When I first told folks that I was doing a Rumpus column about podcasts, they automatically assumed every podcast I listen to/would write about would somehow be literary. To their surprise, out of the three installments I’ve done so far, only one has anything to do with literature (and Poetry Jawns is not a typical literary podcast). The assumption that I only listen to literary podcasts surprised me; honestly, there are a lot of literary podcasts out there, and frankly, not a lot of them are very interesting.
This isn’t because literature isn’t interesting to me; I’m a writer, after all. But I usually listen to podcasts while I’m riding the train and walking around Philadelphia, not when I’m actually thinking about writing. But more than simple entertainment or escape, I listen to non-literary podcasts because they offer me interesting information about the real world (Oh No, Ross and Carrie! is an excellent example of this). Sure, I could listen to the New Yorker Fiction Podcast over and over again (and I do that, too; I’m a writer, after all), but listening to someone read a John Updike story aloud has never inspired me to write as much as, say, hearing the history of medical cannibalism on Sawbones.
In short, real life is much stranger than fiction; to quote Lucille Clifton, “there is no planet stranger/than the one i’m from.” For me, the best literature is driven by a curiosity to explore this strange world, pushing our knowledge to its limits, and expanding our boundaries.
This largely circuitous introduction is to say that no podcast captures that idea better, I think, then one of my current favorites: Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness. You might know Van Ness from his absurdly hilarious Funny-or-Die Game of Thrones recaps, Gay of Thrones, or, if you’re lucky, you might know him as an excellent hair stylist. For his bi-weekly podcast, Van Ness chooses a topic he’s curious about—which have included menstrual cups, comedy legend Margaret Cho, and the history of the Romanov family—and learns as much as he can about that topic from an expert.
I was curious to learn more about Jonathan, so I talked to him about fierceness, curiosity, and how to grow my hair out without it getting all weird.
The Rumpus: You’re well-known for Gay of Thrones and being a hair stylist and also just a generally funny and photogenic person. Why a podcast? What specifically about the format of a podcast appealed to you?
Jonathan Van Ness: Photogenic? Thanks so much (smile emoji). A podcast for me felt like something new and very foreign because I hadn’t delved into that world before Getting Curious. But what is so appealing about it is the ability for it to move and change in an organic and creative way. I have always been a student by nature and curious, and I wanted to have a platform to explore that in a light way.
Rumpus: I think you mentioned before that your curiosity about the Romanovs was sort of the root of your inspiration for the podcast, but what other factors led to you doing this?
Van Ness: I come from a broadcast journalism family, and I think growing up in radio and TV stations as well as newspapers made me very interested in what was going on in the world around me, and that curiosity extended to anything I found interesting.
Rumpus: One of the things I love most about your podcast is that it basically can be about anything—from menstrual cups to Bernie Sanders. How do you decide what to tackle? What topic would you love to tackle but seems too hard?
Van Ness: My inspiration comes a lot from the news, which was Bernie Sanders episode inspiration. Currently I’m looking for someone to fill me in on the political situation in Brazil, so current events are a source of curiosity for me. Also, IMTV is a source as well; Outlander has me really curious about what exactly went down with all of the French court after the revolution.
Topics around validation, why we need and want attention, and shadow side things are scary to talk about and look at. It’s like I want to be the best I can be without any real discomfort, but it’s not possible to grow without uncomfortable moments. So being willing to talk about those things scare me.
Rumpus: Are there any topics that you feel are off-limits in some way? Like maybe something you don’t even want to touch?
Van Ness: Nothing feels off limits, but I always want to be respectful of whatever subject we tackle. I want to create a safe space for curiosity but also a place to learn how to communicate respectfully.
Rumpus: How would you define “curious”? Like what makes you “curious” about something, versus just being only-sorta-kinda interested in it? What bores you?
Van Ness: That such an interesting question. All I know is when I feel that fire in my belly that drives me forward wanting more information. It’s like the same as if you love a crispy M&M, and you get a whole bag you want to eat it all, but if you get Skittles, maybe you have a few. That’s how I am with subjects, and I’m not sure I can determine what’s going to get me interested or not. Although come to think of it, I’m not a big fan of math.
Rumpus: You call things “fierce” a lot, which I love. I watched an interview recently with the novelist Garth Greenwell where he defined “fierce” as “working at the edge of your capacity.” “Fierce” just seems like such a fierce word. How would you define it? What makes something fierce to you?
Van Ness: I love that definition! For me fierce is “better than good,” and a way for me to let you know I’m feeling it. But what’s even better is that definition is really saying ferocity is you pushing yourself to your boundaries, which is what curiosity is: you have to say, “I don’t know about that so I’ll have to stretch my boundary!” Which is FIERCE!
Rumpus: You’ve talked about being from a small town in Illinois a few times. I’m from a small town in Arkansas myself, so folks from small towns who do big things are, of course, endlessly fascinating to me. How has your background inspired (or hindered) you?
Van Ness: Being an openly gay kid in a very conservative place made me build a lot of character; looking back I was able to meet the big challenges I faced which gave me the humor and character I have now.
Rumpus: Feel free to ignore this, because it’s basically me looking for free hair advice: I’m thinking about growing out my hair. I’ve tried this a few times, but I always chicken out because when it’s in the transition phase between long and short, it looks weird. As someone with amazing hair yourself, any tips on growing it out and not letting it get weird? Do you know what I mean?
Rumpus: Finally, is there anything in particular you would like to suggest? Podcasts? Films? TV shows? Books?
Van Ness: I love the TV shows Outlander, Fear the Walking Dead, The British Bake-Off, and I can’t wait for Throwing Shade to start. I’m also loving Chelsea’s new show. Jeffery Self’s new book is fierce; Drag Teen is worth a read! I need book suggestions too! For podcasts, everything on MaxFun is worth a listen! I love ‘em all!
Stay tuned—in the next installment of Podcatcher, I’ll be talking with Taz Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh of Good Muslim Bad Muslim about what’s hot and what’s Haraam.
Rumpus original Podcatcher logo by Trisha Previte. Photograph of Jonathan Van Ness ©Maria Tornberg.