The Apocalypse is Coming (Apparently) and Ken Jennings' Podcast is Here to Prepare Us

If the apocalypse is coming, shouldn't we at least leave something interesting behind, for whoever discovers the tattered remains of Earth? That's the conceit behind the Omnibus podcast from former Jeopardy! star Ken Jennings and musician John Roderick. At the very least, the show, launching Thursday, will give you some neat facts to share with friends as you await the end time.

Each chapter takes a deep dive into an historical oddity. Newsweek, for example, listened to an episode on defenestration—the act of throwing someone out of a window—and how it became an accepted form of political protest in Prague, after two governors and their secretary were thrown from a window in 1618 (sparking a war). Other episode topics include "The Rachel" (the much-copied haircut of Jennifer Aniston's character on Friends), the bumbling Olympic Marathon of 1904, and the time the U.S. and Britain nearly went to war over a pig (wasn't that a Friends episode?). 

Jennings, who broke the Jeopardy! record in 2004 by winning 75 games in a row, and Roderick, the frontman for the indie band The Long Winters, have a nice rapport and are at their best when tickling each other with absurdities. "I don't have a mental picture—like what do you draw in pictionary for a defenstration?" Jennings asked at one pont. "I don't know what a prototypical, archetypal defenstration is." He then launched into a tangent about window design at the time of William Wallace (of Braveheart fame) and quoted from the film It's A Wonderful Life.

The podcast, backed by HowStuffWorks, is delightfully nerdy and full of esoterica, as was Newsweek's chat with Jennings and Roderick.

omnibus ken jennings apocalypse podcast Pictured are Ken Jennings and John Roderick, who have started the "Omnibus" podcast, which is full of absurd historical facts. HowStuffWorks / Susan Roderick

How did you come up with the idea for the podcast?

Ken Jennings: John and I have been friends for several years, even though we come from different worlds. He comes from rock music I come from something much cooler: syndicated quiz shows. We wanted to do a podcast and we both have a broad range of curiousity—we’re interested in just about everything. So we wanted a podcast that allowed us to go down internet rabbit holes, you know?

And we also loved this idea that stuff is being lost—that there’s great stories we grew up [reading] in dog-eared Ripley's Believe It or Not paperbacks that may or may not survive the transition to digital. We thought, This is a chance to create a library of Alexandria, for a new, hypothetical civilization.

Why did you decide to go with the idea that the apocalypse, or some cataclysm, has happened? 

John Roderick: Cataclysm porn is a big style of media now, right? There are all kinds of post-apocalypse shows about zombies. So that stuff was already in fashion. And in the last year the apocalypse has never seemed nearer.

You mentioned internet rabbit holes. I'm assuming you're hoping to tap into the massive audience that looks for weird things on Reddit. 

KJ: It’s a golden age of that kind of thing. There’s multiple outlets feeding funny, meme-ready cultural footnotes—historical footnotes—into your brain all day. That is a hopeful sign. As for our future audience, our hypothetical moleman audience, or whoever they are, that could be another golden age we're talking to. 

JR: Both Ken and I came from an era where we entertained ourselves by grabbing a volume of the encyclopedia—an early version of hyperlinking from one story to the next. I think what’s lost in meme culture is context, both laterally and vertically. If you’re consuming stuff, hyperlinking from one thing to another, it’s more difficult to establish a baseline of history, to contextualize it. That’s where we come from. Every story we tell, it isn’t just meme ready; we're trying to bring greater meaning from all directions.

KJ: Even if it’s something small, it comes from a time and a place. What does it say about us? It's not just that those things existed, but why?

Let's take defenestration, an inarguably weird thing. How do you spin that into an entire episode, into a larger story about human beings?  

KJ: It's an unconscious process. It's almost automatic for me to think, ‘Why did it turn out like this? Why didn’t it happen 50 years earlier? Why Czechoslovakia?’ Whatever the subject is, I can’t help but spin out that kind of hypothetical in my head. That’s probably because I’m a deeply weird person. Luckily, John and I are both like that.

How did you guys become friends? And how did you discover this mutual love for absurd historical facts?

JR: As Ken suggested, for the world of rock and roll I’m pretty tame. And as far as quiz-show victors go, Ken is on the edgier side. [Laughs]. There’s still this enormous gulf between our two cultures, but in the early days of Twitter we found that we entertained one another. We both lived in Seattle, so at a certain point we started running into each other at book events and [the music and arts festival] Bumbershoot. He was getting all my jokes.

KJ: John and I first worked together when I asked him to play "disgruntled scientist No. 2" in a promotional book video. In my heart, he's been promoted to disgruntled scientist No. 1.

 

 

At Home Depot taco truck with America's sweetheart Ken Jennings.

A post shared by John Roderick (@johnroderick) on

 

Would you describe yourselves as nerds?

JR: I don’t think either of us would describe ourself as a nerd, but Ken is deeply a nerd.

KJ: Yeah, I’m a nerd.

JR: But I am not a nerd. I am a very, very cool dude. And yet we are both interested in the backstory of the defenestration of Prague.

What’s the goal for this podcast? 

KJ: To create a complete collection of world knowledge that will survive the apocalypse. It's a tireless, never-ending task. For us, it’s Sisyphean.

JR: It’s like Sufjan Stevens making a record about every one of the 50 states.

KJ: For our modern day listeners, we hope it’s a pleasant diversion. For our future listeners, we don’t know if they’re alien invaders or superintelligent coral reefs, so it’s hard to imagine what they will get out of it. But we'll be the only podcast in the coral reef space. We’re told it’s a smart business move.

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