A Treat for the Die-Hards - Transcripts

February 16, 2023

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Every writer, podcaster and storyteller obsesses about how they begin a story. But they rarely pay enough attention to endings. Nothing matters more. Malcolm and Mike Birbiglia solve endings for you.

From our first-ever Revisionist History: LIVE events at the Town Hall in New York City and the Fillmore Philadelphia, Malcolm revisits how he’s tried to land the narrative plane.

If you’d like to keep up with the most recent news from this and other Pushkin podcasts, be sure to sign up for our email list at Pushkin.fm.

See omnystudio.com/listener for privacy information.


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All kinds of people came to watch, a little treat for the diehards. And in the spirit of that experimentation, we thought we'd share a few excerpts from those shows with all of you, the real audience. And what you're hearing is me standing up in front of the crowd confessing I have no

idea what's about to happen.

They tried to get me to rehearse and I just didn't want to do it. So you're all kind of guinea pigs, for which I apologize. But I'm very excited. I broke out the snazzy Adidas, old school Adidas, the seersucker, the whole thing. This is, I rarely dress up, so this is a very, very big occasion for me. So what we're going to do is we, at the time I was working on an episode of Revisionist History about a very well-known movie, almost a perfect movie, except the writers had screwed up the ending. If you want to listen to that episode, it's called Starstruck. You can check it out in the feed. It goes in a million directions. Gone with the Wind, Star is Born, Samuel Goldwyn, Car Accidents, Atlanta. We hung out in graveyards and took a group road trip to Margaret Mitchell's archives at the University of Georgia, a very Revisionist History mashup. But at the live show, I just wanted to zero in on the core question raised by the episode, which is, what makes an ending work?

Because the truth is, most endings don't work, right? You sit in a movie theater and at hour three of the blockbuster you think, did no one at the studio give any thought about how to wrap this thing up? That's what I wanted to get at. Why are endings so hard? So in our New York show at the Town Hall, I invited the comedian Mike Birbiglia up to the stage to join me in the discussion. Brilliant, brilliant comedian, a member of the famous Georgetown University comedy mafia, which we can talk about with Mike if we want. It's basically every indie comic worth their salt went to Georgetown. I don't know why. What do we do with frustrated Catholicism? I'm not sure. He's about to go on tour with his show, Old Man in the Pool, The Old Man in the Pool. It's a brilliant, brilliant title.

And so we're going to start with Mike. Mike, come on out. I'll hook you back there.

So this is my favorite podcast. So it's a very strange sensation to be inside of my favorite podcast. I don't know how it's going.

This is my favorite podcast.

By the way, you weren't offended when I said you were part of the Georgetown University comedy mafia. No, not at all. It's legit.

No, it's a description.

I mean, gosh, John Mulaney and Gavin Nick Kroll, and Jack Manova, yeah, there's just a whole bunch of them. Britt Marling. Britt Marling. And there's so many, and by the way, Bradley Cooper. It's kind of unbelievable. You remember, I'll tell you a funny thing about when I was, I intersected with Bradley Cooper. I never knew him except that we were in theater at Georgetown at the same time. I think we'd be one year older than me. And he was most famous on campus for being the most attractive person anyone had ever seen. I'm not even kidding. I'm literally, people would say, have you seen Bradley Cooper? I swear to God, not in a play.

Have you seen him?

Yeah, that's gotta be hard. Life can be really hard sometimes. Mike, okay, so, and the reason I want to talk to you with endings, because I feel like I've often felt that no one's more obsessed with endings than I am, and I'll tell you why. And I say this also to say that I think you might be as obsessed as I am. I am someone who, I will very often read a thriller and stop five pages before the end, because I'm concerned that the author isn't going to pull it off. I just don't want to be there for that. I was like, all right, it doesn't matter that I've spent three days getting to page 395.

I just, I can, it can be really hard sometimes. No, no, I'm similarly obsessed, you know, but I go through four or five endings before

I land on an ending. You don't start with the ending of events.

No, no, as, no, no, as a matter of fact, the old man in the pool, I'm deliberating right now between two different, distinctly different endings.

And what, describe the two options, simply. Describe them emotionally.

