James Corden (@JKCorden) joined Marc Maron (@MarcMaron) on the WTF podcast. I had never listened a WTF episode until this one. Why start now? Besides the numerous suggestions from people on Twitter, this episode also answered a question I had, how did Corden become the host of the Late Late Show? I saw his announcement for the CBS show right after I had seen Corden as a singing baker in Into The Woods. He was great in the movie, but how does he go from that, to a premier American talk show? Maron gets the answer.
Our table of contents looks like this: winning with religion — burn the boats — talent — non-edible organic movie posters – advice from Meryl Streep – when to do your best work — every job is a job.
Winning with religion.
The start of their interview is all about Corden’s childhood in England. It’s interesting and includes his experience growing up in the church of the Salvation Army. As an adult, Corden’s religious beliefs have waned, but maybe for the wrong reason.
Corden tells Maron that he once asked his father about faith; “What if you die and wherever you’re going isn’t what you wanted?” Corden says, “what if it just wasn’t worth it?”
“Well,” his father says (in the way all fathers talk to their sons) “I’ve had a great life. I’ve been able to love and do the things I wanted. But what if it all ends and I’m right, what then for you?”
What if that was the case? This gets into two big ideas.
Positive asymmetry is good.
Corden’s father has found a position with fantastic upside. A lot of people look for situations where winning is worth more than losing. Donald Trump writes about this in the terms of which buildings to buy. Nassim Taleb writes about this in terms of what dinner party to go to. Scott Adams speaks to this in terms of friends. Positive asymmetry is good.
When Corden’s dad dies, there are two options. Heaven or not heaven. The former is positive, the latter is not. That’s positive asymmetry – but it’s not the only big idea in what he said. He’s also winning now.
Corden’s dad is happy now because he got to live the life he wanted. He’s not sacrificing the life now for a potential reward later. He’s living well now and living well later.
Chris Hadfield wrote about this in his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth. Hadfield pined to be an astronaut, but had a long road to get there. For starters, he was a Canadian and Canada didn’t have a space program. Then there was all the education, politics, training, travel, and other requirements. Hadfield considered these obstacles between him and space, and writes this:
“It’s probably not going to happen, but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction just in case – and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens I’m happy.”
Much like Corden’s dad (I don’t know if this outcome will happen, but I should work toward it and not be miserable doing it) Hadfield created a win-win situation. Later in the book the theme continues.
“Taking the attitude that I might never get to space – and then, after I did get there, that I might never go back – helped me hold onto that feeling for more than two decades.”
It’s hard to get asymmetrical upsides and winning now at the same time – but if we can it’s beautiful.
At the end of the interview, Corden says about his contract with CBS, “they can sack me, but I can’t leave.” That’s winning now without the upside. How Corden got there is worth looking at.
Burn the boats, we are here.
The story goes that when Cortes landed in Mexico with his conquistadors he ordered the ships burned so that there was no other option. This is a powerful force, and one Corden used.
“There was nothing else,” Corden says, “I just wanted to perform.” To this Maron adds, “if you have a plan B, you’re just a hobbyist.”
In Sick in the Head, Jordan Peele says this:
“When I moved to Chicago, I was like, All right, I want to be a sketch comedian and my power is going to be in the fact that I’m going to dedicate myself completely. There’s not going to be a fallback, you know? I’m going to watch people give up and I’ll still be there, learning from it all, and if I stay with it, I’ll be successful.”
Jim Norton attributed his success to having no other options. Casey Neistat didn’t have options either. It was make it or bust. And this might be good. NPR’s Hidden Brain podcast did an episode about backup plans. The conclusion? If you have a backup plan, “there’s a downside we might not be appreciating.”
There’s a silver lining, the bar to make it is low. If you want to be an actor, and you earn enough money to eat then you made it, says Corden. “You’re one of the lucky ones.” And we don’t need much.
Mark Cuban was willing to live like a college student to “make it.” Penn Jillette lived out of his car to “make it.” Kevin Kelly noted that we need little to “make it.” Jay Leno did stand-up at retirement homes and worked as a Mercedes Benz mechanic to “make it.”
Have the right mindset, a lower bar, and limited needs and you have the recipe to “make it” too. There’s just a pinch more of something you’ll need.
You can’t just “make it.” You need talent too. “Raw talent will always get a shot,” Corden tells Maron. “You have to have an ability.”
