What Made Todd Hanson’s Episode of ‘WTF’ One of the Most Powerful Podcast Episodes Ever

marcmaronWelcome to the inaugural installment of Pod-Canon, an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time. Podcasts have a reputation for being ephemeral, something to entertain commuters on their ride to work and be forgotten by the time the next episode drops. Yet despite being a young medium, podcasting has a rich tradition that deserves recognition.

The idea of Pod-Canon is to honor podcasts that stand the test of time, that might have been conceived in a very specific cultural context but that endure as works of art. In keeping with the fundamentally intimate nature of podcasts and the sacred bond between podcasters and the people who let them into their iPods, hearts and minds, it will be a fundamentally personal journey.

In times of sadness and despair, I have clung to podcasts as an emotional life preserver. When I have felt painfully self-conscious, I have lived vicariously through the conversations my favorite podcasters have had with their guests and with each other. Like a lot of socially awkward people, podcasts and podcasters have become like friends to me, even if I never see or interact with them in real life but in the case of Marc Maron’s interview with Todd Hanson on WTF it is even more deeply personal because Hanson actually is a friend and colleague.

I first met Todd when I started writing for The A.V. Club while barely into my early twenties. He was the legendary head writer of The Onion and I both identified strongly with Todd — with his depression, his brooding intensity, his pitch-black sense of humor, and his obsessive interest in the pop culture that consumed him — and was intimidated by him.

In that respect, Hanson cuts a decidedly simpatico figure with Maron, another dark humorist whose feverish intensity and unrelenting focus have a way of famously intimidating peers and strangers alike. By the time Hanson appeared on WTF in July of 2011, Maron had evolved tremendously as a podcaster primarily by learning when to insert himself into exchanges and when to listen, and Maron has seldom done as masterful and sensitive job of listening than he did during his interview with Todd.

As Maron says in the introduction to the episode, for the innately melancholy, humor can be “a way to navigate the swamps of self”, a powerful tool for surviving, if not quite conquering, sadistic internal voices and the depression and anxiety that seem to be fundamental components of contemporary American life. The conversations that ensue, taped in two different places at two different times for reasons that only become apparent late in the nearly hundred minute long podcast, is not without dark humor but it is notable for the many places where these two comedy lifers allow Hanson’s deep pain to breathe instead of trying to paper over the uncomfortableness with jokes or the safe distance of sarcasm or glib irony.

The first segment of the interview delves into Todd’s past and the role he played in The Onions finest hour, when its 9/11 issue provided an essential comic catharsis to a grief-plagued populace. Todd characterizes a piece he wrote for the issue while sobbing himself “funny cry cry”, which is not a bad description of Todd’s comic sensibility, which has always found humor in the all-consuming misery of human existence. By giving readers implicit permission to laugh at aspects of 9/11 while simultaneously honoring the sadness, confusion and anger seemingly everyone was feeling the paper helped make something that initially felt overwhelming and inexplicable seem manageable. If you can laugh, you can heal, and in the dark days that followed 9/11 it wasn’t apparent that our country would be able to heal or laugh

Then things get really dark as the talk moves away from the professional to the deeply personal. The first part of the interview ends after an hour with Todd teasing darkly a second talk where he’ll reveal why the hotel where the first interview took place had special resonance for him.

Two months after their original conversation, Maron went to Todd’s apartment and Todd recounted why the nondescript hotel where the original interview took place held such significance for him. It was where Hanson, in a fit of despair, took 60 Xanax pills and washed it down with scotch in a failed suicide attempt.

Todd’s account of the attempt is all the more powerful and harrowing for being delivered with devastating matter of factness. Maron provides a safe place for Todd to lay bare his soul and Todd responds with an almost child-like vulnerability and openness. But for a podcast that centers on a long, involved account of a suicide attempt the overall impact of the podcast is hopeful and optimistic, even inspiring.

Hanson is far too brutally honest and beholden to the unvarnished, painful truth to posit an easy happy ending for himself. He acknowledges that living with depression is an agonizing daily struggle but one that must be fought and that victories, while transitory, can only be achieved by focussing on the things in life that really matter: friendship, solidarity, love and the kind of intense connection Hanson shares with Maron here.

The episode is even more remarkable because unlike the vast majority of podcast guests, Hanson wasn’t making the podcasting circuit or promoting anything beyond, perhaps, the life-affirming notion that when faced head-on and with tremendous courage, suicidal despair can give way to something more hopeful.

Todd’s legacy at The Onion is complicated because the paper famously eschews bylines so even he has a tough time remembering who wrote which articles and which headlines. If The Onion is deliberately anonymous, Hanson’s appearance on WTF indelibly conveyed the big, sincere heart and epic personality of the poignantly sincere, achingly human comic genius behind so much of its brilliance.

Image by Mindy Tucker.

Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.

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