Who's that woman screaming about global warming? It's Laurie David�wife of Seinfeld creator Larry David�and she's convinced that what the earth needs now is... Hollywood, baby!
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IT’S MIDDAY AT THE HOME of Laurie and Larry David, a Tudor mansion in West Los Angeles with commanding views of the Pacific, and life, naturally, is imitating art. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Events are unfolding in scenes that seem straight out of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the hit HBO series created and written by Larry.
Fade in: The clattering of keyboards fills the Davids’ pool house. Despite its whitewashed pine walls and shabby-chic decor, the place feels like a newsroom bullpen, with three thirty-something women in heels, hip huggers, and headsets fielding a constant stream of phone calls, e-mails, and instant messages. Their boss, Laurie, a 47-year-old television producer, sits in the main residence, some 20 yards away, at a desk she’s set up next to the giant clawfoot tub in her master bathroom.
The team is launching a mass-media campaign to get Americans fired up about the issue of climate change. Its centerpiece: the Stop Global Warming Virtual March on Washington—an interactive Web site (www.stopglobalwarming.org) and expanding online petition designed to create buzz while urging President Bush and congressional and business leaders to come up with stronger pollution-control laws and new clean-energy technologies. Her list of supporters, or “marchers,” so far includes prominent Democrats and Republicans, among them Hillary Clinton, Al Gore, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and John McCain. Laurie’s goal is to collect at least a million names by the next Earth Day—April 22, 2006—to send a message so loud that the White House will have to pay attention.
Voice of Laurie comes over the intercom (breathless): Omigod. You’re not going to believe this—major slam dunk!
Staffers (in unison): What?!
Laurie: We got the Lutheran evangelicals! That’s huge—hundreds of new marchers! And Walter Cronkite—possibly the most respected voice of news and reason in modern history. He wrote a protest statement so moving that I, like, literally have tears in my eyes.
(Two phones ring simultaneously.)
Staffer #1: Laurie, I’ve got Senator Barack Obama’s office on Line 1.
Staffer #2: Take a message—AOL is on Line 2!
LAURIE TAKES THE AOL CALL. A petite brunette with the requisite whittled Hollywood physique, she greets Tina Sharkey, a senior vice president at AOL, with her trademark trill: “Hey, doll, what’s cookin’?” Jimmy Choo mules dangle from her painted toes; Post-it Notes and news clippings, along with books, articles, diagrams of Arctic ice melt, and a mosaic of inspirational quotes, surround her computer screen.
Laurie’s cheeky style of negotiating seems to pay off, because Sharkey is calling to say that AOL will donate space on its home page for a link to StopGlobalWarming.org. “You have the support of the network on this,” Sharkey vows. “We want to help blow it up.”
Next on the line is Christina Exharo, executive vice president for marketing at MTV, who wants to review the network’s plans to promote the march on its cable channels and Web sites. Then it’s Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes, phoning to discuss “The Heat Is On,” a one-hour global-warming report that his network will air this fall, thanks in large part to Laurie’s badgering.
“The biggest economic, environmental, and national-security problem of our time is global warming, and the media is completely out to lunch on this issue!” Laurie told Ailes after cornering him at a New York gathering last winter. “Here’s a chance to put Fox News ahead of the pack.” Instead of recoiling, Ailes was charmed by what he calls Laurie’s “impressive passion and dedication.” Today he says, without apparent irony, that he considers her one of the country’s “leading authorities” on global warming.
Throughout the day, Laurie confabs with entertainment bigwigs, at times working outside, via cell phone, so she can deadhead her roses while juggling a long list of projects. High on the agenda is Earth to America, a two-hour comedy special she’s producing—with help from stars like Will Ferrell, Jack Black, Ben Stiller, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus—about the decidedly humorless topic of global warming, scheduled to air November 20 on TBS. (Long a rerun graveyard, TBS is repositioning itself as a comedy network and was the highest bidder for the show.) Too Hot Not to Handle, a 90-minute HBO documentary on climate change’s local impacts—such as glacier melt in Alaska—will air in April.
