'Armchair Expert's' Dax Shepard, Monica Padman on Podcasting Amid a Pandemic

Dax Shepard, Monica Padman, and Rob Holysz - Getty - H 2020
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The co-hosts, who are quarantined together at Shepard and wife Kristen Bell's Los Angeles home, talk about how they're handling the coronavirus panic while video-chatting guests in the attic.

Since its launch in February 2018, Armchair Expert, hosted by Dax Shepard and Monica Padman, has become a consistently chart-topping podcast, welcoming celebrity guests as well as science and health experts onto the show for deep-dive conversations. Now, Armchair Expert, like many other podcasts, is having to reinvent amid the coronavirus pandemic, at a time when guests can no longer come over to Shepard's attic to record but those stuck at home are still craving content. 

After turning to video calls and bringing in Dr. Sanjay Gupta for a COVID-19-centered chat, Shepard and Padman talked to The Hollywood Reporter about their new approach to the show, booking challenges and handling the pandemic anxiety. 

What changes are you adapting to with recording during the quarantine? Can you still record from the attic? 

Shepard: Monica and I remain in the attic, Wobby Wob [producer Rob Holysz] is always remotely at his house, and our guests have been either on Zoom or FaceTime or Skype. In some cases, we send the person a microphone and in other cases they have stuff — we're just figuring it out as we go along. We've done four now with varying success, for sure.

Padman: And the reason that Dax and I can be in the same room is because I've been living at [he and wife Kristen Bell's] house, so we've been quarantining together.

What have been some challenges to this new setup?

Shepard: I think there's the technical hurdle that both people can't really be heard at the same time, and I'm a chronic interrupter — it's kind of my style for better or worse — so to have that interface between us and having to not build on someone's comment in the way that maybe we would conventionally is a learning curve. And obviously, there's a whole bunch of stuff that happens face-to-face that can't happen over the computer, I think there's well-documented studies on whether or not oxytocin can be released unless you're within proximity to people. [The new interviews] definitely have a different flavor, and it's not preferred for us. We don't think going forward, like, "Oh, we hacked it; we could interview tons of people all over the world and this is the solution." I think we far prefer to have intimate, in-person connection.

Padman: At first I was very nervous that all of the juju was going to get lost over the screen, but I'm very happy with the interviews we've had. It doesn't feel like we've suffered too much. But there's definitely that in-person spark that we do miss.

Are you going to be maintaining your normal bi-weekly release schedule? 

Shepard: We will definitely maintain our normal release schedule, and it's likely that we'll be adding some other fun stuff just to break up the news cycle. We're hoping that we'll just add some stuff that maybe we don't even try to sell ads on, but just a little more puffy, distractible levity.

How has it been booking guests at this time? 

Padman: I think people obviously have a little more time so there's been more availability. But also everyone is at home homeschooling their children. We've had a lot of last-minute, "Sorry, I can't. I have so many kids, it's not going to work out today," that type of thing. So we're just sort of rolling with it.

Shepard: Also we might have interest from a lot of people and then there's some kind of technical issue that gets in the way of it — whether or not they have a microphone or if they are willing to operate new software on their computer; it's a little bigger ask of them. And I can say from my side of the street, what's interesting is at first when this happened and we all got locked down, I thought, "Oh, this is going to be the most wonderful break." But most certainly there's been a tidal wave of requests for both Kristen and myself — there's so many different video campaigns going on right now, all wonderful and well intentioned, but ironically the amount of publicity requests has probably gone up by tenfold. I have to assume people we're asking are also experiencing a similar avalanche of requests.

Has this affected what type of guests you're trying to bring on, like are you aiming for more medical experts?

Shepard: Initially when we started the podcast, we were at the very height of the election results and a new president and we decided to kind of stake out an area that was politics-free because I felt like there was plenty of that in the space. This weird thing parallels that in that we would love the show to be a break from the onslaught of negative corona news, yet at the same time we know some people trust us, which is great, and we have incredible access — way more than even with actors — to experts. We're so lucky in the amount of really bona fide professionals that we have access to that always seem to be willing to do the show. Monica took it upon herself to reach out to Sanjay Gupta —

Padman: Who we've had on before and was wonderful. We built a rapport with him and it felt like, oh, this would be a great time to at least devote one full episode to our thoughts on it and his thoughts on it and give people a little bit of information, then sort of go back to our regularly scheduled programming on giving people a break — not to say we won't have another expert on at some point.

Shepard: I do think that there's an opportunity for us because our approach seems to be "hard-to-talk-about subjects but with some levity and jokes," and I think that that being our voice lends itself well to this situation. We do feel compelled to check in with it occasionally, and we are leaning toward the steady-hand version of the data and an optimism with tons of safety built in. That's kind of the area we personally believe in. So when we can do that, I think we will.

Going off of that, what kind of mood are you trying to bring to the show right now? Are you trying to have fun, normal conversations or address some of the anxiety and concerns happening? 

Shepard: My personal take, and Monica and I differ as we always do, but my personal take is do all the right stuff and then do not succumb to fear. Like, act appropriately, and have as much levity as you can and awareness that this is a very unique historic experience we'll all remember for the rest of our lives, so we get to choose how we acted during that very memorable period. I'm trying my hardest to stay positive and still joking while also taking every measure that's scientifically appropriate.

Padman: But we also discussed that, like we always do, we're very open and honest about our feelings on pretty much everything, whether that's good or bad. So we've had that discussion on the "Fact Check" [segment of the show] — that's Dax's opinion, I have a little bit of a different one, and we sort of talked it out. So we are addressing the topics often I would say in the "Fact Check" more than the actual episodes, but we are able to sort of air out a bunch of thoughts and anxieties and different opinions.

Shepard: I think in some ways there's a lot of husbands and wives or husbands and husbands or wives and wives sitting at home talking about this and there seems to be two sides of the coin that people are on, and I think somehow it's comforting to just hear Monica and me echo the opinions that are being volleyed about at home. I think any time you don't feel alone in your opinions or your thoughts is comforting.