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Cord Jefferson Is Behind Every TV Show You Can’t Stop Tweeting About

How the acclaimed writer from ‘Succession,’ ‘The Good Place’ and ‘Watchmen’ made a leap of faith and conquered Hollywood

All this week, join us for a delightfully unwell celebration of our Internet Boyfriends. They’re sweet, beautiful men we’ve never met, and we can’t wait to share the fully formed relationships we have with each of them.

Cord Jefferson isn’t that online. You’re never going to see his viral hot take on the day’s events, nor will you come across him beefing with enemies on main. In fact, I’m not sure he has an enemy. Despite working as a writer in the cutthroat worlds of media and entertainment, he seems immune to petty rivalry, unfailingly warm and habitually praised by those who know him. And if you don’t, you’re probably an admirer of his work anyway — even if you don’t realize it.

That’s because Jefferson has had a hand in some of the buzziest TV shows to take over the internet. His wide-ranging credits include everything from Succession to The Good Place, Station Eleven to Watchmen — for which he won an Emmy with creator Damon Lindelof, of shows including Lost and The Leftovers. It’s a hell of a track record for someone who broke into Hollywood as recently as 2014, and with the Writers Guild of America, he’s already established a fellowship for emerging TV writers, named in memory of his late mother, Susan M. Haas. 

Jefferson was born and grew up in Tuscon, Arizona, but also spent parts of his childhood abroad, in Greece and Saudi Arabia. He has fond memories of the Southwest, but also recalls his alienation as one of the few Black kids in a mostly white and Latino city. “If I wanted to get into Black culture it was at home, or watching movies and TV shows,” he tells me. “I’m pretty sure I was the only seven-year-old in the theater for Do the Right Thing the day it came out, because my parents were trying to expose me to as much Black culture as possible. Maybe a little too early,” he adds with a laugh. Alongside 1990s slacker fare like Swingers and Dazed and Confused, he liked the urban films of John Singleton and Spike Lee. “I was really drawn to these stories taking place in New York and L.A. because I felt like an outsider in Tuscon,” he says. “As far back as I could remember, I knew I wasn’t going to stay in my hometown.”       

But even while attending the College of William & Mary, Jefforson wasn’t quite sure what that leap would look like. He came to L.A. after earning a degree in sociology — not because he wanted to be a sociologist, but “largely because those were the only classes that were really interesting to me” — and worked at a Buffalo Exchange thrift store before landing a communications job at a nonprofit in Venice. “The work felt morally good and ethically good but it didn’t satisfy me creatively,” he says. In the meantime, he was writing a lot of essays, inspired in part by This American Life, and although he shudders now to think how “twee” those early efforts were, they were his “only creative outlet” in that era. 

Despite working for his high school newspaper and starting a literary magazine with friends in college, he still regarded writing as a hobby. “My dad’s a lawyer and my mother was an educator,” he says, “and both of them had been to grad school, their friends were professionals in other industries, and unless you grow up seeing artists, it can feel like that’s not for you — like that’s something that other people do.” 

But the continuous writing led to more and more freelance work, including a regular gig at the magazine Filter, where he debuted with a small profile of the musician Jolie Holland. In time, his journalism was paying about as well as his day job. “So I said, ‘Why not just quit and do something you’re actually enjoying?’” Jefforson remembers. “And still make a paltry amount of money.” He moved to New York with this ambition, but the financial crisis of 2007-2008 decimated the industry. So he tried Washington, D.C., first working at the Center for American Progress, then as a political reporter for The Root. Once he got fed up with life inside the Beltway, he moved back to L.A., where he worked at GOOD magazine for two years, then wound up the West Coast editor of Gawker, a position he’d keep for two more years.

Jefferson thought of Gawker as incredibly liberating. “You could be what you wanted to be there, do what you wanted to do,” he says. “I really liked that job.” It didn’t hurt, he notes, that it allowed his parents to see him as having a “real” job. “They could actually point to my work and say ‘this is what my son does,’” he tells me. One fateful day, he wrote a piece that attracted the notice of a TV showrunner named Mike O’Malley, who reached out and invited Jefferson to write for the series he was working on. It was a chance to do something completely different.

* * * * * 

Jefferson cites James Baldwin and Joan Didion as two of his literary heroes. “I’ve always really loved their writing not just because of their writing — I enjoyed and appreciated their careers because what it meant to be a writer, to them, was very broad,” he says. “People don’t know this, but the original script for Spike Lee’s Malcolm X was written by James Baldwin. Baldwin would write a screenplay, then he’d write a book of essays, then a piece of journalism, then a novel. What it meant to be a writer was very big. Same with Joan Didion. Writers nowadays, younger writers maybe, are like, ‘I’m a sports reporter, that’s my job,’ or ‘I’m a music blogger, that’s my job.’ I was always like, ‘I’m just a writer, and I want to utilize that skill set in as many ways as possible.’”

