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"Am I A Classhole?"
And other questions of class performance and anxiety with Jonathan Menjivar
Last month, I found myself facing down one of my most dreaded chores: DECK RE-STAINING. Yes, you get to spend time outside. Yes, it’s amazing to even have a deck. But you also spend that time contorting your body into weird shapes in order to reach the far side of the weird part of the railing.
Whatever your dreaded household chore, I find it goes much quicker with a podcast — particularly a series podcast, the sort that builds and builds in ways at once similar and totally different from the experience of reading a non-fiction book or watching a movie. A great podcast series is an artistic feat. And I found a perfect one to accompany my epic deck staining — one that also made me think about the privilege of having a deck in the first place, and my own thoughts and anxieties about being a person who has a deck, you get the picture.
The podcast is called Classy — and over the course of eight episodes, host Jonathan Menjivar got me to think about class (and how we think and talk about class) in so many compelling and mind-twisting and frankly hilarious and deeply touching ways. Below, Jonathan and I talk about some of moments from the podcast that have stuck with me (reaching out to his estranged grandmother to talk about what happened when she appeared on Queen for a Day; reclaiming his gold chain) and talking to his former boss (Terry Gross) about how his class anxieties manifested while working on the show.
**Importantly, you do not have to have listened to the podcast to read this interview — and reading it won’t make the podcast itself feel redundant. I think it’ll just make you want to give it a try — and hang out in your own class thoughts for awhile.**
You can find Classy wherever you get your podcasts — and I’ll embed a link to the first episode below:
Can you backtrack a bit and tell us how you came up with the idea for Classy, what the podcast/pilot workshopping process looked like, how you outlined your episodes (and how that changed after you were greenlit). Basically: how did you go from the vague idea of a podcast about class to Classy?
I mean, in some ways I’ve been thinking about this stuff my entire life. A bunch of the stuff I mention in the show — my first exposure to wealth being hanging out while my mom’s friend cleaned a rich person’s house, wearing generic surf shorts from the swap meet — all that stuff made me super attuned to class from a pretty early age.
But when I started thinking about this as a show, the initial idea was all through the lens of fantasy. I had two working titles written down on the cover of a notebook — Fantasyland and The Land of Make Believe. In my own life, the limitations of class meant that I often didn’t have access or the know-how to really get the things I wanted. So I spent a lot of time daydreaming my way into things. Saying, ok, this is the thing I want to do or be and maybe this is the way you get there. Sometimes that works, but sometimes the dream you’ve made in your head is all wrong and can get you into trouble.
That idea was inspired in part by this novel Stone Arabia by Dana Spiotta, which has a character who’s built an elaborate fantasy world of the musical career he dreamed of having — but never achieved. I wanted to find stories that followed that pattern….but you know, that’s a pretty narrow vision for a show. There’s only one episode in the series that follows that construction — the Jarvis Cocker interview — which is very much about how he lived in his head imagining himself to be a famous person for many, many years before his band Pulp started to get any real attention. Eventually I started calling the show Classy which I liked for its kind of bratty reclamation of a word usually associated with wealth and being all hoity-toity. It also helped that a show called Classy is much more clearly about class.
When the show was greenlit, we had a few things we knew we wanted to do — the Army recruiting episode, Terry Gross, Jarvis. I also knew I wanted to make an episode called “Are Rich People Bad?,” but we had no real ideas about what was going to be in that episode. All we really knew was that we wanted to explore the idea of class beyond income or wealth and focus on all the cultural stuff that’s often connected to your class status. We had a few days together where we were spitballing story ideas based on some pretty broad categories — food, clothing, home, taste, TV — and a lot of what we were doing was that thing where you come up with a dream story and see where that might take you.
For example: I had a vague notion for a story about people working in high end retail selling fancy clothes. I figured there was probably something to mine in people working what is essentially a service job (a very high skilled one), selling clothes to people who presumably make a lot more money than them. So I reached out to people and ended up talking to this guy Amechi Ugwu, whose story was way more interesting and nuanced than anything I could’ve dreamt up. Then it was lots of other pretty traditional story finding techniques — reading the paper, looking into academic studies, making calls to experts — that kinda thing. It’s hard telling the kinds of stories we wanted to tell about class, really about the anxieties of class, because so much of that stuff happens in your head, you know? We had to find stories where either that anxiety spilled out and caused some kind of action in the real world or stories where people could explain really well what they were going through internally.
