Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Intelligence Squared

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Vital stats:
Format: Oxford-style debates, lectures, and interviews
Episode duration: 15m-2h
Frequency: erratic

I’ve found interesting podcasts by simply typing the names of personalities I enjoy into the iTunes search box. I’m no logician, but I any podcast that’s recorded with one of my guests of choice will have recorded with other people who fascinate, even if I don’t know who they are yet. After pulling a few of my old P.J. O’Rourke books off the shelf — for enlivening the fifteen-minute breaks I spent in the humor section of Borders back when I worked at the Gap in high school (and back when there were Borders), he forever earned my gratitude and disciplehood — I figured I’d check if he’d made the podcast rounds. Yes, I know I can hear him on Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me; he makes much of his anointment as the program’s designated conservative. But what’s this? Here he is on a show called Intelligence Squared [iTunes]. “P.J. O’Rourke: The funniest man in America,” so they’d titled his episode.

Of course, since Intelligence Squared comes out of England, “the funniest man in America” probably sounds as meaningful as “the tallest midget.” Many consider the traditions of English humo(u)r the finest in the world, not without cause, and I doubt you can gin up much respect for Yank comedic journalists if you came up over there. But the live forum where the show recorded O’Rourke gave him an hour and a half of what sounded like solid attention and a series of non-cranky, actual-question questions at the end. It brought out the best and most thoughtful in him, while momentarily relieving him of his worst impulses — his current worst impulse being to dilute his humor with half-hearted one-liners about “Obamacare” and “Obamamobiles” in an attempt, I suspect, to please what he sees as his Republican reader base.

How excited I felt, perusing the archives further, to find talks like Clive James on the city of Florence, Edward Tufte on information design, Iain Sinclair on “grand” urban redevelopment projects, and Stephen Bayley on object design. Even an conversation, if a slightly muffled one, with subject-independent literary auteur (and one of my own favorite people to interview) Geoff Dyer! A playlist almost tailor-made for a certain subset of my own interests, and you’ll know how jazzed it got me if you happen to share them. Even the lectures not aimed directly at my own taste seemed awfully promising. I don’t hold strong opinions either way on Bernard-Henri Levy, Slavoj Žižek, or Niall Ferguson, but I looked forward to listening to them discuss the state of the left, ideological symbolism in last year’s Oscar winners, and the six, respectively, to maybe learn why others do.

But Intelligence Squared hasn’t made its name on lectures. Its producing organization gained prominence as the premiere presenter of something called “Oxford-style debates,” which involve putting a “motion” out there and letting a couple luminaries lay out the arguments for and against it, with rebuttals. The podcast feed features debates both high- and low-profile, from celebrity debaters in before large audiences to a couple of semi-knowns duking it out over Skype. I actually gave the NPR version of Intelligence Squared debates a shot a few years ago, but their production sounded suspiciously busy and its topics strangely inconsequential. The original opts for a rougher-and-readier style, zeroing in on motions whose very descriptions entertained me: “Enough money has been spent saving Venice,” “Long live Tesco,” “Children deserve better than Harry Potter,” “Prince Charles was right.”

User reviews on iTunes complain about the sound quality, and they’ve got a point. Some podcasts here sound just fine, while others, like the Geoff Dyer interview, sound incorrectly mic’ed, and others, like too many of the Skype debates, sound irritatingly glitchy. The enjoyment and intellectual stimulation come primarily as a function of who the speakers/debaters/participants are. I’ll always want to hear, say, Will Self speak, even if through a layer of pops and buzzes. An inconclusive debate about the social effects of Twitter or the repercussions of Lady Gaga on the very concept of feminism... perhaps less so. No matter the issue, one person stating their opinion on it, another stating their counter-opinion on it, the first stating their counter-counter opinion on it, and the second stating their counter-counter-counter opinion on it inevitably leaves a “So what?” feeling behind. Part of me itches for an answer. Perhaps that sounds so very American of me, but hey, I already pretty much admitted that your guys’ jokes are funnier.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall just quit hosting and producing The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]