Along with the HBO special, Laurie is planning a blowout media event—a star-studded concert, maybe—to announce the success of her Virtual March. In the meantime, she’s cooking up new ways to hype it, from ads on yogurt lids to TV tie-ins. In December, she says, characters on three daytime soaps—All My Children, The Bold and the Beautiful, and The Young and the Restless—will start talking about the march in their on-air dialogue.
It’s all part of Laurie’s master plan: to make global warming a priority for mainstream America by creating a humor-spiked, irony-laced media juggernaut. It’s a mission she thinks is especially timely in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, which Laurie—who points out that warmer oceans create more intense storms—describes as a warning to us all.
“If the problem goes unchecked, the hurricanes of the future,” she says, “could make Katrina look like a spring shower.” That’s coming on pretty strong, but that’s the way Laurie likes it. To her, the green movement’s current approach to educating the public is as dull as a mug of green tea. She’s a gallon of Red Bull.
HAVING MET LAURIE BEFORE—last year I was paid to help her write a speech on climate change—I knew to expect the eccentric office space and the indiscriminate hey-doll-ing. They are, in a sense, her way of keeping it real—infusing her privileged life with an oddball wit and humility.
But behind Laurie’s charm is a confident intelligence, business savvy, and knowledge of issues that, combined with her connections, have made her a promising new force in the world of environmental activists. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., chief prosecuting attorney for Riverkeeper and senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), calls her “one of the most brilliant strategists in today’s environmental movement.”
Kennedy values, above all, her efforts to bridge the two-party divide on climate issues, despite her loudly proclaimed status as a lifelong Democrat. “She offers a completely new perspective on problem solving, unencumbered by the policy minutiae and partisan bickering of Washington,” says Kennedy. “Who else is sitting down with Roger Ailes to discuss climate? Who else is going to the heads of the National Council of Churches and Trout Unlimited, to ranching groups and synagogues and professional women’s organizations, and saying, ‘This has got to happen’? Laurie is forging common ground between conservatives and progressives.”
Not everyone is impressed. Some dismiss Laurie as another in the long line of celebrities—Barbra Streisand is a favorite target—who consider themselves enlightened enough to tell the masses how to behave, even as they enjoy lavish lifestyles.
“If Laurie David can get the beautiful people of Beverly Hills to give up flying their fuel-guzzling private jets, then I’ll pay attention,” says Laura Ingraham, conservative radio-talk-show host and author of 2003’s Shut Up & Sing, which slams liberal activism by celebs. “What Hollywood doesn’t seem to understand is that a significant percentage of Americans don’t like what they’ve done to the culture and have no desire to see them do the same thing to the political landscape.”
Indeed, this isn’t the first time performers have tried to change the tide of politics. The star-powered environmental campaigns of the late eighties and early nineties, typified by Sting and Ted Danson, may have raised awareness on certain issues—nuclear waste and recycling among them—but they didn’t noticeably sway public policy. And while an unprecedented number of celebrities backed Democratic candidate John Kerry in the 2004 presidential election, they failed to deliver a victory.
Motivated by the Bush administration’s widely criticized track record on environmental issues, celebrities have once again climbed their soapboxes. But the new crop of glittery greens—led by actors Leonardo DiCaprio and Cameron Diaz—may not fare much better. DiCaprio takes a serious approach, using his role-model status to encourage budding environmentalists through a Web site and public appearances. Last spring, Diaz added entertainment to the mix with Trippin’, a short-lived, critically dismissed MTV series that chronicled her adventures with other showbiz pals in environmental trouble spots around the world.
Laurie, however, is not your typical celebrity advocate. For one thing, she’s not really a celebrity—or even an actor, despite the common but mistaken assumption that she appears on Curb Your Enthusiasm, a parody of reality TV in which Larry plays himself. Larry’s onscreen wife, Cheryl, played by actress Cheryl Hines, does share a few striking similarities with Laurie, and that’s no coincidence. Laurie has served as inspiration for both Cheryl and the Elaine Benes character on Larry’s other hit show, Seinfeld, and she readily admits that there are blurry lines in her life between entertainment and fact.
