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Catie Lazarus: The World Is Not a Meritocracy

The host of Employee of the Month on enjoying the process and the benefits of being "actively passive."

Catie Lazarus has a dream job: asking other people about their dream jobs.

The comedian and writer is the whip-smart host of Employee of the Month, a weekly podcast and monthly live show where she sits down with actors, activists, authors, and others to ask them about their views on work and careers.

The result is an unconventional look at career paths, one where Lazarus skillfully alternates between comedic whimsy and academic-style interrogation to bring out some refreshingly human answers from those trained to have their guard up 24/7. Not quite a late-night talk show or an advice show, your average EOTM podcast discusses work the way people actually discuss work.

Lazarus on stage at a live taping of EOTM with Jon Stewart, shortly after he announced he was leaving The Daily Show.

Lazarus on stage at a live taping of EOTM with Jon Stewart, shortly after he announced he was leaving The Daily Show.

The unique approach is paying off as Lazarus has welcomed a steady stream of notable celebrities, including Gloria Steinem, Rachel Maddow, Lewis Black, and Rosie O’Donnell. In fact, the first interview Jon Stewart gave after announcing he was leaving The Daily Show wasn’t to 60 Minutes or CNN. It was to Lazarus at a live taping of EOTM. And, with her own winding path, Lazarus is uniquely qualified to ask the tough stuff. She has her roots in the public policy world, where she nearly completed a doctorate in clinical psychology after a master’s thesis focused on teen Latina pregnancy. It was relatively late in life, at 27, when she decided to dive headfirst into comedy and acting. So what does a woman who interviews people about careers have to say about them? We chatted with her about nepotism, whether the world is a meritocracy, and what Billy Crudup can teach us about ambition.

What was the genesis of “Employee of the Month?” Why do you do it?

I wanted to break into TV writing and I felt like I couldn’t get hired to write for the weather. And I didn’t know why I wasn’t getting certain writing jobs. I would get so close, all the way to, “We’ll see you on Monday,” and then it wouldn’t work out.

I also couldn’t figure out how to get the job interviews I wanted, but I could get informational interviews. And I thought, “Why don’t I just share these with people? I know I’m not alone.” And because of my background in social services and education, I could interview people from lots of different fields. It’s made me realize we all have more in common than we realize. There is no rhyme or reason for how you get your foot in the door.

Of course, people that succeed will tell you a story that “everything clicked into place” and “it just felt right,” but that’s what happened to THEM [laughs]. So I wanted to learn more.

There is no rhyme or reason for how you get your foot in the door.

In talking to all of these people with great jobs, what are some of the threads you’ve noticed?

Most put a ton of time and discipline into their craft. [Creative people] probably have more in common with athletes, in that we’re doing similar things all of the time. Having a passion is the most beautiful gift in life and not everyone gets that. So count your blessings when you do.

Is “follow your passion” good career advice?

You have to want to do this more than anything else in the world. I do believe that. But if you don’t have a burning passion, it’s more than okay to be practical and to instead do something that affords you the opportunity to experiment and see what else is out there. If you don’t have a set passion, why not get a good job that will let you travel to Brazil or study something you’re not sure about?

My first love is always my work. It doesn’t mean there’s not room for a significant other or a family— not that I believe in the dichotomy that is often just put on a lot of women. But having a passion doesn’t get rid of the existential crises of asking yourself, “What are we all doing here?” It does give you meaning to fill up most days. It’s still a hustle.


One theme I noticed in your interviews is how people toil away years before they become an “overnight success.”

I think people underestimate how much time it requires to get to a place where you’re comfortable in your own skin or knowing what you want. Some people know what they want at a very young age and they are also talented and come from families with support systems. It’s also easy to assume from the outside that so-and-so’s dad is someone fancy that helped them, but it’s more complicated.

How so?

One of my favorite examples of that from the show is that Simon Rich. He’s one of the youngest-ever SNL writers, and has made several TV shows and books—just a dream comedy writing career. His father and mother are also very successful writers. But at the end of the day, he had to learn how to write. And he did. There’s a fantasy that nepotism is everything and that isn’t true. Though, it can expose you to things, so if you have a parent or a teacher it helps. One of my favorite interviews was with Mad Magazine cartoonist Al Jaffee. He had a teacher in the Bronx that told him to apply to [the prestigious] LaGuardia [High School of Music Art and Performing Arts]. Those mentors are important and they don’t always surface where you think. Don’t assume nepotism is everything.

