TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The TV series nominated for the most Emmys this year - 26 of them - is HBO's "Watchmen." My guest, Cord Jefferson, is one of the series writers and is nominated for an Emmy for writing Episode 6. "Watchmen" is based on the graphic novel of the same name and combines elements of superhero comics, sci-fi and time travel and the all-too-true trauma of racism in the U.S. In the series, in 2016, a white supremacist group attacked the homes of 40 police officers working for the Tulsa Police Department. Of those who survived, only two stayed with the force - a black cop, Detective Angela Abar, played by Regina King; and a white cop, Police Chief Judd Crawford, played by Don Johnson.
To protect themselves, the police decide to conceal their identities by wearing masks. In the episode that Jefferson is nominated for writing, Angela discovers a 100-year-old man who turns out to be her grandfather and appears to have lynched Don Johnson's character. As the FBI investigates the murder, Angela wants to know more about her grandfather, so she swallows his bottle of a drug called Nostalgia. The drug contains the person's harvested memories so he or she can relive them.
By taking her grandfather's Nostalgia, Angela experiences what he lived through. She's thrown back in time to Tulsa, when he was a child and survived the Tulsa massacre of 1921, when mobs of white residents were given weapons by city officials and attacked Black people and businesses, destroying a prosperous Black community that was known as Black Wall Street. Angela also experiences how her grandfather went on to become a police officer in the 1930s who faced brutality from white supremacists, some of whom were his fellow cops. To fight back against white supremacists, he wears a black hood to hide his identity and becomes known as Hooded Justice.
Cord Jefferson has also written for "Succession," "The Good Place," "Master Of None" and Larry Wilmore's late-night series of political satire and conversation "The Nightly Show." Jefferson also wrote for the now defunct website Gawker, where he was the site's West Coast editor.
Cord Jefferson, welcome to FRESH AIR. And congratulations on your Emmy nomination and all the others that "Watchmen" has received.
CORD JEFFERSON: Thank you.
GROSS: So I want to start with the Tulsa massacre, which is kind of central to the whole story in this. How did it become a central part of the series? I don't think it's in the graphic novel that it's based on.
JEFFERSON: It is not anywhere in the graphic novel. That idea came to us via Damon Lindelof, the creator of the show. He came into the room on Day 1 and said that he wanted the Tulsa massacre to be part of the show in some way. He said that he had read Ta-Nehisi Coates' "Case For Reparations" in The Atlantic cover story and was really moved by it, and he had never heard about the Tulsa massacre until he read that and about the - and how it sort of decimated this prosperous Black community, as you said.
And he was really moved by the story and wanted to include it somehow in the show. So he came into the room saying he wanted to use it, but how we were actually going to incorporate it, we didn't know. I think it took us about a month or two to decide that not only was it going to be in the pilot but it was going to open the series and that we would begin on the Tulsa massacre. And I'm really happy that we decided to include it there and not somewhere else.
GROSS: You could say it's hard to be shocked by anything in terms of the racist aspect of America's history. On the other hand, was there something about the Tulsa massacre that you found particularly shocking?
JEFFERSON: So a friend said to me that the thing that really made them think that it was all made up when they watched the first episode was the planes firebombing the buildings. They said that that seemed ridiculous or, you know, a fanciful imagination came up with that for a shocking scene in a pilot. And I think that that to me was shocking when I read about it, is that they were sending out planes to firebomb these buildings. Like, I think that the viciousness and the violence with which all of this was enacted was shocking to me.
GROSS: I wonder if writing the series made you think a lot about generational trauma, how trauma is kind of passed on to succeeding generations.
JEFFERSON: Absolutely. I think it was one of the most important themes to me in the series, and it was incredibly important to me personally, too. I was, you know, thrilled that we were putting it in there.
GROSS: Is it something you thought about a lot before?
JEFFERSON: Yeah, yeah. My father is a Vietnam veteran, and he is a - I think that he would tell you himself that he did not and was not given the resources necessary to deal with the sort of emotional and mental injuries that he suffered over there, if not physical. And I have spent a lot of time in my adult life trying to figure out the ways in which my dad influenced me and affected the way that I behave. And I think that I'm only - you know, I'm in my late 30s, and I'm only now really reaching conclusions about how exactly my dad's time in Vietnam when he was, you know, 22 years old have affected me 50 years later.
