Preparing the Perfect Pandemic Pod

Stay F. Homekins, Round Springfield, and more play the right chord for These Times TM

“This is episode 24. We did not expect to still be doing this!”

This line from Paul F. Tompkins opens a recent episode of the Stay F. Homekins podcast, in which Tompkins and his wife Janie Haddad Tompkins discuss, well, what we’re all discussing: life during a pandemic.

Though it’s a joke, quickly tossed off by veteran improviser and podcaster Tompkins, the sentiment encapsulates the theme of their podcast. They really didn’t expect to still be hosting a show into the fall of 2020. And by extension, we listeners didn’t expect that we might still need it.

Stay F. Homekins is just one limited series that’s popped up during the pandemic. The similarly named Staying In with Emily and Kumail, (also hosted by a married couple, actors Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani) ran for 12 episodes, finishing in early June. The couple was candid about their feelings, and their regular segment ‘Weird Things That Made You Cry This Week’ highlighted the rollercoaster of emotions many of us found ourselves riding throughout the early stages of the pandemic. Home Cooking, an affectionate advice show from Samin Nosrat (author of Salt Fat Acid Heat) and Song Exploder host Hrishikesh Hirway, offered eight episodes. The two play listener calls, give out recipes, and admit that they also panic-bought too many beans in March. The hosts of Reply All gave us The Scaredy Cats Horror Show, a more conversational offering than their usual internet-based fare. For listeners looking for an interactive element, they could join actors and hosts Lauren Lapkus and Nicole Byer on Newcomers, and watch all of the Star Wars films, completing a small task and creating their own ritual. The sense of accomplishment that comes from slogging through The Phantom Menace is elevated knowing that you’re doing it within a community.

Each of these shows debuted, and some finished, during the months of the pandemic, while countries and regions cycled through various states of lockdown. They are small, surrogate friend groups, providing audiences with some solid ground during a time in flux. Chances to be social have dwindled, and you can only log into so many virtual birthday parties and Zoom happy hours before you cut out the middleman and just have a glass of wine alone in the living room. These podcasts offer an alternative: let’s talk about life during a pandemic, and all the weirdness associated with it, and let’s all experience it together, in a way. And when the shows are finished, we will be a few steps closer to finishing lockdown.

Stay F. Homekins was Janie’s brainchild: a way for the two to spend time together as a married couple and process some thoughts and feelings about the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s intimate and funny; the audience listens in as Paul and Janie reminisce and joke, circling back and forth over topics the way two clever people who have known each other for years can do.

Photo provided by Tompkins

The original plan was to produce the weekly show for as long as quarantine would last. But as the weeks, and then months, wore on, they kept going, creating their own date night ritual. “We’ve made the Friday night recording a priority, and it turns out having some semblance of a routine is really nice and comforting,” wrote Paul in an email. For Janie, the regular podcast recording helps anchor the couple in a schedule, however tenuous it may be. They plan to let the length of the pandemic dictate the parameters of this project. “While we would have loved for us to be in a different place with the world reopening,” Janie says, “we are just staying flexible and rolling along with it.”

A big part of what makes a show like Stay F. Homekins work is the loose formatting. Paul and Janie keep things purposely unstructured, letting the winding conversation run free. It’s at times funny, wistful, or distressing, but it’s always genuine. (A recent episode delved into the ways in which we all work to keep anger in check, while also referencing Jeff Foxworthy.) “The focal point for me has become connection: us connecting with each other and us connecting with an unseen audience as we all experience this very strange and discouraging and scary time,” Paul said.

For Janie, the recording experience can go even further. Not sticking to an agenda or planning out their topics allows a freedom in the conversation, prompting a bit of a therapeutic result. “That feeling of being present, or in the moment, is a welcome one, because it is at least one hour a week I don’t ruminate on the world’s deep imbalance and immense suffering,” she says. “I kind of rely on the podcast at this point as a pressure valve.”

That release can also come from escapism. While Stay F. Homekins isn’t a news show, it’s at least news-adjacent. The topics range from Hollywood stories to current events to memories of old landlords. But the present moment, the reason for the podcast, always lingers in the mix. While many recent limited-series releases are related to life under COVID, some shows aim to go further afield, sliding into fictional universes, or using them as a jumping off point.

