me is the writer Christopher Priest’s run on it about 15 or more years ago, and so that’s the gauntlet I’m throwing down to him. He has to be as good as Christopher Priest.
I’m excited to read it. If he would like any help with it, I’d be happy to offer that. I think he can do it, but if he’s looking for somebody to punch it up, I’ll work with him on that.
You can throw Spiderman in there.
Spiderman will end up in there at some point. It’s a Marvel book. At some point they’re going to be, like, “Let’s get some sales on this. Throw Spiderman in there.” Years ago there was a comic book adaptation of the movie Meteor Man —Robert Townsend — which was a superhero comedy, and Marvel did a six-issue series, and Spiderman showed up in the middle of it for no reason. He’s not in the movie. He’s not part of the Marvel universe, but they were like, “Get some sales on this. Throw Spiderman in.”
That’ll work. This question is from Jesse Beason, my friend, who is with Northwest Health Foundation in Portland, Oregon. He asks, does political humor have a responsibility to change the narrative? In other words, is it enough to point out the idiocy of American politics?
I think it has the potential to, but not the responsibility to. I feel like once you put that responsibility on it, then the humor becomes secondary to the purpose, and that’s not the way to get to the best humor. Humor is a flawed tool on its own because I feel like by nature it’s about … It’s hard to be humorous in a positive way. It’s very easy to dig at something humorously, so it’s hard to put that much weight on it because it can only do so much in terms of criticizing. It can inform people and alert people. Like last week, Tonight does a great job of alerting people to things they may not have known about and showing them the problem, but once you get into the realm of … It feels like to change the narrative you need to suggest a solution a lot of the time, and humor may not be able to do that.
There would be times we’d have meetings where we would talk about the Middle East or something, and Jon would be like, “But how would we solve this problem?” We were like, “I don’t know. If we knew, we wouldn’t be doing this. We’d be solving the problem.” Especially if the show is meant to be humorous first and informational second, I feel like it will benefit them and the viewer and other people more if the humor is strong. It feels like a show that is funny, that people will watch and get something from, is powerful more often than something that is overtly about changing things but has a humorous angle to it. I could be wrong about that. It feels like very few of the great social injustices have been righted by humorists. They’ll highlight it, but usually somebody who’s serious about what they’re doing has to step in and do something about it.
That’s a good call.
There’s a thing that Stephen Colbert says in interviews a lot that I think Peter Cook said before him. He’s usually quoting Peter Cook about how the best satire ever was in Weimar, Germany, when the Nazis were first rising up. It did the job on them. That was the top satire that there ever was and didn’t really do the job that it was hoping for, but … I don’t know who originally said that, but I’m going to give Peter Cook credit through Stephen Colbert.
Works for me.
All right, I’ve got one more Twitter question before we go to the audience.
These people are starved to ask questions.
They’re starved. This question comes from Cynthia Olsen, who’s the comms director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. Are you in here, Cynthia? There you are. She tweeted earlier.
Thanks for coming.
She asked about the internship program for vets, and that it’s inspired other employers to offer similar opportunities. How did it come about?
The full details of that I don’t know for sure. I wish I could say I had more involvement with that program than I do because I had minimal, but that was very much from Jon seeing an absence of programs that were not just about bringing a veteran in for the day and showing him, “This is how this place works. Anyway, good luck. See you,” but about actually placing them. We had this program that I … I’m going to keep talking as if I’m there, but this program that brings groups of veterans in, and they see how the show gets put together. Then it ends with them having meetings with different departments, and it ends with a job fair where different employers come, and a number of people have gotten jobs. We’ve hired some people from it who are fantastic at their jobs. I think it was … veterans’ care and veterans’ issues is a big, important issue for Jon. It’s something that’s about as close to him as anything I can think of. I think he just saw that there was an absence of programs that were doing that middle step. They’re like you can tell a veteran how something works, and then step three is they get a job, but the step two of how do they find that job or how does the employer find them, nobody was filling or not enough people were filling.
It came from that, and the goal of it was to get people jobs and to try to … It wasn’t one of those things where we were like, hey, they stole our idea, that other company that’s doing this. We want other people to do that. It’s another example of actively looking at a problem and trying to actively think of a solution. He [Jon] said, “This is something that’s a problem. How can I do something about it that’s not just … I can go on TV and I can say this is a problem, but how can I do something more than that?” If I was putting myself in his head, maybe that was the way he was thinking about it. I have a disclaimer that I don’t … I cannot claim knowledge of what goes on inside Jon’s head or anybody else’s — but that kind of active focus on things.