And I think that for me, when I was working on this show, but particularly working on Episode 6, which is - I think deals most directly with the generational trauma, I think that I was drawing on some of the issues that I deal with personally when I was working on it. Yeah.
GROSS: So the character who is the superhero in this, who is also the character who is the cop in the 1930s and who survived the Tulsa massacre, he becomes known as Hooded Justice. He takes the hood that was used when he was being lynched and - this is going to be complicated. But fellow cops who are white supremacists lynched him with a black hood over him and then cut him down and basically said, next time we're not going to cut you down. He takes that hood and uses it to disguise himself to fight white supremacists. So it's an interesting twist on the superhero origin story. Do you want to talk about the process of coming up with that?
GROSS: And maybe you'd want to explain it a little better than I did.
JEFFERSON: Yeah. Well, I'll try. I'll try. It is complicated. But so Hooded Justice is a character in the original text of "Watchmen." He's not a big character by any means, but he is the original superhero. He is the one that all the other masked vigilantes modeled themselves after, and his identity is never discovered. It's theorized in the book that he is this German bodybuilder because he's said to be sort of hulking and strong, but nobody really knows if that's the case. And one day he just disappears. And so it's this mystery that's left unsolved in the text.
And so when we came into the room, Damon said that another thing that he knew besides wanting to include Tulsa and the Tulsa massacre was he wanted Hooded Justice to be a Black man. And who that Black man was going to be, we didn't know, and we worked backwards from there. One of the things that is also in the original text is that Hooded Justice, his costume is this black mask, and he has a noose around his neck also. That's part of his get-up. And so Damon's a big fan of homework in the room, and one day the homework for the writers was, I believe - I mean, it was a while ago at this point, but I believe the homework was come in with a reason why Hooded Justice has a noose around his neck. And I came in the next morning and pitched the idea that, you know, if we're saying that this is a Black character and we're saying this Black character goes around with a noose around his neck, to me, that signifies somebody who has lived through some sort of racial violence, and probably a lynching.
So I came in and pitched the story that he would - Will Reeves, as a police officer, would have gone out and attempted to arrest a wealthy white man in the community. And that white man would be upset. And he would be part of some white supremacist organization and that he would convince his fellow white supremacists, who were also police officers, to exact some justice on his revenge by threatening Will Reeves the next day with a lynching and that they would cut him down midway and just - it would serve as a warning. That was the origin story for how that scene came to be.
I think some people were surprised by the revelation that Hooded Justice was a Black man in the show's telling of "Watchmen." But for me, the more I thought about it, the more I thought that it made perfect sense for a Black person to be the first superhero. I mean, the superheroes in most tellings are these people who cannot find justice via traditional means. And so they need to find justice via extrajudicial means. And so if we're saying that that is somebody in the 1930s, I think the person who would be most likely to not be able to find justice and to have to go outside of the traditional system in order to find the justice that they need would be a Black person. It just made perfect sense.
GROSS: Were there any personal experiences you drew on in writing the series?
JEFFERSON: Yeah. I think that this is - that sort of anger that Angela feels and that sort of just barely-beneath-the-surface rage that she feels, due in no small part to the traumas that were enacted on her ancestors a hundred years ago, that is something that I felt deeply. I think that I personally deal with a lot of anger. Anger has always been one of my issues. And I've done a lot of anger management therapy in my life. And I think that figuring out the origin of that anger and understanding that some of that anger extends back decades before I was even born, and understanding that that anger comes from a place that is sort of outside of you sometimes, was, I think, hugely beneficial for me when I was thinking about this story and thinking about what we wanted to do with the show.
GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cord Jefferson. He was a writer on the HBO series "Watchmen," which is nominated for 26 Emmys, more than any other show. He's one of the nominees for writing Episode 6. We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF TYLER BATES AND LISA PAPINEAU'S "YOU QUIT")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cord Jefferson. He was a writer for the HBO series "Watchmen" and is nominated for an Emmy for writing Episode 6, the episode where Angela takes her grandfather's Nostalgia pills and experiences his life, including surviving the Tulsa massacre of 1921.
