14 December 2016
I listen to just a handful of podcasts, mostly TV deep-dives (RHAP, Welcome to the Hellmouth, West Wing Weekly) and long-form interview shows if they have a guest I’m interested in (WTF, sometimes Stageworthy). But, mostly, I’d rather listen to music. Podcasts are a bizarrely intimate medium- the hosts become the voices in your head for that hour or however long that you, just you, are listening- and it’s frankly rare that I find anyone I want to listen to for that long, that often, that closely. I refuse to subscribe to most podcasts, picking and choosing episodes based on interest or mood, listening to maybe half the episodes or falling behind and bingeing sporadically. Then there’s The Vidiots Video Store Show.
I’m a little bit obsessed with this two-man film review podcast recorded at a not-for-profit video store in Santa Monica. It’s actually kind of embarrassing. I post about it on Facebook, I tweet at the hosts (and, let’s be clear, I’m not that kind of tweeter; I’m a “this is my opinion, I don’t need to start a conversation about it” kind of tweeter), I’ve told basically everyone I know that they should be listening to this podcast. The fact that they’ve all ignored me on this last point is selfishly fine by me. Vidiots (the show, not the store) is still pretty small. There are no ads, the editing’s pretty light, and they’re not bogged down by too many guests or any of the meta noise that comes with a podcast that’s always trying to sell out a live show or peddle merch. You’d probably like it, because it’s great, but my embarrassing level of devotion to this podcast feels more personal than a “let’s all agree that Breaking Bad is pretty good” consensus could ever capture. My particular brain and my particular heart love The Vidiots Video Store Show more than any other podcast and more than lots of other things. There’s something in this recipe of premise/style/hosts/tone/content that turns me into the dumbass fan I otherwise swear I really am not.
More than format or subject matter, the key to any podcast is the host(s). End of story. If you’re interesting enough, I’ll listen to you talk about anything, a theory I tested over the summer when Vidiots starting putting out weekly episodes about all the Star Trek films. I had no idea what they were talking about, having only seen the reboots, but I listened anyway. In fact, I’m usually listening to a Vidiots episode about movies I haven’t seen. That’s partly because TV and theatre are more my mediums of choice and partly because (and here’s where you can tell I’ve been drinking the Kool-Aid) there aren’t enough functioning video stores like Vidiots where you can find films that aren’t available on Netflix or on-demand. (Aside: I’d go to Bay Street Video- Toronto’s only even remotely comparable collection- but I rented 20 films at once from them for a film studies project in high school and couldn’t afford the late fees I raked up so I’ve been avoiding the place for a decade. End of Aside). So I listen to them talk about classic Westerns and pre-code oddities and Antonioni and nod along and maybe learn something and honestly fail to care that I didn’t do the homework.
“They”, by the way, are Clay Keller and Darren Franich. The former is an actor/screenwriter/programmer but for our purposes he’s a video store clerk, the friendly face behind the counter at Vidiots who has absolutely seen the movie you’re talking about and can recommend five more you might like. The show literally started because Darren, an Entertainment Weekly writer recently transferred to LA from NY, kept coming into Vidiots to rent something and rarely left without getting into a long debate with Clay. The premise of the podcast was that they were letting us in on these discussions, assigning each other a movie they’d never seen and meeting “across the counter” to discuss the sometimes oddly paired assignments. The first episode captured the strange dichotomy of these two characters perfectly when hyper-intellectual Darren picked a 1967 Jacques Demy film and the more sensitive and populist Clay picked Richard Curtis’ gorgeous-but-certainly-not-prestigious 2013 dramedy About Time.
Don’t get me wrong when I call Darren the head and Clay the heart; it’s important to note that Clay easily goes toe-to-toe on the intellectual debate side of things and Darren cries when he watches The Muppet Christmas Carol. The show feels conversational and casual with none of the crafted persona or strategic editing that makes so many podcast hosts hard to relate to. Both the Vidiots hosts seem to be totally themselves, which allows the listener to see them for all the complications and contradictions that make them individually more interesting than the intellectual one and the emotional one. They both apply the same level of academic thought and critical attention to the Fast and the Furious movies as they do to the French new wave, an approach to criticism that is one of my own most closely held principles (guys, Bring it On is about race relations and the sooner you admit that the better off you’ll be) and it’s also the thing that led me to the podcast in the first place.
I, like seemingly most Vidiots listeners (according to the iTunes reviews), started listening because I was a fan of Darren. I discovered him through his Big Brother recaps, of all things, and he quickly became my favourite pop culture writer for reasons that can probably best be summed up in his tendency to use Shakespeare characters to deconstruct reality TV shows (read his recap of the best play in BB history; it’s a masterpiece). He’s willing to throw his over-educated endorsement behind things general consensus has deemed stupid (see his full-throated defence of Vanderpump Rules) and even more tellingly willing to cry foul when group-think has crowned an undeserving hit (most recently, Arrival). As EW’s go-to geek guy, he doesn’t often write about things of much interest to me (seriously, there were So Many Star Trek essays) but I read them all anyway because he’s so very smart and so very funny and so very often right (he has this quote about Bryan Fuller and the state of television that I repost on my Facebook feed pretty much anytime I start to feel that the bingers have lost the thread).
