Q&A with Cord Jefferson: “To really feel like I've entered a different realm of success, I would want to make my own stuff.”

This week’s interview is with journalist turned Emmy-winning television writer Cord Jefferson, who, as you may recall, broke Twitter (in a good way) after giving therapy a shoutout in his acceptance speech for Outstanding Writing for a Limited Series Movie or Drama Special, back in September (if you somehow still haven’t seen Watchmen and its This Extraordinary Being episode, this is the universe telling you that it’s time!).

Following news of his new deal with Warner Bros. from last month, Cord and I got to do a little Zoom chat to talk about what he’s been working on during quar, the deep cut TV episode nostalgic New Yorkers should definitely rewatch, and the pandemic’s potential impact on pop culture.

First, I’m curious how the past months in quarantine have changed your work, both in terms of personal routine and also, say, writers’ room dynamics.

I’ve been in one writers’ room for my own show, Scraper, that we did from March to August, all over Zoom. We got the job done, and I was happy with the work that we did, but for me, one of the nice things about the job that I do is the camaraderie I get to have with people in the writers’ room and on set. When you’re not able to do that in person, you miss out on part of the joy, so I’m desperate to get back. 

It’s been okay though. I’ve had some time to write stuff I’ve been meaning to write for a couple years. I've been trying to stay productive instead of just freaking out about the present. 

As far as my personal routine goes, I'm more of a homebody. I donated my second kidney to my dad 12 years ago, so I’ve only got one kidney, and I've heard that people can have kidney failure if they catch COVID. I’ve also got heart arrhythmia problems, and I know that covid attacks the heart also. So I’ve been pretty cautious when it comes to all of this. 

Life has come to a standstill, but I think that that’s good. It’s for the good of the nation. I will also say I’ve been incredibly fortunate. I've been employed and safe and healthy, which I think is as good as things get these days. When Biden was elected, there was a huge crazy dance party going on like 30 seconds away from my front door. I allowed myself to walk over there for like three or four minutes and meandered around the outer edges of the group. Then I went back home and got in bed. That’s me these days. 

Are you watching a lot of TV? 

I got the Criterion Channel for the first time, so I’m allowing myself to watch a bunch of old movies that I haven't watched before. My friends have been telling me to watch A Face in the Crowd for years, and I finally watched it, and I'm obsessed with it. I finally watched In the Mood for Love

I also rewatched Mad Men towards the beginning of all this, and The Wire. It’s been a lot of reading and watching stuff. And work. 

I was revisiting the Longform interview you did in January of this year, where you talked a lot about what it was like getting started in television in 2014 and feeling like a neophyte. It’s funny now to speak to you now, after such this banner year you’ve had — winning an Emmy, landing this deal. I’m curious how you feel about your career now. 

Is there an existential stability that this deal has been able to give you? Do you feel successful? 

It’s given me financial stability that I never thought I would obtain, but despite that, in my mind, I  do not feel really successful. I think that I still have a hang-up, for instance, about the fact that I’ve only worked on other people’s shows. Of course, I’m very proud of the work that I've done in television so far, and I feel very grateful to have worked with people like Mike Schur, Jesse Armstrong, Damon Lindelof, Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari, who are all incredibly talented and very good at their jobs.

But at the same time, for me to really feel like I've entered a different realm of success, I would want to make my own stuff. I want to be able to prove to myself that I can make my own show and make it just as good as the other stuff I’ve been working on with other people. 

That’s all to say that, to me, success is elusive. I always move the goalposts myself farther and farther every time I think I'm getting closer. That is probably something I should talk about in therapy, but to me, true success is contentment. I have yet to feel content, unfortunately. 

And I want to stay in TV, but I don’t want to limit myself to just that. I just want to keep making stuff. I’m writing a stage play right now. I’d love to try my hand at theatre. I’m writing a movie right now; I’d love to get that on its feet. 

I miss prose writing and writing articles and essays for the internet. I loved that kind of writing, and one of the reasons why I miss it is because movies and television are so expensive, you need like seven different people with their hands on the purse strings to agree to something before they give you the money to make it. Whereas when you’re writing for the internet, it’s just you and the editor. Sometimes not even an editor. Sometimes it’s just you putting stuff up, and I think that that sort of low barrier for entry is really nice. Working in TV and movies, you work on things for seven, eight years, and sometimes it just goes away. And no one ever knows you were working on this thing except for you, and that can be pretty heartbreaking. 

