King Triton Is a Terrible Dad, and Other Reality Checks on the Millennial Childhood Canon
merritt k knows a thing or two about dads. A podcast’s worth, to be exact.
Welcome to PodFodder, where we talk to the people behind podcasts about why they created their podcasts. Let’s get into it.
Today’s PodFodder features merritt k, host of Dadfeelings and co-founder of the podcast network Stay Mean. Dadfeelings is “a podcast about fictional father figures and real dads with real feelings,” and it delivers exactly as promised: all parts hilarious, sentimental, critical, and sympathetic, Dadfeelings examines fictional pop culture icons with nuance and respect, and gets real with real-life dads. Most importantly, Dadfeelings is bursting open what it means (and what it takes) to be a dad.
Episode one dives in with the most infamous dad in the galaxy, Darth Vader, but it first sets out to define “dad” as something independent of superficially synonymous terms like “father” and “daddy.” Being a dad, merritt explains, does not necessitate children, biological or otherwise (notable childless dads include pre-season five Jack Donaghy of 30 Rock and asexual transformer Optimus Prime), and is also free of the sexual connotations often imbued in the word “daddy.” As such, dad-ness becomes something much more all-encompassing, and that much more interesting to talk about.
What also stands out about Dadfeelings is its readiness to acknowledge queer, or queer-coded, characters in popular culture that don’t beat the viewer over the head with the Gay Best Friend trope, but might take some revisiting of childhood treasures to articulate and point out. In an episode on Mufasa, merritt debunks Scar as The Lion King’s quintessential gay uncle, and in a later episode on Captain Hook, merritt and Daniel Shannon discuss the obvious yet unspoken domestic partnership between Captain Hook and Smee. As a queer listener, these moments are particularly hilarious and gratifying.
With the help of guests, many of whom are real dads killing the dad game, merritt works to untether dadhood from assumptions of heterosexuality, gender, and nuclear family structures, reinventing characters that are known and loved, showing appreciation for lesser-known ones that should be, and looking more complexly at ones that might’ve seemed all bad when you were in elementary school in the early 2000s, for example.
You can find all the episodes to Dadfeelings here and follow merritt k on Twitter here. You can find merritt’s talk show, Woodland Secrets (also on Stay Mean), here, and access bonus episodes of Dadfeelings and Woodland Secrets by supporting Stay Mean on Patreon here.
The Queue: Why did you venture into the world of podcasting?
merritt k: I think I was kind of late to the game. I was living in a house with a few other people including my now-producer, who has been a podcast fan for a very long time, so she is ravenous in terms of this stuff. She listens to tech shows, comedy shows, politics, and I had dabbled a bit in college, but it wasn’t something I was deeply into. But I got into a couple of shows in particular. The main ones were My Brother, My Brother and Me, and another show on the same network called Stop Podcasting Yourself. That one in particular is these two comedians in Vancouver, British Columbia who have a friend on every week, and most of the format is just them goofing and talking. I was really into it, and I really quickly got enamored with the medium and having these familiar voices in your ear week to week.
At the same time, I had been running this project that was a games curation site, and one of the things I was doing for that was that I was running a Patreon for it. I started doing a bonus-magazine [for Patreon supporters], and then I started doing this bonus-solo podcast of me talking about the content I had posted that week. That evolved into me talking to a guest about the games that I was featuring, but also about whatever.
As that winded down, the podcast was lifted, and it stopped being about games. If you go back to the very first episodes of Woodland Secrets, they all refer to these games that had been posted on the site (It’s still up. It’s called Forest Ambassador, but it hasn’t been updated in years.) Around 20 or 30 episodes in, that gets dropped and it’s just me talking to someone.
TQ: Woodland Secrets came first and was born out of this previous project, but why Dadfeelings? What’s the origin story there?
mk: We had been running Woodland Secrets for about a year at that point, and I wanted to start a second show. I had gotten really into the format and wanted to play around and try something new. I was thinking, what is something I could do that would be the lowest cost thing? At the same time, my friend Imogen had started this podcast called Imogen Watches Classic Films, and the whole format of that is her talking into a microphone in her car on the way home from work for a half an hour at a time. I loved that. It feels like you’re just on a car ride with this person, no frills, just listening to someone talk about something they know a lot about. So I thought, what do I know a lot about? I went through a bunch of ideas and realized, you know, one thing I know a lot about is dads.
It was a weird realization, but I was thinking that I could easily do a bunch of episodes on characters like Giles, Darth Vader, and other big pop cultural dad figures. That was going the be the whole format of the show, just me talking, but you can only listen to the sound of your own voice for so long, so I decided it would be a good idea for other people to come on.
In some of the early episodes, we had people who were dads. We had Dave Shumka, who’s one of the hosts of that show I mentioned earlier, Stop Podcasting Yourself, and at some point we just thought, why don’t we start talking to actual dads about what that’s like? We started having people like Bear Bergman who are actual dads and talking to them about their experiences. It’s grown from its origins as the least difficult thing that I could imagine to something a little more expansive.
