Every week Linda Holmes, NPR’s lead pop-culture junkie and editor of the site’s entertainment blog Monkey See, gathers a panel of her public-radio friends to dissect the week in TV, music, movies, and more on Pop Culture Happy Hour. Episodes cover everything from romantic comedies to graphic novels to the Super Bowl with a much more conversational style than many of NPR’s other podcasts. And things get even looser when the show goes on the road.
While the Washington, D.C.-based podcast has toured before, its first-ever midwest stop is on April 12 at the Harris Theater, presented by local NPR affiliate WBEZ. Holmes is bringing along regular panelists Stephen Thompson, Glen Weldon, and Sam Sanders, plus comedian W. Kamau Bell and musical guests Mucca Pazza. I chatted with the Pop Culture Happy Hour regulars over the phone about Chicago’s stamp on pop culture, local sports teams, and the rush of performing live.
What are pieces of pop culture that you think define Chicago?
Linda Holmes: Certainly for me Second City, that’s the first thing I think of. And that in While You Were Sleeping she works on the el. It’s a great movie, and if it weren’t possible to fall on the CTA tracks and nearly get killed, that movie would not exist.
Stephen Thompson: What a loss that would be.
Sam Sanders: First and foremost, Kanye West. When I hear his first three albums, I think of Chicago. Secondly, Happy Endings, probably my favorite sitcom. That’s set in Chicago, and it’s chock full of jokes.
LH: I forgot to say Oprah!
Glen Weldon: As the middle-aged gay man, I’ll say the Kander-Ebb musical Chicago.
ST: I spent 12 years at the Onion and was there when the Onion made its move into Chicago, in part because it felt like such a vibrant comedy city—it was really important for us to be there and be a part of that legacy. But while I wax ecstatic about Chicago’s comedy history, I have to point out its absolutely deplorable football history and my bone-deep hatred of the Chicago Bears, which really propels me. When I have a hard time getting out of bed, I think about my hatred of the Chicago Bears and that allows me to have the energy to go on.
Speaking of sports, how do you think the Cubs’s World Series win will affect the coming years of Chicago-based pop culture?
LH: I think if you go back to when the Red Sox won the World Series, you get a lot of fun sports documentaries about triumphs. But for me it’s actually more fun from a pop-culture perspective to be like Susan Lucci before she won her Daytime Emmy versus her after she won her Daytime Emmy. I think the other really interesting pop-culture thing to come out of that story is Theo Epstein—I just heard how he was named the number-one world leader. When you have a baseball guy being named the number-one world leader, you’re sort of seeping into the other kind of pop culture, not just the TV and movie kind.
SS: I think if you look at the zeitgeist of rap at the moment, it’s kind of centered in and around Chicago artists. That’s really exciting especially after having to live all of my college and graduate school time with crunk and its many iterations. But that’s over, and Chicago is a bit of a smarter kind of rap.
LH: You need a basic backbone of just good stuff being made coming out of your city—and I think Empire and Dick Wolf are both pieces of basic, good television being made that feeds your pipeline of local people making it in television. If you look through the history of amazing guest stars on Law and Order and you look at the quality of actors that they somehow had on that show, a lot of that is because they were using New York theater actors, often before they were famous. I think there’s always an interesting opportunity to have an interplay between your theater scene and your TV and movie scene.
ST: I think the fact that it’s not necessarily situated in one of the echo chambers is really important creatively. It’s very common for bands in Brooklyn or actors in LA to only be around other bands in Brooklyn or only be around other actors in LA, and Chicago not only has that physical diversity where you have green space and water and also these industrial landscapes, but you also have more of an ecosystem that is not just industry. I think that lends itself to often better creative work.
GW: The first thing we mentioned was Second City, but so many of the comedians who we are now shouting out all the time—Kumail Nanjiani, Cameron Esposito, Rhea Butcher—have spent a solid part of their formative years in Chicago and talk about it glowingly.
SS: Oh! And Obama! That guy.
How did W. Kamau Bell get involved with the Chicago performance, and what are some of the things you want to talk about with him on the show?
LH: For such a long time we’ve always had just people who work at NPR or people that we knew come and do the show with us, and one of the things that’s so much fun about some of these live shows is that we do get to have people who are new to us. I’ve talked on our show about his CNN show [United Shades of America] in the past, how good it is and how interesting it is, so I have a lot of questions about that. He’s somebody who writes and has done comedy and had a late-night show and is now doing this documentary-style show. It’s just exciting to have a supernew, smart, and interesting person on the show, because that’s what our show is: it’s conversation and trying to bring new things out of everybody.
SS: I want to know how he made the choice to go from “Walter” to “W.,” and if I can do it myself.
LH: S. Sanders? I think you could.
ST: Especially for Linda, I think it’s exciting to have a new person because I think she becomes incredibly bored with us. Linda and I have done something like 340 episodes of the show, and we’re friends outside of the show—Linda and I were best friends before we even started working at NPR—and so by the time we get around to live shows, we already know everything about each other. When you throw in that new person, you get a little giddy.
LH: I like to think of our show as a really fun way to get to know NPR in a different context. One thing I told somebody once is imagine what Scott Simon would be like if he’d been awake for three days—that’s what our show is like all the time. It’s still NPR, but with a different feel to it.
GW: That’s the thing, the live show is a different feel not just from NPR, but from the podcast. The audience adds an extra level of energy. The live show can’t just be us sitting around a table discussing things in the thoughtful way we usually do it, it has to be something bigger. It has to be something that’s set out to entertain people instead of just talking.
ST: You can feel when you think you’re saying something funny, and you realize it’s not, because the room is dead.
LH: It’s a totally different kind of bombing. If you bomb on a podcast, you never know you bombed. If you bomb in front of a room full of people, then you get to be really up close and personal and intimate with the feeling of bombing.
SS: The worst part of live shows is when people are like, “Selfie time!” And then you see yourself in the pictures the next day, and you realize you’re not nearly as photogenic as you think you are.
LH: Another thing that doesn’t matter on a podcast.
Pop Culture Happy Hour Wed 4/12, 8 PM, Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, harristheaterchicago.org, $45.