Is there a difference in the emotion? I can't give away what the ending is, because it'll fundamentally, but you know what, I'm kidding. But you know what I'll do? I can tell you that I had two different endings for my last show, which was called The New One and, and one of them is me and my wife and my daughter sort of laughing together on the couch together in our house. And I, earlier in the show, I talked about how the premise of the show is I never wanted to have a child. And the show is about, and all the reasons why I never want to have a child, and then it's about how we had a child and how I was right. And then the emotional turn of it is that I was wrong and and And and there but there were two different endings that we had along the way That were and and one of them is the one that it is Which is my wife and daughter and I are laughing together on the couch and I basically I don't say this But I say I basically become all the cliches that of parents who I find so Annoying which is like I just want to see the world through babies eyes

You know, we have that. Yeah have that. Yeah. We actually should we show you. Oh, yeah, please. Yeah. Okay

Let's show this. Let's just show this. Oh, yeah, please. Okay. Let's show this this just show the stuff

She goes Whoa Wow nevertheless couch in the department store.

Luna's hiding behind each of us, and we go,

where's Luna, where's Luna? She's clinging to my back as I spin. The more she clings, the more I'm committing, like, where is Luna, where is she? And she starts laughing so hard, like the hardest I've ever seen anyone laugh my whole life, and I'm in the jokes business. At this idea that she's tricking us, the people in power, the people who know everything, she's fooled us completely at least this once, and look, I know she's gonna grow up and find out what the earth is thinking in the ocean. We might have to live in an almond milk jug in Pennsylvania, and people can be horrible, but as I'm staring at this monkey on a cat, I feel like she might be one of the people who changes that trajectory. She's laughing so hard that I start laughing in a new way from my perspective, Jen's perspective, and Luna's perspective, all at once. We're laughing as one, and in that moment,

I feel full, I'm seeing the world.

So what's the work that ending's doing?

Oh, so that ending is.

You're cheering up, like. Are you cheering up? I saw it, I was like, cheer it up. You cheered up watching yourself?

Cheer it up.

You cheered up. How dare you, sir? At the town hall, you call me out where we have our town meetings every week, we're all at them, right? We're all at them, right? No, it is, it's emotional, Because it's about when my daughter was 18 months old. And she's seven years old now, so that part of it's emotional. But yeah, so the goal of this ending is the show really mocks. To the point, it mocks people with children so mercilessly. If you never want to have children and want to mock people who have children, you're going to love the first half of this special. For example, a year after this came out, this came out a few years ago, I was sent a Reddit thread that was from a child-free community on Reddit. And I have never seen a group of people more excited about the first half of a comedy special. Because they don't know it turns to me having a child.

And then they feel completely betrayed

when I have a child, then they hate it. That's one of my definitions of a story. The difference between a story and an anecdote is a story is a narrative that betrays the listener's expectations, right? There must be an act of betrayal for the story to work.

Interesting. But wait, so there is a betrayal. But then ultimately, with this ending, the goal is to point out, after all the cliches of seeing the world through baby's eyes and all this stuff, and it's the most joy I've ever experienced, all these things that you hear these annoying parents say all the time, I concede that I have a moment of that, a moment where I'm seeing the world through baby's eyes. And to me, that's the essence of the type of ending I enjoy. Not everybody enjoys. I enjoy an ending where there's a hint of we understand that the emotional journey of the story is this big. We've swung to all over the pendulum. But ultimately, the character we invest in changes this much. So one of my favorite endings of all time is from the movie Big, Penny Marshall movie with Tom Hanks. And I wish I was big. And then he goes to the carnival. And then he's a grown up and he has a girlfriend and the job and all these things.

And he lives and he does the whole thing. And he gets to choose at the end. And he's going to be big. He's going to be small again. And he chooses small. And there's this devastating moment where she looks back at him. And it's his child self in a suit. And it's the visual metaphor of what we've experienced. Because he's both. He's both of those things. and the change in him is imperceptible.

But we know he's changed probably this much.

And then he's a good, I wanna go back to your show for a moment. When you were doing that show, did you have that turn in mind of that idea that you were gonna be moving just a little? Was that in, did you start with that?

Yeah, I think, yeah, we, cause we, the alternate ending, I've literally never spoken about this. We, I performed an alternate ending because I toured these shows for like numbers of years. Like Old Man in the Pool, the show I'm touring now, I've toured for probably three plus years, probably three and a half years I've been workshopping it. And so this one was called The New One. I had another ending where this true story where my wife and daughter and I are on, we go on a vacation together to the beach in California and we're on the beach and we're having this beautiful moment on the beach. And Oona's like, it's similar to this, it's like, it's like sand, you know, like ocean, water, you know. It's similar, it's like she's a genius. It's the same, sort of the same joke. But then she picks up like a piece of plastic from the beach and she's just, it's garbage. And it invokes, it evokes all of those feelings I have about like, we're just living in the dystopia and why are we having children? This is insane, right?

