When I was young, my sister and I enjoyed the show Degrassi Junior High, and while my memory isn’t great, I can vividly recall Spike who got pregnant as a teenager. In my 20s, I was reintroduced to Degrassi: The Next Generation, and one of the leads was Spike’s daughter Emma (Amanda Stepto and Miriam McDonald, respectively). This ongoing show is nothing short of amazing. The focus is on high schoolers, and they’ve covered pretty much any topic you could think of: race, gender, sexuality, drug abuse, bullying, and more. Despite never actually watching the show while I was in high school, I’ve always admired its fearlessness in pushing the envelope.
When I found out Stephen Stohn, one of the executive producers of Degrassi, had released a book called Whatever It Takes: Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television, I jumped on the opportunity to check it out. Stohn is also an entertainment lawyer, and needless to say, he has many fascinating stories to share about his time in the biz.
The book is an easy read, mainly because Stohn is a great story-teller, and he has some wild stories to share. if you’re looking for inspiration but also some entertainment, make sure you pick up a copy and enjoy the interview below.
What made you decide to write the book?
A number of years ago, Linda and I were having dinner with a director friend of ours. I was telling some of the stories of Christopher’s and my hippie-like travels back in the 70s, things like performing on board a U.S. destroyer, being the house band at the Playboy Club in Turkey, and so on, and he said, “Wow that would make a great movie!” I thought he was joking, but he kept coming back to it, and over the years I thought, “Well, if someone thinks there are some interesting stories there, maybe it’s worth trying to write them down.” Once I started doing that, the book started to kind of write itself, becoming something more than just stories — hopefully interesting or funny stories —but secretly becoming a kind of reflection on what it means to be successful, and some tricks and traps towards attaining success.
What do you mean by the logline, “This book will change the way you think about success”?
Sometimes we get swept up in defining success for ourselves within a frame that others have built, and it can lead to hollow victories. Our North American culture has come to laud physical attractiveness, monetary wealth, and power — and even being famous for being famous — as being hallmarks of success, but the book tells stories about success not as an achievement, but more as a way of being, of questioning deeply what it is you want until you find out what your true authentic goals are. Those personal goals will inevitably be far deeper and more meaningful than the superficial markers of success, and once you’ve discovered what they truly are you’ll probably find you’re already a long way down the road towards achieving them, and in that way being actually successful.
During the time you’ve been part of the Canadian and U.S. music and TV businesses, how have they changed?
I’m old enough that the very first record I ever bought was a 78 rpm single. Most people today would have no idea what I’m talking about, what a 78 is or was! (By the way, that first record in my collection was Elvis Presley, with Hound Dog on one side and Don’t Be Cruel on the other.) That was 1956, only a few years after television first came to Canada. So yes, I’ve seen a LOT of change in the business! Of course, the Internet has changed the business fundamentally, but deeper than that, it has changed us fundamentally. As Marshall McLuhan said many years ago, the medium is the message. Our attention span has shrunk dramatically — if a few seconds go by and something isn’t grabbing us, there’s an email, an Instagram post, a YouTube video, or another channel just hovering waiting for our attention. And so much of how we are perceived — and how we perceive ourselves — in the world is shaped by our online persona, a persona that in our hearts we know is false, and so we struggle with who we really are. In some ways, the book ends up suggesting an antidote to all that: I talk about striving to discover what your true authentic goals are; not to follow your dream but rather to know your dream, and I believe strongly that over the coming years the music, the stories, the TV shows and films that will truly stand out will be ones that, at least subconsciously, help us to dig deeper into who we truly are and why we’re on this planet.
How does Degrassi fit into the #MeToo movement?
The headline #MeToo events mostly involve serial sexual harassment by men against women, but to me at its core it’s all about bullying, maybe narcissism along with the bullying, but certainly bullying. We think of Degrassi as being essentially a forty-year anti-bullying message, but it’s not always clear who the bad guys are. Sometimes the roles shift and the bully becomes the bullied or vice versa. And the bystanders are often just as much to blame. Think of all the people who knew about Weinstein or any of the others, and it took years before it all poured out—and I can’t fault the women who were attacked and were afraid for their careers, but I think we can all question all the people surrounding and supporting Weinstein and so many of the others like him for not somehow alerting the authorities earlier. So the more we talk about it, and use whatever means we have at our disposal to bring light on the individual bullying incidents, and the enormous dangers of permitting bullying period, the better—and I’d like to think that in at least a small way Degrassi over the years has been helpful in that.
As an attorney with so many varied experiences, what’s your aversion to a courtroom?
In the book I tell the story of my one and only time in court, and it’s quite a funny story; it ends up well, but it shows what a doofus I really can be. If you’ll allow me to compare myself to a great author for a moment—Stephen Leacock wrote a very funny short story a while back about a guy who goes into a bank to get change for a fifty dollar bill, but gets so confused by his interactions in there that after an hour he ends up back outside the bank with a different fifty dollar bill and being proud of himself for having gotten what he wanted. Well, this is my Stephen Leacock fifty dollar bill story.
It was when I was just a law student and ended up being sent to court to adjourn a case, but I knew nothing about it, became terrified when I realized it was a real criminal case of assault causing grievous bodily harm, somehow ended up appearing in court with the wrong accused, with everyone including the judge laughing at me. The story unfolds over many hours until in my moment of deepest humiliation I accidentally win it all, and get the case dismissed. You’ve got to read the chapter; I guarantee you’ll laugh!
And by the way, I’ve never appeared in a court since, and I never will!
STEPHEN STOHN is a highly regarded Canadian entertainment lawyer but is probably best known
as executive producer of the variousDegrassi television series, receiving multiple honours including four Primetime
Emmy nominations and the prestigious Peabody Award. Degrassi is currently airing new episodes on Netflix
worldwide in over two hundred territories and seventeen different languages. For two decades, Stephen was also
executive producer of the telecast of Canada’s music awards show, The Juno Awards, and during that period was a
director and then chair of the organization responsible for The Juno Awards. He lives in Toronto.
While I received a free promotional copy of the book, opinions shared are my own.