So the writers' room for "Watchmen" was a diverse writers' room. Did you have a lot of conversations about race in the writers' room?
JEFFERSON: Yeah. Yeah, a great many. You know, something that I always tell people is - and one of the problems and difficulties that people have had, you know, in Hollywood but in every industry, really, is that the idea that hiring one Black person gets you the Black experience, or hiring one woman gets you the women's experience in America or so on. And so there's been a lot of discussion about, you know, writers' rooms that just hire one Black person and they say, like, well, how do Black people feel about this? And you will feel very put on the spot by something like that.
But this was a room in which there was, I would say, 75% of the room was Black. And so you're talking about racial issues. But you're also realizing that, you know, a lot of Black people have different opinions about racial issues. And so we were talking things - about things like policing in the Black community. You're talking about things like generational trauma. You're talking about things like reparations. And, you know, a lot of people would have a variety of different opinions about all those things. It's a lot of third-rail issues. So there was never shouting matches or anything. But there was certainly a lot of disagreement and discussion as the months went on.
GROSS: You've talked a little bit about your feelings about, like, diverse writers' rooms and diverse newsrooms. And you said that you think people should be open and direct about wanting to hire a diverse writers' room or a diverse newsroom. But you've also said in The Washington Post that something that happens a lot when it comes to diversity in Hollywood and everywhere else is that people will just populate the room with people of color or queer people or women, but not really respect those people's voices or pay attention to what they're saying. So can you talk a little bit about what you think is, like, the best approach to creating diversity when none already exists?
JEFFERSON: Yeah. You know, once you get people in there, you need to be willing to drop your ego and let your guard down and actually listen to people. I think that when we initially got into the room, Damon - the material is incredibly precious to Damon for any number of reasons. He loved "Watchmen" when he was a kid. He read it with his father. He knew that there was going to be a lot of eyeballs on the project, so he wanted to make sure he did it absolutely right. And I think that that caused him a lot of sort of internal consternation about how it would be and, I think, a reticence to let other people, for whom the material wasn't as important, influence him.
But I think that after a week or two, he started to realize that he was making a show that dealt deeply with race and issues that he had not necessarily experienced for himself. And so he - I think he started to let go a little bit and started to listen to everybody and understand that what he wanted to do with the show - what he said is that he didn't want to use the show to say what he wanted to say. He wanted to, in fact, get out of the way. And so he, in many ways, turned it over to the other people in the room and facilitated the conversation that, I think, a lot of us were trying to get forward.
That's not to say that a showrunner shouldn't be able to create their vision of a show, but that, you know, the reason that you bring people into a room is because you don't know everything and because you want to - you want people to fill in your blind spots and help cover where you may need cover. And so I think that that is an incredibly important lesson for people who want to run shows. You know, I just started showrunning (ph) my own show a little bit based on Gawker, the website that I used to work at. And I co-wrote it with a friend of mine named Max Read, who also used to work at Gawker.
And a thing that we understood at the outset was that Gawker was notoriously a difficult work environment for many women who worked there, and that a lot of women who worked at Gawker felt like they were mistreated and abused. So when we decided to hire for that room, we ended up hiring only women writers to work with us because we knew that if we were to just hire a bunch of men, that it would probably end up being a worst show because we wouldn't be able to have people in there who would be able to point out our blind spots and point out our weaknesses and tell us that we were getting something wrong.
GROSS: You've talked about how you feel like you inherited some of your father's experiences and trauma from the war in Vietnam. Are there other things that you think made you so effected by fear and pain that expressed itself as anger?
JEFFERSON: Yeah. I think that, you know, I was - my family spent some time overseas when I was younger. But by the time I was 5 or 6, we had moved back to Tucson. And that's where I spent the rest of my childhood. And Tucson is pretty homogenous. There is a lot of Latinos there. But outside of whites and Latinos, there isn't a lot of diversity. There's certainly not a lot of Black people in Tucson. And so I was kind of a Black kid with a funny name who had, like, a funny back story, that my family had lived overseas. And so I felt kind of like an outsider - well, not kind of like. I felt very much like an outsider during much of my childhood. Although, I don't think that I really understood that.
