When I think of all of the television shows I grew up watching, Degrassi is one TV show that definitely sticks out in my mind. Degrassi Junior High (1987-1989) and Degrassi High (1989-1992) left a lasting impression me, so much so, that I shared my love for the Canadian teen shows with my own daughter Michala (16).
I loved keeping up with the characters’ stories (my favorites were Spike, Snake, and Joey) and the issues featured in the show were very relatable. Also, the diversity of the characters was something else that really set the show apart from other teen soap operas.
Sure, I loved Beverly Hills, 90210, but let’s be real – there weren’t many people of color featured in the show. Degrassi, on the other hand, featured characters of different cultures, characters with disabilities, and characters of various socioeconomic backgrounds. It was a TV show that I felt I could identify with, other than of course it took place in Canada.
As years passed and I became a mother, the Degrassi series was still on television with a new generation. I remember one evening stumbling upon it while I was looking for a show to watch on Amazon Prime.
Degrassi Junior High flashed on the TV screen and instantly, I was taken back to my childhood. I searched through the Degrassi section and discovered Degrassi High, Degrassi: The Next Generation (2001-2009) and Degrassi (2010-2015). I had to show Michala!
I introduced Michala to the Degrassi series and she fell hard for the show just like I did many years ago. We spent many late nights having a Degrassi marathon to catch up on the shows so we could begin watching the current show Degrassi: Next Class.
It’s not just about watching a favorite TV show, though. What makes Degrassi so special for us is that Michala and I can actually talk about the issues on each show and discuss how it relates to real life. It gives me the opportunity to discuss tough subjects with my teen daughter, such as alcohol and drug abuse, gay rights, sex, mental health, and relationship issues.
That’s what made Degrassi so special when I was teen and even today during Michala’s teenage years. It’s a television show that is not only enjoyable to watch, but Degrassi also deals with the hard stuff – letting teens know they’re not alone. And for parents, Degrassi is an amazing tool that can help us reach out to our teens and connect with them in so many ways.
A couple of weeks ago, I was invited to interview Stephen Stohn, a highly regarded Canadian entertainment lawyer who is probably best known as executive producer of the various Degrassi television series. In an email interview with Stephen, he shared with me his thoughts on his new book, with Juno award-winning songwriter Christopher Ward, Whatever It Takes: Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television. I also asked Stephen a few questions about the Degrassi franchise.
I hope you like the interview. Let me know your thoughts on my interview with Stephen Stohn or share with me what you love about the Degrassi series!
Good Life Detroit: Can you tell me a little bit about your new book Whatever It Takes: Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television?
Stephen Stohn: You might think that this is a book of stories from my nearly fifty years behind-the-scenes in the entertainment world. And well yes, that’s true—I’ve been blessed to work closely with a series of very talented people, in Degrassi and elsewhere, who have gone on to become household names. But at the risk of sounding overly grand: I think of Whatever It Takes more as a “self-help book” for those of us who want to work on becoming better human beings. In the book, I tried to look at “success” from different angles, and hopefully offer some fresh insights into what success is, and how to achieve it.
GLD: What made you decide to write Whatever It Takes?
Stephen Stohn: A number of years ago Linda [my wife Linda Schuyler] 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, rehearsing in a pink palace, 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.
GLD: Degrassi is a TV show that I actually grew up watching when I was a teenager. Now, my own teen daughter watches the show. That is one of the many things I love about Degrassi. Despite the changes in our generations, Degrassi still produces relevant content for adolescent youth. Why do you think featuring relevant life topics on TV shows for youth is so important?
