Cord Jefferson

Television writer
Headshot of a man.

Photo by Keith Bormuth

Music Credit: “NY” written and performed by Kosta, from the album Soul Sand. Used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

Cord Jefferson: Damon's thinking was that the original "Watchmen" text was built around Cold War fears and the fear of the Soviets and the nuclear arsenal and nuclear holocaust. And so if he wanted to do an update of that, he needed to focus on the problem at the center of American life for 2020, and I think that he believes-- and I agree-- that there's no way to look at modern America and not think that one of the main issues that we struggle with, if not the main issue that we struggle with-- what our nation is still hampered by is race and racism in the country and fear of the Other.

Jo Reed: That's writer Cord Jefferson talking about the series "Watchmen," developed for HBO by Damon Lindelof, and this is "Art Works," the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I'm Josephine Reed. Cord Jefferson is a journalist who turned television writer some six years ago. In those six years the series he's written for include "The Larry Wellborn Show," "Master of None," "Succession," "The Good Place" for which he just won an NAACP Image Award, and the groundbreaking series "Watchmen." For my money, "Watchmen" is one of the smartest and most profound examination of African American history in popular culture, and the fact that this history is embedded in a superhero series just adds to its textures. As you heard from Cord, the original graphic novel "Watchmen" took place during the Cold War and explored those fears. The recent series is set in present-day Tulsa, Oklahoma. It's an alternative universe: Robert Redford is president; Vietnam is the 51st state; the police conceal their identities with masks to prevent the Seventh Cavalry, a white supremist group, from targeting them. Angela Abar, played by Regina King, is a detective known as "Sister Night." Her absent grandfather Will Reeves comes into her life when he kills her white boss, a police captain. Her grandfather turns out to be Hooded Justice, a crucial figure in the original graphic novel who inspired two generations of costumed crime fighters. But as we learn about Will's journey to becoming Hooded Justice, America's very real racial history comes into sharp focus, and the crimes of yesterday are linked inextricably to the world today. "Watchmen" lays this out right from the beginning, starting the series with 1921's Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where whites rioted and razed Greenwood-- a prosperous black part of town-- to the ground, killing hundreds of African Americans. This was a bold way to begin what is a superhero series.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. We knew that we wanted to include the Greenwood Massacre somewhere in the show. I think at first we started talking about maybe including it somewhere in Episode Two or Three, and then we decided that we should include it in the pilot somewhere. There was a lot of discussion-- I think weeks of discussion-- about where it would go, and we finally landed on opening the pilot with it. And I'm happy that we did because I think it really set the tone for the show. It gave viewers an immediate reaction, an immediate understanding of the themes that we were going to discuss. Without spoiling too much, it makes sense that that is the origin story for Will Reeves, and we wanted to use that as our superhero origin story the way that Batman's parents getting killed is his origin story or Superman's planet exploding is his origin story. We were doing a superhero show but just went a little bit more grounded in reality than maybe others.

Jo Reed: Let's talk about how racial history operates in "Watchmen." I mean, it does throughout the series, obviously, in the first episode beginning with the Tulsa Massacre. But Episode 6, "This Extraordinary Being," the one that you wrote, it is one of the most compelling hours of television I've ever seen. Can you walk us through that episode?

Cord Jefferson: Thank you. Thank you. Yeah, I think that a huge theme of the show is inherited trauma and how the wounds of the past are given down through the generations. And so I think that you can't tell a show like that without utilizing history, and we wanted to utilize American history in order for this telling. And so yeah, there was a lot of history books in the room. There was a lot of discussion about historical figures and characters we wanted to include in the show, and I felt like it just made the world richer, and then it made the show a lot more resonant.

Jo Reed: What I find so striking about "Watchmen" is the way history continues to cast its shadow on the characters we meet in the present day.

Cord Jefferson: Oh, yeah.

