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Ironic Detachment Meets Tender Vulnerability on the StraightioLab Podcast

Photo: Jordan Ashleigh

The first time I listened to a podcast, I was sitting on a stool in front of a tiny, muted TV playing Madden NFL 10. The podcast was The New Yorker Comment, a weekly reading of the magazine’s “Comment” section. I listened partly to learn about world events and partly to combat the shame I felt for playing video games instead of engaging in more scholarly pursuits like reading or learning a language. I loved playing Madden and hated that I loved it. The podcast, then, was a corrective — the medicine coated in the sugar of hours of Xbox — because I understood, intimately, that it was embarrassing, and dare I say straight, to unironically like what I liked.

“Is it embarrassing to like things?” is one of the central questions of StraightioLab, a podcast hosted by two gay comedians, George Civeris and Sam Taggart, that premiered early in 2020 and unveiled its second season on Monday. StraightioLab takes its name — and inspiration — from the long-running investigative podcast RadioLab. While RadioLab seeks to challenge “listeners’ preconceived notions about how the world works,” StraightioLab attempts to deepen its listeners’ understanding of an increasingly suspect phenomenon: heterosexuality.

The podcast’s cover image — Civeris and Taggart voguing inside a giant beaker — gives the impression that its hosts apply the scientific method to all things straight. Though they cosplay as chemists, the show is largely anthropological. Each episode, they bring on a guest to dissect a traditionally straight topic: miscommunication, holidays, lake culture, the City of Boston, framed movie posters, math. Discussions are critical and raunchy, honest and insincere. You’re just as likely to hear someone called a “little stinker” as a “neoliberal democrat.” The hosts are among the growing number of comedians who collapse the divide between high art and low — or, to paraphrase Civeris, who understand that high and low art are outdated modernist distinctions.

Civeris, who is currently a senior editor at Gawker, made a name for himself skewering the corporate co-option of queer politics in his writing and standup. Taggart came to comedy through improv with UCB before shifting to stand-up; his experimental performances include original songs that lodge maddeningly in your head for days. The two serve as charming foils. Taggart is the underbathed hunk recommending Bear City films as Civeris quotes Lauren Berlant from memory — one short-lived bit insists he’s a tenured professor at Harvard. Though they claim, in one of their many contrived origin stories, to be enemies paired through a podcast reality show, they have a tender rapport born of mutual admiration.

The conversations are digressive and wry, loaded with references to the Kinsey Scale, Lady Gaga, and byzantine bits that tunnel toward increasingly absurd assertions. In an episode with comedian Sandy Honig, the three create a sexual taxonomy of condiments. Ketchup is straight. Barbecue sauce is closeted. Tahini is bi. Mustard is lesbian. Eventually, the three must dutifully accept that they cannot, as cis people, responsibly identify a trans condiment. They digress. Soon they’re debating whether Girls is good.

Digressions are vital to the illusion of intimacy many podcasts seek to create. The best ones give listeners the impression they’re hanging out with good friends. After all, we listen to these shows in intimate spaces — driving to work, preparing lentil soup, raking leaves — and it makes sense listeners would assume a connection with people speaking from inside their homes. Over the past 18 months, I’ve relied on shows like StraightioLab and POOG and Tara Brach’s Sheltering in Love and more sports podcasts than I will publicly count to help puncture the claustrophobic bubble of lockdown.

Civeris and Taggart — for the time being, at least — thrive by demolishing boundaries between their lives and their listeners. Longtime listeners, who call themselves Glamour Girls, know the name of Taggart’s boyfriend; they know Civeris’s back-waxing routine and its cost; they know Civeris’s apartment needs decorations; they know Taggart finds I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry one of the sexiest movies ever created. What separates their openness from that of longtime podcasters like Marc Maron and Joe Rogan — beyond the obvious — is how the hosts seamlessly veer between irony and honest reflection.

Despite their willingness to say “anything” for the bit, as Civeris told comedian Sydnee Washington during an episode, the show is at its best when it grasps for authentic emotion. An episode with Jeremy O. Harris on the topic of High School stumbles into something profound when Harris, a former high school classmate of Taggart’s, apologizes for having cruelly outed him when they were teenagers. The conversation is uncomfortable — Taggart doesn’t know how to respond to Harris’s guilt. He brushes it aside; he forgives Harris; he assures him everything’s fine. Soon, they’re back to the bit, where they all feel most comfortable, but something has shifted between the two men. The arc of the episode — from dating anecdotes to ironic asides to heartfelt contrition — seems to mirror how it can feel to carry trauma: You make a joke, you make a joke, you remember the past, you make a joke to forget.

Civeris and Taggart, aware of the limits of irony and acutely conscious of how they appear to their listeners, have, over their first 70 episodes, hosted two “earnestness bonanzas” (spread across four episodes) in which they answer listener questions truthfully. These bonanzas speak to the peculiar bind that shapes the show and much of modern life: We want to be sincere but fear sincerity because it is often played for profit. Worse, sincerity is embarrassing. Personally, I fear being vulnerable even more than I fear being exploited.

StraightioLab’s solution is to push further into irony and self-consciousness, as its hosts maintain a tenuous relationship with their most honest, tenderest selves. Civeris and Taggart grasp for human connection through the very mediums that have made human connection so fraught — the internet, ironic defensiveness, the fabricated intimacy of podcasts. If this sounds like a paradox, it is. The paradox is what makes the experiment work.

Ironic Detachment Meets Vulnerability on StraightioLab