By Alan Glynn
It’s commonplace these days for people to declare, proudly, almost defiantly, that their attention span isn’t what it used to be, that it has been shot to bits, atomized, and chiefly by overexposure to digital technology. I do this myself, because that’s very often how it feels. My typical day, like everyone else’s, is an endless, relentlessly twitchy interaction with my various online accounts. I check Mail and Twitter dozens of times (an hour), I select articles that look interesting, save them for later, and never go near them again. I watch movies on a ridiculously small screen in ten-minute increments over a period of . . . days. I bob along the clickstream, like a smack addict gamboling in a field of poppies, never satisfied, retaining nothing, craving more.
But this is just the way it is, right? This is how Mother Technology wants it, her servile legions of content bots lined up and waiting for the next nanosuckle.
If this is really the case, though – I find myself wondering – how do we account for the podcast? Not all podcasts, clearly, but a strain of the form has emerged recently that is muscular, self-reliant, and unapologetically counterintuitive. This motherfucker demands, and gets, your attention. What we’re talking about here are essentially extended interviews, one- and sometimes even two-hour-long conversations, usually uninterrupted, that are substantial, probing, often surprising, and ultimately satisfying in a way that has become all-too rare in the Clicktopia.
And as a form it has developed organically. No one planned this, in the way that no-one thought the talkies would ever catch on or that SMS text-messaging would ever be anything other than a gimmick. The bastard child of online radio and the now quaint-sounding “audio-blogging”, the podcast has elbowed its way into the mainstream and surely has a bright future ahead of it. Of course, there are thousands of them out there, and many different types, so any selection will necessarily be limited and personal.
For me, the extended interview is where it’s at, and I believe the podcast has given the form a new lease of life. Some of the interviews I’ve listened to recently on the Kevin Pollak Chat Show, on Marc Maron’s WTF, on the Bret Easton Ellis Podcast, and on The Moment with Brian Koppelman, are among the most riveting, involving and stimulating examples of the form I’ve ever come across.
And the mainstream extended interview itself has a pretty interesting history. In print – and again, selection here is inevitably personal – the two biggies would have to be the Paris Review and Playboy. The collected Paris Review interviews has been an indispensable resource for writers for decades, and although I didn’t have access to Playboy growing up in Ireland in the late 70s and early 80s, I did have a book (all text) of collected interviews from the mag (edited by G. Barry Golson) that was nothing short of astonishing to me. Here were really long in-depth interviews with the likes of Miles Davis, Vladimir Nabokov, Marlon Brando, Timothy Leary, and – holy shit – Albert Speer.
On TV, at the same time, there was Parkinson, a late-night BBC chat show, hosted by Michael Parkinson. This was one full hour, no commercial breaks, often a single guest – Orson Welles, say, or Muhammad Ali – and just great, natural conversation. Parkinson bagged a whole generation of Hollywood greats in their later years and got them to talk, and tell stories, in a way no one had ever heard before – real golden-age “icons” talking candidly and at length, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, James Stewart, Robert Mitchum, and many more. Parkinson’s unobtrusive style allowed his guests to relax and open up, and he also showcased comedians in a way that has rarely been seen since. I remember people like Peter Cook and Dudley More, Morecombe and Wise, Les Dawson, Peter Sellers, Billy Connolly, and others, being funnier on Parkinson than they ever were in their own acts, shows or movies.
Post-Parky, the TV celebrity interview fell into a sharp decline, with subsequent hosts making the show increasingly about themselves – step forward Russell Harty, Terry Wogan, Jonathan Ross and Graham Norton. Norton’s show is entertaining, but he is the undisputed ringmaster, and the format – three guests all together on the couch, the questions flitting around chaotically – is tailor-made for the attention-deficit age.
In the US (as far as I understand it), for any kind of substance, there was Dick Cavett back in the day, then Larry King, and now Charlie Rose. Otherwise, it’s the six-minute late-night chat show segment – Carson, Letterman, Leno, Conan, Fallon – something that Kevin Pollak has repeatedly said he wants to provide an alternative to. And with his podcast often running to a whopping two hours an episode he’s certainly succeeding.
