The Skeptic Next Door: Jarrett Kaufman

People are often talking about things they are grateful for. You often will hear people say, I feel ‘blessed’ for having certain things in my life and they often times attribute these blessings to the work of a supernatural god or the will of some grand universal energy source. I don’t think you need any magic to find that sense of wonder. It is all around you if you look for it. It is in science and nature and it is in the minds of people standing right next to you at the grocery store or maybe even at Best Buy. With that idea in mind I bring you another edition of, The Skeptic Next Door. Allow me to introduce the entertaining and inspiring, Mr. Jarret Kaufman.
Jarrett Kaufman

Click below to read the interview and to learn about Mr. Kaufman, Mr. Deity, Diego Rivera and more!

1.What do you do for a living? What do you do for fun?
Interesting that you posed those questions together, as the two have sort of flipped in the last five years or so. I spent the majority of my life (since the age of four) as a professional actor, working in a pretty wide range of commercials, television series, films, and voiceovers and doing relatively well for myself. As I got older I reached the transition age (kid/teenager to adult roles), which is already a make-or-break time for any career, but mine hit alongside the huge Screen Actors Guild strike, the big surge of reality television cutting down on time slots for scripted television, and the shift of a lot of the filming and casting to places like Canada. It was bad, I had more than just myself to support, and I started taking more regular non-acting work. My last professional job (Entourage) was in 2005, and I had to focus on a “real” job.

That’s when I swapped my computer hobby into my career and started working in IT. It was initially side work, but I eventually went professional and now I do outsourced network and computer support for small to medium sized businesses. It puts me in a wide variety of environments, from one-person offices to major companies. Right now I’m doing part-time work at Current TV, which is a truly fantastic experience, as the people genuinely kind and creative and treat me with a lot of respect. And I think it’s the last stop for true journalism on television. Anyway, the work feeds my interest in technology and also provides an outlet for it. All that said, I’d go back to acting without skipping a beat if it could support me.

2. What first got you interested in skepticism?
I know it’s cliched to say it now, but I was arguably always one, even if I didn’t realize it. I was the kid who hit Reply All on the e-mail forwards and pointed out all the logical flaws in the message to the entire group. Snopes was my playground. And learning the truth behind things we took for granted was a lot of fun. Made me feel like I knew something nobody else did.

Arguably my first obvious notice of “real” skepticism was Penn & Teller: Bullshit on Showtime. I found the show one day, and as a fan of Penn jarrett& Teller (I had the fortune of working with Penn on an episode of Lois & Clark as a kid) I knew I had to watch it. And right off the bat I was amazed by the topics they covered. Some were obvious, like psychics, but taken from perspectives I hadn’t considered at the time. Others hit closer to home, making me question some of the pre-conceived notions I had about things like alternative medicine (something I had been raised with and accepted as fact). But the more I looked at the thinking process, the more I realized how important it was that I let go of assumptions and be willing to accept when something I was happy to believe is actually wrong.

It wasn’t until a few years ago when I got my Zune for my birthday (seriously, I love my Zune, so no snide remarks!) that I paid any attention to podcasts. I’d heard of them, but had only a vague idea of the concept. The Zune made finding and accessing podcasts really easy, and the first things I looked for were sci-fi podcasts and science podcasts. And right at the top of the science section was the Skeptics Guide to the Universe. This is where having heard the word “skeptic” on Bullshit came in handy, and I was immediately interested and subscribed. I was definitely hooked right away by the engaging and well-rounded Rogues, recognized names and concepts from Bullshit, and I quickly made it a regular show I listened to. I very slowly branched out to other podcasts (Skeptoid, Skepticality, and now For Good Reason and Point of Inquiry, among others), and started subscribing to blogs and really paid attention to the whole deal, figuring out that it was exactly what I was supposed to be involved in. Then Rebecca Watson spent what seemed like half an episode talking about Twitter which finally talked me into giving it a fair go, and that was the extra boost I needed to start feeling like I was personally connected, since I could now directly interact with the people I knew about in a non-invasive and open way. That changed everything.

3. You told me that you were first introduced to atheist concepts by your grandfather who was friends with Diego Rivera. Could you explain that relationship and how it was influential to you?

Well, I was always an atheist, as my mother was, so I had no real concept of belief. My maternal grandfather, Joe Kaufman, was also an atheist, and I can only assume that’s where my mother’s lack of belief originated as well. But more than just the atheism, he’s probably the reason I was innately skeptical to begin with. He never took anything for granted, and was always the type to write letters to the editor Jarrett(and get personal responses back), correcting mistakes and injustice whenever and wherever he could. He was an activist, but the type who used words and civility as his weapons, and he wielded them deftly.