Stephen Stohn: The adolescent years are unique in our lifetimes, with one foot in childhood and the other foot in adulthood. That lends itself to great drama on the screen, but of course, that is because the teenage years are essentially very dramatic in real life. It’s easy to get overwhelmed. What we’ve tried to do is take a bit of the “whelm” out of those years, by offering entertaining stories that don’t try to preach what is right or wrong, but nevertheless deal with very important issues
There are two “secret themes” behind every Degrassi episode. The first is “You are not alone;” meaning, we are trying to reassure teenagers that no matter how much they might feel that they are the only ones who are having to deal with their particular problem or issue, there are actually many others around the world who are also feeling the same. And at the same time, there are people you can turn to, to talk about it, whether it’s parents or teachers or friends; that truly you are not alone. The second theme is that even though you are young, you are empowered, and in particular you have the power to make choices. But every choice has a consequence. We don’t try to come out and say “this is the right choice” or “that’s the wrong choice”, that would be us imposing on them. But our stories do show that every choice has consequences.
GLD: Following up on my previous question, Degrassi is also a television show parents can watch with their children. It produces great talking points for families to discuss together. Have you had many parents share their experiences with you about how the show has helped them talk to their teen(s) about a sensitive subject?
Stephen Stohn: We have a book that Linda keeps behind her desk that’s called “Why we make Degrassi.” It’s filled with letters and emails from viewers, about what the show has meant to them. A lot of them from younger viewers express thanks for helping them through difficult times—and we really appreciate those. But the ones from parents resonate really strongly too, a lot of them express thanks for making it easy to start a deep discussion with their children about topics that normally would be very difficult to discuss. Linda particularly loves those letters because she was a school teacher for eight years before creating Degrassi, and it was a desire to spark discussion that really drove her.
GLD: Degrassi has often times discussed mental health issues. Well, first I want to say thank you to you and the Degrassi team for talking about mental health. I have an anxiety disorder and my older son has a mood disorder. As a parent, it makes me happy to see teen shows which discuss this very important issue. Can you tell me a little bit about why you feel discussing mental health issues is important to feature in a teen show like Degrassi?
Stephen Stohn: It wasn’t that many years ago that mental health wasn’t something that people felt comfortable talking about. It STILL isn’t something that’s easy to talk about for most people, but it’s becoming a bit easier. People are comfortable talking about physical ailments and issues, and if we approach our thinking about mental health in the same way we think about physical health, it becomes less awkward. By depicting mental health in Degrassi, we’re trying to help remove the stigma. Mental health problems surround us; almost all families have someone who has mental health problems, even the families who look “perfect” to outsiders. If we can talk about it more—whether in a television show or in real life—it will encourage those who are suffering to feel better about talking themselves and to know that help is available.
PS—good for you for talking about it!
GLD: Another issue that has been featured on the show is sexual assault and sexual harassment. How does Degrassi fit into the #MeToo movement?
Stephen Stohn: 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.
GLD: What is your favorite Degrassi episode of all time, and why?
Stephen Stohn: Episodes are kind of like children, it somehow seems unfair to like one more than another! Having said that, there are definitely some episodes that are my least favourite. We look back at some of the very early episodes where some of the plotlines were weak—like Toby overdosing on laxatives to help him become a better wrestler—which today make us either laugh or cringe.
Definitely one personal high point was the very first episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation, where Emma faces real danger from an Internet stalker — the same Emma who had been born to Spike while Spike was still in Grade 7 back in Degrassi Junior High. And then a least favourite episode years later involved that same Emma marrying Spinner during a drunken night. I still can’t believe how I let the writers do that! I must have been asleep at the switch, it just made no sense!
But overall probably the “Time Stands Still” episode that I devote a chapter to in the book is one of the best. It involves a school shooting—with one character dying, and another being shot and ending up in a wheelchair for life (that character, of course, was Jimmy, played by the performer now known as Drake!) It wasn’t just the shooting, it was the entire environment of what has been called “the bully, the bullied, and the bystanders” and it has just as much relevance today in the era of the #MeToo movement as it did back in 2004 when we filmed it.
GLD: Why has Degrassi survived and thrived through so many different eras of TV?
