If you listen to podcasts at all, you might have heard of Josh and Chuck of HowStuffWorks’ Stuff You Should Know podcast, regularly burning up iTunes podcast rankings. After doing the podcast for almost five years, on track to hit their 500th episode this year, they’re taking their informative message to television with a Stuff You Should Know TV show on Science Channel.
The podcast started when Josh and Chuck’s boss at HowStuffWorks came to Josh and asked him to help get their content out in a different way — podcasts. Josh didn’t know what a podcast was, but as Chuck tells it, their boss told him, “It’s sort of like a radio show, but it’s on the Internet. Just go do it.”
Josh and Chuck made their name by doing in-depth research and breaking it down for their listeners, but now they’re taking that just do it approach to TV. They’re transferring their gung-ho attitude while also amping things up with a fictionalized element, making themselves characters in the new show.
“Let’s say we do a podcast on zombies. It’ll show the [recording] booth stuff on zombies, and then in the ‘real’ world — which is fictional — we get invited to be zombie extras on a movie set, and screw that up,” Chuck says
Their lead actress is from the New York outlet of the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, Caitlin Bitzegaio, and they’re trying to make a show that still has information but is also visual and full of action. Still, they are playing themselves, so they think they’ve got it under control.
“If you can’t play yourself, then come on. You have larger metaphysical problems than acting,” Josh says.
The podcasts they record on the show — which are podcasts that don’t exist on their regular podcast, but only in the world of the show — still follow the model Josh and Chuck built their name on, helping people to understand what’s behind everything in our world.
“We’re explaining really complex ideas in ways people can relate to,” says host Josh Clark.
“We … seem to have a knack for breaking down and distilling these cool sciencey, complex ideas into something you would hear sitting around the dorm room,” says his co-host Chuck Bryant.
They’re quick to warn that they’re not experts, but they are good researchers. They used to write articles for the site, but now they follow the lead of other HowStuffWorks writers on the article side, though they still do a wealth of independent research.
While they could rely more on others to do their research for them, “Part of the research process is finding some thread that leads to another thread, and another thread,” Josh says, which helps shape the direction of the podcast.
“We wish we had time to go to the library and do that kind of Dan Brown thing, but we definitely don’t. Fortunately, the Internet is increasingly reliable these days,” Josh says.
“As long as you do your homework,” Chuck cautions.
The show feels like a conversation between friends, and that’s by design. “We’ve always found the secret for our success is that we have our first conversation in front of the mics,” Chuck says. “We’ll share notes and things when we find interesting tidbits, but we like to surprise each other and one-up each other with the research.”
It’s not a foolproof system. Not every topic lends itself to being a podcast, and there’s one that even made it to the recorded stage but that got shelved. “There’s one we recorded that’s behind glass with a little hammer attached to it, where if everything goes wrong, this one gets published, but if nothing goes wrong, it will never be published,” Josh says. “Animal detectives, I think.”
Stuff You Should Know pulls in topics from different disciplines to create an educational, mind-blowing stew.
“Science is one of the core things we try to hit — like really cool, mind-bending science. And then we like to do some pop culture stuff, like with zombies, and samurai, and ninja, and castles,” Chuck says. “We like to hit history up, like really cool historical stories that people have heard of but maybe don’t know the background about. … We’re not the science show, or the history show, or the tech show; we can just really pick from anything that we think is super interesting.”
The hosts also complement each other. Chuck has more of a passion for history, while Josh brings the scientific understanding.
“Science is this thing that we’re going to tackle and get it right, even if it kills us, because you need to know it and it’s interesting,” Josh says.
“People can be intimidated by quantum physics, but it’s really not that tough if you can wrap your head around it,” Chuck says, “and that’s our job — bring it to people in a format that they can say, ‘You know what? This isn’t super intimidating. I’m not going to fall asleep in class today, because Josh and Chuck taught me that quantum physics is actually interesting.’”
Ultimately, the show is driven by curiosity, according to Chuck. It gives the show a wide-ranging appeal.
“We get letters from moms, we get letters from people in prison,” says Josh. “We get letters from little kids. We did one on how flirting works, and we got this cute little letter from a 12-year-old who said, ‘thank you for doing that podcast, because I just realized that girls have been flirting with me for a year or so now; I had no idea!’”
Going to TV from podcasting is actually a bit of a homecoming for Chuck. “I went to college and then traveled around for about 10 years, trying to be a screenwriter in L.A. and New York, and working as a PA on TV commercials,” Chuck says. “I gave up trying to be a screenwriter because I was getting nowhere — and then eventually got this job that led to me becoming a screenwriter.”
Josh and Chuck are up for anything. “As long as I’m writing, I’m happy,” Josh says. Whether their show will be a hit or not, they’re excited about it and the future of what they’re doing.
“Get ready for your socks to be knocked off,” Josh says.
Chuck added, “Yeah, get plenty of socks.”
Josh and Chuck on the truth behind zombies:
Watch the first full episode of the show — on “alien hand syndrome” — below:
Sarah Silverman and Neil deGrasse Tyson making their pitches to be on the show:
A preview of the TV show: