Baby Geniuses Keep It Cool

0 Comments 10 August 2015

baby geniuses

Comedian Emily Heller and cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt talk about their podcast Baby Geniuses.

By Steven Ray Morris


It’s hot in Echo Park today. That much is obvious as I settle in comfortably while comedian Emily Heller (her debut stand-up record Good For Her comes out later this year via Kill Rock Stars) and artist Lisa Hanawalt (responsible for the aesthetic of the Netflix series BoJack Horseman) get ready to record their second podcast of the day. Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade (Lisa’s dog) is super friendly and sweet, and I say “hi” to some of the podcast guests and Emily and Lisa’s engineer (Travis McElroy host of the podcast My Brother, My Brother And Me). I’m clutching a glass of water Lisa poured me and I fanboy a bit to her over the latest season of BoJack (season two premiered a week prior). Everyone else is playing musical chairs around the dinner table, it currently swimming in a sea of snacks, water, and audio cables. There’s a fan situation, where to best position one so as not to disturb the recording too much, but it’s resolved quickly. Like I said, it’s hot, but it doesn’t really matter. I’m here to listen to two very talented people wade through the ephemera of Wikipedia and the weird knowledge tucked into the corners of their guests’ brains and their own. They are the Baby Geniuses.

Dubbed after the uncanny children’s film of the same name (more on that later), the Baby Geniuses podcast formulated over three years ago, but after both Emily Heller and Lisa Hanawalt relocated from New York City to Los Angeles last year, they joined up with the eclectic Maximum Fun Network and have continued to bring their fans and listeners a savvy mix of conversational chat, internet spelunking, and even a bit of satirical improv (Expert Hour). Baby Geniuses is always compelling and most importantly, hilarious. After watching a podcast recording (no spoilers), the cozy duplex emptied out leaving the hosts and I to chat the evolution of the podcast and its role in their professional lives, how podcasting is a good way to meet new people, and the tortuous experience of watching the film Baby Geniuses.


baby geniuses podcast

How did Baby Geniuses get started?

Emily Heller: We started in New York.

Lisa Hanawalt: We became friends through my boyfriend.

Heller: Yes, but I was a fan of Lisa’s before I met her boyfriend Adam [comedian Adam Conover and co-host of Fresh Out! LA with Heller]. So when I met him we became Facebook friends and I saw they were declared as being in a relationship I was like, “Oh my god, your girlfriend is Lisa Hanawalt? You have to introduce me.”

Hanawalt: I remember when I met you in a bar you were wearing a backpack.

Heller: That sounds like me.

Hanawalt: I was thinking, “This girl is cute. She seems chill. She doesn’t seem pretentious.”

Heller: Oh, well I was trying to be, I’m just really bad at it. Then we started hanging out a little bit.

Hanawalt: Yeah you were really good at like, “Hey do you want to hang out? Do you wanna come over? I’ll make latkes. There’s a street fair near my house.” When we were out to coffee once you talked about how you used to doing a radio show in the bay area. You were like, “Oh I miss doing that,” and I was like, “You should start a show again.” Then you asked, “Do you want to cohost with me?” I didn’t think you were serious, but then you actually made it happen.

Heller: Tricked ya!

Hanawalt: Yeah you did. I was like, “Oh shit! This girl has her shit together.”

Heller: I’m trying.


How did the different segments come together?

Hanawalt: [to Emily] You came up with most of the segments.

Heller: Did I?

Hanawalt: Yeah yeah.

Heller: We brainstormed a bunch and talked about themes that we thought were interesting or new. There are just so many podcasts with people just talking and stuff.

Hanawalt: You structured it from the beginning in a way that set it apart.

Heller: I hope so.

Hanawalt: I came up with the terrible name. It was one suggestion out of many and it stuck.

Heller: It was great. I don’t remember coming up with most of the segments, but I’m sure you gave a lot of valuable input too. If Lisa thinks something is funny I know that it’s funny.

Hanawalt: Aw [laughs]. That’s nice.

Heller: Obviously as we’ve done the podcast more and more this has changed, but at first it was trickier to think what you would want to talk about because you aren’t as talkative as I am.

Hanawalt: Yeah, I think when we first started recording I thought, “Maybe I’ll just draw during the podcast and occasionally I’ll chime into the conversation. I’d be more like a sidekick.” Then I realized I wanted to talk more. I’m not going to die if I talk.


baby geniuses podcast

Photo credit: Jean Ho

What made you want to have a sketch/satirical segment (Expert Hour) in an otherwise conversational podcast?

Hanawalt: That was Emily’s idea.

Heller: At the time when we conceived our podcast I was listening to a lot of Comedy Bang! Bang!