The truth, though, is that Laurie has spent more than 20 years behind the camera, not in front of it. “I’m a producer,” she says. “I troubleshoot, organize, secure funding, corral talent.”
Laurie calls herself an “info fanatic” but doesn’t claim to be an expert. Her strength, she feels, is finding new ways to promote the global-warming message. “My job has always been to excite everybody about new talent and to open doors for them,” she says. “I’m using exactly the same skills on the environmental issue—to get it out there and to get people seeing what I’m seeing.”
BORN LAURIE LENNARD IN 1958, Laurie grew up in a middle-class suburb on Long Island and graduated from Ohio University, in Athens, in 1979 with a journalism degree. After stints in advertising and publishing, she landed a job in 1984 as a researcher on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman. Within two years she was booking Dave’s special-interest acts. “I lined up the human pretzel and the woman who can make jewelry out of hubcaps,” she says.
She met Larry—a struggling comedian at the time—while scouting talent in New York. They got married in 1993 and moved to Los Angeles, where Laurie spent the next ten years managing comedians like Chris Elliot, developing sitcoms, and producing comedy specials for HBO and MTV.
What Laurie calls her “conversion moment” came in 1996, when a couple of friends invited her to a breakfast with NRDC president John Adams and R.F.K. Jr. “Bobby made the case that the environment is the civil-rights issue of our time,” she recalls, “and that the increasingly threatened right to clean air and water is as basic as the right to racial equality and affordable health care. I got up from that breakfast and have never been the same since.”
Overnight, she was born again, diving into environmental issues and eventually limiting her production projects to those with a green focus. She hounded her family to take short showers. She started sending weekly environmental-news updates to hundreds of high-powered associates, from Tom Hanks to Arnold Schwarzenegger. In 1999, she joined the NRDC board of trustees and began hosting gala L.A. fundraisers. Overall, Laurie estimates, she’s raised more than $10 million for environmental causes.
While Kennedy admiringly calls her “relentless,” others say she’s over the top. “Laurie can be effective, but also heavy-handed and a browbeater,” said one politically active Hollywood insider, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “She’ll go so far as to say that people who drive SUVs are terrorist supporters. That turns people off.”
Such criticism doesn’t faze Laurie, who indeed produced a set of controversial 2003 television commercials that equated people who buy big SUVS with backers of terrorist training camps. This is a woman who’s not afraid to chase down Hummer drivers so she can flip them off from the seat of her Prius. “I believe in peer pressure,” she says. “Look what it’s done for smoking and fur coats.”
Larry, of course, has gotten a few laughs out of Laurie’s metamorphosis. “Thirteen years ago I met a materialistic, narcissistic, superficial, bosomy woman from Long Island,” he said at an NRDC fundraiser last year. “Then one day I began to sense that something had changed. She started peppering conversations with words like ‘ozone layer’ and ‘toxic runoff’… What was now all too painfully obvious was that I, Larry David, the shallowest man in the world, had married an environmentalist.”
A DOZEN OF THE COUNTRY’S top comedy writers, from series like The Daily Show, The Simpsons, and Curb Your Enthusiasm, have convened in the Davids’ living room. After a meal prepared by the family’s in-house chef, the group is lounging on sofas and sprawled across floor pillows, presenting their initial scripts for Earth to America, which will be filmed at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas.
The writers take turns reading scenes. One has Will Ferrell, doing his Dubya impersonation, chasing a rainbow across Bush’s Crawford ranch. Another features Jack Black as the attorney for a group of five-year-olds who want to sue America’s CEOs for stealing their future.
“There’s got to be a good skit about the climate skeptics,” Larry interjects. “What really gets me are these religious-righters who expect everybody to believe that Moses parted the Red Sea or that Mary gave birth without having sex—but they can’t believe the reams of data on melting glaciers and rising seas?”
