Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: DVDASA

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Vital stats:
Format: one-, two-, three-hour conversations presided over by a painter and a pornstar
Episode duration: 1-3h
Frequency: twice weekly, at least

I started downloading DVDASA [RSS] [iTunes] knowing only that it involved a pornstar — and I didn’t even know the pornstar. Not to say that a known pornstar would have held out much promise; Caleb Bacon, now host of Man School, demonstrated the severe conversational limitations of pornstars the hard way on his previous show The Gentlemen’s Club. Sit even the supposedly “creative” and “smart” pornstars now in vogue down for an interview, and you soon find out that those labels indicate the somewhat less impressive “creative and smart by pornstar standards.” Still, pornstars lead unusual and thus fascinating careers, especially now that the democratization of media technology has dramatically altered, and will more dramatically alter, their very role in the culture. Now that anyone can potentially get naked before the camera for an audience of thousands, the professionals have to bring something extra to the table. Even pornstars almost entirely lacking the gift of verbal expression can shed at least a little light on what that feels like.

Asa Akira, DVDASA’s porn-starring co-host, doesn’t lack the gift of verbal expression, although read between the lines of what she has to say about the demands of stardom in the modern-day porn business, and it all echoes what David Foster Wallace wrote in his 1998 report from the Adult Video News awards: “The more acceptable in modern culture it becomes, the farther porn will have to go in order to preserve the sense of unacceptability that's so essential to its appeal. As should be evident, the industry's already gone pretty far; and with reenacted child abuse and barely disguised gang rapes now selling briskly, it is not hard to see where porn is eventually going to have to go in order to retain its edge of disrepute. Whether or not it ever actually gets there, it's clear that the real horizon late-'90s porn is heading toward is the Snuff Film.” Until that time arrives, she joins David Choe, DVDASA’s non-porn-starring co-host, twice a week for one-, two-, three-hour conversations about sex, race, relationships, food, flying first-class, and crapping in Starbucks cups. (And sure, they sometimes talk about porn, but by now the novelty of Akira’s pornstardom seems to have worn off.)

This may strike you as not a world apart from the subject matter of the average gab podcast. Given that comedians helm most high-profile examples of that class, especially in DVDASA’s home base of Los Angeles (where, I feel certain, nearly all straight-up porn podcasts must also root themselves), I at first assumed that Choe came from their world; the frequency with which comedians, especially Bobby Lee, appear as guests reinforced the impression. But then each subsequent episode revealed that Choe actually comes from someplace much more interesting: namely, my own home of Koreatown. Suddenly, I remembered that I’d seen him before, hanging out with Anthony Bourdain at a Sizzler about a mile from me on the Koreatown episode of Bourdain’s travel show Parts Unknown. The program also touched on the stroke of fortune that has become Choe’s main claim to fame, aside from his work as a visual artist: in 2005, he painted “erotic art” on the walls of Facebook’s offices in exchange a share of the company. Now the figure $200 million, his estimated earnings after Facebook’s IPO, emanates from him like an aura.

So what do you do, especially as an artist, when a sudden windfall grants you all money you’ll ever need? Nice problem to have, you might think, but Choe grapples with this ultimately existential question in some way or another on most episodes of DVDASA, and you might even call it the undercurrent of all of them. $200 million of Facebook money that alleviates you of the need to do work of any kind must present the temptation, first and strongest, to simply become Caligula. Choe displays an awareness of this, and even references dabbling in the near-Caligulian from time to time, over and above allegedly self-justifying acts of Starbucks-cup defecation, taking care to describe his own behavior in the most repulsive possible terms. A fair few of his listeners, I would imagine, tune in specifically to draw a vicarious thrill from the stories of his seemingly impulse-driven and inhibition-free life, both before and after the money. From his hookups to his scraps to his hitchhiking journeys (some visually documented in VICE’s Thumbs Up!) to his stints at colonic retreats in the desert, the man knows how to turn his experiences into the loose, carefully detailed, what-we-used-to-call-ribald long-form stories, all told with that distinctively compelling mixture of articulacy and inarticulacy you hope to enjoy when you spend an evening among friends at a bar.

Choe speaks with, and works expertly into his persona, what I’ve heard Korean friends call a “Korean-American accent,” sometimes heard among their countrymen born here, which — and on my increasing fixation on language, I’ve given the matter thought — has less to do with pronunciation than with cadence: words have a faintly surprising inflection, sentences don’t end at quite the pitch you expect. Akira spend a few years growing up in Japan, though you wouldn’t know it by her voice, which sounds like that of someone’s vaguely cynical California mom. Bobby Lee, though not a permanent presence on the show, talks very much, and very often, like Bobby Lee. I bring up these three Asian-Americans in a row not just to underscore the Asian-American topics — the various nationalities’ anger-management techniques, fraught relationships with parents and family, what it takes to date “outside the race” — in many a DVDASA conversation, but to name merely one color band into the large and ever-expanding rainbow crew that take the microphones each episode, which also includes members white, black, brown, and indeterminate with names like Critter, Bobby Trivia, Heather Leather, Slink, Endo, and Fat Thor (which I believe also refers to Critter).

It even, in recent episodes, has included job interviewees, from each of whose race Choe wrings much content indeed. He needs a producer for the show, you see, and what better way to evaluate the candidates for the position than to bring them on the show itself? This expansion of staff constitutes just a part of what, in common parlance, we’d call “doubling down.” Choe must know the concept well, given his established identity as an inveterate gambler. Thumbs Up calls him that, and even makes use of the vagaries of his past and present high-stakes sensibility. This very tendency, I would say, makes him the right man, or at least an interesting man, to receive that $200 million — and really, who but a gambler would’ve taken Facebook stock in the first place? Quite recently, Choe brought on famous chef David Chang, his friend and fellow Korean-American gambler, for a relatively stripped-down, nearly one-on-one conversation which, whether listened to or watched, made for perhaps DVDASA’s richest episode yet. It probes the broad but pressing question of, whether you paint your way into a fortune or rise to the top of the restaurant world, what on Earth to do next. They don’t explain the exact reasons Choe has decided to build a studio and pile his energy into this sprawling, polyphonic, unrestrained, foulmouthed yet thoughtful, decadent yet disciplined, full-crewed, fully audiovisual podcast, but, much more satisfyingly, they spend well over two and a half hours digging into it.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall, who has three Podthoughts to go before retirement, also hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes] and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He's working on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail, follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall, or like his brand new Facebook page.]