John Oliver - HBO Last Week Tonight with John OliverThere’s been some debate about John Oliver’s somewhat-dubious claims that he and others, like Jon Stewart, are not journalists. He stresses that they’re comedians and everything they do on their shows is in the service of comedy.

Here’s a quote from Oliver that appeared in a recent New York Times piece:

“We are making jokes about the news and sometimes we need to research things deeply to understand them, but it’s always in service of a joke. If you make jokes about animals, that does not make you a zoologist. We certainly hold ourselves to a high standard and fact-check everything, but the correct term for what we do is ‘comedy.’ ”

I think that’s a total cop-out. In my opinion, Oliver and Stewart aren’t just making comedy shows, they’re filling a massive void in mainstream media by providing in-depth analysis of complex issues… which happens to be funny. Oliver, specifically, is employing magazine-style journalism by devoting long chunks of time (“long” as defined by the internet age) to relevant but little-discussed problems affecting his viewer’s lives. And then, yes, he sometimes spends that same amount of time on sex-hungry space geckos.

Just because he’s funny and focuses more on the joke than, say, an old-school journalist would doesn’t preclude him from practicing journalism. If he’s involved in writing, researching, editing, or providing direction on where to look for truth where little is known, then he’s a journalist. That’s how it works. The only way I can argue on behalf of his claim is if he said he’s just a gifted performer who reads from a teleprompter during every show, but we know that’s not the case.

I never appreciated the cowardly way (yes, I said it) Jon Stewart would criticize incompetent or intentionally misleading broadcasters, and then cloak himself with a veil of “I don’t have to live by the high standards I preach because I’m just a comedian”. That’s bull. He and Oliver work by a professional journalistic code, so why wouldn’t they take on the title that comes with the territory?

Be proud of what you do, John Oliver. You’re really good at it.

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Dumping Money on the Didion Doc Kickstarter

by Sean on October 25, 2014

Joan Didion_Kickstarter

Readers of my blog probably how much I love Joan Didion– I’m sorry, what? You don’t? Dude, come on.

Okay, so now that we all know how much I admire her writing, then you’ll understand why I had to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign (embedded below) that seeks to produce a documentary about her life.

At the time of this posting, the campaign organizers had surpassed their $80,000 funding target by more than $60,000. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if they cracked $200,000 by the time their campaign is over.

It’s a great sign, because a) I really want to see some kind of filmic documentation of Didion’s amazing life of writing, and b) I like it when intriguing projects build momentum despite not following cynical industry “wisdom” – i.e. making a bio-documentary about a semi-popular writer who happens to be a soft-spoken older woman (gasp!).

Didion was well-respected by industry suits and fellow writers alike, not to mention the readers of great writing (i.e. unpublished writers). But she never had the kind of notoriety that someone like the Da Vinci Code dude had. Yes, I’m deliberately pretending not to know his name. And I’m totally fine with that, but I still selfishly want to have more content to sink my teeth into here.

For all the dreck that’s posted on Kickstarter, it’s the promise of projects like this that get me motivated to fund more stuff.

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The Story Behind My Icon

by Sean on September 24, 2014

SeanMinogue_iconMost of the people I know primarily through online communication – including many of my freelance clients – identify me by my icon (pictured here). Of course I am much more than a peachy, red-bearded, plaid-wearing dude, but those elements are undeniably true to my physical character.

This image appears everywhere from this website to my profiles on Twitter and LinkedIn, not to mention my professional invoices. It’s an accidental brand, one that I’ve come to love as my freelance writing career has taken off. The design isn’t my own, or even one that I commissioned, but actually a repurposed part of a personal project a good friend of mine in Vancouver created a few years back. She wanted to wish me a “bon voyage” as I was leaving for the decidedly more corporate shores of Toronto, and this icon was her quirky way of doing it.

The designer’s name is Åsa Cederholm and she’s an incredible talent originally from Sweden.  She permitted me to shoehorn this image into every corner of my internet presence and I can’t say that I thank her often enough for providing me with such a great go-to visual. (It’s surprising how often I need one.)

So do me a favour: Go to her website and check out the rest of her work. Send her an admiring email or an anonymous bag of money. Recommend her to friends. Because she’s awesome.

