Erin Ryan Whips Up a Smart New Podcast for Dark TimesMain photo courtesy of Erin Ryan; other photo courtesy of Crooked Media Comedy Features Erin Ryan
The Crooked Media network is home to shows like Pod Save America and other high-profile political commentary programming, mostly lead by male hosts. Tomorrow the audio empire adds a new show, based on one of their highest profile recurring female guests, Erin (Gloria) Ryan. This isn’t going to be an offshoot or a spinoff—this is going to be a revolution.
Born in Wisconsin and, as she puts it, “raised by wolves,” Ryan took a Notre Dame education and moved to Chicago to do community work. She signed on at Jezebel back in 2011, working her way up to Managing Editor while also contributing to The New York Times and Playboy. She’s currently a senior editor with The Daily Beast, a frequent guest on CNN’s S. E. Cupp Unfiltered, and a favorite of websites that cobble together galleries of good and funny tweets (yes, we’re talking about ourselves, here.) She operates in the unfiltered journalism space that’s willing to speak truth to power in any situation, and simultaneously wraps itself in a specific brand of comedic antagonism. As a bi-coastal political commentator with darkly comic tendencies, she’s become a very focused voice in the fight against everything that’s wrong with the country, while also elevating and directing the delivery of that conversation.
That’s why her new podcast Hysteria, which debuts on June 28, is such an exciting new venture. A team of co-hosts will join Erin Ryan in breaking down the news and politics that affect women’s lives, from the serious to the absurd, in a manner never constrained by the influence of men. That’s not to say that men have nothing to add to the conversation, but in this space their presence (no matter how well intentioned) would distract from the honest—and somewhat private—vibe of truth that few national podcasts with this kind of platform could possibly provide to the conversation right now.
Paste recently talked with Ryan about the future of political discourse, feminist comedy in antagonistic spaces, and buying (but never using) seasonal depression lamps.
Paste: How did you come to work on It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia?
Erin Ryan: I was very lucky. About a year and a half ago, Rob McElhenney reached out via Twitter DM to tell me that I was funny and he wanted to email with me about maybe having me do some writing. Later, I sent him a treatment and that project is now in development at FX. We were working on that, but I had resigned to my New York life. I bought this expensive winter coat—bit the bullet—and acknowledged my seasonal depression so I bought a Sad Lamp. A couple days later, Rob called to ask if I’d come to LA to write for It’s Always Sunny. I went through my whole day with that information in my head, and I got home that day and the Sad Lamp and the expensive coat were waiting for me in the lobby. Both useless now. So I did two months in a room with ten writers and we put together a whole season, and then I got to go back to New York.
Paste: Tell me about your work with S.E. Cupp’s CNN show and the Daily Beast and your background.
Ryan: I’ve never really had a five year plan. Whenever something comes up that is interesting to me, I follow it wherever it goes. Daily Beast is one of the few places that’s doing adversarial journalism and I love that. There’s a pocket of journalism that has become dependent on the power structure and reinforces the power structure, and some of those entities that should be checking power are actively helping power. Entertainment and art has taken on a new role in this era for being critical, where comedy and podcasts are now checking both the power and journalism.
Paste: That’s certainly the role that both my wife and I have found ourselves in—moving from entertainment into journalism pretty quickly.
Ryan: There were a lot of people who weren’t paying attention under Obama because they thought everything would just be fine, because there was no undermining of democracy happening. America was so behind the eight ball until the election woke people up. It has been, not interesting—it has been noteworthy to watch people realize “Oh, this house is absolutely infested with termites, but I was really excited about this picture I just hung on the wall.” It feels tenuous right now, but also so many people give a shit and are learning how to create change so that’s a good sign
Paste: I have friends that are pushing for the 2020 motto of “Make Politics Boring Again” and…
Ryan: Here’s the thing: we can never again return to the point where we were paying as little attention as we were before 2016. We don’t get to hit autopilot. We have to pay attention because boring assholes seize power and they have boring questions and we’ll eventually become a boring oligarchy state. We’re in this grieving stage still, I think, because when Trump got elected people were like “How do we stop this guy?” But now you realize That Guy is a lot of guys who are everywhere. And they were always whispering about doing the things that Trump is now shouting about, so they can start shouting those quiet thoughts too… and they’re making them happen. The next step is that we can never drop the ball and allow things to get this bad again. Maybe instead of making politics boring again, we should make politics somewhat entertaining but a whole lot less terrifying.
Paste: I feel like the thing that will keep us from ever being as on autopilot as we were before is the Infinity Civics Lesson we’ve all been engaged in since 2016. We’ve had to learn so much about the minutiae of politics that I can’t imagine being able to forget this or let even small politics things go, no matter which party is in power next.