Hanawalt: Me too.

Heller: I didn’t think I was good enough at improv to just have a guest on with no real conversational structure the way Scott Aukerman does, which is why we structured the segment and put the burden on our guest to come in and give us a presentation.

Hanawalt: We put a lot of burden on our guests.

Heller: We really do. It’s so nice of any of them to do the podcast!

Hanawalt: We give them so much homework.

Heller: Hopefully we make it a little bit easier for them. I feel like I sometimes I go on podcasts with no structure and then feel like I’ve said the exact same thing as I did on three other podcasts.

Hanawalt: I also like that we don’t talk shop. If we talk to a cartoonist we’re not really talking about their comics, same with comedians.

Heller: The only exceptions to that are people with really interesting jobs that our listeners wouldn’t have heard about otherwise. Like the time we had a circus clown on the podcast [Kelli Karsten].

Hanawalt: That was my favorite.

Heller: It was so fascinating, but otherwise there’s a million podcasts where comedians talk about doing comedy.

Hanawalt: I’m bored of it honestly.

Heller: I am too. This was also why I wanted to do a podcast with Lisa and not another comedian. Even if comedians aren’t trying to talk shop it just ends up going in that direction anyway.

Hanawalt: The Venn diagram of our social circles has a huge crossover between comics/animation and comedy, but yes there is a little bit of a difference there that makes it more interesting.


baby geniuses podcast

Photo credit: Jean Ho

You both do so many things on your own. What keeps you coming back to the podcast each week?

Heller: Oh man, Well, every other week now.

Hanawalt: We had to cut back a little because we got so busy, but I like it because it’s a challenge for me, at least, it’s a way for me to meet new people who I ordinarily wouldn’t have a reason to talk to, and I like that I’m trying to think of things to talk about and how to talk about them in an interesting way.

Heller: It forces you to check in on what’s different in your life from week to week. That part of it is interesting. For both of us I think there can be this pressure to be a perfectionist about everything we put out. The podcast is one area where there’s no pressure to be perfect at all.

Hanawalt: That’s a really good way to put it. It’s a hobby. We have an opportunity to take this live and we tried it once. It was fun, but I don’t want to put that kind of pressure on myself. I don’t want to make this a huge part of my career.

Heller: Stand-up takes so long to craft so this is a way to connect with people who can’t come to a show. It’s also a way to find out what we think is interesting by virtue of how long we talk about it.

Hanawalt: We come up with all kinds of stupid and funny jokes that I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. It’s very invigorating.

Heller: Also it’s an excuse to make people hang out with us.

Hanawalt: It really is.

Heller: There’s definitely been people where I’m like, “I just want to meet you. Come on my podcast.”

Hanawalt: Yeah. Yeah.

Heller: I want to be better friends with you.

Hanawalt: I also like that people listen to it and will come talk to me about it. It’s just a way to connect with people.

Heller: I mean for awhile it was just to get Lisa to hang out with me. That was a big thing.

Hanawalt: [laughs] Yeah.


baby geniuses podcast

Photo credit: Jean Ho

Structured hang out time.

Hanawalt: I’m proud of myself for not flaking out either.

Heller: I am too!

Hanawalt: I can flake out on other things, but something about this and my commitment to Emily as a person, I don’t want to cancel.

Heller: Good. I feel the same way. It feels like a part of my life that’s not optional to drop off. I do think it’s really valuable. I also think we haven’t reached the limit from the value we’ll get from it.

Hanawalt: Yeah, I like that.

Heller: I think we have a ways to go. I think we have a lot left to say.

Hanawalt: About Ben Chunch.

Heller: We will not rest until Lisa rides Ben Chunch [Martha Stewart’s horse].

Hanawalt: I know. I’m working on it still, pounding away at this possibility.


emily heller

You interview a lot of comedians and other cool folks about stuff that they are either obsessed with or interested in, what’s the most surprising thing you’ve heard so far?

Heller: That’s a good question. I mean we talk about it a lot, but Guy Branum’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg episode is great. I was surprised to hear how much he knew about her and surprised at how much I didn’t know about her.

Hanawalt: He’s very good at explaining things in a way that gets you really excited about them.

Heller: Absolutely, I’m always surprised to hear what people know a lot about.

Hanawalt: Most people start off with “I don’t really have anything,” but everybody’s got something.

Heller: That’s also part of the reason why I like doing this because these are the kinds of questions I wish people would ask me. I’m like, “I’m interesting! I have things that are different about me!”

Hanawalt: Instead people are like, “Uhhh what TV shows did you watch as a child?”

Heller: Talk to me about being on the debate team in high school. I went to a circus camp. There’s a lot about me that is different than the people in my field and that stuff I don’t get to talk about on stage that much at all.