We also had a real time consideration to think about. We basically made the show in six months, so everything couldn’t be the kind of deeply reported stories I’ve made for most of my career. We had to be creative and think about how we do something that’s essentially an interview show, but make it feel like it’s more than just two people talking. Sometimes that’s as simple as editing an interview and writing around it to help with pacing and drama (and by simple, I mean it’s still really hard).
But we also were trying to think of other things to throw in the mix too – that’s where things like the “Am I a Classhole?” advice line and the dinner with comedian Chris Gethard came from. When we were sequencing the show, we were taking lots of things into consideration — if we had a straight up interview one episode, we tried to something more complicated with the next one; if we were silly one week, we could be sad and serious the next; we tried to mix up the episodes with the famouses so there were never two in a row — that kind of thing.
And then while we were in development, one question our development team at Pineapple really focused in on was, “What’s the throughline?” Like if we were going to make a show that was made up of a bunch of different stories, what’s going to keep people listening from episode to episode? And the obvious throughline was me. Initially I thought I could just establish at the top of the show that I grew up working-class so I have lots of thoughts and feelings and hang-ups and guilt about class stuff and that would justify why I was interested in talking about all these class issues.
But the feedback we got was: “No. You have to go through something.” I initially resisted because, you know, it’s scary to put yourself out there like that. But also because I thought it would sound too fake. Like, I’m in my mid-forties, I’ve been in therapy for a long time. I’ve worked through a lot of these issues. But shit, it turns out that talking to people about your class issues and assumptions can really break some old barnacles loose. That shouldn’t be surprising, but I was really surprised to discover how much of this stuff for me is stuff I’ve kind of built up in my head. Talking to people about their stories really recast a lot of the story I’ve been telling myself about my place in the world.
The second episode is about how your understandings and insecurities about class manifested in your early days in the podcasting world — specifically, working on Fresh Air with Terry Gross. I love that you got Terry to come on the podcast to talk about it, and I also love how your conversation pointed to a lot of ways in which people from bourgeois backgrounds don’t really even realize how class manifests in their taste, their conversation, their touchstones.
I don’t think I really realized this until I was in grad school, reading the work of Pierre Bourdieu (who wrote a lot about how class manifests in our understanding of “taste”) for a seminar, and my best grad school friend (who grew up working class) basically called me out on all of my blind spots — all of the things I understood as “normal” that were class competencies. Knowing how to order wine at a restaurant, sure, but also: growing up owning a ton of books and knowing how to pronounce city and place names from across the country.
In the interview with Terry Gross, you talk about not knowing about jazz as one of the things that gave you class anxiety, but I’d love to hear about other things that people from more bourgeois backgrounds take for granted as “things people just know” — and why is there often surprise or defensiveness when and if people bring up the fact that they are not, in fact, universally known?
Well first, I want to make clear that Terry didn’t grow up bougie. She grew up in a working-class and middle-class neighborhood in Brooklyn with a dad who sold fabric to hatmakers. But she’s clearly the marker of a certain kind of intellectual bougie taste now. She’s a tastemaker you know? In the episode I say to her that people will be talking about her show at parties this weekend. And they’ll use her name, they won’t even say Fresh Air. Instead it’s like, “Did you hear about this book on Terry Gross?”
I think your question is a really good one, but I want to be super careful about how I answer it. Because I think sometimes when we talk about the culture of various classes, there’s a way to be a little Jeff Foxworthy about it. Like if you grew up going skiing or horseback riding, you might be a rich kid! And I don’t want to box people in and say that if you grew up working-class you’re probably not into jazz or the French New Wave or whatever.
But from my experience, I think those bougie cultural things are really about access to stuff, particularly when you’re young. So yes, horseback riding or skiing with all the equipment and travel you need to do for those activities, but also anything that requires paying for lessons of any kind. So playing an instrument or SAT prep. International travel or any travel that requires getting on a plane is another big one. (Actually, I’m going to stop pretending. These are just the things I didn’t have access to growing up).