And then when I graduated and went to college, I went to a college at a small school in Virginia called William & Mary that - great academically. And my dad had - there was some history there where my dad - the Black Law Students Association of William & Mary is named after my father because he had gone there for law school. And he was, I think, the first student accepted there, which is why they named the society after him. And so he was a big advocate for me going there. And I decided to go.
And I got there. And, you know, it was even more homogenous than Tucson had been. And there was not a lot of ethnic diversity whatsoever. And I was also around - I think I was around really sort of wealthy people for the first time, you know? Tucson has rich people. But it was the first - college was the first time I was around real sort of old money, East Coast people. And that made me feel like even more of an outsider. And I think that - and I was also in the South, which I had not experienced before, and seeing Confederate flags. And it was just a sort of toxic stew of me feeling very lonely and very isolated and like I wasn't understood.
And I think that, you know - not to put my problems on all externalities. A lot of that was my own issues. And I think that a thing that I had learned from my dad that he and I are talking about a lot nowadays is to not really express your emotions. And that - I think a thing that a lot of Black men in this country and Black women, for that matter, in this country are burdened with is the idea that sharing emotion is a sign of weakness, and that in order to get by in this country and to be respected and treated fairly, you need to be strong. And you need to advocate for yourself. And you need to be - you need to stand up straight and hold your head high and not people see vulnerability in order to succeed.
And I remember my dad telling me when I was a kid that if I wanted to be as successful as white people that I needed to do two for every white man's one, and that I needed to be twice as good to have as much success as a white person. And so I just felt like there was a lot on my shoulders that I needed to carry that I wasn't necessarily, probably, prepared to carry by myself. And I felt like I needed to do it all alone.
GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cord Jefferson. He was a writer on the HBO series "Watchmen," which is nominated for 26 Emmys, more than any other show. He's nominated for writing Episode 6 with the showrunner Damon Lindelof. We'll be right back after we take a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Cord Jefferson. He wrote for the HBO series "Watchmen" and is nominated for an Emmy for writing Episode 6, the episode where Angela takes her grandfather's Nostalgia pills and experiences his life, including surviving the Tulsa massacre of 1921. "Watchmen" is nominated for a total of 26 Emmys. Cord Jefferson has also written for HBO's "Succession." He wrote for "The Good Place," "Master Of None" and Larry Wilmore's show of political satire and conversation "The Nightly Show." He also wrote for the now-defunct website Gawker, where he was the site's West Coast editor, and the show that he's creating now is based on his experiences at Gawker.
I want to talk with you about some of your personal essays. You've written some really good personal essays. One of them was about when you were diagnosed with atrial fibrillation, which is basically a very irregular or fast heartbeat, which can be very dangerous. And you open it by talking about how - and I want to frame this by saying, I think we're all feeling kind of vulnerable now because of the pandemic.
But you open the essay by saying that you hadn't really thought much about vulnerability or death before, and you remember telling a girl that you dated in college - and I'll quote you - "I'd like to be dead by 50. It was a stupid thing to say, the kind of low-risk rebellion a teenager from the suburbs engages to seem dangerous and irreverent, like smoking a joint or shoplifting or wearing eyeliner, all of which I have also tried." And you told your girlfriend, this world is trash; who would want to live here for a long time? And then when you were in your 20s or 30s, you had the heart issue.
I'd like you to go back to when you were in college and thinking of that - of life in that way, like who wants to live past the age of 50. Can you go back into that mindset for us and tell us what that was like?
JEFFERSON: Yeah. I was a very, very angry young man in college. Like I said, I still think I deal with a lot of anger issues. And so I think that that was just - it was me being angry but not understanding that I was angry. I think for a lot of my early life, I spent feeling miserable all the time and not really understanding why I felt miserable. And the way that I would express that misery was through cynicism and trying to be shocking and trying to be rebellious. And so, you know, it was the kind of stupid thing that a 20-year-old says, is that, you know, life is terrible and who cares about any of this? And I thought that I was - you know, I thought that I sounded probably like a character from, like, a French new wave movie...