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Your Move, Chief (RIP Robin Williams)

by Sean on August 12, 2014

robin williamsThis one hurts a little. Robin Williams wasn’t just some celebrity comedian whose name everyone seemed to know. His natural gifts as a performer and well-demonstrated desire to try new things made him an artist worth watching. A kind of chaotic spirit who possessed deceptive quantities of discipline to produce more moments of brilliance than a lot of us will be able to match in our lifetimes.

Those same gifts also made him a mainstream dynamo. Williams’ acting performances were ubiquitous in my youth. He was everywhere – from the movies that captivated the young know-it-all writer in me like Good Will Hunting and Dead Poets Society, to the movies I just could not get away from like Jumanji, Hook, or Mrs. Doubtfire. And then there were the ones that I’ve come to love more as the years go on like Awakenings and The Fisher King. Regardless of the quality or artistic integrity of the productions he starred in, Williams was so reliably him that his passing feels more like the extinction of a rare species of bird or life-sustaining plant.

The fact that he committed suicide should not solely be a reason to ignite the “depression is real and it hurts” issue, which is a very worthy topic of discussion. We should also consider that the very essence of comedy – not just in the standup industry, but also through the funny people we know in our everyday lives – often comes from pain, and the two are irretrievably linked. A joke is a way of subconsciously acknowledging a shared burden, one that might be derived from oppressive social norms or the individual blunders we all worry about. The entire story engine of Mrs. Doubtfire, for example, relies on a father’s desperation to reunite his family. Every comedic situation in this movie springs from that core of motivating pain.

Though it may not seem obvious to anyone on the outside looking in, many performers are on the front lines of experiencing pain. That’s where their job takes place. They’re not “tortured geniuses”, a term that just lets us off the hook for being more empathetic; they’re studied observers of the people around them. In order to pull laughter out of us, they need to acutely feel all the awkwardness and shame and whatever else we try to bury, then shoot it back out into the world as a relatable joke. And then joke after joke, we can breathe a little easier because that person has taken the time to explicitly state what’s bothering us and why.

Sometimes, though, staying too close to that pain becomes overwhelming for even the most seasoned comedians. And it sucks. At least in Williams’ case we can enjoy his massive body of work. But his level of stardom and success is rare, so where does that leave everyone else?

Empathy is the only way forward.

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My Latest Articles for Creative Professionals

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As part of my life as a freelance copywriter, I collaborate with Format.com‘s team to create weekly online articles over at ExploreCreateRepeat.com that speak to the joys and challenges of creatives – meaning: people engaged with professional creative work like design, photography, web development, and yes, copywriting too. It’s a pleasant surprise every week to mine […]

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My Summer 2014 Reading and Viewing Picks

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I’ve been reading a lot of books and seeing some great films lately. Not every one of them is worth recommending, but here are a few of the favourites I’ve come across so far this summer. Stoner by John Williams (1965) has exploded in popularity over the past year, having been branded as a forgotten gem of American […]

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Collecting Sentences and Releasing Them Into the Wild

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Tumblr just told me I’ve been with them for three years, which is odd because I always forget I have a tumblr. Almost always. I (infrequently) post my favourite sentences written by authors I love on worldentire.tumblr.com. Sometimes when I’m reading a book, a single line will leap out at me because of some unique feature. Maybe it’s alarmingly long […]

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Pause Netflix and Go See ‘Under the Skin’

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I’ve had a good run of movie-going success lately. I’ll pretty much see anything at my favourite theatres, TIFF Bell Lightbox and the single-screen Revue Cinema in Roncesvalles in Toronto, but it always feels even better when the films that I check out on impulse turn out to be great. Case in point: I was […]

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Writing in Seclusion is Hard (But Worth It)

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I recently spent a week at a sweet mini-cottage near Penetanguishe, ON (my temporary work space pictured here). For the whole time, I sat in front of my computer without the distracting compulsion to be online all the time. Well, the compulsion was totally there but the wifi, alas, was not. The result was a big chunk of […]

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A Reminder That Filmmaking Is (Often) Interpretive

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Check out this page from Francis Ford Coppola’s notebook during the production of The Godfather. He’s pulling everything he can out of Mario Puzo’s written work and trying to visually represent it on the screen. (Spoiler: He did a pretty good job of that.) via Reddit.com

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