GR37 - How to Make Agents Want You

This show is hosted by Larry Rosen and Bridget Quinn.

Larry and Bridget are joined this week by a multi-hyphenate like they haven’t seen before. They have had:

  • Writer
  • Editor
  • Stand-up comedian
  • Podcaster
  • Musician

… but John combines all these attributes:

Bridget's new book (GR37)

Bridget had an event the night before that was lacking 1/3 of the participants because of the forest fires around San Francisco. It was a panel on graphic books, which means books with pictures like comic books. Bridget did not illustrate her book (Broad Strokes) herself, but it contains reproductions and some amazing drawings by Portland artists Lisa Congdon.

Forest fires around San Francisco 2017 (GR37)

In October of 2017 the air in San Francisco was 160% smoke and everything was on fire. It was supposed to get even worse over the next few days and Larry even closed the windows, which is a major thing for him. Producer Beth Martin-Gardner came to work wearing a mask, but not the kind of mask a surgeon would use, but the kind of mask you would use to flesh out deer.

Earlier this summer all of British Columbia and Montana were on fire, but that was all pine trees exploding in the forest. In Seattle it smelled like a campfire and there was a lot of smoke in the air, just as bad as it is now in San Francisco, and you couldn’t see anything. In San Francisco now it smells a lot less like campfire and instead you smell the burned dreams of 10.000 people. There is a very sad edge to the smell.

As John came from Seattle he flew over an enormous valley and as they saw the first fires everybody was looking down in awe. There were still enormous fires right on the rim of mountains that begins the valley, and if it wasn’t for Napa the city it would be one big fire. There is a fire to the East and to the West of Napa, quickly moving West. The entire valley is shrouded in smoke and you couldn’t see down into it. It just looked like a cauldron! Larry flew over there on his lovely trip to Orcas Island and he did take note that the Napa valley was such a well-defined valley.

How Larry and John met, introduction to John (GR37)

John was in San Francisco for Litquake 2017 (see RL261) to host the Poetry World Series. Larry knew John for a long time because they had been temps together in the cage at the stock brokerage firm Piper Jaffrey (see Employment History). There was an old man in their office and every time he picked up the phone and the other side would presumably ask ”How are you doing?”, he would say ”A whole lot better since you got on the horn!” every single time, several times a day.

At that company there was money actually changing hands and they had these two ridiculous ambition-free temps working there. John has since gone on to do some interesting things, some of which can be covered under the umbrella of writing. He has a book called Electric Aphorisms based on his Twitter-feed which has a butt-load of followers, he has written for the Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, Rolling Stone and CMJ magazines covering music.

John is a musician and years ago he would beg Larry to write about his bands. Larry had seen him playing live and was blown away. Eventually John put together a band called The Long Winters who put out three fantastic albums. Since then John put his toe in all kinds of waters and has played for other bands including Death Cab for Cutie and Nada Surf, he has collaborated with people like Kathleen Edwards and Jonathan Coulton, he has three podcasts, two right now and one that is coming: Roderick on the Line with Merlin Mann, who is a local to San Francisco, Roadwork with Dan Benjamin, and the upcoming Omnibus with Ken Jennings, the guy who won all the money on Jeopardy!

John did run for city council in 2015 and he didn’t screw around but was serious and came in third. Larry gave money to the campaign which is the one and only political contribution he has ever made in his life. John was the host of Hey Seattle with 59 travel videos and the host of Roderick’s Rendezvous, a live show that also became a podcast.

Seattle has a giant festival each summer called Seafair with culminates in hydroplane racing on Lake Washington and John was King Neptune this year 2017, he wore a crown and he took it very seriously. He does those things to an extreme thoroughness and he doesn’t do things halfway. Larry wants to get to the idea of the writer inside of all this stuff because John is a man of letters and he is not a dilettante who does these things in the George Plympton way just to have something to write about.

Larry thought John was going to get on the show and say that in his mind he pictures The Grotto as the Playboy mansion, which made Larry think of something: Hugh Hefner was lucky that he died a month before Harvey Weinstein. He could have survived anything, but would have been a very unhappy old man. He was bulletproof and there was no story you heard about him that you wouldn’t think twice as bad. He would just have kept injecting the blood of virgins and whatever he did to live as long as he did.

