Why Smug Superstar Lockdown Podcasts Want To Cease

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OPINION: In a recent episode of Smartless, a weekly podcast in which three Hollywood top performers surprise each other with celebrity guests, the hosts were briefly speechless.

“Woo woo!” yelled Jason Bateman, the star of Arrested Development, who spent a few moments as if trying to impress young children with an impression of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Sean Hayes, Will Arnett and Jason Bateman started the Smartless podcast with the mission statement “Connect and unite people from all walks of life to learn more about shared experiences”.

Chris J. Ratcliffe / Caroline McCredie / Charles Leonio / Getty Images

Sean Hayes, Will Arnett and Jason Bateman started the Smartless podcast with the mission statement “Connect and unite people from all walks of life to learn more about shared experiences”.

“How good is that? Can you believe it? ”Exclaimed Will Arnett, Bateman’s co-host, better known these days for his language work in Bojack Horseman and The Lego Movie.

Arnett then turned into a word washer: “You’re such a weird, weird person.”

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A third co-host was there too, but as a first-time listener you would not have known. All Will & Grace’s Sean Hayes could muster was a terrible mob boss impression.

The reason for the trio’s excitement? The youngest guest at Smartless had just joined her Zoom call, a pre-organized “surprise visit” from the caustic comic book Sarah Silverman.

She is just one of many famous faces that have appeared on Smartless since it launched last July. The weekly podcast began with the motto “Connect and unite people from all walks of life to learn about shared experiences”.

It’s a big talk, but there’s little of it in the show itself. Instead, it’s about Smartless’ already famous hosts showing off their rammed Rolodex from super famous friends.

Smartless has hosted big names like Kamala Harris, Jennifer Aniston and Paul McCartney from the start. Sometimes the guests are there to promote something, like Seth Rogen’s appearance to promote his film American Pickle. Another time they’re happily detached from the promotional car when Will Ferrell got weird and Melissa McCarthy cackled at the memory of her live disasters.

Kamala Harris, Paul McCartney, and Jennifer Aniston have all appeared on the Smartless podcast.

Jacquelyn Martin / Tim P. Whitby / Vittorio Zunino Celotto / AP Photo / Getty Images

Kamala Harris, Paul McCartney, and Jennifer Aniston have all appeared on the Smartless podcast.

As with Silverman, the arrival of each guest is met with awe and admiration. When Silverman arrived, the trio managed to keep the Mutual Appreciation Society going through the 40 minutes of the podcast, with only three long commercial breaks.

The hosts raved about Silverman’s career for 15 minutes. Early on, Arnett repeated a long and dirty joke he admired from Silverman’s late 2007 TV show. As they were walking on, Bateman asked them, “Are you looking at the Bachelor?”

At that point, Smartless lived up to its name.

Even Silverman, always ready with a dash of vitriol, joined the banality. “Ozark – oh my god!” she said to Bateman, who co-designed, directed and starred the hit Netflix series. “Your direction is really beautiful and I thought the third season was phenomenal.”

Smartless isn’t the only podcast that does this. At the moment, Hollywood’s biggest names are boring. Due to Covid restrictions on movies and televisions, many are unable to work and have turned to podcasts to stay busy, make a living, and expand their résumés.

Thanks to zoom and a decent microphone, you can do all of this safely and comfortably from home.

So many have started, it’s hard to keep up. Michelle Obama has one. Dr. Who is playing David Tennant. British journalist Louis Theroux started his own self-deprecating episode for the BBC. Jonathan Van Ness from Queer Eye is also trying it out. Anna Farris too.

The big problem? All of these celebrity podcasts are running out of celebrity guests to talk to and there are things to talk about.

Rob Lowe's podcasts promise entertaining, far-reaching, and permissive conversations for guests from the worlds of movies, television, sports, music, and culture.

Larry Busacca / Getty Images

Rob Lowe’s podcasts promise entertaining, far-reaching, and permissive conversations for guests from the worlds of movies, television, sports, music, and culture.

Last May, veteran actor Rob Lowe appeared on long-running podcasts Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend and In Bed With Nick (Offerman) and Megan (Mullally). He was there to promote his own podcast, literally! With Rob Lowe.

One of Lowe’s first guests was O’Brien. Offerman followed just weeks later.

That’s a lot of chat with little reward. His style is aimless and anecdotal. As with Smartless, the joke rarely goes deeper than, “I’m famous, you’re famous, let’s chat.”

Which is a big problem. Podcasts are better when it comes to one point, an overarching topic, with a reason for discussion other than common fame.

I Weigh does a great job with The Good Place’s Jameela Jamil asking each of her guests to share a historical trauma and then advise on their recovery. It’s informative and insightful about all of the things a good podcast should be.

If you are just relying on celebrities to show up and get famous, the chat has to be good. The problem with smartless and their face is that one person does this better than anyone else.

Since 2009, dark comic and brooding actor Marc Maron has recorded more than 1,000 episodes of deep dive interviews with some of the world’s biggest names.

Comedian Marc Maron does podcast interviews with celebrities better than anyone.

Katie Stratton / Getty Images

Comedian Marc Maron does podcast interviews with celebrities better than anyone.

WTF With Marc Maron runs twice a week and has turned out very, very well. Marron doesn’t make fluff. Celebrities don’t have it easy. There are no softball questions. Sometimes they can deviate wonderfully from the route. In other cases, they will not talk about the guest’s career at all.

At other times, Maron’s interviews can have serious ramifications, such as when President Barack Obama used the N-word in an episode or when Mandy Moore alleged an abusive relationship with her ex-husband, Ryan Adams.

It can also get dark. When Maron’s partner, director Lynne Shelton, died of complications from Covid-19 last year, Maron went to his podcast booth and radiated his grief for the world to hear.

Maron has become a master of form, and after 12 years, his twice-weekly interviews have become a must-have podcast listener.

Smartless? Marron probably doesn’t know the meaning of the word.