Podcast Interview | Rob Norman of Personal Best
CBC’s Personal Best: Season 2
Personal Best is a podcast that celebrates small ambitions, half-wins and the quiet satisfaction of getting less bad at things. Each week the guys help ordinary people work through the little things they’d never bring to a life coach — like kicking a snooze button addiction or getting less awkward around cashiers. Season one was named among the best podcasts of 2018 by Vulture, Apple, Huffington Post and The Globe & Mail.
Season 2 has just dropped and I couldn’t be more excited. I chatted to Rob Norman about getting this crazy show green-lit, about what to expect from Season 2, and about coming to terms with starting out as satire and ending up being a real self-help podcast (with a healthy sense of humour!).
Q: The first season was just brilliant and was a huge success – were you expecting people to love it so much?
A: That’s very kind! Thank you.
We really didn’t have any expectations going into this project. First of all, we never thought CBC would make this show. We walked away from the pitch meeting thinking “That went well, but they’ll never say Yes”. Then they gave us a bit of money for a pilot and we thought “That’s pretty cool that we got paid, but they’ll never pick up the series”. Then we got the green light to make the series, and it felt like someone had made a mistake. I’d describe the energy of Season 1 as “try out as much stuff as we can before CBC finds out and cancels us”. The day we launched was the first time I ever thought “Oh yeah, other people might listen to this insane thing we made”.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#6653ff” class=”” size=”19″]I’d describe the energy of Season 1 as “try out as much stuff as we can before CBC finds out and cancels us” [/perfectpullquote]
Q: I remember listening to the first episode and wondering – how the hell did they pitch this show? I can imagine it might have been a tricky sell on paper; because the people bring it to life so much!
A: It’s really hard to describe this show. So much of self-improvement culture is delivered in earnest and without any hint of irony. And comedy is the opposite. This is a show that exists between those two worlds.
The pitch was pretty thin when we brought it to the CBC. But we knew there was some things we didn’t want from being fans of podcasts. Public radio can be a highly a curated space, filled with these seemingly perfect (and artificial) moments. We wanted to try our best, but also show our failures. We also wanted to tell stories, where we wouldn’t know what the ending might be.
Q: You’re tackling some big questions but with lightness and heart and humour… that’s such a difficult balance. Do you have any guiding principles when thinking about a story?
A: Yes! We have a ton of rules. We’ll sift through about 200 different applicants to find eight guests for a season. We obviously won’t help someone with an issue that would be better served by a medical professional or therapist. But we also don’t spend weeks invested in a problem that the guest doesn’t actually want to fix. So, finding the right guest is a super important piece to making a show like this.
As for the balance between humour and heart, I’d say it’s not much of a balance. When planning an episode, we focus almost entirely what’s funny or what’s fun to us. When a guest has an emotional response to something on the show, that’s welcome, but always it’s a complete surprise to us.
Q: What can people expect from Season 2?
A: In Season 1, we spent a lot of our time and energy figuring out how the show worked. We had no frame of reference when assembling a story, so we argued a lot about what the show should be.
Season 2 was easier in some ways, because we had enough distance from the creative process to know what a Personal Best story sounded like. You’ll hear more personal and intimate stories this season. Lots of stuff about death, fatherhood, and the dangers of underselling yourself.
Q: You took a lot of risks with how you approached Season 1 and they paid off – did this embolden you for Season 2?
A: “Embolden” sounds like Season 1 was there cheering us on while we made Season 2! It was not. It was a ghastly spectre reminding us of all the things we had already done in the first nine episodes.
It’s a big responsibility when you’ve made a show that some people really like. Because it doesn’t belong to just you anymore. Other folks are also invested in the final product. So, you want to give them something that they recognize from the first season, but also want to surprise them with something new. So, you’re stuck between familiar and something that has never been done before. That’s a very tight pocket.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#6653ff” class=”” size=”19″] Personally, I’d love to hear an episode where the guest says “I didn’t learn anything and most of what we did was a waste of time”.[/perfectpullquote]
Q: How do you find your subjects? And how do you convince them to lay themselves bare for the podcast? Do they know what they are getting themselves in for??
A: In the first season, it was mostly friends and friends of friends. One of our favourite episodes (Cow Watch2018) is about a woman who wants to deliver a baby cow. That woman was our Associate Producer’s aunt. The second season was a little easier because we had a platform to find guests and a bit more legitimacy then when no one knew who were and we were recording out of Andrew’s attic. (To be clear: we still record in Andrew’s attic).
No one has ever had to be convinced or coached to lay themselves bare. If they did, I think you’d hear that on the tape. If someone learns a lesson – that’s cool! But that’s really what they’re bringing to the experience. Personally, I’d love to hear an episode where the guest says “I didn’t learn anything and most of what we did was a waste of time”.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#6653ff” class=”” size=”19″] It’s one of the nicest moments in the entire season, and it came from the idea “Let’s dress someone up in a wig…” [/perfectpullquote]
Q: Storytelling is really important to you, clearly. Have you a stand out story from Season 1, and anything you can tell us about what kind of stories to expect from Season 2?
A: In Season 1, we helped this woman named Julia get better at messaging on the dating-app Bumble. She felt like she wasn’t being her authentic self. So, we had this dumb idea to hire a method actor to study her interviews, put on a wig, and show up to the studio wearing Julia’s clothes. Basically, Julia would be confronted by her doppelgänger and she would be able to talk to herself and find the authentic Julia.
In my head, I always imagined Julia would balk at the activity. I mean it’s a woman in a wig pretending to be her. I mean, it’s stupid and ridiculous and a bit annoying.
But that’s not what happened. Julia and the doppelgänger had this deeply personal conversation. At one point the doppelgänger quoted Julia to herself from an earlier interview, and Julia just started crying. It’s one of the nicest moments in the entire season, and it came from the idea “Let’s dress someone up in a wig…”
In Season 2, we push things a bit farther. We dabble in witchcraft, make phone calls to a political figure, and learn how to train a horse. And that’s just what happens in one episode.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#6653ff” class=”” size=”19″] I mean, a guy landed a backflip on the show – and one his “training activities” was to help my mom save a JPEG to her desktop [/perfectpullquote]
Q: It seems like PB is poking fun at the whole self-help industry – but I actually found some of the episodes so affirming and they actually helped me! Did you set out to do that or was it more of a satire?
A: We never intended for this show to be life-affirming (not to say we were against the idea, it’s just not what we set out to do). We tried to make a prank show and then screwed it up. Early on, we discovered that neither myself or Andrew, had the stomach for making people the butt of a joke.
After that we designed activities that we never thought would work (for example creating a haunted house to help someone wake up on time) but they did! We’ve made 17 episodes and I can think of only a couple where someone didn’t reach their goal. I mean, a guy landed a backflip on the show – and one his “training activities” was to help my mom save a JPEG to her desktop.
So yeah, I guess we are a self-improvement show that started out as a parody of self-improvement shows. We did not succeed in our original goal. But I’m OK with that. I’m really happy with the consolation prize.
Season 2 of Personal Best is out now wherever you get you podcasts and on the CBC website.
[perfectpullquote align=”full” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”#6653ff” class=”” size=”19″] More podcaster interviews here – a chat with Caroline Crampton, creator of Shedunnit[/perfectpullquote]