Sarah Haskins is the correspondent on, and creator of the Target Women segment on Current TV’s infoMania. The segment takes aim at the absurd ways in which advertising on television appeals to women. Haskins, just back from vacation, took some time to talk about comedy, guilty pleasures, and branching out.
Chris Bowman: First off, how would you describe what it is you do on infoMania’s Target Women?
Sarah Haskins: I would describe it as a work of art. No, (laughs). I would describe it as a short segment where I make fun of advertising and marketing trends aimed at women, in entertainment.
CB: Would it be something similar to a pop culture critic maybe?
SH: Yeah. I mean it sort of is a pop culture critic. I very much focus on advertising so it’s sort of just general media messages too. I would by no means say that I am a pop culture expert. I am always a little afraid of using that term. People are like, “What do you think about this?!” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I don’t watch TV.”
CB: Well, how do you find the shows you skewer if you don’t watch TV?
SH: Well, I started watching TV to work at infoMania, so that has been a change that has occurred in my life. I now watch more TV. Shows, and I think most people notice this, are so carefully calibrated to appeal to one demographic or the other that when we’re looking for the newest ads aimed at women we watch The View, we watch The Today Show, we watch Oprah. We’ll go through those shows and pick out the ads from there, look at them, and think of themes.
CB: You went to Harvard for American history and Literature. Is that right?
SH: Yes. That is correct.
CB: You must be relieved to have avoided life as a stuffy academic and wound up as a free wheelin’ pop-culture cynic!
CB: (Laughs). Yeah well, I don’t think I would have been a very good academic. Maybe I’m slightly better as a cynic.
CB: How would you describe your time as a student then?
SH: In case my mom reads this, I want to make it clear that I worked very hard. I think you really have to have a desire to contribute something to the academy and I never felt like my ideas for papers were genius enough to actually be a professor or something. I wasn’t going to say anything new about Hemingway.
CB: You have to admit. You have to be pretty smart to get in to Harvard. You’ve got to be somewhat capable, no?
SH: I’m marginally capable. I dress myself in the morning and I can drive myself to work with a supervising adult.
CB: When did you decide that you wanted to take on advertising/television and the absurd ways it targets women?
SH: It was a little bit by accident. But it helps that it’s something my friends and I have always made fun of while watching TV or seeing a commercial and we think it’s dopey. But infoMania was changing from a short four or five minute segments played four or five times a day to a full half hour show. In that transition there was room for new correspondents and I wanted to do that. While looking around for a topic or subject area to cover I saw these yogurt commercials and I was like, “Ah, these are super annoying.” So we built the idea of Target Women around that.
CB: I haven’t seen the yogurt segment. That was the first one you did, right?
SH: Yeah. I peaked at the first one. It’s been a long slow slide downhill.
CB: Oh, man. What were the ads? What was her name again?
SH: It was some of the Jamie Lee Curtis in the Activia. The ones that drives everyone crazy are the ones with the two women who are like “Yogurt is ‘burning this bridesmaid’s dress’ good" and talking like all we ever do is sit around talking about yogurt. “I can do it in five minutes, so please excuse me, I will have to take some female yogurt time.”
CB: “Female yogurt time,” it almost sounds wrong.
SH: (Laughs), Chris you’re a man, so I can’t go in to it.
CB: You consider yourself a comedian rather than a journalist. How did you get your start in comedy?
SH: I started doing improve in college and that led me back to my hometown of Chicago where I did improv for six or seven years and worked with Improv Olympic, it’s called I.O. now, and the Second City as a member of the touring company. So that’s where I got my comedy grounding before I came out to L.A.
CB: Aside from Target Women do you have any desire to do a comedy show, maybe a longer format, live or otherwise?
SH: Well, I still do improv out here in L.A. with a group called Cat Nip which is a bunch of girls I knew, women sorry, excuse me. Oh my God! Yeah, a bunch of women I knew from Chicago and we have a group out here and that’s really fun. But I love improv because I think it keeps you fresh. And it makes me laugh and I love watching my friends too and laughing. But of course! Some day I’d love to be part of a longer comedy show. If that happens, it will happen. I just have to keep working on stuff that interests me and maybe it comes around the pike. You know, the pike. Ye Olde Pike.