JEFFERSON: ...As opposed to what I actually sounded like, which is just a stupid kid. So I think that was me not fully understanding that what I was actually feeling was anger. And I think that I've talked to a number of therapists now who have - you know, something that I've learned about myself as I've gotten older and something that I've learned about human beings in general as I've gotten older is that, you know, anger, they say, is a secondary emotion, that anger isn't real; what anger actually is is either pain or fear and that when you express anger, you're actually expressing pain or fear. And so I think that I was just a really sort of hurt, scared kid who was saying something shocking because I wanted to seem something besides fearful and traumatized. I was trying to sound dangerous instead.
GROSS: I want to get back to what we started talking about here, which was your atrial fibrillation, the irregular heartbeat, that got you into the hospital, that could have killed you.
GROSS: I mean, the doctors are all saying to you, like, good luck (laughter).
JEFFERSON: Yeah. It's...
GROSS: Best of luck to you.
JEFFERSON: It has a risk of stroke. The thing itself isn't very dangerous, but there's a stroke risk associated with it, which is dangerous.
GROSS: And you describe, like - you figure, well, OK, I'll take an Uber to the hospital, and they say, no, no, no, this is - you don't take an Uber; like, you're taking an ambulance. This is really serious. And you describe yourself reading Kurt Vonnegut's novel "Slaughterhouse Five" in the ambulance. And "Slaughterhouse Five" is set during World War II and the firebombing of Dresden.
GROSS: Thinking like, wow, that's not a great choice when you're heading to the hospital.
JEFFERSON: No. Not the most soothing reading.
GROSS: No, no. But, anyways, when you got through all of this, how did it change your feeling about your body and your vulnerability and mortality?
JEFFERSON: I sort of immediately felt like I needed to change. I was - you know, I would smoke cigarettes. I was smoking cigarettes at the time, and I stopped doing that entirely. And I started exercising and taking better care of my body, entirely. It was an immediate understanding that I needed to change some things because I wanted to live longer than, you know, my 30s. And so I no longer had that stupid-kid mentality of, like, life is stupid, and I don't care if I die early - in fact, that I want to live a long life and that there's work that I want to get done and things that I want to achieve before I die.
GROSS: Well, let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Cord Jefferson. He was a writer on the HBO series "Watchmen," which is nominated for 26 Emmys. He's nominated for writing the sixth episode. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Cord Jefferson. He wrote for the HBO series "Watchmen" and is nominated for an Emmy for writing Episode 6. He's also written for HBO's "Succession," for "The Good Place," "Master Of None" and Larry Wilmore's "The Nightly Show."
In 2014, you wrote a piece about your mother and her diagnosis of a type of breast cancer that's very aggressive and very difficult to treat, and I regret to say she died in 2016. And our sorry to you to hear that when we talked earlier.
GROSS: And you write a little bit about her history in that piece and about how - sounds like her mother suffered with a very severe undiagnosed depression, if we're talking about generational trauma.
JEFFERSON: Absolutely. Well, my mom had a difficult childhood, too, so that is absolutely part of it.
GROSS: Yeah, yeah. And your mother is white, and she - and your father is Black. And when your mother - I think when your mother started dating him, your grandfather on your mother's side was really angry. And I think when you were born, she - he refused to see her anymore because you were Black.
JEFFERSON: Yeah. He disowned her even - he disowned her before that; he disowned her when they started dating. When my parents started dating - my dad was my mom's divorce lawyer (laughter). So my mother had been married right out of college to her first husband, who is white. And my dad was the consummate professional. He sort of finished her divorce proceedings, and she left his office, and when - by the time she got home, there was a message on her answering machine from him, saying now that we are no longer working together, now that you're no longer a client, I was wonder if you'd go out to dinner with me. And so they started dating shortly thereafter, and her father disowned her because of it. And then he refused to meet me after I was born.
