"If you want to get people to watch your stuff, what I would always say is: laugh, cry, or vomit in the first three seconds."
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“Sometimes that's what you need. You need someone who gives no fucks, who doesn't need access, who doesn't want access, so doesn't play access journalism, and someone who's there to skewer stuff.”
Francesca Fiorentini is a correspondent and comedian. She was the host and head writer of the web series Newsbroke on AJ+, and the host of the special “Red White and Who?” on MSNBC. She’s been a correspondent on NatGeo’s Explorer, and is a regular commentator on The Young Turks Network.
Francesca regularly performs stand-up in LA, and has a great understanding of the power of comedy in storytelling – particularly when it comes to news. We spoke for about 45 minutes on her life, how 9/11 influenced her movement into activism, the value of comedy in pointing out the insanity of our real world, and how so many creators during the 21st Century’s “viral video boom” have a lot to answer for when it comes to influencing the way people interact with content.
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VFD: Apologies if I sound really nasal. I have a sinus infection somehow, which is super fun.
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh, I’m sorry.
VFD: I don’t recommend it. It's very weird.
Francesca Fiorentini: Where are you? In Melbourne?
VFD: I'm in Sydney.
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh, Sydney. OK. I’m like: what's the pollen count over in Sydney…
VFD: Yeah, the pollen gets me every day. There's some joke or tweet that’s like: people who have allergies, it's really just your body being like: you shouldn't be in Australia. And that's probably true.
So what have you been up to today? And at the moment, what are you doing?
Francesca Fiorentini: What have I been up to?
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh, y’know, just making sure the links on my website work so that if - and when - Mr. Hollywood clicks on them he can be like: Oh, my God, I totally need to hire this woman. Or like, Mr. News – it's just a Mr. Hollywood and a Mr. News.
So I’ve got to make sure the links work for them. And I’m doing a little bit on my podcast, The Bitchuation Room, trying to make sure we feed the algorithm of YouTube, as always.
VFD: So you’re just kind of freelancing now and doing that as well?
Francesca Fiorentini: Yeah, I'm freelancing now after AJ+ did not renew Newsbroke for this year, which is fine. I'm ready to let go of it. But yeah, I’ve been freelancing. I'm a stand up comic, and I'm a journalist, and I'm a correspondent, and I do a podcast now.
VFD: Tell me about Newsbroke. Like, how did that happen? I liked the line on your website – which was probably well linked – that was like: The BBC of the Middle East does comedy.
Francesca Fiorentini: It was a fun sell to get Al Jazeera to do comedy. It was not an easy sell after a while. After a while of working on AJ+ as a host and a producer, and doing a lot of explainer videos that were cheeky and had little quips and little moments, that becomes so bland and run of the mill. And also, I think, a little disingenuous.
I feel like sometimes the news, especially clickbait explainer-y news, is not openly opinion, even though it is opinion. And I think when you do comedy you get leeway to say: this is an opinion show. And we're making jokes clearly. And suddenly, the reigns are off and it can be much more fun. Also, it's really fun to work in a newsroom where nobody understands comedy so they don't get to fact check you on jokes. And so you're like: No, no, trust me. It's funny. It is. And then we just sort of slide under the radar because none of our bosses get it.
So I very much recommend getting old fuddy duddy news outlets, or any news outlet, to invest more in comedy and comedy writers.
VFD: How many years did Newsbroke run?
Francesca Fiorentini: We started in 2016 in the run up to the election, so when Trump announced we were like: oh, we're getting in on this gravy train! No, no, but seriously: we started in 2016. And then AJ+ downsized and moved everyone to Washington DC and I was like: No, I don't really want to live in the actual belly of the beast - the navel of the belly of the beast. And so I moved to LA but we actually continued it.
So we've had, in 2018 and 2019, like a 10-show run in each of those years. And then in 2020, thankfully, we just did it from home and set up a camera and had a little prompter. And our last episode was a few weeks after the failed coup, which is just very embarrassing as a country. We're just usually so good at coup-ing, it’s so embarrassing that we did not make this one happen! But obviously good as well.