I could see why you didn't go with that ending. Damn.

What up? Malcolm, how dare you? In the location of our weekly meetings. It was too sad.

Too sad. It was too sad, too sad. Yeah, it's too much movement. You want a little movement.

Yes. You don't wanna. So that's why that ending went away because ultimately people would leave the theater and they would go like, that made me feel sort of bad about stuff. But the ending that we went with, just to be clear, I mean, endings are very personal for people. Like some people, I don't, in that ending you just watched, some people left the theater and said, you're still kind of a jerk. You know what I mean? Like I would get very personal responses where people are like, you're like an ungrateful dad. You're a bad dad, all this stuff. And I'm like, no, no, I'm being honest with my experience.

And this is pretty close. This is exactly what we're talking about, which is that endings carry massive disproportionate weight. You don't go to a show or a movie or read a book and decide after the first 10 pages that you love it. That's it. I mean, you might say that, but it's a contingent conclusion. You will rescind that opinion in a heartbeat if the last five pages or the last five minutes don't work. And what's weird about this, of course, is that it's the opposite of the way we evaluate human beings. There's a famous set of studies about college professors where they take student evaluations of their teachers that are generated over an entire semester and compare them to teacher evaluations made by students who've only seen a tiny video clip of the professor, like 10 seconds. What do you find that the two sets of evaluations are the same? In other words, you're sitting in a class, you listen to your teacher for the shortest moment, and you decide, I like them, I don't like them. And you never revisit that conclusion. The ending doesn't matter.

If you have 30 classes with your history professor, your experience in the final class or the final five classes, or even the final 29.99 classes does not alter your impression about the teacher. Our evaluations of other people are front loaded. That's why, correctly, our parents told us again and again about the value of making a good first impression. But our evaluation of stories is the opposite. It's back loaded. What happens in the last five minutes colors every conclusion we drew in the first two hours. Now, why is this? I have no idea. But I will guarantee you that every screenwriter and author and podcaster frets endlessly about how their stories begin. Rewrites the beginning a million times, but aren't nearly as fastidious about the ending. Which is nuts. We're all idiots.

With the exception, of course, of Mike Bigman. When we come back, endings, part two. Whether you need it for work, school, or a special project, it's important to have the right printer. The Epson EcoTank is a new type of printer that doesn't use cartridges. Stop buying expensive ink cartridges and save yourself the frustration of replacing ink cartridges ever again. The Epson EcoTank printers have supersized easy to fill ink tanks and come with a ridiculous amount of ink. With the Epson EcoTank, you don't have to worry about running out of ink. So start printing in color. Kiss expensive cartridges goodbye. Get yours today because EcoTank is changing the way people print. EcoTank makes it easy, so make the switch. Add EcoTank to your online shopping list so you can just fill and chill.

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Shopify.com slash Gladwell. A week after we did our town hall show, we took the train down to Philadelphia, rented out the Fillmore theater, ate cheesesteaks, got into the mood, and for the opening of the Philly show, I decided to reflect back on some of revisionist history's most and least successful endings. What we're talking about tonight is endings, because I happen to be obsessed with endings. If I'm watching a movie and, you know, three quarters of the way through, there's just too many balls in the air, I'm out. I'm not gonna be party to that kind of destruction of the narrative form. You know, I can go on forever about this, and we will actually this evening be going on forever about this, but the crucial distinction in my mind is the distinction between an anecdote and a story. An anecdote is a narrative that conforms with your expectations. So, the craziest thing happened to me last night, I found a $100 bill on the street. That is not a story, that is an anecdote. The first sentence, craziest thing happened, is the equal of the second sentence, a $100 bill on the street, right? A story, by contrast, is a narrative that betrays the audience's expectations. So, a story would be, the craziest thing happened to me last night, I found a $100 bill on the street, I gave it to a, tried to give it to a homeless man, and he said, I don't want your effing money.

