The Moth Podcast

Imagine you have an unconventional superpower. You can walk up to any complete stranger and immediately gain their utter, blind trust. They will pour their hearts out in your lap.

This is what listening to The Moth podcast feels like. Each episode offers up a glimpse of the human core: who we are, what we care about, what we’ve done and what’s been done to us. The effect is exactly as moving, hilarious, scary and uncomfortable as it sounds.

The Moth is a storytelling project founded on a basic format. You get a room full of people together and widely distribute cocktails. Then a series of brave (or masochistic) volunteers stand up and take about 15 minutes each to tell true stories from their own lives, without notes. These gatherings have themes like “Call of the Wild: Tales of the Untamed,” or “Gotta Have It: Stories About Compulsions.” Aside from that, the speakers are free to tell pretty much any kind of story they want.

The Moth podcast draws from some of the best stories told at past Moth events. Each weekly episode contains one story, so they range in length from 5 to 20 minutes. Some of the storytellers are well-known writers or performers featured on The Moth Mainstage in New York. Others are random people who showed up to Moth StorySLAMs across the country. Still others are participants in the Moth outreach programs for at-risk youth, the homeless, ex-convicts, recovering addicts, etc.

This amounts to a mix of stories that are diverse and completely unpredictable. In one episode a comedian/voice actor talks about her run-in with a Los Angeles cop who mistook her for a prostitute. In a split-second of inspiration, she launched into a horrified tirade using the haughtiest British accent she could muster. The cop was stunned, apologized repeatedly and left. In another episode a Chinese-American performance artist talks about being a problem child until Bruce Lee movies came to his predominantly white hometown. At long last he got some respect from his peers, who now assumed that all Asian people were masters of Kung Fu.  

Some of the stories are hard to listen to. One man confesses to being burdened with guilt because the daughter he hadn’t wanted was stillborn. A gruff, ex-junkie biker breaks down in tears recounting the day he sprung his wife from a hospice to take her on one last motorcycle ride before she died of AIDS.

Surprisingly, it’s often the novice storytellers who are the most captivating. For example, in one episode a former mailman describes how a crooked detective sent him to prison for 19 years for a murder he didn’t commit. It’s clear that public speaking does not come naturally for this man; his voice shakes and he stumbles over words. He has this great, wry sense of humor, but doesn’t know to pause for laughter. Somehow, though, all of these imperfections add to the force of his story. You can hear him struggling for the words to convey his anger and helplessness. It’s raw and jarring and personal. Actors and comedians know how to use their voices to engage the audience, but that polish can make it sound as if they’re performing. The Moth podcast is appealing specifically because it isn’t about performances.

Bottom line, this podcast is an addictive, voyeuristic crash-course in empathy. It’s full of humor, even in brutal circumstances. And no matter what the stories are about, you’re left with the urge to hug the storyteller, like you’re part of a great, big support group for survivors of life. | Taban Salem

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