"There’s something 'X-Men' about it": Alex Gibney and "Daily Show" alum Kahane Cooperman on "The New Yorker Presents," their new mutant storytelling show

Salon talks to the acclaimed documentary filmmaker and showrunner about bringing the New Yorker to the small screen

Published February 16, 2016 11:58PM (EST)

Alex Gibney and Kahane Cooperman at The Amazon 2016 Winter TCA, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 11, 2016.   (AP/Richard Shotwell)
Alex Gibney and Kahane Cooperman at The Amazon 2016 Winter TCA, Pasadena, Calif., Jan. 11, 2016. (AP/Richard Shotwell)

“The New Yorker Presents,” which debuts today on Amazon Studios, is not quite like anything that has come before it. It’s a news program filtered through the elegant lens of the New Yorker, meaning it has a certain amount of high-quality dramatic flair built into it. The episodes are all little documentaries, but to be more exact, they’re little portfolios of even smaller documentaries—a 10-minute segment here, a five-minute interview there. And breaking up the reportage and information are little moments of lightness or levity—a glimpse into the process of a cartoonist that might last just 60 seconds; a series of snapshots of New York City through the eyes of a blind person, that might last just two minutes. In one episode, Steve Buscemi plays God and Brett Gelman his sole prophet, who is ordered to run around a Food Bazaar parking lot in a bathing suit, prophesying the end of days. It’s a Shouts & Murmurs column come to life, or perhaps a cartoon’s punch line taken to the nth degree. And it’s just one of the many little vignettes that “The New Yorker Presents” offers its viewers.

The series is Amazon Studios’ first “reality” or documentary series, and also its first to be released serially—two episodes per week—instead of the all-at-once dump that has characterized streaming platforms. The series is also the New Yorker’s first foray into television. The result is a surprisingly pleasant and bite-size hybrid of two very different sensibilities, one that offers that difficult-to-imitate combination of breadth and depth that reading the New Yorker provides. At times, of course, it suffers from the same twee mustache-twirling superiority that the magazine does—somewhere in the middle of a film version of a Miranda July short story, you might find yourself wondering, why does this exist—but at its best, it offers a beautiful and high-quality visual component to the New Yorker’s greatest strengths, whether that is a trip to a fried-chicken institution in Harlem or a journey into the dozens of shootings by police in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Executive producer Alex Gibney is a documentary filmmaker renowned for “Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief” and “Taxi to the Dark Side,” which won an Oscar. He brought on former “Daily Show” showrunner Kahane Cooperman to run “The New Yorker Presents” right after former host Jon Stewart announced his retirement. I sat down with them both to hear how this odd but lovely little news program came to be.

Did you guys get pizza delivered to you by drone, like “Transparent” did?

Kahane Cooperman: [Laughs] The only drones in our show are used to get beautiful footage for our pieces.

Alex Gibney: How come we didn’t get any pizza?

KC: I don’t know, that’s not fair!

Look, win a Golden Globe and then maybe you can get some pizza.

AG: I’m taking this to Netflix.

KC: I’m gonna text them right now.

This actually leads into one of my real questions. How did this project end up on Amazon?

AG: The Amazon part was pre-me. Amazon and Condé Nast, I think, had formed some kind of common cause and then my company was approached to see if I would be interested in coming on as executive producer. They didn’t have a particular plan at that time, just that they knew they wanted it to be a half-hour show.

So I got the gig, and I went in and talked to [New Yorker editor] David Remnick. He was very much of the mind that he wasn’t interested in seeing just the recapitulation of New Yorker pieces. The idea of doing riffs and also doing it with different authors, much like the New Yorker, was very exciting and appealing to him. I had had some experience doing that. I had done a series on the blues with Martin Scorsese and there were eight feature film directors, each one doing a different area of the blues but doing it their own way.

So then I thought, “Well, now what do I do, I have to have somebody to really do it.” The day after Jon Stewart said he wasn’t coming back I thought, “Ah!” and called up Kahane Cooperman.

You guys had worked together before?

KC: Never! I had met him a few times socially.

So you just knew?

AG: I knew. And I knew that she had been there for a long time and I thought, “Wouldn’t this be a perfect fit.” We had done the pilot, and Amazon liked the pilot and said we’re going to do the series, now we needed a showrunner, someone who was really going to put it together.

I like that the show has segments. It rolls forward a lot like the way that a news show does—like “The Daily Show.”

KC: I think it’s maybe one of the reasons that Alex thought of me. Not just the show I was coming from, but that I have, I think, an unusual hybrid résumé. I come from a filmmaking tradition and a storytelling background, but I’ve applied it to this television production. So somehow I’ve emerged like a mutant who can straddle both worlds, which is what I think he needed for this.

It’s kind of a mutant show, too.

KC: It is! In the best way possible.

AG: There’s something “X-Men” about it.

KC: Some mutants are really hot. [Laughs]

AG: She only had one day off [between “The Daily Show” and “The New Yorker Presents"].

KC: Two. I had a weekend in between the two. I just had to jump right in. And it never gave me a moment to feel completely overwhelmed and intimidated by the idea of taking this incredible institution of the New Yorker and using it as a springboard for this whole other new kind of show—which is a pretty daunting thing. And working with both in-house and out-of-house teams of filmmakers, all simultaneously, all at different phases of production, to create more than 50 films in a number of months at a really high standard. It was a huge, huge undertaking.

“The New Yorker Presents” is a bit of an ambiguous title. How does this program fit in with the mission of the magazine?

