The Superficial Pleasures of Smartless

Photo: Amazon Music/Wondery

The rapidity of Smartless’s rise is, frankly, shocking. The celebrity podcast hosted by Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett only debuted in the summer of 2020, alongside a glut of other pandemic-era celebrity offerings, but by the end of last year it was the 23rd-most-listened-to podcast as measured by Edison Research, the most reliable independent source on such matters. Last June, when the show was barely a year old, it signed an exclusive multiyear licensing deal with Amazon Music said to be valued at as much as $80 million, and last month, Arnett, Bateman, and Hayes moved to expand the business around Smartless, hiring an executive to lead the development of more podcasts under the newly christened Smartless Media banner. Keeping in step with what’s become another marker of podcast achievement these days, there’s been a live tour spanning six cities, which concluded on February 12.

The show’s ascent has been so breakneck that even its hosts seem incredulous. “The whole podcast itself is insane,” Bateman said during a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel where he briefly discussed the tour. “It’s just four idiots — well, three idiots and a respectable guest — having a conversation onstage. People pay money to see singing, dancing, stand-up … It’s just us talking.” He doesn’t complete the thought, but the sentiment is clear. This?

The incredulity is understandable. Indeed, it matches how podcasting tends to be discussed more broadly these days, even by its own practitioners. The New York Times, for instance, has twice taken to describing the industry in shorthand asfrothy,” despite being home to The Daily, currently ranked as the second-biggest podcast measured by Edison Research (behind, of course, The Joe Rogan Experience). The timing of Smartless’s sudden popularity is also specifically peculiar. Here is a podcast that’s achieved the rare distinction of being a relatively new and unambiguous hit, no less during a moment when some are still grumbling over a recent Bloomberg newsletter arguing that podcasting hasn’t produced a hit in years.

But perhaps what’s most remarkable about Smartless is how thoroughly unremarkable it is. This isn’t to say it’s bad. It’s just not particularly distinct. Viewed from a distance, Smartless is a spitting image of that tired caricature of a podcast: three men shooting the shit with friends and guests — though in this case the men happen to be pretty famous actors. This brings to mind a slight portfolio-risk-management quality to the show’s construction: Take three relatively “safe” guys with active entertainment careers, group together their individual followings, and watch the downloads come in.

Structurally, the podcast is a group-interview show that rotates between the trio in terms of who’s recruiting the week’s guest. Each episode kicks off with the guest being introduced to the other two as a surprise, after which they proceed to engage in your standard line of celebrity-interview questioning. To some extent, every interview podcast is fundamentally a show about the interviewers. In aggregate, the guests present a picture of the hosts’ collective tastes and interests, and in conduct, the interviews convey how the hosts relate to the world. In this case, Arnett, Bateman, and Hayes give off a broad curiosity.

There are clear strengths to Smartless. The trio’s combined rolodex is formidable, which has produced a guest roster stacked with hard gets and eclectic additions that speak toward the interests of each individual. Guests have included Tom Hanks, Robert Downey Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Billie Eilish and brother Finneas, and LeBron James, along with less expected types like New Yorker head honcho David Remnick and the Formula One driver Daniel Ricciardo. The three men’s friendship — particularly between Arrested Development castmates Arnett and Bateman — is potent enough to result in a breezy sensibility and occasional gags at Arnett’s expense, which Arnett-heads would get a kick out of. Of the trio, Hayes seems to care the most about the integrity of the proceedings; I appreciate his presence.

But the interestingness of the show’s guests tends to be undercut by the fact that the hosts, collectively, are not especially effective interviewers. Conversations meander, too unfocused to leave much of an impression. The discussion seldom extends beyond the shallow and superficial, typically steeped in Hollywood smarm (“I love your work”) and the paper-thin politics of entertainment-industry liberalism. (“Everything in this country, well, in the world, is driven by profit, as we all know,” Arnett says in a recent episode with Adam McKay as part of a comment bemoaning corporate greed, despite having taken money from Amazon, a major symbol of corporate greed.) Smartless lacks the dynamic strangeness of Conan Needs a Friend, which bleeds with a whimsical intent to genuinely entertain, or Dax Shepard’s sober-king excavations of the soul in Armchair Expert, hokey for some but godly for others. At times, the whole affair can be a little insufferable, and each Smartless episode presents the risk that the show will compromise your affinity for a guest you think you like.

Still, it’s not good form to critique something on the basis of what it isn’t. And I’ll cop to it: There are sincere pleasures to be found in the superficialities of Smartless. This is a show steeped in a comfortable Hollywood life, constantly drawing out, at least from me, a mix of Gary Shteyngartian feelings: fascination with and contempt for such plush existences, but envious all the same. So if you’re hankering for a podcast offering proximity to show business and other assorted fantastical worlds, Smartless is a prime listen: relaxed, low-stakes, undifficult, uncomplicated.

The show is also something of an aberration in the history of the Los Angeles–Hollywood celebrity-podcast scene. That was once the domain of outsiders, offbeats, and the off-topic, a space for those not quite at the center of things to refract for audiences the strange task of navigating the entertainment industry. Pull up the Apple Podcast app and trace a line from Marc Maron and Scott Aukerman through to Anna Faris, the women of Office Ladies, and the saga of Dead Eyes: Here lies interesting stories of the outside looking in. Counterintuitively, Smartless seems to represent a peculiar new turn in the genre, owing to its fast success combined with the fundamental banality of its nature. It’s a turn toward the utterly vanilla.

Even more peculiar is how Smartless’s market appeal only grows when placed in the full context of what the podcast world is increasingly dealing with. For many, this moment in podcasting is defined by controversies and thorny issues: how the podcast widely believed to be the biggest in the world, The Joe Rogan Experience, is also its most troublesome; how one of its most reliable genres, true crime, can also be rife with ethical hijinks; how it’s also become a vibrant space for misinformation; how it’s home to speech and ideas outside the mainstream of varying explosiveness; and so on. By contrast, Smartless is as safe as it gets. In that sense, its success is almost provocative.

The Superficial Pleasures of Smartless