April 7, 2015
Cord Jefferson

Cord Jefferson. (Courtesy photo)

Last January, Cord Jefferson was offered what he calls an unexpected, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Jefferson, who was then West Coast editor at Gawker, got a cold-call from the show runner of “Survivor’s Remorse,” a comedy on Starz that chronicles the life of a fictional NBA pro named Cam Calloway. Would he be interested in writing for the show?

Jefferson wasn’t sure. The first season was only 12 weeks of work, and there was nothing guaranteed after that. Plus, he liked working at Gawker. It was consistent, the pay was good and he hadn’t been considering a move to television. But he called a friend — who has since become his manager — and decided the chance was too good to pass up.

“Nobody just cold-calls somebody and asks them to come work in a TV writer’s room,” Jefferson said. “Some people are working in television for years and years and years and still aren’t writers.”

Jefferson decided to take the offer in the hopes that he could find more work after the first season ended. And he did. Late last year, about a month and a half after his interview, Jefferson was offered a writing job at “The Nightly Show,” Comedy Central’s current events panel show anchored by comedian Larry Wilmore.

Jefferson leapt at the opportunity. And now, the former newsman spends his workday skewering the news with a team of writers led by the eponymous comedian, who was previously a correspondent for “The Daily Show.”

“When I first took the meetings, I thought in my head that it would be a dream if I could get this job,” he said. “And so I was obviously over the moon when I found out that I got it.”

Although Wilmore’s show was completely new, it felt like a homecoming for Jefferson, who often spent his days at Gawker serving up biting takes on current events. Jefferson described a through line between edgy journalistic storytelling and comedy writing, which both aspire to guide the reader through “interesting pathways from point A to point B.” And both endeavors share a rapid pace. Producing a half-hour of television every night is reminiscent of helping run a news and commentary website like Gawker.

There are also several differences. For one, Jefferson said, TV writing represents the collective effort of an entire team, whereas journalistic writing is largely the product of just two collaborators — a reporter and his or her editor. At “The Nightly Show,” however, the team comprises 10 staff writers, plus a head writer, plus Wilmore. It’s not uncommon to see an idea pitched by one writer shaped and filled out by the collective insight of his or her peers, Jefferson said.

“I think it’s an intensely collaborative environment,” he said, “Whereas when I was working in journalism, there was some collaboration there, but it certainly wasn’t on the scale that it is in this way.”

He’s also quick to point out that writing for “The Nightly Show” is distinct from traditional news in that its mission is to entertain viewers rather than inform them. But he appreciates comedy’s potential for revealing truths that might be otherwise be hidden.

“I think there is a lot of serious points to be discovered in satire and in comedy,” Jefferson said. “And I think that people act sometimes, because they think that if you try to be funny or if you try to be a little less self-serious, that that means that you’re not doing good work…and I actually think that you can do really, really important work and still have fun while you’re doing it.”

Jefferson’s experience with the news predates his work at Gawker. Prior to taking that job, he was a senior editor at GOOD magazine, an upbeat publication in Los Angeles that laid off editorial staffers as part of a transformation into a “community-based publishing system.” Jefferson describes the incident as “a giant bloodletting” that prompted a diaspora of talented journalists — including Amanda Hess, Megan Greenwell and Ann Friedman — to various other publications.

But whether he’s working at a magazine, a website or a television show doesn’t matter to Jefferson as much as the fact that he makes a living as a professional scribe. When he began his career about eight years ago, he set out to earn his daily bread by coming up with words every day, regardless of the medium.

“I think that what I set out to do was kind of just be a writer in a really broad sense of the word,” Jefferson said. “And so whether that meant writing essays, whether that meant writing a piece of journalism, whether that means writing music reviews, which I did at the very early stages of my career, whether that meant writing screenplays, I just kind of wanted to encompass all of those things.”

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Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism…
Benjamin Mullin

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