Wednesday, April 16, 2014

CIW 14 in '14: Chicago Comedian Susan Messing on Seth Meyers, Sasheer Zamata & Colbert's Late Night Gig

There’s no denying that comedy has become an integral part of the cultural conversation this year.  Seth Meyers took over Late Night, Sasheer Zamata joined Saturday Night Live, Broad City and Amy Schumer sparked a discussion of women in comedy and now Stephen Colbert will take over for David Letterman in 2015.  We couldn’t think of anyone with more of a pulse on the comedy scene today than our own CIW 2013 speaker Susan Messing, who is busy teaching classes at DePaul University and the Annoyance Theater, just wrapped up a class at the University of Chicago and has merged her comedy with that of Blaine Swen to create “Blessing,” a Tuesday night show at iO Theater.

Messing discussed two of CIW’s 14 in ’14 nominees, Sasheer Zamata and Seth Meyers, offered her opinions on the announcement that Colbert will replace Letterman and suggested it might be time to finally retire the age-old debate—a debate that just doesn’t seem to go away—about whether woman can be funny.

Sasheer Zamata.
Seth Meyers.

A lot of the conversation has centered around diversity in comedy this year.  Why do you think we’ve seen this conversation this year?
They just have to stop this man and woman thing, and start recognizing that the chicks are as funny as men.  It’s an old, tired conversation that really needs to end.  It’s getting old…when they say, why isn’t there a woman?  There’s Craig Ferguson and [Jimmy] Kimmel and now Seth [Meyers] and Colbert is taking over and Letterman…. Why isn’t this happening more with women?  I don’t know.  I don’t know why they haven’t tapped into that.  They’re dumb that way.  Chelsea Handler shouldn’t be the only woman on TV.

I think everybody feels like, “If a woman couldn’t get it, at least it’s Colbert.”  But I really didn’t even think that way.  The women in my life have given it as hard as they’ve taken it, and they’re awesome.  Maybe it’s just that they’re around me all the time, powerful women, so I don’t see the discrepancy and the disparity as much as other people do…. I don’t know if we have to fight so hard.  I think we’re just exhibiting great work and that’s speaking for itself.
Susan Messing invited CIW attendees to improvise at CIW 2013.

So, we know you didn’t think, “At least it’s Colbert,” when CBS announced him as the next Late Show host. But what was your reaction to the news?
I think there are some people who are upset that they are going to miss him on The Colbert Report and that he’s dropping his persona, but I do believe that’s not going to take away anything that is great about him.  He’s actually a really easy-going and personable human being, and I think it will be a delight to see him be himself.  He was in my [graduating] class at Northwestern, and he’s just consistently been an awesome human being.  So I think he will be very welcoming, and if anyone can take over Letterman, I think it is he.  Letterman was my baby growing up…and that he’s leaving for his own personal reasons in order to get a life is a magnanimous gesture—leave before you suck…. If Letterman has to go, I don’t think there’s a better person.

Some people were saying they wished [Letterman] had been replaced by a woman, and although I’m a big fan of affirmative action and diversity, I can’t be upset if it’s Colbert, not in the slightest.

You mention Letterman’s impact on your own comedic views. Do you think Colbert has the potential to be the same kind of influential force on late night and on television as Letterman?
Yes…sometimes it’s just nice to have a great interview with a nice human being.  I think there’s room for all these guys.  It’s a question of taste at this point, but I don’t think he’ll be swallowed up in a bad way.

I think if David is excited about it, too, that’s pretty exciting.  That’s going to be a welcoming force as opposed to something begrudging.  Letterman gets to leave on his own terms, and he gets to support his successor.  You can’t have a better way to go.

Do you watch the other late night programs?  Have you watched Fallon and Meyers this year?
I especially watch Seth [Meyers] because he is also someone I know.  He’s a really awesome guy, and I love seeing him outside the confines of Weekend Update.  It really was just a natural extension.  It has been a really smooth transition as far as I’m concerned.  I’ve really enjoyed him.   

Wait—how do you know Seth Meyers?
I think he was in one of my improv classes.  I think I taught him.

So, we can credit you with some of Meyers’s success?
No, not at all—not in the slightest.  People like he were fully formed when they started.  He doesn’t seem to have changed a bit…. He’s a terrific guy.  There are interviewers who alienate the people that they interview, and he’s just not one of them.  He’s easy to watch—and so is Colbert.  They’re easy to watch.

