On "Don't Get Me Started" and Exploiting what Nothing Else Can Do

This week I was introduced to the podcast Don’t Get Me Started, which I want to recommend to anyone interested in displays of what I think is the best kind of nerddom—near-encyclopedic knowledge underlying, but taking a back seat to, unpoliced enthusiasm. The show consists of hosts Anthony King and Will Hines “talking to incredibly talented people not about what they do but what they love”—some of my favorite episodes so far (as I’ve started working through the archive at random) include passionate conversations on Superman, Bob Fosse, celebrity autobiographies, and megamusicals.

One episode, on Steve Martin, features a detour appreciation for “art forms that exploit what they can do that nothing else can do”—with Martin’s early standup held up as an example of a perfect marriage of form and content, with bits like “Excuse Me” so perfect for the medium of live standup comedy that they arguably lose something critical even in the simple transfer to an audio recording of the show.

I know I’ve talked about this before, as it’s a big part of why I’m so fascinated by adaptation and genre/medium distinctions. I’m not enough of a renaissance woman to often find myself making big decisions about what medium best fits a given story—but I’ve certainly considered subtler versions of that question, choosing (sometimes only realizing after one or several drafts that I’ve chosen wrong) whether a story needs to be short or long, a scene spare and dialog-driven or more lyrical. Bedrock elements like setting, voice, and POV are all choices for even the most formally traditional writer to finesse their medium in service of the specific story they’re trying to tell.

This process, like most, is just easier to see when it plays out more dramatically. I think often of the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, which takes the form of a fictional community radio show (in a desert town beset by Lovecraftian monsters and other eldritch horrors) and for a long time felt like it absolutely could not be anything but a one-man radio show. Particularly in early episodes, the listener hears only the voice of host Cecil (Cecil Baldwin) and periodic music breaks (which he introduces as “the weather”)—he often breathlessly describes, and sometimes is literally dragged from the microphone by, other people and entities. But this feels less like a limitation and more like an active feature because of the way it’s used by the show, the way it fits the theme of Night Vale—it’s a show about the terror and sometimes joy of the unknown, the drama of living in a world and body you can’t always comprehend; what could be more appropriate than to be tethered to a single, passionate voice in darkness, trying to describe the monsters?

Sometimes you only recognize an ideal marriage of medium and content when you’re disappointed by a less successful adaptation of the same story—like not realizing how perfectly Watchmen is suited to the form of a graphic novel until you see the movie. And this doesn’t mean that a given story can only be told well in one form—for instance, Lauren Groff’s novel Fates and Furies and Jason Robert Brown’s musical The Last Five Years each tell the story of a deeply flawed marriage in the form of two parallel narratives, one the husband’s and one the wife’s. But they differ in countless ways according to the affordances and limitations of each form, and each story—braided narratives versus separate, straight trajectories through time versus flashback-heavy prose; earnest misunderstandings versus willfully kept secrets; a scope of five years versus a quarter-century. In my opinion at least, both are hugely successful—and I’m a little torn on whether to call them close cousins or wildly disparate. There’s not always, probably not even often, one right medium for a story—but I’m becoming more and more convinced that form and content should respond to one another somehow, be shaped together during drafting and revision.

Don’t Get Me Started is in itself a bit of an example of this intangible, synergetic (ew, sorry) ingredient in action—not technically (in fact King and Hines often vault well beyond the limits of the podcast form, using visual aids that they ooh and aah over in the studio and haltingly attempt to describe to the listener), but in spirit. This is a kind of prototypical podcast, lovely in the simplicity and heart of its concept—a few people sitting together and parsing out their love for something, hoping to bring their audience joy. (Even if you don’t find yourself gaining new obsessions of your own, you’ll certainly gain a broad and eclectic knowledge of random subcultures by listening; I’m hoping the side-effect comes in useful for party conversation and Trivial Pursuit.)  And often the episodes become celebrations of what a given genre or virtuoso can do that nothing else can—whether that’s Fosse or Les Miz or Snapchat.