I would send him letters, and he would return them - he said - when they started dating, he said, I never want to see you ever again. And my mother was - I think it was shortly before Christmas, and she had - she went out and bought him, him and her stepmother, some gifts and brought them to his house and left them on the doorstep, and when she came home later that day, the gifts were on her doorstep, and there was a note that said, when I said never, I meant never. And then he meant never. So I would send him letters a couple of times a year until I was about 8 or 9, and he would always send them back. So I never got to meet him.
I think the last time that - my mother saw him on his deathbed. She saw him right before he died. But that was it. But there's a sort of really haunting - she had a reconciliation with her brother shortly before she died, I would say about two or three years before she was diagnosed, who had sort of - she'd also had a falling out with because of all this turmoil with her dad. And he told her that, one day before their dad passed, he had walked into a room and seen her father with a box of letters that she had sent him over the years, reading them.
And so he was - it's sort of this really haunting, tragic story. You could - you know that, ultimately, he was thinking about her and wanted to reach out, but something in him just wasn't allowing him to do it. I guess the hate ran so deep that it prevented him from doing it. But I have no idea what they said to each other on his deathbed, but I know that she flew back to Ohio to see him.
GROSS: You know, you've talked about carrying around a lot of anger over the years, and I can only imagine how angry you would be when your own grandfather refused to even meet you...
GROSS: ...Because you were Black.
JEFFERSON: Yeah. People think that the things that happen are just part of their lives. You don't really think of how it affects you at the time. You think that this is something that just happened, and I've dealt with it, and now it's over. And so for years and years and years, I just thought of this is just - that's my backstory. It's sort of - it's not a huge deal. I don't - there's nothing sort of, I think, intellectually, that I'm missing by never having met my grandfather.
And yet, at the same time, I understand that, deep down, there probably is something. There probably is a longing there. There probably is a desire to feel loved by your family and to want to know them and to want them to know you. But it wasn't something that I thought of, really, intellectually, until recently. But, absolutely, yeah, I think that that's part of it, you know? And I think that some of that anger is directed at them not for my own sake, but because I saw how much it hurt my mother. It devastated her. It was - yeah, it really, really, really hurt her for her entire life.
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, it's one thing not to get the love that you want from a relative; it's another thing to be completely rejected and making a conscious decision to never even meet you. I mean, that's just - that's horrible.
JEFFERSON: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I mean, it's - I was lucky to - I was raised in a home full of love. My dad and my mother had their own issues, but they never made me feel unloved. And so I think that that was crucial because - you know, I think that I remember asking them why - what was wrong with me that my grandfather didn't like? I remember that as - you know, when he sent back the letters, I would ask my mom, you know, why doesn't he like me? And she would explain, it has nothing to do with you. He doesn't know you. He's just - he is a - I can't remember the term that she used, but she would make sure to explain to me that it was not anything that I did, that I was totally innocent in the matter. And I think that - you know, that was incredibly important for me because yeah, otherwise, if you don't have that reassurance, I think that I could have gone in a totally different direction.
GROSS: Yeah. How old were you when your parents divorced?
JEFFERSON: I was 14, the summer between my freshman and sophomore year of high school.
GROSS: One of your personal essays is about how you donated a kidney to your father in 2009, when your father was living in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. I've asked myself what would I do in a situation like that, and I don't know. Did he ask you, or did you just volunteer?
JEFFERSON: I volunteered initially, but he rejected it initially. As soon as he told us that he was on dialysis and needed a kidney transplant, I said to him, I'll volunteer a kidney to you, please, and he said no, that he wanted to explore other options. He even explored buying one at one point in time because my dad lives in Saudi Arabia, and I believe that there's a pretty booming organ market in those kinds of places. And I think he looked into it and decided it was pretty gruesome and that he didn't ultimately want to do it.
And so, eventually, he came to my brothers and I and asked if we would be willing to donate. And my brothers both have families and jobs that they need to be present for, and I - luckily, I didn't have a family, and I had a job that allowed me to travel and I didn't have to go to an office every day to do. So I was the best match, and I went to Saudi Arabia for about 3 1/2 months and went through with the donation.
