How to See Through Fog: Hollywood Handbook

Thanks. This helped.

Things aren't so hot these days, and there are lots of reasons to be anxious, mad, and depressed. I could enumerate them here, but anyone reading this already knows what's up. Instead, I'd like to do a little series on things that have been helping me See Through Fog.

First up: Hollywood Handbook, a podcast.

Many words by, and I say this with love, similarly repellant losers have been written about this comedy podcast and its hosts, The Boys: Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport. The best of these words is this article, which does a great job capturing what about the show is so appealing and fascinating. But this is a Web Log Post Entry, so I am going to write about the show from the "what it means to me" perspective.

The show brings me a lot of genuine happiness. And while it has for a long time, it's been extra-pleasurable to listen as the world sours. It's difficult to describe the show without either selling it a little short or scaring off new listeners, so I am going to breeze by the usual disclaimers that this is "deconstructed comedy" -- "surreal," "hostile," "ironic," "impenetrable." Those descriptions are true in their own ways, but ultimately incomplete. Critics write about the show in glowing terms, but also make it sound intimidating. To a guy like me, who doesn't like being told ahead of time that I will find something unpalatable, that's intriguing, but it's not an honest or fair way to talk about Hollywood Handbook. And, obviously, building up something like music or comedy as hard to get or "inaccessible" often at least comes across as self-satisfied.

Diehard fans will tell you that one of the best episodes of the show is from very early on, when they interviewed Sinbad. And man, that's a funny fuckin' episode, but you cannot tell me that a "normal" person who just likes comedy podcasts would not enjoy listening to two people laughing with Sinbad. But let's put a pin in Sinbad for the time being.

The basic premise of the show, at least at its outset: Sean and Hayes are two pompous Hollywood guys talking way above their station to guests who may or may not be totally in on it. Now the show has morphed into something that people call hard to explain, but it's really just... two guys being goofy to and/or with a guest in an interview? Not that scary! This isn't to undersell what they do at all, because what sets any art apart is the execution, but both critics and fans take Sean and Hayes kidding around about how they don't even know what the show is about now and run with it as, "Can you believe this? It's a show about nothing!" As the article I shared at the outset gets into, many layers of irony can mask tender sincerity, and the guesswork of trying to understand whether something happening at a given moment is "for real" or "for pretend" is part of the mental stimulation that the show provides. It can make listeners uncomfortable or bring them joy or be generally confusing or even outright annoying, but the show is sometimes a puzzle and interpreting its mysteries is left to the listener. The irony within the show isn't the mystery, the mystery is the mystery. Accept the mystery!

Hollywood Handbook episodes play out like this: A theme song that just says the names Meg Ryan, Richard Gere, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Rupert Grint plays. If you're not already laughing... Over the song, either Sean or Hayes recounts to the other a self-serving story about an interaction they had with a famous person. For example, in a recent episode with Jason Mantzoukas, Sean was eating drink coasters at a spin-off of Lisa Vanderpump's SUR -- called just "Unique Restaurant" -- with Thomas Aquinas. Tensions heighten as Hayes boxes Sean into the bit with Sean's "Thomas?" being met with "Aquinas" and Sean's "and we were, um" desperation turned into "doing illuminated manuscript" by Hayes. What some fans and critics like about this is that there are bits of Show Lore throughout the maybe 30 second long bit. But it's a disservice to the show to not accept that the bit isn't funny on its own, right? Or to assume that it must be explained to obtain the most joy from it. You don't actually need to know any of the lore, like Sean and Hayes both being reality show fans and Sean once having been at a SUR table during a filming of Vanderpump Rules. You don't need to know that there's a recent recurring argument between the two about whether the story intros are even good. What's funny about the Aquinas/UR story is that it's surreal and silly. Imaging, eating a drink coaster with Thomas Aquinas at a non-existent sibling of a tacky restaurant. And the two guys talking are kinda fighting because the one guy is saying to the guy telling the story that the guy telling the story and Aquinas were doing illuminated manuscript together. Surreal art is not meant to be logically explained; you don't need to know every bit of Dali's life to enjoy his paintings. It's an internal experience. We all know this! The show doesn't necessarily become funnier the more you know about it -- there are more moving parts to keep track of and things that you're happy it reminded you about, but the actual "I'm trying not to cry in the store laughing at their explanation for how Blink made Malcolm Gladwell get on the Lolita Express" reaction is either there for you or it isn't1.

