podcast review

If Nathan for You Were a Podcast, It’d Sound a Lot Like Personal Best

“These little things that we want to change, and that annoy us, actually make us interesting, nuanced creatures.” The line is uttered by Rob Norman, a co-host on CBC’s new podcast Personal Best, during its first episode. It is part of a longer throwaway joke deployed to keep things moving — the context involves a stakeout and creeping self-doubt — but of course, the line is no filler. It’s the crucial underlying philosophy that drives the show, and though it’s no novel insight, it’s one that the production embraces with infectious enthusiasm.

Let me cut to the chase: Personal Best is one of my favorite listens of the year so far, and I welcome it into my eardrums like a warm ray of sunlight after a long winter. You should, too.

A quirky little podcast from our northern friends at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Personal Best pitches itself as a self-improvement show for people who don’t like self-improvement. This is a perfectly accurate description, but also one that’s woefully inadequate for a show that’s so fiercely interested in the lives of the people it’s trying to help. Hosted by Norman, who is a comedian, and his trusted producer Andrew Norton, the podcast is better described as a series of surprising, curious, and exceedingly generous portraits of individuals that are conveyed through wackadoo Make-A-Wish campaigns designed to fulfill their hyperspecific and wholly personal dreams. One episode features a woman who just wants to wake up to her alarm clock on time, even though she gets up fine on the weekends. Another revolves around a city-dwelling woman who’d like to help birth a cow. Taken as a collective, the podcast is a delightful and delightfully dorky romp through a world of hidden wants and quiet dreams.

Wants and dreams are only part of the equation for a problem-solving enterprise like Personal Best. Norman and Norton’s comedic (and therapeutic) genius really shows in the solutions they concoct. A man who hopes to make better small talk at the supermarket checkout counter is treated to a cashier speed-dating event. In one of the show’s most memorable episodes, a woman who wishes to express herself more effectively on Tinder is made to interact with a Method actress playing her doppelgänger. Often bizarre and overly convoluted, the solutions on Personal Best are almost always surprising, but even more surprising is the frequency with which the show’s harebrained schemes and adventures lead to genuine moments of discovery and tenderness. In that pursuit, it bears a mighty resemblance to Comedy Central’s brilliant Nathan for You, which, especially in its later seasons, plumbed the very same emotional spaces through similarly surreal high jinks. (Nathan Fielder, that show’s titular Nathan, also happens to be Canadian.) The whole thing can be a little much, but it’s helpful that the show is bolstered by imaginative and productively self-aware writing.

Listening to Personal Best’s wild capers, I’m struck not just by how rare it is to encounter a piece of nonfiction audio that’s designed to be genuinely pleasant and authentically big-hearted, but by how difficult it is to do so. I guess what I’m saying is, Personal Best reminds me of how much I miss Starlee Kine and her mysteries on the unforgettable Mystery Show, and just how singular the nature of that show feels to this day.

Personal Best also evokes Gimlet’s Heavyweight, the consistently wondrous podcast by Jonathan Goldstein premised on the idea of helping people — usually others, sometimes Goldstein himself — confront something they regret. (Goldstein is Canadian, too, in case you want to extrapolate some generality about the media denizens of that country.) There’s a noteworthy connection between the two shows: Co-host Andrew Norton directed the lovely video piece, “How to Age Gracefully,” which capped the 11-year run of “Wiretap,” Goldstein’s legendary CBC radio show. Beyond that, the two shows are linked by a common humanism and a sincere love for the people they’re spending time with, even if they possess utterly different dispositions in how they go about carrying themselves: Where Personal Best is bubbly and optimistic, Heavyweight is melancholic. Nevertheless, they are members of the same family tree, one that I hope will continue to grow over time.

Self-improvement is a tricky thing. I won’t pretend to be particularly well-versed in the tradition, but I have always felt an irreconcilable tension baked into the core of the enterprise: the one between wanting to be better and wanting to be okay with yourself. Personal Best, a comic production that ostensibly pokes fun at the idea of self-improvement, but actually embodies the very spirit of the concept, dismisses the very idea of that dichotomy. With a spring in its step and a pocketful of sunshine, the podcast makes the case that the two goals can be one and the same, as long as you’re being gentle with yourself.

Personal Best Is Like Nathan for You, But As a Podcast