She’s on a heroic mission. Her challenge is enormous—to make everyone else care about the environment and global warming as much as she does—it’s a classic noble quest framed in modern terms, but hey—not to worry—Laurie David is an epic adventurer, one part underdog, the other part wrecking machine.
It’s a precarious business—trying to see ourselves through another’s eyes—but Laurie David who has more than one trick up her sleeve, guesses that those who know her best would characterize her as being “charmingly aggressive.”
They would be talking about the all-grown-up version of David, a leading environmental activist, (www.lauriedavid.com) once described by the New-York based environmental group Riverkeeper as the “single most effective environmental voice in America.”
By contrast, the dark-haired little girl raised in the overdeveloped suburbs of Long Island was tender and earnest.
“I was kind of a do-gooder. I was very serious about my school and I used to be a very sweet kid. I used to write poems to my mom, all that kind of stuff. I think I was a pretty straight—I was an average kid.”
Seemingly average might be a more apt signifier, after all there were incipient signs of the citizen soldier to come.
“As a young girl I was obsessed with littering. I thought littering was one of the worst injustices man perpetrated on the planet. I don’t know why I felt that way but, in those days, people would smoke cigarettes in their cars—my mother was a chain smoker, so the ashtray would fill up with cigarettes and people would dump it on the side of the road and I found that appalling. People threw cups and papers and everything out their windows. There was no consciousness about it at all. It was my first battle.”
The roots of her environmental awakening don’t appear to have much of a foundation in childhood experience. Although she loved the out-of-doors as a kid, she’d never been to a national park—it wasn’t until five years ago that she finally stepped foot inside a forest—fortunately for the wider world—she loved it.
“You know it’s a cliché to talk about trees but I’m emotionally attached to trees and I don’t know where the heck that comes from…I wasn’t a country girl at all.”
She was mildly interested in politics as an adolescent, kept current by reading newspapers, always thought of herself as a Democrat and was invested enough to watch presidential debates in election years, but these were more emblematic of a lively mind rather than a committed intellect.
Even as a girl, however, David knew what she wanted.
“I remember staying up as a little kid, my parents letting me watch the Emmys and the Oscars –that was a big night in my house when I got to watch those shows. I remember thinking ‘wow.’ I just always wanted to be in the entertainment business and everything was always driving me in that direction…”
Fascinated by pop culture, she also possessed a unique instinct for sussing out the zeitgeist.
“I could read a book before anyone else read it and I could know this book is going to be a bestseller. Or I could look at a room and spot the one person in the room who had major potential as an actor. I have great instincts and I have common sense and those are the two things I’ve used to get me where I am today, wherever that may be.”
Interested in becoming a photojournalist, she studied magazine journalism in Ohio.
“My first job was at a Dodge Dart dealership, which is so ironic, I was writing television commercials for this local car dealer. …And that’s how I got started in show business right away, never knowing that many years later I’d be working on fuel emissions…”
Her subsequent stint as a researcher on the David Letterman show, an experience, which she likens to attending “Comedy U”, in combination with her humor, temperamental predilections and interests, represented the beginning of her life-long love affair with comedy and comedians.
“I was surrounded by comedians, I loved to laugh. It takes such genius to be funny—that’s the hardest talent there is—to be funny, to make people laugh and that intrigued me. I was always somebody who was attracted to talent, always, and always somebody who had an eye for talent.”
Never interested in the spotlight, David excelled in the shadows. “I was the person who could make things happen. I was a manager of comedians because I could get their careers going—I always wanted to work behind the scenes.”
She became a manager, directing the careers of people like Chris Elliot and Carol Leifer—driven by the same sort of idealism that once predicted and now fuels and sustains her current social activism.
“I loved trying to make people’s dreams come true. And that’s what it is working with young undiscovered comic talent, it was about trying to make their dreams come true, turn them into stars, get them jobs on TV shows, and I just loved that, being the aggressor on behalf of someone I believed in.”
Highly ambitious but never particularly motivated by money—David was focused on becoming head of a TV network or studio and produced a number of comedy specials for HBO, Showtime, MTV and Fox. After re-locating to Los Angeles from New York, she became vice-president of comedy development for Fox Broadcasting and was in the business of developing sitcoms for Twentieth Century Television.
Married to comedian Larry David before he gained enormous success as co-creator of Seinfeld—his current HBO show, Curb Your Enthusiasm is a cultural phenomenon in its own right—David, feeling the first flutter of career disenchantment, launched a more personal and life-altering project when she became the mother of two daughters.
“Every single meeting I attended in the television business at that point… all these writers were telling me that they were going to come up with the next Seinfeld and I just thought ‘who is going to come up with a better show than this?’ Forget it. And then I had two kids. And I thought, you know what? I’m going to take all this ambition and I’m going to take all these resources and all these contacts and I’m going to use it on behalf of something I deeply believe in and that’s environmental issues.”
Motherhood changed David in ways she hadn’t anticipated—similarly it was a meeting with environmental activists Robert F. Kennedy jr. and John Adams, president of the Natural Resources Defense Council (www.nrdc.org) that led to a remarkable metamorphosis.
“I sat there and listened to Bobby talk about the how environment was the ultimate civil rights issue, the right to clean air, clean water—this is as basic to civil rights as it comes and I can’t tell you how that impacted me. I left that breakfast and I have never been the same since.”
David began reading everything she could get her hands on concerning the environment.