VFD: So what's the process of making - you said 10 videos a year? Around 10 videos a year? What's the team size?
Francesca Fiorentini: Our team size is too small. But it’s a producer, two comedy writers/social media publishers, and myself, the head writer and host, and then a part time researcher. So it's sort of a three or four and a half person team.
And yeah, I think it's really difficult. Right now, when you're a small team and you want to do deep dive stuff, it's difficult because that's not the internet game. The internet game is new outrage every moment, quick videos, and just get them up, keep them going, and make the algorithm smile and burp in your face. That's the image I have when it eats all of your videos.
But y’know, I think the privileged few like the John Olivers, who are able to do a 20 minute deep dive into one thing and have a research staff and a comedy writing staff, that's really the gold standard. So we tried to do essentially “Last Week Tonight” but with a fraction of the staff. And it worked in a lot of places, and a lot of moments. It really did work. But it's a lot to be able to maintain.
VFD: What were those moments?
Francesca Fiorentini: Of working?
VFD: Yeah, well, to be specific: in the run up to the Trump election were there any moments where you were like: Shit, we've got a thing here. This is picking up.
Francesca Fiorentini: Yeah, it was interesting. I think that one of the ways that a lot of mainstream media – and even mainstream comedy / news comedy – is a little hamstrung is that they can't really discuss capitalism and systemic inequality because they can't totally bite the hand that feeds them. And y’know, John Oliver definitely pokes fun at HBO. But I don't think he would have been doing that had it been the first season of the show.
But also, there's a critique of an industry but there isn't a link being made between these industries. There isn't a link being made between dark money groups and why we have such a broken tax code, and how those dark money groups are funded by Republicans who made all of their money in the fossil fuel industry where they were not checked… So it's all just this Human Centipede of a democracy that we have here.
And I think that because it’s either not funny enough – I mean it's definitely not funny – but it's also a little bit of thumbing your nose at corporate America. And so what's great about Newsbroke and being on the internet is the ability and the freedom to do a little bit of that. Even though we got our money from the Qatari government, in part. But luckily we never drew their ire. And we had a lot of freedom in that respect.
VFD: So there was never a moment where the Al Jazeera people were like: uhhhh what are you doing???
Francesca Fiorentini: So I will say there was one time, which was very funny to me. It’s fun to work in a newsroom and I think many people don't work in newsrooms that have a good percentage of Muslims and Middle Easterners. It's a learning process. And it's great. I love it.
But we used to do sketches. One of our biggest sketches, actually, was called white fragility in the workplace, which was an ‘80s-style infomercial that was sort of modelled after an anti-sexual harassment video that you might see coming into day one of a job. And it was about white fragility.
So instead of being sensitive and about cultural sensitivity to people of colour, it was like: No, cultural sensitivity to how white people are sensitive about racism. And that blew up. And that was our first couple months of doing Newsbroke and so we were totally unprepared. People were like: We have no idea who this is? I don't even think they named AJ+. They had no idea where this thing came from, which sucks. But the piece did well.
Francesca Fiorentini: So we then tried to do a sketch about third parties. This was the moment when it was like: will Bernie run third party in 2016? And what about Jill Stein? And we made the argument – and it’s not a radical argument – which is that third parties are good and we should have multiple parties in the United States. But in a two tiered system, inevitably, it's a spoiler candidate, and there's just systemically no way around that fact that you're going to spoil votes for the Democrat or for the Republican or whatever.
And we exemplify this by doing a sketch where Jesus came back to Earth and decided to run third party. And on CNN you've got a Democrat like: I mean, this Jesus character, really, he just came onto the scene. And then Republicans are like: Look, I believe that the Lord is my saviour, but this is not the time for Christ.
And it was so funny. But there's a sensitivity – especially in the Muslim faith in Islam – which is you cannot portray a Prophet. And Jesus in Islam is a prophet. So we put it on YouTube and we weren't able to put it on Facebook because, like, what if a very religious Qatari was like: that is the interpretation of a prophet, how dare you. Which is funny and also blows Republicans minds when they have to understand that Muslims also view Jesus as almost as sacredly as they do Muhammad. So yeah.
