Podcatcher #6: The History Channeler
The first podcast I ever listened to was John Hodgman’s Today in the Past, the pre-cursor to Hodgman’s more widely known Judge John Hodgman. Today in the Past was short, maybe a minute long at most, and was simply John Hodgman reading out absurd historical trivia, not unlike the kind featured in his books Areas of My Expertise, More Information Than You Require, and That is All.
When I first started listening to The History Channeler, that’s kind of what I expected—playful goofs on historical facts. What I got instead was a show that has little to do with history and even less to do with facts; instead, The History Channeler (or THC, as hardcore THC-ers call it) is its own bizarre world, woven together by its even more bizarre host, Scott Pinkmountain (who you might know in his more rational form from the Rumpus podcast Make/Work, which will return with a new episode on December 22).
It’s a meta concept: Scott Pinkmountain has a podcast where he plays a character named Dr. Scott Pinkmountain who has a history podcast. Pinkmountain (in character) tackles historical topics (with absurd inaccuracy) but devotes large segments to talking about the creation of the podcast itself. In the process, he creates an episodic narrative with a full cast of characters including:
- Chakra Kennedy Onasis, number one intern and Pinkmountain’s right hand
- Higgenbaum, a (seemingly) incompetent, bumbling intern
- Electra, Chakra’s girlfriend and a highly trained assassin
- Syd Ballabad, the silent producer who is also involved in covert government affairs
- Twintern Jeff Bezos (who Pinkmountain refers to as Lil’ Jaffy Bozos)
- Accountant Donkey Hootie (the donkey form of Hootie from Hootie and the Blowfish)
- Palsy the Occasionally Sober Puffin
- the ghost of Esqueegee Accidente, former CEO of the Capital Breakfast Soda Company
And many, many more. The storylines are as strange as the characters, and each episode is tied together with fake advertisements and jazzy musical interludes. The whole thing is comically absurd and absurdly comic.
I interviewed Scott Pinkmountain about how he constructed this strange, funny, and genius podcast. He tells me all about music, comedy, and his love of Tom Cavanagh.
The Rumpus: Can you give me a brief history of The History Channeler? What inspired it?
Scott Pinkmountain: About two years ago, I discovered the podcast Mike and Tom Eat Snacks. It’s Michael Ian Black and Tom Cavanagh hanging out, eating and rating snacks. I’ve spent so much time listening to and thinking about this podcast that it’s hard to know where to start talking about it, but it’s definitely the most direct inspiration to The History Channeler, not necessarily in what the show is, but in motivating me to create it.
First off, Tom Cavanagh. Most people have probably heard of Michael Ian Black and most people have almost definitely never heard of Tom Cavanagh, which is extremely unfortunate for the world. He’s by far one of the funniest, quickest, most brilliantly improvisatory comedic minds out there. The fact that he has a quiet, B career as a straight man is either because he’s too modest to push his genius out there (he’s Canadian), or because he has terrible people working for him. It’s a total mystery to me. I would make this entire interview about Tom Cavanagh if I was less egotistical. I have extended fantasies about hanging out with him (which I explore to some degree in Episode 10 of THC). I can only pray that he’ll read this and reach out to me. Tom, if you’re out there, I love you in a not at all threatening, excessive, or sexual way (unless that’s what you want).
The other most important thing about MATES is that there are no ads. Unless Nerdist pays them some kind of prestige fee, the show is not monetized, which, to me, indicates that they are making it for all the right reasons. It sounds like these are two guys who met working on a not-that-popular sitcom fifteen years ago. They shared an easy rapport and hit it off, and now that their careers don’t bring them naturally in contact with one another, they created the podcast as an excuse to hang out on a regular basis and offer a context to unleash their shared sense of humor. This, and their elaborate avoidance of plugging their current projects, gives the show a kind of purity and spirit of free play that is entirely absent from much of the podcast universe. Unless I’m totally duped by some cynical guerilla marketing strategy, there is no secret branding agenda, no product placement shilling, no “platform building” (fucking kill me) going on here.
And since the show is nearly void of personal details and biography, there’s not even the narcissistic, cult of personality, “reality” performance that is the basis and ether of almost all celebrity-driven podcasts. It’s just two friends who clearly love each other letting you eavesdrop on their generally funny, sometimes flat, and occasionally mind-bogglingly genius repartee. For free. Asking nothing in return.