Jo Reed: It's not as though the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa happened in this self-contained box. Its repercussions are still felt, and it still matters.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. The thing that I was so blown away by was how many people didn't know about the history that we were discussing. I think that a friend sent me an image of a Google graph that showed the spike from the Sunday night after the pilot to the Monday morning that showed how many people were frantically googling "Tulsa Massacre," because a lot of people thought that it was fake. A lot of people thought that we had invented that for the show. I have several friends who told me that they thought it was just all a fabrication that we came up with for the show and were blown away to discover that it actually was a real gory part of American history. I had a friend who was like, "There's no way that they were actually flying planes overhead and dropping bombs on this community," and then he googled it, but he realized that that's exactly what they were doing and that that was not as farfetched as he thought it had been.

Jo Reed: Maybe-- if you can just give us a brief history of the Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa?

Cord Jefferson: Backstory to the backstory is that there was this place in Tulsa, Oklahoma called Greenwood that a lot of people called it "Black Wall Street." It was a thriving, upwardly mobile, black community that existed in Tulsa that white residents of Tulsa felt some resentment toward it because it made people angry to see a black community flourishing. And so that's the backstory to the backstory. And so one day in Tulsa, a black kid was accused of a crime, imprisoned, and the black residents of Greenwood were concerned that the lynch mob would come to the prison and take him to the jail and take the kid out and lynch him. And so the black residents of Greenwood went to the jail and were trying to protect it from the white residents. And I don't think anybody's agreed upon who fired the first shot, but somebody fired the first shot, and then it was just mayhem, and the white residents of Tulsa basically stormed Greenwood and burned it to the ground and murdered around 300 to 400 black residents and jailed many more and looted and robbed their homes and their businesses and basically left Greenwood just in ashes. My memory is a little fuzzy. We read it two years ago at this point, but I think that that's the gist. It was a siege, and it seeks to the resentment that had been building up over the years, I think. I think that it speaks to the fact that many of the white residents of Tulsa were just looking for an opportunity to lay waste to this neighborhood, and all it took was the smallest violation.

Jo Reed: Well, the massacre at Greenwood really casts a shadow on the entire series, and in the episode you wrote called "This Extraordinary Being," we learn that Will Reeves-- Angela's grandfather-- was a seven-year-old boy who escaped that massacre, and we learn much, much more about him since most of that episode is told in flashback from his perspective.

Cord Jefferson: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: Can you walk us through that episode? And spoilers be damned because I think most people have seen "Watchmen" by now.

Cord Jefferson: Okay <laughs>. All right. Yeah. Yeah, that episode is Angela Abar takes Nostalgia pills given to her by her grandfather. In the world of "Watchmen," Nostalgia pills were pills that were made for dementia and Alzheimer's patients in order to give them their memories. And so what it did was extract older memories from people's brains and put them in pill form so that they could take them and live in happier times and remind themselves of who the people are in their lives. And so the rest of Episode 6, "This Extraordinary Being," is Angela going through her grandfather's memories from the 1930s when he first became a police officer in New York City but then soon understands that the police force is not going to afford him the justice that he's looking for. And so he ends up becoming the first superhero ever, the first costumed adventurer named Hooded Justice, and then from there he joins a group of other costumed adventurers who are inspired by him called the Minute Men, and then he uncovers this grand plot put together by this white supremacist organization called Cyclops. There's a lot more that I could get into, but those are the basic beats of the episode.

Jo Reed: Cinematically-- I mean, the way this episode is put together. First, it's mostly in black and white, and then Will Reeves is played by both Jovan Adepo and Regina King because Angela is literally reliving Will's memories. It was brilliant. It was the past and the present just morphing together and really being inseparable.

Cord Jefferson: Thanks. Yeah. Like I said, I think the show itself is very much about generational trauma, and I think that this episode specifically really stands out as the main thrust of that motif and that idea. And so we wanted to incorporate Angela entering the world the Nostalgia pills have put her in at specific moments to show that Angela is a person who's suffering with a lot of anger and rage in her life. And so there's a moment in the episode when her grandfather, speaking to her grandmother, is being accused of being angry, and he says, "I'm not angry." And then his grandmother reiterates that he is angry, and then the camera swings around and you realize that it's Angela sitting there, and Angela says, "I'm not angry," and you realize that Angela is dealing with the same issues that her grandfather was dealing with a couple generations before.