Do you miss other parts of media? Like, do you ever log onto Twitter and think god I miss that

Definitely not in the Trump Administration, since the kind of writing I was doing for Gawker before I started writing for TV was about politics and race and the intersection of those things. I wrote a piece called The Racism Beat, right after I started writing for TV back in 2014, that was about the hamster wheel I had been on where I was just like, a new racist thing happened and then I wrote about it. It felt like I would have been doing that for the entire Trump administration. I do not look back on that with a sense of good feeling. It started to just feel bad and gross.

But I do miss my friends that I had in journalism. I know that I was more informed back then;  nowadays I feel more disconnected. For the most, part I'm happy with my decision. There are incredible journalists working today and I'm happy to see them succeed, but I don't have to tell you that media is contracting. It's a more difficult environment than even when I left six years ago. That part I do not miss. But now there’s a different sense of instability, because TV is being shaken up all the time, too. It feels like nothing is stable anymore unless you are Jeff Bezos.

During the six years you’ve been in TV, you’ve worked on all these shows like Succession, Master of None, and The Good Placethat people reading this already are familiar with. Is there a particular episode among those shows that you’re extra proud of? A Cord Jefferson Deep Cut?

On Season 2 of Master of None, the way that Alan and Aziz parceled out episodes led to people working less on certain episodes than they work on others. So the one I had the largest hand in was this episode called “New York, I Love You.” That’s the one where all these main characters are walking around, and in the shots, they pass this doorman. Then the camera stays with the doorman, and the doorman has his own opportunity to be the star of Master of None. Then it goes to a Deaf couple, and the audio goes silent (so a lot of people thought their computers or televisions were broken). And it ends with a cab driver’s story. The idea was that everyone is the lead character in their TV show. 

I really love that episode, and I think that it does what Master of None frequently did, coming up with unique ways of storytelling, and giving the spotlight to people who don’t necessarily get it. It’s everything that makes that show great and everything I would like to try to do when I’m working in television. I’m tremendously proud of it. 

For that episode, we actually interviewed doormen and Deaf people and cab drivers. We brought them into the room. I personally interviewed this Pakistani immigrant cab driver about the things that were interesting to him about his life and what his day-to-day was like, and we utilized a lot of that in the episode. 

Is that standard practice for television writing? It seems like such a journalistic approach.

It’s not standard, but it should be, right? It wasn’t surprising to me that Alan and Aziz wanted to make sure they got things right. Because so many people have gotten so many things wrong about Asian-American people and Indian-American people and other immigrant populations in America. People have screwed that up so badly that I'm sure that when those guys get into a room, they’re like we want to make sure we’re doing justice to these people we’re talking about

We actually worked with a sociologist, Matt Wolfe, who would go do research in these communities and be like, I found these great people to talk to, so we would bring them into the room. That was a dream to me, coming from a journalism background, to actually talk and engage with people before you write about them. 

Last question: I’m interested in what you think about the impact of COVID on pop culture. Like, I’m watching shows now where there is a small coronavirus plotline. Do you think next year or whatever, we’ll have a huge spate of pandemic TV? And do you think that’s good — will we want that?

Crazily enough, the first show that’s going to come out that I worked on after all this is over is about a pandemic. So I hope people want that. My last full TV job was working on Station 11, which is the adaptation of that Emily St. John Mandel novel. We were in production when COVID happened, and we had to shut down. For that show, it’s not COVID; it’s a much more serious pandemic. Basically the entire globe comes to a halt. Electricity fails, governments fail. It’s more about what humans do in the aftermath of something like that. 

As far as the COVID-specific stories? I don’t know. I think it will be difficult for me to find joy or any sort of entertainment out of it. But maybe somebody might come out with something brilliant and make me eat my hat. For the time being I can’t think I would rush to the cineplex to watch a COVID movie.

I’m going to consume any art about COVID in the aftermath, I would maybe like to read a novel. There’s a lot of interiority in this experience of increased solitude. I think that could be serviced well by a novel about what it’s like to be separated from the world and be with your own thoughts for a year. 

Or maybe like a one man / one woman show, a theater piece. That to me would be a more interesting way of attacking that story, as opposed to just trying to dramatize it in a movie or TV show. 

Deez Links is a weeklyish newsletter written by delia cai.