AG: I think they would be happy if [the show] got more people to read the New Yorker and it celebrated what [the magazine] did. But I think there’s another aspect to that “Presents” model. Martin Scorsese does that with [the phrase] “Martin Scorsese presents,” which is a way of saying, I’m getting out of the way, but I’m showing you something that I think you’ll really enjoy and that I believe in. It’s a way of saying: That spirit that you like in the magazine, for those of you who read the magazine, that spirit will be here, but for those of you who haven’t read the magazine, check it out. It’s kind of a celebration rather than a promotion, if you know what I mean. It’s a celebration of storytelling.

The episodes are all finished, but they’re being released on Amazon twice a week. How do you make something feel timely and relevant with that kind of a release schedule?

KC: It’s a really good question, and it’s one we talked about a lot, because we’re not on nightly and it takes a while to turn around these films to have them be at the quality we want. They all get fact-checked by the New Yorker; we license from the writers themselves; everything takes time. What that allows you to do is—it gives you great time, to explore certain issues more in-depth. What we can’t do yet, but what we’d like to do, is perhaps come up with a mechanism in future seasons—should we be so lucky—to address things a little more topically and quickly. We’ve talked about some ways to do that.

What I will say is that in this season, we didn’t originally include an Adam Gopnik essay about guns and gun control, but given the unfortunate and escalating build of gun incidents—not that we need any more to let us know that it’s a terrible epidemic—but when San Bernardino happened most recently, we were all compelled, even though we were kind of close to being done with our production period, to do something on that subject. Because we don’t want to have a full season of “The New Yorker Presents” and not anywhere in the mix address the gun issue.

So that was, for right now, as close as we could get to being topical—but then again, you also have to be a little careful. You can’t make it all about one incident because, god forbid, there could be another incident between then and when you do it. But you can address the more universal issues of it. Luckily with the New Yorker, and with a prolific writer like Adam Gopnik, it was easy to cull from several different essays that he’s written over the years in the aftermath of various attacks — he was a collaborator [on the segment] — to come up with an essay that addresses the gun issue in a more evergreen way.

AG: You want to be part of the national conversation, the conversation that’s happening now. So does the New Yorker. And I think — Amazon willing — going into a season two, we would find a way to be a bit more responsive. Amazon, too, has issues in terms of how they’re posting the stuff on the site—there are technical issues. So, to begin to work those things out so that we can slot in something, I think would be a goal for next season.

KC: We would love to, if there’s a way to figure it out, keep a kind of modular, open slot at the top of each episode that we could then fill.

AG: —not unlike the magazine—

KC: —that we could then fill with something incredibly current. I think that we could build a machine in-house to turn that kind of stuff around fast at a high-quality level. But there’s also technical issues that are no small thing.

Watching each half-hour episode sort of feels like reading the New Yorker. How do you create that feeling as you’re curating the segments?

KC: I loved doing this job. One of my favorite things was figuring that out. My conceptual idea was to create a bank of all the films first and not preconceive any episodes, and wait to see how those films come in and how they feel and what emotional rigors they put you through, and then, based on that and topic and voice, see what might go with what. I keep saying I “DJ-ed” the episodes—but I kind of did! I had all these films, and then almost cafeteria-style, I was able to pick what might go with what.

And because no episode is alike, and no piece is alike — they’re different subjects from different voices in different styles from different filmmakers, nonfiction, fiction, humor, poetry, cartoons — how do you make all of these very different things feel like they’re from the same universe? I had to ask myself what that universe was, [because that would become] the connective tissue between everything that makes it, in the end, feel like it’s part of a whole. That universe is our interstitial dips into behind the scenes of the New Yorker, which is the source. And then also our dips behind the windows and doors of the city that the New Yorker is an icon of. That is what we used as our glue. Because really, those moments, those shorts, are no different than our views into the worlds that our longer pieces show you. They’re all showing you someone’s life behind a door or window or whatever.

Both of your past work, whether it’s “The Daily Show” or “Going Clear,” has tended toward a strong point of view. The New Yorker theoretically has a more objective standard. Was showing a balanced point of view something that you had to consider, in the Adam Gopnik guns essay, for example? Were you assuming the audience leans a certain way politically?

KC: I’m not assuming anything about our audience. We’re starting with the writer, especially on our essay pieces, that’s one person’s point of view. So if we’re choosing to do an essay piece, and we happen to do two Adam Gopnik essays, you’re taking your cues from the writer’s point of view. In our other pieces—“The Agent,” [Alex’s] film, has a very strong point of view. It’s [his] point of view, but I also think that point of view was in the original article.

AG: It was in the original article. I think many articles in the New Yorker have a strong point of view, but they are so rigorously fact-checked. I wouldn’t call them objective, but they feel fair. They’re also truthful, in the sense that they’re not factually inaccurate. But they may take a point of view.

As a filmmaker, I always took my inspiration from a filmmaker named Marcel Ophüls, who said, “I always have a point of view, but the trick is showing how hard it is to come to that point of view.” Which is, I think, a part of the spirit of the New Yorker. Another way of saying it, there’s a great quote by the physicist Richard Feynman, who said, “It’s great to have an open mind, but not so open that your brains fall out.”

Lastly—you’ve got luminaries all over this series, from Marina Abramovic to Steve Buscemi. How did you get all of the great talent to work on and participate in this show?

AG: That’s where the New Yorker helps. Everybody wants to be a part of this, because there’s such a well of good feeling about that magazine that you say “New Yorker” and it’s like… [whooshing noise].

KC: Some of the actors we got were personal relationships. We used a casting agency. But people are excited by the New Yorker—and rightfully so.

By Sonia Saraiya

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