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Sarah Marshall of You’re Wrong About and Why are Dads?
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Episode 42
Sarah Marshall of You’re Wrong About and Why are Dads?
Writer, podcaster, and cultural critic Sarah Marshall has a distinct expertise: diving deep into the messy backstories of widely known subjects that are often overlooked in their elemental details. This week, Nick speaks with Marshall about the way she approaches her topics, her various projects, and the larger enterprise of sitting, listening, and forging an emotional connection with larger than life figures.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.

Sarah Marshall of You’re Wrong About and Why are Dads

Tue, 6/15 2:50PM • 28:41

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

nick, laughs, sarah, people, feel, episodes, moral panic, talking, stories, podcast, writing, chuckles, life, tonya harding, person, marie antoinette, laughter, mike, speak, apocalypse

SPEAKERS

"You're Wrong About" Excerpt, Sarah Marshall, Nick Quah

Nick Quah 00:00

My introduction to Sarah Marshall wasn't through her podcasts. It was through her writing, specifically a piece she wrote for BuzzFeed News called 'The Incredible True Story of How Titanic Got Made'. And we're not talking about the doomed ship here, we're talking about the James Cameron movie with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. You know, this one. {sound bite from Titanic} What I've realized is that the article is a perfect encapsulation of Sarah's expertise, deep diving into the complicated and messy backstory of an iconic person or moment and unearthing the elemental and overlooked details.

Sarah Marshall 00:39

Suddenly, I could talk about Amy Fisher, and I could talk about Lorena Bobbitt, and I could talk about all these stories where these were unpitchable stories when I was a freelance writer because I was talking about facts that were on the record, and were known, and I wasn't introducing new information. And all I was doing was sort of, like, wrapping people on the knuckles and being like, "Be nice!" {Nick laughs}

Nick Quah 01:07

That's where Sarah shines and part of what makes her podcast, You're Wrong About, which she hosts with the journalist, Michael Hobbes, so d**n good. From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. This week, revisiting history with Sarah Marshall. Sarah, how did You're Wrong About get started?

Sarah Marshall 01:46

Yeah, so... Well, that one came about because Mike and I knew each other somewhat. Me and Michael Hobbes, my co host. And he had reached out to me when he started working at the Huffington Post to suggest that I pitch something to them, which just... I never had the right idea for it. And I liked him. And I liked his work. And I liked that he had asked me to pitch something. And then he got this idea to start a podcast. Originally, I think the title was supposed to be 'I Misremember the 90s'. {Nick laughs} When we were initially talking about it, I was like, "Cool, but can we just do any point in history because I want to do a Leopold and Loeb episode." {chuckles} Which I still haven't done. {Nick laugh} And he was like, "Okay, sure." And so, basically, we got together kind of an initial batch of episodes that we were pretty happy with, and then we started releasing them in May of 2018, and just kind of have kept going, and then ramped up to our current state of production in pandemic times 'cause then it... Very, very hilariously, a year ago, last March, we were like, "Our country is going through something and people are going to be bored because they're stuck in their houses. So we should release an episode a week until life is back to normal. Hahahaha." {Nick & Sarah laugh} And it's still... Yeah, it's just... I don't know, it's... I'm sure that a lot of people, like, started resolutions at the beginning of this, and this one was ours.

Nick Quah 03:22

Well, so the concept of You're Wrong About is really similar to your written work.

Sarah Marshall 03:27

I do think that You're Wrong About is a show that I like doing so much, partly because it's... it is drawing on what my work was trying to do for a long time before I found out is an outlet, which is to just, you know, not necessarily have bombshell new information, or even new reporting, or, or anything, and just to kind of take people to the past. And I mean, essentially do history. [Nick: Hmm] I think that yeah, what generally what I'm most interested in is trying to take people on a little time travel trip and sort of form some kind of intimacy with with some kind of person, some kind of figure, and a historical narrative that makes it more complicated. And to complicate it, you know, maybe 'cause there's no information you can bring to light or because I can do some analysis that is smart. But mainly, I think, once you feel the people and the stories you tell to be real people [Nick: Yeah], things become different. And I think that's the key thing for me.

Nick Quah 04:31

Were you in, sort of, history departments into... in your academic life? What was, what was your degree in?

Sarah Marshall 04:37

I was in literature departments. And so, I got a master's degree, and that was where I got really into the stories of Puritan women and sort of Puritan writings and these... {Nick chuckles}

Nick Quah 04:47

Oh, was that what your master's thesis was about?

Sarah Marshall 04:49

My thesis was actually on Jane Eyre. It wasn't a great thesis, but I... I did... I remember when The Witch came out. I was like, "This is a great movie."

