the best happy hour around
You know those WWJD—“What Would Jesus Do?”—bracelets? I’ve never actually seen one in real life, but that particular phrase construction has lent itself to a lot of parodies. I’m not religious, so I wouldn’t wear a WWJD bracelet. But I have considered wearing a bracelet emblazoned with WWLD—“What Would Linda Do?” The Linda in question is Linda Holmes, host of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour (PCHH), the first podcast I ever listened to regularly and my all-time favorite. My best friend introduced me to the podcast last summer, and since that first fateful listen I have become a devout follower of pretty much everything Linda says and does: on her pop culture and entertainment blog at NPR, her twitter, and—of course—on the podcast.
I will admit that I was always predisposed to like Linda, because she grew up in my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware and went to high school not far from where I did. Several of the podcast’s regular guests also grew up in the mid-Atlantic, and I love the occasional references to Wawa and water ice and Philly radio stations that feel specific to my own growing up. But the hometown connection isn’t the biggest draw for me—it’s the people who make the show.
PCHH’s first episode aired on July 16, 2010, when I was still in high school and barely even knew what a podcast was. The four panelists on the first episode were Linda Holmes, Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon, and Trey Graham, who write (respectively) about pop culture and entertainment, music, books and comic books, and theatre and movies for NPR. Though there were sometimes guest panelists, these remained the core four until 2014. When I started listening last summer, Graham had recently left NPR, so the fourth chair on the show began rotating through personalities from NPR and elsewhere (Gene Demby, Kat Chow, Audie Cornish, Chris Klimek, Margaret H. Willison… the list goes on). Now, more than five years after that first episode, the podcast has produced more than 250 full-length episodes. Since I only started listening in the summer of 2014, that means there are still plenty of old episodes I’ve never heard. For a few months I was systematically making my way through the backlog, but I only got to the beginning of 2013. I’ve never listened to the first episode of the show. (The completionist/super-fan part of me vows that I will eventually listen to every episode, but it may take me a while).
A typical episode of the podcast is split into three sections. The first two vary week by week. Recent episodes have included sections on what makes a great talk-show guest, the return of Stephen Colbert, title sequences, Straight Outta Compton, whether or not there’s such a thing as “too much television,” amusement parks, and more. These discussions are often topical, focused on books/movies/albums that have recently come out, listener-suggested topics, or recurring features like the “Regrettable Television Pop Quiz” and “People We’re Pulling For.” But everyone’s favorite part of PCHH, panelists and listeners alike, is the third and final segment that appears every single week, “What’s Making Us Happy.” The aptly titled segment allows each panelist to discuss books, movies, podcasts, TV shows, pieces of journalism, and miscellany that they’re enjoying at that particular time. This segment is how I’ve discovered other great podcasts, where I find new books to add to my reading list or new albums to track down on Spotify. Best of all, it’s a good exercise in positive thinking. As I listen to Linda and Stephen and Glen enthusiastically describe their new favorite things, it encourages me to do the same—to reflect on what’s currently making me happy, both in the pop culture realm and in my personal life.
Though no alcohol is involved in the taping of the show, the term “happy hour” couldn’t be more appropriate. I have never listened to a podcast before or since where it seems like the panelists are so genuinely happy to be there. There is such palpable camaraderie between these people, who clearly care about each other and respect each other’s work. Each episode of the show feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between good friends, but better, because somehow you feel included, too. The panelists all get along and love each other, and it’s pleasant to hear them talk passionately about the pop culture they love. I like that I can listen to episodes focusing on areas of pop culture I know nothing about (like recent episodes on the TV show “Mr. Robot” and the miniseries “Show Me A Hero”), and still find them as engaging as if they were about my favorite shows—I might even decide afterwards to go ahead and check them out. And I like saving episodes to listen to until after I’ve seen the movie or read the book or watched the TV show, so that I can formulate my own thoughts and then see what my pals Linda and Stephen have to say about it. (It is probably presumptuous to refer to them on a first-name basis and to call them “pals,” but that’s the magic of this podcast. It really does feel like they’re your friends.)
That’s not to say there aren’t disagreements and arguments on the podcast—friends argue, and it makes sense that a group of four distinct personalities will have four distinct opinions about a topic. But even differing points of view are treated with such respect that it’s never uncomfortable to listen to. My favorite part of any episode actually has the most heated debate I’ve ever heard on the show. The episode, from mid-November 2014, contained a segment about pop culture dichotomies: Beatles vs. Rolling Stones, Star Trek vs. Star Wars, Gale vs. Peeta, Mac vs. PC, and so on. But the discussion moved away from the strictly pop culture realm towards other things, eventually settling on food. This became an absurdly passionate (and hilarious) debate about the merits of creamy vs. crunchy peanut butter. Choice quotes include: “Creamy peanut butter is slimy” – Linda. “It’s not called slimy peanut butter, it’s called creamy peanut butter. Words have meanings!” – Glen. “Creamy peanut butter is an abomination before the Lord.” – Barrie Hardymon, the fourth chair for this particular episode. Meanwhile in the background, Stephen keeps restating simply that he is an equal-opportunity peanut butter lover and will eat it in any form. For two glorious minutes, I am more invested in this peanut butter debate than anything else in my life, until the nut butter–related tension is at last dispelled with a joke about the Great Papal Schism of 1378. (It may sound like a non sequitur, but trust me, it works.) It’s this quick wit and goofy passion, even about seemingly insignificant things, that makes the show so funny and so fun to listen to.
On a recent episode entitled “Labor Pains and Inspirations,” one of the panelists mentions the problem of consuming pop culture that is so inspiring it overwhelms you—when you feel like the book or movie or TV show is so much better than anything you could create that it prevents you from making anything yourself. That’s actually how I felt while writing this article. I kept listening to episodes, trying to take note of all the things I love about the podcast that I wanted to include, but I struggled to write anything because I so wanted to do it justice. I hope I have. Ideally, every person who reads this piece will instantly go download at least an episode or two so they can understand how great it is. One of the best things about PCHH is the experience of sharing it with people—I recently got my mom to start listening to the show, and every time she mentions to me something “our pal Linda” has said, it makes me so happy that this is something we both enjoy.
So if you ever see me walking around campus with headphones in, grinning, WWLD bracelet on my wrist, you can bet that Pop Culture Happy Hour is what I’m listening to. It’s what’s making me happy this week, and every week, hopefully for many years to come.