Jo Reed: Well, legacy is a strand that goes through this series in many, many forms.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Will Reeves, he becomes the superhero Hooded Justice, the original superhero. Did Lindelof have that idea from the beginning, that Hooded Justice would be black?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah, Damon came in saying that he wanted Hooded Justice to be black, and I had only read "Watchmen" once before working on the show, and even then I'd only read it in the couple weeks before the room started. So I didn't realize what a radical idea that would be, particularly to people who had been real-real superfans of the text. But the more that I thought about it, the more it really excited me because I think that the superhero genre is one that does not have a lot of diversity in it. There's not a lot of people of color. There's a handful of women here and there. But I think that something that was interesting to me about the concept was that of course a person of color or a woman would be the first superhero. Of course the first superhero might be a black man in 1930s in New York because the people who were looking for justice outside of the justice system, the people for whom the justice system doesn't work-- and in fact takes advantage of them-- it's so clear that of course that that would be a black man looking for justice in turn-of-the-century New York or turn-of-the-century America because justice was so frequently denied to them that it makes sense that somebody's going to put on a mask and a cape and try to find justice by other means.

Jo Reed: Okay. Here's my true confession. I never read "Watchmen." I never saw the film. I'm not a superhero person. I actually came to this for two reasons: 1) because Regina King is in it, and 2) because it started with the Tulsa Massacre, and I thought, "This is going to be really interesting because this is how it's introducing itself." I had no idea that in the original "Watchmen" Hooded Justice had a noose around his neck as part of his superhero costume. I thought that was something that you created for the series. And once I found out it was part of the original Hooded Justice's costume, of course it made sense to me that he would be a black man.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. That's something that I think just speaks to how different people view different things. I think that as a black person in America, there's no way that I look at a noose and don't immediately think of America's history of lynching, but at the same time I think a white reader might look at that and think that he's just an executioner-- he's wearing an executioner's mask. And so it's those different contexts that you come to things with that I think inform how you view characters, and so when we were viewing this character as potentially a black character, it made obvious sense to me. One of the ideas that we came up with pretty early was I pitched that Will Reeves would be a victim of racial violence, that he would be someone who survives an attempted lynching, and that is his origin story-- that he's lynched by his fellow officers. Well, he survives it, and then he goes on to wear the noose around his neck as a symbol of this fire that he was able to walk through. And it made perfect sense to me when I looked at that character that this is a black man, so the more that we started talking about it the more obvious it became to me. I think it was a surprise for a lot of people, but the more we discussed it in the room, it was very clear that that's who that character should be.

Jo Reed: Will Reeves as Hooded Justice wears many masks. There's the mask over his face, but then he wears white makeup around his eyes so people don't realize he's black. How was that developed?

Cord Jefferson: That was-- <laughs>. That was one of the biggest arguments of the room. If you go and read the original text of "Watchmen," very frequently the way that Hooded Justice is portrayed in the drawings is that his eyes fall flush with the mask, so you can never really see the skin around the eyes in most of the panels. But then in only one specific panel, there's a close-up of Hooded Justice, and you can see that the skin around his eyes is white. It's light. And so there was a lot of discussion in the room about how we would reconcile that with our character being black, and so one of the discussions was whether he should be a light black man and his skin would be light enough that he could pass as white when he was wearing the mask, but we thought that the casting would be difficult and that might be too easy, and we wanted to explore other ideas. And so we started talking about, "Well, what if he's wearing makeup? What if he puts makeup around his eyes and that is the mask under the mask?" We finally settled on the makeup <laughs>. I believe Damon may have been the strongest opponent to makeup around the eyes, but we finally convinced him to do it, and I think that I'm really, really happy that we did because I think that it speaks to the character of Will Reeves himself and that this is a guy who's hiding something from everyone. He's hiding his superhero identity from his coworkers at the police department. He's hiding his racial identity from his coworkers of Minute Men. He's somebody who is sort of deceiving everybody a little bit. The visual of the mask beneath the mask-- the metaphor is better when he wears the white makeup instead of just wearing the mask over his face.

