“You get rolled oats, soak them in a pot of cold water, leave them for an hour or 90 minutes, or overnight,” says Wesley Morris, critic-at-large for The New York Times, and one half of Still Processing. “Then, the next day, turn the pot onto a low, low heat, whisk steadily, add a little butter, a little sugar, and it turns into picture perfect oats.” We’re dialled into a Zoom conference call with his co-host and Times’ magazine writer Jenna Wortham. Like the vast majority of us, both writers are confined to their flats for the foreseeable future and have settled into a discussion about ways to cope with an extended period of social distancing. Fittingly, Wesley is wearing an apron; Jenna is surrounded by plants and books. Their conversation has a warmth and familiarity to it that’s instantly recognisable to Still Processing listeners, a tone The Atlantic described as “sharp and intellectual, goofy and raw” when it selected the show as one of their 50 best podcasts. Wortham joins in with her own cooking suggestion: “A friend in a group chat shared a photo of his eggplant parmigiana, and I was like, ‘Give me the recipe!’. The first part said three hours to make the marinara. When I read that, I was like ‘Hell no!’ Then this morning I said to myself, ‘I’ll do that tomorrow ... ’” “Could you forward that to me?” urges Morris. “This experience is going to turn me into a better cook, for sure.”
It’s late March, and both the UK and US are entering an accelerated phase of the Covid-19 outbreak. While we’re only beginning to understand the vast social and economic impacts of this pandemic, we’re first having to deal with the much smaller but equally necessary question of how to keep busy, how to stay connected and how to stay sane while separated from friends and family. Perhaps now more than ever, Still Processing’s return, with Morris and Wortham’s blend of familiar intimacy and incisive criticism, is a welcome comfort.
Since its launch in September 2016, the show has always offered a thoughtful and entertaining mix of conversation as the hosts pore through TV, music, movies, art and the internet to ask ‘Can we cancel Michael Jackson?’ ‘Has J-Lo managed to evade the wrath of cancel culture?’ and ‘How does Green Book’s Oscar win give proof, if proof were needed, that history continues to repeat itself?’ The podcast has scooped up an armful of awards and nominations, receiving glowing reviews from Nylon, Vanity Fair, The Financial Times, New York Magazine and AnOther, among others. Now in its sixth season, Still Processing will focus on coping strategies for this new normal, as listeners are invited to take part in a make-shift, audio-collective culture club. This week’s assignment? Watch Zoë Kravitz’ High Fidelity remake. “It’s a really, really sweet escape of a show that’s a great reprieve from everything else, which is why we’re recommending it,” says Wortham. “And if you don’t finish it by the time we come back, no worries, no spoilers, we promise. It’s just a really good thing to dive into right now.”
Returning to the show’s early beginnings is an uplifting, if slightly surreal exercise. “It’s funny thinking about it now,” says Wortham, “because it makes me so nostalgic for Brooklyn summers.” After several months of missed phone calls, trading voicemails back and forth, Morris and Wortham met for the first time in the summer of 2014. Morris, a critic at ESPN’s Grantland at the time, had been invited by a close friend to an Awl party in New York’s Gowanus neighbourhood. “At that moment in time The Awl was hot shit,” says Wortham. “They were publishing some incredible writing, some incredible critical thinking. There were a lot of talented people in the room. It felt really shiny.” When Morris arrived, dressed in a tuxedo from a previous event, Wortham was holding court, shimmering in a gold jacket at a table in the corner. “You were lit by a street lamp,” he remembers. “All the light from that part of the bar was coming to you. I did not feel cool enough to join that table.” “I had the same feeling about you!” remembers Wortham. “I thought, ‘Oh god! Wesley’s so cool, we can’t talk!’” The remoteness of the venue added to the atmosphere that evening. “Even though it wasn’t fancy,” says Wortham “It felt like an occasion being there. It wasn’t super accessible so once you arrived you were sort of locked in for a little while.” Both had heard friends rave about the other; it felt as though their meeting was an inevitability. “There are moments in life where you show up somewhere and it feels like that’s exactly where you’re supposed to be,” says Wortham. “It felt like that.” Morris joined the Times the following year and the two have been close friends ever since.
Having developed a taste for podcasting whilst he was at Grantland, Morris was eager to develop his passion for audio at his new workplace. Still several months before the paper would launch its flagship news show, The Daily, the Times decided to bring in Max Linsky and Jenna Weiss-Berman of Pineapple Street Studios to develop a concept for the then-unnamed culture programme. “We knew we wanted to have a talk show where two people spent an hour talking about popular culture and how it made them feel,” says Morris, “but we also knew that whatever the show was going to be was going to come from making it.” Wortham was the obvious choice for a co-host; “I truly adore her and I love talking to her,” says Morris. “The reason we have a show is that we feel this way about each other without a microphone.” There are many, many, many podcasts where two friends gather together for a weekly conversation about culture – all too often they’re flabby, rambling and fronted by white, straight co-hosts. Still Processing pushes back against these tired cliches. The show’s energy, insight and brightness is driven by Morris and Wortham’s closeness; their chemistry and the intersectionality of their approach is central to its success.