Access to media is a thing we kind of hint at in the show. No one in my house listened to public radio. I grew up in a suburb of L.A. and we got the L.A. Times at home. So there was that and gun magazines my step-dad read that were always laying around. We had books in my house, but a lot of it was kind of pop: Time-Life books and Oprah-recommended novels. Howard Stern’s first book. As I got older, though, my parents were actively trying to feed some of my interests. My step-dad introduced me to Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley and my mom showed me Douglas Brinkley’s book The Magic Bus at the library because she thought I would like it. It’s about his college class he taught traveling around the country in a sleeper bus. Those books were super influential in a kind of “real knowledge is gained talking to people and living life on your own terms” way. In the same way that Steinbeck rigged up a trashcan to wash his clothes while he was driving, I think in my house we were intellectually hungry, but not chasing that interest in the same way people do in the world I’m in now. We were rigging up our own way to chase curiosity.
And then I think there’s another kind of class access that’s more about knowing how to navigate systems. For me, the starkest example of that was college. People talk about “going to college” in a way that implies that it’s universal. I went to Cal State Fullerton, which is a commuter state school because it was basically the only way I could figure out how to afford college. But I lived at home for most of it, driving to school and leaving as soon as class was over. I was also working full-time. Sometimes I feel like I didn’t even go to college because I didn’t have the experience of being fully immersed in books and dorms and friends and parties for four years. I don’t want to exaggerate though. I found a small American Studies department at Cal State Fullerton that was both rigorous and really supportive of first gen college students that taught me how to think in a way that really influences the way I report and make radio/podcasts now. It was just such a different experience of college than a lot of the people I work with now.
And I think the surprise is because it’s hard sometimes to recognize that our experience isn’t universal. American culture and also like, housing policy and other political machinations, encourage us to wall ourselves off and live next to and socialize with people who are of a similar class. So you know, maybe it was a surprise to you that people don’t know how to pronounce the names of places around the country, but I was surprised when I learned that a lot of people don’t know how to do basic plumbing. I was pretty young when my step-dad pulled me aside and said, “This is how you fix a leaky sink. Learn this, or when you grow up your landlord is going to raise your rent if you’re always calling them to fix shit.”
And it’s totally understandable why people get defensive about all of this. When we’re talking about these cultural class disparities, what we’re really talking about is an unfair system where some people have and some people don’t have. And it feels shitty to acknowledge that, particularly if you’ve benefited from it. I think part of the mission of Classy was about honestly confronting that stuff and also confronting the story we tell ourselves and the world about our class positions. I mean, I know when I talk about my experience growing up in a working-class world, I’m always emphasizing these hardscrabble stories because in America, there’s cachet in hardscrabble stories. I’m doing it now in this interview. I’ve told you about those generic surf shorts I wore in middle school, but I’ve left out the part about how every school year, my mom would somehow figure out how to buy me a couple $30 t-shirts from the fancy surf shop in the mall. Part of that is probably me being defensive about the fact that even though we were working-class and living paycheck to paycheck, we weren’t suffering.
In the first episode, you interview the great sociologist Rachel Sherman — who I’ve also interviewed for a podcast! — about how rich people often pretend to be middle class because they absolutely understand that being rich is “bad.” Can you talk a bit about how your thinking has changed (even in the process of recording that episode) about evil rich people?
In that interview, I bring up the word “entitled.” Going into that conversation with Rachel, I think that was my major problem with and perception of rich people. And she rightly questions what I mean by that. I think it’s a perception that a lot of us have – that rich people have more than the rest of us and they feel like they somehow deserve it. That they deserve a better life than other people.
I was at a wedding once and I almost got into a fight with a guy over this. Like an actual physical fight. Which is not like me. I think the only time I ever got in a fight was on the basketball court in 7th grade and that was mostly me and another kid getting in each other’s faces until he kneed me in the groin. But at this wedding, I was in line to get a drink at the bar and this guy cut in front of me. Cut in front of a whole line of people. And I mean, I don’t actually know what class this guy was, but there was something about that entitlement – that idea that he deserved to get his drink before everyone else – it summoned up all this class rage in me. And I don’t even remember what I said, but I got up in his face and confronted him and it was clear to me and everyone else that if he didn’t get to the back of the line I was going to punch him in the face.
So um, yeah. That was my attitude about rich people going into that episode. Lots of assumptions and gut reactions that I think are built both from my class experience, but also the way that rich people are portrayed in a capitalist system that encourages gaining and hoarding wealth. And Rachel’s big idea that she was trying to sell me on is that focusing on individual rich people, and portraying them as entitled and selfish and bad, actually encourages that behavior in a way. That it’s a distraction from talking about larger policy fixes that might actually address wealth disparities. Like if we’re dumping on Jeffrey Bezos for wearing tight party shirts on his yacht or whatever, we’re not talking about raising taxes on the rich or passing laws that encourage mixed income housing. We’re blaming it on individual people instead of addressing systemic issues.