And that's a lot of what this show is -- it's not that You're Too Stupid to understand it, it's that you need to feel a spark when Sean starts singing a few bars of Cake's "Mexico" out of nowhere in an attempt to force it into a conversation. And there are several potential sparks like that per episode, from a variety of angles. No one is going to connect with every spark, but that's not how it should be. This isn't reference-based humor because plenty of people who know Cake and know the song "Mexico" wouldn't laugh at that. It's the spark of feeling just a little closer to a person because they're having fun with a weird thing you've also had fun with. It's a revealing, human moment when a guy starts singing this Not Even Close to Top 10 Cake Song. The same thing happens on the recent David Sedaris episode when Sean tells David that he and his sister met David at a book signing as children. And in-between all of his sarcastic remarks and somehow even more sarcastic tone, you can hear he's happy to be talking to David Sedaris. And it makes me think of my own childhood listening to David Sedaris on the radio with my mom, and suddenly I realize something I have in common with someone has been revealed. And that's just a nice moment, any time it happens with anyone (I mean, not anyone... But most people). The magic in specifics. Some critics and fans of the show, not to mention people who don't like it, might take its tendency toward the niche and obscure as insularity. And that's not entirely wrong, but anything with personal value is going to be specific, almost by definition. You can't reach everyone by being specific, but I don't know that you can reach anyone by being vague, either. (You can be successful doing that, but I'm talkin' reaching people's hearts here!)

After they finish the opening story, they turn to the guest and start on sort of... whatever. Sometimes there's an artificial concept they try to get into, like when they ask Tony Hawk to help them make a video game about college, but often there isn't much of one or it takes 20 minutes to get to. They will sometimes self-deprecatingly write this haphazard approach off as their own laziness, but the disorganization of the show is part of its charm and I think largely intentional2: so much happens over the course of the show that seems designed to annoy each other or the guest just to see what will happen next. Even episodes with repeat much-loved guests, like Paul F. Tompkins and Julie Klausner, will feature exasperated yelling from at least the guests and audible smirks from Sean and Hayes. What makes this all work is those audible smirks: Sean says just about everything with a smirk (a visual example of this is here, where he starts berating Tony Hawk for stealing his indoor skateboarding advice), they both often laugh at their own jokes and each other's jokes. They usually try to cough them away or swallow them or take a just a second too long break from the mic, where the absence of a person's voice indicates laughter somewhere. Without these tells, the show really would be alienating and ironic and mean. Instead, you are hearing people have fun. And even if they snipe at each other and bicker and ask a very irritated-sounding Daily Show writer if she can help them expose the hypocrisy of a fictional hobby store owner like she does the President's, the tension is immediately relieved by the expression of total glee. Hollywood Handbook is audibly joyful, even at its meanest. They are to some extent aware of their laughter, usually referring to it in a negative way. That said, during one of their Masked Singer episodes last spring, I remember Sean guessing one of the singers because he recognized her "easy, warm laugh" unlike a lot of people in comedy who are so cold and withholding with theirs. I don't know that you could consider their laughter warm, exactly, but it's certainly easy. I don't see how the show works without it. Sure, any comedy show is going to have some amount of laughter, but... wait, do other shows really? I'm not convinced that much comedy anything actually sounds "fun." When things are as bad as they are now, you can do worse than listen to people at least making the sounds of fun.

Over the course of the episode, the artifice/plot, whatever it ends up being, moves along at some pretty uneven speeds. You'll get three minutes of hilarious banter and then another three minutes where everyone tries to figure out how to pull the bodies from the wreck. Those second three minutes are necessary to the listening experience of the show, and probably the actual process of it, too. They are not always Ha-Ha Funny, but they're sometimes insightful and, at worst, completely harmless background noise. If the show was a tight 20 minutes of all the best jokes they had over 60 minute recording or whatever, it would lose part of itself. This downtime might sound unappealing, but we need to get over everything being transparently functional. That lull where people are just kinda fumbling around with conversation and figuring out where to go next is natural. It doesn't need to be in all media, of course, but it's part of what makes Hollywood Handbook. Anyone reading this has had a conversation with friends go from funny to boring to funny again and, when it's all over, the whole thing was a good experience, right? And if you just took all the immediately boring stuff out, would you think, "Wow, I'm glad I had 20 fewer minutes with this person I like"?

Sometimes the guest never really gets on board, which is interesting in its own way. Who does and doesn't fit in? Does someone you like start off unsure and finish strong(er)? How about when someone totally surprises you? That is what happened with Sinbad.

The first Sinbad episode is from 2014 and often referred to as a classic. Many fans will say that the transition from unsure guest to in-on-it guest over the course of the show is what makes for a good episode. I'm not sure I agree -- some of those episodes are good, but that alone doesn't make them -- and the Sinbad episode is an interesting counterpoint.