The West Coast being a contiguous neighborhood (GR37)

John thinks of the West Coast as a contiguous neighborhood, which was a creative and business-lifestyle decision. If people think of Seattle or San Francisco as their whole milieu, they are not going to be exposed to the larger West Coast conversation, but Portland Oregon is in reality just a lesser, smaller, shittier, dumber suburb of Seattle, which it has always been and always will, and it is an 1.5 hour drive. If somebody asks John to do a show in Portland, he will hop in his car and go. San Francisco is an 1.5 hour flight and John is back and forth all the time.

Litquake 2017 (GR37)

About 5-6 years earlier John was asked to come down to Litquake and MC the World Series of Poetry and everything about that sounded exactly like the type of thing John would say ”Yes!” to, so he did. It obviously doesn’t pay, but the title already tells you that your honorarium is going to be a gift bag full of poetry, which is sometimes traded for bobbles, and they bought Manhattan Island for $26 worth of poetry.

Over the years John has stopped coming for people whenever they would open an envelope because it mostly doesn’t pencil out and at a certain point he had to be more choosy about what to say ”Yes!” to. He already only said ”Yes!” to things that seemed cool and fun, but if those cool and fun things were only paying him in fun he couldn’t keep doing them.

Somehow John got grandfathered into the World Series of Poetry and he keeps flying to San Francisco to do it. It is the World Series after all, and a live event where people turn up to listen to poetry is very fun. There were a lot more events like that 25 years ago because it was what members of Generation X aspired to. Poetry Slam was everything! It was still cheap to have 5 people live in a warehouse and say ”Hey, we are having people over to read this play!” It was a bigger part of our culture and the fact that it still exists in a city like this is great.

Larry keeps thinking that technology should make that stuff easier rather than harder, but there was definitely more of a Mickey Rooney ”Let’s put on a show” type of thing going on in the past and there seem to be fewer boundaries rather than more.

John’s outfit (GR37)

John arrived wearing an orange sport coat and a tie, but he is no longer wearing the sport coat or the tie and he has three buttons undone. He may be naked by the time they finish recoding! John likes to get comfortable, but Bridget notes that this is not the place. This neighborhood is very young and people are clearly working in offices, but they are dressing and comporting themselves as though they are at a fraternity mixer. People call them tech bros. Wearing a blazer and a tie is ironic because the only people who wear ties are employees and the start-up dudes are all wearing $1100 T-shirts. John walking around is communicating to them that he is their dad in every way, and because this is San Francisco, John might also be their daddy, so: Bend over! Here it comes!

John having signed with a book agent (GR37)

This podcast is about writers on writing and does John consider himself a writer. Years ago he walked across Europe and it was supposed to be a memoir. He had a column for the Seattle Weekly for several years and he just signed a contract with a book agent in New York City. He has to write a proposal for that, which is terrible, and the other night he woke up in the middle of the night and thought that all the words he had chosen were the wrong words and he took out everything he had thought was funny and charming when he was writing it.

For years John had a booking agent for his band and his mom is still his business manager and business partner. John loves his mom and she has helped him in every aspect of his career. It is wonderful to have somebody that you can just say like ”Mom!…” John is working on a new podcast with Ken Jennings, the Jeopardy! champion, called Omnibus, who's dad is a retired contract lawyer, and as they keep getting these contracts and have a 24-hour turnaround, they will send them back totally red-lined. John’s mom was a very organized executive and she helps John a lot.

Writing vs editing (GR37)

John did not know what a book proposal was and how it should look like, so he suggested his agent to write it and John would just edit it. Bridget’s brain was blown! The agent actually did write John’s book proposal, but it was not what John would have said, so John went through and changed it and changed it again because editing is fun! Larry feels the opposite: He like writing, but not editing.

