10 Things Podcasts Taught Me About Creativity, Careers and Comedy
When you work nine to five, the daily commute quickly becomes another mundane routine. For me it had become more of an extension of the sleep I’d pulled myself out of than a stimulating walk. So I decided to start making better use of my time. Instead of staring sleepily into space and getting lost in my own thoughts, I started listening to podcasts. And they have proved to be more than just an effective distraction.
Since starting my near-daily listenings to By The Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin and Here’s The Thing with Alec Baldwin I’ve learned a lot about creativity, careers and comedy, while also quieting the noise in my head.
‘Yada Yada Yada’ Illustration by Sarah Gooding.
Many people have slow starts… even the creator of Mad Men
Before he became a writer for The Sopranos and created Mad Men, Matthew Weiner was unemployed and “bumming out”. So he chased cash and cachet as a contestant on the quiz show Jeopardy!
“I had been out of work… and hadn’t earned a dollar since I got married,” he told Jeff Garlin. “I remember thinking ‘I am so far from where I want to go’… My wife was supporting me and I was writing — I was one of the only people I knew who was actually writing. I became a better writer over that time, and actually, one of the screenplays I didn’t finish ended up being the skeleton for Mad Men… But that was really a low point. I just remember thinking ‘I will never give up.’”
Bridesmaids writer and actress Kristen Wiig also had a rough start, starting her life in Los Angeles as a salesperson and merchandiser at Anthropologie. She also worked as a caterer and a waiter, gave out peach samples at a farmer’s market and answered phones at a law firm. But despite finding success in film and TV, she told Alec Baldwin she still isn’t sure what she’s doing. “I don’t think I’m ever going to figure it out. I mean, do you ever?”
It’s good to remember that a swift rise to fame isn’t a prerequisite for long-term success. It’s also surreal, yet reassuring, when you can relate to such brilliant creative people as these two.
‘Comedians on Couches’ Illustration by Sarah Gooding
Comedy writers and actors aren’t stand-up comedians
Actor and stand-up comedian are two very different roles, and it seems comedians don’t appreciate confusion between the two. When Jeff Garlin made a trademark interjection in conversation with writer and actor Larry David, this topic came under the spotlight.
“Do you like to do stand-up here?” Jeff asked Larry about Largo, the venue where his podcast was recorded. Perplexed, Larry responded, “If I had an act, it seems like it would be good. I don’t have an act.” He admitted he’d been “trying to write some material”. “I have it in notebooks, but the idea of putting the whole thing together and coming out fills me with dread.”
Likewise, stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld, when asked whether he calls himself an actor, told Alec Baldwin, “No, I’m not an actor.” When pressed on whether he would do “anything dramatic”, he questioned “To what end? I’m a stand-up comedian, that’s what I call myself. I can act; I just don’t see the need for it. I don’t think the world needs me to do that. We have Paul Rudd; what do you need me for? We’ve got a guy for that.”
A comedian’s job is to ease the pain
Jeff Garlin defined the power of his profession when he declared, “My job, as a comedian, is to to ease people’s pain. Life is hard; it’s a struggle working, getting through the day emotionally and spiritually. I like being able to offer — through the podcast, The Goldbergs, Curb Your Enthusiasm and my stand-up — a way that people’s pain is eased, for whatever period that is.”
‘What Is This?!’ Illustration by Sarah Gooding
Success doesn’t always lead to life experience
You would think that with all of the opportunities fame and fortune has afforded him, Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm creator Larry David would have found himself with a camera in his hands. But he told Jeff Garlin defiantly: “I’ve never owned a camera in my life. I’ve never taken a picture!”
After going on to say that his father also didn’t own a camera, and that any picture he has of himself is “just luck”, Larry found himself in one of Jeff’s impromptu on-stage photo shoots — as much a hallmark of the show as Jeff’s booming laugh and rambling recorded advertisements for sponsors. And Larry, with all of his charming limitations, couldn’t help himself.
“What do people do with all these pictures? How much can you look at? What is there to see?” he shrieked. I often ask myself the same thing, Larry.
Creative careers depend on drive
You could have all the talent in the world, but you need unbridled ambition to get it out there. Jerry Seinfeld reminded me of this when he asked Alec Baldwin, “You know who’s in show business? Who wants to be. More than anyone else. Those are the people that are in it. The people that go, ‘I want to be in it, I’m going to be in it. Do I have the skill set? Do I have the talent? Do I have something to offer?’ Most of the people we see in the arts are there not because they have the most to offer, but because they wanted to be there the most.”
Take what you do seriously; don’t take yourself seriously
Just as important as it is to have drive, it’s also important to be humble. We can only guess the perils of publicity Jeff Garlin has seen in fame-hungry Hollywood, but he’s risen through the ranks with his ego in check.
Ironically, he said this during an “interview” with himself, for which listeners submitted questions via Twitter. Nonetheless, he shared a personal anecdote that can be taken as a life lesson: “I take what I do seriously; I don’t take myself seriously.”
All writers carry the weight of their stories
Whether they’re working in TV, journalism or books, writers inevitably invest a lot of themselves in their work. And their lives not only inform their work, but can also become all about the work. In conversation with Jeff Garlin, Matthew Weiner illuminated the level of creative and emotional investment he made as a writer of The Sopranos.
“The weight of the show was so huge. And you’re living with it in the shower, and in the bathroom, and when you’re with your friends…” The show’s creator, David Chase, was naturally even more involved. “He was so obsessed — and I’m in that job now [with Mad Men]. You don’t really exist, on some level.” But, as for any writer who puts their all into their work, he says there’s a pay-off. “You’re not going to go home and regret that you hadn’t done something.”
‘A Show About Something’ Illustration by Sarah Gooding.
The idea of a cultural hierarchy of movies over TV is pointless
The fanfare of films doesn’t make them culturally superior to TV. Movies may get their titles in lights above theatres and be shown on bigger screens, but that doesn’t mean they’re more important. They’re just “different forms”, said Matthew Weiner. “I don’t look at it as a hierarchy.” Citing The Sopranos, he added, “What movie in that era was even close?”
Today’s TV is regularly referred to as “The Golden Age”, and Jeff Garlin, in conversation with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan, appears to agree. “I think that television has replaced film as the go-to medium for great work.”
Artistic input should be based on skills, as well as interest
Jerry Seinfeld mentioned that he doesn’t necessitate his contribution as an actor because “we have Paul Rudd” for that. This lays the foundation for the idea that, as a creative person, you should stake your place based on the value you can offer, not simply what you want to offer. It’s important to consider both, but it ultimately comes down to supply and demand.
We’re all full of fear — don’t let that stop you
Jeff Garlin summed up the plight of every creative person when he sat down with Vince Gilligan of Breaking Bad. “Most people live their lives filled with fear. The secret is everyone is filled with fear, but successful people don’t let fear paralyse them. Walter White, up until that point, let fear paralyse him for whatever his dreams were. And I think most people are like that.” It’s up to you how you deal with it.