Jon Lovett brings his podcast Lovett or Leave It to the Merriam Theater on Sunday night. It's a chance to see live one of the most innovative political podcasts around, infusing politics with humor, game-show segments, and raucous celebrity panel breakouts.
"A lot of people have the experience right now of watching the news and wanting to shout at the television," Lovett said by phone from Los Angeles, home of Lovett or Leave It and parent company Crooked Media, named after a favorite Donald Trump phrase. "We make games that let them do that."
Podcasts travel the land today, playing live on stage, growing audiences indie-rocker style. Lovett or Leave It began its current tour May 3 in Pittsburgh and finishes up in Durham, N.C., on June 24, recording all the way.
Its live-before-an-audience ethos is well-suited to Lovett's impressive on-the-spot wisecracking chops. Rants explode, groans fly, the name Trump is flung like a Wham-O Frisbee. Lovett sometimes brings up his famous dog, which has the greatest dog name in podcast history: Pundit.
Lovett was once a speech and joke writer for President Barack Obama. He and two other former Obama staffers – director of speechwriting Jon Favreau and spokesperson Tommy Vietor – decided to take revenge on the world by creating Crooked Media, which also launched the popular Pod Save America (1.5 million average listeners per episode, twice a week), co-hosted by Lovett. Pod becomes an HBO show in the fall.
Lovett or Leave It was the brainchild of producer and screenwriter Lee Eisenberg (The Office). "He really liked Pod Save America," Lovett said, "and one day he came to us and said, 'What if Crooked had a podcast that was some version of Friday night at a bar?' We sat around brainstorming, one thing led to another, and we said, "Let's try it out."
They field-tested segments at the Lab at the Hollywood Improv Comedy Club on Melrose Avenue. The first episode of Lovett or Leave It went up in March 2017, and it now entertains an average of 600,000 listeners an episode. (And they still do record shows on Friday nights at bars.)
One segment that passed the Lab test is now called "OK Stop." The celebrity panel listens to a clip of a speech or statement, and when they've had enough and can't take it anymore, they pause the recording — "OK, stop!" — and dump all over it. "When we tried it out at the Lab, it was pretty fun," Lovett says.
In another segment, "Too Stupid to Be True," guests try to guess which stupid political utterance is real and which is fake. And, of course, there's the Rant Wheel, where rant-worthy topics – foodies or Joel Osteen or Jared Kushner – are called out and people rant in response.
Podcasts have not only arrived; they've gone nuts. Since birth in 2003, they've gone from a special-interest underworld to a money-making medium (with estimated ad revenue of $220 million last year, a jump of 85 percent from 2016, according to the Interactive Advertising Bureau and PricewaterhouseCoopers). And, thanks to the Trump presidency, political podcasts are, to borrow another phrase, huge.
The idea of Lovett or Leave It, Lovett says, is to keep people's spirits up and inspire action. "It's an incredibly dark time," he says. "A lot of people are just walking around exhausted, asking, 'How long can this go on, this cycle of chaos and scandal without consequences?' It can feel brutal and dispiriting. It's important to stay in the fight, not lose your nerve, be happy warriors."
Lovett and the Crooked Media bunch are big believers in participatory democracy, too. "On our website, newsletter, both podcasts, we're saying, 'Here's how you can help expand Medicaid in Idaho, here's how you can help stop felony disenfranchisement in Florida, win back the House, beat Roy Moore in Alabama.' The most important thing we can do in our country is to harness all this energy you're seeing."