John finds editing to be the real joy because he goes through, he combs it, he thinks it is brilliant, he puts it down, he opens it three days later and says ”This is terrible!” It is always combing and taking 80% out, like gold-panning. For Bridget it depends on what is happening whether or not she hates writing or editing. Editing other people’s stuff is a nightmare for Larry, but John loves that more than anything as long as that person is competent enough that you don’t have to rewrite everything completely, because that is not fun.

John seeing himself as a writer (GR37)

John does consider himself a writer, he always did, and he always aspired to be a writer, even more than being a Rock musician. He stumbled into being a musician because the process of being a writer was so obtuse and John could not see a clear path towards it. Being a musician seemed much more like ”Oh, you can just do that!” It might also have been thanks to the surroundings in Seattle in 1991/92. There was a lot of opportunity to be a young writer then, but when it comes to writing the proof is right there: You wrote it, you handed it to somebody and they either liked it or they didn’t. There wasn’t a performance aspect and you couldn’t make a lot of noise and smoking mirrors, It had to just be there.

The amount of immediate audience gratification and feedback you can get as a musician vs as a writer is off the charts. Larry can write something and have 1000 people read it, but he has no idea what they think. John can play in front of 1000 people and they are hanging on his every word. John has a Yoda-high stack of spiral-bound notebooks from when he was practicing, but he didn’t think of it as practicing at the time. He thought it was his magnum opus, but when you read it back, you think it is all pure garbage, and it is just to get it flowing.

We develop our ability to tell good from bad a lot earlier than we develop an ability to make good things (see KPJR2). John could read his writing and know that it was terrible because his critical faculty was already present, but he didn’t know how to make it good. He also knew he was a terrible guitar player, but in 1992 in Seattle he was about advantage. People would say ”I’m not into your whole like ’Knowing how to play’ thing!”, but with writing John always felt like he was competing with Philip Roth. In music he never thought that he had to be as good as Jimmy Page.

In Seattle in the early 1990s there was a lot of that Mickey Rooney ”Let’s put on a show” type thing, and you were more likely to be hanging around with musicians than writers. There were a lot of playwrights and there was an alternative theater scene, and a lot of the playwrights were just up on stage talking about how they felt abused by the bus driver that day.

The Stranger, their weekly local alternative paper that Larry wrote for as well, had an incredible run of great writing in those early days. Charles D’Ambrosio wrote world class essays for them and you would open up the paper and find incredible journalism and incredible writing. John’s whole thing was ”I was sitting in a bar the other day and I was the coolest guy there, but no-one else knew it”, but you are not going to get that in and it felt like maybe this wasn’t where John should go.

With music everyone can hear when it is right and people think that writing is a little different, but everybody gets good writing and you can tell when someone is just Sturm & Drang-ing it, whereas in music there can be all these happy accidents. In some bands in Seattle at the time one of the instruments was a chainsaw and they thought ”Wow, that is so good!” It was such an arch scene! John is naturally a performer and that is much harder to do when you are sitting at a typewriter.

The WTO riots in Seattle 1999 (GR37)

Larry saw John dressed as a secret service guy at the WTO riots in Seattle in 1999. When he asked him about it, John said he couldn't talk now. He was not working as security, but he was pretending to be security. For 3 days he walked around with 2 other friends dressed as security and with a little thing in their ear. They had some working radios and could hear the radio traffic of the organized protesters and of the police.

They also had Marriott sunglasses, CIA wigs, 3-piece suits, and John had gone mustache. The protesters didn’t get it because it was an irony-free zone. They looked like the Beastie Boys in their Sabotage video, but to the vast majority of the Save The Whalers this was what they thought CIA would look like. The cops in Seattle were also totally irony-free people and a lot of them probably thought that John and his friends were FBI.

In the middle of one of these events John and his friends were standing around a massive crowd with smoke in the air, it was insane! You would turn the corner and there would be a line of police with horses and people chained to each other, dumpsters on fire, and John had it on their radios. The protesters were saying ”We are moving to 6th and Pine” and the cops would say ”It is happening at 6th and Pine” John didn’t record any of this because it was before the time and he didn’t even have a cellphone then. It would be a YouTube video now! A guy was running past them with a laptop that was connected to another guy with a camera. They were running together and filming. It was the weirdest thing John has even seen!

