Damon Young views writing as “the end,” not a means to an end. The Pittsburgh-based author began his literary journey with Very Smart Brothas (VSB), a blog he co-founded with Panama Jackson in 2008, and helped run for over 10 years. In 2019, Young released his book, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker: A Memoir in Essays, which won the 2020 Thurber Prize for American Humor and Barnes & Noble’s 2019 Discover award.
Now, the multitalented columnist is adding a new tool to his skillset: Podcasting. Stuck with Damon Young, a new podcast by Crooked Media, Spotify, and Gimlet, explores the inner workings and intricacies of Black culture, which includes the exploration of potentially uncomfortable topics like sex, race, gender, and class. Joined by a rotating cast of Black writers, critics, and comedians, Young’s discussions are both serious and hilarious, but at the end of the day, they are an authentic and thoughtful look into the anxiety-generating moments of his life.
Digital Trends spoke with Young about his new podcast, how he explores anxiety and vulnerabilities, and the importance of accessibility in his writing. Young even shared his problem with Hollywood when it comes to its depiction of basketball in movies.
Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Digital Trends: What was the inspiration behind this project, Stuck with Damon Young, and why did you choose to do a podcast?
Damon Young: That’s a funny question. The inspiration? With the podcast, it was something that was never really an aspiration for me. I’m a writer and that’s my thing. I’m not one of those writers or people who think of writing as a means to an end. Writing is the end for me. With podcasting, I’ve been asked and approached multiple times over the last several years to do one, and I declined each time.
But when Crooked approached, I just was a fan of their general ethos and their general vibe. I had done some things with them in the past, too. The idea that we ended up coming up with for a show was something that was in line with the work that I am doing with my writing. I’m exploring these vulnerabilities — self-consciousness, neuroses, and anxieties — and really just asking why over and over again. Why do I feel this way? Why did I do this thing? Why do we feel this way? Why does this happen? And so, you know, the podcast just gave me a different lexicon. A different dialect for exploring these questions that I explore in my writing.
Were you supposed to start this podcast before the pandemic?
Yeah, the original plan was to drop it in the spring of 2020. You could probably find some stuff online about the launch … then the pandemic hit, and that changed everything. For this particular show, it was somewhat serendipitous. Maybe serendipitous is the wrong word because it was a global pandemic where so many people have died, but it worked out for us. It allowed us to change the construction of the show, where pre-pandemic, it was more of a straight interview show where I bring people on and we explore these topics. But, it was a similar format to 10,000 other podcasts.
Whereas now, we get to sit back, dig in, and figure out what’s more aligned with what we’re trying to do, and also what is somewhat unique. We came up with a format that then involves a scripted essay. It involves two interviews. It also involves a skit that’s almost like a palate cleanser in the middle of the episode. Sometimes, the skits are ridiculous game shows. Sometimes, there are people calling in. One of the skits in the racial performance episode is me actually calling Quaker Oats to settle an argument about whether grits are meant to be eaten with salt or sugar. I literally call Quaker Oats. People have asked me if it was a skit like I had someone acting as customer service. No, that was the actual people at Quaker Oats who responded to my call.
When listening to the podcast or reading your articles, it plays like an informal therapy session. You write and talk through your feelings. Then, the audience reads or listens to your takes come to life in real-time. Why did you decide to get very personal in both your columns and podcast?
I mean, why pay for therapy when you can have people pay [laughing]? My book, What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker, came out in 2019, about almost three years ago to this day. When you write a memoir and you’re a person like me … I’m not Barack Obama, right? If I were to write a memoir or if I were to write something personal, something first-person, people don’t give a shit about my biography. They don’t care about where Damon Young went to school, when Damon Young met his wife, or where Damon Young lives.
So for someone like me, if I’m going to write or do any sort of first-person narrative, it has to explore those vulnerabilities and those neuroses and those anxieties even though not everyone has had my background. Not everyone is a 43-year-old black man from Pittsburgh who played college basketball or whatever. Everyone has experienced doubt. Everyone has experienced fear. Everyone has had some sort of a journey to get more comfortable in their own skin. Some people, you know, obviously take a little bit longer than others.
