What’s so funny about eugenics?
Career comedian Dave Anthony wasn’t entirely sure going into the live taping of his podcast, The Dollop, but he was ready to find the humor in his compiled pages of research, alongside his trusty co-host Gareth Reynolds, guest Sarah Tiana, and a live studio audience that lined up to hear riffing around our country’s secret history of forced sterilization around the turn of the nineteenth century.
“‘Eugenics’ was the episode I most worried about, but I still wanted to do that live,” Anthony says. “There are episodes of The Dollop that wouldn’t work live and there are others I know are gonna be great, because the live ones often have more action in them, more crazy stuff. So we find ourselves playing to that, and there’s an energy there. It’s the same as when you do standup.”
And Anthony knows standup. Since his late-night debut on The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn in 2002, he’s become known as a comedian’s comedian, a guy hard-to-please comics will stick around to watch from the back of the room—among them his friend Marc Maron, whose IFC show Maron he wrote for and regularly appeared in.
Though Anthony only has one album to his name, 2013’s Shame Chamber (follow-up Hot Head is on the way), he’s built a large and loving audience through the equivalent of Gutenberg’s printing press for twenty-first century comedy: podcasting. He’s risen to such pod-prominence that he co-founded the LA Podcast Festival, a weekend-long platform to host live episodes of the medium and showcase its personalities, occurring October 6–8 at the Historic Millennium Biltmore Hotel Los Angeles. It features long-standing favorites like WTF and more recent successes like My Favorite Murder—and, of course, The Dollop.
“I did a podcast called Walking the Room for four years. It was me and another comedian, Greg Behrendt, talking about our lives every week, and after a while I really didn’t want to talk about my life anymore,” Anthony laughs. “I’ve always been interested in history. So my original idea had been to have a different comedian on every week, and I read them a story from history, and the comedian would react. I had been on a couple podcasts Gareth had been on as a guest, and I thought he was really, really funny. So he was the first guest, and people just went crazy, and I was like, ‘Alright! Guess that’s the show!’”
And so The Dollop began in 2014 with Anthony and Reynolds screaming about “the crazy cow guy” Cliven Bundy and his armed standoff with the Bureau of Land Management. In a field crowded with comedy and history podcasts, Anthony combined the two to concoct a crowd-pleasing cocktail that instantly took off. Released reliably twice a week, The Dollop finds Anthony crafting a narrative from research and bringing it to Reynolds without the latter comic knowing the topic. From there, Reynolds reacts in real time, and the two banter and improvise over the story’s characters and implications.
The topics stick to American history, ranging from the colonial dustups between Quakers and Puritans up to history so recent it qualifies as current events, like their scathing roast of Uber’s corporate culture. Though Anthony gets in far too many cutting observations and zingers to be a “straight man,” he runs relatively cool as the ringleader of the circus of swearing and riffing to follow, with Reynolds’s explosive energy making him…well, everyone else in the circus; think of him as both the clown and the cannon he shoots out of.
“I set him up with the story, writing them in a way that I think will lead him to go off on certain things,” Anthony explains. “There needs to be something for him to tee off on. There are some I’ve written but haven’t turned into a podcast because they don’t have enough there yet.”
“Serial killers aren’t really interesting to me, because there’s nothing deeper there, meaning-wise.”
At this, Anthony reflects on an unreleased session that haunts them both, a lost Dollop that will never see the light of day: the Corcoran Eight episode, concerning the Corcoran State Prison in California, infamous in true-crime circles as Charles Manson’s current home. The Corcoran Eight were guards caught pitting prisoners against each other in gladiator fights to the death.
“We did (the episode), and afterwards we were like, ‘Ugh. We can’t put this out.’” But in doing, and subsequently shelving, the Corcoran Eight episode, Anthony found a fascinating litmus test for comedy and tragedy among the skeletons in America’s closets and cabinets. What makes eugenics successful comic material, and the Corcoran Eight its anathema?
“It’s hard to put your finger on, but I think a lot of it has to do with societal implications and the deeper meaning. While the Corcoran Eight does say something about our prison system and how we treat people, it’s still just guys getting off on violence. So then you find yourself talking about the violence as opposed to the meaning behind what happened. They knew what they were doing, and they knew it was evil. And they continued. So they were very self-aware, whereas the eugenics guys have this bizarre idea that they’re doing something great! Eugenics is horrific, but you’re talking about going back to something bigger happening there.”