You mentioned briefly affirmative action and diversity in light of the call for hiring a woman for The Late Show, and you’ve already offered your opinions on women in comedy.  What do you think of SNL’s hiring of Sasheer Zamata after similar push from the public?
SNL has turned into a real institution, and I guess with that comes the kind of scrutiny that social media now gives itself the right to express.  I think sometimes it’s good; it’s an evolutionary thing.  And sometimes…remember how everyone was getting all upset about how Seinfeld only had men in his car [on his web series Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee]?  I [thought], just leave the guy alone.  Let him interview who he wants.  I feel like [Creator and Executive Producer] Lorne [Michaels] is going to cast who he wants.  If he needs a gentle reminder, so be it.  And I do think that there is a voice that needs to be heard. 

So I think [Sasheer Zamata’s] own work will rest on her own work.  Honestly, her success is going to depend more on whether she aligns herself with good writers or that she’s willing to come up with stuff herself, and if she can stomach being in [the writers’ room] every week…. If she puts her nose to the grindstone and doesn’t look to her right or to her left, hopefully she can make her own name and people won’t say, “Well, she had to be brought in because of affirmative action.”  I think [that’s] erroneous.   I don’t care how she gets there as long as she does, and…I hope she has an easy and joyful ride.

What’s it like watching comedy and comedians as a comedian yourself?  Does it just feel like work, or do you laugh along?
Here’s something weird about comedy: I would rather talk to my friends about their kids.  I’m afraid to sometimes watch them on TV because I’m afraid that inadvertently somehow I will steal their shtick.  And it’s also work for me to watch comedy.

It takes a lot for me to really invest [in a TV show].  For me, it really is work.… I was watching a teeny bit of Portlandia, and it was so disturbing in the best sort of way, that I thought, “Oh, something that I could maybe invest [in].” I could not salute comedians more.  I love them so much; I really do.  I get it—it’s not an easy gig to play the moment instead of the joke, so I get that as well.  But it’s not, “Oh, God, I can’t wait for today’s episode of blank ever.  Ever.”

What’s next on the Chicago comedy scene? What do you see going on here?
We’re comfortably stretching the boundaries here, but I’m noticing more of a trend of people getting ready to take their stuff to LA and sell it…. Now I see people thinking, “Oh, if I create this web series, perhaps it will sell.”  And it really is a way to start a brand new way of accessing Hollywood is by creating your own thing and selling it.  That’s a new gig…. I do believe people far more have an agenda than they used to.

It’s rare that people are doing it just purely to do it, and saying, “Whatever [comes] after this is great.”  And it’s not wrong either—it’s just the way right now the needle is pointing…. So, the evolution really seems to be in the place of selling it.

Q&As are edited for clarity and content.

Monday, April 14, 2014

BHSI Fellow Vineet Singal's CareMessage Supports Patient-Centered Care in U.S. Clinics

Applications for the 2014 Bluhm-Helfand Social Innovation Fellowship are now open and we're profiling the social innovators, civic leaders and creative thinkers who make up the ranks of BHSI alum.  And if you're a social entrepreneur 35 years old or younger with a civic venture that is helping re-shape our society for the better, apply to be a 2014 BHSI Fellow here.

Since speaking on the CIW stage this past October, 2013 Bluhm/Helfand Social Innovation Fellow Vineet Singal’s health-education tech platform, Anjna Patient Education, has expanded its client base and rebranded.  Now named CareMessage, the organization provides tailored text messaging services to clinics, doctors and other organizations in 16 states across the U.S.  These text messages are everything from reminders for appointments and prescription refills to nutritional facts to messages that support health and lifestyle changes.
2013 BHSI Fellow's nonprofit CareMessage uses technology
to support medical clinics across the U.S.
Singal credits the company’s rapid growth—with a patient base that has been doubling weekly over the past few months—with the medical community’s “very real” need to expand and provide care that goes beyond the doctor’s office.  Physicians, clinics and hospitals have all seen a need to include outreach efforts as a part of the standard care provided to patients, particularly those patients in under-served communities.
Singal discussed how text messages can support healthcare practitioners
at CIW 2013
“It’s becoming even more of an issue with the passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) because it’s a new influx of patients into the healthcare system,” Singal added, noting that CareMessage is also in the process of developing messages for mental health, an area insurers on the health exchange now must provide coverage for under the ACA.

