Maya Lau is the creator, host and executive producer of the podcast, Other People’s Pockets, produced by Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. She's an award-winning former investigative reporter for The…
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He is winning Emmys these days, but not long ago, Cord Jefferson was a blogger with one plastic fork to his name. Cord “did what he loved” and the money actually followed… how tf?!
Growing up, I can remember people saying like, "Oh, your family must be rich." And I think that I probably leaned into that a little bit and tried to project that as much as possible. I remember when I was 15, I got really into boat shoes.
Wow. Are boat shoes ever acceptable?
I was in Tucson, Arizona, by the way, there was not a boat to be found for hundreds of miles.
You know the phrase, "Do what you love and the money will follow?" Well, that's a gamble, not a promise. Our best hope is maybe we'll get lucky, like someone will buy the little business we started or we'll magically get famous and it will make all the long nights an uncertainty worth it. That's why I wanted to talk to Cord Jefferson. He's written on many of your favorite TV shows, Watchmen, for which you won an Emmy, Station 11 and Succession. Before he could make it big in Hollywood though he had to quit his steady job at Gawker. I wanted to know how the heck did he afford that leave? I'm Maya, and this is Other People's Pockets, the show where I ask people about their money. So the questions we all have about how much other people make and how their finances work can be a little bit less of a mystery. I'm wondering, can you talk about how you were raised to think about money and who taught you about money?
Yeah, I mean, it's not like I had a great deal of financial literacy growing up. I can remember, I don't know how old I was, but I definitely remember an exercise where my dad had me pick stocks out of the newspaper and then we followed the course of those stocks over the course of six months or a year.
That's actually pretty advanced from us, personal finance lessons.
But it was was weird because it wasn't like we were rolling in dollar and my dad was like this genius investor or anything when he gave me that lesson. But he did talk to me about money and investing and how you make money grow and these kinds of things. But it's not like we were talking about bonds or investing in a home or anything. Those were kinds of lessons that I learned way later in life.
Did you ever feel as a young man that you, whether it was explicit or not, you took in any messages about, I don't know what a man's relationship toward money is supposed to be?
Yeah, certainly. I think that I have a very distinct memory. When I was first starting, so I initially moved to Los Angeles right out of college, and then after about a year and a half or two years in LA I moved to New York with my girlfriend at the time, and we were going to see one of my girlfriend's friend's bands play at a show in mall Lower East Side. And she and I were looking for a place to have dinner before we went to see the band play. And we walked into this restaurant and I remember she picked up the menu and looked at it and she was like, "Oh, we can't afford to eat here." And I remember I got so mad. I was so mad. And it was like one of, I think I remember it because I'm so embarrassed about it, but I basically ruined the night.
I was like, became really cold and rude all night and short. And she had no idea why I was behaving this way. And I don't think I had any idea why I was behaving that way until I thought about it years later. And I realized that the reason I was behaving that way is because I was really ashamed that I couldn't afford to buy my girlfriend a nice meal. And I remember thinking, it's not like I was old or anything, I was probably 24, 25, but by that time I'd been to college and I went to a college called William and Marion, Virginia. And it was full of overachiever in many ways. And so by that time a lot of my friends were in law school or out of law school and earning a lot of money at these big gigs in like DC and New York and San Francisco and making good salaries.
And I was still struggling to make it as a writer and not really earning a lot and barely getting by with from paycheck to paycheck, still asking my parents for money from time to time. And so it made me feel emasculated. I would say that it made me feel like I was deeply embarrassed that as a guy, I couldn't go in there and put down my credit card and say, you get whatever you want. To me, I think the lesson that I learned by osmosis, I don't think my parents told me this, but a lesson that I learned by osmosis, which is a lesson that I think a lot of people learned by osmosis in the United States of America, which is that poverty is a moral failure. I believe that it was embarrassing to be poor and I felt-
Like it was a personal.
