November 5, 2020Podcasts
Hey there! How are you all doing? After spending about five and a half hours listening to experts discuss the legacy of Fred Rogers, I feel like that's a question I should be asking a lot more often. Finding Fred is a limited series hosted by Carvell Wallace. It ran in the last ten weeks of 2019, and in it Wallace posits that Mister Rogers can still offer a lot of wisdom about how to make a difference. Wallace is a writer and a parent and as of the recording of this podcast was asking himself the tough questions - like, what does it mean to be a good person, especially in a world where it feels like there's so much bad? He introduces Fred Rogers into this conversation and makes the case that there was at least one, truly good person that we all know, and that he left 900 episodes of television as a road map for the rest of us. Over the following installments of his own show, Wallace talks to people that were affected by Mister Rogers; viewers, producers and actors on the show, or people he got to know personally. And he illuminates many of the techniques Mister Rogers employed in "the neighborhood" to help children, and even adults, feel understood, cared for and seen.
I'm a sucker for any piece of art that takes something I THINK I know well and then creates a much deeper understanding and appreciation than I thought possible. Especially in the first few episodes, Wallace puts Mister Rogers into the context of the time it began to air. When I was growing up, Mister Rogers was a constant - he was just there. It never occurred to me to wonder when and possibly why the show began. Wallace provides the valuable historical backdrop. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood debuted in 1968, during the Vietnam war, after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination and amidst the chaos, confusion and fear that surrounded those events and more. Wallace points out that Fred Rogers understood how that fear would impact children, and his show was built to help them cope. I'm about to go on a tangent here, so bear with me. Several years ago I listened to another podcast where John Lithgow was being interviewed. He was talking about the great Steve Martin memoir, Born Standing Up*. In it, he goes into great detail about how he created his stand up act, and all the trial and error along the way. I remember so clearly Lithgow saying how amazed he was with the artistry of Martin and, specifically, the "carpentry" underneath his act. That word carpentry really stuck with me - I had never thought of it that way before but it's perfect to describe what Martin had done. And in listening to Finding Fred, I was really taken with what I now understand to be the carpentry of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. The routines, the land of make believe, the music - each element was deliberately designed and fit for purpose. And like all good design, it was mostly invisible. (Hat tip 99% Invisible, another great podcast you might want to check out!)
I wasn't familiar with Carvell Wallace's writing before, but I'll definitely be seeking it out now. If you've read any of my previous podcast reviews, you know that I'm interested in the intensity of production the creators choose. Finding Fred is very deliberately produced and scripted, and you can see Wallace's strength as a writer right away. One of his first lines of narration is "Have you ever sat down with a kid and tried to explain why there are Nazis marching in the exact place where you took them to the farmers' market and waited in line for pupusas?" I love the specificity here, and Wallace delivers this opening moment and all his voiceover powerfully. He's got a great voice, and while most of his narration is clearly scripted, he has pulled off real authenticity in delivery. He uses excellent verbal italics, slowing down, emphasizing certain words or phrases, all of which helps create a really engaging listening experience.
Throughout the series, the team makes thoughtful production decisions. Most of the time, Wallace introduces an idea at the beginning of the episode, plays clips from one of Mister Rogers' shows, interviews a guest, and shares some conclusions. But in E4, "Beth", we hear very little from Wallace. Instead, we meet Beth who, as a child, suffered from almost constant seizures. One of the only times she experienced relief was when she was watching Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Between Beth and her parents, we learn one family's story of how they came to know Mister Rogers, both on tv and in person. In E6, "Kamau", we get to sit in on not so much an interview as a conversation between Wallace and W. Kamau Bell, stand-up comic and television host. It's the funniest episode of the series, including a callback to an earlier episode when Wallace and a guest try to decide if it's okay to call Mister Rogers "Fred". I love that the format of the show is flexible enough to change based on what will serve each week the best.
Finally, I really appreciate how Finding Fred doesn't just tell us about some of the practices that mattered on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, but demonstrates them. Wallace and his guests talk a lot about how Mister Rogers didn't preach ideas on his show, he showed why they were important. For example, instead of telling the kids watching it was important to care for others, he showed them by stopping to feed the fish in each episode. Wallace also regularly notes how powerful it was that Mister Rogers allowed silence on his show, slowed things down so his audience could breathe and process what was going on. They do the same thing on Finding Fred - there is much more quiet time or white space than I hear on most other shows. I love how, like Mister Rogers, Wallace and his co-creators didn't feel the need to fill every second with words. It was really refreshing and I appreciated the time to digest the big ideas.
Wallace was able to secure an excellent line up of experts for this show, most of whom had first hand experience with Mister Rogers. My two favorite guests were probably François Clemmons (E2, "Feeding the Fish") the Black actor who played Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. His story is pretty remarkable, so I won't spoil it here. But I was incredibly moved by Clemmons' testimony which, while filled with love for Fred Rogers, acknowledges some of his limitations and the sacrifice that required of Clemmons.
I also particularly enjoyed hearing from Christoph Putzel (E8 "Christoph"), a journalist who, as a child in 1987, moved with his family to Moscow. What he remembers most from that time was being really lonely. Then, Mister Rogers comes to the family's apartment, along with King Friday and other friends from the Land of Make Believe. The memory of that kindness has stayed with Putzel for decades, and understanding that is probably key to the central thesis of both Mister Rogers' Neighborhood and Finding Fred.
Remaining guests include other writers and thinkers, childhood experts, and also staff from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I love the range of voices and experiences they bring to the conversation.
Episodes range in length from 27 to 46 minutes, so you can listen to the whole series in about five and a half hours. I found it a really soothing experience during a stressful week, and have thought about it a lot since I finished. I don't know that any of us will ever be able to answer how to be a good person even when there's so much bad around us. But what's stayed with me the most is Wallace's discussion with Eve Ewing (sociologist, author, poet, visual artist) in E9 ("Help the Helpers"). They talk about how to apply Fred Rogers' idea of "I like you just the way you are" to people who cause harm, especially to the most vulnerable around us. Ewing reframes the conversation a a bit, which has been particularly helpful to me this week as I've struggled to understand why so many people voted the way they did in the latest election. She talks about how we can be focused on trying to understand or punish the people we think do or cause bad things. But that distracts us from helping the people that have been hurt by those actions. And if we want to feel less powerless and more hopeful, concentrating on being a helper might be the best way forward. I think you'll find a trip to the land of Finding Fred interesting and soothing, with a good dose of nostalgia. Like my own favorite Mister Rogers song "I'm Proud of You" which my mom says I sang as "I'm Proud-a-doo" when I was little. I hope hearing it gives you the lift it's been giving me all week.
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