Nick Quah 04:59

Yeah, the Anya Taylor-Joy movie.

Sarah Marshall 05:00

Yeah. So I was like, this is a great movie. And what I, I think that not enough people realize is that this was also like a fairly straightforward adaptation of the kind of things that Puritans were writing down pretty consistently in that time. Like, this was the world that people felt themselves to be living in, and a lot of them still do.

Nick Quah 05:00

Do you remember what was one of your stronger sort of historical attachments when... when, uhm... when you were in that stretch of your life? Aside from Jane Eyre, I guess.

Sarah Marshall 05:28

Yeah. {laughing} I did get really into Marie Antoinette. [Nick: Hmm] You know, you do a certain amount of early American Founding Fathers reading. And I remember thinking that, you know, comparing the French and American Revolutions was like, kind of my way to find an excuse to writing about those things. But, that was a period of study that I think, in retrospect, was kind of me learning how to go in and form my own attachment with a historical figure and then communicate that.

Nick Quah 06:01

So, how do you do that actually? How do you, like, know if you formed that attachment?

Sarah Marshall 06:07

Hmm. Yeah, I mean, I feel like you have to just trust your gut, which is weird because we're talking about people. If you're talking about someone in Marie Antoinette's period, then it's someone who can't possibly tap you on the shoulder and be like, "No, I wasn't like that." {Nick laughs} But, [Nick: yeah] there's something that happens when I think you spend a certain amount of time reading someone's writings especially, or their actual words where you do get the sense of just having a sense of the character of the person. And this... I think in the same way that people feel like they know Instagram influencers. Like, the good ones [Nick: Yeah] are offering some authentic experience of themselves, and I think that's why the word authenticity, kind of, does still mean something. And, uh, in Marie Antoinette's case, there's something I find interesting about her. She did have this very soft heart for, like, what was in front of her. Like, her carriage accidentally ran over a peasant boy, and she was like, 'oh, my goodness, we must take care of you, and pay for your education and, and I will try to adopt you. And that actually won't work. {Nick laughs} But, I will... I will provide for you financially after I give you back to your family.' And, to me, makes me feel like I have a sense of like, 'okay, this is a person who wasn't thinking very hard about policy because she didn't know how to do that, and no one expected it of her, but who, in the moment in situations in her sphere of influence, had this gentle and impractical approach to the people she encountered. But, you know, she was able to throw some of her magical princess dust around a little bit. {laughter}

Nick Quah 07:51

You're Wrong About doesn't just cover historical figures though. It also examines trends and conspiracy theories like: What was Y2k all about? Or exorcisms? Were they ever a real thing?

Sarah Marshall 08:03

There's this demand for exorcists and, if you go to your archdiocese, they'll be like, no, like, we don't do that. Like we're the Catholic Church. We are respectable. Like, demonic affliction and possession is very rare. Like, it's probably not bad. But what you can do instead is find like a renegade priest [Nick: ooh] who will kind of, under the table, do an exorcism for you. So, it's like getting an abortion.

Nick Quah 08:27

I was just gonna say. Yeah! [Sarah: Yeah.] So it's like little entrepreneurs that are sort of making this their business model due to the demand. Sarah and her co-host, Michael Hobbes, also tackled multi-part series, digging into the stories of maligned women like Tonya Harding and Princess Diana, but their deepest dive...

"You're Wrong About" Excerpt 08:44

[Mike] I didn't know who O.J. Simpson was, or I had heard nothing of this. But I knew it was a huge deal 'cause I remember we watched it for like, that evening. [Sarah] Yeah, and what do you remember seeing? Like, what did it look like? [Mike] It's just this very boring footage of a car driving down the road with like this squadron of police cars behind it that in my memory were in like a flying V. But I think they're probably not in real life. [Sarah] It's funny that it's called a chase because I don't know if it ever technically was it's like right there following him. [Mike] It's like a moving negotiation more than a real chase. [Sarah] Yeah. [Mike] 'Cause he's not, like, speeding down streets trying to shake them. [Sarah] It's a moving standoff. [Mike] Right.