In Round Springfield, hosts Julia Prescott and Allie Goertz bring on a new guest each episode, and each person is connected with The Simpsons. The two writers and comedians had spent four years hosting Everything’s Coming Up Simpsons, where guests could do a deep dive into their own favourite episodes of the show. They had built a loyal following and accomplished quite a few podcast milestones. “We’ve done all the things that we felt were really important,” says Prescott. “Doing those live shows was something that was definitely on the bucket list and they were so fun. We made merch, that was so fun. We made a fucking book!”

Allie Goertz — Photo provided by Goertz

But things were starting to get stale, and the two friends decided to switch things up with Round Springfield. In this new offering, Goertz and Prescott are circling around familiar territory, interviewing writers, voice actors, and directors about their projects in and outside of the Simpsons-verse. It’s a nostalgic look at how the most enduring animated show of all time has impacted dozens of other entertainment projects. It’s also just two friends chatting with people they admire, all connected through a fictional family in a fictional world.

But despite the recognizable elements, hosting Round Springfield is a very different gig. With more pre-planning going into the show, the pair are able to avoid old patterns and think deeply about the types of conversations they want to have. “Why are we doing this? Who do we want to talk to? How much do we want to get into personal aspects of these writers and voice actors, as opposed to maybe only talking about work?” Goertz said. “By the time we’re actually recording, it’s a breeze and we’re just having a fun conversation with these people that we love.”

Adhering to a limited release also allows everything to remain fresh. “There is an infinite nature to (podcasting) that could increase burnout faster than you would like. And we never wanted to feel that way,” says Prescott. “I think that it’s really hard to hide that when you’re in a 45 minute to one hour conversation. And, you know, people can smell it from a mile away.”

Instead, the feedback that they receive from listeners also praises the pair for their casual style and friendly banter, something they deliberately cultivate, much like the tone of Stay F. Homekins. This is not a show that requires five takes to get the intro just right. Instead, the goal for Goertz is to produce audio that sounds homey, natural; these are just two friends hanging out. “It’s very much our authentic selves.”

Julia Prescott — Photo provided by Prescott

And in this time of social and physical distancing, fans appreciate that authenticity. “Just the other day we had somebody reach out to us and like, just the way we sign off brings them joy,” said Prescott. “Just like the little weird thing that we always do and say, brings them joy. So that to me, it’s really cool because it feels like they see us and they get us.”

Originally planned for 20 episodes, the show added on an additional five after hitting some fundraising goals. But Prescott and Goertz say they won’t extend the run any further. Both agree it’s time for something new and, when they complete 25 episodes, will move on to other projects.

Shows like Round Springfield and Stay F. Homekins may offer a measure of relief to listeners, but producing a more light-hearted podcast comes with its own challenges. How often, and to what level, do you acknowledge the state of the world? Is the show simply escapism, or should it reflect the social unrest that is driving protests and activism around the world? For Janie and Paul, Stay F. Homekins is a show that directly revolves around the pandemic. While they keep things lighthearted, it’s inevitable that heavier topics will pop up.

The Round Springfield hosts work harder to keep the outside world from infiltrating their podcast space too much. But there came a point in the spring, as protests and rallies popped up in cities around the globe, that Goertz and Prescott took some time to think about the impact their podcast had on the world. Much like Janie Haddad Tompkins, they came to view their show as offering a small respite for anyone who might need it. “We eventually came to the understanding that no matter what darkness exists in the world, people really do need that source of light,” Goertz explains. “It is a really important reminder baked into our production schedule that you need to allow yourself a break. ”

There’s a satisfaction that comes from finishing a podcast episode or series. Like crossing an item off of your to-do list, there’s pride in seeing a show through to its end.

Janie Haddad Tompkins is happy knowing that her show might simply help people get through another day. “If we offer anything at all by making our silly, insane, unhinged conversation with one another available to folks once a week, that would be wonderful! Mostly, I just love spending my evening with Paul,” she says. “I feel very lucky that we are in this quarantine together, since he is my favorite person to spend time with. We hope that our gratitude somehow translates, so others feel a sense of community and comfort along with us.”

No one expected that we would still be dealing with a pandemic now. No one expected that we’d still have a need for podcasts that discuss life under a pandemic, be they silly, irreverent, serious, introspective, or all of the above. But, even if it seems like an endless stretch of time now, this period of history won’t last forever. Until then, at least we’ve got something to listen to.

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