Hollywood Executive Joe Kissack
From Seinfeld, Success & Seeking His Father’s Approval
to Three Fishermen and Life-Transforming Faith: Joe Kissack Went From Rock Bottom to Rock Solid
Written by Kelli Gillespie
Standing on the red carpet at the Emmy Awards, one would think Hollywood executive Joe Kissack was living the American Dream. He had power, wealth, and a loving family while managing the domestic sales and marketing efforts for dozens of television shows and movies, including the multi-billion dollar assets of Seinfeld. But as many quickly learn in Hollywood, images can be deceitful. Masking emptiness and insecurities with alcohol and medications, it wasn’t until Kissack hit rock bottom and was hospitalized for his addictions and suicidal depression that he finally began to better understand his story – a story that includes a complete transformation and love for Jesus Christ, and a journey that miraculously intersects with three fishermen who were rescued after being adrift at sea for nine months. Risen talked with a very open Kissack about everything from the price of success, and the pain of seeking a father’s approval, to a praying wife, an unshakable faith, and the victory in knowing that circumstances don’t define one’s spiritual story.
Interviewed Exclusively for Risen Magazine at Morgan Run Resort in Rancho Santa Fe, California
Risen Magazine: What was your childhood and family life like when you were growing up? Was working in Hollywood someday even on your radar?
Joe Kissack: It was loosely, and part of that was that my first medication was television. My first escape from the chaos in the house was in the Munsters, Gilligan’s Island and Hogan’s Heroes – those classic shows that used to run on WGN early in the afternoon. During the really, really rough times when you’re being threatened, either verbally or physically, that was kind of my happy place. It was the safe place in my mind that took me out of the moment of a beating or my parents screaming at each other. I could close that door and turn the TV up. And I was in that world instead of the reality that was going on in my house.
This really was interesting to me because when I started to get healthy, I hired a therapist and she had me write down every memory I had as a child – every single thing I could ever remember [chronologically]. We went through every single one of those memories and it was the healthiest thing I’ve probably ever done because once I got this junk out of me, I had distance from it. I encourage people to do this. I had distance from it and I had someone walking alongside me that could connect some of the dots on why things were the way that they were. It was the beginning of me understanding my own story. Then I dove deeper and deeper into that because I really wanted answers. How does a guy like me end up in this place where I am about to kill myself? It doesn’t make any sense. So we went through these memories and the saddest thing was, none of them were happy. There wasn’t one happy moment that jumped off the page or out of my memory. It made me angry and I had resentment over that, and I’ve really grown from that.
The dad of my best friend from home passed away and I had made a decision I was going to go to the funeral. I was flying there and I thought, “What if somebody asks me about Mr. Walker, what would I say?” And I started to think about him. And I started to laugh because this guy was just hilarious. I started writing stuff down and here’s what I realized, I did have happy childhood memories, they just weren’t at my house. They were across the street at my best friend’s house. After the funeral I went over to Tom’s [best friend] house and I said, “Mrs. Walker, I realized something flying up here. Do you know I was at your house almost every day for 13 years?” She said, “Yea, I know.” I didn’t realize that’s where I escaped to. The process I’m going through now of understanding my story, of why I am the way I am, why I’m driven the way I’m driven, is more than just me and my linear timeline of my life. It goes back generations and it goes off of that grid into other people’s lives. And because some of those things that were so negative were so dominant, I forgot other things. All I really needed was a little reminder and it just brought this tremendous joy to me. I think with enough searching and understanding, people can actually find that if they look hard enough. It led me to the point where I started to understand other people’s stories in my family. And I don’t have all the facts about my dad, no one will ever know. He’s never told anyone what happened to him and what made him the kind of person that walked away from every member of the family with no interest in communicating with his children, and into a man who never gave up his love affair with alcohol, which ultimately destroyed our family. I was the last one saying, “He’s our dad, we have to love him.” And my older siblings were like, “You have no idea.” Because they had it worse than I did. Even though I didn’t know what it was, and I had so much grace and mercy heaped on me, I started to say, “Oh my gosh, he doesn’t even know why he is the way he is.” It’s really not even his fault. He’s the product of an environment. The only thing I had left to do was give grace. That’s when forgiveness came, the resentment left, and the anger was gone because I took the time to understand him better. It took the sting out of the more painful moments and the power that had over me for years.
Risen Magazine: When you were younger, were you then fearful that you would turn into a version of your dad?