Ryan: I have had to go on TV at a moment’s notice and I didn’t know what I was—it wasn’t basic stuff, it was “What are the procedures for when a member of the house runs afoul of the ethics committee and has filed an appeal?” I don’t fucking know. Why would anyone fucking know? I’m not a parliamentarian. And honestly, I don’t think many parliamentarians would know either and they aren’t available to go live on CNN. This civics lesson is also displacing stuff in my brain. I have a lot of stuff up there, not all of it is interesting or good. I still remember the songs in most episodes of the show Ghostwriter, but I also forget things now like “What was the number of my hotel room? What floor was it?” I have to handwrite things that I need to remember because otherwise they’ll get forced out by trying to remember the differences between appealing at the state level versus a national—you know? These are not pieces of information that a general participant in the American democracy should need to know. It is exhausting but there is no other way.
Paste: And this plays into their plan, because not only do we burnout trying to keep up with every detail, but to refer to your earlier example of needing to know what happens regarding an ethics committee censure, I guess we’ve reached a point where the question is actually about what we do when the head of the ethics committee steps down amid that process. We’re not just getting into the weeds, we’re leaving laws behind and entering into the gaps between hypotheticals because nothing in our system was prepared to handle this. No one thought we’d need to actually debate whether the President can pardon himself.
Ryan: The nature of widely consumed political media now is that everyone has to present themselves as having an unnatural level of expertise no matter the issue. No one is going on camera right now and saying, “You know, this isn’t something we fully understand,” or “This actually doesn’t make any sense.” You see it on Twitter when a major event happens and suddenly I’m surprised at how many of you are experts at Byzantine architecture and hurricane season. What are the odds that so many of you knew so much about the laws of the Commonwealth of Virginia previous to 1776? That’s crazy! But people love to run with as much information as they can shove into their little chipmunk cheeks. It’s endemic to how talking heads work right now, and I’m part of that, but I’m aware of it. And Donald Trump isn’t an expert in anything. He doesn’t even understand the difference between Manafort having his bail revoked versus being sentenced to jail. He couldn’t even read the entire headline. He’s involuntarily stumbling into unprecedented blocks of bureaucracy we should have never encountered and it’s causing all of these errors in our system. You know that notion we’re all living inside a simulation and that the simulation is broken? I’m at an AirBnB right now, and the house number is 420 and the name of the street is the name of a man I broke up with because he smoked too much pot. That’s just lazy writing. I used to talk about about the simulation being broken ironically, but now I’m starting to talk about it only half ironically.
Paste: You ran a podcast called Girl Friday, where you and other women in the media got a chance to discuss recent events and also vent just about the toll that journalism takes on a person in 2017. Have you missed that outlet and are you hopeful that the new show allows you to vent in the same way?
Ryan: In short: Crooked has more resources. And they’ve put a lot behind the development of Hysteria. I’ve found women relate to news stories and to each other in conversations by offering their experiences as fodder. Women who are public facing are expected to offer up their organs as part of their job. There are women who are big fans of Crooked Media podcasts who are hungry for the voices that represent them and represent women talking in the break room to each other. Some of the test shows (of which we did many) had me laughing so hard I thought I was going to die.
Paste: Pod Save The People has an angle of avoiding stories covered in the mainstream, especially Trump stuff that gets covered at length elsewhere. Is your show focusing on the smaller stories that matter to you directly or are you taking on everything, just through your own lens?
Ryan: I wouldn’t want people that listen to all the Crooked podcasts to think that they’re hearing the same stories on a repeat, but yeah, we’ll also be doing some major stories, just through a different angle. Donald Trump’s policies separating children from families at the border leads to an angle that gets to quote unquote women’s issues, because undocumented women not being allowed to have abortions is a bit hypocritical. The New York Times just ran a piece on pregnancy discrimination in the workforce. These are big topics we can tackle as women and as people with children and how this plays into larger themes. We can connect the experience of the American Woman with the actions of the American Government.
Paste: Why is Paul Ryan your dad?
Ryan: Oh my god. This is a joke that I’m just trying to ride to the very end. I’m from Wisconsin and Paul Ryan is from Wisconsin and our last name is Ryan but we have no shared family. We checked. My dad even did a 23andMe and—
Paste: Your family did a 23andMe to make sure you weren’t related to Paul Ryan. That’s an incredible dedication to hating him.