Right. Sometimes we don’t even know what success even looks like because the right people aren’t around us.

It’s hard. I didn’t start in anything artistic until I was 27. I had no experience. My first time on stage I went on after Dave Attell. In hindsight, that’s bananas! Every failure I made was in public, often on stages in New York City. Sure those things have consequences if some studio exec sees you too early, but whatever. Because of how difficult that was, I now have a real sense of what it takes to succeed. Great, you can kill it at an improv theater in New York. Can you kill it in Omaha? I know what those things mean as a result.

Do you think the world is a meritocracy?

No. Certainly not in any of the fields I’ve looked at. The people we know about are the ones who persevere. There are so many talented people that aren’t famous. I had this incredible soul singer on my show named Lee Fields. He has an absolutely beautiful voice. If you listened to this guy you’d ask, “Why don’t more people know about him?” He’s had 15 albums and a great career, but the fact that he’s not world famous…that’s partly what we’re talking about. We’re all subject to circumstance. Who was competing with him at the time? Is it because he is a black man competing in a very racist world? When is soul music in fashion? There are all these different factors. There’s so much talent out there.

You’ve spoken with dozens of people about their jobs. What’s the best advice you can share?

I’m wary about giving advice to anyone. It depends on where you are and who you are. It’s so much more nuanced. By having interviewed many successful people I’ve seen archetypes and the ways people succeed. To actually help someone truly, I’d have to know their circumstances. I do wish that more people who were successful mentored and were conscience enough to do so. Those people are few and far between, to have someone to make a call for you.

A lot of people think they do everything on their own.

That goes back to people creating stories out of their past. Maybe they sentimentalize what it was like to be poor. But it turns out they weren’t poor. They were “broke” from 20 to 23. Yeah, congratulations, you’re normal. Or they sentimentalize that they did it all on their own. Sometimes people create stories and leave out important details. I don’t want to give out advice that actually isn’t helpful to you. What do I know?

I want to push you here. What better time to get advice from someone than when they are in the middle of their career, like when you are interviewing them?

I just disagree with you. Some people have more luck than they realize. Maybe they “fit the part.” Which, in acting, you have nothing to do with. These can tread on uncomfortable subject matters for most people.

You just listed a lot of things you can’t control. Usually unfairly. But there are things you can control, no?

You cannot control if someone is unconsciously discriminating against you. Maybe you make someone feel comfortable and remind them of a younger version of themself? You have no control of that. You also don’t control where you auditioned. I interviewed Billy Crudup and he said he screwed up his audition for a play in grad school. Somehow he had the confidence and had an agent willing to say, “Lets get you back in there for a second audition.” That changed his career. Is he so talented that it would have happened anyway, eventually? Maybe. But you can’t go back in hindsight and change it.

Isn’t that taking a passive approach to a career when, in reality, you have to be offensive or aggressive?

I was “actively passive” for a while. I was dabbling and figuring it out. Things happened organically for me. But it’s a fact that I would audition and get called back and I wouldn’t get to be a bride. I would be a bridesmaid.

That’s like saying “fate is just going to take us all” and giving up.

There is some element of that. Fate, luck, whatever you call it. There is chance. And don’t underestimate that.

How does what you learn on the show apply to you as you navigate the entertainment and comedy worlds?

With entertainment there’s a fantasy that you need to make it really big. Less than one percent do, but that expectation is still put on you. Everyone assumes that you should want that and you may not. So the one thing you can do for yourself is to ask yourself what you really want out of a job. If you say, “I want my own standup specials, I want to tour, I want to be a huge star…” look at the nuts and bolts of that. Do you want to spend 365 days on the road? Do you want to always be marketing yourself?

Are you saying we need to learn to be happy even if we’re not in the top 1 percent of our industry?

Not entirely. I don’t want to dismiss how frustrating it is along the way. To make a living doing what you love is a huge blessing. There are so few spots and only a small minority can truly make a living. That’s why when people say “love the process,” they mean it. That’s what you’re doing if you’re making millions or minimum wage. At the end, all you have is the process.

Sean Blanda

Sean Blanda is a writer based in New York City and is the former Editor-in-Chief and Director of 99U. Find him on Twitter: @SeanBlanda.

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