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The Curious Case of Getting Curious with Jonathan Van Ness

I’m nowhere near the first person to say this, but it’s nevertheless worth shouting out loud: Getting Curious With Jonathan Van Ness is exceptional listening. The chief reason as to why is right there in the title: the Queer Eye star is a vivid interviewer whose curiosity is sharp, sprawling, infectious. That’s a real and rare gift, and its depth is further expressed by the strength of the show’s archives. Even a cursory glance at the list of previous episodes reveals a devilishly vast scope of the world, with interview subjects that range from gender bias in film scoring to the difference between Sunni and Shia Muslims to the definition of cults to, of course, the lives of his fellow Queer Eye co-stars. (The consistent quality of the podcast’s growing catalogue also reflects the effective wielding of another uncommon skill: smart booking. Getting Curious often builds experts around the subject being discussed, and almost everyone that’s been brought on has been perfectly engaging in front of the mic.)

Van Ness is a natural on-air interviewer: he listens, collaborates, vibes. He gamely leans into the give-and-take of effective conversation, deploying biography to cultivate trust and a permission structure for the interviewee to open up. He’s also damn fun, and damn funny. Binge-listening to Getting Curious episodes additionally serves as a reminder that as much as interviewing is hard, interviewing as a performance is so much harder.

Anyway, I’m not writing about Getting Curious today just because I think it’s an exceptional interview show. There’s also a pretty interesting story to be told about its production history, one that have something to tell us about the nature of celebrity — or, more accurately, on-the-verge-of-celebrity — podcasts.

Here’s how the story goes, as told to me by various sources on the network-level: Van Ness originally developed and launched Getting Curious in December 2015, foremostly as a passion project. He had, by that time, gained some popularity for his work on Gay of Thrones, the Emmy-nominated Funny Or Die parody web series. With the help of producer Colin Anderson, a BBC alumnus who was then working at Maximum Fun that Van Ness had connected with through mutual friends (podcasters Erin Gibson and Dave Holmes), the podcast began publishing on a bi-weekly schedule. At the time, the podcast was an official Maximum Fun production.

About a year into publishing, in late 2016, Anderson left Maximum Fun for Midroll Media. A few months after Anderson’s departure, Maximum Fun winded down its arrangement with Van Ness. “We started Getting Curious with Jonathan because we believed in his incredible, incandescent talent, and that never changed,” Jesse Thorn, founder of Maximum Fun, told me over email. “As the world is now getting to see, he’s a brilliant, sensitive, thoughtful and hilarious guy. We worked really hard to bring Getting Curious to a larger audience, but were never able to get enough folks to check it out to sustain the production, much less pay Jonathan what he deserved to get paid for it. Ultimately, we gave the show back to him in the hopes that in future, circumstances would change.”

And then, of course, it did. As the story goes, the day after Maximum Fun cancelled Getting Curious, Van Ness booked Queer Eye.

The Netflix series wouldn’t premiere until February 2018, and for a number of months in the run-up, Van Ness continued to publish Getting Curious without the backing of an official network. Anderson, now the Executive Producer at Earwolf, helped produce the show in his spare time. “He’s a friend, and I love the show,” Anderson said, by way of explanation. After Queer Eye debuted on Netflix, well… the podcast took off.

These days, Getting Curious is said to be “hitting well into six figures” per episode, according to Midroll VP of Marketing Amy Fitzgibbons. The show was officially brought into the company’s comedy brand, Earwolf, back in May, and as Queer Eye continues to capture the imagination of TV viewers across the country, it appears to be effective in pusing more and more people to the podcast. “We’re seeing tremendous growth, and it’s actually hard to give a precise number as even older episodes are continuing to grow quickly,” Fitzgibbons notes. Another Midroll spokesperson claims that many of the new listeners report being new to podcasting altogether.

It’s a fascinating story, but what, exactly, does it tell us? Three views:

  • Amy Fitzgibbons argues that a major key to Getting Curious is its original nature as a passion project. She extends this analysis to the celebrity podcast gere more broadly. “When it’s not just for the paycheck, and when they devote their energy to really making a great show, the listeners can tell,” she wrote. “[Van Ness is] also super engaged with his fans on social media, and that helps. A lot of celebrities have large followings on social, but don’t successfully pull those fans onto other platforms like podcasts.”
  • Colin Anderson: “It’s been a spectacular combination of a compelling show, a host who was a star even before he was famous, Queer Eye being a breakout hit, Jonathan’s skill at building and nurturing his own fans through social media, and his continued commitment to the podcast even as his TV career took off.”
  • Jesse Thorn: “Getting Curious is a show format that’s tough to get people to check out when the host isn’t a famous person (no matter how talented he or she may be), and a lot easier when the host is famous,” he wrote. “These days, Jonathan is famous. Deservedly. I’m sorry we weren’t able to make the show work for him (or for us), but I’m sincerely glad it’s such a success today. Jonathan deserves it.”

Personally, I’m sympathetic to Thorn’s argument. There isn’t much of a compelling reason to try out a new personality or celebrity-driven podcast if you didn’t have much of a prior relationship with the individual — something that seems increasingly true in a podcast market that’s becoming even more competitive, even saturated. Thorn is probably right: Getting Curious is a show format that’s really hard to get people to check out if there is no alternative work being produced by the core talent. Even with a really good show under the hood, it truly takes a whole lot of luck.

Something else I’m thinking about: just how much my experience with Queer Eye informs my experience with the podcast and vice versa. Indeed, the two shows consumed together conveys a Van Ness that’s infinitely more interesting, and I’m pretty sure the opposite would be have been true if the podcast wasn’t as exceptional as it is.