Yeah. Like it was a character flaw. I felt like it was a character flaw that I was not earning more money and I was not earning enough money to allow us to have nice things. And so I don't know if she even remembers that night, but I remember that night so distinctly and I remember just feeling like, oh, this is deeply embarrassing and now I'm embarrassed of how he behaved because it was so silly and stupid and I could have just talked to her about it. But that was took a while to get me to break through that part of my masculinity.
Do you still feel a pressure to provide or do you feel like you've thought through it and you realize that it's bullshit?
I mean, that's the thing though. It's, I think that there's a difference between what you know rationally and what you feel. So yes, I know on an intellectual level, I know that that's bullshit and I know it's stupid. And yet were I ever in a situation in which I were with a woman who made way more money than me, I'm not sure that I would feel comfortable with that if I'm being honest. I don't know.
Just because, again, I think that it might threaten my masculinity. I have no idea. I'm not saying that I don't know that I've ever been in a relationship where that was the case. So certainly it isn't the case nowadays, but I think it would be an interesting situation for me to be in because I wonder if I have grown up enough to not let it bother me.
You mentioned going to college with kids who ended up taking fancy jobs and also were wealthy themselves, and I definitely, I went to a school that I went to Vassar and that was really the first time I had been around wealthy East Coast kids who went to prep school and I was from San Diego in suburban area. And I think I thought that, okay, well we're all here now. We all are getting the same education, we're going to the same school, getting the same degree. We're equal now and now we go off into the world as equals. Some part of me believed that, and then now it's like, no, the kids who are wealthy are still super wealthy now. They're way more, they were able to buy houses many, many years before. I still don't own a house, and I don't know if you experienced that at all of feeling like, okay, here I am, but then, oh wait, I'm different.
Yeah. But I didn't feel that way that you felt, I never felt like, oh, we're all in the same footing here now that we're in college together. I felt like I grew up in Tucson, Arizona, and it's not, Arizona has plenty of rich people in it, especially nowadays. But when I was growing up, there was no old money people, that wasn't a concept that I understood that there was different versions of wealth, which is that your neighbor in Tucson might make a lot of money because they're a very successful dentist, but they don't come from affluent East Coast mainline Philadelphia or fancy Boston, neighborhood rich blue blood people like that.
So when I got to William and Mary, which is very much full of those kinds of kids, it was like lacrosse, dudes with swoopy hair with their names were Griffith Stone the sixth, and these people have more money than I've ever seen before in my life. And that made me feel insecure a lot because I did whatever I could to hide the fact that my family wasn't rich because there was this interesting thing where growing up, my family used to live overseas. So we lived in Greece for a while and we lived in Saudi Arabia for a while. And so I had traveled a lot. I had a passport almost as soon as I was born and had been all around the world with my family. And both my parents were hyper educated people.
They both had graduate degrees and my dad's a lawyer and my mom was an educator and an administrator and stuff. I always really into clothes. So when I got money, I would spend it on on nice clothes and I always had the presentation as somebody who had money. And so growing up I can remember people saying like, "Oh, you're rich, your family must be rich." And I think that I probably leaned into that a little bit and tried to project that as much as possible. I remember wearing boat shoes a lot. I remember when I was 15, I got really into khaki Ralph Lauren shorts and polo shirts and boat shoes. And I just remember that being my go-to outfit.
Are boat just ever acceptable?
I was in Tucson, Arizona, by the way, there was not a boat to be found for hundreds of miles, but I just saw, I got really into East Coast preppiness and because I think that it was a lifestyle that I admired and felt like I wanted to be a part of. So I was really into rap music too. And so Ralph Lauren was huge in hip hop culture, and I just really wanted to project, I was desperate to be like a kid from New York. I was desperate to be a rich kid from the East Coast. And I think that I tried to look the part.
I can totally relate to that. I used to live in New York as well and felt like I loved it, but it also just, I realized I felt also really shitty about myself living there in some ways because you're just so, you know, you're up close and personal with people in a way that's more so than on other cities because you're walking really close to them. You're on the subway with them, and you're just aware of wealth in a way and seeing people what they're wearing or seeing beautiful houses. And I guess I'm wondering, it makes me think of, you've been a writer on Succession and that show is full of these worlds of just insanely wealthy people, disgustingly wealthy people. And I guess I'm wondering, when you're writing for something like that, do you feel less than?