For that reason, the TV offer was exciting, but Jefferson wasn’t sure about it. The gig was only 13 weeks and paid less than Gawker. There was no guarantee of a second season. “Nowadays I know I should’ve just leapt at the opportunity,” he says, but he didn’t say yes until he talked to his friend Jermaine Johnson (who is now his manager). “He was like, ‘Nobody cold-calls you to write for TV, you have to take that job, that’s never going to happen again.’”

The show was Survivor’s Remorse, a Starz comedy-drama about a basketball star and his family, produced by LeBron James. Jefferson earned a “story by” credit on the third episode. The well-received series would end up spanning four seasons, but Jefferson’s contract was completed after the first. Then he discovered the stress of making your second move in Hollywood.

“I had that first show and was like, ‘Oh, this is great, it’s gonna be smooth sailing from here on out because I’ve got a show under my belt,’” he recalls. “But it was just not that. Months and months and months of just general meetings. I call it the couch-and-water-bottle tour. I just drove around Burbank to new offices, and they’d make me sit on a couch and give me water. And just say, like, ‘Who are you, describe your life to us’ and stuff. And I did that. It was kind of demoralizing.”

It was such a rocky period, Jefferson says, that after six or seven months, he thought about giving up and going back to reporting. “I was good at my job, and I liked the work, and by the time that I left journalism full-time, editors were coming to me and asking me to do stuff,” he says. “Having to go to all these meetings and dance for your dinner all over again, ‘Here’s who I am, this is why you should like me, and I think that I’m good,’ you know, it’s a little humbling.” With no money coming in, he’d started eating into his savings. He’d turned down full-time work in media. At his “breaking point,” he emailed his manager, writing that his parents couldn’t support him while he chased this dream, so he was thinking of throwing in the towel. His manager said to give it another two months.

Instead, the next opportunity arrived in just two weeks: He interviewed with Larry Wilmore and Rory Albanese, who were developing The Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, a Comedy Central spin-off of The Daily Show that would take the time slot of The Colbert Report. Jefferson was the first writer they hired, and he moved to New York for the job. 

“A late-night show is great. It’s exhausting, but it’s great,” he says of his experience on the panel discussion series, which ran from 2015 to 2016, during Donald Trump’s rise in the Republican party and presidential run against Hillary Clinton. Jefferson, who hadn’t gotten a script produced for Survivor’s Remorse, now found his writing transformed into actual television every day. “That was really good for getting my sea legs under me,” he says. “There’s no time to dwell on what gets on or what doesn’t get on, you’re just constantly making stuff.” In a way, the relentless news felt like being a blogger again. “I really appreciate and love everyone who worked on that show,” he adds, “because they really did teach me how to feel comfortable writing TV in a way that I didn’t feel comfortable before. I owe a debt of gratitude to everybody there.” 

The experience wasn’t sustainable, though. Between the “constant churn” of the schedule and the particular madness of the 2016 election, Jefferson felt burnt out after little more than a year. “I could never work on a late-night show again,” he confesses. Seeking a return to the kind of TV that gave him his start, he landed a meeting with Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, who brought him aboard for Season Two of the Netflix hit Master of None. He served as story editor for 10 episodes, and provided the story for Episode Six, “New York, I Love You.” The stint earned him a nomination, along with his colleagues, for a Writers Guild of America Award. He scored another WGA nom for his work on The Good Place, NBC’s quirky sitcom about the afterlife, and won an NAACP Image Award for writing the episode “Tinker, Tailor, Demon, Spy.” He soon snagged a WGA Award with Succession, which follows a dysfunctional mega-rich family wrangling over their media empire, winning best Drama Series in 2020. That season involved the acquisition of a website called “Vaulter,” which many took as an allusion to Gawker, Jefferson’s former employer.

He laughs when I ask if the Vaulter plotline was his idea. “I didn’t come up with Vaulter,” he says. “They had Vaulter sort of already in their minds when I joined. But it was me, and there’s another writer from Succession named Will Tracy, and he used to be editor-in-chief of The Onion, which was also owned by the media entity that bought Gawker. So he and I both had personal experience with shitty corporate overlords at your website.” As a result, they both “had a lot of input on that episode specifically.”  

To the casual viewer, these shows have little in common. Jefferson sees it differently. “The connective tissue between all those different things,” he says, “is that they’re all pretty based in digging deep into interesting, layered, empathetic characters. When I go in to work on Succession… I’m not friends with billionaires, I’m not hanging out with any white billionaires, right? That’s not my social group. But I can empathize. I’ve got siblings with whom I have rivalries. I understand wanting to please my dad who’s kind of a hard-ass. I understand feeling sexual inadequacies like Roman. I understand feeling like you’ve let someone down or disappointed everyone in your life like Kendall.”

Beyond the rich, relatable characters Jefferson has helped bring to life, “the shows I’ve worked on take big swings,” he explains, “whether it’s genre stuff like Watchmen, or The Good Place, where it’s a sitcom on moral and ethical philosophy — on primetime NBC.” Watchmen, for its part, deepens and complicates the superhero narrative, he says. “That’s what I look for when I think about working on something. Can this feel like it’s additive to the world and the conversation, instead of being just another piece of content for the content trough? Here you go, here’s the content slop, eat it up. So much stuff is made with, like, a disdain for the audience these days.” The streaming wars can focus on volume over quality.