And man, what a two hours it is. As on the other podcast shows mentioned, the guests tend to be actors, writers, musicians or comics, and while Pollak retains certain conventions of the chat show – the sidekick thing, for example – the conversation will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen or heard on TV. And I don’t just mean the swearing – there is an honesty and a commitment here that is incredibly refreshing, to the point that you almost feel like you’re eavesdropping. The podcast “space” is different, there is an intimacy to it, a freedom, but also a Wild West-ish sense that no one has written the rulebook yet. It’s remarkable how often you’ll hear a guest declare that a thing they’ve just said had never occurred to them before, or that this is the first time they’ve ever said it out loud. And, crucially, you believe them. Listen to Pollak interviewing James L. Brooks, Jon Favreau, Eddie Izzard. (And if you’re lucky, ace impressionist Pollak will give you an occasional hit of Shatner or Albert Brooks along the way.)
In some respects, Marc Maron’s WTF is the cathedral of podcasts – a cathedral constructed inside a garage. Maron apparently fell into podcasting as a last ditch attempt to save his career and stumbled on something he turned out to be really good at – sharing and eliciting the dark and deeply personal shit that most people want to hide but that also very often reveals itself to be the motor of their creativity. Maron is both vulnerable and fractious, but he’s also curious and deeply empathetic. Among other things, his show is an insider’s history of stand-up comedy, with the archive of interviews surely on its way to becoming an invaluable cultural resource – even if only for the accumulation of hilarious Lorne Michaels impressions it has chalked up. There are too many amazing episodes to list here, but you could start by listening to Maron interviewing Patrice O’Neal, Paul Krassner, Todd Glass, Robin Williams, Louis C. K., Phil Stutz, Douglas Rushkoff, Bill Hader, Dylan Moran, Michael Keaton, Mike Myers, Kathy Griffin . . .
Bret Easton Ellis, like Marc Maron, is a big presence on his own podcast – he talks a lot, his questions (and follow ups) sometimes running to several minutes. But he’s always fascinating, and he returns obsessively to (and sort of re-makes his guests in the image of) certain pet themes – what’s happening in the culture, empire and post-empire, infantilization, political correctness, indignation porn, gay identity, TV and movies. Some podcasts have (and need) sponsors, and one of the unexpected pleasures of the BEE Podcast is listening to the creator of Patrick Bateman read out ad copy for healthy snack foods. (How would Bill Hicks have coped?) Listen to BEE interviewing Michael Tolkin, Ira Sachs, Tom Sizemore, Matthew Wiener.
Brian Koppelman’s show is called The Moment and deals with what he calls “inflection points” in people’s careers, those moments when everything changes for a performer, writer or artist, when something happens that vindicates the choices they’ve been making, consciously or unconsciously, all their lives. Koppelman’s approach is celebratory, most of his guests are heroes to him, and he revels both in their stories of perseverance and in their thoughtful explications of process. Listen to Koppelman interviewing Mario Batali, Tim Feriss, John Heileman, Ray Liotta, Lawrence Block, Seth Godin.
If there is one takeaway from all of this for me, one common element that ties these interviews together, it is the weirdly reassuring revelation, heard again and again, that most creative artists, regardless of whatever level of success they’ve achieved, are deeply insecure people and suffer almost universally from “impostor syndrome” – that nagging suspicion that one day a man with a clipboard will come up behind you, tap you on the shoulder, and tell you that it’s all been a dreadful mistake. This career you have? These wonderful opportunities? Sorry, but they were meant for someone else. The flip side of this, of course – as it turns out – is another thing that these same people also happen to share. Despite the insecurity, they never give up and they keep producing the goods.
The word podcast was first used ten years ago, but it’s only in the last five that there’s been this great leap forward in terms of content and quality, and I really hope it lasts. Because it’s not only the requirement of a decent attention span that makes the extended interview somewhat of a counterintuitive proposition, the grown-up complexity and raw confessional nature of many of them would also seem to go against a certain mainstream, corporate grain. And how long are the suits going to put up with that? But maybe the genie really is out of the bottle. If so, the next challenge for podcasters should be to get a few big-ticket CEOs and politicians sitting in front of them. Then it would be game on.