That’s great. If there are questions, I’d like to open up. We’ve got somebody right up front. There are mics coming at you from both directions, I think.
If you know semaphore, and you have semaphore practice, we can answer them that way. I don’t know semaphore, but I can guess at what the questions are.
Audience: Hi, Elliott.
Audience: I’m with the David and Lucile Packard Foundation. I was wondering if you can share some of your Ghostbusters jokes.
You planted that question, didn’t you?
Thanks. I’ll pay you afterwards. They were all situational. I can’t remember them. When the 25th anniversary of Ghostbusters came up in 2009, I was pushing really hard that we should do a week where there were just clips of Ghostbusters that would say, “Happy 25th, Ghostbusters,” but then I also wanted them to be Christmas themes because I thought it would be really funny to make the audience question what exactly we were celebrating here, but nobody was interested. It was not an idea that went very far. There was a lot of just comparing situations to Ghostbusters or trying to use clips from it or … it was a big thing for me.
It’s a regret.
Yeah. Someday, I’ll do a Daily Show-type show that’s just coverage of Ghostbusters.
our daily ghost. Is that a hand?
Audience: This question goes back to referencing Stewart as a political dad. I feel like that comes from this trust and this ethical presence that he brings. I feel like that’s essential to the conversion from comedy to inspiring action. I was just wondering how you embed that into comedic writing, and how you balance the comedy with the serious sort of injustice that he often brought to the show.
In his case, he is brilliant, so that helped. A lot of it, I think, was being honest about how we felt about things and not telling jokes that — even if they were funny jokes — did not accurately sum up how we felt about a thing or didn’t, but feeling like it was OK for Jon to put out there how he feels about something, and that the audience will respond to it honestly either by agreeing, or if they don’t agree, at least recognizing that he’s not playing a part or just posing or something like that. The comedy and the seriousness would flow from that to a certain extent.
If you mean like a mix of how do we figure out the mix of goofiness and seriousness, it was a lot of like boating down a river rapid, just kind of trying to go with the momentum of where the story was taking us. In general, I think the only way to earn the kind of trust that Jon had and that feeling of political dad was just to be open the way that he was and not to ever say something because he thought it was the thing that people wanted him to say, or for us to write something because it was an easy way to get out of an act or an easy way to make a joke about something. The conversations we would have in meetings where we would say, “Well, how would we solve this?” were very frustrating to me many times because I didn’t know.
Like I was saying, those were helpful because we could figure out how we felt about things. A lot of our meetings were divided between joking around and nonsense and goofiness, and I felt like I was better at providing that, and genuinely talking about how we felt about things so that we could get a sense of what’s our immediate reaction to this story. What’s our reaction once we talk about it and think about it more, and actually get to know it, that we’re not just going off of our first instinct. Maybe that first instinct was right or maybe it informs what we’re thinking, but once we really learned what this is, how do we feel about that? I wouldn’t say there were stories where we were like, “That’s great,” and then we learned more about it and we were like, “That’s terrible,” but there were stories where we would see that the news was not covering them accurately.
We would have to do a lot of self-education because the easy thing would be to just go along with the pack and just take it for granted what the news was saying, but then sometimes we’d have to … There was this bill that was being called the Monsanto Protection Act that was about lawsuits about something … the official name wasn’t the Monsanto Protection Act, but the news was covering it in a very shallow way. We talked about it a lot, and talked to a lot of people who were professors in agricultural law and in copyright law and things like that to figure out what does this bill actually say? Does it say what the news says it says? It was doing all that work that helped us to realize, OK, our feelings on this are a little more complicated than we originally thought, and being open about that — knowing that we can disagree with our core audience without them throwing up their hands and being outraged and walking away.
We knew that any time we did a headline that was criticizing Obama, we knew it would take the audience a little bit longer to get on board, whereas if we put Bill O’Reilly or Dick Cheney on screen, the audience would be like, “Yeah, whatever you say next I agree with,” but not being afraid of that and not just following along with this is what they want from us. We know they like it. Let’s just give it to them. I hope that audiences saw Jon saying what he felt and what he thought, and said, “OK, well, I don’t totally agree with you, but like I get that you believe what you’re saying, so I’ll think about it.” Just honesty seems like the main thing.
Question over here, and up in front.
You’re better at spotting people’s hands than I am. It’s just a blur to me.
It’s the glasses.
Audience: I’m from the New York Public Library.
From the New York Public Library?
I’m a big fan of that library.