There was one moment where John was standing in the street with his hand on his fake earpiece, pretending to talk to his friends. Everybody was eyeballing them and they were having a great time. They would break into a little momentary coordinated dance routine and move on. John was scoping the street and saw a guy his age in a completely anonymous car coat that looked like it was from L.L. Bean.

He had pleated Dockers, comfortable shoes, normal haircut, standing in the middle of the milling crowd, looking at John. They locked eyes and a cold chill went over John as he realized that this guy was an FBI agent and he was looking at John with a look saying ”Nice! That is real cute!” and John was like ”Hey! Hope this is cool!” John was cosplaying a version of him that was a insult or John was making them look like creeps, which they are not, but they are just normal car coat guys.

John went to his earpiece and was like ”Guys! Look over here!” and as he turned around, the FBI guy has done exactly what you would expect: He was gone and John couldn’t find him anywhere! His car coat was the same color as the concrete, the shoes were the same color as the fire hydrant and he had just turned into city dust. John is not a conspiracy-minded person, but if he hadn't wanted John to see him, he wouldn’t have. He had stepped out of his cloud, stopped, and took that moment, like ”Hello!” and went back into the smoke.

Intermission (GR37)

Bridget has to leave at this point and Larry plays a short snippet of John’s song Ultimatum. She left her hippie mints, but they don’t have marijuana in them, they are just green, or maybe they do because they are quite enjoyable. Bridget is a best-selling author in her field of art history books.

Is podcasting the same as writing? (GR37)

John is in the ”business of you”: He is a big enough personality and a performance artist that people want ”you”, and he flew down to San Francisco to basically be himself. He did not prepare for it, he just showed up, because he can’t prepare for talks. The less you prepare, the better!

John started podcasting about 6 years ago (in 2011). Those were not the early days of podcasting and he was no longer thought of as a pioneer, but it was early enough. At the time of recording this episode John had two podcasts and two more coming, so by the end of the year he was going to have four podcasts. For two of them he literally un-prepares. The phone rings, John picks up and he tries to have his mind be as blank as possible and talk completely extemporized.

One of John’s new podcasts is about watching old war movies and talking about them, both as movies and as historical documents, both of the events depicted in the movie and also of the time they were made. All of those World War II movies that were made in the late 1950s / early 1960s are all allegories of… Larry just flashed on laying in a sleeping bag out on the deck and watching Tora Tora Tora on a 12” cellular TV. John’s dad took him to see Midway and it had more effect on him than the entire 4th grade.

John really wrestles with the question if podcasting is writing. For a long time he tried to get voice recognition software to work so that he could sit in front of a microphone and tell the stories that he tells and have those end up typed, like David Milch. Larry always said that you can find your authentic voice by listening to how you talk. John spent years until he found his writers voice and the ability to type in his own lexicon. When he is approached to write something, it is usually a newspaper or magazine article and it is usually around music, which feels like a very limiting space.

There is a huge gap between John’s public persona and the guy who is writing the songs. John is not funny or political in his music, but it is all extremely personal-emotion-based and the songs are often heartbreaking. His songwriting-personality is not his personality, but it is a slice of him that feels hurt and that is not John’s writing-personality. John's writing-personality is what you hear on the podcasts, it is candid and tries to be honest and self-reflective as much as possible, looking for the humor in the absurd truth about us all.

John never had an older mentor, but he always wished for one, for a 50-year old guy who would say ”Listen, I have tried everything, but this is the only thing that will get your dishes clean!” John was one of these people who was ”That is the road to the town, why don’t I go 50 feet off the road and slaug through the musk?”

Larry doesn’t comment on John’s Facebook or Twitter posts unless he really has something to say, because they are competitive. People are trying to get in there, trying to out-funny each other.

Cultural references (GR37)

Generation X was the last generation with a collective culture. Meeting somebody who had never seen Three’s Company was a surprise and your question was ”Were you homeschooled?” The culture wasn't fractured, there weren’t 8 billion choices, and you had to watch Three’s Company because that is what was on. You only didn’t see Happy Days if your parents believed in Jesus enough to keep you in a box, but everyone else had seen all the same stuff, which is no longer true. There are 17 kinds of Norwegian Black Metal now and people are only into this kind, not that kind, which is great because we can define ourselves in very specific lines.