No, I don't think so, and I think that one of the reasons why Succession is so popular is because people like to know that even rich people have terrible lives and are miserable. It feels good to know, well, they may have all the money in the world, but at least he's a drug addict or an alcoholic, or his kids hate him or he's going through a terrible divorce. These are things that make people feel a bit better about the state of the world and the fact that you have an entire class of people who seem entirely untouchable because of the wealth that surrounds them. So that's one of the good things. That's one of the nice emotional things about being a writer is that I think that finding that humanity in those people becomes a nice part of the job.
And at the same time, we clearly have an obsession with rich people as a culture to look at what they, I guess are wearing and what kind of cars they drive and what their interior of their houses look like. Why do we have this obsession with rich people in the inside of their life?
A because again, I think it's shot and fraud and it's fun to look at those architectural digest tours and see how bad some of the art is. Right? And see how terrible the decorations are in some of those people's homes because you're like, oh, you've got all the money in the world and your taste is disgusting. I can't believe you have a giant painting of a Simpson's character with Xed out eyes or something.
One of the really interesting things about you is this pivot you made from journalism to Hollywood. And I wondered, what is the story behind the story of that? In other words, what were the financials of it? What were you making at Gawker before you left for your first TV writing gig?
Yeah, I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I believe I was making $90,000 a year. That was pre bonus.
What year was that?
That was 2014 when I left.
And you got a once in a lifetime call to be a writer on a show that was survivor's remorse. Right? And as I understand it, you took it and it was a great experience, but then it went away and then you were taking lots of meetings, but they weren't necessarily going anywhere. You didn't have a job lined up. You're eating into your savings. Can you talk about what that looked like financially? How much money did you have in the bank? How'd you make that work?
I've always been pretty good about saving money. I probably have more clothes than I need and shoes, but outside of that, there was a time when I really didn't buy anything. I bought a lot of clothes and shoes, and I went out to eat a lot and went out to bars a lot with my friends. So those were my top three expenses, I would say. And everything else was very bare bone. So my apartments used to be basically unfurnished. I would have a bed, but outside of that wasn't much. It was pretty sparse. I remember a friend coming to visit me.
I used to not want people to come to my apartment because I used to have nothing in it, and I didn't want to hear judgment. So I would just always meet people at the door or whatever. And one time I did let my friend come stay with me. He was desperate and visiting from New York, and I remember I was at my office one day and he texted me and he said, where are the forks? I want to eat lunch. And I go like there should be a plastic fork next to the kitchen sink that I just rewashed and eat all my meals with. And he just texted back, you live like a serial killer. And it was-
With a sleeping bag on the floor and ready to go?
Yeah. And that was the thing is I had money for those things, but it wasn't important to me. I didn't care. And so I didn't buy any of that stuff, and I was just really good at just socking away money. And so I didn't really make good money until Gawker, I would say. And so I think that I had learned to live very, very cheaply. And I learned what brought me joy and what brought me joy in my life was going out to dinner with my friends, going out to drinks with my friends. I found that experiences brought me much more joy than material things. And so when I took that first TV job, I actually was making less as a TV writer than I had been making at Gawker because I wasn't in the Guild yet, and because I didn't have enough credits to be in the Guild yet, so I was making what they called a neophyte rate. So it turned out that my weekly pay being a TV writer was less than what I was making at Gawker.
And that first job lasted for about 13 weeks, and then it was over. And then I went for about seven or eight months without another job after that. And I started eating it, as you said, I think I probably had, it's seven years ago at this point, but I think that I had 60 grand saved up as my nest egg, I think. And I was like, okay, this can last me for a significant amount of time. But at the same time, it was also all the money that I had in the world. And so I didn't want to go through it all trying to make this dream work. So I think that after about eight months I had started eating, I'd probably gone through, I don't how many, probably $10,000 to $20,000. I have no idea. But it got to a point when it was a significant enough amount of money that I had a breaking point one night and wrote to my manager and basically said, "I'm on the verge of quitting this. I can't not work for years at a time that won't work for me. I just can't do it."