Tell people … There’s a Ghostbusters connection, of course, right?
Yeah, well, I’m not going to say that’s not part of it, yeah. When I was a kid and grew up in New Jersey, we’d go into New York, and if we were walking by the library, my mom would be like, “That’s the Ghostbusters library,” and I’d be like, “You’re right. It is.”
Audience: I’m not here to tell you that we also have books, but I will also say that among the things that most impressed me about Stewart’s career and the show is that he quit, that he moved along. I think that’s just a really interesting message to kind of be at the height of one’s career and to move on. I’m sure you all talked and thought about that a lot internally. How did you experience that?
Talked about it in terms of before he made the decision or after he made the decision?
Audience: Just making the decision, and we can all look at political figures or sports figures who stay too long, or very rarely do you see people leave at the right time, in the apex of their career to go on and do other things. I was inspired by that. I just wondered what you thought about that or how folks experienced that.
I think I was fairly inspired by it, too. Knowing that he is a … active is the word that I keep turning to. He wants to do things actively. He never, it felt like, wanted to do something with half effort or just because he knew how to do it and was always challenging himself. That’s something that was very inspiring to me. The discussion when we knew he was leaving around the show was more like, “What’s going to happen to us? Do we still have jobs? What’s going on?” I think for a lot of people it’s going to take time for them to figure out what it meant for him and what it really felt like. It did feel weirdly, from the media attention, like he was dying. There was that show after he announced where he was like, “I’m not really … Am I dying?” It’s hard to look at it objectively when it had such a big impact on my daily life, so from my own point of view, there is something inspiring about it, but it’s difficult for me to separate that from my own regular feelings. Ask me again in 30 years, and I think I’ll be able to do it.
People say … they were like, “What are we going to do without Jon?” I feel like the situation now is so much different now that he’s leaving than when he started when there were not really any other shows doing what we were doing. Now I feel like there’re so many shows doing what we were doing and doing it well, that … This is me treating Jon like a fictional character again, but maybe he was like, “You know what? Now I don’t need to be the only one. All these other people are here like in a very … George Washington moment of like, “Oh, the Republic is strong enough. I’ll go back to the farm now.” He would not want to be compared to George Washington. He would probably be very uncomfortable with that, but it feels like there’s a … if Jon being a dad is the metaphor, then there’s a lot of Jon’s kids out there who are doing shows like this that are performing a similar function. Maybe there was a sense of, if you’re not the only one, then you can afford to stop doing it. I don’t know. Most likely he was just tired. I don’t know, but that was my main reason for going. It was me tired.
There’s a question up here. A couple of questions up front.
I’m so excited I got to talk to somebody from the Public Library. Not to steal your thunder. Your question is going to be great.
Audience: I’m from Next Generation in San Francisco. I was at the Rally to Restore Sanity.
Audience: Which was fantastic.
How far were you from the stage?
That was most people’s experience.
Audience: Yeah, that was what was, I think, so interesting to me. I was there with my brother who was wearing a bear costume. It’s a long story.
I get it. You don’t have to explain it to me.
Audience: What struck me was the amount of people that came. I think it was close to 200,000 people or something. I don’t know, a huge amount of people.
It was many more people than we expected, yeah.
Audience: I think … that was my question. How did doing the show on a daily basis and for so many years — was it a different experience to be able to look out on that sea of people? Did you have a different experience of an audience because people loved it? People were happy that day.
I hope so. I don’t know. That’s a good question. It’s something I haven’t … I have a thing that I call Daily Show memory where we don’t really remember most of the stuff that we did, and time has dilated in a weird sense where the rally feels like it was last year and it feels like it was 20 years ago at the same time. I was looking at it from afar, too, because I was a staff writer at the time, and I was so focused on the day-to-day stuff that it felt like the rally was this big thing that was going on on the side that I was excited about, but I didn’t know entirely what they were doing.
It was very exciting to see that many people wanting to be a part of it, and R2D2 was there, so that was pretty exciting. I did not get to take a picture with him, but maybe someday. It was kind of a strange event. When it was over, I got to go up on the stage and just see all the people stretching way, way back. It was very strange. It was like being at the head of this enormous army, but then the army was there mainly just to have a good time and wear bear costumes, a very undisciplined army.
Audience: But cuddly.
Yeah, a very cuddly army, yeah.