That's the story, right? It betrayed your expectation. That's not how you expected it to end. And the challenge of Revisionist History is, we always want to tell a story. We always want, in some way, to betray our audience's expectations. So, I wanted to give you a couple of examples of how we approach that at Revisionist History. Couple years ago, seasons ago, we did an episode called Free Brian Williams, which some of you will remember. And you'll remember, Brian Williams was the NBC anchor who was fired from his job, because he went on Letterman one night, and he told a story about being in a helicopter during the Gulf War, flying low over the desert, and he was fired upon by the enemy, and he was terrified. And it turns out, he wasn't fired on. And so, all kinds of people brought this up, and called him a liar, and a self-aggrandizing, and he was forced out of his job. And if you've listened to it, the whole episode is a defense of Brian Williams. It's this sort of argument about memory that says that our memory, particularly in high-stakes moments like that, is profoundly flawed, and all of us make mistakes of memory along the lines of Brian Williams.

So, he was, in a self-aggrandizing liar. He was just a human being. And now, none of that, of course, betrays the expectations of the audience. The show's called Free Brian Williams. You know I'm gonna defend Brian Williams. But here's how it ended. It's a clip of the very end of the show. It's a clip of Brian Williams apologizing for his mistake.

Looking back, it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else. Put myself closer to the action,

having been at the action in the beginning. Oh, please, stop apologizing for a crime you didn't commit. Free Brian Williams. Now, do you see the betrayal there? You thought this was a defense of Brian Williams, but the last thing I do in the entire episode is attack Brian Williams for not defending himself. He's not a liar, but he's a coward. He didn't do anything wrong. Stand up for yourself, big man. Stop. All right, now, we don't always pull this off. There are times when the endings don't work, and a really good example of this is we did an episode last season called I Love You, Waymo, which was, you know, Waymo is a division of Google that makes autonomous cars, the kind that drive themselves, and they have them in Phoenix. You can go to Phoenix and you can order a Waymo, and it just shows up.

There's no driver, and you hop in. And so we went there, many of my producer Jacob, and we drove around these Waymos, and our whole point was that people worry about autonomous cars because they think that they are, will make a mistake, you know, and run over pedestrians. They think they're imperfect, but that's actually completely wrong. The problem with autonomous cars is that they're perfect. They don't make mistakes. I mean, they got 20 cameras and LiDAR and radar. They're so perfect that they allow everyone else to misbehave, so that if you're, if you see a, if you're a jaywalk, you wanna cross the street, and you see a Waymo coming, you just jaywalk, because you know it will stop, right? It's perfect, and if you're a kid, and you're playing soccer in the middle of the street with your friends, and a Waymo comes, you keep playing soccer. You don't move, and if you're a cyclist, and you wanna cycle to work down I-95, you cycle to work down I-95, because the Waymo will drive very patiently behind you. It's not ever, so it's been sold to us by Silicon Valley as this kind of apical technological breakthrough. It's not, it's a complete non-starter. You can't drive a Waymo through any urban area, because people are just gonna go nuts when they see the Waymo.

So we thought the Waymo was, the I love you Waymo was sarcastic, right? So here's how it ends. Jacob and I, we order a Waymo to this parking lot of the Alamo Steakhouse in Tempe, Arizona, and it comes, and then we just start, forgive my language, fucking with the Waymo. And we throw beach balls at it, and it, like a $4 beach ball, and it just stops, because it's Waymo, it's like super polite. Not gonna harm my hair on the head of the beach ball. And then I decide, what I really wanna do is I wanna run next to the Waymo, and then just constantly cut in front of the Waymo. To see what the Waymo will do, right? So here, let's run the clip. No, he's taken off, oh, he comes through, ha, ha, ha. Waymo is freaked out, freaked out.

He thinks he's going, he's got a head on me. I'm gonna catch him, Waymo, Waymo.

Hold on, let me get in, Waymo, stop, Waymo.

Waymo was the perfect gentleman. He let me be the crazy one. Remember this the next time some Silicon Valley visionary promises you a future of perfect mobility, efficiency, and clarity from the backseat of an autonomous vehicle. No, no, no. It's much better than that. It's me and Lance and Jonathan Vauders and Jacob with his beach ball taking back the road. I love you, Waymo. We tweet out the announcement of the show, and you know what happens? Waymo re-tweets the tweet. They're like, we love the show, it's fantastic. So we said that autonomous vehicles don't actually work, and Waymo was like, you called the show, I love you, Waymo, that's all. They refuse to have their expectations betrayed, right?