VFD: Were you always planning in your life to get into media? Was that your passion?
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh, god.
VFD: Not online video?
Francesca Fiorentini: No, dude, I was planning on being like a “Star Search” model. Y’know what I mean? When I was little and I would watch Ed McMahon I was like: Damn, I just want to grow up to be blonde and busty. No, I'm just kidding.
But for sure my dream has always been about comedy and performance. And as a stand-up, it's hard to run away from that, even though I had many years of being a diehard activist. But I also very much realise that I started in alternative media and writing in a newspaper called Left Turn. And no weird, sectarian, socialist organisation was backing it.
But journalism and news media is incredibly important. And having been able to break down issues in an accessible way… Oftentimes – especially people on the left – they get more and more niche, and more and more self content with being niche, over-intellectual, and inaccessible to the masses. And then they're like: well, why can't we get Medicare For All? And it's like: because nobody explains what it is.
But what if people explained what it is, and really understood it, and if we broke this media stranglehold, which I did try to do in the one Special I had on MSNBC that aired in 2020, which was all about Medicare For All and health care in America.
But actually a lot of the ideas that are supposedly “leftist ideas” are incredibly popular. From health care, to reining in climate change, to taking care of families.
And so yeah, I think that I've always enjoyed breaking down difficult concepts and doing it in a way that is very much about a spoonful of sugar with the medicine, because you have to have fun. Otherwise we’ll just be consumed by how hellish everything is and how ghoulish our leaders are and how disappointing they are. So you might as well have fun with it.
VFD: So then your thing you did on America's Health Care System - Do you think that was successful in delivering that.
Francesca Fiorentini: I mean, for the 10,000 people that watched it that night, on December 27…
Francesca Fiorentini: Yeah, primetime. Everyone's just Tryptophan’d out with the turkey and waiting for New Year's to roll around and too much family time.
But I mean that's exactly what we tried to do with using humour. I think it was a little bit more bird-dogging, door-stepping journalism and jokes to explain healthcare.
I open the show saying: Health care in America is like a bad ex. You know the one who never treated you right, but you'll still call in an emergency. And I kind of winked at the camera and it was very clearly a sexual joke. And that got on television. So that was fun.
And we did a fake pharma ad, which was also fun considering that news outlets like MSNBC, and many others, heavily rely on pharmaceutical ads to support them.
VFD: How did that come together? Did you pitch it?
Francesca Fiorentini: No, so MSNBC – or NBC – has a long form unit that used to be called Peacock. Now Peacock is a streaming service. So they did reach out to me and had this idea for a show called “Red, White and Who” and it would be a deep dive, hour long show like “United Shades of America” with W. Kamau Bell on CNN. And yeah, we decided that healthcare would be the thing.
I mean, looking back, should it have been on immigration or neo nazis? I don't know. Healthcare is not the sexiest topic, but it was very fun and enlightening for me, personally. And yeah, it came together like that. They wanted my input and they wanted my voice, which is always exciting when a news outlet is like: Oh, no, we like you. Like: are you sure you don't want me to be someone else? Because I have worked in many places where they're like: Oh, we love you for you. And then you see the final edit and they're like: Oh, you know the parts were you were there. Yeah, we edited that out. Can you just do this narration?
My all-time biggest pet peeve is when people give me line reads for literally anything. It's like: I'm not an actor. But I feel like when you're a news host you are an actor. But I hate line reads. And I hate when someone's like: could you just be more dramatic? So every voiceover sounds like this?
VFD: So you have no ambitions of being the morning show Breakfast host of your local television program?
Francesca Fiorentini: I don't. But I am a morning person. But you have to be too optimistic in the morning. I'd like to be silly and upbeat but also deeply cynical. And somehow for people in the morning… you don't get cynical until about one o’clock.
VFD: Yeah. Well, I guess it's personal.
Francesca Fiorentini: I wake up cynical, but I don't know. I could do radio in the morning. I feel like that's something I could do.
VFD: Throughout the last seven or eight years – and with Trump - how did that impact the production of the content you were making and the things you were saying and doing? I was in media in that period of time as well and I felt like I was repeating myself again and again and again. I don’t know if you felt that way too. But you're just like: Oh, it's this story. Again. It's one of six stories that's either about immigration, or Trump is lying, or the internet's a hellhole now, or billionaires are very wealthy.