I think talking to Rachel and confronting these portrayals of rich people really forced me to acknowledge the totally obvious fact that of course, rich people aren’t monolithically bad. Rachel built a lot of her work on this by interviewing rich New Yorkers for her book Uneasy Street. And the people she talked to, they at least had the awareness to be like, it’s not really fair that I have all this money, that I have all this stuff. So I’m going to pretend like I don’t.
Rachel is very persuasive and I get what she’s saying, but I wasn’t totally sold. It’s not an either/or situation, and I do still think that on top of the policy questions, rich people should think about and have some awareness of the way most people live. I still have some of those gut level reactions to wealth and the privilege that comes with that. But these days when I have those reactions, I’m calling them into question more. I hope that people of all levels of income and wealth who heard that episode are questioning themselves, too.
I know that creators and hosts don’t always have a ton of control when it comes to figuring out who will help produce a podcast, but it really felt like you were working with a group of people who really fucking got it, for lack of a better phrase. Can you talk more about their work and how it made the show what it is?
First off, thank you for recognizing that there’s no way this show could’ve come together without this team. It thrills me to know that they came through for you.
My producer Kristen Torres has a very similar background to mine — and we’re both interested in centering the voices of working-class and poor people in a way that acknowledges their struggles, but isn’t dour or sad. Kristen was a gut check to make sure we were doing that. But she’s also a total silly goose. Our segment, “Am I A Classhole?” was her idea and it was such a fun way to talk and laugh about some heavy moral questions that come up when you’re paying attention to class differences. Her voice is all over this show.
Our associate producer Marina Henke was clutch in doing research and helping us think through finding stories about class that weren’t cliche. She helped produce and report the Army recruiting episode and was the one who first talked to this kid Knowledge who just enlisted recently. She spotted something special in him. Our editor Haley Howle came from the late, great Pop-Up Magazine and immediately got the mix of funny and vulnerable we were going for. She saved my ass many times when I veered into being too corny (which is my tendency) and was essential in thinking through how we sequenced the episodes and what as a whole we were saying with the series. I’ve worked with our executive editor Joel Lovell for many years now and he’s a mentor/big brother who immediately got behind this show. He understands the anger and desire that lays underneath all these stories. If you’re ever having trouble answering the question, “What is this story about?” pull Joel into the room and he’ll tell you. Asha Saluja is a rare mix of being a very serious taskmaster, but also a caring person who understands that creative work is made by real people with emotions and lives. She kept our ship running with compassion and also contributed lots of great ideas when we were developing the show. My bosses Max Linsky and Jenna Weiss-Berman gave us the space to make the show and make it our way. They immediately got how people would deeply connect with it. We also had Pineapple’s super solid engineering team on this with Marina Paiz mixing and lots of others who helped with recordings. Special shout out to Jade Brooks who sat at the table recording everything while Chris Gethard and I gorged ourselves at a fancy Manhattan restaurant.
And, I know you didn’t ask this but I want to say that I was so impressed with how the guests on the show really fucking got it too. Jarvis Cocker was one of our first interviews and I’d heard him talk about his story before in other interviews. But when we talked, he was giving so many more details and nuanced insights about his feelings and thoughts about class than I’d heard him say before. Immediately after, I told Kristen and Marina, “Oh, he really got the assignment.” That happened so many times throughout the making of the show. I think it’s a combo of people being excited to have a place to let all this out and also how well our producers prepped them for what the conversation was going to be like.
Will you show us a picture of your gold chain PLEASE (and tell us how you’ve come to love it)
Sure! Here’s a picture of me wearing it today.
I think my dad gave this to me for my 8th grade graduation. I just recently saw this picture where I’m wearing it on that day. I’ve got this 80’s skate/surf hair, a big oversize blazer, and a shirt buttoned all the way to the top. I look like some cross between Depeche Mode and Color Me Badd. The chain is a basic rope chain, nothing fancy. Originally it had a big “J” pendant which is maybe why I didn’t wear it. It was a little too flashy for my taste at the time. I say in the show that gold chains aren’t necessarily a Latino thing, but this one is. My dad wears lots of gold and when I was little, like maybe up until I was 5, I wore these gold bracelets with my name engraved on them. I think gold is a little more in style these days, at least I’m noticing it more in menswear, but lots of dudes wore it in the community I grew up in.