Jo Reed: Can you describe the writers' room? How many people? What was the gender and racial makeup? Basically, how does this work?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Damon has told me-- he's told all of us that this is the most diverse writers' room he's ever hired. I think that there was-- I believe, off the top of my head, at least 50 percent of the room was black and maybe a little less than 50 percent were women. So the diversity was there, the racial and gender diversity was there, and I think that Damon felt that if he was going to tell the story properly he really needed to have black voices in the room. And so he came in with some ideas of his own, like I said, about wanting to set this in Tulsa and wanting the Tulsa Massacre to be a part of it and wanting Hooded Justice to be black, but then we just worked as a team to build everything out. I am not going to say all television, but the vast majority of television is written by committee, and so you all sit together and plan out what the season is going to look like and plan out what the story arc of each episode is going to look like. And then when you have the basic outline of each episode, each writer goes away and writes his or her first draft of that episode. Then you bring it back, and Damon does his punch-up on it and fixes the draft how he wants it to be fixed, and then you go forward from there.

Jo Reed: Interesting. So then you write by committee, but then for an episode like "This Extraordinary Being," which you're credited for it and Damon is credited for it-- so you two are the ones who worked specifically on that with the ideas that you got from all working together?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Name accreditation means different from show to show. What the credit "Written by Cord Jefferson and Damon Lindelof" means in this show is that I wrote the first draft of the episode. So I went away and wrote. Using the ideas that the group had collaborated on, I went and wrote the draft and then brought it back to Damon, and he punched it up how he saw fit, and then that's what went to air. Sometimes it's different. So in the comedy rooms, I go off and write a draft and then come back, and then the showrunner will do his or her pass on it, and then that draft then goes to the group at large to punch up and add jokes or lines or cuts or things like that based on the group mentality there. But that's not how the "Watchmen" writers' room worked. The "Watchmen" room is just you write your draft, Damon takes his pass, and then that's what's goes to air.

Jo Reed: What was the temperature in that room like? Was it comfortable? Was it anxious? Because you're dealing with such complicated and difficult issues.

Cord Jefferson: Oh. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I thought meant the literal temperature.


Cord Jefferson: I was about to say, "That's an interesting question. You know, it was chilly." There were certainly heated discussions. I wouldn't say that it never felt like anger was involved, but we were dealing with third-rail issues. You're dealing with reparations and you're dealing with race and you're dealing with sexual violence, you're dealing with police violence. There's a lot of touchy subjects that we broach in the show and that we broached in the writers' room. There's a difference of opinion about some of those subjects, but nothing ever felt like we were showing disrespect to anybody, or nothing ever felt like there was animosity behind what was being said. And I think that the key to having a good writers' room is just understanding that your coworkers are smart and talented and funny and interesting and have interesting things to say and that you should be respectful of that and be respectful of the diversity of opinion. I think that that-- I guess I would say every writers' room that I've ever been in, respect for diversity of opinion and diversity of lived experience has been at the forefront. And so I think that if you are in a room in which everybody understands that everybody is there for a reason and that everybody should be heard and that everybody's opinion deserves some time in the spotlight, I think that that's how the best shows get made.

Jo Reed: You began as a journalist. Tell me why you wanted to move from that to writing for television and what that was like, what that journey was like.

Cord Jefferson: I was a journalist, and a guy called me-- a guy named Mike O'Malley called me and asked me if I would come write for television, and--

