Variety ran this headline today:
OK, a few things here: The podcast “revolution” began years ago. Conan’s podcast, “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend,” is in no way revolutionary either in its format or for the medium. The long-form celebrity interview podcast has been around for years, and guys like Marc Maron, Jesse Thorn, and (ahem) Chris Hardwick “revolutionized it,” although — with all due respect — Terry Gross has been doing it since 1975, literally since Chris Hardwick was 7 years old (and Chris Hardwick is not young). Howard Stern has been doing it since the ’80s.
With that said, Conan O’Brien did revolutionize the format in one important respect: He dialed back the solipsism that Maron and Hardwick ushered in and that has peaked on Dax Shepard’s podcast and found the happy medium between Maron and Terry Gross. Conan O’Brien has made it possible for me to safely put my smartphone back in my pocket while I’m listening to podcasts because I no longer need to fast-forward through all the parts where the host is opening himself up to the guest in an effort to get the guest to open up to him.
In fact, what I think I love most about Conan’s celebrity interview podcast is that it’s a great chill. I have listened to literally hundreds of Maron/Hardwick/Shepard podcasts, in large part out of the hope that — while cataloging the celebrity’s lives chronologically — they will say something I didn’t know that might make for a decent piece for Uproxx. They’re often insightful and informative. They tick through their IMDB and Wikipedia entries and get the guests to expand on them. A lot of good stuff can come out of that, much of which the host will reflect back on himself.
Conan’s podcasts, on the other hand, do not make a lot of news unless you count hearing Bill Hader’s laughter as news. He’s not trying to get a lot of insights. He’s just hanging with his friends, or people with whom he wants to be friends (the Jimmy Kimmel episode, for instance, was great: Two people who don’t know each other very well talking shop and bonding). Earlier this year, Conan spent an hour with Timothy Olyphant, and I am pretty sure they never once said anything of substance. That episode may be my favorite podcast episode of the year. Olyphant literally starting plugging random products because he wanted some of the revenue and to give Conan a hard time. I listened to it in the grocery store. I couldn’t stop laughing in the cereal aisle.
I’ve listened to Mila Kunis on several podcasts over the years because she is a strangely fascinating person. My favorite was her episode with Conan, not because I learned anything new about her, but because I learned more about who she is (also, every time I hear a Mila podcast, I find myself inexplicably liking Ashton Kutcher more). Kumail came on to talk about why he had to bail on Conan’s talk show a few weeks, and it was so much better than any interview on Conan’s TV talk show could have been.
Still, I think the Hannah Gadsby episode may be the best, so far. It’s a little awkward, and a little uncomfortable, if only because a guy who has been in the business for 30 years is clearly intimidated by Gadsby. But in that intimidation, we learned something new about Conan — that insecurity that he often references actually comes through here, and not in a self-deprecating way. But a reverential one. My wife barely listens to podcasts, and I told her she should check out that episode. “I don’t even like Conan O’Brien,” she told me. She listened anyway because she loves Gadsby. She ended up listening to almost all of Conan’s episodes, and now she’s a regular and enthusiastic listener.
In other words: You don’t even have to like Conan to love his podcasts.