On November 9 of last year, Trump was still refusing to concede, the Pfizer vaccine had just concluded its clinical trials, and Georgia’s runoffs were getting underway. Most importantly, though, the greatest comedy podcast of 2020 released its first teaser episode.
POOG (GOOP backwards) is gloriously unhinged in a way that felt then—and continues to feel—entirely appropriate. Ostensibly about the products that claim to heal us, the show is actually a riotous send up of hypochondria, consumerism, and millennial ennui. Hosts and longtime friends Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak (both comedians) alternate between bracing vulnerability and razor-sharp jokes as they both subject their lives to exuberant interrogation, all in service of “wellness.”
Pandemics and humor don’t usually go together, but POOG has its antecedents— even in 1918, writers were cracking jokes about mistaking laryngitis or other lesser ailments for the flu. “Have you stumped one of your toes? Have you just a bleeding nose? Or no matter what your woes—Spanish Flu,” read one newspaper column.
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Likewise, Novak and Berlant, both L.A.-based, treat the body with the fear, respect, and utter bafflement it deserves. One episode begins with Berlant attempting to investigate a pain in her clavicle, which leads to a graphic conversation of the inner workings of various organs. As Novak presses forward with various inquiries, Kate becomes progressively more squeamish until both of them are laughing about livers.
The duo are also skilled at deconstructing our current consumerist desires. An episode about clutter discusses anthropomorphizing material goods, the deep sadness of estate sales, and the liminal space occupied by the Container Store. Discussing purchases, both comedians repurpose therapeutic terms, pointing out just how capitalistic the discourse around self-care has become.
Berlant and Novak talked to Los Angeles over Zoom about Instagram ads, the horrors of Facebook, how to check for aneurysms, and why, in order to live, we all need to “die, constantly die.”
Have both of you always been able to laugh at your own hypochondria?
Novak: I’ve never thought of myself as a hypochondriac. My mother’s side of the family, the Jewish side was, you know, worried about everything, but then my mom married my dad, who’s not Jewish, so now I feel like I have both sides warring within me. But there’s also a meta discussion in my family about the previous generation being so afraid and how we were determined to break the cycle. So there’s a very anti—hypochondria movement in my generation of the family. Like, we’re not going to do that!
Berlant: I’ve had to learn to laugh at my hypochondria. It always felt very serious to me. There were many times I got picked up from school because I thought I was having a heart attack or I’d located a tumor in my one-inch tit. I was very stressed out. Now, I look to others and hope that their laughter will cure me.
Novak: I get to play out the prime dramas of my family’s structure. I think to myself, OK, so am I my dad and Kate’s my mom here? Or am I my mom and Kate is also my mom? I don’t know, but it’s all very familiar.
Jacqueline, you’re so good at poeticizing the body in this really funny and interesting way. Where do you think that comes from?
Novak: I investigate everything in my body out of sheer curiosity. Sometimes people think it’s fear but I’m like, no, no—if I’m feeling a weird vibration in my hand, there’s a reason. There’s always a reason!
Berlant: I pray there isn’t a reason. I used to be locked in terror—always waiting for the aneurysm. I would try to walk in a straight line, administer the stroke test. After I watched an AIDS documentary, I would wear two layers of underpants to school. I was that freaked out.
You both also talk a lot about the performance of just being alive. I was wondering how you feel about the nature of performing in quarantine and what it’s been like to not have an immediate reaction from a crowd?
Berlant: I genuinely can’t wait to perform again. I’ve been doing stand up comedy longer than I’ve been having sex, which is shocking. But it’s nice to know, oh, I can still exist without that. The performance never ends, so to speak.
Novak: I love the solitude and the inability to do spots and I also love that it’s forced on me because I don’t feel guilt.
Kate: I didn’t expect having a podcast to feel so good. Aside from just talking to Jacqueline every week, which is the greatest joy, there’s an immediacy to the way people respond to it that is comparable to being onstage. These aren’t characters, they’re naked conversations and there’s something deeply liberating about performing in that voice because that’s not a typical way that I approach my standup.
Did you know that there’s a Facebook group devoted to POOG and that many of the members have adopted your vernacular?
Berlant: I’ve disabled Facebook due to being an activist.
Novak: What freaks me out is that I’m going to have to figure out my boundaries on a purely energetic level. When you see little ideas or things you say repeated over and over again, it’s like “Oh, right…I do say that. I wasn’t even conscious of that.”
Berlant: It’s terrifying when you come to discover yourself as a series of mannerisms or certain phrases, but I so desperately need to be seen and known that it’s also a way of feeling love—like, oh, people are actually encountering me in a way that I can never encounter myself.
Novak: You feel seen, but then do you feel swallowed? When everyone says “this is huge” and it’s no longer this authentic thing coming out of my mouth, do I let go of it? Is it no longer mine? What’s tough about seeing the quotes on Facebook is that, “in the moment they are given, they die” you know? They’re no longer yours, so there’s a sense of loss, but that’s also cueing you towards growth, right?
Berlant: You have to die, constantly die.
Novak: Otherwise you’re lacquering the dead fucking skin.
This is a weird question but do you feel like your podcast is being marketed correctly? I keep seeing it described as a show about wellness but it seems like you’re both going for something more expansive, even existential.
Berlant: We knew we were never interested in, “Oh the wellness industry is a racket, look at those vagina eggs!” or whatever. But the grotesque reality of marketing is that whenever you’re forced to define something or categorize it, there’s an inherent loss. It becomes butchered.
Novak: In the past, I’ve tried to sell something as it truly is. That’s confusing to people. It’s like trying to sell something that can only be experienced in the execution. Usually the ideas that I’m most excited about are things that sound impossible or bad. I’m tempted by the thrill of almost being misperceived—I like for people to say, “Oh it’s a wellness podcast but it’s actually so much more.”
Berlant: Imagine if we described POOG as “an existential exploration of whatever we want to explore that day.” You’d be like “ew.”
Novak: I like a container over which I can spill.
Because you’ve both talked about and tried so many different wellness cures, I sometimes wonder what kind of ads Instagram feeds you.
Berlant: I get ads for Everlywell food sensitivity tests. I’m like, honey, if it were that easy, we’d all fucking know!
Novak: Today, I was served an ad for a Hydrafacial treatment, which shoots oxygenated water right into the pores. I was disturbed because the price point was so low.
Have either of you been served the ad for the breath analyzer that claims to track your metabolism?
Novak: Oh yes, I have the keto breathalyzer. I am into that shit. I have fallen off the practice but, god, the novelty of tech helps me a lot.
Berlant: I seize up around gadgets.
Novak [Donning a headband gadget]: This device measures your brainwaves while you’re meditating and delivers audio feedback. If you don’t focus enough on your breath, the audio of storms gets noisier!
Berlant: I’ll take one!
Novak: Yesterday I quit my meditation after seven minutes and I was like, is meditation another racket that’s not suitable for the menstruating gal? Is it too linear? Maybe I should be dancing under the moon. It’s like how yoga doesn’t account for breasts, you know?
Berlant: I’m so glad we’re synced-up period-wise.
Novak: Thank god. That’s been huge for me.
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