So I guess my answer to the question is there’s no point in doing what I do unless I get as deep as I could possibly get. That right there is what makes it the most compelling. I feel like that specificity, where it even becomes somewhat esoteric, is what actually makes it universal. Where if I just tried to keep it very superficial, very ground level, then yeah, maybe more people would, get it on a surface level, but you’re not really catching anybody.
In a previous interview, you discussed accessibility in your writing. The idea that a scholar could understand your reading just as much as the guy off the street. This idea is that anyone can read and understand your work because it’s accessible.
The audience that I have in mind is me, right? So I try to create things that I would be interested in reading, things that I would understand, things that, you know, maybe don’t exist and that I would like to exist. I’m not an academic. Although I do read work from academics and work that can get really deep into policy with this very wonky data and stuff like that. That’s not who I am. When I make a work that’s accessible, that’s just me being true to myself and something that again, if I were on the other side, I would appreciate consumed.
As a former college basketball player at Canisius, I read your piece about the White Men Can’t Jump reboot with Jack Harlow. I’m not as harsh as your critique on Harlow’s basketball abilities, but I understand your thinking that Hollywood tends to cast actors who have little to no experience playing basketball. Why not bring in a basketball expert or even cast basketball players in these roles?
For context, there’s a White Men Can’t Jump reboot, and Jack Harlow is set to be starring in it. And so my issue is not necessarily his acting. He could be the next Brando, I don’t know. I just have a bone to pick with basketball depiction in movies because they keep casting actors who are not good at basketball. There are actors who can hoop. There are actors who can play basketball. Mahershala Ali played Division I Basketball. Woody Harrelson in the first White Men Can’t Jump could hoop. Denzel Washington in He Got Game could play a little bit. So there are actors who can hoop. Why not cast the actors who are good?
I guess the comeback would be, well, Jack Harlow played in the NBA All-Star Celebrity Game, and yeah, I saw him play in the All-Star Celebrity Game [laughing]. I don’t want to feel like I’m picking on him because not everyone is good at basketball, and that’s fine. But again, if you are supposed to portray someone who was good enough at basketball that you could competently hustle actual ballplayers, which is what White Men Can’t Jump is about, then you should be good enough at basketball that you can hustle actual ballplayers.
I think about this topic similar to how Ben Affleck thought about Armageddon. He asked Michael Bay why it was easier to train oil drillers to become astronauts instead of training astronauts to become oil drillers. Wouldn’t you teach astronauts to be oil drillers?
Look at a movie like Blue Chips. They had Shaquille O’Neal and Penny Hardaway. These guys play basketball.
Again, I’m not even saying you have to get NBA players, but there are enough actors who can hoop that you can use them. In Finding Forrester, Rob Brown could play basketball. Duane Martin in Above the Rim was a really good basketball player.
Just look at Winning Time.
They found guys who can hoop on that show. It’s funny on Winning Time, one of the guys [on the show] I actually used to coach.
Oh wow. Which one?
It’s the episode where Cookie is dating the guy who runs the shoe store. Remember that episode?
Magic kind of bullies him on a playground that day. Well, I know that guy. I coached him when he was like 11 or 12 years old. I was coaching this District League basketball team here in Pittsburgh. He’s doing other work too, not just Winning Time, so it’s good to see him out there.
What can people expect in future episodes of the podcast? Who are some of the upcoming guests, and what topics are you going to cover?
This past week, there was an episode with Samantha Irby, who’s the bestselling author of Wow, No Thank You., Meaty, and We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. She’s probably the funniest writer alive, I think. So I have her on and I have Mehrsa Baradaran, who is an economist, to talk about money and some of the anxieties I have around money and growing up without much. Now, I have a bit more [money] so some of the neuroses and the anxieties that come with the whiplash of never having it, and now having it.
I have other episodes with Marc Lamont Hill, Jemele Hill, Jamilah Lemieux, Kara Brown, Kiese Laymon, and Imani Perry. Just some really dope, really funny people to talk about topics ranging from mental health to political performance and grief. We’ve already had episodes that talked about sex, religion, and parenting. So again with each topic, we just explore some of the deeper anxieties and neuroses. Sometimes, people are surprised by where we go.
I’m proud of what we’ve done. It almost feels like an audiobook with guests. I’m looking forward to people getting a chance to listen to what we have this week or what we have in the next few weeks.
New episodes of Stuck with Damon Young arrive every Tuesday on Spotify.