Ryan: That would have been much funnier, but it was just a side detail. Our ancestors weren’t his ancestors. Anyway, I did the live Pod Save show in Madison last year, and someone mentioned Paul Ryan and there were boos from the crowd, and someone said “Don’t make fun of Erin’s uncle.” And in a really snotty, bratty way I was like, “No, Paul Ryan is my dad.” It was an inane thing, not even a joke. So they named the episode “Paul Ryan Is My Dad.” You ever seen how teens will call celebrities “mom” on social media? Well, I love calling a dorky Ayn Rand guy “dad” on social media. Now, whenever Paul Ryan does something, I get a million tweets about it. Later, I found out that someone wrote Crooked Media an email complimenting them on their diversity, in that they hired Paul Ryan’s daughter to work on one of the shows. At this point it is such an obvious joke and he’s only 15 years old than me, but I want to keep harping on the joke until Paul Ryan actually has to tell me to stop. If Paul Ryan gets mad at me and asks me to stop saying that I am his daughter, whatever form that communication takes, it will become my most cherished possession. I will frame it and hang it on my wall. If it is a recording it will become my ringtone.
Paste: A two word tweet from Paul Ryan that just says “Erin. Stop.” would be a delightful piece of artwork to hang or to cross-stitch.
Ryan: “Miss Ryan, don’t.” I would get it as a tattoo.
Paste: The joke ends in a few months when he steps down and disappears into obscurity forever. Except for the inevitable book tour and paid speaking arrangements.
Ryan: We’ll always have “Paul Ryan Is My Dad.” Long after we’ve said goodbye to that incredible embarrassment to my home state.
Paste: You’ve made it one of your journalistic beats to follow Donald Trump Jr. on all of his social media accounts, at great personal emotional cost to Erin Ryan. What have you learned about Donald The Lesser from this unfiltered and constant glimpse into his psyche?
Ryan: Donald Trump Jr. is toxic masculinity personified. I oscillate between hatred and feeling so bad for him. Because behind his dead-eyed workout selfies is the true pain of a boy who has never known the nurturing love of an adult male. You can just see his dad not loving him. You can see it on his face. His overcompensation—the other day he was going on Fox News and posted that he was putting on his “war paint” because he couldn’t even say that he was wearing make-up. Dude, you’re the reason that yogurt companies have to put yogurt in a black container so men will eat it. You’re the reason Dial has a special “man soap” that has flames on the side. At the same time, I feel really sorry for fragile things, so seeing his fragile masculinity on display at all times makes me feel so bad. Then he’ll retweet some awful conspiracy theorist or bully a high school student online, and then I’m reminded “Oh yeah, fuck that guy.”
Paste: I feel your weird surprise Trump child guilt. Every few months I tweet that weird New York Times interview from the ‘90s where Trump watches Bloodsport and keeps making Eric Trump run over and fast-forward through all the talking parts because he just wants to watch the fighting because that’s how he watches movies and oh god we gave the nukes to that idiot. But I point out that Trump is at least asking Eric to do something and he seems to love doing it and what if, at nine years old while managing the VHS tape so your dad doesn’t have to touch the controller… what if that was the last time Eric felt loved or wanted by his father? And then I usually delete it because it feels like too much. But also… that man is evil and doing evil things. Can I take pill to block my empathy?
Ryan: I don’t make fun of Tiffany or Barron because they aren’t a part of this. Of the adult children, Eric is the least bad. He’s dramatically less bad than Don Jr. And Ivanka is like a plastic plant that emanates a dangerous gas. You ignore that little fake houseplant and then you’re like “Why am I so lightheaded? Huh. Oh, everything around me has been poisoned.” She’s tried to capitalize on all this while actively harming women and when she gets called out on it she whines. When the Trump administration is done I hope that Don Jr. finds a good therapist because he could benefit from getting into what happened in his life which has resulted in those emotional traumas manifesting themselves in such bizarre ways in his behavior. But I hope Ivanka is never able to go to another gala on the Upper East Side again without being dramatically shunned by the people she wants to be friends with. She should never be accepted into polite society again. Following Don Jr. makes me feel worse though, because everything he does is a performance of what he thinks looks cool and that is scary.
Paste: I think you’re the person to ask about this: What do we think about Melania? When she did The Great Disappearing Act I was like “just let her go if she wants to hide from this” but at the same time Melania is trying to half-ass through these First Lady responsibilities, like claiming she’s fighting online bullying and other goals with increasingly general scopes, and it feels like this in-between is worse for the country.
Ryan: So you want her to Be More Best? Melania Trump is in a situation she did not see herself in. There’s an anecdote in Michael Wolff’s book (which who knows what in there is true) but he says she was crying on election night. She married a strange, unlikable, malignant turd of a rich American man, thinking it would afford her comfort in life. The measure of comfort was enjoyable because she got to be a private person, beyond photo ops with Donald Trump on the red carpet. She never expected to be morally assessed by the Western world. She also could leave if she wanted to leave.