TQ: How do you choose the dads you interview and talk about, and is there any reason why a dad wouldn’t be right for your show?
mk: There’s that Tolstoy quote where he says, “All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” That factored into our approach early on, in that it just feels like there’s less to say about a fictional dad who’s extremely good. A lot of the go-to’s we had were difficult or problematic dads, or ones where it feels like there’s a little more meat, a little more to talk about.
We realized that that’s important, and it’s interesting to talk about the ways that dads fail, but it’s also interesting to talk about the ways that they succeed. One of our earliest episodes was the dad from the film Easy A, who is portrayed by Stanley Tucci, and he’s an incredible dad. He doesn’t really do anything wrong in the film, he’s just an incredible supporting character to the protagonist, who’s his daughter. That was actually really entertaining to talk about, especially if I had a guest on, because we could both gush.
I had Nayland Blake on to talk about Gomez Addams, who’s also an amazing dad. He’s one of the all-time greats. We’ve expanded to where there isn’t a dad that we can’t talk about, and we’re really loose in our definition of “dad” as well, to the point where a lot of the characters are actual fathers, and some of them are just people who we see as embodying a fatherly role.
TQ: How does your history in the gaming and comics worlds inform how you go about your podcast, from the characters you choose to talk about and beyond?
mk: I will say that I do come from a background in games, and comics to an extent as well, so that definitely informs the kinds of characters that end up on our list. It’s very easy for me to talk about Uncle Ben from Spiderman, or the dads of a game like Mass Effect. If you’re thinking of the biggest pop cultural phenomena of the last decade or two, there are some pretty conspicuous absences on our list. We’ve never talked about Game of Thrones, we’ve never talked about Breaking Bad, and these are things that I’d love to talk about, I just don’t have familiarity with them.
The background I have has definitely informed the selection of characters, but beyond that, and other than these blind spots, the fact that I’ve done work in games and comics and a bunch of fields gives me a very broad approach. I can draw on characters that people might not know about, but talk about them in a way that people might still be able to relate to. I can give a pretty quick rundown on who Bob from Reboot is or what Dracula in Castlevania is like and bring people on board quickly, and that’s been something that’s pretty useful.
TQ: What are some of the pros and cons of starting your own podcast network?
mk: We are a podcast network in the loosest sense possible. We bill ourselves as “the only podcast network,” which obviously is a joke (but just because it’s a joke doesn’t mean it’s not true). I think there’s value in — as awful as it sounds — branding anything that you do. My experiences in indie publishing, games, and podcasts have basically taught me that as soon as you slap a name or logo on something you’re doing and it’s not just you as a person anymore, it’s this thing that you’ve created.
Regardless of how “real” that thing is in terms of structures and size, it gets respect and makes people take you seriously. For people who are [podcasting] independently, which I think is most people now, commissioning someone to do the podcast art or just coming up with a network or podcast ring can really give you this air of legitimacy. You’ll learn stuff on the way, and will eventually have the skills to back that up, but at least at first it really goes a long way to making people think, “Wow, you started a podcast network? That’s so impressive.” Yes, thank you, I did register a website on Squarespace.com.
TQ: Do you have a vision for the future of Stay Mean?
mk: Absolutely. We have “internal values and goals” documents. Nic Bravo, who’s my producer and I stay on our Patreon and we “take podcasting seriously” (in quotes, because to not put that in quotes would make us sound like assholes, I guess). We have probably the next few years planned out in terms of fundraising, how we’re going to improve our physical infrastructure, how we’re going to create new shows and bring on existing shows. I was talking about creating a brand to create a sense of legitimacy, and I think that’s how it started for us, but at this point I don’t want it to be “my brand.”
We’re really invested in finding ways to nurture other people’s work, to get money to people doing work that we like and that is important, and obviously a lot of that is contingent on how much we’re bringing in. Actually, in September we’re doing our first big support push — fundraising, basically — because we’re really at a point right now where we’re just on the cusp of being able to do the next big things that we’ve been talking about for a while, so that’s really exciting.
TQ: My last question is one that The Queue has been asking in all of its interviews with podcasters: Regardless of genre, what do you think makes a great podcast?
mk: This is my one thing: [pre-production]. Pre-pro, pre-pro, pre-pro. By which I mean, do your homework. If you’re doing a show that is about a piece of media, you absolutely have to prepare notes and know what you’re points are. If you’re doing a show that’s primarily interview-focused, that pre-pro is going to look like either research on your guests, or, in our case, a lot of the reason that we have so many guests that I sort of know already is because that is a lot of our pre-pro work, my relationship with that person. Just knowing what you want to do beforehand is so important.
More broadly than that, knowing what your show is about beforehand, too. I think the more specific you can get the better, which isn’t to say there isn’t room for more general talk shows, but I think if you are going to do something like that you need to think about what makes it stand out. For example, a show like International House of Hot Takes, which is a talk show podcast, but it’s different in that it’s hosted by queer people, and it’s Spanish language. That is something different than the norm of straight people talking in English. Keeping that kind of thing in mind going in is hugely important.