Podcast Profiles: J.D. Lopez Makes Guests Uncomfortable on Left Hand, Right Brain

Podcasts are in tune with the democratized spirit of Internet media; anyone with a microphone and a computer can offer their listeners endess hours of recordings, usually for free. Limited only by their imaginations, podcasters have a freedom of expression unrestricted by commerce, censorship or geography. Several great podcasts have blossomed in Denver's flourishing arts community; here to celebrate them is Podcast Profiles, a series documenting the efforts of local podcasters and spotlighting the peculiar personalities behind them.

The current generation of comedy nerds and open mic lurkers nurtured their love of the joke somewhere in the untold hours of free content circulating through the marketplace. Audio podcasts play out in the theater of the mind, creating fertile ground for new ideas to germinate — so it's no wonder that new comedians have more wonkish insight into the craft of standup before they take the stage than ever before. A standard bearer of sorts for the podcast-to-open mics pipeline is J.D. Lopez, one of Denver's most loyal students of the medium. For Left Hand, Right Brain, Lopez invites comedians, improvisers and other artists into his basement studio for a far-ranging exploration of the creative mind. Currently 66 episodes into its run, Left Hand, Right Brain recently branched out into recording special shows live at the Molecule Effect, adding guest host Royce Roeswood for a punchier, more riff-heavy version of the show. In advance of another show on January 19, Westword caught up with Lopez to discuss his favorite podcasts, his troubles with co-hosts and taking guests out of their comfort zones with surprise questions. 

For the uninitiated listener, what's the premise of your podcast? How many episodes have you done so far?

J.D. Lopez: Of Left Hand, Right Brain specifically, we're at 66 episodes. But I've also done The Appetites, which is kind of a small business podcast, and we did about ten of those.

I knew you did more than one, but I didn't know specifically. How does that one work? Do you have a co-host?

With The Appetites I did, but he's moving away. So we kinda stopped, but he's the co-host for the live show and how the live show got started. The owners of the Molecule Effect really liked our dynamic and wanted us to do a live show there. But I wanted to it to be a Left Hand, Right Brain thing, not an Appetites thing. Anyway, the premise of Left Hand, Right Brain is that as a self-proclaimed creative and sensitive person, I'm searching for like-minded individuals in the Denver scene. Mostly comedy, but I've had some theater people, a magician:  people from all walks of the artistic life. 

What was the magician interview like? 

It was interesting. He was very guarded. 

Gotta protect trade secrets.

Yeah, so he definitely wasn't as open as a comedian would be about what was going on in his life and how he expresses that. He was very calculated. I'd ask him a question and he'd ponder over it for a minute and then give a very calculated answer.

That's dead air! You can't have that.

Well, the great thing about the podcast is that I can cut that stuff out. I have final edit, really. 

Do you do more of an edit than other local podcasts do?

Yes, I do. I think so. If there are longer set-ups, or longer pauses in between questions — because I want a thoughtful answer — I like "getting into the shit" in a way that might require more of a thoughtful answer. Most people want to give thoughtful answers. I don't shy away from things being longer. I like the idea of a podcast that goes as long as it's supposed to. If I'm enjoying it, I want to indulge in that world as much as I can. So I want to cultivate that in my podcast.

What was the longest episode?

One of the first ones I did with Asa Herlendson is close to two hours, pushing that mark. I haven't gone three hours like Rogan and I haven't gone two and a half like Pete Holmes, but those are some of my heroes and what I'm modeling off of. I love You Made It Weird and how they talk about the real stuff, and that's what I want to talk about, too.  My first podcast, JD/JO, which I had been doing with my friend Joanna, had just ended, so I wanted to use my podcast to get into that sort of real, honest shit. 

So what would you learned from the fallout of your first two podcasts? Don't require a co-host?

In a way, yeah. There's always frustration over different ideas of where you want to take it. In most artistic endeavors, it's frustrating to have to rely on other people. Maybe one of the things that's so appealing about standup comedy is that it's just you. With podcasts, it's the same.

Well, you need a guest.

Yeah, I'm not just Bill Burr talking into the microphone for an hour.

Have you ever done a solo episode? 

I did one of me walking along Cherry Creek and I saw artists putting in murals down there and talked to them and some other random people in sort of a just consciousness way. I heard that Tom Green did something like that on his podcast, and I figured I could do something like that and it might be interesting. So I tried it. 

Which episodes would you recommend for somebody just starting out? Would you give them some highlights, or are you a completist who thinks they should start at the beginning?

