Growing up in Venezuela and New York City, Jason Silva and Max Lugavere had their own big ideas and big dreams. Then they met each other at the University of Miami where they both studied film, they hoped they might someday be able to make documentary films and explore their passions for technology and science. Their opportunity came sooner than they expected, when they were asked to join Al Gore’s nascent CurrentTV in 2005, and before long Max and Jason were hosts of their own nightly show Max and Jason: Still Up on the network. They began with a novel concept, which was also their passion: to create and promote smart, engaging, thought-provoking, and entertaining content. With their show on Current as a platform, they became tastemakers and social curators, recognized as such they were featured in the GAP Icons campaign and asked to serve as co-hosts of TED’s Pangea Day. Now, although they still appear regularly on Current, they’ve left the show the created. They just signed with mega-talent agency CAA and they have a slew of new projects in the pipeline including independent documentaries, and some work with Bill Maher. Max and Jason, both 28, talked with us about trying to push through their unique brand of content in a noisy media-filled world and told us what it was like to lecture at Yale.
What’s your big idea?
Max Lugavere: Our sole purpose in Hollywood thus far has been to advance what we call smartertainment; meaningful content in the traditional medium of television. That’s what Current was founded to do, and we fell into it trying to solve the problem of the dissonance between hedonism and spirituality. It’s not something that we ever would’ve predicted as undergraduates that we’d be doing, but we’ve attempted to stay true to that for the past couple of years. We just signed with CAA and I feel like that’s going to go a long way towards helping us break into a more mainstream platform. If I had to sum it up, I think it’s really just developing meaningful content and exposing a wide audience to that.
Jason Silva: We want to shake people out of their stupor, and one way that you do that is you appeal to people emotionally. It’s very important that if you want to shake people out of their stupor and their complacency and get them to think. And I think the Marshall McLuhan-esque the medium is the message really applies to what Max and I do. Your ideas are only as good as how their packaged, so aesthetics and package design and delivery are crucial to what it is you’re trying to convey. We’re always thinking: how can we present these ideas in a way that’s interesting and sexy and fun? How can we use the things that we’re passionate about: documentary, content, writing, and speaking to make an impact?
Why is your work important?
Max: We always talk about being intellectually curious, and I think that’s something we both naturally are. We’re always trying to engage our audience, shake them up a little bit, and compel them to think critically about the issues facing our world. We also want to instill a sense of intellectual entitlement into our audience. That’s something that we try to do every night with our show Still Up. We try to spread the message that we live in an age when technology empowers us to pursue what it is that we’re passionate about 24/7. I think 2011 is going to be a great year for “smartertainment” and the kind of content that we are attempting to perpetuate.
Jason: Eric Schmidt said something that I thought was fascinating, “We produce more data every two days than we had produced in 10,000 years of human recorded history,” so that’s where we are today in terms of the amount of information that’s being outputted and being created and recorded and disseminated on a daily basis through social media. With all of this data overwhelming us, the role of the curator is really what has become the defining sorting of buzz word I think of the moment, right? We need curators to help guide us through the sea of information. Certainly, Max and I consider ourselves active social media curators, and our show on current TV is about curating short documentaries selected from thousands of pieces of user generated content. We think of ourselves as barometers of interestingness and filters of things that give you pause. Then we think, how can we make connections between things that are seemingly not connected? How can we connect the idea of social media to charity? How can we connect the idea of young people pursuing their passions with the idea of the Internet being this global brain where you can find information about everything that you’re passionate about instantaneously connect the dots for people? That’s the role we’re trying to play, connecting those dots.
How did you know it was working?
Max: We’ve definitely had our share of milestones along the way. I think that being in the GAP campaign, the ICONS campaign was hugely important for us. That really showed the impact we were having at the time within the culture. We also were the faces of TED’s Pangea Day project, which was totally amazing. I mean, we’re huge fans of TED, and we hoped that one day that we could maybe be advisors to that project … then to find ourselves co-hosting it with Lisa Ling was unreal. And now we’re doing some work with Bill Maher, who we’ve been huge fans of for a long time.
