Maybe you, like me, are that person at a party. You meet someone with an interesting job or a head full of specialized knowledge, and you grill them (in a friendly way!) about their experience or expertise. “Tell me all about that!” you exclaim, totally meaning it, but eventually interrupting them to ask how the subject at hand relates to your own interests and pet theories. What a relief it is sometimes to listen to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about.
The general-interest podcast Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness feels like eavesdropping on the Queer Eye fan favorite do just that—interrogate an authority at a party about what she knows—without having to strain to hear them over the surrounding chatter. Launched at the tail end of 2015, the half-hour weekly series is an inviting mix of conversational informality and hard-won know-how, with guests culled from academia, activism, entertainment, and the host’s hairdressing clientele. (Together, the interviewees make up a lovely and revealing mosaic portrait of Los Angeles.) Van Ness approaches his topics—which range from Middle Eastern politics and gravitational waves to psychedelics and plus-size modeling—with a journalist’s all-embracing inquisitiveness. He’s open about pursuing subjects that fascinate him in particular, and his genuine enthusiasm and winsome tendency to treat each discussion like a dialogue, rather than a Q&A, makes Getting Curious a delightful series of introductions to an astonishing variety of subject matter. Van Ness gives dilettantism a good name.
I’ll confess I wasn’t a Van Ness fan at first sight. I never got into his Emmy-nominated Game of Thrones recap series, Gay of Thrones. I also found him overbearingly hammy on the first season of Queer Eye, though Season 2 has made me realize the error of my ways. (My mistake was in assuming that the grooming expert played up his exuberance for extra camera time. Once I realized that his bubbliness was 100 percent authentic, I instantly warmed to him.) I retain a slight discomfort with the premise of the then-Bravo, now Netflix series, in which gay men largely devote themselves to improving a straight guy’s life, as if homosexuality exists to enable heterosexual happiness. (The newer iteration of the series does feature the gang staging lifestyle interventions for a woman, a cis gay man, and a trans man.) It’s commendable for the show to meet more politically moderate viewers where they are, rather than where liberals think they should be. But the project of normalizing queerness by portraying gay men as support staff is a problematic one from the foundation up, no matter how well executed.
Of the Fab Five, Van Ness speaks with the most stereotypically “gay voice,” which turns out to be a revelation in the context of an every-topic-under-the-sun podcast. Van Ness regularly refers to how his sexuality has shaped his life, especially the severe bullying he survived as an openly gay kid in a conservative Midwestern town. Often, his questions about, say, the recent rise in youth suicide, are inflected by concerns about the LGBTQ community. And yet what’s more “relatable” than a host who isn’t defined solely by a single identity and interest but rather contains multitudes? Gays: They can be interested in cults, strokes, the Armenian genocide, and the trade deficit with China. Despite a recent surge in popularity—last week it reached No. 2 on the iTunes podcast charts—Getting Curious likely has a fraction of the audience that Queer Eye does. But the podcast is far more uncomplicatedly successful at normalizing queerness and endowing the male “gay voice” with authority than the TV series is.
The podcast’s episode titles sometimes reflect Van Ness’ affectionate tone: “Who Gave You Permission to Be So Cute?” reads the interview with fellow Queer Eye star Karamo Brown, while an older installment asks, “Mass Extinction: What’s Her Story?” Guests are addressed as “honey,” and things are often labeled “cute” and “gorge” (as in short for gorgeous). The latter habit can flirt with flippancy when discussing serious issues, though Van Ness has gotten better about displaying sensitivity when a situation calls for it, as when he recently retracted a compliment for Bashar al-Assad’s well-heeled wife during a conversation about the Syrian civil war. Studious listeners might also get annoyed by Van Ness’ penchant for occasionally talking over his guests. During his time in the studio, Queer Eye food expert Antoni Porowski quietly snaps at a rambling question about his childhood: “I’ll tell you … if you stop taking, Jonathan.” (In addition to his interviews with Brown and Porowski, Van Ness recently sat down with his fashionable Queer Eye co-host Tan France. All three episodes are well worth listening for fans and nonfans alike: Each man’s multicultural journey toward minor TV stardom has been rocky, engrossing, and unique, and will deepen your appreciation for the wisdom they share with their makeover subjects.)
Van Ness mentions often that his only degree is in cosmetology. (He dropped out of the University of Arizona during his first year after losing his cheerleading scholarship.) His breadth of knowledge is a testament to the importance of lifelong learning. On Getting Curious, it’s clear he’s mastered the Terry Gross–ian art of pretending to know less than he actually does, in order to serve as a surrogate for those in the audience who may be less knowledgeable, without ever condescending to them. His disarming casualness, combined with his knack for knowing when to draw out an emotional moment in a story, makes him a formidable interviewer. But Van Ness’ greatest talent on Getting Curious may be weaving his newfound strips of knowledge into a larger tapestry of understanding of the world. It’s an approach based in humility and engagement. And that, honey, is gorge.