Jo Reed: Seriously?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah. He was starting a show called "Survivor's Remorse" on Starz that was based loosely on Lebron James's life. Lebron James was the executive producer, and he'd read some of my journalism and seen some of the stuff that I'd done and liked it and asked me if I would come write for his show. And so at the time, my friend who's now my manager named Jermaine, I called him and asked him if he thought that I should do this, and he responded immediately and said, "Nobody ever gets cold-called to come write on a TV show. That just doesn't happen. You should definitely take this job, and then we'll figure out what your second job will be after that." And so I took it. That was February of 2014-- about six years ago-- and I didn't look back. I really liked my journalism job. I wasn't a celebrity or anything by any means, but I had carved out a pretty good career for myself and was enjoying it, and I think that the reason that I leapt at the opportunity to write for TV was when I decided to become a writer I wanted to be a writer in the broad sense of the word and that I was a writer who could do a lot of things. So if I'm a writer, I could write novels or write articles or write screenplays or write stage plays or write ad copy. I think that what it means to be a writer means a lot of different things, and I think that a lot of writers tend to hem themselves in and have a myopic view of what they can do with their career, and I think that more writers should be willing to expand their horizons and understand that you have this toolkit of writing and you can use it for a lot of different things. And so that had always been my goal and my mentality, and so when I was offered this opportunity to use that toolkit and apply it to something else, I leapt at it. I really love journalism, and I always will. But I think that for now I'm going to stay in TV and film stuff.

Jo Reed: Well, journalism-- you're basically writing on your own. Obviously, there's an editor and you're not just on your own, but what you produce pretty much ends up to be what's on the page whereas with television writing it's such a collaborative process, and you don't do the completed project. You put the words on the page, and then there's a director who directs and an actor who acts.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. That was something that I initially thought that I would have a hard time with, but once I got into the writers' room, I realized that I actually enjoyed it a lot. I found a lot of joy and progress to be had in working with a lot of different people. The first time that you see how wonderful a costume designer can execute this weird idea that you had and make it something that you had never even considered before when you were talking about a costume, or the way that you could write a line that you're not really sure is very good but in the mouth of a wonderful actor just turns out to be so much better than you ever thought it could be. I think that working with somebody as talented as Regina King and seeing the lynching scene in "This Extraordinary Being"-- we had written in that when they dropped his body from the tree and then took the mask off and Angela took the place of Will in that memory. We wrote on the page that Angela would take the place of Will, and then we went to the next scene, but the 10 to 12 seconds that Regina is onscreen there-- and the work that she does is so incredible as an actress-- and she doesn't say a line of dialogue, I certainly had no idea that she would be able to achieve and accomplish in those 10 to 12 seconds what she did accomplish, and it's one of the most affecting moments of the episode to me. When you see those moments, when you see what collaboration does, and when you see how effective it can be, and when you see how a team can come together and just make something incredible, I think that you just have a lot more respect and admiration for the process when you're actually in the world. And it is something that I found to be very beautiful and moving when it works.

Jo Reed: You went from "Watchmen" back to writing for "The Good Place."

Cord Jefferson: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: How was that transition?

Cord Jefferson: You know <laughs>-- very, very different tones and moods and themes and stories altogether. But at the same time I think that a thread that carries through from every show that I'm on, despite the fact that they may seem different on their face, is that I'm working with very, very talented, smart people who have great visions for great shows. I think that when I first started writing for television, I didn't really understand that a lot of people pick a lane, and a lot of people either choose to be comedy writers or drama writers. So to me, I just-- sort of going back to the toolkit thing, I just assumed that if you were a TV writer you just did whatever you wanted to do. You went to comedies, dramas, late-night shows-- you just bounced around. And I realized only after the fact that a lot of people didn't do that. But even so, I wanted to do that, and I still want to do that. I want to work with as many talented, smart people as possible, and I don't really care what the show is about. I don't really care if it's half-hour or hour or considered comedy or drama; I just want to work on good things with smart, talented people. At the end of the day, that's my only goal.

Jo Reed: Was there anything in particular that appealed to you about "The Good Place" that made you say yes to that job?