Jason: Joseph Campbell talks about the hero’s journey. First there’s the departure from the ordinary, for Max and I, that was leaving Miami and going to work for this Al Gore Cable Network adventure in 2005. On the hero’s journey, it’s all about discovering, overcoming challenges, and looking for sign posts that reveal themselves that indicate to you that what you’re doing is having an impact. Something like that for us was the GQ Gentlemen’s Ball. GQ Magazine has this yearly event called the Gentlemen’s Ball, which is about celebrating men of GQ that are doing great things for the world. Some of the candidates are movie stars like Ashton Kutcher and Mark Wahlberg, and Adrian Grenier, and the fact that they asked me and Max to be presenters at the GQ Gentlemen’s Ball was amazing.
Where did you grow up?
Jason: Caracas, Venezuela until I was 18, then University of Miami.
Max: New York City.
What do your parents do?
Max: Mother and father were in the schmatta business in NYC and ran a successful manufacturing company together.
Jason: Mother teaches English Literature and is an artist and poet. Father is businessman.
Where did you go to school? What was your major?
Max: University of Miami. Began as a Biology major and then switched to Film and Psychology.
Jason: University of Miami. Film and Philosophy.
What’s your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about
Jason: My mom taught me high school English literature which was incredible. She’s one of a kind.
Max: Freshman year of college I studied at Lynn University when I was on the pre-med route. I was in the honors program and had the same teacher for both Biology and Environmental Science, and he was also my adviser. His name was Dr. Cichocki and was definitely most memorable of all of my teachers for his passion and embodiment of what he taught.
How is your life different now than it was before you started Still Up?
Max: Well, now we have a vast social network of influencers and taste makers that w can look to as peers, which I think is really inspiring and just totally different from when we first arrived in Los Angeles and had to convince people that yes, Al Gore actually had a TV network. Now, one of our favorite pastimes is to attend intellectual documentary screening saloons at our friend Lynne Lear’s house, who is a huge philanthropist, she just lives to spread her passion for ideas. That’s something that I think is one of the coolest aspects of our lives that is only possible because of our hard work to reach people that we felt were on the same playing field as us. We also get to travel now more than we ever have before …
Jason: We got asked earlier this year to speak at Yale for huge conference about media and technology. Now, we didn’t go to an Ivy League school, we went to University of Miami which is phenomenal, but it’s certainly not on the level of Yale in terms of its reputation. But now, we’re getting asked to go to speak at a place like Yale about our experience and our views about technology and transformation. I mean that’s a life changer. If there’s one thing that we have, it’s the passion to communicate ideas. So to be given greater and greater platforms to communicate these ideas is the greatest honor of all.
What excites you about your generation?
Max: I like the non-complacency displayed by our generation when we really want to rally around a cause or an idea. I think we’ve shown we can get things done. I love the way our generation embraces technology. We’re a generation of self-publishers, self broadcasters. This idea that we each have a say and that say matters is very inspiring to me. To be a content creator just feels immensely rewarding.
Jason: I think for people who are hungry and excited about ideas all the time, it almost makes us boredom-proof. We can never be bored because we’re always connected to the infosphere, and there’s always some new piece of data that’s making us secrete dopamine in the brain.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you say to him?
Max: Be a catalyst for progress rather than an obstacle to it. Advance science. Embrace reason. Protect animals.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
Jason: We’ll be living inside a techno-utopian virtual environment where all of reality is part of the artist’s palette. We’ll be living in a new age of wonder–computers and biology will become one.
If you weren’t doing this, you’d be…
Max: Something science-related, in the medical field, which was my plan before switching to Film in college (sorry, mom!) or touring the country playing music.
Follow Max and Jason on twitter @Jason_silva @maxlugavere and @maxandJason
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur himself, having completed his first documentary 18 in ’08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin’s DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We’ll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We’ll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.