GROSS: What's it like to see your father and know that not only did he co-create you, but you live inside of him?
JEFFERSON: Yeah. It's - well, it felt like I was giving back. It felt like that was why it wasn't really a question. That's why I volunteered immediately, is because it felt like he'd given me life. He had supported me my entire life. And so it felt like this organ was partly his, this kidney was partly his, and so I was happy to give it. I think that, you know, there's been no real repercussions for me afterwards. The consequences are minimal, if any. I can't box or do extreme sports or anything, but I was never, like, much of a skateboarder or anything anyway. So I was happy to do it. But it's - you know, I think that it bonds us a little bit closer. My dad and I have had a difficult relationship sometimes, and I think that that was, you know, one of the things that brought us closer together over the years.
GROSS: You know, in your essay about your mother and her cancer diagnosis, you write, (reading) the world takes from us relentlessly. It takes our friends and first loves. It takes our parents. It takes our faith. It takes our dignity. It takes our passion. It takes our health. It takes our honesty, and it takes our credulity. To lose so much and still hold on to yourself is perhaps the most complicated task human beings are asked to perform.
And, you know, reading that now, during the COVID pandemic, I think that just has a very special resonance now. And I'm wondering what the pandemic has been like for you so far, how you're finding a way to get by...
GROSS: ...And, you know, how you're dealing with anxiety and fear while also trying to do your work, how vulnerable you do or don't feel.
JEFFERSON: Yeah. I mean, I feel incredibly grateful. I have been employed doing a job that I enjoy, and I know that there are so many people who have lost their work during these times. I think that the way that I've worked through it is I just try to stay focused on my work. I try to donate money and time and resources in places that they're required. And I go to a lot of therapy (laughter). I go to a whole lot of therapy. That's also been helping me.
GROSS: Well, I want to get back to very good news, which is that you're nominated for an Emmy for writing an episode of "Watchmen," and the show's nominated for 26 Emmys. So that's a lot to celebrate. This isn't an easy time to celebrate because of the general mood, but also because, like, how are you going to celebrate? You can't go out to a restaurant. You can't go out to a bar.
JEFFERSON: (Laughter) Yeah.
GROSS: You can't have a party. So how did you celebrate the nomination, and what is the ceremony going to be like?
JEFFERSON: I had some champagne and was in bed by 9:30 that night. That was...
GROSS: Sounds great, yeah.
JEFFERSON: That was - yeah, the celebration was minimal. I got some - I had some very nice gifts and cards from people. But I have no idea that the - how the actual event is going to go. Apparently, I think it's going to be somehow, I think, via Zoom. I think that there may be cameras in people's homes. I don't think that that applies to writers because I don't think anybody cares about seeing writers.
JEFFERSON: I think people want to see Regina King in her, like, beautiful gown, as well they should. But so I don't know if me and the fellow writers are going to get much screen time. So - but, you know, that's fine. I'm actually interested in seeing what it looks like myself. They haven't given us much information yet.
GROSS: Good luck to you at the Emmys.
JEFFERSON: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
GROSS: It's been a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.
JEFFERSON: I've loved it. Thank you.
GROSS: Cord Jefferson is nominated for an Emmy for writing Episode 6 of the HBO series "Watchmen." The series is nominated for 26 Emmys. After we take a short break, we'll remember our longtime language commentator Geoff Nunberg. He died Tuesday after a long illness. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR.
We're ending today's show with sad news. We've lost a longtime member of the FRESH AIR family, our language commentator Geoff Nunberg. He died Tuesday after a long illness. He was 75. Geoff was a regular contributor to our show since 1987, when we made the transition from a local radio program to a daily NPR show.
I met him even before that, when he was the usage editor at the American Heritage Dictionary, and I interviewed him about the new edition. I love the way he talked about language in that interview. He wasn't interested in scolding people for not following the rules of grammar; he was interested in following and reporting on how language changes over time. That led us to invite him to become a regular contributor, and luckily for us, he agreed.
Over the years on our show, he talked about new slang and coinages and the ways in which pop culture, technology, the business world and politics keep changing our language. He was fascinated by how, in every generation, young people create new words and give old words new meanings. He also followed the changing language people of different identity groups use to describe themselves.