Clay, on the other hand, has remarkably similar taste to my own with little patience for anything that sacrifices sincerity for style or humanity for philosophy (and god help them if they hold off on character development for a big twist; see my go-to Dark Knight Rises rant for more on this subject). If Vidiots is covering one of my favourite things, it’s because Clay brought it up. This week they assigned each other children’s Christmas specials. Clay picked a fairly random 1978 Sesame Street episode I thought nobody loved but me (Grover’s “and there you have it” might be my all-time favourite line reading).
A few weeks ago, there was a Vidiots episode about Harry Potter in which Clay’s goofy friend David placed the two men into totally inappropriate Hogwarts houses. A pair of twitter polls and the show’s intensely loyal fans quickly set the record straight- Ravenclaw for Darren (though I maintain that there’s a touch of Slytherin in there, especially in the fiercely competitive draft episodes when he hilariously displays the sort of cutthroat manipulative strategy one picks up from recapping too many seasons of Big Brother) and, far more interestingly, Gryffindor for Clay. Interesting because I usually call bullshit on anyone getting sorted into Gryffindor (“oh, so you’re saying you’re a hero?”), except Clay. You know he’s a Gryffindor because of all the things I’m about to list but mostly because he’s not likely to be obnoxious about getting to be in Gryffindor (Darren, meanwhile, would get totally Slythenclaw about my using Hogwarts houses to help define their on-mic personas). One of Clay’s favourite movies is Hot Rod, something that Darren thinks is as infantile as you can get and likes to bring up when he’s trying to win an argument but Clay refuses to stop defending it. Clay thought Westworld was smug and inhuman but he watched every single episode anyway, seemingly for no reason other than to give voice to the counterargument when Darren droned on about the cleverness of its deconstructions of archetypes. Clay’s the one who’s always suggesting they get rid of the veto rule in draft episodes because it’s more fair, if less fun. Sometimes Darren laughs (loudly and with brutal mirth) at Clay’s expense, slips into a bad habit of pretension, and once he even got on his co-host’s case for quoting film theory when he himself is constantly quoting film theory, but Clay never turns on him or leans into the toxic power dynamic those moments threaten to create. It’s like no matter how annoyingly smartest-kid-in-class Darren gets, Clay always manages to recognize in him the guy who cries during Muppet Christmas Carol.
It’s that fundamental camaraderie that I think makes Clay and Darren the perfect podcasting pair. He can belittle his intelligence in order to win a fight about Westworld all he wants but nobody who listens to this show is buying for a second that Darren doesn’t respect Clay’s opinion. They balance each other out and create an environment that lets the audience feel like they’re really sitting in on a conversation over the video store counter. I have a theory that, even if they talk about nothing personal ever, you can find out pretty much everything there is to know about someone by listening to them talk about art and entertainment. Certainly there’s nothing about me worth knowing that’s not hidden somewhere on this site in a review of Wicked or The Newsroom or Ruby Sparks. I’ve never met Clay Keller or Darren Franich but a few weeks ago I was leaving the new James L. Brooks-produced film The Edge of Seventeen and thought to myself “I bet Clay would love that movie”. He did, for all the reasons I knew he would, and I’d bet money that other Vidiots listeners made a similar prediction when they saw the movie. Because Darren and Clay feel like people we know, which sounds insane but remember what I said about the bizarre intimacy of podcasting. There’s a reason I record the MyEntWorld podcast so sporadically- confessional vulnerability, especially in audio or video form, leaves you wide open to crazy randos psychologically analyzing you on the internet (sorry, guys).
That sort of visibility isn’t for the faint of heart but Clay and Darren (yes, I keep switching the order on purpose) have made a point of turning their conversations into a community affair. They connect with listeners on twitter, they do a segment where they give recommendations to anyone who emailed asking for one (#PeopleNotAlgorithms), they record entire episodes on the suggestion of people who gave them an iTunes review; one listener even stopped into Vidiots while on vacation just to meet them and they now regularly shout him out on the show (#TitanicBrosForLife). Perhaps most tellingly, they recorded an unscheduled episode the day after the election. They, like so many of us, were struggling with the results and in need of comfort. So, even though they’d previously decided they were too busy to record, they got together to talk about the movies that make them feel better (Darren talked about 2016’s uplifting spellbinder Moonlight; Clay returned, as he always does, to Broadcast News). Darren spoke about finding a sense of community at Vidiots and that feeling of talking about something you love with someone who loves it too. He said “Frankly, Clay, I kinda just wanted to come here today and talk to you about movies”. That’s all Vidiots really is, in the grand scheme. It’s one of my favourite things in the whole world but it’s ultimately just two guys talking about movies. I think that’s enough.