John and Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger used to meet for dinner and have conversations that John wished someone would have been taping. He eventually brought a cassette recorder but it was an incredibly inhibiting presence and they weren’t able to do what they had done before: Having convivial, wide-ranging, revealing, middle-brow, intellectual conversation. Being with someone who gets your references without explanatory text is wonderful! Larry used to call them The Seven People in the World. Even having only two you can rapid-fire with is already wonderful!

Merlin and John had a similar kind of relationship. Merlin would call him and say ”Have you ever really listened to Ringo Starr’s drumming on Hard Days Night?” - ”Yes, I have” - ”No, no, no! I don’t think you have!” - ”No, I really have!” and they would sit and bicker and pretty soon they would be talking about Hitler because everything leads to talking about Hitler. Merlin was going to start recording their conversations, but John didn't even want to know that much, but: ”Call me, talk to me, but I don’t even know what a podcast is and I don’t want to know!”

Merlin is from San Francisco and had been an early San Francisco tech pundit. He has a polymathic intelligence. The attraction of their podcast is that you want to be the third guy in the room. In most cases the people who listen to podcasts are the ones who do not have the typical seven friends anymore. They may have had a real bond with somebody in college or High School, but that person has moved on in life. They work in a place where they are cubicle-isolated or they are around the water-cooler, but most of the people there don’t share their variety of interests and they don’t feel like they have peers that they have regular access to.

Getting approached by fans (GR37)

The Long Winters put out three albums and a long EP, before that John was in Harvey Danger, and he showed up in a Decemberists video which freaked Larry out when he saw it. Larry says that John was universally critically acclaimed, but it was Indie Rock and it never lifted above the level of a small dental practice. They were never a band that employed 50 people, but they only ever employed 8 people.

John suddenly found out that The Long Winters were Ryan Gosling’s favorite band or something like that. One of their songs was used on The O.C., astronauts have heard their music being played in the Space Station, John walked into a studio today where they make the show Tested (with Adam Savage) and one of the hosts was like ”OMG, it is you!” They were really big in Spain, but not so much that anyone ever hustles him.

One time John was at lunch with Adam Savage and John Hodgman in some very fancy new restaurant in the Mission where you wouldn’t have dared to walk 25 years ago, but now it has a place with $80 appetizers. The entire meal was served with classic San Franciscan slightly-above-you service where the waiter is not that interested and as they were getting ready to leave, the hostess of the restaurant, who was extremely cool, deeply chic, with asymmetrical bangs, the whole Blade Runner aesthetic almost, chased after them.

”Excuse me! I’m sorry to bother you!” Adam Savage and John Hodgman both turned around, pulling their ”Let me sign your thing!” pens out of their pockets while John was used to often being the least famous person in a group who will step to the side with a patient smile while the fan interaction happens. She came up and told John that she was a huge fan. John’s fans are loyal fans!

What is next for music? (GR37)

John has three albums in development, one of them is a full Long Winters Rock album, one of them is a strange folky possibly solo record, and one of them is a kind of Electronic Rock record. They are all at about the same stage of development, which is 75% done. John still has a record contract with Barsuk, but the music business has changed so much in the last 10 years that that label has moved largely into managing young bands and it is unclear whether it would benefit John to have a label vs just put it out.

Touring is harder for him now that he has a daughter and is almost 50 years old, but he is in a position where he can fly places, do three shows and fly home, which always seemed crazy when he was younger. Why wouldn’t you just throw everything in a van and drive around for 2 months? That kind of touring will destroy a person! Now John could fly to New York and play New York, Philadelphia, Boston, DC, and fly home.

The Long Winters band is a lot of different bands, they had three different drummers and probably 7 other people who orbited in an out, and it is not that hard to put a Long Winter together again. Larry suggests that Sean Nelson is the key. Sean wants to do it and loves to do it, but he requires a certain amount of care and feeding. He is the lead singer of Harvey Danger and was also a member of the Long Winters. Larry says that the on-stage patter was priceless. Still, it has to be profitable to make all that happen.