Francesca Fiorentini: Yeah.
VFD: And that was kind of it.
Francesca Fiorentini: Well…
I think that's where the comedy comes in. And also, that's where the weekly content comes in. When it's a weekly show you can do more deep dives, you have a little bit more time, and you stay above the fray of the every-day outrage cycle. At the same time, you're gonna get fewer clicks. And so it's just a little bit more niche and there's a trade-off there.
I did a two-part series on how the North American Free Trade Agreement works. And I did it with jokes. I'm not ashamed of that. I'm not saying we did the best, but I'm definitely not ashamed of it. But yeah, it's just nicer when you're not constantly pumping out stuff because again, it feels like what you said before: you’re the old man telling the same story over and over again. People are like: Yeah, you said this on Tuesday of last week!
But when you do have more time with things you can do things. We looked at how we misunderstand the economy, – like if the economy is doing great, why aren't we? That was a question we asked which was very relevant during COVID as well. It's like, why is the stock market doing so good yet my entire family is dying and I don't have work?
And so when you can do those deep dives and be like: The stock market is not actually connected to the wellbeing of people. And the GDP is not connected to quality of life. And all of these things are random arbiters that unless you're a hedge fund manager do not affect your life. And unemployment rates are often undercounted and only apply to people who are searching for employment and it doesn't if you're part time employed – so like all gig workers.
That kind of stuff, I think, keeps you going when you can find a unique angle. And I think doing comedy helps you find a unique angle. It’s also doing something that is quality over quantity. That's why if you're reading this you probably don't know who I am. Because I am about quality. Not quantity.
VFD: It's a nice position to be in. Did you ever have a churning kind of job?
Francesca Fiorentini: I've never had a churning job. I'm too… I'm not lazy, but I value life. I've never had a “put out a daily show” job. I'm not saying I would rule it out, but you need a lot of support in order to pull that off. I think that sadly the internet realms that I have been in are also (fun fact!) underfunded. And there's no unions in them. So we generally get taken advantage of.
I've always been pretty good at pushing back on stuff like: Hey, just do the ice bucket challenge for YouTube! And it's like: no… you do that boss.
VFD: Man, every time I think of the Ice Bucket Challenge, and all those mid-2010s meme challenges, it's like an era of the internet that is not coming back and can never come back because we've now decided that the internet is bad and we use it to say bad things.
Francesca Fiorentini: Yeah no, you cant spread good. No, not at all. I know it was for ALS though, so that was good. Remember that?
VFD: Yeah. I remember Trump did it too. Or Trump paid someone else to do it or something like that. He did a thing like: I'm gonna give $1,000 to this stranger to do the ice bucket challenge.
Francesca Fiorentini: I mean, I do think the best thing left on the internet is obviously on TikTok.
VFD: Yeah, I'm a big fan.
Francesca Fiorentini: Their spirit hasn't totally been crushed. They're dancing for a reason. Probably because they don't get hangovers. Like, kids don't get hangovers. I'd be dancing too.
VFD: Are you on TikTok?
Francesca Fiorentini: No. I mean, yes, but poorly.
VFD: Why not? I think there's definitely a niche.
Francesca Fiorentini: I'm an idiot, obviously. I mean, you should get on TikTok. I know Sarah Cooper, who was doing the lip synching to Trump's speeches, and she's great. And she blew up and good for her. So I don't know.
Francesca Fiorentini: Here's the problem with all that: you do one video and it takes you three hours. Like, I could write a script in that time.
VFD: It's pretty cool. I remember two and a half years ago I was on TikTok because it was kind of gross and weird. And I was writing about it. Like: why's this thing that is mainly full of subcultures that are usually on the darker, underbelly of the internet now becoming a multi-billion dollar platform. And I was messing around with it. And I started a news show that I called The Daily News of the Day Today, which was literally just me recording myself for two minutes being like: and this happened and this happened and this happened.