So I immersed myself in the show for a good couple of months, and when I started running out of episodes, I hunted around for similar shows. By similar, I just mean something that would make me laugh. (I can talk more about this if you want, but I’ve basically come to view comedy as the highest art form, and the great comedians as the shamanic healers of contemporary culture. Also, my dad was dying and I lost interest in consuming anything other than humor.) And I didn’t find anything.
Scroll through the top 50 (hell, top 100) comedy podcasts on iTunes. Listen to twenty minutes of each one, and tell me if you laugh. Nearly all of them are either interview shows conducted by people that are not particularly great interviewers (Marc Maron aside), or two not-that-funny people (maybe one or both have minor celebrity status?) talking about waiting in line at Starbucks or retelling a self-flattering anecdote from a Tinder date, or, most commonly, a sexist dude being sexist. I have since found some good comedy shows out there, but my god, you really have to dig (and mostly they’re British). So basically, I did what folks like us (“us” being pretty much anyone reading The Rumpus) do, and I set out to make the thing I wanted to consume.
The idea for THC came to me pretty much fully formed one night when I was having trouble sleeping. I had a few constraints. I wanted something simple enough to perform and produce myself, but with the capacity to add in collaborators if/when possible, and I needed a context that could ground the show but allow for broad variation and freedom.
For MATES, it’s snacks. They’re never going to run out of snacks to rate, and it gives a form to the show that they can engage with to whatever degree they want, or nearly abandon if they so choose. This was all kind of in the very back of my mind. I wasn’t walking around trying to cook up a show. I just loved MATES and with the mentality of a superfan, wanted to draw myself closer to its creative energy or interact with it in some more visceral way than just taking it in passively. Then I had this one night of insomnia and instantly hit on the idea of a show (characters, format, title, and all) based on a deeply uninformed retelling of history.
Rumpus: Why did you think to make it into a podcast specifically? What about the medium of podcasting seemed right for this particular project?
Pinkmountain: I’m a huge booster of the podcast medium for a bunch of reasons, but first and foremost, I made a podcast because I observed that was what I was consuming. I analyze other people’s music eight hours a day for my day job at Pandora, which has the negative effect of not only making me never want to listen to music when I’m not working, but also of kind of exhausting my active consumption art brain. I’m not proud to say that aside from reading a lot of news, I mostly only have energy for more passive creative consumption, but I find myself mostly taking in TV and movies, radio, and podcasts. So partly I’m just making what I’m immersed in, but also, I assume I’m not the only one who finds it easier or more convenient to take in a 45-minute podcast while doing other things (cooking, driving) than to stop everything and read for forty-five minutes.
But the main reason I was drawn to the podcast medium was the release and distribution model, which is easy, cheap, and pretty universal through iTunes. For several years prior to launching THC, I had some major disappointments in my creative life that all centered around rejection exactly at the gate of publication/release. I couldn’t find a label to release an album I’d made. I couldn’t land an agent for my novel. I did land agents for two nonfiction projects and then both times, the agents couldn’t sell the books. Not to mention the endless stream of rejections for smaller essays, stories, radio pitches, etc… Basically, I hit a wall and I lost the inspiration to make stuff because, what was the point if it’s never going to leave my studio?
So I made a sort of pact with myself to convince myself to start making again; I would only start a new project if I had a built-in release model that I felt okay with before I put any effort into the creative work. If I’m going to make a new album or write another novel, I have to have to not only know how it’s going to get released, but feel good about that strategy, before I lift a finger. If some better release offer comes along, great! But I can’t even be secretly gunning for that. Otherwise, I’ll just get bummed out and stop making the thing.
Maybe the greatest thing about podcasts is how easy and cheap they are to release, and how opaque that ease is (the listener doesn’t necessarily know). Of course a self-released show is going to have a harder time getting attention, getting well-ranked on iTunes, etc… but the audience doesn’t view a self-release any differently than a supported release (unlike with a book or an album), in large part because the medium is so new, they’re not trained to pay attention yet. So there’s still a grassroots, democratic ethos in the podcast world that is either long gone from most other mediums, or only exists in a super DIY form that looks and feels radically different from the mainstream form. If you’re cruising around iTunes, my podcast looks the same as all the rest, and because the means of production are so cheap and widely available, it’s also easy to make it sound legit.
Plus all the other great things about podcasts, too, like the freedom and range of the format, the simplicity of production, the flexibility of consumption, and the portability. I love the medium. I think it’s the punk rock of this moment.
