A Review of Season 1 of the Professor Footnote Podcast

This past weekend, I did a bit of traveling and this allowed me to spend some quality time with the new Professor Footnote podcast series produced by Joel Jonientz and Brett Ommen at the University of North Dakota. I listened to two of the first three podcasts: “Leopold, Loeb, Darrow and the Death Penalty” and “Hobos, Uncle Sam and Yowzers the Clown” and perused the associated web companions to these programs. Both podcasts ran about an hour, were professionally produced, easy on the ears, and informative. They’re ideally suited for a long car trip, a slow evening by a roaring fire, or cross-country flight.

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The general structure of the podcasts are a conversation between Prof. Joel and Prof. Brett on a “marginally interesting topic.” Their approach walks the fine line between being truly conversational and a staged dialogue. For example, Joel and Brett shared a vivid narration of  Leopold and Loeb’s crime and court case but also provided a discussion of issues surrounding the psychology of the two infamous criminals, Darrow’s motivation in “defending” them, and their larger impact on jurisprudence in America. The alternation between well-wrought narrative and less formal discussion was all very NPR in character (in a good way).

To distinguish these podcasts from the glut already available, Professor Footnote have a clever hook. The conversations are riddled with audio footnotes providing references to secondary and primary sources for the information and, to a lesser extent, the arguments presented in their conversations. The footnotes are set apart from the podcast proper by a little sound and traditional footnotes appear a webpage dedicated to each podcast. The audio footnotes define these podcasts as being something different from a traditional radio programing, for example, where the hosts might invite in a guest or other expert to contribute their authority to the conversation. Instead, Professor Footnote functions more like an academic article where outside authority exists in a separate space and largely static relationship  (which is not to say passive) with the conversation in the text. Interestingly, in the first two podcasts, the hosts do not particularly engage the arguments offered by the scholars who they cite in the footnotes, but mine these texts for pertinent details. The influence of the texts cited in the notes on the conversation is never entirely clear (with just a few exceptions). This leave the listener to wonder where the arguments from the footnoted authority end and the opinions of the hosts start. This ambiguity should not detract from an otherwise valuable effort to create a hybrid medium that breaches the usually rigid divide between text-based scholarship and new media punditry.

A listener will come away as curious about the world of clowns and Leopold and Loeb as the potential for these topics to provide points of departure for critiques of our contemporary society. (For those who don’t know Prof. Jonientz and Prof. Ommen, this is part of their larger aim to work at the intersection of the media, popular culture, and academia. They were the conveners of the successful Arts and Culture conferences at UND which brought together artists, scholars, media personalities in a series of concerts, gallery shows, public fora, and lectures.). The popular and academic tone of the podcasts, then, parallels their interest in hybridizing the typically popular medium with the inclusion of academic footnotes. Clever guys, Joel and Brett.

As for content, the clowns podcast began with a short chat about the origins of clowning, which our host associate with the Shakespearean larikins rather, than, say characters in, say, the New Comedy of Plautus or even ancient and Medieval genre of farce although they do concede the potential influence of the Devil in Medieval theater as a possible influence. They go on the discuss clowning in 19th and 20th century American drawing on famous clowns like the 19th century Dan Rice (who was said to have earned $1,000 a week in the 1860s!) to the rise of the circus “hobo” clowning of the Guilded Age and late-20th century T.V. figures like JP Patches and Bozo. The appearance of Ommen’s failed adolescent alter ego “Yowzers” is endearing. The bad clown figures of the 21st century from pedophile Pee Wee Herman to the Joker in Batman represent to Ommen and Jonientz the decline of the clown figure in contemporary society. They associate this decline with the rise of post-modernism, the collapsing social standing of institutions, and our distrust of earnestness (and the concomitant rise in irony). The podcast offers much more than my dry description can capture.

I wondered whether they could have spoken to the influence of Carnival and other ritualized efforts to invert social order as an important influence on clowning. The hobo clown champions of the Guilded Age would seem to have provided the kind of safe opportunities for critique in a society struggling to come to terms with the rampantly dehumanizing effects associated with the ethic of industrial capitalism. If the “big top” provided a safe venue to challenge the dominant social ethos, then mass media’s demotion of clowns to children’s programing in the television age was a key step in the decline of clowning as a recognized form of social critique. The “bad clowns” of the 21st century may hint that we still expect clowns to operate outside of the established cultural structures to represent our ambivalence toward them as adversarial figures standing (and defining) the margins of institutional and social authority.

The second podcast interlaced the nicely narrated story of Leopold and Loeb’s cavalier murder of a 14 year old in 1920s Chicago with larger considerations of the death penalty, youth culture, and the media. The podcast felt both more polished – in the well-told story – and more ragged in the discussion the episode on clowning. This is perhaps to be expected as the complexity of the particularities surrounding the Leopold and Loeb trial offered too many tempting digressions: social class (Leopold and Loeb we wealthy), to comments on homosexuality (they were lovers), education (they graduate college at age 18), ethnic tensions (they were Jewish), Progressivism (Darrow saw his effort to protect the boys from the death penalty as part of a larger social crusade), the media (it was one of a number of blockbuster trials of the first half of the 20th c.), and even jurisprudence (Darrow played several ingenious gambits during the trail). My only real complaint is that I would have balanced the discussion on different issues, and this is hardly a real critique, but at times I felt like the conversation darted from one topic to the next without wringing all the genius from it.

It took me a couple of hours to “get” that the first two episodes represent the hosts’ interest in commenting on the margins of society in a way that was similar to their interest in critiquing academia from the margins. Their choice of media – the podcast – hybridized with an almost flippant use of that most academic affectation, the footnote, define these podcasts as a vox clamatis in deserto just as clowns and the unbearable precious intersection of Leopold, Loeb, and Darrow defined the limits 20th century civilization.

But don’t take my word for it, listen to them yourself.

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