Adam Davidson and Taylor Pearson both spoke about the meritocracy we now live in. Tyler Cowen dedicated part of Average is Over to this idea. Now that gatekeepers are gone, if you have talent you’ll get a chance.
Today skill matters more than ever and it’s easy to see who has it. You need to figure out how this relates to you. “If you recognize your talent, that helps,” Maron says. You have to manage yourself.
Management of self.
Michael Lombardi said that the hardest form of management is self management. To know when, what, and how to change. The super successful people here are able to do that.
Malcolm Gladwell manages his talent by waiting for something that strikes him as “novel and cool,” to write about.
Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg manage their talent by remembering that their best skill is writing and to always return to that.
Rich Roll manages his talent by building a life that directs his addictive personality to healthy things.
Okay, that’s great that they can do that, but how do you and I do it?
How do you build talent through self management?
A – Create a volume of work under pressure. Casey Neistat, Malcolm Gladwell, and Amy Schumer all suggest to do a lot of work in a small period of time with immediate deadlines. This gets you in the groove of work and builds the important skills.
B – Be you. You can imitate someone at first, even remix their work, but eventually you have to be you. In On Writing, Stephen King writes:
“Stylistic imitation is one thing, a perfectly honorable way to get started as a writer (and impossible to avoid, really; some sort of imitation marks each new stage of a writer’s development), but one cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other other words.”
C – Have a community. Each time Corden elaborates on part of his career, it involves other people. This is true for Jamacian sprinters and Russian tennis players and comedians – groups are better to grow in.
Those are things to do, but knowing what not to do is good too. Corden has one suggestion, don’t fake it.
Non-edible organic movie posters.
Corden and Maron talk about what makes a good movie. It needs to say something they conclude. Judd Apatow writes that good movies say something, (from Sick in the Head):
“When you see a movie that Sean Penn directs, you realize he’s not fucking around. It’s like listening to a Nirvana record or something. This is not a job. They have something to say. And in comedy, the people that we like the most, when they score, they have something to say that’s important to them.”
Corden notes, “some movies just feel like posters.” That’s faking it.
When Gary Shandling spoke to Judd Apatow he said that this is the struggle. “That’s what the struggle was in the writer’s room, in a nutshell: Getting people not to write just words.” Writing is about more than words. That superficial, fake, phoning it in. Whatever expression you favor, it digs up the same underlying idea.
Shandling wanted writers to write the characters and emotions. Authors speak about this all the time. Stephen King (also in On Writing) says that he’s ambivalent about profanity in his books. Unless it’s true to the character. If the characters is profane, then they need to swear in the book. That’s authentic and organic to the art.
If you want to create, create something real. If you want to work well, Meryl Streep has some advice.
Work advice from Meryl Streep.
“She takes her work unbelievable seriously and she doesn’t take herself seriously at all.” – James Corden
That’s why people love Meryl Streep.
When to do your best work.
This was my curiosity. How the singing baker became a late night host. It began, Corden says, when he did the play One Man Two Guvnors in New York, 2012. Corden was the star and won a Tony Award for his work. He didn’t know it, but two CBS executives were in the audience and decided that he should do a show for them.
Most people don’t do this. Penn Jillette said that most people don’t do a good job. If you do do a good job though, people will want to watch you. Jillette says that there’s only one magic trick he does. He works harder than the audience expects him to. That’s him doing a good job.
Louis C.K. had a similar experience making his TV show. From Sick in the Head:
“This year (2014) was a totally different experience than last season. I didn’t do it like a job. I decided I don’t need to go and try to make movies or anything. This show was a good job. It’s a good thing to be doing creatively. I had this thing that I was going to make a movie. And I’d been saving it and I said, Fuck it. I’ll make an episode out of it. So cut it into two pieces and I made an episode and it’s a whole flashback thing.”
Rather than sit on his great idea, Louis did his best work.
“Every job is a job.”
He recalls going on Conan one night and coming off stage, looking for the party. That’s when you realize it, Maron says, “it’s just a bunch of fucking people at work.”
There’s no dream job. Every job has something that’s not wonderful. Even Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg felt afflicted by this, and so they installed video games in their offices.
One final note, I promise that not all posts will have so many references to Judd Apatow’s book, Sick in the Head. But I just finished it and it was great.