Also key to CareMessage’s success is its recent participation in the Y Combinator program, which provides seed money and advice to startups.  As a part of the prestigious startup accelerator’s first class of nonprofit organizations, CareMessage has focused on strengthening its revenue streams while simultaneously expanding its impact.

“At scale, [we] can generate revenues from paying customers and at the same time be able to serve a population of clinics and hospitals that are very underserved,” Singal explained.  “So, that is the model we have observed and are following.”   

Singal has plans to bring this model to Chicagoland.  After being introduced to Sinai Health System’s Executive Vice President and General Counsel Rachel Dvorken at Chicago Ideas Week in October, Singal and CareMessage recently partnered with the medical organization to bring CareMessage’s tech platform to Chicago-area patients and doctors.  Singal hopes to launch a pilot program that would eventually lead to system-wide implementation in 2015.

“[We’re] really excited about working with Rachel and Sinai Health Systems, and it’s all because of Chicago Ideas Week.  It was really fantastic to be able to connect with [Sinai Health Systems],” Singal said.

The Local Look: IMAN's Janice Bond

CIW’s Local Look invites local entrepreneurs, social pioneers and artists to share their projects and insights.  This week, we talked to Janice Bond, the Director of Arts and Culture at the Inner-city Muslim Action Network and a Communications Strategist and Cultural Curator.  Originally from Houston, Texas, Bond has chosen to work with Chicago communities on the southwest side.    
Photo courtesy of Janice Bond.
Why did you choose Chicago?
Let’s say, “Why do I still choose Chicago as a base for my work?”  Whether it’s fine art, music, fashion, photography or poetry, Chicago is truly the heartbeat of the nation.  Chicago is always going to be uniquely Chicago.  You can build things here out of nothing.  You have this fast pace, like any major metropolitan city, but on a Sunday you can walk down some of the same streets and they are completely quiet.  And you can look at some of these murals and artwork, and you can still feel the pulse in the cement from a festival the day before.  Chicago is a city of do-ers and of dreamers; it’s a city built on suspicion, tragedy and whimsy.  So, why Chicago?  I would say, why not?

If you could go back in time before you started this project and share one piece of advice with yourself, what would you tell yourself?
If I could give myself a piece of advice, it would be, in two words: Listen closely.  Things are what they are, but not always what they seem, especially as it pertains to the arts and music business.  There are so many different languages layered on the creative.  Unless you really listen, it can be hard to decipher.  [In other words], you can get yourself in a lot of trouble thinking you know too much, or you miss out on some really great opportunities not allowing yourself to be open or to be taught or flexible about even your own dreams.

What are your next steps?
Onward and upward—I always say that to myself.  I’ll be in the arts working in various communities and with artists for the rest of my life in some capacity.  That was almost a scary realization to come to before 30, but at the same time it was almost liberating to discover about myself.  Going forward, I’ll continue to connect, to share and to encourage people to create. 

We want to be in the know!  Name one person, place or thing that you think is one of Chicago’s best-kept secrets—a secret until now, of course.
The Silver Room, 1442 North Milwaukee Ave.  It’s been there around 15 years, and the owner is Eric Williams.  Eric has owned several cultural institutions in Chicago over the course of around 20 years.  From my first week in Chicago, I have been to numerous concerts, book signings, fashion shows, art openings with high-caliber artists…you name it.  He has provided a platform for local to international jewelry designers to sell their wares.  He has a block party that he’s self-funded and produced that is the most fun, family-friendly event with great music in Chicago.  I’ve never seen a person leave [The Silver Room] and not be turned on to a different type of music or art.  It literally is a cultural hub in the city…and I think when Eric decides to move on to something else that void will be felt. 

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Friday, April 11, 2014

CIW Consumables: This Week on the Internet

From the Senate floor to Ireland or the moons of Jupiter to the mind of Nicholas Cage, this week's round up will take you on a journey to just about everywhere. Enjoy what we found most interesting on the internet this week! 

If you haven't been paying attention to the Paycheck Fairness Act this week, here's the only update you need. Blocked for a third time on Wednesday, Senator Barbara Mikulski had the following to say: "I'll tell you what I'm tired of hearing. (That) when we raise an issue, we're too emotional. Well I am emotional. It brings tears to my eyes to know how women every single day are working so hard and are getting paid less. It makes me emotional to hear that." Preach. 

Geep, Geep!

You know how at a quick glance it's easy to confuse a goat and a sheep? Well, it's just gotten even harder. In Kildare, Ireland, a rare goat-sheep hybrid (the cleverly named "deep") is causing a stir. Indicators that something was "off" initially arose when the black "geep" was born to a white ewe, in addition to it's long spindly legs and goat-like horns. 