Which is why an event like HBO’s limited Watchmen series, a “remix” of the landmark graphic novel, can be so special. The show, for which Jefferson served as executive story editor, opens with a dazzling, harrowing sequence during the 1921 massacre and destruction of Tulsa, Oklahoma’s Black Wall Street, by angry white mobs. On Twitter, viewers marveled to learn that despite Watchmen’s alternate history, this terrible event — a shocking display of racist violence even by U.S. standards — had really occurred in ours. 

“It was equal parts thrilling and also disappointing,” Jefferson says. “Because this is a very important piece of American history, and it’s disappointing that so many people have not heard of it inside of classroom walls,” having to wait and discover it through a TV show about superheroes. He adds that it’s never his intention to teach a lesson. Still, this was a breakthrough. “I’ve talked with [creator] Damon [Lindelof] about this,” he says, “and one of the things he was really excited by was that the night of the premiere, ‘Tulsa’ was trending on Twitter, not ‘Watchmen.’ Everybody was really, really interested in that, and the fact that we can highlight these kind of things is good. Unfortunately, it seems like America’s getting further and further away from the idea that we should be learning about these things.”  

Watchmen was a slam dunk with critics and audiences alike; Jefferson would accept an Emmy for Outstanding Writing (along with Lindelof) on his episode “This Extraordinary Being.” Because it was September 2020, the event was virtual, and Jefferson gave his speech from Lindelof’s living room, remarking that he’d brought his dad as his date. He also thanked his therapist. “Thank you to my therapist, Ian,” he said. “I am a different man than I was two years ago. I love you. You have changed my life in many ways. Therapy should be free in this country.” 

The shout-out struck a chord — the Los Angeles Times interviewed him about it. Along those lines, I ask if therapy has changed how he approaches the writers room. “The more you understand human behavior, the better you’re going to be at thinking about human behavior and creating human behavior,” he says. “Digging deep, sifting through the details of my life, trying to piece together the reasons that I do the things I do, the things that have happened in my history that are still affecting me nowadays.” All that investigation yields the emotions and character choices that will be effective on screen. 

“Every writer should be incredibly self-reflective, right?” he continues. “One of the instincts to become a writer in the first place is that you sit alone with your thoughts so much. At least the writers I know tend to be sort of neurotic people who sit around and overthink everything within an inch of its life. That’s probably why I’m a writer and why I’m in therapy.”

Jefferson’s latest project had the trickiest line to walk where it came to writing plausible but engaging people and scenarios. Station Eleven, also on HBO, is adapted from a novel of the same title, and takes place 20 years after a devastating flu pandemic that more or less ended civilization, following a troupe of traveling performers. Its production, of course, was delayed by COVID-19. “We wrote the entire season, we went from August to January, and our last day in the room was January of 2020,” Jefferson says. They had even shot a few episodes by the time lockdowns began. After a year of not being able to film, they resumed work. “Basically two full years between when we started writing it and when it premiered, which is an incredibly long gestation period for TV,” he tells me. 

The reception, despite the subject matter and the delay, has been very warm. Jefferson chalks that up to the tone of the series. The creator, Patrick Somerville, “was very adamant that he didn’t want it to be like The Road,” he says, adding that he “didn’t want it to be doom and gloom, or a super cynical apocalyptic tale.” Instead, Somerville wanted to feel “optimistic about potential for the future,” which greatly intrigued and appealed to Jefferson. “We set out writing it that way, and I’m happy that we did, because I think it arrived at the exact right time” debuting in December 2021, he says. Too early in the pandemic, he thinks, it would have been all too much, whereas releasing an “incredibly grim and sad” version today would’ve also turned viewers off. “But I think the time that we released it and the themes of it, the hopefulness of it, aligned with people’s interest too in such a way — people didn’t feel like they were just watching more MSNBC, and misery. It offered them something to be hopeful about, in a world that feels short on hope these days.”     

As for Jefferson’s own hopes? Well, he’s stuck by the commitment to write in as many directions as possible, recently making a literary fiction debut with a short story in the Yale Review. Surely a novel isn’t far off. But he also intends to make a season of television that was going to stream on Apple TV — until Apple CEO Tim Cook had it killed for seemingly personal reasons. It’s called Scraper. The series is “inspired by” the drama that long surrounded (and finally engulfed) Jefferson’s old employer, Gawker Media, written with others who spent time in the blogging trenches there. Sounds about as close as we’d get to a Vaulter spin-off from the Succession universe. And what better premise to capture a devoted internet fandom? 

Jefferson grins when he talks about the show that could be. “We literally have all eight episodes sitting on my desktop right now,” he says. “We’ve worked really hard on it, and there’s a lot of great stuff in there, so I hope that gets an opportunity to see the light of day.”

With the streak he’s on, I’d be more surprised if it didn’t.