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How to Make a Kind Podcast

A lesson from Josh Gondelman

Josh Gondelman is, hands down, one of the nicest people on Twitter. The stand-up comic and writer on Showtime’s Desus & Mero is known for being upbeat and positive in nearly every interaction he has. He exudes an optimistic energy that seems frankly incomprehensible during COVID-19. He even managed to turn a joke about his refusal to do cocaine into a chance to donate to charity.

But there’s one thing that fills him with panic and dread.

“It’s something I think about constantly. It was a bit that I thought would be fun and silly, and now it governs my life,” Gondelman says with a laugh when we chat over Zoom.

“But I also think there is space for seeing people doing good things and appreciating that, whether that’s activism or art. And I think that’s really important, because saying when things are bad is the first step towards fixing them.”

Gondelman is, of course, referring to the point structure of his game show podcast Make My Day. Early on, Gondelman decided that each successive guest on the show would set the all-time scoring record, something he thought would be a fun gag. But now, more than 20 episodes in, he’s coming to terms with just how much those point totals have ballooned. His first guest, Akilah Hughes, scored 52 points. Not a bad showing at all. But compare that to recent guest Mike Birbiglia, who scored 506 points, and you see Gondelman’s dilemma.

Make My Day is a tough podcast to pin down. It’s a game show, but it’s not. It’s a celebrity interview show, but it’s not. It’s a current affairs show, but it’s not that either.

It works like this: Gondelman hosts just one contestant each week, who is guaranteed to win the game (and collect the new high-score, the source of his unending stress and agita). He writes questions tailored towards his guests’ previous work, and then he arbitrarily awards points based on how much the answers cheer him up. For instance, Jill Twiss, a children’s book author, was quizzed on potential children’s book characters, while Alison Leiby and Halle Keifer, hosts of the horror movie podcast Ruined, got questions about hypothetical scary situations. Above all though, the questions are designed to let his guests shine.

“I wanted to make a show that makes people feel good,” Gondelman says. “[It’s] fun for me to create a context for other people to be the most delightful, funniest, most natural versions of themselves.” The premise of the show, that his guests will work to make his day, is a twist on one of Gondelman’s best-known shticks: his pep talks.

If you follow him on Twitter, you’ve no doubt seen his pep talks, offered up freely to anyone who needs a kind word or a small encouragement. Gondelman will even go to the Twitter feeds of the people he pumps up, and read a few of their tweets to get a handle of who they are and what message would resonate with them. It’s not a persona; he’s just a sincere, gregarious guy, who goes through the world leading with those qualities instead of stifling them. (For example, when I asked what other podcasts he listens to, he mentioned several titles and gushed about The Maris Review, a literary podcast hosted by his wife, Maris Kreizman. “She’s a really incredibly incisive, insightful reader and interviewer.”)

It’s not always easy to stay pleasant, or optimistic, or kind, either in the world of comedy or the churn of social media. It’s far easier to be cynical, and to wallow. “You could just be like, ‘this year really sucks goats,’ and people would agree,” Gondelman says. “But I also think there is space for seeing people doing good things and appreciating that, whether that’s activism or art. And I think that’s really important, because saying when things are bad is the first step towards fixing them.”

Photo provided by Gondelman

Those Twitter pep talks are an attempt to fix, even slightly, some of the ills of the world. On his podcast, though, the pep talks are a little different, and serve a different purpose. At the end of each episode, both Gondelman and his guest give a short pep talk to anyone or anything that they choose. Recent recipients include people who don’t read emails all the way to the end, a baby bird trying to leave the nest, and even couscous. The pep talks are sweet and funny, and bring the show full circle. The guest cheers up Gondelman, then they both cheer up the listener, and have them think about the world in a slightly skewed but empathetic way. “I really want them all to have slightly different, encouraging, tender resonances in addition to the jokes.”

All of this—the pep talks, the single guest, and the game show format—was originally very different. When Gondelman and Radio Point first conceived of the podcast, it was going to be a panel show, with several guests riffing on the news of the week, inspired by British panel shows or radio shows like Wait Wait, Don’t Tell Me.

But then, the pandemic happened.

Getting together with several people to record an episode wasn’t going to happen, and laughing at the news felt glib and out of touch.

So Gondelman pivoted, focusing on one guest and staying away from news updates. The questions became more personal and more nonsensical. The points truly have no bearing on anything, but seem relevant. For the listener at home, coming up with your own answers to questions is possible, because there’s no one right answer. He came up with the formula for the podcast on the fly, but it works. “There are ways to do this that are safe, and not everything has to feel charged with, like, immediate visceral terror.”

So with all that the podcast has become due to covid, could it change back when we’re clear of the pandemic? No. Gondelman has found his groove with the single-guest format, and keeping the focus off of news allows for more comedy. But he is open to touring when that’s a possibility, and live shows would likely feature multiple guests competing. He and his producers have also talked about a “tournament of champions,” to see which of his guests reigns supreme as the all-time Make My Day victor, though it’s hard to imagine Gondelman singling out just one person for praise and attention.

Now the show is gaining steam, regularly cracking the top charts for comedy podcasts in various countries, and attracting listeners steadily. Gondelman is happy to keep going, and happy to keep putting his own brand of positivity out into the world.

There’s only one thing he has to deal with, a suggestion I put to him. “I’m waiting for season 14, when Sasha and Malia Obama are guests and now a base answer is 10,000 points,” I say, asking if that’s crossed his mind.

“I mean, that’s definitely going to happen,” Gondelman confirms wryly. “It’s such a ridiculous bit. And I’m fully committed to it. And it is a disaster.”

Perhaps. But it’s nothing an optimist can’t face.

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