It started doing pretty OK and then I just quit. It's one of my biggest regrets, maybe in my life, that I quit doing it at a period right before TikTok was blowing up. And I think about it once a week, at least.
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh my god, the daily news of the day today. I like that.
VFD: It worked. Oh well. Anyway.
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh god, that's so frustrating.
VFD: Yeah. Did you grow up in the US?
Francesca Fiorentini: I did. I grew up in California in the Bay Area.
VFD: In the Bay Area?
Francesca Fiorentini: San Francisco.
VFD: What was that like?
Francesca Fiorentini: Fuckin…. suburbs? ‘Burbie. Yeah. ‘Burbie and liberal. Liberal, bubbly, and like everything's moving in the right direction. And the sky is the limit. And we will live in a commune of interracial harmony. That sounds like I was part of the Manson Cults, but I wasn't.
After all that I went to school undergrad at NYU in 2001. I don't know if you know anything about September of 2001. But one: it was my 18th birthday. So big news. And the day after my 18th birthday, 9/11 happened. And so… that’s just a big downer. But no, it completely shaped my life, and changed my life, and popped that liberal bubble right quick. Which I think is very important for all liberals to have their bubble popped.
VFD: How did that happened, then? Well not how did that happen
Francesca Fiorentini: How did they pull off the hijacking?
VFD: Oh god,
Francesca Fiorentini: I don't know. Yeah, honestly. Still have questions. Ahaha..
VFD: No no no no, like: Obviously there was a moment, but then what did you decide to do from there?
Francesca Fiorentini: Well, look: when Bush was “elected” – I think for those of us who couldn't vote yet, but who were on the precipice of voting, or for whom it was their first election, it was quite quite politicising. Because it was so clear that this person had strong armed his way, cheated his way, Supreme Courted his way, stopped recounting the votes in Florida, in his way. And then 9/11 happens and you've got what amounts to a bumbling idiot of a presidency turned into this overnight, screeching emblem of xenophobia and bigotry.
And it's like: oh, OK, here we are, again. Now we're invading one… two countries. And that's a huge wake-up call for someone who is 18 years old and who thinks that things are heading in a peaceful direction in your country.
So I got involved in on-campus, anti war organising. We did everything from teachings to going down to DC all the time, and at the same time I had a Marxist professor, freshman year of school, who blew my mind. And of course they understood how capitalism fails in so many ways when it comes to health care, the climate, policing, etc. Like all the things.
I just became very open to that. And so that's how I became an activist. And, y’know, my undergrad was filled with demonstrations and fun little actions, and die-ins and all that good stuff. We made the career of a few journalists who were covering all of what we did. I was like: You should thank us for this. We're giving you something to write about.
So yeah, that's what turned me on also to left-media and alternative media, which used to feel a lot nicer. Now it feels like I'm about to scream “fake news” at you. But back in the day it was like: Oh, it's democracy now. And that's it.
I think that was really interesting in my lifetime and political trajectory.
Tracing from the Iraq War, when pretty much everyone was beating the drums of war at that time and uncritically putting Generals on television, talking about not if we should invade Iraq, but how we would invade Iraq, and what the strategy is.
The only people that were saying anything about it was, like, Jon Stewart.
A comedy show.
And that was incredibly influential in my life, and I think a lot of young people's lives (I’m now ageing out of being a young person). But that it took a comedy show to point out how fucking preposterous this was. And sometimes that's what you need. You need someone who gives no fucks, who doesn't need access, who doesn't want access, so doesn't play access journalism, and someone who's there to skewer stuff, and I think Jon Stewart did that when it came to the war. At a time when, like, Phil Donahue was getting fired for his lightweight opinions about it.
So fast-forward 20 years and you're in a whole new ballgame when it comes to the amount of alternative media and the amount of websites that are actually discussing issues and criticising US military power. Even mainstream news, I think, feels more comfortable doing it. So thank you, George Bush, y’know what I mean?
VFD: He had an impact. At the very least he had impact, right?
Francesca Fiorentini: Yeah.
VFD: So you've been online for a while then - and particularly the last four or five years. Have you noticed a change in the way audiences react to what you put out there?
Francesca Fiorentini: Me personally?