— Kate Bennett (@KateBennett_DC) June 19, 2018
Paste: You are someone who is Extremely Online. I get it; I am too. I go back and forth on this: Is dunking on these people worth it? Is quote tweeting them doing their work? Are we doing anything worthwhile?
Ryan: It is pretty hopeless to imagine that quote tweeting Donald Trump Jr. and saying “Sir, I do believe…” will change Donald Trump Jr.’s mind about anything. Quote tweeting Pence or Ryan isn’t going to change their minds, but it does project outwards the visible proof that people with a conscience do not stand for this or with this. You aren’t speaking to the people in power, you’re letting people that aren’t in power know that they aren’t going crazy. Pointing out hypocrisy ensures that hypocrisy is never normalized. And it puts words on the uncomfortable feeling they have watching Sessions quote the Bible or Ivanka snuggling her child in an Instagram post. It lets people know they are not alone.
Paste: Who is your least favorite right-wing political operative that is not in the administration? Mine’s Gorka. I love watching that Art of War valor stealing bootlicker own himself every single day.
Ryan: He made a chin out of a goatee and he thinks no one will notice. “Sir, you don’t have a chin. You are a thumb. Your opinions do not matter.” My least favorite operative is the entire Fox News family—oh wait, Matt Boyle from Breitbart. He’s not even a main villain. He’s a side kick. It’s uniquely pathetic and strange. So Matt Boyle and Fox News, helping make this alternate America where what Trump does is fine and what Trump has done has always been fine.
Paste: What are the goals of Hysteria?
Ryan: We are making a show that I would like to listen to and that I would be excited to know existed. The entire Crooked Media empire feels like, most importantly, a space where people have a sense of community—especially in these dark times. When I first came up with the idea for Hysteria, I imagined what it would be like to take it on tour, and imagined the kind of crowd we’d have. I imagined women who are really engaged with the news but who also watch Real Housewives. Women who care deeply about things, including their country, but who are also deeply frustrated, and who have empathy for each other and other people. I’m always excited to hang out with the co-hosts because it makes me feel good. I don’t want to pretend that I don’t want men to listen to us. I’ve just noticed that when there is a man present in the conversations (even if he’s a really good, aware, respectful man) it changes the tenor of the conversation. I want it to be what it sounds like when women are together and talking when there isn’t a man in the room because the way they related to each other is different. We don’t see that in a non-scripted way that feels authentic, and on a large platform. If I were to elevator pitch it, I guess I would say this: Have you ever gone out to brunch by yourself with a book or a newspaper? And then you’re sitting next to a table of really interesting people, and their conversation is so interesting you can’t read your newspaper. That’s what I want Hysteria to feel like.
Paste: Do you worry that if we defeat Trump in 2020 that the Crooked Media shows, which are overwhelmingly based in resistance, will run out of things to cover? Or are we looking at a lifetime of terrible people with terrible ideas that we’ll always need to be pushing back against?
Ryan: Crooked is about keeping people plugged into issues that matter. Even when Trump is done, we still have so many Republican states, and who knows what the Supreme Court looks like in 2020? Crooked is also branching out into other areas. Pop culture will continue to exist, women will still be facing an uphill battle, people will always want the catharsis of listening to smart people talk about complicated issues. 2020 is a long way away. We need to get through 2018 first. And 2019. Hopefully we’re still a country in 2020 and not just, I don’t know, China 2.
Paste: Finally, on days when everything is completely fucked, what do you do for mental and emotional self-care?
Ryan: I will not go on Twitter after a certain point. I will go on a run. I will pick out an elaborate recipe, go to the grocery store and get all the ingredients, come home and make the recipe while listening to podcasts about murder. I listen to old RadioLab episodes. I like smart people talking about anything that isn’t news. It’s easy to get lost in the day to day hysteria… haha… going on in the White House. I’ll talk to family or friends about the daily palace intrigue snafu stuff from the White House, and usually they have no idea what I’m talking about. It’s interesting to us because we work adjacent to it, but there’s a whole country out there with lives that are not impacted by Trump and this daily nonsense and it’s important to remember that too. So I make a depression pound cake in my place while being completely logged off. There was a time when we weren’t talking about this stuff full time, and that time will come again.
Brock Wilbur is a writer and comedian from Los Angeles who lives with his wife Vivian Kane and their cat, Cat. He is the co-author (with Nathan Rabin) of the forthcoming book Postal for the Boss Fight Books series.