Interview: The Last Exit Show Podcast
Kaleb Horton and James Murphy are the creators of “The Last Exit Show“, a comedy/arts podcast featuring sketches, social commentary, satire, and esoteric discussion (often pertaining to music or general Americana). Now nearing 100 episodes, it has been running for over two years. The grumbling, glacial exhaustion expressed in the voice of Horton- a Bakersfield, California resident who uses the exaggerated bleakness of his desert surroundings to inform his writing and photography (and fan fiction)- pairs well with the dry, mercurial ponderings of Murphy, a native of England. The two have never in person, and conduct the program entirely through Skype.
Although only in their 20s, the two possess a cynicism beyond their years. The show’s subject matter and mythology is not explicitly political, eschewing discussion of any particular politician or policy initiative, but swims in the existential doom of inexorable Western decline. The skill of Horton and Murphy’s comedic interplay makes palatable some otherwise grim themes, which include the death of the American dream, the alienation of the working class, the detachment of the NYC media elite from reality, the tragedy of unheralded (often musical) genius, unsettling esoterica, and general depression. Through their use of satire, self-deprecation, and a generous helping of real despair, Horton and Murphy do their explorations without crossing into pretension.
Perhaps most importantly, the show projects a voice from the oft-ignored spaces beyond the New York/Los Angeles mediascape and its cliched narratives of Millenials as over-privileged, iPad-wielding, social media hustlers who have been handed everything and don’t know the value of hard work. It’s a narrative that is increasingly challenged by outlets such as the Last Exit Show, as a generation of underemployed 20-somethings are squeezed out of cities they can’t afford, saddled down with debt they can’t climb out from under, and shut out of a narrowing field of quality jobs that they lack the connections to obtain. It’s depressing, sure. But it can also be funny.
Given the geographic disparity- Kaleb in Northern California and James in London- how did you two meet? What first led to the creation of the podcast?
Kaleb: The genesis of the podcast was that James and I agreed on one thing: that the world will end on August 14th, 2037. Sorry, that’s a lie. We keep our origin nebulous because the reality is uninteresting and the result of shiftless leisure. We actually talked about coming up with a compelling and marketable lie for this answer when we first got that interview request, but decided against it.
The podcast itself began as a screenplay idea. We got the idea down, the setting down, and then I said something to the effect of “hey, nobody’s ever gonna read a screenplay” so we squirmed our way down to a podcast, at James’ prodding. It was his idea. I was actively trying to quit society at the time, and the idea of me saying things in public could not have been less appealing. But I probably figured – I don’t know, I don’t actually remember – that it would get me disciplined and make me better at talking.
James: I thought we should do a podcast. At the time, I was unemployed for a long stretch after working in the business of moving heavy cardboard boxes from one end of a late night warehouse to the other. Podcasts were the only thing keeping me company but it never felt like I listened to anything that had much to do with me or the horrible feelings I had about myself and the world. I wanted something to exist that had low expectations for humanity, but still managed to laugh and find positives in that reality. So I approached Kaleb and he agreed. The brief has changed as our lives have evolved along, as it would have to, but it still holds a unique place and remains defined by the original impulse.
Online, bright working class kids (we met as kids, years ago, now we’re very old men in younger men’s shoes) can talk without having to go to a, I don’t know, communist tea room, or something, so they don’t have to feel the crushing isolation we lived with until we were about 16. That was when our families individually decided that this Internet thing was worth putting actual money into and wasn’t some passing fad to be ignored like so many pogs. I still feel a little cheer when I go online in a place that isn’t the school library.
Kaleb: This is basically true, but on the show I’d probably call it flowery bullshit. I’m thankful I didn’t grow up with the internet. I’d probably be shaking down reddit with made-up sob stories if I had significant access to internet amorality when I was a teenager. As it stands I just think about doing it but I’ve never had the intrusive thought to act on it.
How do the mechanics of recording the podcast work, and how much fine-tuning has it taken to become comfortable with the format? How much is scripted and how much involves riffing off of an idea or topic?
Kaleb: Skype and Audacity, same way everybody does it. And I can’t speak for James, but I don’t think there was any fine-tuning so much as getting over anxiety without the aid of hard alcohol and slander. And you can tell when we script stuff, because neither of us can act. We usually just do it for sketches.
James: Getting used to being on mic took a little while. It’s not a natural way to spend your time. I’d say we were about forty episodes in before we were consistently worth listening to but the show we put out today was essentially there from day one. Usually, only the opening’s scripted with the rest being totally improvised off some very loose pre-agreed on ideas. I’ll edit out anything that we can’t stand by in the harsh light of day and it’s up by the end of the week. We need that hour every seven days.
Kaleb: A moment of silence now for all those audio editors who have PTSD and are silent about it. You don’t really know the void until you’ve edited lip-smacking.
The atmosphere of the show is often informed by Kaleb’s experiences living in the desert of northern California, which is often described- in a manner that would appear to be half-joking and half-serious- as a place of bleakness and existential doom. Can Kaleb talk a bit about the area’s influence on his work? I was also wondering the extent to which James relates to this place, given his urban upbringing.
Kaleb: I don’t quite live in the desert, just a stereotypically hot part of the central valley. But I lived in LA for just long enough to see a lot of improv. So when I went broke and left town, I decided if I was gonna keep doing creative work, my mission would be doing whatever trust fund improv kids in LA/NY aren’t doing. So what’s the opposite of improv? Living in the desert.
