Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
The end of one year and beginning of another is a time for reflection and remembrance as well as excitement and anticipation. It’s a time when we can’t help but reflect on the people that we’ve lost in the year that passed. That was a particularly brutal aspect of 2016.
In 2016, celebrity deaths were like a crazy clown car of tragedy. Every time it seemed we had reached our limit, another shocking and horrifying new celebrity death was announced. Of course famous people die every year, but last year it seemed like a disproportionate number of greats perished prematurely.
It wasn’t just the loss of these giants that hurt. It was also the shock of discovering that David Bowie and Gene Wilder had been terminally ill for a while, but chose to shelter an adoring public from that fact, or that Prince had secretly been wrestling with addiction issues that would take him decades before his time.
I don’t think anyone was shocked to see Leonard Cohen and Merle Haggard die as grizzled, distinguished old men, but with many of these other deaths, there was a sense of great injustice that these magical people had been taken while Charlie Sheen, Scott Baio, and Donald Trump tragically continue to live.
A choked-up Julie Klausner uses the word “injustice” to describe her friend David Rakoff dying of cancer while still in his mid-forties, at an age when he still had so much left to give, in the introduction for a special bonus episode of How Was Your Week that was released the day after his death at 47 in 2011.
David Rakoff did not die this year, but this podcast is a reminder that 2016 does not have a monopoly on deaths that traumatize and sadden the world. Rakoff was not hugely popular, but to the people who loved him and his work he was hugely important and irreplaceable. This quietly devastating conversation between two people whose love and respect for each other comes through in every word and every silence illustrates why.
Klausner makes it clear that for his friends and family and fans, Rakoff’s existence was a gift that they treasured even when they didn’t realize how fragile and short-lasting it would prove. In an introduction understandably overcome with emotion, Klausner talks of Rakoff’s brilliance and his kindness, of the purity of his spirit and the way his ferocious intelligence and humanity worked in perfect unison, but it’s not really necessary for Klausner to talk up her guest, since those qualities are in abundant evidence in everything Rakoff says.
Part of the joy and melancholy of listening to this conversation lies in the chemistry of the participants, in the sense that they share not just a trade and a religion and a home but a way of thinking, a sensibility, a way of viewing the world. This is the kind of conversation when the question “Have you seen Golddiggers of 1933?” will inevitably be answered affirmatively as opposed to “What the hell is a Golddigger of 1933 and why the hell why are you asking me about it?”
Judaism is one of the bonds Klausner and Rakoff share. Indeed, there were segments of this conversation involving chicken stock and coffee ice cubes that were actually too Jewish for me – and I am super-Jewish. This Jewishness is of a particularly New York variety and this fateful conversation is in many ways an elegy to a New York that no longer exists, the dirty, scuzzy, alive, and dangerous New York of the 1970s and 1980s Rakoff and Klausner are mature and adult enough to be grateful no longer exists, because while, yes, the breakdancing and graffiti were exciting, the child prostitution and crack epidemic were a bit of a downer.
Though the conversation is full of light and life, it is also permeated with death. Rakoff talks about how being a book-loving homebody in the 1980s probably saved his life, and if he’d been a night-owl cruising the boroughs for kicks and club drugs he’d most likely have ended up one of the many casualties of AIDS in New York in the 1980s.
Klausner and Rakoff bond over being perpetual outsiders, wry observers taking in the absurdity of life, whether that’s a hobo-themed hipster wedding or the fundamentally Jewish nature of seltzer. Listening to this podcast I found myself falling in love again with Rakoff’s voice, both in the most literal sense, and also in how he saw the world. For a pessimist and self-proclaimed “Negateer” he sure had a way of making the world, but particularly New York, seem like a wonderful place.
As a writer and humorist, Rakoff’s job, in some sense, was to remember – long-forgotten song lyrics and flappers and movies and poems and smells and ideas and emotions and everything else that makes up the grand gestalt of life. So it’s appropriate that this podcast is itself a way of remembering, a way of recording this remarkable man’s voice for posterity.
David Rakoff is gone in the same way that David Bowie is gone and Prince is gone and Merle Haggard is gone. But his voice, whether through his books, or his radio appearances, or this particular podcast, will never leave us. It will be there for us, whenever we need it.
So hug your friends. Love them. Appreciate them. You never know if this will be the year they’ll end up in life’s big memorial reel.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.