Sarah Marshall 09:25

I really loved doing those episodes. Yeah, I think... I think my favorite process, and it's maybe easy to say it because we're still in it, has been that O.J. Simpson series, because that has been, you know, to me this excuse to spend a lot of time with the side characters in it. Yeah, and we're about to do an episode where we get to introduce F. Lee Bailey! And so, we get to talk about all of his weird cases. {Nick laughs} I have this dream that it'll be 100 parts long. Like that... maybe that won't... maybe that's too many, but it's, uh... Yeah, and to me that's like... I... Like, I think you can just consume it just as podcast episodes and, if those are sufficiently entertaining, then that's... then it's done its job. But also, I kind of like the idea that it's this intentionally annoying concept art on the theme of like, it's impossible to tell a new story honestly, you know. {Nick laughs}

Nick Quah 10:21

So, you and Michael cover a lot of really heavy topics. And I wonder, is it taxing to make these episodes more frequently? Because you're developing these emotional attachments and expressing compassion and empathy towards people who've been, you know, wronged or harmed [Sarah: Right.] in tremendous ways.

Sarah Marshall 10:40

Or you're potentially talking about people who have harmed others in significant ways, and you have to try and find your way through that. And, uhm... Yeah, I mean, I think another thing that I really like about doing this show is that, you know, we're independent, we're not working for a network, we don't have a requirement to do X number of episodes per year. We're very lucky in that respect. And what that also means is that, you know, if the timing gets to be too strenuous, or if I'm, you know, working on a story, and if I'm really not finding my way in, and I don't want to try and put something out that I'm not happy with, or if I need to back away and take time off of it, then I can. And I think something that, that that freedom has allowed me to do is figure out how can I approach these stories in ways that are sustainable. And I think one of them is with this, you know, this very long, very long running O.J. Simpson series that we have that is, from the beginning, has lept around between points of view. And that's just something that I thought would be effective for the listener. Partly because it works for me, and partly because I think it also keeps it less overwhelming that we have... You know, we'll have an episode or two dedicated to a person's point of view, and we can sort of sit with them and focus on that person for a while, and then we can jump to the next person. And I feel like... I don't know. To me, it's... What's most overwhelming is having to process a lot of information either intellectually or emotionally, and it's always both, and to try and just do whatever it is that you do when you take a lot of information in and feel that you have assimilated it and are comfortable expressing it to people. I think, to me, what's hardest is feeling like I have to do that in a shorter time that I can really do that. I don't know, to me being able to set my own calendar, and my own time frame is probably the single most significant aspect of that.

Nick Quah 12:48

So, after years of doing so much research and work, do you feel like you have a better understanding of how these concepts, or people or ideas become, you know, essentially viral topics?

Sarah Marshall 13:00

I think one thing that's become clear is the basic structure of the moral panic because we've done so many episodes on some kind of moral panic or another. [Nick: Yeah] Like, at this point, kind of going in, it's possible to guess and be at least somewhat right about how this plot is going to unfold. And an example of something more recently that happened that was, you know, very much in line with the satanic panic research that I've been doing, is when we had these fake statistics going around that American children are like 666, or 66.666 times percent more likely to be abducted by human traffickers than to get COVID. And it's like, no, they're, they're much more likely to get COVID {Nick laughs} but the argument was that putting children in face masks was a ploy by human traffickers to try and, you know, be able to more easily snatch your children. And, you know, there was the Wayfair story, and there were quite a few threads last summer that were all about, you know, the human traffickers want to get your children rhetoric that we've seen grow partly in connection with QAnon on the right and, and just sort of splash out and take over. And I think looking at other moral panics in other contexts, it was easy for me to say, like, "It seems like this might have something to do with the fact that we are living in a country whose government is filled with people who, if they don't want us to die, or at least indifferent to our deaths." And, if that's the situation, you do have to invent a scarier villain to focus on so that you can then think less about the troubling realities that you're living under. Or at least this is what I think tends to happen.

Nick Quah 14:47

So moral panics are connected to conspiracy theories, are connected to satanic panic, is connected to not wanting to deal with your problems?

Sarah Marshall 14:53

Yeah. They're all, they're all friends. Yeah. {Nick & Sarah laughing}

Nick Quah 15:05

After the break, how Sarah's love of Murphy Brown shaped her career. Sarah, to what extent do you think celebrity factors into the things you like to think about?

Sarah Marshall 15:38

Hmm. Yeah. I think it is pretty key, and I wonder why. I mean, I feel like as a kid I watched so much TV, {Nick chuckles} that when I got into grad school, I heard, you know, people would speak disparagingly of TV as a concept. And I was like, "No, TV is very important. {they laugh} TV is where, you know, we learn who we are if, you know, if our parents are too busy to tell us. [Nick: Yeah.] {Sarah laughing}

Nick Quah 16:07

I mean, even if they're there, it's... [Sarah: Yeah, even then]