Now, whose fault is that? I think it's my fault. And then we started to get emails from, I'll read you some of the emails we got from readers. Big fan of revisionist history. I'm trying to figure out if I Love You Waymo is sponsored content. Wait, I thought we were attacking Waymo. Email number two. I'm sure Malcolm and whoever is managing the show is smart enough to disclose when they're being sponsored, but this really felt like an ad. No, it wasn't an ad. Number three. At first, I thought my podcast episode didn't download correctly. It was just a 30-minute Waymo love fest.

No, it went on for 38 minutes. You had to listen to the last eight. Number four, what the hell was that? Number five, was that an infomercial for a way? No, these people dumb. No one who listens to revisionist history can be dumb. No, they don't believe in stories. They believe in anecdotes, right? They think that you can only have a narrative that conforms with your expectations. They don't understand that, no, no, no, no, what a real story does is betray your expectations. You screw up if that's the story you tell, right, if you can't convince people to make that turn. Sometimes you really have to grab people, the listener by the scruff of the neck and say, no, no, you block head.

This is going off in another direction. The perfect ending, the perfect story to my mind, is the story where you start with the ending and work backwards. Where you know absolutely the turn you want to make. And there's one, one of my absolute favorite episodes was exactly this. It's called The King of Tears from season two or three. And it was about the saddest song in the world. Anyway, I'm rooting around late one night on YouTube, and I run across George Jones' funeral, which is one of the, by the way, if you have three extra hours, like if you're incarcerated and have time in your hands, you must watch George Jones' funeral. It's one of the most epic, extraordinary, fantastic national events. They're all there, they're all weeping, they're all, it's just schmaltz upon schmaltz upon schmaltz. So I'm watching it like I'm weeping in my pajamas, it's two a.m. on. Every single person in all of Nashville is there, in full regalia, cowboy hats up to Wazoo.

Everyone's like finding a way to weep out-weep each other on stage. But the climax is, the great George Jones song was of course the saddest song ever written by Bobby Braddock. He stopped loving her today. About a guy who's in love with a woman, and he stops loving her today when he dies. He only stops loving her when he's, and the whole song leads up to, you realize, you think he's alive, and you realize, oh no, no, no, no, he's dead and that's why he stopped loving her. So we actually wanna play this. Play Alan Jackson, Alan Jackson, who's at the end of the funeral, is the climax, sings, he stopped loving her today, for George Jones' wife, who's in the front row, right? So it's so geniously meta.

Play the beginning of Alan Jackson.

As the years went slow. And you realize, as he sings, that Braddock's song has gotten even more specific. It's no longer about a long ago love affair. It's about right now. This is the day George Jones stopped loving Nancy Jones. Alan Jackson takes off his hat and places it over his heart. He stopped loving her today.

And if you aren't crying, I can't help you.

Love you, George. If only every story ended as well as that one. Revisionist History is produced by Eloise Linton, Lehman Gistu, and Jacob Smith. Our editor is Julia Barton, our showrunners Peter Clowney, original scoring by Luis Guerra, mastering by Jason Gambrell, engineering by Sarah Bruguire and Nina Lawrence, fact-checking by Kechel Williams, and live production by Kate Downey. Special thanks to the Pushkin crew who helped pull off this live experiment. Kerry Brody, Heather Fain, Blair Gilks, Jason Gambrell, Nina Lawrence, Nicole Morano, Eric Sandler, John Schnars, Maggie Taylor, and Jacob Weisberg. And a big thank you to Mike Birbiglia, as well as the Town Hall in Manhattan and the Fillmore in Philadelphia. Stay tuned for more of Revisionist History live, coming soon to a city near you. I'm Malcolm Glabo. Hey there, it's Malcolm. At Revisionist History, we often study the past, but it's equally important that we hear from the folks paving the future, which is why I recommend the A16Z podcast. It's a long-standing and chart-topping podcast from venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, and it gives you insider access to the people and ideas at the edge of innovation.

The show explores questions like, does the metaverse require VR? How will AI impact creators? Just how much stuff is being sent into space? Is remote work dead? And what on earth is Bicycle Face? Recently, the A16Z podcast had heavy-hitting guests like Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Neil Stevenson, the guy who coined the term metaverse 30 years ago. Talk about seeing the future. So don't miss out. Listen to the A16Z podcast wherever you get your podcasts, and tell them I sent you.