He’s a Pulitzer Prize winning film critic. She’s a New York Times technology reporter. Together, they’re Still Processing, 2018’s most essential podcast.
At a Sydney Writer’s Festival event on Friday night, Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris brought their finely-tuned critical antennae to Australia for a much-anticipated live taping of their show Still Processing.
Their discussion made playful reference of the festival’s annual theme, ‘power’.
They considered a series of political and pop culture icons – James Comey, Kim Kardashian, Melania Trump and Mark Zuckerberg among them, and tried to decide whether each was a hypothetical ‘top’ or a ‘power bottom’.
A free-wheeling discussion of the psychosexual dynamics underpinning some of the world’s most influential people followed, often circling back to the idea that those who wield great power seek to present themselves as sympathetic underdogs or outsiders.
They also turned their attention to the enduring mystery of Kanye West (described by Wortham as a “cup that can never be filled”), recounted an awkward encounter with pop star Rihanna and were delighted to learn the Australian slang term ‘starfish’.
While the general idea of the podcast (two culture critics at a highbrow newspaper talk about themes of representation identity), could easily turn into something academic and chin-stroking, their Sydney show amply demonstrated the sheer glee, humour and boundless curiosity they bring to every episode.
Their Sydney show amply demonstrated the sheer glee, humour and boundless curiosity they bring to every episode
In an era where the President of the United States of America rose to prominence partly through his starring role in a reality TV show, the pair’s blending of popular entertainment and politics makes perfect sense.
— Ketan Joshi (@KetanJ0) May 4, 2018
Culture and chemistry
The two are each heavy hitters in the broadly defined world of pop culture criticism.
Wortham made her name writing about the increasingly blurred intersections between culture and technology at Wired before moving to The New York Times in 2008 and later crossing to its magazine.
She has amassed over 750,000 twitter followers and built up a reputation as one of the most incisive and switched-on commentators working today.
While Wortham is an exemplar of the digital native, her podcasting partner cut his teeth at the venerable newspaper The Boston Globe, where he was film critic.
A stint at the brilliant, sadly-missed pop culture and sports website Grantland, followed, before Morris joined the New York institution in 2015. A true sui generis thinker, his prose is constantly surprising and dense but never impenetrable.
In a Village Voice feature, Wortham recalled the moment they were introduced, by writer Rembert Browne, at a Brooklyn party. They circled each other warily at first, but have since become inseparable and their differing sensibilities have made Still Processing a widely acclaimed hit.
Forget all the accolades and the intellect for a second though and Morris and Wortham are just a couple of friends having a chat and trying to work out where they fit in a constantly changing, often confusing world.
At the heart of the podcast is something simple but undeniable; the chemistry between the two.
“The health of the friendship is reflected in the health of the podcast,” Wortham told the crowd.
On an autumn night in Sydney, it felt not just healthy, but vital.