Joe Kissack: Yes. We take these vows, you know how it goes, “I will never _________!” I took the vows. I was a positive little guy. Mine were like, “I will always be successful. I will prove to him I am good enough even though I didn’t make all the free throws; even though I missed that last putt; even though I got a B.” Our gladiators today, aside from the football field, are people in business, that’s the new coliseum. So I set off on that track and television popped up. I could see myself becoming another version of him; that generational chain was just going to be passed down again. It creates self-loathing and confusion, because you don’t want to be that, yet that’s what you are becoming. That is at the core of the reason I was so conflicted in my life. I thought that by achieving this stuff, by being successful, by proving myself, somehow I would get [my dad’s] approval, and all of those feelings would go away.
When I was in a group session in the hospital, my therapist used an example to show what we are trying to get, and what we expect, from a relationship with someone. She said, “Some of you are in a rose shop and they have flowers, but you need a gallon of milk. And they don’t have it. And they are never going to have it. And you can’t get it there. First of all you have to understand that, someone can’t give away what they don’t have. So you’ve got to figure out a way that you can somehow get close to that. Someone that can give what you need to you.” It’s why so many young women run into the arms of the first man. It why so many of us are attracted to things we think are going to satisfy us, because we couldn’t get it someplace else. But we still have this desire to get it. Ultimately, my desire was to get [my dad’s] approval. This is all in the subconscious of course. I’m never saying, “Dad, I’m going to get a Porsche and I’m going to show it to you, and then you’re going to approve of me, right?” No one has that on their goal sheet.
Four years ago, we did this series in church called Fight Club. And basically it said that you don’t get to choose your family, but those relationships are worth fighting for even though you know you’re going to lose. At the end of the series, Andy [Stanley, pastor] said, “Who are you going to call today?” I came out and one of my friends said, “Are you making the call today?” because they know my story. And I was like, “Okay, what’s another kick in the face.” You long for this approval and affection, it’s natural, and when you can’t get it, you want to keep trying, but it hurts so much you don’t want to do it anymore. You want to just say, “Well that’s never going to happen.” So I called him up. “Dad, we’re doing this thing and here’s what I would like for you to do. You’re coming [to visit] in a couple of weeks, would you think about what it would look like for me to be the son that you would want me to be? And can we talk about that when you get here?” And he says, “No. I’m not going to do that.” I say, “What do you mean you’re not going to do that? Why won’t you do it?” He says, “I don’t want to do that. You have your life, I have my life, and we don’t need to talk about stuff like that.”
The kick was as hard as any one I’ve ever had before. I said, “I can’t do this anymore. It’s too painful for me to keep putting myself in this position.” I don’t candy coat this experience. I think it’s important for me to share the truth of the experience, but my intention is not to hurt anybody. My intention is that by sharing this experience, I can encourage people that have had a similar experience, yet never talked about it to anyone, to know they are not alone.
Healing is available and it doesn’t come through drinking more, and it doesn’t come through acting out, and it doesn’t come through all this stuff we use to medicate ourselves… it comes from The Healer [Jesus].
Risen Magazine: What would you say to someone who is in a similar situation where they just try and try and try to get that approval, but it doesn’t come?
Joe Kissack: During the time that I was turning into that person of my dad, my wife Carmen–who is the hero of all of this–kept praying and praying. She realized the issues I had weren’t her issues and that the issues my dad had, weren’t in turn my issues. And there is not much you can do to change the past, but you can understand it much, much better than you do. I promise you, if you’ll do the work to understand your story better, something happens. The power is released and God can heal anything. Healing is available and it doesn’t come through drinking more, and it doesn’t come through acting out, and it doesn’t come through all this stuff we use to medicate ourselves… it comes from The Healer [Jesus]. I think it’s okay for a person to not have to go through that anymore, they can find healing and they don’t ever have to have that conversation [with dad, etc]. I have healing, and I’ve forgiven, but we’ve never had a conversation about it; it’s not necessary for me to do that.
Risen Magazine: You mentioned the importance of having your wife Carmen praying for you through this… was she following God before you, or did the two of you grow together? Being married, what role did your faith play?
Joe Kissack: Carmen grew into a really solid faith. She grew up Catholic and I wasn’t anything. I think especially for men, they either grow up in a family where you are exposed to faith from a very young age, or you’re in a family that are cultural Christians, or you’re not [exposed to God at all] and once you have a child, and you’re not in church, the next thing you have to do is go to church so mommy can have a day out. You’ve got to join a church for that. We were in Dallas, and we lived by SMU [Southern Methodist University] and they had a Catholic campus ministry that was just across the way and Carmen said, “There’s the church. This is our front yard. We’re going.” My oldest daughter was six months old so I thought, “Yea, okay I’ll go.” I had been to many Catholic churches, I just had no idea what was going on because it was up and down, and up, and there was no salsa with the chips, and I was like, “What is going on?” But there was this young priest and I felt like, “Oh my gosh, this guy is speaking directly to me.” So I went through RCIA, the adult education, and ended up joining the Catholic Church. And after that it was like, “Okay I did that. What else? Should we join an auto club too? Check that off the list.” [Laughter]
Carmen’s faith was growing and she was light years ahead of me, we move to Atlanta and she joins a Bible study with women. It was there her faith started to exponentially explode. She’s turbo-charged and going deeper and deeper. I’m oblivious to it, but I go to church because she wants me to, and it’s the right thing to do, and every once in a while during a business conversation when someone says, “What church do you go to?” I say, “Oh we go to Holy Spirit, yea.”
