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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Man School

Posted by Maximum Fun on 7th September 2013

Vital stats:
Format: conversation’s about the man’s life with men who’ve lived it (including quite a few entertainers, comedians especially)
Episode duration: 30m-1h
Frequency: weekly, plus shorter supplements

What, exactly, happened to my generation? We got off to a promising start, but at some point in the past few years took a hard look in the proverbial mirror and found our reflection badly wanting. This tidal wave of self-doubt causes problems of its own — most of our problems, perhaps — but no smoke comes without fire: have look at film and television, its Judd Apatow characters standing as unkempt, juvenile evidence of men so feckless they can no longer even romance women, its Lena Dunham characters not worth romancing in the first place, and tell me how much confidence we can possibly have left. For all our high-profile technological and cultural successes, many of us thirty-ish-year-olds feel dogged by something obscurely yet manifestly broken in our capacity to lead self-respectable lives. In America, some of this has to do with coming of age in an economy crippled by nostalgia for the postwar years and of inheriting a social contract between the sexes torn up long before we got here. Blaming such broad conditions, alas, just makes us lazier about rectifying our individual situations.

To vaguely gesture toward Candide, then, we must grow our own gardens. Maybe, just maybe, we can cultivate ourselves out of the reach of greater generational dissolution. How my distaff peers can manage this I haven’t had the time to learn, since I’ve had so much catching up of my own to do. Hearing Glenn O’Brien on The Sound of Young America and reading his book How to Be a Man helped. Writing about other men’s style books for Put This On has certainly done its part, but most of the knowledge there has come, of course, through the particular lens of clothes. Not that clothes make for a disadvantageous place to start; take one look at modern man’s hoodies, greying tube socks, and jeans with walked-on hems, and you’ll sense a serious underlying problem. (Modern woman puts on a far superior display of outward maturity, though in many cases a display with deliberate intent to conceal.) But now we Millennial males have one more broad-spectrum resource for our quest: Man School, a new podcast from Caleb Bacon, television writer and former host of The Gentlemen’s Club.

I remember The Gentlemen’s Club as an interview show geared broadly toward the interests of men, or at least one particular concept of men that assumed boundless enthusiasm for comedians and porn stars. “The episodes I put out over the show’s last eight months were sporadic and often uninspired,” Bacon writes in a Huffington Post piece on retiring his first podcast and launching his second. “The great thing was that once I made plans to end the show, my imagination opened up and an idea for a new show popped into my head. I realized I needed to produce a show that was about more than goofing around.” In a snarkier mood, I’d write a paragraph about how that important realization remains one thousands of podcasters have yet to make. Instead, I’ll share my own conversion experience: that is, my experience of converting my previous show, an intellectually wide-ranging in-depth public radio interview program The Marketplace of Ideas, into the geographically wide-ranging in-depth interview podcast Notebook on Cities and Culture. What at first felt like a loss necessitated by a move from Santa Barbara to Los Angeles and away from the station from which I’d broadcast became a gain in focus, connection (by getting out of the studio and into face-to-face settings), and incentive to explore travel (plus, through Kickstarter, ca$h money).

Not to make this about me, but I did feel motivated to share my experience. The impulse comes from listening to Man School, a show that has everything to do with men sharing their experiences. Bacon sits down with what he calls “life experts” — always men, sometimes well-known men, and usually (but not always) men at least a few years older than himself — in search of the wisdom they’ve accumulated on their own journeys through maleness. So the pornstars have gone, but the comedians definitely remain: Mike Schmidt on violence, Paul Gilmartin on depression, Chris Mancini on becoming a father. We also hear Bacon converse about the male experience with other figures, some already well known in podcasting: Adam Carolla associate “Bald Bryan” Bishop on getting brain cancer at 30 (and, in a shorter “extra credit” episode, on the tonsorial condition that gave him his nickname), writer Paul Samuel Dolman on the mid-life crisis that got him hitchhiking (and, at one point, picked up by Larry David), profesional poker player Jason Somerville on coming out of the closet, and Pretty Good Pocast co-host Randy Wang on coming out of the closet only to discover his straightness. If credibly virtuous “role models” stand thin on the ground these days, Bacon looks for the piece of role model within each of his guests, most all of whom readily admit — if not all but make a Christmas meal of — their imperfections and mistakes.

This holds especially true for the travelers Bacon brings on, or rather, for the men whose relevantly male trials and revelations happened to occur while traveling. They may grab my attention because the idea of the trav’lin’ man (as referenced, last I checked, in the theme song to Mike Siegel’s podcast Travel Tales) remains, as have few other male types, properly leathery, reflective, and William Hurt-ish. Or maybe I think so because my own writing and podcasting interests have spent the past few years turning toward place, and from the world of trav’lin’ men I have thus drawn my real and virtual mentors. Finding mentorship wherever, whenever, and from whomever you can seems a central component of the Man School ethos, and an episode like, say Jordan Harbinger on his survival of not one but two kidnappings, illustrates that. He and Bacon draw several useful lessons (applicable as well, I daresay, to the fairer sex) from these stories, the first a brief one from Mexico, the second a longer and more painful one from Serbia. Outside a show like this, I doubt any of us would have known to look to someone like Harbinger, a youngish former (seemingly halfhearted) lawyer and friend of Bacon’s, for lessons in manhood. Then again, he also runs a company called The Art of Charmthat teaches men to date more effectively and hosts a show called The Pickup Podcast. Could’ve made for quite a Gentlemen’s Club episode.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall, who has nine Podthoughts to go before retirement, also hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]