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Is David Simon a genius? Creator of 'The Wire' talks about winning a MacArthur Fellowship

September 28, 2010 |  6:05 am

Davidsimon Proof that television makes you smarter: David Simon, the rabble-rousing creator of "The Wire" and "Treme," just won the "genius grant."

This morning, the MacArthur Foundation announced that it had awarded a fellowship to Simon, who shares the honor with some pretty high-brow company, including a quantum astrophysicist and a computer security scientist. Each recipient will get $500,000 in “no strings attached” support over the next five years. Which got us wondering: How will Simon spend all that money? Seriously, think about what Stringer Bell could've done with that check!

We talked to Simon about future projects he'd like to kickstart, charities he'd like to fund, and why he thinks that, genuis grant or no genius grant, TV writers will never change the world.  

Congrats on winning the MacArthur grant. What will you do with the $500,000?

I’m obviously in an industry that pays well, and I’m on contract with HBO, so the money is not the most meaningful part of the fellowship. My only caveat is that the vice president of the foundation told me to shut up and think about it before I said anything, because I might not always be working for HBO. I might want to pursue something that has minimal commercial value, and funding in that case might be more relevant. But my first inclination is to do something charitable.

If you did put it toward charity, which ones would you invest in?

I’ve been associated with Ella Thompson Fund of the Parks and People Assn. of Baltimore since I did The Corner. It’s an inner-city social program for kids, and Ella Thompson is a character in The Corner who has passed away. She was a very good soul who did a lot of good work. There’s a couple of other scholarships we’ve started, one at the University of Maryland in the name of my partner David Mills, who died tragically. Beyond that, I haven’t really thought about it.

What will this grant help you to do that you couldn’t do before?

The television that we’ve been involved with in the past decade is not the most commercially viable stuff. If the currency of Hollywood is Nielsen ratings and Emmys, I’ve managed to deliver very little to HBO, and they’ve been kind enough to continue to sponsor this storytelling in part because of the dialectic it creates on the op-ed page. But having the MacArthur Foundation's stamp of approval makes it easier to argue for other stories that might not otherwise get told by the entertainment industry. That’s very valuable.

What projects will you pursue now that you have the funds?

There’s a project that [The Wire co-creator] Ed Burns wants to do that reflects on the 1880 Haymarket bombing in Chicago, which was an elemental point in terms of capital and labor in our society. There’s a book I’m working on with [longtime Simon collaborator] Bill Zorzi about the drug economy of Baltimore in the '50s and '60s. We’re trying to reach as many of the surviving players before they pass on. I’m working with Ed and [Baltimore Sun reporter] Dan Fesperman on beating out scripts for the history of the CIA from 1947 on. That’s a longterm project. This grant may enable me to hold onto writers for projects that aren’t greenlit yet.  

How does it feel to win a “genius” grant? Do you know who you were up against?

Well, one thing I should say is, all this television work over the last decade, it’s not one guy with a typewriter. I feel a little bit awkward about that. And I feel even more awkward about the fact that I’ve looked at past years’ lists and there are people contending with fundamental environmental issues and trying to deal with socioeconomic inequality -- real tangible, make-the-world-better stuff. So while I value storytelling, I feel a little bit of nagging notion of shame pulling on my shirtsleeve.

You don’t believe that television shows like "The Wire" can influence public opinion or public policy in a tangible way?

Put it this way: One thing we were explicit about with "The Wire" was that the drug war was a total amoral fraud that mutated into an abusive campaign against America’s underclass, and that it needed to end. Now, the drug war is no closer to ending than it was when we started the series. And I don’t expect that we’re ever going to get there. But you can’t go into it thinking you’re going to change anything; you have to go into it based on the story itself. I don’t know if I have the power to change things. I think that’s above my pay grade. Or below it, as the case may be.

--Melissa Maerz

Photo: David Simon on the set of "Treme." Credit: Cheryl Gerber/Associated Press.

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