Risen Magazine: So when did your faith become more than obligation, and something that fully transformed you?
Joe Kissack: After I hit rock bottom. My surrender, in a moment, was cowardly. I just wanted out of the pain. And the surrender by the way was, “Please just let me die.” This was the night before I went into rehab; everything changed for me that night in an instantaneous and binary moment where I became a different person from the inside out. I had no idea what had happened. I didn’t know anyone this had happened to. I knew I had changed because it manifested itself very obviously to me. The addiction and compulsions I had were instantly taken from me. The thing that twisted in my stomach every day as I got out of bed worried about doom and gloom…was gone. The lump in my throat was gone. And I knew it; I could feel it. I was like, “What is this? How is this even possible?” Then it showed up in other places. One of the other things I noticed that happened was I used to love to swear. We would have swearing contests to see if we could do an entire paragraph with just swear words and see if it could make sense. That was my creative, back then. How silly is that? And I didn’t do that anymore; it was gone. And it wasn’t me. I wasn’t like, “Okay, I’m not going to swear anymore.” It just didn’t come out of me anymore.
I knew I had changed because it manifested itself very obviously to me. The addiction and compulsions I had were instantly taken from me.
Risen Magazine: Was the transformation frightening to you? Were you excited?
Joe Kissack: No. I was very excited because I was filled with this unbelievable peace and joy. It was confusing because it didn’t make any sense for me to feel this way because I was getting ready to check into the cuckoo’s nest. I thought, “How can I be filled with this peace? My life is a wreck.” I was sure I would get fired when I went back to work because you don’t get to be that guy anymore when you go to the loony bin; you become that other guy now. It was like, “My life is so good and I can’t wait to go to this hospital everyday.”
After this, everything changed for me; from wanting to serve people, to obeying the traffic laws. It was very strange. I had a 911 Cabriolet and went 120 mph every single day to work, and all of a sudden now I’m going 55 mph in this car and people are looking over at me in the right lane saying, “Is your car broken?” I just thought it was weird and I didn’t understand what it was until I started going to Buckhead Church, which is a part of North Point – this is almost 10 years ago – and Andy Stanley did this one message where he talked about the Holy Spirit. And he talked about this thing called the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. And he talked about people that he had counseled that had serious issues and then when they had an experience like this, they quit drinking, they didn’t go to the same places, they didn’t hang out with the same people, they quit smoking, they quit this, they quit that… and I was sitting in the front row thinking, “Oh my gosh, this guy is reading the email of my brain.” And it clicked, “Was that an indwelling of the Holy Spirit?” That’s what it had to be, there was no other explanation for it. Then I wanted to know everything I could find out about God. Everything. And The Purpose Driven Life was the first book that I picked up. I just said yes to that and that is when I quit working and started to get really healthy. I ended up joining that church, and within that I found a group of men, and within that I found ways to go deeper and deeper and deeper into my faith.
I’ll admit, mostly with new Christians, for a time it was Joe pontificating all of his knowledge, which was about six months old, about God and the universe. I realized as much as I wanted to instantaneously pull [my kids] into what my new world was; that was unrealistic. I had lived in a family line that I could go back to the people that I actually knew, and I’m pretty sure they were misled. My father was misled, and at that time, I had been misled for 99 percent of my life. My children lived half of their lives with a father that was misled – in the most critical years for them. So generationally, my first real shot are my children’s children, to start from the very beginning of their lives, because I think that’s how long it takes to turn this stuff around.
I think I realized with a shift in culture from my generation, to my children’s generation (who are now in their 20s), is that there is so much noise in their lives, they cannot hear and distinguish between what’s important and what’s not. And they really have a difficult time hearing what you say. So I made a decision when I was cutting the grass one day…it’s where I do all my heavy thinking. Because it’s just one line out, and one line back and it’s like, “I’ve made a pattern!” Or like Tom Hank’s in Castaway, “I made fire!” It’s one of my simple pleasures in life; I still mow my own grass. I volunteer when I stay with people to cut their grass. And if they have a riding mower, I will pay them. “I will pay you twenty bucks to let me cut your grass.” [Laughter]. So I’m mowing the lawn and I realize if I’m really going to leave the legacy I’m hoping for my children, if I can help them understand how to make better decisions in their life so they will have fewer regrets, the only way for me to do that within the culture we live in, is model that for them. I made a decision that whatever I’m going to do; I know they are watching.
