by Ben Cohen
Professionally speaking, there are few things better than working with truly talented people who take their jobs incredibly seriously. I consider myself extremely lucky to have worked with Chez Pazienza for many years as it gave me great insight into how elite level talent functions.
Early on in our working relationship, I must confess to being somewhat intimidated by Chez. He was an award winning producer, author of a book praised by the likes of Arianna Huffington (who wrote the foreword to “Dead Star Twilight”), and a writer so gifted media moguls like Gawker’s Nick Denton actively tried to poach him. Chez was so stubborn that no one had been able to work with him for prolonged periods of time. And I can honestly say I completely understand why. He was fired from CNN for writing his blog DeusExMalcontent, Nick Denton retracted his offer after it became clear he was too snarky for Gawker (a monumental achievement in my eyes), and he behaved so badly at the Banter that I should have fired him on many, many different occasions. But Chez was always incredibly loyal to the Banter, and I made it my mission to work with him even if it killed me.
We had many, many arguments over the years, but as I grew in confidence, Chez began to take my opinions seriously and respect me as his boss. I rarely put my foot down with him (it just wasn’t worth the energy), but when I did, he knew it was serious and never pushed further on the issue. At the time of his passing, we had forged a very effective working relationship that, along with all the other writers great efforts, was propelling the site into new territories. We had become a small, but respected player in the US media landscape, and what we wrote mattered. Chez was proud of what we had achieved, and wanted us to do more.
Looking back over my interactions with Chez over email, I was struck by our last conversation that we had two days before he passed away. It was a back and forth about the last piece he wrote on why Bill Maher shouldn’t be considered an enemy of liberalism and the particularly delicate topic of pedophilia in the wake of Milo Yiannopoulos’s spectacular fall from grace. Here is the interaction we had on Feb 22nd, 2017:
Chez: I’ve been working on a piece all day and I’m suddenly feeling like I’m not sure I can make it work. Trying to defend Bill Maher by just saying that “look, he’s not the enemy,” but I’m trying to figure out how to address the comments he made about pedophilia forever ago. I think it’s different than Milo — and if you remember, I once wrote a tongue-in-cheek piece about how a 16 year old who had sex with two teachers was a god — but I’m trying to figure out how to argue that. I may move on to something else and come back tomorrow in addition to my members piece. I’ll try to get something else up tonight, but if I don’t, you’ll know why. I just need to think about this.
Ben: Hmm it’s a complicated one. The Maher underage sex comments are tricky given the kid was 12, and he’s definitely made some questionable statements about that kind of stuff. As for your old piece, personally I don’t see anything wrong with it given the age of consent is 16 in the UK.
Chez: Oh, I wasn’t that worried about me, because a) I was being slightly tongue-in-cheek, and b) yeah, the age of consent where it happened was 17, so the kid was literally six months out from being legal. But Maher is a tough one.
Ben: yeah, I’m not sure if it’s defendable, but then Maher isn’t speaking on behalf of an insane Christianist movement that regards homosexuality as inherently inferior to heterosexuality and transgendered people as subhuman child predators. He’s a Hollywood liberal who dates women half his age and openly talks about fucking prostitutes. Milo went down because of the crowd he ran with, while Maher has a lot more wiggle room.
I mean, technically they’re advocating the same thing, so it’s not straightforward to defend.
Chez: Exactly. I mean, I disagree with him that it wasn’t child rape. The kid was 12 at the time. But admittedly they’ve stayed together as a family, have two kids, and he’s now very much of-age. I agree with both Maher AND Milo that sex is a complex thing and not everything is cut-and-dry. Grooming kids is awful though and that’s what Milo was describing.
I think I’m just going to make the Maher piece my members piece. I like it but it’s better being something not everybody reads since I’m not sure I made my case the way I want to — but it’s lengthy and meaty.
Ben: Excellent. Look forward to reading.
Chez: Yeah, it was at 1200 words as of last night so it felt like a waste not to at least try to make it into something.
And that was the last I ever heard from him. Looking back at it now, it perfectly encapsulates the thought process that went into Chez’s work — he was obsessive about detail, obsessive about articulating complicated points precisely, and obsessive about finding exactly the right tone. What Chez wrote, he meant, and if he couldn’t get it quite right he wouldn’t publish it, no matter how much he had written. I recall many times when he’d call me in a rage about a 2000 word essay he had written that no longer made sense to him. I would have to talk him down, tell him it didn’t matter and that he should take a break, check it later, or write about something the next day. He would never calm down, but he would always go back at it until he had it just right. Writing wasn’t a job for Chez, it was a necessary medium that allowed him to express his deepest feelings. He loved getting big hits on the site, but he would never write for them. He wrote almost exclusively for himself, and I felt it was my job to make a space for him to do that. The lesson I learned from Chez was that when in doubt, write from the heart. You can’t lose, and even if you do, you will never regret it.