And he convinced me to stick it out for another two months. He said, I promise you, I think we're on the verge of something breaking, so please just give me a couple more months. And so I'd also turned down other full-time journalism jobs by that point. And so it was like, the calls are going to stop eventually. And so I either need the TV stuff to work, or I need to go back to journalism because otherwise I'm going to be out of it for so long that people are going to forget I even did it. And so I gave him a couple months, as he said, and within about three or four weeks of me sending that email to him desperately, I got my next job. And I moved to New York for that to work on the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore. And then work's been pretty consistent from then on. That was November of 2014. And I've been lucky enough to work pretty consistently for the past six years.
That's interesting that you love spending money on clothes, and yet you're so good at being frugal on everything else. I think I've had to live on really strict budgets before. My first reporting job was in Shreveport, Louisiana and was making in the thirties, and it was really hard, but it just taught me to just be really prudent. And that lesson, if you've never had to do that, it's going to be really hard, you know, have to go through that period in your life where you really learn how to strip everything out. And sounds like you had some of that. You had that natural, not necessarily it's not natural, but you had that kind of ability to just save.
Yeah. But again, I think that that was partially a lesson, again, by osmosis, my parents always looked really good. Wearing nice clothes was always important to my mother and father in a way that I think that affected and influenced me. But then what's happening behind the scenes is that for a long time, for a long time when I was living in Brooklyn, I would eat, I used to live in this apartment that we called the Brooklyn home for Wayward Boys because it was just me and a bunch of other struggling artists. And we had Brooklyn home for Wayward Boys Stew. It was two cans of black beans, a bunch of some red onion, a bunch of bell peppers, and then a thing of Soyrizo that we got from Trader Joes. And that would be, we'd cook a pot of Brooklyn home for where Boys St and eat that. So I was crimping in many other ways in my life, but I would always, always find ways to find the money for the things that were important for me to do.
Well, and then fast forwarding, you end up having this really awesome career in Hollywood that I think a lot of, especially journalists look at and think, wow, that's so inspiring. And you get contacted a lot by journalists wanting to follow in your footsteps. You won an Emmy for Watchman. Congratulations.
And after that, you signed this big multi-year overall deal with Warner Brothers, which as I understand it, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but means you're coming up with creative projects exclusively for Warner Brothers, and in exchange, they're paying you very well.
How much money was that deal for?
I hesitate to say how much exactly it was for, but I will say it was eight figures.
Wow. Yeah. Congrats.
Thank you. So yeah, it's more money than I ever thought I would ever make in my entire life. That is true.
And with this eight figure deal, is that eight figures every year? Or is that eight figures for the total over?
It's eight figures over the course of four years.
Okay. Got it.
But I make millions of dollars a year, which sounds insane to say.
Yeah, I was wondering if that sounded weird coming out of your mouth.
Yeah, it does, like I said, my first gig out of college, I made $25,000 a year. And like I said, the most money I ever made as a journalist was $90,000 a year. That was the most I'd ever made in my life. And it felt I'd finally done it right because I was like, oh, with bonuses, I mean six figures. This is the dream. So yeah, it sounds crazy to say that I make that much money. It sounds crazy, even to me. I was literally just thinking about this a couple days ago actually. I was just thinking about how there was a bill out of nowhere that was several hundred dollars, I remember, I can't remember exactly what it was, but all of a sudden owed like $600 for something.
And I was just like, "Oh, okay. That's what that cost." And I paid it. And I remember thinking, if this had been 10 years ago, I would've been devastated by this. A $600 would've just been like, "Oh my God, where am I going to get $600?" And I think that that's something else is just that life is easier with money. I think that's the reality. I don't know that it certainly doesn't make me happy. I don't think that I'm any happier than I was before. I'm a pretty unhappy guy in general, so I certainly don't feel like markedly more joyful with all this money, but I do know that it has made my life incredibly easier. I live an incredibly easy life at this point with very, very little discomfort that is self imposed.