Stephen Stohn: Linda always kicks me under the table when I answer questions like this because I always credit luck, and that drives her crazy because she knows how hard we’ve worked. This isn’t me being overly humble as Canadians are prone to be, I genuinely believe it. Yes, I think Linda had a great idea forty years ago, and yes I think we’ve been bright and talented, and we’ve worked extremely hard and surrounded ourselves with amazingly talented people, but the entertainment world is like a roulette wheel—in the end, there’s a huge amount of luck involved. All those things like working hard and so on have increased our odds of success, but in the end, the wheel spins and you just hope it lands on your number.
There’s a chapter in the book which reveals for the first time how Degrassi was actually cancelled nearly a decade ago, and we managed to pull it out of the fire and even double our production without anyone ever knowing that we’d been actually cancelled. You can credit us with being very astute and hard working to pull that off, and I’ll accept that credit, but the fact is a lot of outside factors fell into place for us without which we never could have pulled it off. So I say we’ve been lucky, and count my blessings every day!
GLD: You’re also an entertainment lawyer. For readers who are not familiar with this type of career, can you briefly explain what an entertainment lawyer does?
Stephen Stohn: I’m not a courtroom lawyer, in fact, there’s a quite funny chapter in the book that explains why I’m not! Really what I do as an entertainment lawyer is negotiate agreements on behalf of actors, performers, songwriters, producers—really anyone involved in the creative process—to help them move their projects and their careers along.
GLD: As an entertainment lawyer, you’ve worked with some extraordinary women artists. (You chronicle your work with k.d. lang, Margo Timmins and the Cowboy Junkies and Alannah Myles in particular.) Aside from contract negotiation what was your role as their lawyer, and often their first contact with the wider world of the music business?
Stephen Stohn: You might think that being a lawyer for an artist is just negotiating to get the highest possible money up front. But that often isn’t what is most important. So much is about working with the artists to figure out what their real goals are and then trying to shape the business arrangements to give the biggest possible boost to those goals. One of the chapters in the book I like the best details how we secured the first big record deal for Cowboy Junkies—I sent them off after our first meeting to come back with what their ideal goals would be, but when they returned they still weren’t entirely clear. What they said they DIDN’T want was a recording deal because they felt they would lose control over their creative process.
We kept working it through until they realized that their actual goal had nothing to do with whether or not they had a recording deal, but rather they wanted to be able to produce records with complete creative control. That was the breakthrough, and it had nothing to do with the law, or power negotiating, just being crystal clear on what you truly want. When I told them that we might be able to secure that for them, they didn’t believe me (and they were right in the sense that record companies rarely allow first-time artists creative control) but I said we can’t find out until we try. It’s a nice story with a lot of twists and turns, but cutting to the chase: we secured a deal for them with RCA Records which gave them complete creative control. In fact, the first album released was produced by them in a single day over a single microphone. It was called The Trinity Session. It was the way they wanted it, and it sold three million copies.
And cherry on top: because their recording costs were virtually nil, and their royalty rate was high, they made far more money than they would have made in a typical deal negotiated in the typical way.
GLD: What do you hope readers will take away from your book Whatever It Takes: Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television?
Stephen Stohn: I hope they smile. Both because there are some fun stories in the book, but also because there is a lot of optimism in it, and I hope that translates into inspiration for the readers. There’s a chapter in it about how failure is an unacknowledged view, that it’s a necessity, and when you look back on times you’ve failed (and therefore learned), what you realize is that you were pushing yourself, and you are better for it, that in fact, failures are very often just success in disguise. That’s just one chapter but in many ways that same theme ripples throughout the book.
Thank you, Stephen, for taking the time to interview with Good Life Detroit! Stephen Stohn’s book Whatever It Takes: Life Lessons from Degrassi and Elsewhere in the World of Music and Television is available now if you’d like to purchase it. Visit the official website here for the latest news.
Feature image courtesy of Stephen Stohn.