He was also, back in the day, an unashamed socialist and he and my grandmother helped found the AFL-CIO. He used to attend labor meetings with Diego Rivera, meeting with him and others while the famous Rockefeller Center mural was being painted. He was personal friends with Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and if I’m not mistaken my mother still has a copper bracelet he made for my grandmother. It’s quite a legacy and one I’m very proud of. Regardless of where things have gone and one’s own politics (even my own, which aren’t necessarily the same), it’s one of the reasons a small shudder goes through me whenever the word “socialist” is used as an epithet. They were working hard to help people via the means they felt were their best option at the time to protect them from those who would take advantage. Arguably one of the very goals we strive for as a movement.

When I was a kid he made it clear to me that one of the most important phrases I could ever live by was “how do you know?” He warned me that I risked as a kid sounding “fresh” if I asked it of my elders, but I always needed to keep it in mind when evaluating anything I was told. It didn’t mean as much to me as a kid, but as I grew up I paid more attention to it, and that’s the foundation I built off of once I found my way to skepticism, realizing this was exactly what he meant.

4. You work on the widely popular, Mr. Deity Show. Could you tell us a little bit about the show, how you got involved and what specifically you do on the show?
Mr. Deity, for those who don’t know, is a satirical web series about the creator of the universe. He’s essentially Yahweh (occasionally referred to as “El” in the show, short for Elohim), but a self-centered, inept, downright childish version, and pretty much one of the few possible ways this type of god could actually make sense given the world in which we live. Brian Dalton, the creator, writer, and actor who plays Mr. Deity can and should tell the story better of how he created the show, but in short it was the Sri Lankan tsunami that got him trying to figure out what kind of god was okay with a disaster like that. Anyway, the show is deeply, deeply witty, and the majority of the series takes a direct look at genuine absurdity throughout the bible or religion in general, poking fun at it in clever ways (although some episodes are just funny for the sake of funny, without necessarily making a point).

I got involved by pure luck. I was a fan of the show ever since I found it on StumbleUpon, and then one day I stumbled upon Brian himself in a Best Buy. It’s not every day you turn around and find God standing in the printer aisle. I quickly went up to him and did my best not to terrify him by going all fanboy, but he was quite nice and receptive and we communicated via e-mail for a while before my acting background came up, he checked out my work, and cast me in the show. Quite literally a dream come true, as I had always been mildly depressed that this brilliant show was going on that I could never, ever be a part of. And now I am.

As for my character, I play Timmy, the head of Research & Development for, well, I guess the entire universe. It’s a relatively good gig for Timmy, but there’s a lot of overtime, he’s often a scapegoat, and he has to clean up the Deity’s messes and misunderstandings of his own orders. I purposefully played my character as someone who knows what he has to do to deal with a clueless jerk of a boss, but also knows he’s valuable enough that he doesn’t have to take too much crap. I get to do a lot of improvisation and input on my character, so I really get to make it my own. Outside of the semi-regulars (Larry, Lucy [Lucifer], and Jesse [Jesus]), I’m actually the first-ever recurring role on the show, which is a huge kick in the pants. I’ve done three episodes so far, and word is I’ll definitely be in the next season. Season 3, which just wrapped up with a cliffhanger that actually won’t be resolved until season 5, will be on DVD soon, and we just recorded the commentary for it. You’ll definitely want to check it out.

(For those of you who aren’t familiar with Mr. Deity, here is episode numero uno. Jarrett isn’t in this episode but it is quite awesome and gives you a feel for what the series is all about!)

5. Are you going to TAM this year?
I couldn’t be happier to say that yes, I am, finally!

Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with us Jarrett! You are a great guy and a blast to be around. I definitely look forward to seeing you at TAM!

Amy Roth

Amy Davis Roth (aka Surly Amy) is a multimedia, science-loving artist who resides in Los Angeles, California. She makes Surly-Ramics and is currently in love with pottery. Daily maker of art and leader of Mad Art Lab. Support her on Patreon. Tip Jar is here.

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  1. Have had a couple of wines and kind of spaced out after just returning from a great week with my sisters in Puerto Vallarta….BUT, you are a second or third generation atheist which gives me hope for my second generation atheist children. My singular worry is their lack of knowledge of biblical references in literature. My second son just left for a summer school class in organic chemistry in Boston and asked me if he could take my copies of Carl Sagan’s ” Science as a Candle in the Dark” and Michael Schermer’s “Why People Believe Weird Things.” May he continue to pass the word!!!!

  2. @helenrizzo: PV is amazing! I went in April. Also, it’s always nice to hear about next-gen atheists. It will be such a different experience than the one I, and many others, had.

    I was homeschooled, and my mother had these “Cultural Literacy” books aimed at making sure kids knew the appropriate references. I think we had one for each of the upper elementary grades. A possible solution for common biblical references? A quick amazon search yielded this:

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