You can count on Benjamen Walker’s Theory of Everything to leave the studio behind most episodes, but don’t expect to know where the rollercoaster narrative will take you. It’s not that the show defies all categorization—it’s neurotically funny and literary. TOE just manages to thumb its nose at any understanding of what a podcast should be. Where many narrative podcasts have a consistent focus and tone and an inside-the-studio scholarship, TOE plays like a college dropout who doesn’t have to unlearn the rules of the hallowed establishment. He’d rather earn a debt-free education on the job.
Not willing to be derivative, Theory of Everything shares almost no DNA with NPR—the radio institution that fears pauses and naughty words and anything overly political. Meanwhile, TOE does all of these things. Walker even pushes the boundaries a different direction each installment. He’s not afraid of personal essay, like the beautiful work featured in “New York After Rent (II of III)”; He likes a good adventure story, like the cultural reporting of his “Art De Vivre” series with a trek to France’s wine country; In “An Illumination,” he geeks out on mathematics, artistry, and discovery. The investigation into sharing economies in “Instaserfs” took what would be a fifteen-minute podcast for Planet Money and made it a gorgeous black comedy of errors across three 30+ minute episodes. You can’t stop laughing, yet it mines enough first-world sadness from an overworked errand boy to fill the Mariana Trench.
The approach is freewheeling in structure too. The most recent episode, an expanded version of “1984 (the year not the book)” from 2014, continues a kaleidoscopic run of TOE shows released this year that have included multi-episode arcs with recurring characters, immersive reporting, and masterful zigzagging against listeners’ expectations.
If there is a single unifying theme in all these disparate episodes and approaches to production, it’s social commentary. TOE is seeped in class and salutes nerds, workers, dreamers, and scruffy intellectuals, but it speaks with its own voice–one that flirts with the gonzo humor of Hunter S. Thompson and the take-no-prisoners editorializing of Matt Taibbi.
Who else in podcasting makes you laugh, cry, and pound your fists in rage all at the same time?
You can hear it in Benjamen Walker’s voice, too. When he’s incredulous, he pouts. If angry, he shouts. He uses his octave range like a guitarist uses a capo and a wah wah pedal. Consider last week’s “1984,” where Walker reads entries from his adolescent journal starting on January 1, 1984, in an attempt to go back and understand the milestone year. About three minutes into the episode—after Walker drops a “Where’s the beef?” joke from Wendy’s—he showcases all the things he can do with that voice.
“No one got the joke,” he whines. It’s shrill like Woody Allen.
“Can’t they see why this woman’s so awesome?” That’s pure nerd—Anthony Michael Hall in Sixteen Candles.
“That lady from the Wendy’s commercial is like the embodiment of our collective fatigue with bullshit.” Here it’s all that righteous anger against the conformists in power. Benjamen Walker as Brad Pitt from Fight Club.
All these multifaceted personalities work in harmony and allow each episode its own colorful idiosyncrasies. It’s as if Walker plays everyone in his podcast. Yes, he even plays a little Judd Nelson in “Instaserfs” when bullying his insta-podder (a subtle joke that gets hilarious the more you hear it).
While all the range of voices play for great laughs on the surface, Walker still slugs home a statement of purpose. Interspersed with his observations of life in that iconic year are media clips from watershed moments. Michael Jackson goes from mega star to pop god. Reagan shits on homeless people (not literally, but damn close).
As amazing as much of the period tape is, it’s “Where’s the beef?” that transcends its ad copy into something eerily important for the disenfranchised. With a deft piece of editing and some pop-culture theorizing, the famous line from a Wendy’s commercial shapes the episode so thoroughly that it becomes the very backbone of the podcast. As Walker keeps poking holes in the shallowness and hypocrisy of the era, and Reagan looms ominously as a capitalistic huckster, “Where’s the beef?” emerges as a rallying cry. Of course it’s our collective fatigue with bullshit.
Despite all the craft at play in an episode of TOE, it’s always a lot of fun. Benjamen Walker does something more podcasters ought to do: Step outside. Leave the studio. It’s a podcast of the moment that ventures out into three-dimensional communities. Even when he’s reading from his diary in “1984,” we’re pushing into the world of shopping malls, teen angst, and yellow school buses.
If you’ve spent time comparing podcasts to other art forms, you aren’t alone. With such a new medium, it’s hard to figure out just why it exists. Is it a second-class documentary film? A refuge for people not fit for radio? In any such conversations, TOE should hold an important place in the dialogue. It’s a show that must be a podcast. Benjamen Walker’s taken podcasting’s guerrilla portability and creative flexibility to their most rewarding conclusions.