Audience: Thank you for being here. This has been great. I think the thing for me that relates really well to what is going on here and the people in the audience is that The Daily Show and what you and Jon and all the staff did there was to really create a voice for people and to filter the news, the events, all of the things that we are faced with, and to filter it through humor but also that real authenticity which I think is what brought people back, right? That’s his voice. That’s Jon’s voice. It’s what you all helped to create. I honestly think that that’s a huge loss for us, even with the shows that are out now. Jon had brought such depth of emotion and real authenticity which you don’t see very often. I have two things. One is, when you read the news now, I just wonder, processing it through humor must be a really nice relief.
No, not at all.
It feels like the exact opposite.
I used to say all the time to people I worked with … I was like, “The news has it easy because they can just say things. They don’t have to make them funny while they’re saying them.” It’s a big challenge providing relief to others. Just speaking for myself, it was a lot of work and very stressful.
Audience: The work was stressful, but to be able to laugh about it. That didn’t feel … you never kind of reveled in that?
We laughed about lots of other stuff that was more fun. I got a lot of satisfaction out of it and out of being able to work with people who were so good at it. There were times when other people would say jokes at the show where maybe it gave me some relief about something. Speaking for myself — and I can only speak for myself — there was never a time when I was like, “Thank goodness, I have jokes to help me through this.” It was like, “Why do I have to write jokes about this stuff? The news, they can just say a terrible thing happens. They don’t have to make a joke about it.” That’s the way it is. Our job was not to … We had a lot of fun making that show, but our job was not to have fun. Our job was to make the best show so other people would enjoy it.
I used to say all the time that … I love sayings that the other writers, I think, are happy to not have to listen to anymore. It’s like in Fiddler on the Roof, Lazar Wolf says to Tevye, “I’m not going to be your son-in-law. I don’t have to listen to your sayings,” but the reason they paid us wasn’t to write jokes because we were going to be writing jokes anyway in our spare time. That’s what we like to do. The reason they paid us was to rewrite the jokes we had and to write specific jokes. I love writing comedy and I get so much fun out of it, but the work was, “You’re not choosing what you get to write about today. You have to write about this because this is what happened. Even if you don’t feel like that’s the thing you want to write about, you have to do it. That’s the job.”
When it was all done, I had the relief of being like, “I don’t have to write jokes about that again,” until a week later when the exact same story would happen. Then the challenge was, but we did those jokes. What are we going to do this time? When we come up with over-the-shoulders, the graphic puns that are on Jon’s shoulder, when the healthcare bill was being debated and sent through and then they did the votes on it years ago at the beginning of Obama’s presidency, we ran out of health puns relatively quickly. It became so tortuous to … we were just trying so hard to come up with new ways to pun off of health or healthcare. It was so good for us that there was more than one Hellraiser movie because we could do Healthraiser a couple of times, but it was … that was the tough part of it. That was the work of it. In some ways it was more noble because it was work rather than play or something. I don’t know.
Audience: Thank you for making me laugh for so many years very much.
Thank you for watching and laughing at it.
It would have been really disappointing for us if we didn’t have laughter when Jon said things.
Audience: My question is about audience and how you think about audience. Is it overwhelming to think about the entire nation? Did you write for the entire nation, or was it easier to think about writing to one person?
In my mind, I was writing for Jon, and I wanted to write something that he was satisfied with and that he liked and that hopefully he thought was funny. If the audience liked that, too, then that was great. I trusted that if Jon liked it, the audience would like it because Jon knew his audience so well and knows what he’s doing so well. When I was writing, it was very rarely with thinking of how will the nation respond to this. Even if I was thinking, “How will our audience respond to this?” it would be like, “Ah, there’s a good pot joke here, but if I write it, the audience is going to go ‘whoo,’ and then they’re going to applaud because we mentioned marijuana, and I don’t want to do that.” Being a comedy writer, I am quicker to complain about things than to look at them in a positive way, so I think I did more complaining to myself about the audience than anything else, but for me the audience was … for the writing was Jon. Jon was the person that I wanted to reach. I knew that he knew what he was doing. If he was really into something, then it was 99 percent likely that the audience would be into it, too.
In writing, maybe the thing is to pick your key person or your key tiny audience that is a good marker for you of how other people would respond or even whose respect you care about. If I wrote something and Jon respected it, then that was worth much more to me than if a million people laughed at it or something like that. I think, write stuff for Jon and see what he feels about it. Just mail it to him.
We’ve gone way over, but thank you so much for staying and asking questions, and I think you hear the applause. That’s for you.
Oh, for me, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. This has been great. I enjoyed it. I don’t know if you guys did, but I did, so I feel like it’s worth it.