Try, Try Again, And Keep Recording

What is it about beginners that makes for such good listening?
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Peter Bresnan isn’t famous.

At least, not yet, but that’s what he’s trying to be -- or, if not famous, at least funny -- in his new podcast following his adventures in trying to be a stand-up comedian. It’s aptly titled: “Tell Me I’m Funny.”

His first two episodes provide a look into a world few see, save for other up-and-coming comedians: the open mics, the joke critiques, the feeling that his mom is his only fan. Stand-up comedy, for Bresnan, is “something I’ve always loved, but I’ve never actually tried doing before,” as he says in Episode 1. This isn’t the story of a Steve Martin or Sarah Silverman, or someone who’s had a bit of success on his local circuit.

Bresnan is an absolute beginner.

Other podcasts have followed their hosts as they try something new with unknown results: “First Day Back” garnered attention for Tally Abecassis’ vulnerable documentation of her return to the workforce after a long break; Megan Tan’s “Millennial” showcases the recent college grad’s attempts to find herself, and a career, through that early 20s haze. And, of course, there’s “StartUp,” which in its first season followed Alex Blumberg as he created what is now Gimlet Media, a podcasting powerhouse in its own right with nary a missed note in their catalog.

What draws us to these underdog stories, tales of attempts, of unsure outcomes? It follows logic to be interested in someone successful: in interviews and profiles, we want to know about Stephen King’s writing habits; Amy Schumer’s comedic brain; Steph Curry’s smooth court moves. But it’s unlikely that Wanda from down the street will appear on the cover of a magazine anytime soon. To an extent, it makes sense: why inquire about a stranger’s life? We shouldn’t care as much.

Yet, it turns out, we do.

Podcasting doesn’t necessarily incur the large costs that most life examiners -- book deals, documentaries, magazines -- have to contend with, meaning they’re also not bound by the need to have an insanely huge fan base to exist. Anyone with a microphone, a story and some computer know-how can start their own show. This is not to undercut the skill level and logged hours needed to create a good podcast, which is clear in Tan’s, Bresnan’s, and the other aforementioned shows, but let's agree the startup costs are lower and the pathways more accessible in the digital content realm than, say, in Hollywood.

“They’re journeys that, thanks to the hosts, tap into basic feelings we’re all equipped with: questioning our worth, having a dream, feeling hopeful, feeling static.”

As a listener and non-famous person, I can conjecture that these stories are enjoyable because of some existential comfort they provide: I can see myself as the unsure stand-up finding out how his act went over onstage, or the woman who is unsure how to be outside of the assured path of college. If they’re not journeys I’ve been through myself, they’re journeys that, thanks to the hosts, tap into basic feelings we’re all equipped with: questioning our worth, having a dream, feeling hopeful, feeling static.

The journey these “beginner” podcasts follow also carries the weight of the unexpected. Will Tan get the highly coveted NPR internship she discusses in "Millennial"? Will anyone tell Bresnan he’s funny? All we know, as listeners, is that the odds are against them. Success isn’t guaranteed, a factor that taps into our love for the underdog. Daniel Engber explored this phenomenon on Slate in 2010. While his article generally focuses on underdogs in sports, the takeaways transfer: “... the expected value of a bet on an underdog -- its average payoff in raw, chest-bumping excitement -- will always be higher than the expected value of a bet on the favorite.” The story of, "I'm perfectly satisfied and will continue to be," doesn't really have the satisfying arc we crave in our narratives.

A photo posted by Megan Tan (@mmmmtan) on

There’s also the confessional nature inherent to these podcasts; the feeling while listening that you’ve stumbled upon a stranger’s audio diary. There’s personal stuff that many would typically conceal from others (think missteps, fears, insecurities) being piped right into our ear buds. A sense of trust is built, a closeness wherein it seems natural to want to support the hosts in their missions. Most people wouldn't recognize them on the street, but hosts of these personal-diary-type podcasts show that, with the right framing, an individual's own journey can be a compelling one.

We’re fixated on -- and, yes, rooting for -- the protagonist’s lives, which can be tricky for a creator when the story she's covering is her own. As your reality shifts, your product does, too.

“The tricky thing about this podcast is, I’m documenting my life and enough really crazy amazing things, or interesting things have to be happening in for it to be a good podcast,” Tan said in an interview with PRX. “So I question the longevity of it, but I also think there’s a potential for it to boomerang in a different direction.”

Similar podcasts have undergone this boomerang she mentions: “StartUp,” once Blumberg’s company was, well, started up. It shifted its focus to documenting another beginner of sorts in Season 2: Dating Ring, a matchmaking service in its early stages. And when “First Day Back” felt complete as a season, Abecassis promised, in the latest episode, that she’d be back with stories of other people’s first days back.

It’s unclear how Bresnan’s comedy career will go; whether Abecassis can enter the same film industry she left when she became a mom; if Tan will get the radio-producing job of her dreams. But they’ve made us care about what will happen next -- whatever, indeed, that might be.

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