Hanawalt: The circus clown one is great too. [Kelli Karsten] lived on a circus train and met her husband at the circus. Now they live in their old train car. It’s just a magical story that I can’t believe is real.


lisa hanawalt

Each segment has its own theme song. Can you talk about Nate Heller’s music for a minute?

Hanawalt: It gets me so pumped [starts singing “One On Fun theme”].

Heller: My brother has always been a real talented musician. At the time we had started doing the podcast he had been doing a lot more music production stuff on his own. He did a whole mash up album. He produced his own audio books of Harry Potter where he read them in a fake British accent. Now he has an audio book career where he reads multiple audio books in a fake British accent.

Hanawalt: That’s incredible that people pay him to do that. I love it. Nate’s a genius.

Heller: Yeah! He’s a total genius. It was a no-brainer. It’s just a nice thing to have in our arsenal that with every new segment we have he’ll do a theme song for it. This is probably part of the reason we have so many segments.

Hanawalt: Yeah, I want to keep adding more to see what he comes up with.

Heller: He’s great. If you have your own podcast and you want him to do the music for it he’ll do it for a price! You should hire him to do it.

Hanawalt: Just don’t make yours better than ours.


For any newbies to Baby Geniuses are there any episodes you suggest they listen to when diving in?

Hanawalt/Heller: ASMR [with Nikki Glaser], Guy Branum…

Heller: I think the Raphael [Bob-Waksburg] episode is maybe going to be my new recommendation for a place to start.

Hanawalt: Although, Mike Hollingsworth, the one right before, is also really good. I like both of those a lot. They’re just two really solid eps.

Heller: I also think the Megan Amram episode is good too. It’s interesting because a lot of times an episode will have one of my favorite guests, but not my favorite expert and vice versa.

Hanawalt: Yeah.

Heller: So it really varies. Some people hate expert hour. Some people don’t even listen to it.

Hanawalt: Which is fine.

Heller: You can just skip it. Yeah, it’s really interesting to see how people are split on it.

Hanawalt: I know.

Heller: I think it’s either your favorite or least favorite. Some of my favorite expert hours were Conor Ratliff, when we were in New York. You’ll notice we have experts on whom have done it a bunch.

Hanawalt: Like Nate Fernald.

Heller/Hanawalt: Jared Logan…

Hanawalt: Has done it the most.

Heller: I think that’s why Raphael’s episode is a good one to recommend because it has a great guest and a great expert [Paul Danke]. Just super solid all the way through.


baby geniuses podcast

Photo credit: Jean Ho

Last year the show jumped aboard the Maximum Fun network when you both moved to Los Angeles. Did anything change about the show?

Hanawalt: Now we have ads. My friends were like, “Whoa big time.”

Heller: Oh yeah. I mean they’re usually just for other Maximum Fun shows…

Hanawalt: It just makes it more official somehow.

Heller: We are able to make a little money doing it now.

Hanawalt: We get people who donate, which is awesome. We also pay our producer Travis [McElroy] to help us out.

Heller: When we were in New York we had the benefit of being on a network that had a big studio space and engineer whom would record and produce the episodes for us. When we first moved out here to Los Angeles we had to try and figure out how do it ourselves and we were not good at that.

Hanawalt: Yeah, it was really tough.

Heller: Being on a network now where we can make enough money to pay someone to do it for us is a huge huge benefit.

Hanawalt: And Maximum Fun has a built in way to promote shows.

Heller: Their audience is a good fit for us.


Do you think they’ll ever reboot Baby Geniuses? and if so would you want to take part in it?

Heller: I think they are doing that.

Hanawalt: Really?

Heller: We watched Baby Geniuses once and it was terrible.

Hanawalt: It was hell.

Heller: It’s one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen.


baby geniuses podcast

Listen to Baby Geniuses on the Maximum Fun Network or subscribe and download through iTunes.

Follow Emily Heller on Twitter.

Follow Lisa Hanawalt on Twitter.

Follow Baby Geniuses on Twitter.

Check out Emily Heller’s website.

Check out Lisa Hanawalt’s website.

Go to Emily Heller’s weekly comedy show at UCB Sunset.

Watch BoJack Horseman season two on Netflix.

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- who has written 26 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Steven Ray Morris is an author, musician, cat owner, and an okapi in his next life. Floating around California with detours living in New Zealand, Great Britain, and Japan, he currently resides in Los Angeles until persuaded otherwise. He is a UC Santa Barbara Film & Media Studies graduate and occasionally cosplays as Carl Sagan. Jurassic Park trading cards are his jam. Follow him on Twitter @StevenRayMorris.

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