John Jeffcoat '94

First Person - Fall 2010

Filmmaker John Jeffcoat looked at the controversial phenomenon of job outsourcing and saw a vehicle for comedy and cross-cultural storytelling. Apparently, so did NBC.

The writer-director’s 2006 romantic comedy Outsourced, about a call center manager who loses his job and must travel to India to train his own replacement, spawned a new half-hour comedy series that debuted this fall on Thursday nights after The Office.

NBC’s Outsourced moves the call center from the film’s rural India setting to an office building in bustling Mumbai, where several other international call centers also have offices. Jeffcoat, who co-wrote the pilot and acts as a consulting producer on the show, says it’s a “great sandbox” for a global workplace comedy with an international cast. He spoke to Denison Magazine about Outsourced, the controversies that surround it, and the creative inspiration he found while studying abroad.

The way the whole movie storyline and characters came to life was largely due to my experience of leaving Denison for a semester abroad in Nepal. I was in a cultural immersion program, where I lived in very remote villages and studied the language and had in-depth cultural training … Almost everything that happens to “Todd” in the film, happened to me at one point or another in my travels. Coming back to the states after an experience like that, you can’t help but see everything you do in a slightly different light.

After we made the film, TV director Ken Kwapis of The Office said, “Have you ever considered adapting it as a TV show?” And that was the first time [co-writer] George Wing and I had ever thought about it. At the time, we thought, “Hell, we could use a Writers Guild payment because we’re going to lose our insurance. Might as well try TV.”

We always wished that a studio would have gotten behind a movie the way NBC has gotten behind the show. It was hard getting the film made and creating it with a large cast of relative unknowns.

When you’re dealing with an issue like outsourcing, there’s going to be a lot of controversy. A lot of people were up in arms about the movie. They thought we’d be poking fun at people losing their jobs, and that’s not the case.

I think comedy has a great ability to tear down barriers and Outsourced is no different. One of the best ways to attack a difficult subject is with comedy. It makes it much more palatable. Comedy allows both sides to explore a topic without either side feeling like it’s being attacked.

When writing the movie, George and I had to figure this out: What is our stance on outsourcing? I didn’t want it to be a political film. I didn’t just want it to be about outsourcing. I wanted it to be about these characters and their relationships and the journey that Todd goes through. We broke it down in very simple terms and asked, why is outsourcing happening?

The answer, of course, is that corporations are looking to make a profit. How do you make a profit? By selling more products. How do you sell more products? Cheaper prices. We, as consumers–by shopping at Walmart or seeking out the cheapest prices– are feeding this phenomenon.

We wrote the movie for Americans and didn’t worry about the Indian audience. So to have Indians come up to us after seeing the movie and say, “Where’s the Indian? Who’s the guy who really wrote this movie?” That was one of the best compliments we could get.

Who knows? After these next two films that I’m working on–one is a global backpacking adventure and the other documents an American band trying to make it in Japan–maybe I’ll want to make a film that takes place all in one room, in a building one block from my house.

Published November 2010