Sarah Marshall 16:11

Yeah. And then it tells us, you know, how to fit in, how to be an American. Like, as an only child, I remember watching Growing Pains and feeling like, you know, this is what the goal, what the other families are doing. They have like family meetings and this weird tuba, that they never use, by the stairs. {Nick laughs} Uhm... But yeah, I think I mean... Maybe, especially now, it's become apparent to me in a way that can't be denied really by the majority of the way that maybe it has been that, like, we are a nation who has... We just had a 'reality star' President and it wasn't even Tyra Banks. You know. {laughter} And so I feel like we're past the point of being able to deny how important what we see on TV is to us, and also the fact that like, if you see it on TV, like, it feels real, it feels like a fact. And [Nick: Yeah] I think the era of TV is over. Like, I think the era of screens is, is here. [Nick: Hmm] But TV, like, at a certain point, stopped being this thing that you turn it on and it happens to you. And I also feel like my little bit of personal history is the last couple decades of the time when you turned on TV, and it happened to you, and it told you who was good and who was bad. And it was very hard to find people who disagreed with that, potentially. But now I think we have wilder claims that people are making and people are believing through media. But we also have, you know, more ability to say different kinds of things and to, to dissent. And also people who have been raised on media can be pretty savvy.

Nick Quah 17:53

I'm curious. What were the most formative television shows for you growing up?

Sarah Marshall 17:56

Ooh. Wow. Well, honestly, I think Mystery Science Theater 3000 'cause I think you can really see the influence of that. {Sarah & Nick laugh} Kids in the Hall was also big. Like, when I look back on what was my life blood as a kid, it was definitely mostly comedy. Uhm, I just watched whatever was on too, and I think, like, watching, like, a lot of TV Land sitcoms meant that I ended up... my brain became this, like, dryer lint trap for like everything that had happened {Nick laughs}, you know, in TV news [Nick: Yeah] from the 70s through the 90s. 'Cause if you watch a fair amount of Murphy Brown, which I did when I was in high school, then you're just like, "What's this about Barbara Bush's speech at Wellesley? I have to learn what this is now." {laughter}

Nick Quah 18:44

So even then you had, like, a relationship to the past. Like, {laughing} [Sarah: Yeah] uh, right, to these older sitcoms it sounds like.

Sarah Marshall 18:50

Yeah, there's something about... I don't know, there's something about growing up on reruns that just gives you a sense of ownership over a time when you weren't there. Like, I, at a certain point, watched enough Three's Company to be like, "Don't mansplain the 70s to me. {Nick laughing} I was living in an apartment with Jack and Chrissy and no one trusted me. {more laughing}

Nick Quah 19:13

So, you've also started doing another podcast, Why are Dads.

Sarah Marshall 19:18

Yeah, that one started because my friend, Alex Steed, and I... we've been trying to get different podcast projects off the ground for a few years and just like nothing was ever quite right. It never... you know, the timing wasn't right. Then last spring we started. We were like, "Okay, let's do a podcast. We have something to, you know, enjoy." And we originally had the idea was to call it 'apocalypse friends', {Nick chuckles} and every episode is an apocalypse movie with like pretty broad, you know, framework for that. So, A League of Their Own was one of the ones we recorded on 'cause that's like the apocalypse of World War II and baseball disappearing. And we did a few of those and it was really fun, but it was also like, we can't release these. It's too depressing. Like, we did our first one was on Dawn of the Dead. And it's like... So, it was like two on the nose. And then we went, and we were like, let's do the same concept. But every week, we're talking about a movie that has dads as a theme, basically fatherhood and also masculinity, which is like, probably more on the nose for where we ended up in this country talking about, you know, masculinity and what a hell of a drag it can be, essentially, {Nick laughs} but we got there through the apocalypse. {Sarah laughs}

Nick Quah 20:34

Yeah, I mean, and again it feels like the connective tissue is this sort of, like, you have a thing that you're working against, and you're kind of, like, grappling it and, sort of, untangling it in a bunch of different ways. [Sarah: Mm hmm] Uhm, and it... Does it, does it sort of like feed you in the same way that the other work does, or does it, sort of, hit another register for you?

Sarah Marshall 20:53

Yeah, I think it hits similar things. And also it... like, that's a show that I enjoy doing for the reason that, like, I don't feel like I need to show up and be on point for how I deliver a story, which I have to do at least part of the time on You're Wrong About. Like, that's a show where I feel like my job is to show up and be emotionally open, basically. And the sort of culture that we've created there is, like, you know, when we have guests on and sort of go with their comfort level. But, you know... and Alex and I have known each other for, like, a decade and so there's that trust too. Where, like, if he asks me, like, "What did this thing make you think about this painful thing?" And, like, without thinking, I, you know, I have to... I like to be in the state where I can just be like, "Well, it felt like this." Then I'm like, "Why am I saying that on a show?!" {Nick laughs} It's fine. Whatever. I'm already talking, let's just finish this sentence. {laughing}

Nick Quah 21:55

So, aside from these podcasts, you've also been working on a book. What are you feeling more right now?