I started wearing it after I did this one interview for the show that’s in part about what kind of luxuries poor and working-class people are allowed to indulge in. Like I know even though my dad wears gold, a lot of the things I’m into now, my family sees them as being bougie. My mom calls me her “little yuppie.” But after that interview with a fashion designer named Brenda Equihua, I pulled out this chain and there was something about it that felt right now. It’s a little indulgent, a little aspirational maybe, and I like that at least to me it’s a signifier of where I’m from. I’ve spent a lot of time and money buying blazers and oxford shirts trying to look like I’m some Ivy league kid, and as much as I like that style, I’m leaning away from that more these days.
The one thing that’s weird about this chain is I need some kind of real pendant for it. Right now it just has this charm I pulled off of one of those old bracelets I’ve mine – a little 14k Popeye face. I loved Popeye as a kid, my dad even used to feed me cold spinach that I’d eat right out of the can. It’s probably a little weird for a middle-aged man to be repping Popeye, but it works for now.
Without sharing any huge spoilers, I’ll just say that the final episode involves the show Queen for a Day and your grandmother’s appearance on it — and working through that appearance also meant sorting through a lot of really hard family history, and getting in touch with your grandmother for the first time in decades…..which meant calling her on the phone. While taping it (!!!)
As a reporter, I could just imagine how agonizing this was. You knew you had to do it — “for the story!!” — but you really really REALLY did not want to, for all sorts of compounding reasons. At whatever level feels comfortable for you, I’d like to hear more about how you grappled with that difficulty leading up to the call, how it felt during the call itself, and how your feelings about the call have changed with time….or just generally about that messy mix of personal and professional that happens when we make something that centers our own story.
Initially I thought I couldn’t do the story because my family didn’t talk to her. I told everyone on the Classy staff: “Hey there’s this wild story in my family, but too bad! We can’t do it.” Then for a long time I said, OK I’ll do it, but I can’t talk to her. We’re going to find a way to make this story and explain to listeners, “Look I know I’m a reporter, but I can’t open all this up.” It just all seemed too dark and messy. And unresolved, but also kind of settled. I thought I’d be kicking all that up if I reached out to her. I know that’s journalistically questionable, but I thought listeners would understand. But the reality is that route was also journalistically questionable! I needed to get my grandma to respond to some of the stories other people in the family were telling in the episode. Plus, I really wanted to know what happened when she was on Queen For A Day! And the only way to really know that was to reach out to her directly and ask.
Then I talked to my mom and was surprised that she seemed totally okay with the idea of me reaching out to her. And one of my cousins who’s also in the story was really like, you should do it! But even once I decided to do it, I kept putting it off. Like most reporters, I’ve cold called lots of people (and hate it every time). I even once flew all the way to London and knocked on someone’s door who wasn’t expecting me for a story. But this, to call and say: “Hey it’s your grandson who you haven’t talked to in decades and I’m calling not because I want to reconnect or see how you’re doing, but because I want to talk about this dumb, old TV show.” I don’t know man. That just felt super shitty.
But like you said, I had to do it if I was going to do this story. Then when I was on the phone with her it just got worse. I felt like a bad grandson, like a bad reporter. I was simultaneously telling myself, “Push her harder you dummy!” and also, “Why am I bothering this old woman?” I say this in the story, but when I got off the phone I was totally shaking. Both because I’d actually made the call, and also, all the harrowing stuff she told me when we talked.
And then it was like, OK, now what? How do I move forward with her now? I was in touch a bit with someone who checks in on her regularly, and then, just this week that person reached out to give me the news that my grandma had died. As complicated as it was to make that story, I feel really grateful that I got to have that final connection with her. I got to talk to her, got to hear and record her voice. And having made the connection, I got to be the one to call my mom and tell her that her mother had died. Otherwise it would’ve been a stranger making that call. It’s been a very strange and empty week trying to figure out how to mourn a person whose presence in my family’s life was both so big and also so absent.
That’s my family’s story, but since that episode went out, I’ve heard from lots of people who heard echoes of their own family story in that episode. One person even told me they were going to be reaching out to their family, making their own call like this. That’s all I ever wanted this show to do — to encourage people to start having conversations and unlock something that’s been bothering them. I’m completely honored that that seems to be happening. ●
You can find Classy wherever you get your podcasts — and you can follow Jonathan on Instagram here.