Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
I often think about how the difference between a martyr who dies young and devastates a world that never stops mourning their absence and a survivor who inspires with their resilience can come down to something as simple as a single bad night. If Philip Seymour Hoffman had made it through the bad night when he perished, if he’d almost, but never quite, went over the edge, then chances are good that we would be blessed with more decades of brilliant performances from one of the greatest actors of all time.
Then there are people like Keith Richards or Robert Downey Jr., who, medically speaking, probably should have died a thousand times but somehow made it through an endless series of bad nights to become deathless rock royalty and one of the best-paid actors alive, respectively. Natasha Lyonne is similarly a quintessential show-business survivor, a wild child who seems to have emerged from the womb a sassy, chain-smoking old Jewish broad.
For decades, Lyonne was so notorious that “troubled” seemed as much a part of her job description as “actress.” She was a tabloid fixture with an unfortunate predilection for illicit substances and the wrong men but rather than becoming yet another cautionary tale of the dangers of early fame, Lyonne got sober and turned her life around.
Professionally as well as personally, Lyonne pulled herself back from the brink and landed the role of a lifetime on Orange Is the New Black as an inmate whose brassy exterior and filthy mouth belie an inner sweetness and vulnerability. It was a role that tapped into the hard-won experience Lyonne acquired through her years on the fringes of show-business.
Lyonne is a survivor with a giddy abundance of amazing anecdotes, so she would be the perfect guest for The Fogelnest Files even if she hadn’t been good friends with host Jake Fogelnest for close to two decades. Fogelnest wrestled with his own early demons but he was blessed to have his adolescent woes be far less public than Lyonne’s.
But they both made it through the crucible of early fame and substance abuse issues with their souls and integrity intact, or, as Fogelnest insists the first time Lyonne references being high during her wonderful appearance on The Fogelnest Files (this would be while recounting the phone call that was her introduction to Fogelnest) a little before four minutes in and Fogelnest eagerly enthuses, “Everybody’s fine now! Everybody’s doing great!”
As Lyonne wisely rasps early in the podcast, the great thing about being a survivor is that her substance abuse problems are only part of the story of her life, and not the entirety of it. She’s gone from being a “troubled actress” to being an actress again, but her life and her performances are informed and emboldened by all those years of trouble.
Fogelnest and Lyonne met at 16 when Lyonne was a “real wake and bake stoner” and, in the kind of weird, implausible detail that defines their friendship, they were introduced to each other by Fogelnest’s criminal attorney father, who thought she was a cool girl her son should get to know.
Lyonne was making a Woody Allen movie; Fogelnest had his own television show on MTV and while they did not get along in that first conversation they quickly became fast friends. It’s easy to see why. It’s hard to listen to this episode and not want Lyonne to be your best friend (or at the very least, Facebook friends).
After an inauspicious beginning, Fogelnest and Lyonne became bosom buddies for the next decade as their lives spun out in crazy ways. The podcast is full of telling, novelistic details that indelibly capture a time, place and state of mind, like when the host and guest recount how Lyonne used to put CDs and laserdiscs in a dishwasher she never plugged in or used (other than as an outside-the-box CD case) because she ran out of conventional places to put her music collection. .
They bonded, not surprisingly, over pop culture, something they were both deeply immersed in, then and now, and the conversation takes a series of rambling, fascinating detours as it chronicles everything from the officially branded Culture Club “Karma Chameleon telephone” (a commercial of which Fogelnest plays) to beyond-primitive early girl group/outsider artists The Shaggs to an early short film they made together called The Adventures of Robot Ninja Meets Sensitive Truck Driver to Ladies And Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains, Fogelnest’s favorite movie and a favorite of Lyonne’s as well.
“Your brain is interesting” Fogelnest laughingly and admiringly tells Lyonne late in a conversation where Lyonne is constantly, delightfully steering things into weird, strange, often overwhelmingly sexual tangents (some involving lustful feelings towards the 1980s Henry Rollins) while Fogelnest is perpetually trying to rein her in and keep the podcast from devolving into gleeful anarchy.
Lyonne and Fogelnest are only in their thirties, but they’re old souls. Fogelnest in particular has an interesting, unusual combination of boyish enthusiasm and old-time preoccupations. He’s like a 85-year-old show-business lifer (the kind who has a daily lunch appointment with Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks) inside the body of a man who hasn’t even reached middle age. Lyonne similarly sounds like she came out of the womb smoking a cigarette and nursing a bad attitude.
This podcast provides a fascinating glimpse into both the wonderfully haunted mind of a woman who deserves to be referenced in the same breath as tough old broads like Elaine Stritch despite only being in her thirties, as well as Fogelnest and Lyonne’s friendship. Their electric chemistry suggests that a reality show where these two glorious human beings talk while record shopping in New York wouldn’t just make for a palatable show; it’d probably be the best thing on television.
Thank god Lyonne made it through all of those bad nights or this hour plus of pure podcasting delight would not exist. The podcast is a quiet, casual testament to the glory of survival, and the joys of friendship, getting older and becoming comfortable with who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re going.
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.