Risen Magazine: In that process what specific instances occurred where you know that they were watching and it was actually changing their perceptions?
Joe Kissack: One day I walked into the bank and said, “I have to give you my car today.” And you know what [the bank officer] said, “It’s happening a lot right now.” And you know what, the world didn’t end because my car got repossessed. The world didn’t end because I got a letter from the IRS that said, “This is the amount of money you owe us and we have to talk to you.” And my kids have seen all this. I’m really, really thankful for the rough circumstances and for them to be able to see it at a time where it’s just the beginning of the different storms that they are going to face in their lives, and probably won’t be the last for us. During this time of all the accounts draining, my friends would say, “I still haven’t figured you out, your financial life is a disaster, but you’d never know it by talking to you.” And I say, “It’s because that’s not what I depend on anymore. I don’t have to worry about that anymore because none of it was mine to begin with.” God’s big enough that if he wants to drop a bunch of money on us, he can do that. All those things are circumstances, and they don’t define who we are.
My oldest daughter especially was watching. She wrote a scholarship letter when she was applying for college expressing how inspired she was that her dad, who used to be this guy, is now this guy trying to tell a story of faith and survival. Carmen and I saw this letter and just balled like babies because I said, “Honey, she’s seen it. She’s been watching for the last three to four years. She saw our faith. She saw the difficult times and she saw us never waver from our faith in all of this.” Now, she’s never said this to us, even to this day. It’s against the law for children to tell their parents they appreciate them. She’s seen God’s provision in ways that I think are miraculous.
Risen Magazine: That’s a stark contrast from when at one point, by worldly standards, you did have it all; top-level exec at Sony, money, fame, power. Many people think if they have any combination of this, they will be happy. How did you feel at the top?
Joe Kissack: I had everything and I was still so unhappy. The core of it was I would ask myself, “Why couldn’t I be happy if I had all of this stuff?” That is part of the reason why I felt the need to medicate the discomfort and horrible feeling inside me. This eventually made me become an addict. I just wanted to feel normal. Even when I quit drinking, I had more clarity, but the feelings didn’t go away. I was just in a lot of pain but sober. I went to 12-step programs and I stuck with what they said I should be doing. It was really interesting for me in the 12-step program because it was three years after I stopped drinking that I had this spiritual transformation. And there is a step in there that says this will happen to you, but until it happens to you, you don’t even know what that means. And when it happens to you, you’re like, “Oh my gosh, it’s happened to me.” I’d been to all kinds of meetings including atheist meetings and thinking, “Oh my gosh, these are just angry sober people.” Because where is the healing going to come from? But you don’t realize what you don’t know about stuff like that. I’m lucky because at a relatively young age I had worldly success, and then realized it’s not the answer. A lot of people, who aren’t going to achieve that, don’t know that it’s not the answer. And they won’t know it’s not the answer until they achieve it and realize it’s not the answer. And all the time and energy it takes to do that is exhausting and consuming. But I’m a typical guy, a typical knucklehead, you could have told me the truth about what that is and I don’t think I would’ve been able to hear it.
I think what has happened to our culture, and our country, is that we have been sucked into the twisting of the American Dream. The American Dream was a post-World War phenomenon that said we conquered, we’re back, let’s get our country healthy, and there was this unity. This is really simplifying it, but Madison Avenue got ahold of this idea of the American Dream, which was supposed to be about hope, growth, faith and family and they sold it to us on a billboard on the edge of town that has a mom and a dad, a little boy, a little girl, a golden retriever, a Buick convertible and a house in a place called Pleasantville.
So we went out there and did that generally speaking as a culture. We achieved the American Dream, and it wasn’t enough. We needed the bigger house. We needed the second house. We needed to fill the house. And it got fueled and fueled and fueled until at some point, it turned into this insidious obsession of us consuming. The way our country runs, I can’t think of another single thing that’s more universal or more prevalent than that. It’s why the condition of the country, is the condition of the country. It’s why so many people have financial issues. It’s the cause of relational issues. It teaches our children the wrong values. We have bought into the lie that if you just get these things, you’ve made it. That all happened for me and there is no making it. I’m blessed that I’ve been through what I’ve been through. Whether I have money, or don’t have money has nothing to do with my spiritual condition. What I have learned is that I’m never more fulfilled, happier, and satisfied, than when I’m serving people; when I’m leveraging whatever it is that I have for other people.
