This is an inside look at how Cenk Uygur went from evolving from a conservative, loudmouth law school student into the most progressive and widely watched talk show host in the history of the Internet, with a few celebrated slots on the mainstream media circuit along the way. Love him or hate him, the founder of The Young Turks truly follows his ideals, sending up the rest of the media along the way.
How did you decide to do this story?
I’m originally from Wisconsin and filmmaking has always been my main passion. Back in 2008, I was going to UW-Madison and wasn’t feeling very fulfilled in what I wanted to achieve film-wise. I left school, packed up my car, and drove to Los Angeles. Once there, I had to accomplish two things: I needed to make a living to be able to stay in L.A., and I wanted to win my parents back over, as they were somewhat sore for me dropping out of school.
My dad and brother were both really big fans of this weird online show called “The Young Turks” featuring this bombastic host, Cenk Uygur. I found out that the show was based in L.A., so I went in and started interning for them, which eventually led to a full time job with TYT. However, I was out in L.A. to make movies, not to work for an internet news show. Right away I thought Cenk was such a compelling and larger-than-life character, so at the end of my first week there I asked him what he would think about me doing a documentary on him. Cenk right away told me, “I always wanted a documentary made about me!” giving his approval to make the film on my own, as long as it didn’t compromise my work for TYT.
I started filming constantly, but didn’t know how the documentary would be shaped, or if I even had a film on my hands. I thought things were becoming compelling as TYT continued to grow on YouTube and gain it’s large fan base, but it was when I was following Cenk around in N.Y.C., when he got the pulled from the 6 p.m. timeslot at MSNBC, that was when I knew had a film on my hands.
How many years did you track Cenk?
Five years total. I worked for TYT for about three years, then Curfew [a film I produced that won the Academy Award for Best Short Film, Live Action in 2013] happened. That was an incredible experience. Inspired, I left TYT and made filmmaking my full time job, working on many feature films in various roles. But even after leaving TYT I kept coming back to film for Mad As Hell, as their story was constantly evolving.
Before I left the company, I knew it was important to keep this film with me and maintain creative and business control over it. I didn’t want it to become a puff piece. I wanted to show Cenk and TYT the way I saw them, no strings attached. So I asked for both final cut and full ownership. They agreed. Maybe because they never thought the film would be finished, maybe because that is TYT’s style. Maybe a little of both. But either way the film was mine to make the way I wanted.
On my own and in need of funding to finish the movie, I raised financing from both an Indiegogo campaign and private investors who supported me in completing the film over the next two years, during which I was both editing the film, and still shooting the continuing story of Cenk at Current TV and beyond.
I was lucky to have been there working in the company where I was able to gain this access, and I am lucky that I was able to take the film with me after I left, and make the film my way. In the end Cenk cringes at some moments, but he understands the importance in being able to say what you want in your way, after all, that is what his story and this film is all about.
Were you surprised to learn how much MSNBC wanted to remain in line with the establishment?
I was hopeful at first, but after Cenk started with them there were many red flags along the way, they gave him notes like “act more like a senator,” which is hilarious because most senators are boring and not actually what you want in a good TV host, but it was about being safe, not rocking the boat. So ultimately it wasn’t too surprising, just disappointing.
With so many viewers, do you find it surprising that a network wouldn’t be able to find some way to support and air The Young Turks?
Sometimes it’s less about viewership and more about keeping the advertisers and companies happy. They didn’t like what Cenk had to say or the way he said it. Even on Current TV, one of the reasons Current struggled to keep their various cable contracts is because they had hosts on their network like Cenk saying things that didn’t sit well with those companies.
Is the show able to make money in its current online form?
Yeah, they are doing very well online. Since I left the company when there were just about 8 of us, there are now over 50 employees in that new studio of theirs.
What do you foresee for Cenk’s future?
He’ll continue to grow and expand TYT. He is relentless. It was hard to find a way to end the film because he is constantly striving to achieve more. Cenk always jokes that he would like to see me make this into a trilogy. But for me, after five years of non-stop depressing news and politics, I’d like this film to speak on my behalf in that area for a while, as I’d personally like to take a break from it all.
In regards to film, I’m working on other documentaries and I’ll always come back to docs, I love them, but next for me I’d like to next do something fun, a feature narrative, maybe a thriller or dark comedy, hell maybe even an action film. You never know.