And one of the things I love about things that you have said, you've been very open about how you see a therapist that was in your ME speech. You've also talked about how for a lot of your life you've been a cipher and had the feeling of you don't want to let people in too much. And then if you do, you relinquish some maybe power agency or control. I'm just wondering, do you think about that at all? Does having more money give you this sense of, I don't know, relief or control that just makes you feel really at ease or does it, I don't know. Does it not affect?
No. I think that that's, well, yeah, I'm in therapy because I have anxiety and I suffer from depression, and I have any of the other issues that everybody deals with. So there's a limit to how good I'm going to feel on any day. But as far as money is concerned, again, that's largely left my brain. The first thing that my lawyer recommended that I do when I got my deal was he was like, I'm going to set you up with a business manager who's going to handle all of your money. And I got a business manager and I gave them access to my entire life. It's crazy. I gave them the passwords to all of my banking information, all of my routing numbers, all of my stock investments. They're in charge of all of my bills, everything.
And well, I talked to my business manager and he said, if we handle this correctly, we can make it so you don't have to work anymore ever if you don't want to after this. And that is a huge sigh of relief. If I get this house, we're hoping to pay it off pretty soon, and then it'll just be paid for. And then I'll just have a house that is just mine forever if I want. I don't know that I feel good. I don't know that I feel, I certainly, but that's the thing though, is that even, I don't know that I even feel at peace about money. I feel more at peace. But have you ever read that study that the majority of people call themselves middle class? Have you ever heard?
And so how poor people don't want to say they're poor, so they say they're middle class, middle class people say they're middle class and they're correct. And then even rich people will say they're middle class because once you reach a sort of certain tax bracket, you're like, well, yeah, I make $2 million a year, but this guy who goes to my kid's school, he makes $5 million a year. And I know this other person, I went to a party last week and I met this other guy and he makes $10 million a year. So I'm not as rich as them. So I'm middle class because I only make $2 million a year. And that is, yes, my overall deal is fantastic. I love it. But I also am friends with people whose overall deals dwarf mine by leaps and bounds who have so much more money than I do. And so the problem is that, at least for me, I was like, well, how am I going to get that amount of money, maybe I should be after 10 times what my deal is?
That is the real goal now. And so I think that this rat race pursuit of more at all costs is somewhere deep down inside of me. And I often find myself needing to take a step back and assess where I am and assess what is going on in the world and feel really grateful. But that's hard to do sometimes. I think that if the Cord, who had just graduated college and was making $25,000 a year, heard that 17 years later I was making this amount of money and still wasn't pleased with it, he'd probably kick me down a flight of stairs and say, you need to pull your head out of your ass. You're living the dream. But I find myself every now and again in a dark, cynical place saying, well, you should be after more. But I try to smack myself awake and say, you are very, very, very fortunate and you should be happy with your life as it is.
So the pay disparity between men and women is a big problem, and that's certainly true in Hollywood. Do you talk to your female colleagues about the monetary specifics of your overall deal and how much you've been paid generally?
I haven't because I don't have many friends with overall deals. And the ones that I do have with overall deals, I know how much they're making and it's generally men. I have some acquaintances who are women who have overall deals, but I don't know that I'm close to any of them to ask them how much money they make, but they might be willing to talk about it because this is such a important topic. They might be willing to discuss it with me. I don't know.
Yeah, I think part of what breaks the barriers down, not necessarily to be to put it on Twitter, but I've had male colleagues at the LA Times tell me how much they made. And that was really helpful for me when I was asking for raises to know, okay, these are the actual numbers, this is what I can ask for. It just broke the silence and made it so that my boss couldn't tell me, "Oh, well, we're already offering you the maximum."
Just knowing that the facts is so helpful.