Thirty-six years after NASA's Voyager 1&2 space probes launched in 1977, we can finally hear what the journey sounded like. In addition to sending back photos, both Voyagers had instruments to record the electromagnetic radiation fluctuations of bodies in space - like asteroids, Saturn, or Jupiter's moons. Each of these bodies had a different "sound." On April 19, Lefse Records is releasing The Space Project, featuring 14 modern bands who incorporate these cosmic noises into their songs. 

Thank you for existing, picture of a baby with Nicholas Cage's face.

If you've accidentally wasted one too many Saturday afternoons watching National Treasure on USA Network or are a fan of this blog, you'll appreciate Grantland's dissection of the strangest decade of Nicholas Cage ever. 

And that's saying something. 

Check out the new app Dream:On, which helps people actually craft what they dream in the moments before waking up to better their mood for the day. Users use the app like an alarm, setting the time they want to wake up, and a "soundscape" that mimics environments (like gardens, birds, Wild West, Rosie Perez's voice*, etc.).  

Just in time for next week's National Record Store Day, CHIRP is hosting their annual Record Fair this weekend at Chicago Journeyman Plumber's Hall (1340 W. Washington). Don't miss it!

*Just kidding. Rosie Perez functionality not available... yet

Friday Features: CIW Talks Poetry

We think that every CIW speaker is a poet in his own field, but in honor of National Poetry Month, we wanted to shine the spotlight on the many authors, artists and creators who have talked poetry on the CIW stage.

Toni Blackman, "Stand Up for Hip-Hop"

Augustina Woodgate, "Poetry Bombing"

J. Patrick Lewis, "The Case for Ludic Verse"

Mary Zimmerman & Elizabeth Taylor, "Metamorphosis of Poetry"

Tony Hoagland, "Articulate Deformity: Poet As Wounded Citizen"

Ken Arkind, "Poetry Is Cool...Again"

Thursday, April 10, 2014

CIW 14 in '14: Talking to Booth Professor Randall Kroszner about Janet Yellen

On the heels of Janet Yellen’s first press conference as chair of the Board of Federal Reserve of Governors, we talked to Chicago Booth Professor of economics Randall Kroszner, who served on the Federal Reserve Board from 2006 to 2009, or as he jokingly describes the tumultuous recession that started in 2007 and continued through 2009—the “easy years.”  During his tenure, he chaired the Consumer and Committee Affairs and Supervision and the Regulation of Banking Institutions committees.  Kroszner provided his take on Yellen’s appointment and management style, the recent changes to the Fed’s statement and what we’re likely to see at the Fed during Yellen’s tenure.

Janet Yellen. 
Tell us a little about Janet Yellen and the experience you think she brings to the Federal Reserve.
Janet Yellen is someone who has certainly been battle-tested. She has a lot of policy experience in San Francisco and Washington—both at the Fed and inside the White House—and she was a member of the Federal Open Market Committee as President of the San Francisco Fed during the economic crisis.  She is deeply knowledgeable in policy making.  She’s a prominent academic, so she has the understanding that comes with an academic background.  She has the combination of analytics and policy experience that makes her a strong person for the very challenging position that she’s in.

Yellen held her first policy meeting and press conference as Federal Reserve Chairwoman March 19.  There was a lot of speculation leading up to the press conference about Yellen’s communication style and how it would differ from Ben Bernanke’s.  What did you think of Yellen’s communication style?
I thought she tried to provide detailed and complete answers.  I liked her personal style—she used a phrase I think no previous Fed chair has said, “shacking up.”  This made sense in the context she used it, talking about children moving back home, or “shacking up,” with their families in today’s economy.  She has a good, earthy style, with straightforward answers to questions.

As expected, the central change in the Fed’s revised statement was to the relationship between interest rates and the unemployment rate.  Previously, the Fed had said that it would keep interest rates low until the unemployment rate fell to 6.5 percent.  But with the unemployment rate hovering around 6.7 percent, and likely to fall lower in coming months, Yellen and the Board have instead opted to use more comprehensive measures of economic wellbeing when considering interest rates and other economic policies. What are your thoughts on the revised Fed statement and the policies it represents?
Randall Kroszner.
The board changed the language, but not the ideas behind the statement.  The statement says, in short, farewell to the 6.5 percent unemployment threshold, but not continuing concerns about the labor market.  This change in language reflects a change in economic conditions, not a change in policy.  This is because the unemployment rate fell faster than expected, but it fell not because the labor market is robust.  It fell so fast, in part, because the labor market is weak.   The unemployment rate has gone down [to 6.7 percent] largely because the labor force participation rate has been low—that is, fewer people have been in the labor force either employed or actively looking for work.  We usually like to think low unemployment is better, but if you achieve that because more people have given up looking for work, that’s not a very good outcome. 

