Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Saturn Scene

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Vital stats:
Format: astrologically flavored long-form comedian interviews
Episode duration: 45m-1h15m
Frequency: 1-4 per month

For the purposes of this review’s first five paragraphs, let us assume that astrology works. Don’t question it — just roll with it. So we have this fully effective system based upon the positions of the planets that, when applied to our personalities and others’, reveals the hidden mechanics of these personalities. It “gets inside heads,” you might say. As an interviewer myself, I notice that interviewing has pretty much the same aim: to probe a person’s intracranial workings, to learn about their ideas, desires, and bêtes noires — to find out, in short, what makes ‘em tick. Bringing interviewing and astrology together thus only makes good peanut-butter-and-chocolate sense.

Brian Palmer, host of Saturn Scene [RSS] [iTunes], has done this in podcast form, creating what he calls “an astrological look at pop culture.” I have many friends who would groan at the word “astrological,” but over three years of Podthinking have redirected all my own groans toward “pop culture,” a subject whose moratorium among new podcasters remains long overdue. In this case, though, the use turns out to be relatively benign; it just means Palmer has called in his entertainment-journalism connections to snag guests like Michael Cera [MP3], Jen Kirkman [MP3], and Paul F. Tompkins [MP3].

If Palmer just horsed around with these comedic visitors, this would stay pretty garden-variety. Luckily for us, the astrological angle forces him to give his show the kind of direction most comedian-having pop-cultural podcasts lack. He sits down with these people ostensibly to give them an astrological consultation; using something called a “birth chart,” he tells his guests about themselves based on his calculations about the locations of certain planets at the moment they were born. Apparently This American Life contributor Starlee Kine [MP3] — who, for the last decade, I just realized I’d been wrongly calling Starlee Kline — fits the archetypal profile of an Aries. Similarly, my more granola friends have informed me that I’m a “classic Scorpio.”

But if I’ve taken one fact about astrology — which we’ve assumed, remember, works — away from this podcast, I’ve taken the fact that none of that hey-baby-what’s-your-sign talk means anything. Knowing just that one sign, the “sun sign,” tells you nothing; you’ve got to know where all the planets were on your original birthday. Palmer seems to mention most of them during the course of each interview, and which “house” they fall into for each interviewee. We here, alas, hit the limits of my astrological knowledge, but he talks a lot about which particular planet resides in each guest’s “eighth house,” a topic I find oddly comforting to hear about.

But know that near-ignorance of astrology, be it yours or mine, doesn’t really matter! While Saturn Scene’s conversations periodically find their way back to astrology, most of their content has no direct relation to the stuff. Palmer uses it as a jumping-off point to get Cera talking about his time in an intensive meditation retreat, to get Tompkins talking about his view of collaboration as the one true way to make art, or to get Kine talking about the old Ukrainian woman who wouldn’t stop accusing her of selling drugs. Through the terms of astrology, Palmer finds an angle that gets his guests, none of whom profess an astrological bent of their own, to open right up.

Since you’re probably still wondering: yes, this show is seriously, unironically, about astrology. (The end of each episode lets you know how to book your own consultation.) But in another, equally meaningful way, this show departs early and often from the astrological hardline. All the talk of Geminis and Venuses and houses and retrogrades — and you actually won’t hear that much of it — simply gives rise to the kind of long-form (the Tompkins interview runs two hours over two parts), substantial, yet laid-back interview program of which we could always use more. To that end, astrology does work.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]