The Safe Space of the Celebrity-on-Celebrity Podcast

Why is it so enrapturing to hear Thems and Whos talk about … nothing?

Celebrities podcasting
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by David Livingston/Getty Images, Rich Fury/Getty Images for Girlboss.

In Slate’s column Who?, the hosts of acclaimed podcast Who? Weekly explore the world of near-fame.

To promote Homecoming, her new show on Amazon, Julia Roberts has run the usual press gamut. She’s appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Access Hollywood, Extra, Good Morning America, and the Today show. She even chatted about armpit hair on Busy Phillips’ new E! talk show, Busy Tonight. (Phillips inspired Roberts to join Instagram, and she’s really good at it.) But the press hit that had people talking the most didn’t come from any of those many, many traditional TV appearances. It came from a 42-minute chat with fellow A-lister Gwyneth Paltrow on Paltrow’s interview podcast for her juggernaut lifestyle brand, Goop.

Apart from an introductory moment during which we hear that Paltrow and Roberts share a lucky number (42!)—to which Roberts responds, “Shut your fucking face!”—it’s not a particularly illuminating or insightful conversation. We learn how much Roberts loves her husband, Danny Moder (tabloids would have you believe their relationship is constantly on the verge of disaster), how much she loves working with Ocean’s pal George Clooney, and that she plays mah-jongg with neighborhood friends every week. All of this would be pretty boring stuff in black and white, as it would appear in a celebrity profile. But as a recorded conversation between two A-listers, complete with pregnant pauses, gasps, and genuine laughter, it’s enrapturing.

In just the past month or so, you could download conversations between Dax Shepard and Amy Schumer (Armchair Expert), Anna Faris and Judd Apatow (Anna Faris Is Unqualified), Queer Eye’s Jonathan Van Ness and Reese Witherspoon (Getting Curious), Marc Maron and Sissy Spacek (WTF With Marc Maron), Snoop Dogg and Mario Lopez (Snoop Dogg’s GGN Podcast), The Bachelor’s Kaitlyn Bristowe and Wells Adams (Off the Vine), Jana Kramer and Fran Drescher (Whine Down), and Alec Baldwin and Maggie Gyllenhaal (Here’s the Thing With Alec Baldwin). There are hours and hours of celeb-on-celeb content out there—à la carte conversations between people across the fame spectrum. You want a Them talking to a Who? You got it. Who talking to a Them? It’s done. Two Thems alone in a recording booth? That one’s easy. Two Whos? Even easier. With primary sources of this variety suddenly everywhere, you can practically hear E! News shaking in its boots.

Paltrow is one of many celebs across the Who-Them spectrum signing up to create, produce, and star in her very own podcast. Hosting a podcast where you, a famous person, talk to other famous people might just be the new perk of celebrity, like starting a clothing line, or your own book club. And it certainly speaks to the ego: What celeb hasn’t briefly imagined themselves as a talk show host in the old Johnny Carson mode, beamed into an adoring America’s living room?

These jarringly casual, if only sometimes candid, conversations are changing the way we digest celebrity gossip. No editor is finding the juiciest bits and putting them in headlines or pullquotes; instead, the good stuff is buried somewhere in 22, 45, even 75 minutes of transcript-free audio. No longer can you rely on a quick scroll through Facebook or Twitter to find the quotable bits of gossip; often, you’ve gotta switch to 1.5 speed and really dig into these pods—or, at the very least, hope that your favorite news source has already done so. (Often, they haven’t.) You’ve got to hand it to famous people: They’ve found a way to make us work harder to boost their celebrity while putting in even less effort themselves. So far, we’re entirely happy to oblige.

Is it this new, audio-centric media landscape that’s killing the celebrity profile? It certainly doesn’t help that a celeb can just pick up the phone (or have their manager do so) and ask another celebrity to be on their podcast. As opposed to, let’s say, a writer or editor putting in a day’s work going back-and-forth with multiple publicists to iron out a time for a 15-minute phoner. Let’s say Oprah’s on the line asking you to come do her Super Soul Sunday series: Who is too famous to say no to that? Not to mention, these celebs would often much rather be speaking to each other. There’s an understandable ease to hopping on a call with someone in your industry who a) isn’t asking the same questions everyone else asks and b) will gladly redact anything you want in post-production. It’s not just a comfortable space; it’s a safe space.

About half an hour into their chat, Paltrow and Roberts discussed what it’s like to work with a “bad” actor—you know, someone who “doesn’t get the vibe.” “Have you ever had a bad one?” Paltrow asked. “Yeah, yeah,” Roberts answered. (You get the impression she definitely told Paltrow who it was after they were done recording.) And Roberts quoted her go-to Clooney, who once said, of those types of co-stars, “You know what’s great about that person? You have somebody to talk about at the end of the night when you’re all having a drink.” Though far from the juiciest tidbit, it’s the kind of intimate industry insight that comes from talking to someone with an acute understanding of the petty on-set frustrations of A-listers.

Even recounting the story here suddenly makes the memory of it feel a bit dull. Stripped of the wry, comfortable tone Roberts maintained throughout the interview—no, better, it was a conversation—it’s a pretty boring quote. But piped in through headphones, this new wave of celebrity-on-celebrity podcasts provides us exactly what we want as fans: a little time with them. Though we doubt the brand of celebrity profile written by a perceptive, intellectual, and talented writer will ever die (is there any category of journalism more fun to read?), there’s an undeniable attraction to hearing, unfiltered, Julia talking to Gwyneth.

We ask so little of our celebrities, really. We want them to at least seem fun; we don’t want them to be criminals; lately, we’d like them to vote (and talk about doing so). On the rare occasions we meet them face-to-face, we ask even less: a smile, an autograph, or (if you’re lucky) a quick selfie. But we also like to imagine that they are our friends. We could spend a few minutes talking to this person we admire about anything—literally anything—while sharing a cup of tea, glass of wine, or water infused with milk protein and gut food. Failing that, at least we could hang around while they talk to their friends. That’s what a podcast does that no profile, no matter how well-written, could accomplish: It fools you into thinking that, if only for your brief trip to work, you were a fly on a very, very nice wall.