If any woman ever came to me and said, would you tell me how much money you make so that I can sort of use it as a negotiating tool? I would absolutely tell them.
And I mean, you're kind of the example of someone who worked hard in Hollywood and got one of these deals that I think a lot of people are after. And I think people in Hollywood are looking for that, looking to get a hit. But in the meantime, they're working crazy hours a week just to try to win at that lottery. And I'm just wondering, any thoughts you have on any harm that inflicts on creative people or whether that's a worthy thing to go for?
Trying to earn enough money so that you can live a comfortable life and provide for yourself and your family is absolutely a worthy goal? I fully understand anybody who's trying to do that. I think though that if you set out to make art with that goal in mind, then you can frequently be incredibly disappointed. I didn't set out to be a writer to make money. Like I said, I knew that it was the only thing that I liked to do that I was relatively good at, that was really, it met at those two points. It was like, what do you like to do? And what are you good at? And really the only thing that I could think of was writing.
I tried other stuff and I didn't like it, and it was the only thing that I felt like I could spend the rest of my life doing and not want to tear my eyes out every day that I got home from work. And so I think that if you set out to make a bunch of money in Hollywood, that's not going to make your best work. If that's your goal, you're probably not going to make stuff that breaks through, you're probably not going to make stuff that makes you happy. I think that if you work hard you and write what isn't out there, write what you feel like isn't represented in the world, I think that if you do that, you have a good chance of finding success. And with that success, you have a good chance of finding money at the end of that rainbow.
It may not be astronomical, it may not be Shonda Rims money, but there are a lot of working writers in Hollywood who don't have overall deals, who make absolutely good livings and allow them to own homes and allow them to send their children to good schools and allow them to take vacations when they'd like. And you can do that. The way that it happened for me is I just got lucky. I think the too few people who find success in any aspect of their life, admit how much luck is involved. And I was so lucky, so frequently to get where I am now. And I think that, you can't count on luck. And I think that I just got very lucky. I worked very hard for a long time. I'm not trying to discount that, but I also got a lot of lucky breaks.
Well, that links to a question that I'm asking all the guests, which is, what is enough to you?
Good question. Enough for me is probably right now I probably have enough for me, but at the same time, I have more money than anybody in my family has ever had. And so all of a sudden I want to spoil my family and I want to take my family's on vacation and I was looking last year to buy a country house in Provence because my dad spends a lot of time in France and I thought it would be nice for him to have a country house to go to. And my mom died six years ago, and I can remember, I guess a little emotional thing about this, but I remember she really wanted a Jaguar. She always loved Jaguars, the cars, and she always really wanted one. And I remember thinking like, one day if I keep at this, I might have enough money to where I can buy her a brand new Jaguar that'll be for her, and she died before I could do that. And it makes me sad. And it's just like I want to be able to provide for the rest of my family what I couldn't give to her.
Yeah. I'm so sorry for your loss.
It's all right. Thank you. But it makes me feel like I wish I could have given her more, and my mom was one of the happiest people I've ever met, and she never had a lot of money. I don't want to become a person who luxuriate and excess because that that's also not, I don't want to become that kind of human being who just needs to buy incredibly expensive nonsense to feel happy. But I do want to be able to buy some silly stuff every now and again for people I love.
Cord, thank you so much. This has been awesome talking to you.
Thank you. I've really enjoyed it.
Other People's Pockets is written and hosted by me, Maya, it's produced by me, along with Joy Sanford and Dan Gallucci, production help from Angela Vang. Our mix engineer is Dan Gallucci. Our executive producers are me, Maya, along with Jane Marie and Dan Gallucci. Special thanks to Boat Shoes. Other People's Pockets is a co-production of Pushkin Industries, Little Everywhere. To find more Pushkin Podcasts, listen on the iHeartRadio app, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Maya Lau is the creator, host and executive producer of the podcast, Other People’s Pockets, produced by Pushkin Industries and Little Everywhere. She's an award-winning former investigative reporter for The…