The first piece Geoff did for us was broadcast in May 1987, during the first week of our daily NPR broadcasts. Inspired by Meryl Streep's ability to use accents so convincingly, Geoff talked about the evolution of accents in Hollywood movies. Here's an excerpt of that first piece adapted from an article he'd written in The Atlantic.
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GEOFF NUNBERG: Hollywood didn't used to care much about the authenticity of movie accents. Claude Rains talked the same way whether he was playing an English rake, a French policeman or a senator from Montana. And nobody seemed to mind that Clark Gable played Fletcher Christian in "Mutiny On The Bounty" with vowels that could only have been shaped in Ohio and with never a word of explanation. Yet curiously, casting directors did use to pay attention to accents in certain films, and precisely those in which accents should have been entirely irrelevant. Take the ancient Roman costume epics that flourished until the 1950s - "Quo Vadis," "Spartacus," "The Robe" and so forth.
There were strict linguistic conventions in these films, which needless to say had nothing to do with the Latin or Hebrew of the period. The Roman patricians had to be played by British actors like Peter Ustinov or Laurence Olivier. The heroes - Christians, slaves, gladiators depending on the film - the heroes were played by Americans like Kirk Douglas or Charlton Heston. And in the roles of apostles, you had to have Jews or Irishmen, almost always either Sam Jaffe or Finlay Currie. This casting was crucial to the key scene in all these movies. When a Roman patrician, say, was interrogating a young Christian girl, the captain has these impeccable West End vowels. And he says something like, this Nazarene you speak of, how many legions has he? And the Christian girl answers, 12, my lord. Twelve legions? Why have I not heard of them? Twelve men, my lord. Twelve men? Why, what are 12 men against all that is Rome?
GROSS: That piece changed how I hear old biblical epics and period films. We always looked forward to finding out what Geoff would choose as his word of the year. In 2018, the word was nationalist. Here's how Jeff started the piece.
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NUNBERG: Donald Trump has a pension for breathing new life into expressions with troubled pasts, like America first and enemy of the people. It's not likely his uses of those phrases will survive his presidency, but he may have altered the political lexicon more enduringly at a Houston rally two weeks before the elections when he proclaimed himself a nationalist and urged his supporters to use the word.
GROSS: One of the last pieces Geoff did for us was about the use of gender-neutral pronouns. He focused on the pronouns for people who don't define themselves as male or female and instead identify as nonbinary, queer or transgender, people who don't want to be referred to as he or she but rather with the gender-neutral pronoun they. It's a change that's controversial, but Geoff was confident we could all learn to adapt.
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NUNBERG: It's not a lot to ask, just a small courtesy and sign of respect. In fact, the accommodations we're being asked to make for nonbinary individuals are much less far-reaching than the linguistic changes that the feminists called for 50 years ago. Yet the reactions this time have been even more vehement than they were back then. A fifth grade teacher in Florida whose preferred pronouns are they, them and their was removed from the classroom when some parents complained about exposing their children to the transgender lifestyle. When the diversity office at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville published a guide to alternative pronouns in 2015, the state legislature promptly defunded the center and barred the university from promoting the use of gender-neutral pronouns in the future. Like the classic episodes of pronoun rage in earlier eras, those weren't about pronouns at all.
GROSS: We've heard just a small sample of Geoff's hundreds of FRESH AIR pieces. But, of course, he was known for many things beyond our show. He was a linguist who taught at Stanford and worked on linguistic technologies at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center. In the last years of his life, he was an adjunct professor at the UC Berkeley School of Information. He wrote scholarly articles and books for general readers. He wrote pieces for magazines and newspapers. I know I'm leaving out plenty of other accomplishments, but we will always think of him as a member of the FRESH AIR family always. We will miss him enormously. We send our deepest sympathies to his wife, Kathleen, and his daughter, Sophie.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. If you'd like to hear some of Geoff's pieces, go to our new archive website - freshairarchive.org - and search for Geoff Nunberg. Geoff is G-E-O-F-F. I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.