Alas, Larry’s idea pushes all the wrong buttons. “Settle down, dear Jew,” says another writer. “We can’t do religion jokes.”
“Yeah,” someone else says. “I mean, isn’t the idea to unite people around this issue, not divide them?”
“Exactly,” Laurie agrees. “I hate to break it to you, honey, but we’ve got to keep your disdain for humanity to a minimum.”
Several of the ideas sound promising, but more than a few fall flat. Eventually, Phil Rosenthal, the executive producer for Everybody Loves Raymond, speaks up: “I’m starting to feel like, Enough already with the global-warming jokes.”
Laurie objects that the scripts are only first drafts and will get funnier. But soon enough she sees what her writers are saying: It’s getting stale. “We’re almost minimizing the importance of the issue by hammering it too much,” she says.
So Laurie decides to mix up the fare—to intersperse skits with serious stories about how global warming is already affecting the United States. Sprinkled in will be cameos from politicians, scientists, and astronauts discussing why the issue matters and possible solutions.
And in the weeks that follow, the skits get better. Daily Show correspondent Stephen Colbert agrees to present a list of satirical tips on how to be a good environmentalist. Mr. Krabs, the animated character who owns the Krusty Krab restaurant on Nickelodeon’s SpongeBob SquarePants, will rant about how ocean warming is affecting his seafood business.
Whether or not people laugh, Laurie is sticking with her theory that humor can make life’s overwhelming concerns feel manageable. “It’s very tricky using comedy to educate people,” Laurie says later. “But if it’s done right, it can be very effective.”
LAST JUNE, ON A WARM NIGHT in downtown San Francisco, Laurie got serious with a speech at a dinner held in conjunction with the United Nations World Environment Day, a 20-minute introduction to the night’s main speaker, Al Gore. The audience included celebrities, industry execs, and politicos—from actress Rosario Dawson to Google cofounder Sergey Brin. Laurie, wearing a midnight-blue Prada evening dress, used cocktail hour to schmooze with the crowd, chatting with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, from California, and Pete McCloskey, that state’s former Republican congressman. She was glowing when she took the stage.
“Global warming is an economic problem, a national-security problem, and a public-health nightmare,” she said. “Its solutions can no longer rest on the shoulders of the environmental movement alone. Right now, new groups and interests are engaging on this issue—including evangelicals and right-wing hawks—but they are working separately. The true force of this human-rights movement is not yet being felt. We need one giant act of community to unite us.”
Laurie, in fact, is the rare environmental spokesperson who’s focusing on big-picture strategy. Fewer than 1 percent of Americans are currently members of environmental organizations—a good indication that the movement’s message is reaching only a select few.
Green groups have typically avoided sharing resources, but Laurie has convinced 20 of them, including Conservation International and the Sierra Club, to promote her Web site among their combined ten million members. Her list of “marchers” so far includes politicians, religious coalitions, hunting and fishing groups, soccer moms, and utility executives—that alone represents a grassroots coalition bigger than most others established on climate change.
Still, there’s no clear sign that Laurie’s march will be anything like the tide-turning force she envisions. Eight months before Earth Day, she had reeled in 110,000 participants—only one-tenth of her target number. And if her fall marketing campaign does help summon a million-plus voices of protest, will a collection of names really make much difference? It’s a tough question, but Laurie’s not about to sit still long enough to ponder it.
BACK AT HER bathroom-cum-office, Laurie makes time between business calls for personal chats with friends. At one point, Larry checks in, too, and finds that his wife has a surprise.
Laurie: Honey, you’re gonna kill me.
Larry: Now what?
Laurie: Just keep an open mind, OK? I gave away your Prius.
Larry: You what?!
Laurie: Well, not your Prius—the one you drive on Curb. I offered it up as a prize for this contest that MTV is doing to get its viewers to join the march. Isn’t that exciting! MTV loves the idea: Thousands—maybe tens of thousands—of people will join just because they have a shot at getting the Curb car! (silence)
Laurie: Larry… honey? I had to! We’re stopping global warming!