CB: I love “Ye Olde” anything. I imagine that improv is helpful with your writing too.
SH: I think improve is helpful with writing. I once had an improv teacher who theorized that a lot of improvisers weren’t aspiring actors, but rather were just blocked writers. Which I think can be partially accurate. I think improv helps because it teaches you in part to say yes to other people’s ideas and try to find the best in something instead of the worst. And you can also do that with yourself.
CB: Are there any really bad TV shows that you are watching right now that you can’t get enough of?
SH: I guess a lot of people ask that question as “What’s your guilty pleasure?” but I mean, TV is generally a guilty pleasure, right? It’s not a necessity for life. I do watch Gossip Girl, that’s probably what comes most closely to that. Train wreck-wise, we’ve done a few VH1 reality shows, and at first I thought, “Oh this will be fun because it’s a great excuse to watch trashy TV,” and then after, it’s just so depressing. We’ve done two and they’re just so exploitative. So that went from a fun voyeuristic thing that we can make fun of to, it just gets sad. You can see how they’re put together and it’s not interesting anymore to watch these people drink and slap each other on television. It’s just sad.
CB: I know a lot of people that watch reality TV. The summer reality show line-up is just abysmal.
SH: Yeah, it’s fun one episode and then you feel like they’re exploiting people, (laughs). Who, I mean, are also getting some amount of money , but I don’t know what amount of money makes it OK to make them look inarticulate and hysterical.
CB: On a lighter note, you are also currently working on a couple of screenplays?
:SH: Yes, on a lighter note than the destruction of the human spirit and reality television. Yes! I am working on a couple of screenplays. One has already been written and is in revisions and the other is to be written shortly.
CB: The one that has been written is the Amy Poehler movie, Lunch Lady?
SH: No that is the one to be written. Book Smart is about two over achieving high school girls who use their genius minds to try to get boyfriends by prom. It sounds very A-typical, but I promise you it’s going to--.
CB: I highly doubt it’s going to be A-typical. And Lunch Lady is based on a graphic novel?
SH: Yeah, I think it comes out soon-ish. Or it’s just come out. But we come in contact with it when it was just about to be published. It’s a really fun story about this mild mannered lunch lady who is a super hero. Amy Poehler was interested in it and that’s how it came to us. We’re really excited about it. I think it’s going to be a really fun movie.
CB: How did you make the leap into screenwriting?
SH: I bought a book called, “Screenwriting A-Z”. No. I write not alone, but with a good friend of mine Emily Halpern who is an excellent writer and a fantastic writing partner. We knew each other in college and reconnected in L.A. She had been working on TV shows out here. We had dinner one night and started talking about screenplay ideas and decided we wanted to write one together. And that was Book Smart”
CB: That was it? You just did it?
SH: I had written spec scripts before, and I have a certificate in creative writing from the Art Institute of Chicago.
CB: Oh, so you’re fully qualified then.
SH: (laughs). Yeah, like a plumbing certificate can fix a toilet, if you have a short story you can bring it to me, and I’ll point out some flaws in it. No, it’s not a master’s degree. It’s just a certificate. I’ve done a lot of longer writing is what I’m trying to say. Plays and short plays, things like that. Emily knew a lot too from working on hour-long shows. We also read a lot of screen plays before we started. It’s about structure, so we outlined the whootanany out of that screenplay and then we wrote it.
CB: On IMDB under the trivia section you have two “fun facts” listed. I don’t know if you’ve seen them.
CB: First of all, you were born in Chicago. And you are the creator of Target Women.
SH: Wow. That’s me in a nutshell.
CB: Anything you’d like to add to jazz it up a little?
SH: (Laughs), like I would in ice breaker games. I don’t put milk in my cereal. Ooooh! I am a Chicago Cubs baseball fan, that’s pretty bland too. And I am a total wussy about roller coasters.
If you are unfamiliar with Sarah Haskin's Target Women or infoMania, be sure to check them out. And keep an eye out for Lunch Lady starring Amy Poehler and Book Smart. Both are in development and are scheduled for a 2011 release.