Plus, it’s just funny to host a podcast and say you live in the desert. But I did grow up in East Bakersfield. I used to go out to Mojave and take pictures of trains. So I have a deep fondness for the desert. I’d like to move back there. I have nothing but fondness for the desert.
It was an education for me, finally learning that California had more to it than the Hollywood sign and greyscale restaurants from 1940s films. I don’t really relate to it all, my depressing landscape is impersonal, highly built up and way overcrowded. To me, Doom, California is a fictional township with one inhabitant that I visit once a week. I treat Kaleb as my personal Peyton Place, in a way.
James: The same media that moves us, moves us the most. Roots music, comedy, old films. Where we intersect is usually the meat of the show. We’re part of the last generation of babies born the monoculture and as we grew, we chased different enough niches to make the podcast interesting. Physical geography is the least important part, in my opinion.
Kaleb: Geography’s not as big a deal to us as I’d like it to be. We thought about exploiting it as a gimmick once but turns out it changed exactly zero percent of our material. It’s good he has an accent though. That’s 80% of why the show works. People can tell us apart. If he was American it’d have never happened. Have you ever tried telling dudes from the same country apart on podcasts? It’s impossible.
Although “The Last Exit” is not specifically a show that deals in political or social commentary, both of you frequently draw upon your experiences with poverty and working-class malaise in your work. Do either of you have a sense that economic prospects are getting worse for people under 30, or are you illuminating an economic reality that has always been present in the places that you live?
Kaleb: I don’t have a problem with politics. I wanted to be a reporter until I learned that’s not really a career anymore. I just don’t believe in talking about political or social issues unless I can see the elephant. I don’t want to riff on second or thirdhand information. All I’m really qualified to do is bitch about rich journalists who never leave their New York bubble, and I don’t want to be Hunter S. Thompson bad enough to mess with it.
As for the economy, I’m a complete nihilist about it. College was a completely unaffordable racket I was pressured into, and one of these days I’ll probably have to declare bankruptcy over it. My straight job options are basically nonexistent, retail mostly, and I don’t see that getting better. My college acquaintances washed out in droves – a lot of them had to go back home with their parents and completely put their lives on hold. And lots of places in California, the central valley especially, feel like the world ended after the 08 crash. I don’t see any hope out here. But see, that’s not funny. Plus it’s anecdotal, so it doesn’t really count. And it could just be me being a miserable failure.
James: I think politics are an entertainingly distracting theater and should be enjoyed on that level. We both have a visceral distrust of anybody with power, that always comes through in the show, and neither of us trust that Horatio Alger stuff. It’s always been very, very rare that people are allowed to transcend the class they were born into.
Kaleb: Politics are a lot like vaudeville, is what he’s trying to say.
In an episode back in December of 2014, Kaleb talked about how the impulse to use art to affect social change was a middle-class one. Would you say that you two have a more workmanlike approach to your creative endeavors (writing/comedy/photography)? Should an artist just focus on their work and allow any sort of societal impact to occur naturally (if at all)?
Kaleb: I write because it’s the only career-level skill I have. If I quit writing, I’d be working at a gas station, basically. So I write like it’s a 9 to 5. As much as I can, about any damn thing. If I only wrote when I wanted to make a societal impact, I’d write once or twice a year and I wouldn’t care if I got paid. Besides, if you’re writing constantly and getting better at it, eventually a worldview will emerge, or some kind of ethic, and it’ll influence people. So why force the issue? I’d rather just entertain people enough to punctuate the horror of being alive. At any rate, I’d rather be known as a writer who made a living wage than an Important Writer Who Never Compromised And Died In Poverty After His Book Deal Fell Through.
James: I’m pro-creative. Even if someone’s a rich fascist weasel, I want them to set out to make something that gets their feelings out. They can go make some terrible art. Everyone should create something, it slows down your brain seizing. If someone’s parents have always supported them financially, they’ll feel like they can set out to say something and it’ll count in some profound way. A wealthy person is validated in feeling that asking enough times for something, or making Serious Points about an issue will get them somewhere. It always did with Mummy and Daddy. “I want the government to be BETTER and I’m holding my breath until it is!” It’s tied into a lot of problems with academia too, but I don’t want to digress too much.
Through no faults of their own, they will have bought into the myth that hard work is always rewarded. Which can eventually lead them to look with suspicion on those who don’t seem to have been rewarded much.
Kaleb: Creative projects are the only thing that keeps the doom away for me. Photography wards off panic attacks for me. Something about reorienting brain chemistry. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are books about this.
Are you two collaborating any additional projects that you’d care to mention, or are you focusing on the podcast for the time being?
Kaleb: I’ll finish that screenplay if a literary agent asks real nice.
James: No, I’m far too unreliable to collaborate with in any meaningful sense.
Kaleb: Yeah, he is. If an agent wanted us as a package deal, I’d just write everything myself and say “you know, our material is created very organically. I know where he’s gonna go before he goes there. It’s like jazz in that way. It’s almost a psychic connection we have.” You know, like ghostwriters do. “Really, this was all James’ work. I was just a conduit.”
The Last Exit Show can be followed on Twitter at @LastExitShow
Kaleb Horton can be followed on Twitter at @kalebhorton
James Murphy used to be on Twitter, but not anymore. It is possible that, like another famous Briton before him, he will return when the people need him the most.