I don't think starting at the beginning is necessary with my podcast because it's kind of all over the place. I'd recommend the Sofiya Alexandra episode, that was such a great interview; I like being surprised by a guest. Michelle Miracle was great. Also the one with Janae Burris and Adrian Mesa, I think it's called "Food Is the Best Love Language," is great because they're very riffy, it's more comedic and 'we're not getting too deep into anything.' It's not too philosophical or artsy fartsy woo woo, so that's a fun one. The one with Aaron Urist and Nathan Lund is pretty fun: just two great comics doing their thing. I've done a couple crossover episodes with other local podcasts, like David Germain's DisJointed Podcast and Easily Unamused with Weston Unruh, so those are always fun. I love those kinda Batman and the Green Hornet two-parters that we do — those have been fun.

Do you think it's better to know somebody pretty well before doing an interview with them, or is it better to get to know them on a recording? 

I think it depends on the guest. It's a good feeling to be surprised by a great interview, to have a great connection with someone spontaneously. It's something I always look for; Maron talks about that a lot on his podcast. With someone you know well, it can be unnatural to try and re-create a conversation you've already had or try to manufacture something from your dynamic — that can also be a real double-edged sword. But it's nice to feel comfortable with people. I've had recurring guests. I like to cultivate an atmosphere that's like a party where anyone can drop by. When Quentin Tarantino is shooting a movie, he likes the set to be more fun than anyone else in the industry so his actors want to come back — and that's kinda what I'm trying to do. Which is hard with Denver comics, because I don't smoke a lot of weed or drink really. 

I think Whiskey and Cigarettes probably has you beat there, although it's less of a debauch than it used to be. Those early episodes are essentially just documents of their blackouts. 

But they still make alcohol available, so you could partake if you wanted. 

You're actually probably the biggest supporter of local podcasts, certainly more than anyone I know. You've listened to almost all of them at least once, right? What are some of your favorites?

Yeah, I started off as just a fan. One of the cool things about comedy and podcasting is that it cultivates an attitude of "You can do this, too." I started out being really into Kevin Smith, and he has that very encouraging mentality of "there's enough pie to go around, enough room on the top of the hill for everybody." So that was encouraging, but then I just really got to love the medium. It's honest and true; it's all these things I'm trying to be. It allows for long-form conversations that go very in-depth. Sometimes I think standup isn't the right medium for me. I think maybe podcasting is the true way for me.

Standup is much more restrictive than a podcast. Jokes need to take a certain shape. You need to get people laughing.

They talk about jokes per minute: You gotta get laughs;  that's the value they assign to standup.

Meanwhile, the same podcast can be funny, sad, insightful or poignant from episode to episode. 

And it still has value, and adds quality to its listeners' lives. To get back to your question more, I'm a huge fan of listening to my friends on Denver comedy podcasts. I love Empty Girlfriend. So good: It takes all the best parts of the gossip and sex talk —essentially the most interesting part of any podcast — and just makes the whole show about that. Talkin' Shop, which you know about, is another one. It's so dense with great information for someone who's trying to do standup. So that's an invaluable resource, and I've implemented a lot of the things I've learned from that one. I used to love Werewolf Radar

When did you decide to close the show with disarming questions? Out of nowhere, you'll just spring a question like, "Who do you think you are?" It's unnerving

I've always liked the idea of closing out the podcast with a game. On JD/JO we used to do "marry, fuck, kill." We've done a fantasy celebrity death match. I just like a home base to end on. I like those recurring segments as a podcast fan myself; I like the structure. I used to just ask them what it meant to be an artist, but the new questions came about very organically. I don't remember exactly when. 

It's kind of a James Lipton thing, like the Proust questionnaire

I like the idea of that spontaneity, and springing those questions on people keeps the spirit alive. We're being real. It forces the guest to be present. Some people are too comfortable just trying to be funny and giving calculated answers, and I want to shake them up. 

So who do you think you are? See, I turned your question back around on you!

I think that I'm trying to figure that out with every podcast. I'm in a constant pursuit of that, finding out what I want to say and why I want to say it.

It takes some gumption to say to people, "Hey, listen to me."

It takes hubris to get up onstage and be like, "Look at me." I feel that. Sometimes I crumble under that pressure, and wonder why anybody would listen to me. Do I really have something to say? But who do I think I am? I want to be at my best as an artistic force, trying to find my way in the world. Or at least, that's the romantic answer. 

Join Lopez, along with co-host Royce Roeswood and special guest Asa Erlendson, at 6 p.m. Tuesday, January 19, for a live recording of Left Hand, Right Brain at the Molecule Effect; the podcast will be available Friday.

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Byron Graham is a writer, comedian and gentleman thief from Denver. Co-host of Designated Drunkard: A Comedy Drinking Game, the deathless Lion's Lair open mic and the Mutiny Book Club podcast, Byron also writes about comedy for Westword. He cannot abide cowardice, and he's never been defeated in an open duel.
Contact: Byron Graham