Risen Magazine: Let’s talk about your book The Fourth Fisherman. How did the intertwining of your story with these fishermen come about?
Joe Kissack: It wasn’t my idea. They are part of my story, but I’m not part of their story. After their rescue I am, but I wasn’t on the boat with them. Something grabbed me with this; it chose me. I couldn’t shake it; I tried to. I walked away. When you think something is for you, say no to it and put it aside. And if it doesn’t come back, it’s probably not for you. But when it continues to come back maybe that is where you’re supposed to be. And then I always ask, “Do you have peace about this?” If you don’t have peace when you’re starting out with something, don’t think it’s magically going to change just because you made the decision to go do it. I didn’t choose it, but I did it anyway. My faith deepened so much the first day I was in Mexico because of those coincidences that happened, that I thought were coincidences, but were eventually revealed to me as being led, one step at a time without knowing the next step. I don’t know how many times it had to happen until I got it.
When I came back, [to the states] I had the details and major beats of what I thought the fishermen’s story was. I met with a lot of people in the movie business, which I sought first because I thought I knew people there and it would be easier. But, I had people tell me everything from, “We don’t believe it,” to “That’s not the story I would tell.” Then I was in meetings with people I had worked with before and I was telling them the story of the fishermen and I got to the point about telling how they survived which was on turtle blood and their faith in God, and they would say, “Okay, yeah, what else?” I said, “Do you realize this was almost a year, and almost the entire Pacific Ocean? 6,000 miles in a boat smaller than your office, that’s not enough?” And one of the people said, “Joe, how did you get this story? I mean, the last time I saw you, you were selling Seinfeld [into syndication]. Why do you have this story?” And I said, “Well that’s another story. That’s my story and I hope to be able to do a book about that someday. Here’s what’s happened since I’ve seen you last.” And one of the guys, who I think was head of creative, said, “Oh my gosh, that’s Act 2.” And I said, “What does that even mean?” He said, “It means these two stories go together. Your story and what you were going through, contrasted with their story, is a great mix.” They actually made me an offer, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do at the time.
Some guys that I knew asked me to come share my story at a Sunday school group, and it was the first time I told any of it publicly. And it took three hours. When I finished someone came up to me afterwards and said, “I’ve been sitting in the back of the room arguing with God on whether I was going to say anything to you, and I have obviously lost that battle. But I’m a Ph.D. candidate in story structure and rhetoric and you’re telling the story wrong.” The woman said, “The fisherman weren’t lost. They look like they are lost, but they have their faith. You’re the one that was lost, but you didn’t look like you were lost.” I kept trying to give the story to professionals [to develop] and I finally said, “Okay God, are you trying to say you want me to do this? You want me to write this? That makes no sense.” And I kind of sat on that and then decided to give it a try. When you do things Jesus’ way, you get Jesus-sized results, when you do things your way, you get you-sized results.
If you don’t have peace when you’re starting out with something, don’t think it’s magically going to change just because you made the decision to go do it.
Risen Magazine: You did more than give it a try, your book is incredible and the way the stories are juxtaposed is so impactful. And now turning that into a movie, where does the script stand?
Joe Kissack: It’s just kind of been set aside and every once in awhile I’ll pray, “You know God, if you ever wanted to do that movie I don’t have to be a part of it, but I sure would like to be. But I’m okay if not. I just want it to be whatever you want it and need it to be.” I’m just trying not to screw that up. I’m human and that’s what we do, we screw things up because we think we know better. I got traction on the book and I said, “Look God, it seems like you’re blessing this, you want me to focus on this and I’m sure you’ll let me know if you want me to be doing something else.” My filters have become crystal clear and I don’t need to be doing anything that doesn’t honor God, or for my work, isn’t Kingdom-building. If it doesn’t go through those two filters with the answers of yes, and yes, then I have no business doing it. None. And it makes it easier for me.
This book, this movie, they aren’t mine. These are God stories. Each of us gets a choice to either add value, or extract value. That’s kind of our whole life question, am I adding value or am I extracting value? For the longest time I was all about extracting value, mostly for myself, and now I try to figure out how can I add value. It’s been such an amazing journey and thrill for me. I looked at this career I had as a waste, until now I see, not only was it not a waste, it’s been absolutely necessary and all the dots that have ever connected in my life leading up to the very moments that I’m in, all can have value and God can make them what he wants them to be. To me, that’s a miracle.
Exclusive interview originally published in Risen Magazine, Winter 2012