Neal Pollack is known for many things. He’s a certified yoga instructor, a three-time Jeopardy! champion and most notably, the author of the humorous, sarcastic “Greatest Living, American Writer” column and author of 10 bestselling books, including The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature and Keep Mars Weird. He’s also the former frontman for the punk rock band the Neal Pollack Invasion.
He’s also a dad and can now add audio documentary host to that resume.
Similar to a podcast, Pollack’s latest foray is a series of short audio-only episodes on Audible called Extra Credit. The show is a sequel, of sorts, to his 2007 parenting memoir Alternadad, about his early days as a father to his son Elijah, while living with his wife in Austin.
The show’s premise is simple: Pollack teaches Elijah, 14, about the things he doesn’t learn in school. In the show’s first season, the Pollacks talk about slavery, religion, comic books and cars. But the elder Pollack doesn’t know everything, so he and Elijah go on adventures to talk to experts in each field so Elijah can gain new experiences for himself.
I talked to Neal and Elijah about their show and about what the show has done for their relationship.
Washington Post: Tell me how this show got started and why.
Neal: My parents were visiting and we were talking about this issue of slavery, a history of slavery being poorly taught in public schools, particularly in southern states. This tendency to downplay the history, or to teach that slaves are immigrants or voluntary workers. Or to say that the Irish were enslaved in addition to black people. So I thought that it would be better to productively channel my neuroses about the education system.
I pitched the idea of this, for lack of a better term—it’s a hipster homeschooling concept—to Audible. We got a pilot order, and we made that slavery episode. That’s where it came from.
Elijah: Well, you pitched it to me first obviously, because I had to be in on it. I thought it would just be us sitting around in a studio talking about whatever issue we’re going over that episode for an hour, and maybe calling in one Skype interview. Then when we actually got the show, we got the pilot, you’re like “oh we’re going to Louisiana,” and I’m like “okay, this is fun.”
Neal: I hired a friend of mine named Lindsey Patterson, who had some public radio reporting experience and has her own science podcast for kids [to produce it]. She made it very clear that this is going to be documentary style. The precedent was set with that first episode. Once we did that episode, in the travel log style, we couldn’t really go backwards and just make it a studio show.
Washington Post: How do you choose your topics?
Neal: We have a list of 10 or 15 topics. We’re starting our second season now. Elijah is in on the initial planning. I try to take things that either I’m interested in that I don’t think are getting taught properly in school, or are obvious gaps in the curriculum and we try to fill it in that way. In the first season, some of the obvious choices were slavery, evolution, sex ed. Even the drug episode we did, these are all things they’re taught in school but I feel like are mistaught, and sometimes deliberately.
Washington Post: What kind of lessons do you hope Elijah will take away from all of this?
Neal: I want him to be curious about a lot of different things … from a lot of different angles. I want him to be able to think critically. Really, at the end of the day, I want him to have good memories of hanging out with me and of all of the interesting adventures that we’ve had together. To me, that’s the real purpose of the show, that I get to spend time with my son, in a way that I wouldn’t if I weren’t doing this project.
I would like to think that he has had an extra love of learning because of the show but that kind of thing can’t be forced or legislated. Really I just want him to have good memories and also I want him to know how to put together a show. He and I are kind of learning how to do that together.
Washington Post: Elijah, what do you want your dad to take away from this experience?
Elijah: I want him to take away that his son is pretty cool and also I guess I want him to take away the same experiences he wants me to take away. This is truly an amazing experience being to spend time with my dad like this and doing all sorts of crazy things with him, traveling all across the country, talking to all sorts of different people. I hope that when he’s old and sitting in his retirement home or wherever, he’s going to be thinking about the time I got to spend with him doing this.
Neal: Yeah, you’re going to be sitting there with me buddy. This is how I’ve lived my entire adult life and I wanted to give Elijah a taste of it.
Washington Post: How would you say this experience has helped your relationship? Have there ever been any big challenges?
Neal: I don’t think our relationship is better or worse because of this show. It’s simply what our relationship is like.
Elijah: We’ve always had this comedy dynamic with each other. We’re like, “Why not turn it into an audio documentary?”
Neal: We had a YouTube sitcom when Elijah was 4 years old. Obviously, that wasn’t going to be his idea. But, he’s always been a willing participant in this nonsense that I cook up. My whole career I’ve been looking for a comedy partner; turns out I’ve just had to make one.
Elijah: We were already pretty close. But I feel like it has strengthened our relationship a little bit. Because I got to spend a lot of time with my dad, I mean more time than I would like maybe.
Washington Post: Elijah, have you felt like you’ve seen a different side of your dad while doing this show?
Elijah: My father puts his entire personality out on the internet for the most part. He doesn’t have a dark side, or somewhat evil malicious side. He’s a pretty open person so, I wouldn’t say I’ve seen a different side of him. I’ve definitely learned more about him and how he used to do poetry or something like that or how much writing he’s really done. I do learn crazy things about him sometimes.
Neal: Like what?
Elijah: Like opening for some famous band or something or some famous band opening for you when you were like a rock star.
Neal: Yeah, I had a little period. Yeah, I kind of just feel like this show I’m doing with Elijah is just another adventure.
Washington Post: What other projects do you have going on?
Neal: Elijah’s in a school play, that’s his project, right? As for me, I have a few things. I write for Salon.com making “Greatest Living, American Writer” humor pieces. I cover the marijuana industry for the Cannabis … as the Texas correspondent. I write about cars, I’m working on another Matt Bolster yoga mystery, I’ve written a couple of those yoga detective novels. Just freelancing in general. The usual.
Washington Post: Any idea on when the next season will come out?
Neal: I’m hoping for the fall. We’re going to have all our reporting done before he starts high school. Then it’s just a matter of when we put it together but, I would anticipate it coming out in the fall though I don’t have a firm release date.
Extra Credit is available on the channels section of the Audible app. For more information, go to Audible.com/extracredit.
Charles Moss is a writer and father based in Chattanooga, Tenn. He’s written for The Atlantic, Slate, VICE, The Week and other publications. You may connect with him on Twitter @chachimoss and Facebook. You may also read more of his work on his website.