The comedy, then, comes from misplaced ambitions and failed notions that define The American Dream as much as its confirmed successes. It’s the distinction between a fan-favorite Dollop topic, assassins—both successful and thwarted—and serial killers, which Anthony avoids (despite the boom in true-crime podcasts in recent years).
“Serial killers aren’t really interesting to me, because there’s nothing deeper there, meaning-wise,” he elaborates. “Humans don’t have predators, so they’re almost like these built-in predators that have been created. There’s not anything else to it, other than just wanting to kill. Whereas an assassin always has a greater idea of what he’s doing. He has a whole plan, and a way he’s going to change things. But when you do a serial killer, at the end of the day, you’re gonna be doing the same thing every time.”
The wide range of topics keeps the show fresh, applying Anthony and Reynolds’s chops toward subjects both challenging and personal. Anthony cites their Ferguson and Iraq War episodes as the ones he’s proudest of, while his personal all-time favorite, “The Rube,” points a loving-laughing look at baseball legend Rube Waddell. “I pour so much of my heart into the baseball ones, I love them so much, [and] I think people can sense that,” he says. “The cool thing about baseball is it always says so much about society at the time. Those episodes seep into what’s going on in the world, the background of what’s happening in the country.”
Indeed, the sheer number of topics and gags in their archive combine to form a portrait of the country both as it was and as it is. “What’s going on in the past is always somehow going on now,” Anthony states. His overarching statement he hopes to convey: “If there’s one story of America, it’s just class warfare, from beginning to end. That’s what slavery was. That’s what it all is: just trying to keep people down and make as much money as you can.
“We’re definitely in a place where we’ve backtracked quite a bit,” he elaborates. “When I look at where we are… I don’t see a big difference between Uber and the guys who were putting children in coal mines. And something like sixty thousand people died of opioid overdoses—that’s what we were doing in the early 1900s! And then they made opioid drugs illegal for medicine, and then they lobbied and came back, and now we’re right back where we were? It’s bizarre that we don’t learn lessons. Or that we do, and then forget them and go back and start recreating these horrible worlds we lived in.”
“I think this is the worst time we’ve ever faced in American history.”
In the episode “The Girl Watchers,” Anthony and Reynolds consider The Girl Watchers Society, a ’60s-era group that equated “girl watching” to hobbies like bird watching. “I like finding these things that expose what it’s like for a woman, things that people cannot comprehend was their real life. That one’s really like, ‘What is wrong with men?’” he marvels. “There are women who have done videos of just walking through New York City, and all the stuff they have to hear. And it’s like, well, we’ve changed a bit, but not that much. I think it’s really important to look at that.”
Ultimately, for all of Anthony’s love of his country, the deep dives he’s done for Dollop have led him to a dark diagnosis: “I think this is the worst time we’ve ever faced in American history.”
It’s a dollop of bitter medicine coming from a man who’s consumed centuries of sin from the States. “Look, we’ve clearly had horrific things happen here. I know we went through slavery, and the Civil War, but we never had different facts. Those were people disagreeing over the same facts. There’s no correlation in our history. While people always tried to distort the facts, like [with] yellow journalism, now we’re living in two different worlds. So I don’t know… How does that end? If you have two completely different realities… I don’t know how that remotely works out.”
In Anthony and Reynolds’s world, The Dollop is their way of “working it out,” making sense of the nonsensical while searching for the humor in the gallows. “I do get a lot of e-mails from people saying, because things are so dark and crazy right now, it helps them a lot. We get a lot of people working with depression and anxiety writing us saying it helps. Which is funny, because there’s also a fairly dark message in the podcast. I’ve had a lot of people come up and say we’ve changed their outlook on the world and the country. And that’s my goal. I want people to look at, not only how great the winners are, but people who have suffered to get us here.”
In the heavily-populated halls of comedy podcasts, The Dollop has earned Anthony and Reynolds a historic win. Angeleno fans—and Reynolds—will have to wait to see what Anthony springs on them at LA Podfest. It promises to get as darkly comical as America itself, which is, of course, saying a lot. FL