Francesca Fiorentini: That's a good question. I think that especially, and AJ+ had a hand in this, but I think a lot of early Facebook video adopters and a lot of folks who just got on the viral news train very early have shaped the way people think about things more so than they will admit.
And, of course, Zuckerberg is a prime example of someone who does not admit just to the extent to which his platform shapes people's opinions. But really, if you want to get people to watch your stuff, what I would always say is: laugh, cry, or vomit in the first three seconds. And that's it. Like, you must do that.
And so I think we've trained - and this is not about Newsbroke. I mean, God, we did 10 minute deep dives… I did a whole thing on anti-intellectual-ism. Like why does the right hate college? Why is college overpriced, etc.
And I tried to steer away from this, but I do think that we have trained audiences online to be reactive. And we reward outrage. Outrage is rewarded, and strong reactions are rewarded. And I think media companies have trained that because the algorithm demands that, right? Because you're vying for attention spans and the net of that isn't that good.
But I think, for me personally, one thing that I think gets rewarded a lot – especially if you're a progressive or if you consider yourself on the left – is just endless cynicism and attacking. If you attack others, if you tear people down, people love that. They want to see you fight, they want to see drama. And they also want to see a throw-in-the towel cynicism that ultimately leads to: Francesca Fiorentini is the truth and everyone else who isn't named Francesca Fiorentini is lying to you right now, and only listen to me, and check out my patreon.com!
And you have to sell people that your version of the truth is the truth, and that's how you get ahead, and it's very sick. I think that's sort of where I get pushback. Like, how come you're not more Orthodox? O why are you more open-minded? Or why are you asking more questions than you're answering? Because people again love “just make me feel bad” internet. Oh, just make me feel like there's no hope. And I don't do that. My hope is, I think, to inform and to entertain – always.
Francesca Fiorentini: And to get people to ask questions that they've never asked themselves before and to think thoughts they never thought before. Not think the same shit all the time.
VFD: So then what are you working on next?
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh dude, I’m fuckin…
VFD: Other than linking your website and making sure that’s working.
Francesca Fiorentini: I’m getting back into the swing of getting out of quarantine. So it's trying to do stand up shows and feel alive. It’s like those little duckies running in that carnival race. So I have to squirt the “stand up” ducky, and then I squirt the “news” ducky, and then I squirt the “life/personal” ducky, and they’re all competing to get to the finish line, which is my grave.
I'm very hopeful and optimistic that either Newsbroke will come back or that it'll live again in another iteration. Or that there will be more opportunities like “Last Week Tonight” in more places where people can straddle that world between comedy and journalism very honestly. I embrace that. I think that sometimes when John Oliver gets called on things, or Stewart, or Colbert, they'll say: Well, I'm just a comic. And I think they're a little disingenuous, because you have a research team, y’know? You have an opinion. So look, there's Paramount+, baby. I haven't pitched them on a show yet.
VFD: I think it’s TikTok. I'm serious! I know it's not a deep dive. But it could be multi parts.
Francesca Fiorentini: Oh, I think that breaking up old Newsbroke videos and sharing them on TikTok could definitely work. There's that.
But I have written a pilot. A sitcom. It’s loosely based off of my experience in online news, journalism, and television journalism, which I think is really fun. And I love the underbelly of the news world, especially the TV crew news world. Y’know, it's not about local news, but about prestige. Like we're doing a piece, we're doing a story, and it's not fake. But maybe it's a little fake.
And I also think it's interesting, in a time when so many media companies act like startups, that there's a lot of corners that are cut and not a lot of support. And so, as print journalism dies and clickbait news rises, and has been rising, there's so many hilarious things that happen. And journalistic integrity is not at the forefront. All of that is just ripe for comedy. So yeah, I hope to one day see that on a Paramount+. Something that I've written, that I know intimately about.
VFD: Alright, well, I hope that works out.
Francesca Fiorentini: Thank you. Thank you. Do you wanna… Do you wanna buy a show?
VFD: Yeah, I wish I could. If you want to just publish the transcripts of every episode we could work out something.
Francesca Fiorentini: We could do live reads.