Rumpus: History actually seems (to me, anyway) to be of relatively little importance to THC. That is, the main storyline of the podcast seems to be around this absurd cast of characters you’ve created, more than any of the actual history being discussed. Sometimes the podcast gets a good ways in before any historical topic is even brought up. What do you think is the advantage of centering the podcast around history?
Pinkmountain: Basically, history affords me an infinite context and maximum flexibility while also providing a consistent grounding. I’m not totally sure I could pull the show off without that solid touchstone. It’s also a foil for Dr. Pinkmountain’s know-it-all-ness. I guess the show could be about science or math or literature or some other academic subject, but I think I’d have a harder time BSing infinitely about those things, and besides they all fall under the umbrella of history (right?), so I can dive into them to whatever degree I want. And history gives me a lot of leeway for storytelling, and human brains enjoy narratives, or so I’ve been led to believe.
Rumpus: Music plays a pronounced but relatively undiscussed role in THC. Obviously, since you’re a musician, this makes a lot of sense. Music, though, is often an afterthought in a lot of other podcasts, I’ve noticed (at least, I’ve heard some truly abysmal podcast theme songs, anyway). What do you think music adds to THC, and what do you think it adds to (or detracts from) podcasts in general?
Pinkmountain: A story: A couple years back, I put together a pilot for an hour-long podcast that I had been invited to pitch to a friend who was launching a podcast network. It was a big, ambitious idea for a show involving interviews, fiction, all original music, essays/monologues—something like a cross between This American Life and a surreal Joe Frank production. (The importance of Joe Frank’s work on much of the podcast and radio production world cannot be overstated. He’s maybe the most important creative radio producer of the last fifty years and had a huge impact on my understanding of radio art.) My friend with the podcast network hated the pilot, and one of his biggest critiques was my use of music. He was coming from the TAL school of scoring, which is very effective, but which views music as slavish to the spoken voices. I was trying (and admittedly perhaps not succeeding) for something different but that was the end of that project. It was too big to do without financial support, so I moved on.
When I dreamed up THC, I knew out of the gate how I wanted the musical cues to sound, but I didn’t really know why, other than I thought it would be funny. I also knew I didn’t want to score the show with manipulative/emotional soundtracking like This American Life. I’m still learning as I go, but I’ve come to understand the music as functioning a tiny bit like a Greek chorus (to phrase it in the most preposterously pretentious way possible) or maybe more like a snarky sidekick.
But also, you just so rarely hear avant-garde technique used in any other context than avant-garde music and occasionally in horror films, so bringing this whole bag of tricks that I’ve spent most of my adult life developing was not only convenient, but seemed novel and potentially fresh-sounding.
As for the jingles and segment intro songs, well, there’s just nothing more fun than writing goofy fifteen-second songs. It’s a nice way to mix up the tasks and keep the project interesting for myself.
Rumpus: Has podcasting made you think any differently about your own music writing and production?
Pinkmountain: The thing that’s affected me the most with the format is the weekly release schedule, which is entirely self-inflicted, but I think it’s for the best, at least for now. There’s no time to be persnickety or perfectionist. I am always sweating a deadline and the minute I post an episode for publication, I have to put it behind me and start working on the next episode, so I can’t afford to be precious or overly fussy about anything. Podcasts have a pretty low bar for sound quality, and most folks are going to be listening off their phone while bumbling around their kitchen, or driving to work, so producing a song for the show doesn’t need to reach the same standards of production as making a song for an album.
I still want it to be as good as I personally can make it, but with my albums, I make them as good as I can afford to pay someone else to make them.
Rumpus: I can’t for the life of me actually figure out how many different people you have working on THC. How many people are actually providing voices? How many of them are just your own?
Pinkmountain: I can have Chakra forward you some stats on our production crew if you’d like.
Rumpus: On that note, there’s very little about THC that’s factual—even the advertisements are delightfully fake. Yet the world you create in THC still has firm ties to the real world: there is, for example, a real person named Scott Pinkmountain, even if on THC, you play a “histographer” named Dr.Scott Pinkmountain; there is, unfortunately, a real person named Donald Trump, even if the person you compare him to never existed; etc. Why these little touches of realism in an otherwise completely absurd narrative? That is, why not just go all out and make the podcast a complete fiction?
Pinkmountain: The main reason is maximum flexibility. I want to be able to make stuff up and take a break from reality, but I also want the freedom to comment on the real world. There’s a lot to comment on right now.