The Fed understands that, so they didn’t want to signal a change in intentions in their policies.  They just wanted to better articulate the policy given that the unemployment rate has fallen close to 6.5 percent.

If the Fed isn’t using the unemployment rate as a target any more, what will they rely on to determine when to start increasing interest rates and to gauge the economic climate more generally?
Conditions are changing in ways the Fed can’t fully predict; they don’t want to be tied to a specific number.  The Fed expected the unemployment rate to recover, and it didn’t.  The labor force participation rate is low, so the lower unemployment rate doesn’t indicate the economy is healthy, but that there is a larger fraction of long-term unemployed workers, of part-time employed workers who would prefer full-time work and of discouraged workers who are no longer looking for employment.  Yellen referred to the “U6” measure, a technical term for a rate that includes a broader group of people and which is significantly higher than—roughly double—the unemployment rate, at 12.6 percent.

She gave some guidance to what the Fed will rely on, but she didn’t want to box herself in because the developments in the labor market are tough to predict.  She also mentioned quitting as a measure, because people quit jobs in healthier markets.  The simple indicator [of unemployment] is no longer relevant, so the Fed is using a wider set of indicators that gives them more flexibility in their response to changing labor markets conditions.

One goal of the Fed’s statements, as you describe, is to edit the language and goals of the Fed’s economic policies to reflect current economic conditions without causing “tumult” in the markets.  The Fed, in this case, wanted to indicate that interest rates will remain low for a “considerable period” but will eventually increase.  Were Yellen and the Board successful in conveying this information without affecting the markets?
There was more movement in the market than expected by the Fed.  When the statement came out, [market] interest rates went up, and the stock market went down.  During the press conference, Yellen was asked what was meant by a “considerable period.”  She answered that by this fall, the Fed would conclude tapering of bond purchases and that interest rate increases may start six months after this—sooner than the market expected.  The Fed was not trying to change policy, but it may have been interpreted that way in the market.  The minutes from the Fed meeting were just released yesterday, April 9, and they seemed to have helped clarify to the markets that the Fed did not intend to change policy.

Q&As are edited for clarity and length.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Celebrating Equal Pay Day

It's been a long road to equal pay, and we may not be there yet—according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women still make between 75 and 78 cents on the dollar.  Even so, we at CIW are celebrating the social pioneers and instigators who made Equal Pay Day a holiday we celebrate today.  We've put together a timeline, from FDR to CIW Speaker Lily Ledbetter, of how Americans have legislated and embraced fair pay.

Lily Ledbetter argues for equal pay on the 2012 CIW stage.

1941: Executive Order 8802 signed into law by FDR
We couldn't get to fair pay without first having fair employment.  In 1941, FDR banned discriminatory hiring practices, paving the way for employment equality for all Americans.  

1963: Equal Pay Act approved under JFK's leadership
The Equal Pay Act was an acknowledgment of the changing demographics of the American workforce.  In his speech commemorating the signing, President Kennedy spoke to the fact that one in three Americans workers were women—and that many of those were working mothers whose families depended on their paychecks.

1970: Schultz v. Wheaton Glass Co.
The Equal Pay Act has been refined and improved via a series of landmark court cases.  The first saw Labor Secretary (and former University of Chicago professor and business school dean) George P. Shultz arguing that jobs did not have to be identical, rather "substantially equal," to merit equal pay.  In other words, pay is not dependent on a job title, but rather on the tasks an individual completes.

1973: Corning Glass Works v. Brennan
Continuing the tradition of landmark equal pay cases involving glass companies, this case said once and for all that employers could not pay women less based on historical market rates.  Equal work means equal pay.

2009: Lily Ledbetter Fair Pay Restoration Act
When 2012 CIW Speaker Lily Ledbetter learned she was making less than her male counterparts working as a supervisor at Goodyear, she decided to do something about it. Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. relaxed the rules on when you can sue an employer for pay discrimination, bringing women that much closer to closing the gender wage gap once and for all.