Friday, March 16, 2018

The Company of Men, or, Why Not-Good Podcasts Are Incredibly Popular

I have a 14-year-old son.  He watches a lot of YouTube, so I have watched a lot videos featuring my son's favorite You-Tubers: Philip DeFranco, PewDiePie, H3, Adam Rippon from "Hot Ones," and Rhett and Link from "Good Mythical Morning."

Philip DeFranco looks to be about 30.  He sits huddled in front of the camera with his shoulders hunched forward.  He gives the impression of speaking to the viewer with candor and intensity.  He speaks quickly, and if he hesitates or loses his train of thought, that gets edited out. The result is a continuous stream of verbiage from one topic to another, a non-stop flight to wherever DeFranco's taking us.

DeFranco is like the worldly uncle who holds forth at the dinner table.  The nephew, who doesn't care to listen to his parents speak on any subject for more than 30 seconds at a stretch, hangs on DeFranco's every word in reverent silence.

I don't mind DeFranco. He's not indoctrinating my son into some emergent neo-Nazi fraternity.  And that's a relief, because DeFranco seems to wield more influence over my son's world view than either of his parents.  (I was grateful to DeFranco for his take on the Parkland, Florida school shooting, the response of the students, the role of the NRA, and the government's inaction.)  DeFranco is my son's go-to guy for what to think about current events.

And then there's PewDiePie, of course.  Like David Letterman and Jim Carrey, PewDiePie sports a long beard worthy of ZZ-Top, or Moses. PDP is so big, he doesn't have to be handsome anymore.

PDP also speaks directly to the camera at close range in what appears to be a small room, not much bigger than a closet, with lighting that changes color constantly and makes edits appear jarring.  I get dizzy watching PDP in that color-variable space as he swivels and fidgets, looks this way and that, and struggles to find the right words.

I was kind of mad at PDP for doing a series of videos on whisky---reviewing different brands of very expensive bottles. It seemed like a bad choice of topics, considering the tender age of his audience, and the fact that he cannot describe whisky with any insight whatsoever. ("This one is nice! This  one is really nice!")

But I forgave PDP for the whisky series when he started reviewing books, and saying that he had forgotten how fun reading could be.  I bought Josh one of the books that he reviewed, and Josh was super excited to read it. Thank you, PDP!

Both PDP and DeFranco appear to talk very openly and candidly about their thoughts on every topic, and they never seem to patronize their audience.

I think there must be something about boys, young men, and grown men, too, that makes them care so deeply about what other guys think about everything.

Maybe they crave the company of men, and perhaps the approval of men--especially those whom they respect for being older, cool, or  accomplished in their field.

Or, as in the example of H3, maybe guys just like hanging out together.

H3 is a shaggy guy with moppy hair and subtly quirky Tourette's Syndrome. He's 20 - 35 pounds overweight,  depending, and he doesn't mind using his body to get a laugh.  He also has a warmth and humanity about him that is appealing, even to me, a quality that is much more pronounced in H3 than in either DeFranco or PDP.

H3 is goofy, self-deprecating, and often surprisingly sincere.  He's the friend that you would hang out with and share a laugh and be stupid with; but he's also the buddy who can be serious and sensitive when called upon.  He's not the one you look up to, but he might be the one that you lean on.  He might be the one that you would spend the most time with.  And in his studio space, which is bigger than DeFranco or PDP's, there are usually a couple of friends hanging out with him, blabbering on about whatever.  It is the loosest possible format.

H3 has a girlfriend, Hila. She's from Israel. She is a more or less constant presence on H3's podcasts.  She is not nearly as chatty as H3, but when she has something to say, she says it. She doesn't compete with him in any way; H3 clearly wants and commands center stage. Hila is the appreciative side-kick, the quiet Robin Quivers to H3's Howard Stern. She is a woman who has made a nest for herself among a den of men.

What I am impressed by is how, when H3 is hanging out with Hila in the studio, and there's some guy there, they're just hanging out, free-associating, doing nothing--they're attracting tens of thousands of viewers.

I guess, guys just like hanging out with guys--even vicariously. Maybe that's all, and maybe that's enough.  They don't need to be good. They don't need to be actively entertaining anyone. They can just do absolutely nothing. They don't need to be witty or clever or anything. They're like friends whose company is a comfort in itself.