John writing a book (GR37)

John started writing a book about his walk across Europe and got really married to it and invested in it. His 450 pages were supposed to be the throat clearing at the beginning of his writer-life, but he was never able to tie it all up because of a lot of his problems as a human being. People have said that his book was a wonderful set of notes for a book. Larry wrote a memoir once and his agent told him that it was 100.000 really funny words, looking for a book.

His advisor at the University of Washington was shepherding him through this process until he got a fatal disease that gave him a couple of months to live. John was at the hospital with him and he held John’s hand and said ”Do not use this book as a thing in between you and the future! Get it out! It doesn’t have to be perfect! Get it done! Do not let it stand in your way!” and John said ”I refuse your deathbed request, I want this to be a load-stone around my neck that tortures me for two decades”

His advisor was trying to say ”Don’t make this your Albatros! Don't work on this thing forever!”, but John could have been an academic who never finished that book and in a way he is, because he still insists on this book. There is an alternate universe where John is a classics or World War II history professor and he longs for that, but then he spends one second thinking about politics at a university and he is like ”No, thank you!”

No small number of book agents listen to John’s podcasts and he has gotten solicited a few times over the years, but he always replies ”That is sweet of you! I have a couple of things I would like to write, would you like to see them?” - ”Oh yes, absolutely” - ”Oh, interesting” They hear stories that sound like books to them.

John Hodgman’s latest book Vacationland is essentially a transcript of his live two-hour one-man show that he toured with for the last couple of years. That in turn was compiled from excerpts of a show he did once a week in New York called Secret Society, an hour-long show that he charged $5 for at the Union Hall, which was a way to jog his mind. It wasn’t off-the-cuff, but it forced him to come up with a show every week.

It was populated with a lot of rituals at the beginning and the end that were the same every week, it was supposed to be fun, and all he had to do was come up with 20 minutes of material. Over the course of a year of doing that he had collected stuff that followed a theme and he produced a two-hour long monologue Spalding Gray style about what it was like to be a middle-aged guy who was struggling with a life-changing amount of success that petered out and being back to ”What do I do with my life?”

People told John that he was basically a writer by any other name and all he had to do was to get his stories into a book instead of this ephemeral, story-telling podcasting thing. One of these agents was persistent in a way that he never took John’s lack of replies personally. He wrote John every couple of months ”Hi! Still here! Still a fan! I was listening to your show last week!” Sometimes John would reply ”Oh, yeah?”, sometimes he wouldn’t. That book agency was called The Fisher Harbage Agency in New York City, they publish mostly non-fiction, but they do a lot of stuff.

John is very distracted. He has a lot of things going on, he has a lot of trouble completing things, and he hates to disappoint people, but he feels like he is always disappointing people. At first John was very excited, then he felt he was disappointing him already, then he felt that it was probably better if he didn't do this right now, then it was back to that book about the walk, but the agent was steadfast. ”I like you! I want to work with you! Whatever you want to do! All you have to do is sign this contract”

A lot of the most productive relationships John had in his life have been the result of saying ”Yes!” to someone who was persistent. The only reason John has a podcast with Merlin is that Merlin was persistent and John ended up saying ”Yes!” although he had a lot of reservations that ended up being about nothing. John was worried about whether or not this was a fair contract, about how it is going to disperse imaginary money that results from an imaginary successful book. What was he guarding? His future riches?

Over time this editor showed John that he was not just calling 80 people a week like a real-estate agent trying to get you to buy a new condo, but he was listening to John, he believed in him and he had not lost faith. What pushed John over the line was that he said at one point ”I’m a fan, I’m also a book agent. I’m not a vanity press person who wants you to do this book because I think the world needs to hear it. This is my job and I think I can make money from you writing a book!” That explicitly naked self-interest really appealed to John because it implied that John would make money from the book as well, and he finally said that he would sign it.