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. I think working with Mike Schur was at the top of the list. I had been such a fan of his work, going back to "The Office" and then onward to "Parks and Rec" and "Brooklyn Nine-Nine" and "Master of None." He had a hand in so many of the shows that I really loved and appreciated. I worked on "Master of None" before I worked on "The Good Place," and the guys on "Master of None"-- Alan Yang and Aziz Ansari had such glowing things to say about Mike that I promised myself if I ever got the opportunity to work with him I would. And it just so happened that after Season Two of "Master of None" I did get that opportunity, and I met with him, and he invited me to come work on Season Two of "Good Place," and so I did, and it was just an incredible experience. He's an incredible showrunner, an incredible man, and I learned a lot from him. So he was basically the motivator.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you this, because you came into Season Two in "The Good Place," and in "Watchmen" you were there from the beginning. What about "Succession"? Were you there from the beginning with--

Cord Jefferson: Season Two. Started Season Two of "Succession."

Jo Reed: Okay. So you have these two shows where you come in for Season Two, so you have characters that are already kind of established versus "Watchmen" where you're there in the beginning and help in that development. Can you just talk a little bit about what different tools you need from that toolkit to tackle both?

Cord Jefferson: I don't necessarily believe this, but I think some people will tell you that a Season Two of a television show is always better than a Season One, and that's because the writers understand who these characters are and what this world is, and so it just becomes easier to breathe in the world. You've established the rules, you've established the boundaries. Coming into a Season Two, I think, is going to be a little bit easier to write just because you understand these people and you understand what's going on and that you have storylines to carry over from the first season whereas starting at square one on a show-- particularly a show as complex as "Watchmen" was-- it was an undertaking. We started that show in September 2017, and I think there was still writing going on in early 2019-- I think March/April of 2019. So there was-- yeah. A lot, a lot, a lot, a lot of work into that show, and I believe it paid off, and I'm really proud of what we were able to make. But it is just a lot harder to do that world building and to do that character creation from the ground up.

Jo Reed: What are you working on now?

Cord Jefferson: I'm on a new show called "Station Eleven." That's a novel that came out in 2015, and so I started that in August.

Jo Reed: Oh! "Station Eleven" is an NEA Big Read Book. It's by Emily St. John Mandel, and I actually interviewed her for the podcast.

Cord Jefferson: Yeah. Yeah, that's how you know it. Yeah. And so that's going to be on HBO Max, and we started that in August of 2019 and are still writing that. We're now in January of 2020.

Jo Reed: When can we expect to see it?

Cord Jefferson: Not until 2021. That's not until next year, so a lot of time.

Jo Reed: I mean, after "The Good Place" goes off, Cord, I'm going to need a show <laughs>.

Cord Jefferson: I'll try. So next week I'm starting on a show called "Moonfall," and so I think that that may be out in 2020. I'm not 100 percent sure, but I'll keep you posted.

Jo Reed: Okay <laughs>. Thank you so much, and thank you for just the wonderful work that you do.

Cord Jefferson: Oh, thank you, and I really appreciate it. Thank you for having me on.

Jo Reed: Not at all. That was Cord Jefferson, a television writer whose series include "Watchmen," "The Good Place," "Succession," and now "Station Eleven." You've been listening to "Art Works," produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. You can subscribe to "Art Works" wherever you get your podcasts, so please do, and please leave us a rating on Apple. It does help people to find us. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Cord Jefferson began his career as a journalist, but six years ago he began writing for television. Since that time, he has put together a jaw-dropping resume—writing for shows like Succession, Master of None, The Good Place (for which he just received an NAACP Image Award) and the ground-breaking series Watchmen. Watchmen is a super-hero series set in an alternative world that nonetheless shares much of our racial history. In fact, the series opens with 1921’s Greenwood Massacre in Tulsa, Oklahoma—where whites rioted and razed Greenwood, a prosperous black part of town, killing hundreds of African Americans and destroying the community. A bold way to begin a super-hero series—but then Watchmen is a smart and profound examination of African-American history and how it shapes our world today. In fact, the episode Jefferson wrote with showrunner Damon Lindelof has a character living out her grandfather’s memories of vicious racism in the 1930s. In this podcast, Jefferson takes us inside the writers’ room of Watchmen; we talk about Lindelof’s vision for the series and how the writers worked together to bring it to fruition. We also talk about the process of collaboration, world building, and weaving real history into a fantasy series. Jefferson is immensely talented and a great storyteller.