Kicking around #bigtimeideas …
What if you could ask the smartest people writing today the biggest questions you could think of?
That’s what Kelly Corrigan aims to do in a 12-part podcast coming this summer. She’ll sit down with the likes of John Cleese, Margaret Atwood and Nicholas Kristof to ask some tough questions: What’s the deal with humor and the dark side? Is knowing more always good? What global blot on humanity could we eradicate if we had the collective will?
Welcome to your next addiction, a bit of brain food in a thin-sliced world. Here’s an overview of our pilot season. Join us.
Alongside show runner Greg Daniels, B.J. Novak is widely considered the major creative force behind The Office. He wrote, directed, produced and acted in the series for the better part of a decade before he left the set to write One More Thing and The Book with No Pictures, instant bestsellers both. We spent our evening with him working through the undeniable codependence between humor and darkness and what comedy can do that nothing else can.
on magic, kindness and confusing effort and talent
Jason Segel, screenwriter, actor and now author, doesn’t have a cynical, stand-offish, self-centered bone in his giant body. He is a man of great good will who has strong convictions about what each of us might be able to pull off if we can finally set aside notions of “gifted.” This is a conversation to watch when you need a jolt of energy and reminder that all things might well be possible after all. It’s also one to share with the creative types, even the young ones, in your life.
It’s not everyday you sit down with a Python. At 75, John Cleese is an even better interview than you would have guessed. He’s charming and articulate and forthcoming about everything from his withholding mother to his dicey relationship with his longtime Monty Python collaborator, Terry Gilliam. That doesn’t mean our conversation didn’t have a few curveballs. He tossed my speaking notes under the sofa at one point; after that, he went mute for a minute or so, just to see me squirm or make me laugh or, as it turned out, both. This is a talk that unpacks the core ingredients of humor.
The indefatigable Canadian genius, Margaret Atwood, is too savvy to answer broad questions without first asking me, in her most devilish tone, to define my terms (e.g. when we asked her about the future of women and work, she said, “Well, now, what women are we talking about? Educated women…women in the third world…?”). If you’re curious where marriage as an institution is heading and what creative opportunities the future holds, you’re in for a big time.
on the power of the collective will
Thirty years and two Pulitzer Prizes into his career, Nick Kristof seems focused only on what good there might still be yet to do. With his wife, the intrepid Sheryl WuDunn, Kristof keeps grabbing whatever light he has and throwing it on the darkest corners of the toughest neighborhood on the planet. Never one to leave us in despair, he carefully directs our energy from slack-jawed disgust to clear-eyed action.
on developing and sustaining compassion
Cheryl Strayed says that Anne Lamott is the most charming writer in America, and The New Yorker says she’s cause for celebration. We say she is a revelation. There’s nothing she won’t tell you about herself, no nasty thought she won’t cop to, no pitiful insecurity she won’t claim as her own. That’s why she’s the ideal person to talk to about empathy and its Herculean power.
Walter Isaacson lives for big ideas. He’s run Time, CNN and The Aspen Institute, as well as written biographies of Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. I was prepared to be intimidated, but I forgot the one thing I knew about him: he lives for ideas. So as long as I had some juicy ones to run by him, he was happy. We kicked around the myth of the lone genius and why we perpetuate it, the role of iteration in innovation and what one change he would make to education.
Known by many as the insanely popular Lemony Snicket, Daniel Handler is perhaps the most beloved writer among writers. Jennifer Egan, Michael Chabon and Dave Eggers all gush on his book jackets. Wicked funny, Handler has been producing prolifically since 1998, primarily prose but also screenplays and musical compositions (perhaps inspired by his mother, an opera singer). He’s a person you can talk to about anything, really, from politics to philanthropy, as he’s keenly interested in the big — even biggest — picture.
No topic is off limits with Mary Roach, who has written nothing but bestsellers since she hit the scene with Stiff in 2003. On the Foreword set, we covered everything from oysters and martinis to foreplay and orgasm; no holding back in our pursuit of this driving question: Is knowing more always good?
Any reasonable list of American pop culture icons, or rather iconoclasts, would put Norman Lear right at the top. He is the writer/director/producer of some of the most important sitcoms in TV history: All In The Family, The Jeffersons, Sanford and Sons and Good Times, to name a handful. I love him for his no-holds-barred honesty and the unmistakable twinkle in his 92-year-old eyes. We talked about the essential component of any successful project striving to break new ground.
After admitting that he looks an awful lot like Matthew Crawley from Downton Abbey, Steven Johnson talked about the maverick personalities (which may involve a touch of low-level functional lunacy) we see in inventors like Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, as well as the inevitability of ideas and how that’s quite different than the inevitable applications of those ideas. From how frozen fish led to millions of lives to the innovations happening in cities right now, this interview will really get your wheels turning.
on the work of making meaning
Former plumber Russell Banks writes some of the best novels and short stories in America. There may be no one more articulate about the job of writing than Banks, honed over years teaching at Princeton with colleagues Toni Morrison and Joyce Carol Oates. With us, he talked about all aspects of being human and the artist’s work of showing us all our sides.