At one point John tried to fan-source a huge transcription project of his shows because there are a lot of fans out there who keep fan sites about it, databases about the shows, and why doesn’t somebody every night sit down and transcribe half of a show? After a time we would have this huge Omnibus! He was not successful in activating an army of 200 Manchurian candidates, but he got about 30 transcripts from 300+ shows because everybody wanted to transcribe the show they liked the best. One fan, a delightful young woman who had done some time as a transcriber for doctors talking into their dictaphones, had a setup at home and did a whole handful of them.

John sent his book about his walk across Europe to this agent and he said again something in the family of ”Perfect is the enemy of good!”, that this was a great book and it was not a question of how to spend 5 more years polishing this to be as sharp a diamond as it can be, but let this book be what it is and do a good job on turning it into as good a version as we can.

The idea was that John had told some of these stories on this podcast that is listened to by how many thousands of people, he got 40.000 Twitter followers, he is a known entity, and if this book came in even half-readable, he would be good to go. It is the curse of John’s generation and part of why he didn’t start writing at a much younger age, because he thought his responsibility was to reinvent the American novel, to make this thing that no-one had ever seen before and that would shock the world.

The Long Winters were a really good Rock band, but they did not re-invent Rock music. There are things about them that are interesting and complex, they didn’t sound like anybody else, but they also didn’t turn music on its head. John was talking to a poet in the poetry world at Litquake last night who had a new book coming out next year and was gearing up for that. He was explaining the process of leading up to a book-release. John was excited for him, but he is not going to be a big shot who sells 10.000 copies. John didn’t know that the numbers were so low and Larry confirms that the average non-fiction book sells 200 copies in its first year.

John's agent made the same calculation: If 10% of John’s following across multiple platforms would buy this book that a lot of them have already been waiting for, they would be selling a good number of books. John has a platform in place that many first-time writers dream of and that is also why Larry started a podcast.

Podcasting is a lasting form, for as low-tech as it is. When it first started there was a lot of eye-rolling about it because the assumption was that what we really wanted were completely immersive media experiences where we were hearing, seeing, feeling and tasting the whole experience. We were going to put gloves on and put our fingers right into Larry Rosen’s bellybutton lint, but it turned out that what we really like is to listen to someone in our headphones while we are doing something else. It isn’t radio either, but it is its own thing. It is one of the last places where 2-4 people, the more people it is the worse it is, will sit and work on something, chew on an idea, tease it out, and not know the answer.

Two days ago John was on an airplane working on his proposal. He was really going through and gutting it and doing that horrible thing where you have such a great line, such a beautiful paragraph, but you have to kill it. John is learning to do it. He had written his first band bios back then. His first records came out pre-big-internet and record reviewers would get a package in the mail with a CD and a piece of paper that said ”This band is X” and John tried to say ”This band is really interesting” and his first bio was ”Whether he was waking up with two broken hands or living the live of luxury on the Riviera…” Those were awful and John wished he had just said that The Long Winters were a Rock band from Seattle. The worst interview Larry ever did was a phone interview with Man or Astro-man because they wouldn’t admit that they were from Earth.

Taking a step back from Twitter (GR37)

John recently stopped going on Twitter. He used to really love it there because it was a wonderful place and he knew a lot of smart and funny people there, but it is not a wonderful place anymore. They had spent years trying to make each other laugh, to entertain people and be great, but few people are doing that now, and a lot of people are just preaching to the choir or lecturing one another. People have always been that way, but they didn’t have a place to say it and you weren’t rewarded for being upset, but being upset was a thing you were trying to resolve.

Michael Ian Black is a wonderful soul, he is a liberal person, he is not a crazy person, but he got into the mode of combatting people he thought were Trump cranks. It brought out more trolls and he got more and more engaged in his project of fighting the good fight. As time has gone on it ruined his Twitter, but it is also visibly destroying him. The last time John saw him he said that he gets 4 hours of sleep at night, he is neglecting his responsibilities in life, but he can’t stop because if he would stop they would win. It is terrible! He is a funny man and a delightful guy, but he has decided that his Twitter account was this platform where he was going to wage virtual war, he was going to have a flaming sword and he was going to kill all these dragons.