And then there is Rhett and Link, the buddies on "Good Mythical Morning," a bro-mance of two appealing thirty-ish guys. Rhett has very high red hair and a very long red beard, between which are two enormous, arresting eyes.  Link has a good high head of hair, too, but it's going gray on one side. He looks like a cheerful mad-scientist.

Their format is not as loose as H3's, but it still allows plenty of margin for chaos, spontaneity, happy accidents, and rambling. The show always has a theme, and there is music, props, and production people milling about, commenting and assisting with stuff.

"Good Mythical Morning" doesn't feel contrived, yet.  It feels casually creative.  It feels like they're having a good time, and genuinely wish to entertain.  They pick topics like, What fast food joint makes the best biscuits, or the best subway sandwiches?  Or which frozen dinner entree is the most tasty or least revolting?  They conduct experiments in which they have to eat super hot peppers or permit themselves to be mildly injured.  They have done their part to create a You Tube culture that would inspire a foolish kid to eat a Tide Pod and videotape his own rapid physical decline.

That said, I don't blame Rhett and Link for that incident. I'm just saying, they have done some pretty dumb-ass things--like eating ghost peppers, for example.

But the point I wanted to make in this loosely formatted blog post was that Rhett and Link are yet another male archetype: The fun young hip dads.  So much energy!  So much imagination!  So much brio!

True, they may be more interested in hanging out with each other than with their own kids, but...But then their kids could be best friends: little Rhett and Link Jr., and everybody could be creative and have fun together.  Camping would be a blast.

And finally, there is Adam Rippon, host of "Hot Ones," a podcast in which Adam interviews mostly marginally famous people, most of them men, while sitting across from them at a small table eating chicken wings dipped in progressively hotter hot sauce until the guest can barely speak without drooling, vomiting, or passing out.

Adam, 27, is blandly pleasant looking, bald, and vaguely--just vaguely--sycophantically masochistic.

I mean, the guest is eating the hot sauce once, but Adam is burning a trail through his esophagus every single day, while peppering his guests with carefully researched questions about their careers, connections, and adventures.

Here again, I find a recurring theme in pain. Those chicken wings do eventually inflict serious discomfort and pain upon Adam's guests.  How they respond to that pain, and how far they're willing to go (all of the chicken wings? To the last dab?) becomes a test of character--in front of a camera.

Which also reiterates what we've seen on "Good Mythical Morning," where Rhett and Link have, as I mentioned, eaten excruciatingly hot peppers, as well as incredibly disgusting things. They have permitted pain to be inflicted upon them as part of an experiment in empathy.  They allow cake to be flung in their faces.  All in good fun.

I'm not interested in indicting anybody over this. I'm just saying: There's a pattern.  In one podcast,  H3 put on something like 50 or 100 shirts, one over the other, until he could barely breathe and started to panic, and then they couldn't get them off fast enough.

What is it all about?  How does this derring-do, this I-will-if-you-will, this bonding through agony, figure into the landscape of the American male psyche?

(Do women do this sort of thing?  I don't think so. Not that often.  Is that because we have menstrual cramps and vaginal birth seared into our pod-scripts?)

Everyone who goes on "Hot Ones" experiences not only the pain of the pepper sauce, but also the attention, adulation and publicity that Adam provides in exchange for their suffering.

Charlize Theron was on "Hot Ones" the other day. I couldn't believe it. Neither could Adam Rippon. Women are rarely guests on his show, and they often seem out of place. Charlize dropped a ton of f-bombs, but still, she was Charlize Theron at Any Bar On Main Street In Your Town...A fabulous non-sequitor...A movie star going through a hot pepper ordeal for...what reason...?

Oh, right: For the bazillion viewers watching "Hot Ones," a tightly formatted, super-low budget podcast about eating chicken wings with hot sauce until your head bursts into flames.

Men must crave each other's company in a way that, for many of them, probably goes largely unfulfilled in their lives. Clearly, the success of these YouTubers doesn't rest on their talent, per se. It isn't about their wit--or anything, really. Their popularity seems to stem from a lot of guys wanting to hang out with other guys, and maybe eat a few ghost peppers, or throw back a Tide Pod.

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