In the early days of development, both hosts experimented with different roles, testing different formats, feeling out different formulas to see which would best capture the warmth and candour of their discussions. “I think initially the idea was that our dynamic would be some kind of romantic comedy? Remember that?” says Morris. “A very gay romantic comedy,” replies Wortham. “But yeah. It was sort of ... I don’t want to be Bridget, from Bridget Jones’ Diary, but that movie had some of the best comedic timing between Renée and Hugh Grant. Don’t you think?” Morris suggests that perhaps their dynamic is closer to the two titular characters of the 1989 When Harry Met Sally. “Oh. My. God. I am not Sally though,” says Wortham. “No! I’m Sally!” protests Morris. “You’re not Sally either, nobody wants to be Sally ... But elements of that perhaps.” “I think when their relationship matures?” Wortham concedes. “Towards the end? When they’re adults. When they’re in the Met together.”
While the show is in production – there are typically two seasons a year – the pair will discuss themes, ideas and talking points for each episode at twice-weekly meetings. Each has their own particular predilections – Morris devours film and TV, Wortham is an avid herbalist, well versed in yoga, crystals and astrology. Throughout the rest of the week, notes, stray thoughts, video clips and memes flit back-and-forth across Slack before the show’s producer synthesises everything into a rough outline ahead of a final Friday recording. Where previously these would have been conducted in the Times’ studios, now they’re tracked separately, with Morris and Wortham each recording their half of the conversation remotely, in make-shift home studios. The overarching mood of the show is always intimacy with the listener. “There’s that meme of a little kid sitting really, really close to a cutout of a group of women laughing and the caption reads, ‘Me with my podcast friends,’” says Wortham. “I always laugh when I see that. It’s kind of true though! You want to make people feel like they’re hanging out with you. We want the show to reframe some cultural moment, or put a piece of culture into context.”
A particularly high point from the podcast’s recent history came after the two co-hosts visited the Smithsonian and noticed that Michelle Obama’s portrait had been hung by the bathrooms. “We couldn’t believe it,” remembers Wortham. “We went off about it, the episode came out and suddenly people were like, ‘What!? Michelle Obama’s portrait is by the toilet!?’” A couple of days later, the Smithsonian issued a sheepish statement, announcing that the painting would be moved. “They tweeted out, ‘Due to the popularity of this exhibit, we’ve given Michelle Obama her own hall,’” says Wortham, laughing. “We’ll take it. Whatever you say, but we’ll take it.”
Is it challenging to make a culture podcast, I ask, when more people will likely have read reviews about a particular film or play or TV show, than have watched it first hand? “Any number of things can make me think ... ‘I don’t know if I want to experience this’,” says Morris. “But every time I’ve thought that, and go on to have the experience, there are so many times when I’m surprised by how much I liked it, or got something from it.” He continues, “my job is to make the time to do that. I’m doing this so you don’t have to, or because you don’t have time to. I get the impulse of people who’re like ‘eugh, I’d rather not’ and I can say, ‘look, I get why you feel that way, but you’re going to be so happy you gave it a try.’” “I think that’s one of your gifts as a cultural critic, you ask people in a very non-demanding way, a very Wesley Morris way, to slow down and reconsider,” Wortham adds. “To decide for themselves about a piece of culture. One thing I’ve learned from working with youmis that there’s so much value, even in things that seem ‘bad,’ or ‘lowbrow’ or ‘not well made.’ Sometimes those things tell us a lot, or more even, than things that are ‘good’ or highly praised. Unlearning that has been something the show has helped me with. Just because it feels like everyone is talking about something, doesn’t mean that they are – that’s very much a bubbled reality. People can decide for themselves, and it’s OK to like things even if they’re not ‘good’. If the vast majority of people don’t like a thing or think it’s bad ... that’s OK! Sometimes that’ll motivate us to watch it!”
Ultimately, though Still Processing is a show about culture, Morris and Wortham hope the podcast stretches beyond books, films, music, theatre and art – they want each episode to help listeners gain some perspective on the current moment, to better get to grips with the enormity of a particular topic or situation. “When things have been heavier in the culture, we’ve been heavier, when things feel more abundant and light-hearted, we feel that too,” says Wortham. “We’re affected by what’s in the ether and then the show reflects that,” she continues. “Right now we’re trying to make sense of something deeply upsetting and unwieldy. We’re trying to help people feel comforted. That’s a big part of the impetus for this season, you’re not alone, we’re here too. Let’s go through it together.”
Still Processing returned on March 26, 2020. Episodes are available weekly on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts among others.