“Once you have a focus then things pop up at you. You read a paper one day and you never notice certain things and then all of a sudden your focus shifts and you think, ‘oh my god, look at all this stuff.’ Once I started educating myself, it became very clear to me very quickly that the mother of all issues is global warming and that if we don’t do something about this now…We’re basically altering life on this planet as we know it and we’re doing it consciously because now we know the truth. We’ve had scientists, a complete and total consensus of scientific study now saying the globe is warming…and 2,000 scientists from 100 countries have all said the same thing.”
The rest, as someone less imaginative than David might say, is her story. Fierce, frank and fearless, she is on an urgent mission. She’s never worked so hard in her life.
“I spend every minute of the day trying to figure out how to permeate popular culture on this issue…This is more than a job. Everything you do in your life…when you get to the point in your life and you’ve figured out where your passion is and what you’re going to do, you use everything you’ve got. So even that crazy job in Cincinnati at the Dodge dealership, working at the Letterman show, everything is coming together and I’m using it all on behalf of my issue. I’m producing a huge primetime television special, which is the first primetime cause-oriented special in over a decade and it’s called Earth to America and it’s an evening of comedy, music and message about guess what? Global warming. So this is an amazing thing from a comedy producer. I’m now going to be able to reach 90 million American homes on this issue.”
She’s also producing an HBO feature documentary scheduled to run in the spring concerning the consequences of global warming.
David, an astoundingly gifted fundraiser with a talent for twisting arms, has raised millions of dollars for various environmental and public arts causes and has also launched a year-long Stop Global Warming Virtual March on Washington, (www.stopglobalwarming.org).
“In the old days, if you wanted to build a grassroots movement you’d get people to march out on the streets but it doesn’t work anymore…you just wind up as 30 seconds on the evening news. I had this idea to do it virtually on the Internet and let’s not just do it for one day…let’s march and build this march. We’ll make it so strong that nobody can ignore it… the media and congress and the administration can no longer ignore this issue and that’s what I’m working on right now… I’ve got everyone from Walter Cronkite to Senator John McCain to a football team, and celebrities. I’m just trying to put everybody in one place so the power of the movement can be felt.”
A founding member of the Detroit Project, (www.thedetroitproject.com) David, who lives in Pacific Palisades in California, is active in trying to educate both the public and auto-makers about the importance of better, safer and more fuel-efficient cars.
Not surprisingly, her two pre-teen daughters are very aware of who drives hybrid cars and who doesn’t.
“I think the only way to pass on morals to kids is through what they observe. They pick up everything by observation. They see everything and hopefully they absorb some of it. My kids—there’s not serious pressures on my kids—I just want them to care about their community and care about their environment and if they become adults that do that, then I will have had a huge success.”
A self-confessed party girl, David happily concedes that she likes to have fun and laugh and dress up and go out on the town.
“That’s a relief for me—I think other people would say I’m intense but I don’t think I’m intense. I can be intense but I can relax, totally relax, I can fall asleep at night, I get tired, I go to sleep, get up the next day. I enjoy life. I try to take some of the summer off and just play and I love to kayak and water ski.”
Her privilege, celebrity and glamorous connections—effortless targets for critics—aren’t always an asset.
“The bigger issue that I grapple with is the ridiculous standard that people who work on environmental issues are held to—I expect everybody to do something, not everything.
We’re held to a standard that nobody can fulfill and all that does is continue to marginalize people and it’s completely wrong. For me, these issues aren’t just about the environment, these are public health issues—this is a national security issue we’re talking about. Look at these hurricanes and look at the evacuations and flooding…this is not just about the environment, it’s about public health and public safety. And I also think that it’s very easy for people to get overwhelmed—‘okay, if I can’t hit perfection then I’m not going to do anything.’ Maybe I don’ t wear hemp clothes…but I try to give 100 per cent more than I take.
“If we all did one thing we would be well on our way to a better world.”
An optimist by nature, David expresses hope and excitement for the future.
“I don’t know a single environmentalist who is isn’t an optimist. Al Gore had a great line when he said we don’t need people to go from denial to despair…for me the thing that’s so exciting about this issue is that all the solutions already exist. We don’t have to wait a decade for something to be invented. And all the things we need to be doing about global warming we should be doing anyway to ease our dependence on oil to make this country safer and more secure. This is about a new, clean, industrial revolution, and it's going to provide jobs and economic opportunity…this could be a great moment in history if we could just get the public will behind it.”
And then there’s the small matter of her marriage.
“The only thing I have to be careful of is completely destroying my marriage because I’m making my husband do so many things that he would never do except at my request. I gave his car away for an MTV contest without telling him. And there are various other things that are going on in our lives, so in that sense I’m probably on a little thin ice with him and he is a total reluctant environmentalist. He has to deal with me saying to take shorter showers... I started reading about paper and toilet paper and cutting trees down to make toilet tissue for the country and I was doing a contest with myself to see which member of my family would complain about the toilet paper first. I’m waiting… and then a day or two goes by and I’m in a theater with my husband and in the middle of the show he looks at me and says, ‘I can’t sit here anymore because of that toilet paper you have now’ and I just started laughing hysterically.”
Ultimately, Laurie David is in an enviable position—unlike many people, she knows why she wakes up in the morning.
“I’m not searching anymore. I’m not in that stage of life where I’m searching about why I’m here and what I should be doing.”
Committed to growth and a true believer in the merit of change, David knows she’s still a work in progress and—in the words of another famously optimistic and charming powerhouse—tomorrow is another day.
“I need to become a more spiritual person—I would say that is one of my weaknesses. I’m too focused on moving forward to spend much time reflecting and that’s something I need to do—maybe that’s for when I get into my fifties, a couple of more years to go and then I’ll start on the spiritual side of it.”