The same happened to John. He was on there raging, but he realized that it was not helping him or anyone else. There was no-one in John’s whole Twitter universe thinking ”What do I think about this? I wish somebody would yell at me about it!” There was a rise of the Bernie-fraction and people were coming at John from the left, telling him that he was the problem because he didn’t understand that free healthcare, college and food was a universal right. By asking who was going to pay for it he was basically a Nazi-sympathizer. That whole thing just pushed John right out the door. They were saying that if you sympathize with someone who is bad, then by sympathizing with them you are a sympathizer. Wait a minute! That is not what those words mean!

John went over to Instagram, which was a very supportive environment where people were trying to make each other laugh, but then it creeped in and people started screenshotting their Twitter arguments and putting them on Instagram, or screenshotting things from the Internet and ”Look at this injustice that I want to try and accrue 40 comments in support of my exclamation about this injustice!”, but we all have the same Internet and we all read about it. Why is this suddenly the platform where we are validating one another’s righteousness? Instagram became a drag, Facebook has always been a drag, and the problem is that John doesn’t know how exactly to engage with social media anymore where it isn’t openly a drag and providing him little to nothing.

John’s podcasts (GR37)

Roderick on the Line with Merlin Mann is two middle-aged white guys talking about nothing. When it started it was not yet a hilarious trope, but it was already a thing. A lot of podcast came as a result of Roderick on the Line and wanted to capture the dynamic of two friend who know a lot about a lot of things, who were trying to make one another laugh, but also they don’t have another place to talk about things that are on their minds.

Then Dan Benjamin also wanted to have a podcast with John and they started a podcast called Road Work, which was initially just Dan wanting his own Roderick on the Line. Merlin doesn't like to talk about sex, politics or religion and will immediately redirect if these topics come up, but Dan said ”Why don’t you come over here and talk about those things?” Road Work became much more a longer form, ruminating about human stuff and less about ”What did I do today?” - ”I don’t know! What about The Beatles?” It is more like ”What are we doing?”

One of John's new podcasts is a war movie podcast called Friendly Fire with the two guys from Greatest Gen, a Star Trek podcast that is very successful because a lot of people like to talk about Star Trek. They had pitched John to start a podcast where they talk about old war movies.

Friendly Fire is the first podcast that required any work on John’s part because he has to watch a movie every week and they they sit down on their phones and ”What did you think about that movie?” John is the one of them three who has a body of knowledge about the cultural and political background while they are both filmmakers who are talking about the film as a film and John is talking about it as a historical document.

The last podcast is called Omnibus with Ken Jennings. Ken had never talked into a microphone, but he demonstrated to the world that he knows everything while talking to Alex Trebek. He wanted to record in person and John built a podcast studio in his house so that every Wednesday Ken drives out to John’s house and they sit with their notes.

Ken knows a lot of stuff and likes to talk about a lot of obscure facts. John likes that as well and because Ken is really smart John needs to be on his game. They are doing two episodes a week, for one of them Ken brings the topic, and for one of them John brings the topic. The topics are all across the broad spectrum of the human experience, but largely in the category of little known or poorly understood things about the world.

The first episode described the eccentric millionaire who had introduced the Starling into Central Park in New York City because he thought that Central Park should have every bird that appears in Shakespeare. He imported 40 Starlings from the UK and there are now 300 million Starlings in the US or more, all the result of this one eccentric.

The second episode was on the Defenestrations of Prague and Ken said ”Defenestrations”? Yes, there were actually three of them! The Czech pioneered throwing somebody out of a window as a political statement. It turned out Ken has a family connection to a defenestration because his family were Mormons all the way back. Joseph Smith was thrown/jumped/shot out of the window of a jailhouse and Ken’s great-great-great-grandfather was in the room as one of the people who did not get shot.

Outro (GR37)

Larry is on Twitter and Instagram @thatlarryrosen, he also has a podcast called Is it good for the jews, you can follow this show at @thegrottopod on Twitter or send an email at moc.liamg|dopottorg#moc.liamg|dopottorg, Bridget is @bquinntrest. Remember to read, write and just keep working!

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