Okay, let’s get this out of the way: this post isn’t about politics. There’s no blue state/red state, republican/democrat, duck season/rabbit season stuff in here. Can we all agree to take a step back from that? Cool? Cool.
As you know, I am a podcast consumer. One of the most popular podcasts out there is WTF, a one-on-one interview show with comedian Marc Maron. Maron’s show has been increasingly popular, producing 600+ episodes at this point and resulting in him getting his own TV show. Guests are generally involved in the world of comedy. They span from household names like Mike Birbiglia and Jim Gaffigan to comedic staples like Conan O’Brien, Jimmy Fallon, and the great Mel Brooks.
As the show’s audience has grown, Maron has been able to get some exclusive guests and really riveting interviews. Both Jon Hamm and Bryan Cranston have been interviewed. Larry King and Terry Gross came on, which is pretty meta. Comedian Todd Glass came out as gay on WTF. If you want to hear something really awkward, listen to the Gallagher interview. Spoilers, he doesn’t handle a question well!
But all of these good gets don’t compare to this week’s guest: President Obama. Yes, the leader of the free world sat in a comedian’s garage for an interview. And as interviews go, it’s very good! You can listen to it here. They do get into politics, but there’s a lot about Obama as a person. It’s not Meet the Press or anything, but I enjoyed it. “I was seeking to connect in an emotional way.” Maron says, looking back on the interview – and, really, that’s his style with every person he’s interviewed, president or no.
That approach is what makes Marc such a remarkable interviewer. He is a very raw and honest performer, often describing himself as “heady” and sort of orally wallowing in his anxiety and perceived inadequacies. He’s struggled with his career, addiction, relationships… and it’s all out there. It’s really impossible to be intimidated or guarded with someone like that.
A coworker recently recommended writer Charles Bukowski to me. My only knowledge of Bukowski and his style is that he is open and crass and really leaves no topic off the table. “You’ll like him because he’s saying things we’re all thinking or experiencing. They’re ugly things, but we can all connect with them.” my coworker said. I think Marc is a lot like that. Marc doesn’t come off as crass to me, but there have definitely been people I’ve recommended the show to who have come back and let me know they do not care for him. And that’s fine. I suppose I might have just outed myself as crass. Ah well.
My point is these are the kind of people worth listening to. Even in the interview, Obama explains that his communications folks thought the interview with Maron was a good idea. The podcast is “new” media and draws an audience that is younger, maybe people who haven’t “made up their mind” about Obama and politics yet. Maybe. But I think it goes beyond that. Obama could have gone on Meet the Press or PBS NewsHour. But instead he did WTF – a podcast. Which for being “new” media, is actually old media dressed up and digital.
Podcasts are all about storytelling. Like a radio address from a president or an old timey superhero story with a guy in a soundbooth beating on a rump roast for punching sound effects. We’re listening to something that lasts longer than three minutes. It’s not an aggregator website where the person responsible for the original content can be hidden behind fourteen layers of links and ads and people “reporting” on someone else’s efforts. It’s not someone else giving a five minute summary of how they see or understand it, with their opinion laced throughout so you never get your own chance to decide or use critical thinking skills. We end up devoid of context. It’s hard to hear the full story or get the whole conversation anymore.
Podcasts lets us hear all of it, sometimes captured from the people as it happened, sometimes recounted by a reporter or storyteller. It is real genuine moments and stories. Sure, there’s editing. But the format just lends itself to naturally letting something breathe and getting the whole story out there. I think this is, too, why comedy itself has thrived in podcasting. Comedy comes from stories and real moments. Capturing spontaneity. Recorded audio can’t be taken back, just like a joke you make about your ex-wife in a room of strangers.
To circle back to Obama, the interview is a long conversation. They talk back and forth and there’s no breaks, no strict agenda. For those who are comfortable operating in sound clips and treating information “a friend heard from a friend” as gospel, it’s probably a bit jarring if not boring. But there’s more truth in there. More honesty. I think that’s why I appreciated this so much. It’s not just because Obama got interviewed by a comedian. It’s that Obama allowed us to see him this closely. That he chose an honest medium.
That authenticity is why I enjoy podcasts so much. Maybe I’ll get tired of typing my words and start one. I picked the name “First Time Long Time” for my never to be released podcast some years ago. When I think about it, I start getting anxious about it… But then I listen to Marc and I feel better. Because if he can handle it, I can get it together.