Also, the show itself is built from a combination of improvisation and scripted material. This is hardwired into how I work across the board; blending varying degrees of improvisation and composition. I think the greatest art comes from balance and synthesis and I view the fact/fiction relationship similarly. The flights of fancy can work because they’re diverging from or contrasting some kind of bedrock (at least for my taste).
This might just be analysis after the fact though, because it’s all part and parcel. Pinkmountain is a blowhard know-nothing, but has no clue of his own ignorance, or he does and he’s covering by bluffing. He has some grain of fact, something he overheard basically, and he flies forward with bravado and conviction. The blend of reality and fantasy stems from the character’s flaws, so it’s integral.
And Pinkmountain is sculpted the way he is as a send-up of white mansplaining. He’s the jackass authority in a position of wholly undeserved power who cannot (and should not) earn the respect of the talented people around him. He is based on someone I know all too well.
Rumpus: What I love most about THC is that there are moments where I’m listening, and I think you might have a throw-away gag (for example, the Capital Building actually being named for a defunct breakfast soda company) but those jokes then somehow almost always get foregrounded into the main narrative of the podcast. How much of that is planned? That is, do you plan out a storyline for the podcast or do you sort of ad-lib your way through the narrative? Or some mix of both?
Pinkmountain: The percentages of what’s written and planned versus what’s improvised and spontaneous in the moment of recording are always in flux, in part because I have to keep changing things up so I don’t get bored or too cozy in a routine, and in part because I actively want to develop a variety of different techniques and abilities. So some shows are 100% improvised, then heavily edited, and some are 100% written, but most are some combination. I’m constantly taking notes, so I’ve always got a big running list of stuff to draw from. I don’t often pull from that list, but it’s like a safety net to know it’s there.
As for little throw-away’s growing into central elements, it’s exciting when it happens spontaneously, so I try not to over-architect it but instead keep an eye out for things that can be called-back. I improvised the fake town, Mishegas, Cleveland once early on, and have since probably used it twenty times.
My hope is that kind of thing really rewards the serial listener. I’m sure there’s some perfect balance of call-backs, internal references, repeated characters and shticks in combination with new material, but it’s something I don’t in any way claim to understand. And ideally, the show would reward the long-time listener as well as be funny and comprehensible to someone tuning into any episode for the first time. I literally have no idea if episode #43 works if it’s the first thing someone hears.
Rumpus: What do you see as the future of The History Channeler?
Pinkmountain: This first season will go up to the election (how could it not?), and then I’ll take a little break, maybe listen back to everything if I can stand to, and think about how to adjust for the second season. It’s been a steep learning curve and the production schedule of a show a week doesn’t allow for much reflection, so I have some fundamental things to try to figure out. What’s the ideal length for a show? What’s the best structure? What’s the best combination of written/improvised? How can I make it as funny as possible? I don’t even feel like I have a good handle on what works and what doesn’t work on the most basic level.
At first, I was so concerned with the writing and the “jokes” that it took some friends to point out to me that I’d developed a persona who they perceived of as an element of the show and that the writing was only one component of a larger experience.
Rumpus: Is history enough for you, Pinkmountain?
Pinkmountain: There’s so much to cover, history-wise. I haven’t even gotten to sloths or outer space.
Rumpus: Finally, do you have other things you’d like to promote or books?
Pinkmountain: I did release an album this year, which I was really excited about. It’s called No Country Music and it’s a fourteen-piece Afro-psyche band recorded live in the studio.
I’d encourage everyone to check out the work of Nina Frenkel. She was a great visual artist and a dear friend of mine who recently passed away. Rumpus readers might have seen her work as she designed the logo to my Make/Work podcast.
I was really into Maria Bamford’s new Netflix show, Lady Dynamite. It’s by co-produced by Mitch Hurwitz who did Arrested Development, but it’s way more offbeat.
As for podcasts, obviously, go listen to Mike and Tom Eat Snacks if you haven’t already. And literally anything by Joe Frank is worth your time.
Good comedy podcasts are incredibly hard to find. I like The Beef and Dairy Network and I’m a sucker for Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me (Paula Poundstone is brilliant). I’m concerned to an unhealthy degree about the walking constitutional crisis that is Donald Trump, so Trumpcast, NPR Politics Podcast, and The Run-Up are on IV drip. And I was surprised by how great Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History was. I expected to hate it, but he gets really angry about all the right things.
Stay tuned—in the next installment of Podcatcher, I’ll be talking to the citizens of Citizen Lit Cast.
Rumpus original Podcatcher logo by Trisha Previte.