Reply All: ‘Man of the People’
More than ever, history can teach us about our present. In podcast world, there’s a show about the fall of the Roman empire, there’s a “hardcore” one, there’s another about the history of Hollywood. There’s enough hours of audio to teach us about the causes and effects of things that happened in our past, so that we — in a cliche but abstract way — don’t repeat them in the future. But then, on January 18 of this year, Reply All — my favorite show of 2016— published “Man of the People,” a 100-year-old story as current as the NPR news reports we get when we say, “Hey, Alexa, what’s new?”
“It feels like it could have happened this week, basically,” host and producer PJ Vogt says, before launching into an episode about John Brinkley, a con-man who used a new form of technology (the radio) to gain fame and fortune during the first half of the 1900s.
It’s an episode that defiantly is about the reality in which we find ourselves. It’s a story about why we as a society are susceptible to big-personality, truth-averse blowhards. It’s a story about Donald Trump. However, instead of explicitly making it a story about Donald Trump (published during his inauguration week, nonetheless), Reply All merely winks at it for 45 minutes. They mention Brinkley’s nightmarish medical practices — he implanted goat testicles into “impotent” men’s scrotums and called it medicine—his ties to fake schools, his aversion to apology, his sleuthy sidestepping of the law for personal gain, his spite-filled ambition to run for public office, and — finally — his demise at the hands of a persistent investigator. Only once is “Trump” even mentioned — as a reference — in the episode, and that doesn’t come until the 35:50 mark. It’s a masterful bit of patient storytelling, and it’s a big part of why Reply All continues to be my favorite podcast each week. (The episode is also being turned into a movie starring Robert Downey Jr., if you needed an example of podcasts as a pervasive force in the culture.)
Right now, everything in our offline and online conversations is about government and the state of the world. I thought I could get away from it with a trip to Spain, except there, three different people heard my rusty Spanish and asked me where I was from. “Los Estados Unidos,” I said, knowing what was next. One person asked if he could apologize (yes, you can, that’s nice), one made fun of me for 30 minutes about what-the-hell-is-going-on-over-there, and one shook his head and said he had “nothing to say to me.” It’s inescapable, the topics that have become daily talking points at the dinner table and in podcasts. It’s good to resist in this way — to listen constantly to the never-ending hum — but it’s also exhausting. We will persist, we must, but it is genuinely tiring and on top of that we don’t know what we’ll all be like when this is over.
But what most of that wall-to-wall conversation and coverage misses, I think, is nuance. It lacks proper perspective. It’s difficult to pull yourself away, of course, but that’s where “Man of the People” succeeds. It lets us sit back and enjoy a story of a deranged man who surgically implanted goat testicles into men’s bodies and was inspired by a trip to Nazi Germany while it refuses to bash the present against our foreheads.
“What is it about a liar like him that we have a hard time dealing with?” Vogt asks Pope Brock, a man who wrote a book about Brinkley. Brock pauses for quite a long time and answers:
“Don’t you want to be rescued? I know I do. [laughs] You know? When somebody stands up and says, “You know what? Bring me your anguish, bring me your problems, and I will fix them. I will make it all right. You know, that puts Brinkley in a line of demagogues going back to the dawn of time, right up through today.”
And with that, and only after 35 minutes, Reply All subtly brings long-dead Dr. John Brinkley to the present.
Lots of stories and podcasts and conversations now feel like the most important chore of our lives. Expand your viewpoints, they say. Try to understand all the angles. Put in considerable effort to protest or make a difference somehow. Protect each other, especially those in the most need of it. All of it is deliberate, active, pointed at the current. It’s tunnel-visioned, which is a good and important tactic for the times. But in fighting that trend, “Man of the People” is kind. Gentle, even. It refuses to rub our noses in the reality, and it’s a welcome respite from the incessant — albeit very necessary — noise of the last few months and the next four years.
- The next newsletter is probably going to be about the state of sports podcasts and the talk-show format, so it’s a nice surprise that Bill Simmons has returned to the world of relevant podcasters. Some of his most recent shows — with comedians Seth Meyers and Bill Burr, NYT supercritic and podcaster Wesley Morris, Warriors coach Steve Kerr and forward Kevin Durant, and the writers of the Showtime show Billions — have reminded me how much I enjoy his conversations and his connections to land such big guests. I’ll run through this more next time, but although The Ringer as a network is still finding its place, it’s nice to see its flagship show return to form.
- The Heart’s new mini-season is about feminine men, and it is so wonderful.
- The guys from Keepin’ it 1600 have spun off and started Pod Save The World, which featured the last interview of President Barack Obama while he was still in office. Obama also joined David Axelrod on the Axe Files. Both conversations are soothing, insightful, intelligent, and act as good therapy for our current times.
- I adored “Rose of Long Island” by The Memory Palace. Nate Dimeo’s stories remain some of the most beautifully written, beautifully spoken podcast episodes out there right now.
Ok, that’s it for now. Keep your chins up. Drink your coffee. Listen to your stories. Keep at it.