If you think of a good interview as revealing something about either the interviewer or interviewee, most Hollywood Handbook episodes will provide you a sketch of the kind of person they're talking to. Can this person handle being teased? How do they react to strangers they've just met telling them the book they're selling cures coronavirus? Interviewers are almost always in control of the conversation. So, while Hayes and Sean are frequently self-deprecating, they never actually yield direction of the show to the guest. The fact that Hayes and Sean can't really do the show "to" Sinbad is what makes him such a good guest. What's good about their episode with him is not that they make him See the Light -- it's that this guy people my age, 30, associate with schlocky comedies for kids is an immovable object for them. He rolls with the punches, he shrugs everything off, they can force nothing. Sinbad is just cool. When they sat down with Sinbad again in early 2020, they were deferential to his jokes about Kids Today -- jokes that, from anyone else, would have Sean criticizing millennials and their safespaces and, hey, six feet underground, that's pretty safe, too, right? -- because Sinbad had instantly proven himself in the first go-round. The Sedaris episode is similar, although from a different place, in that they are clearly self-conscious around him and much gentler than they would be with nearly anyone else. Because there are, and this is a testament to the show, actually a large number of episodes where a reluctant guest gets onboard by the end, the episodes where something genuinely uncommon happens are, at least, the most novel.

Hollywood Handbook shares a lot, stylistically, with an early influence of what I like to laugh at: The Phil Hendrie Show. I can't imagine they are at all inspired by Phil, but there's some real similarities. Hendrie is by anyone's definition a cult comedy legend of radio -- a guy who would do the voices of "guests" on his show, have the fake guests say insane things, and then take calls from people mad at what the guests had said. He played the role of reasonable mediator between the amateur racecar driver telling people in SoCal they could save money on gas by drifting in the blindspots of semi trucks and the people who called into the show to scream at said amateur racecar driver. Hendrie's show was similarly "mean" and also audibly fun. You can hear him having a blast when the bit is working like a well-oiled machine. It also involved this playful deception, where some people are "in on it" (the regular listeners) and some people are not (the people turning the dial and hearing the president of an HOA say she let her husband turn off an elderly neighbor's air-conditioning because it made him impotent, which resulted in the neighbor's death by heat stroke). Finally, its pacing also featured many stops and starts, even after the necessary slow ramping up of the fake guest's story (you can't go straight to "my husband killed our neighbor so we could have sex again"). Couldn't tell you exactly why I love these features so much, but the similarities between the two shows hit me recently. It wouldn't be completely wrong to compare them to Kaufman/Zmuda, either, despite their bit on anti-comedy. Like Hendrie and Kaufman/Zmuda, The Boys experiment with control over an audience or guest participant and frequently seek to humble or mock the Know-It-All. So much of comedy is bland or dumb or cruel, which is a real shame because humor such a perfect tool for piercing the egos of the worst people in a room. I don't mean here The Daily Show running another reel of clips showing that Republicans are craven lying motherfuckers, because we all sorta know that. I mean that Hendrie, Kaufman and Zmuda, and Hayes and Sean will be in the same room as or in direct conversation with someone and, to their face, cut them down to size. And not only that, there is an additional element of humiliation that person will experience should they ever find out there's an audience in on a joke about them that they did not get. These funny people are not picking on someone who "doesn't deserve it," they're cutting a really annoying but often rewarded and successful kind of person down to size. Gee, isn't that particularly relevant at this moment? Some further reading in this vein is Tom Scocca's fantastic Gawker article On Smarm.

It feels worth pointing out that, despite the show's mischievousness, it avoids "problematic" humor and, generally, guests. I can't promise there aren't not-nice things lurking in the early years of the show I have not gotten to yet, but they don't really do cruel or racist or sexist jokes. And it sounds incredibly cornball to appreciate that, but it's nice that a) they never really make that a stated goal, it's just how they do it, and b) I don't have to grit my teeth throughout the show worried that someone's gonna be an asshole.

I would love to give a whole list of episodes to check out now, but episodes go behind a paywall after six months. At the time of this writing, two of best free episodes are also two of the most straightforward. If you end up digging through the archive, you can't go wrong with any Julie Klausner, Tom Scharpling, or Joe Mande episode. New recent good recurring guests are Martha Kelly and Ayo Edebiri. The "Masked Engineer"/"Masked Guest" episodes are much-loved, as well.


  1. Is Life in Hell funnier knowing Matt Groening was on the Epstein plane? ↩︎

  2. A great example of this is the episode with Moshe Kasher where they meet to revisit the lore-infamous Triumph at Comic-Con show and it is gradually revealed to the audience that no one has done any prep. ↩︎

  3. ↩︎