Sarah Marshall 22:01

Yeah, I was just reflecting on this. 'Cause I was talking to Alex this morning about we're working on another project, and he was like, "Could you give me, like, a couple of paragraphs on this. And I was like, "Can I speak them to you?" And he was like, "Yeah, just whatever." {laughing} I like, recorded a voice memo and sent it, and it was 'cause... and a few years ago, I would never have done that. I would have sat down and I would have written, you know, a couple paragraphs email and sent it. And I would have done that, not just because I hadn't yet had the opportunity to slightly burn myself out on the act of writing, which I think kind of happened, but also because I was still working up to this comfort level in speaking where I, you know, partly also, as a consequence of growing up as a lonely child, like, I have not tended to be the most socially comfortable person, historically. And I think really leaving academia was when my life sort of migrated out of, you know, you exist in the day and in your body, but you really exist when you're writing something, or when you're [Nick: Yeah] creating a piece of work that will then go out into the world in your stead and, sort of, do whatever the best part of your brain can do in the world, and you let it loose, and it goes out and does that. And so, I feel like it's been really interesting in the past few years to suddenly feel most comfortable and most articulate speaking.

Nick Quah 23:28

So, now that you're comfortable speaking more, has that changed things for you?

Sarah Marshall 23:34

Yeah, well, I think that writing used to be a place that I would, or an act or whatever. But it was something that I would go to because I didn't feel comfortable with the idea that, like, I would be or could be heard, uh, just in interactions with people trying to explain or express myself in the moment. Like, I would really tend to get tongue-tied and retreat very easily into, like, awkwardness and shame. And I think that part of, you know, my obsession with subjects like Tonya Harding over the years has also been part of feeling some kind of empathy or some kind of sense of connection to people who have been in the public in a way where they have also not had the chance or the ability to adequately defend themselves. And so, initially, the way I knew how to do that was by coming in and offering my writer self to that and that was the best where I thought of as just the best of me was really. I've been thinking lately about, and this is kind of a Why Are Dads thing, how it kind of my... one of the things that I find most distressing if I'm kind of in a conversation or dispute with someone, is if I feel taken back to a time in childhood where like I'm trying to make my case to an authority figure. Probably, my dad and they're just not hearing me. And they're like, "Okay, well, anyway, we're just gonna keep going, and we're gonna do my thing because I don't understand what you're saying. And I'm not going to take the time to try and figure it out, or I assume that it's just... if you can't make this idea real to me by communicating it to me in a way that feels believable to me, then we're just gonna move forward." And writing was a way of just avoiding that feeling by not ever being in a situation where it could come up. So, I found a way to do what I love, but not be all by myself most of the time, which I really think is great.

Nick Quah 25:42

I just want to say that that feeling of, like, not being able to explain and defend yourself, that feels so true to me. It feels like it explains like 95% of my directions and the world around us. {they laugh} There's this, like a concentrated pool of really powerful people who's just not listening to you. {Nick laughs}

Sarah Marshall 26:02

Yeah. Yeah. And just the feeling, the feeling of having no standing. You know? And I think there was a period -- it was a pretty brief period -- but, there was a time kind of post-academia and pre-podcasting where I was like, "Lawyering, that's what I'm going to do." And I can see now that, like, I was... you know, that was like... I was 60% there. But, like, I could never have survived law school. I would have hated it so much. Like, I would've, if I had to push myself through on sheer willpower, I prob... I probably, maybe, {chuckles} could have done it. But, oh, my God. Uhm, and just, you know, I think of just the emotional work. Like, the aspects of you and your heart and your brain that it involves are parts of me that have tended to be very delicate. {she laughs} So, that wasn't the right thing. But I feel as if that was this middle step where I was like, I want to not speak for people, but basically speak in a way that creates a space for listeners, readers, whoever to come in and be, like, I'm going to just sort of sit quietly with the idea of this person, and maybe something will happen to me and I will feel differently. And I think, yeah, there was something about the idea of speaking for someone to other people in a more direct way that maybe that was what I was seeing. And the act of being a lawyer that that was, I think, maybe interested me most, the part where you're doing a tiny podcast to a judge. {big laughter}

Nick Quah 27:41

Sarah, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.

Sarah Marshall 27:45

Thank you so much. This was really great.

Nick Quah 27:57

Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at LAist.com/ServantofPod. The show is produced by Andrea Asuaje, James Trout and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristen Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.