Prior to the last few days, I had only ever listened to a handful of episodes of Alec Baldwin’s podcast, Here’s The Thing. I’d always regarded the show as kind of a strange vanity project for Baldwin, an actor who has spent decades dominating the big and small screen and collecting a vault of acting awards along the way. Why radio? It wasn’t Andy Kaufman wrestling, but it was a surprising late career twist.
When it comes to Baldwin, my feelings are complicated. Jack Donaghy, the NBC exec he spent seven years playing for 30 Rock is one of my all-time favorite characters. A dozen times I’ve re-watched him verbally undress the sales staff as Blake in Glengarry Glen Ross, chiming in “Coffee is for closers” along with him. He is probably the very best celebrity host to ever appear on SNL–something he has done 16 times. Watching him in any role, he positively radiates charisma and talent.
But then there’s the public image. The guy who called his kid “a rude, thoughtless little pig” and was kicked off a flight for refusing to stop playing Words With Friends before takeoff. Last year he had public feuds with everyone from Anderson Cooper to Shia LaBeouf and was accused of homophobia and racism.
I’m not sure I knew where to stash a podcast by Baldwin among these conflicting feelings. And more to the point, I’m not sure I understood why Baldwin had a podcast. People like Ira Glass and Sarah Koenig have risen the ranks to stardom through their radio work, but rarely does a celebrity visit our world from the glittery lights of Hollywood. Sure, comedians are well known for podcasting, but often their shows are extensions of their comedy work, with improvisation and fun, off-beat conversation as their hallmarks. And none of these podcasters are true blue movie stars like Baldwin.
Here’s The Thing isn’t some adapted form of screen acting. It’s a straight interview show in the style of Terry Gross or Leonard Lopate. There are comedic moments, but the show isn’t geared toward comedy. In fact, Baldwin is so earnest in his approach to interviewing that at first it was almost funny to hear. I kept picturing Jack Donaghy behind the mic and struggled to take the whole thing seriously.
Finally, though, I decided to sit down and figure out what this podcast was all about. Was the show any good?
The short answer is yes. The show actually is really good. And it’s not just because Baldwin is able to command a stable of celebrity guests from David Letterman to Lorne Michaels to Chris Rock, though that certainly doesn’t hurt. The real surprise to the show is Baldwin himself.
Interviewing is an art. If you’ve ever tried to conduct an interview, you know that finding that sweet spot between investigation and conversation is tricky. It can be stilted, awkward, and just bad. This is why so many interviewers stick to straight Q & A style and don’t venture off-script. Those who do pursue a genuine conversation and do it well are gifted or experienced–and usually both. Like so many arts, when it looks easy, that’s when someone is doing their job well.
Baldwin’s interviews don’t always look easy. He struggles with interrupting his guests and finishing their sentences. Sometimes he steers the conversation away from topics before they’re totally explored. This is on full display in his interview with Lena Dunham, who can’t seem to ever complete a thought before Baldwin is racing after the next idea. Read through the comments on his interviews and you’ll see that people regularly lambaste him for this.
But if you trace his progress from the beginning, you’ll notice he’s getting better. Of course this is a man who is accustomed to the spotlight, who can perform with dozens of cameras pointed his way. But even he seems to recognize that this is not the same as acting and that sheer charisma and charm can’t pull it off. I have a hunch that Baldwin applies himself to everything he goes after and that he’s working at this podcasting project to an extent far below his pay grade. I might even venture to guess that he got into podcasting because he didn’t know how to do it and he admired those who could. Near the end of his interview with Ira Glass, he asks “What tips do you have for interviewers… what tips do you have for me, quite frankly?”
The show also works in spite of itself. While Baldwin seems intent on mastering the professional, polished interview style of the public radio pros like Glass, the show is sometimes at its best when he doesn’t. His interruptions can be jarring, but I think they are his way of trying to connect. He’s listening, he’s engaged, and sometimes he’s a little too excited. That’s not a bad thing. Further, when he sneaks in as a character and we begin to see his struggles as repeated themes, there emerges a second plot that makes listening not only interesting, but necessary.
Over the course of his interviews, Baldwin reveals a great deal of himself. Sometimes he showboats, but often he admits to struggling with his personal life, being emotionally wrecked by divorce, and, in his recent conversation with cartoonist Roz Chast, he even calls himself “a ball of insecurity.” It’s not all doom and gloom either. When he sits down with Billy Joel and the two discuss their humble roots as working class Long Island kids who rose to fame, the conversation dazzles in a way it couldn’t without Baldwin’s side of the story.
Often during his shows, I find myself at odds with who I think Baldwin is. There are so many competing threads–his career, his public persona, his reputation–but the most compelling is the guy who is living and breathing on this podcast. The one who appreciates Julie Andrews’ love of her family or who talks about second acts with Michael Douglas. I find myself feeling something of affection for him. It’s easy to root against the handsome movie star with bad press; it’s more rewarding to find out he’s a real person.
It’s been said more times than bears repeating here, but Marc Maron has perfected the interviewer-as-subject approach to podcasting. Every week, listeners tune in maybe because he has a great guest on the show, but usually just to check in with Maron. From the start, the show was structured around the conflict of Maron versus himself, and it has paid dividends as we’ve stayed riveted for years watching him unpack his neuroses and get his life in order.
I wouldn’t champion Baldwin going so far as to embrace this memoir model. It’s tough to stomach that kind of narcissism from someone who seems to have it all the way Baldwin does–even if this is merely an illusion. Watching Maron wallow in his self doubt is only tolerable because he lacks confidence and we know how low he’s been. Baldwin is the most charismatic guy in the room, and I think he’s well aware of just how talented he is. I’m not sure I want a 20-minute monologue at the top of the show about his personal struggles.
That said, I don’t think he needs to tone himself down the way others have argued. Baldwin’s star shines too bright to snuff out. He’s going to tell personal stories, he will interrupt his guests, he’s going to trip over himself. But through all of that, we’re going to keep meeting this complicated man whose interview series might reveal more about him than the entirety of his acting career. And he’s going to keep trying to connect the best way he knows how. Tune in for his celebrity guests, but stay for Baldwin.