Two years after its launch, Pen Pals with Daniel & Rory is going strong as one of the funniest, most sincere podcasts there is.
Each week, the two stand-ups read and react to letters, postcards, emails and direct messages from listeners posing hypothetical questions, asking for unprofessional advice or just sharing stories.
The pair have covered topics as divergent as the toxicity of family ties and the validity of vanilla ice cream. They've explored music, cults, social media, religion and mysteries of the universe — like Rory's haunted giraffe statuette or the fact that they each have aunts named Connie who made them Alf costumes for Halloween.
Pen Pals casts a wide net.
Through the podcast, Daniel and Rory have served as junior grand marshals in a Mardi Gras parade in Galveston, Texas, talked about suicide with guest Conan O'Brien, and they would have crashed a wedding this spring (with the bride and groom's blessing) were it not for this meddling pandemic.
The show is fortified with inside jokes and references dating back to its earliest episodes. To help get new listeners up to speed, fans created a guide to some of the highlights of the first two years of the show, dubbed 'Emily's Pen Pals Path to Pitching Pen Pals'.
But what might seem like shapeshifting on the part of the co-hosts is actually the opposite. Daniel and Rory aren't so much versatile on Pen Pals as they are utterly genuine and deeply funny.
Each letter, no matter how trivial or taboo, is handled with care, humor and open minds. Nothing is off-limits and you never know where Daniel and Rory are going to go, but the laughs are always nearby.
"I think that we can talk about anything dark, anything light," Daniel says. "Because of who Rory and I are, inherently, we are probably a minute to a minute-and-a-half away from some sort of joke anyway. You can't take the comedy out of it."
In separate conversations with QN'A, Rory and Daniel discussed the genesis of Pen Pals, why it works so well, where it has taken them and where it could go.
Read more below!
Photo: Mindy Tucker
What's made Pen Pals keep going where your first attempt at a podcast together lost steam?
Daniel: We did the Pound Cake podcast together. Which is still one of my favorite comedic things that I've ever done. It was great, but as things are with Rory and I, it got a little high concept and we couldn't sustain that. I was surprised we got that much done.
Rory and I love an idea. We hate execution. We love somebody else executing it, but we're not good at that.
We wanted to do another podcast together...I just started thinking about, 'What is something that Rory and I can execute that is also good?'
People send in the stories for Dumb People Town. 1) That makes it easier for me. 2) It allows the listener to have a real ownership of the show. I wanted something that felt like, 'This was as much created by the listener as it was us.' So if people just send us letters, then we just have to pick one letter. ...You just have to find the right one you want to talk about.
Very early on I thought of that saying, 'It's your podcast, we just talk about it.' It's worked out so far.
Rory: We can do anything [with Pen Pals]. Whatever people write us, that dictates everything. The tone of an episode is not our choice. It’s all in the letters.
That’s why we say, ‘It’s your podcast, we just talk about it.’ Because those big decisions on tone and stuff are really made by whoever is writing the letter. We try to make jokes whenever we can. In that process, we found out that we connect on a lot of stuff.
I think a lot of people would be surprised. If they sat down and had to talk to another person intimately about the topics that Daniel and I have had to talk about, because of the letters, you naturally do start to create a chemistry and a really tight bond.
A lot of our bonding happens to do with the fact that we’re forced to be vulnerable while talking about some pretty dark, heavy stuff.
The show always seems very in-the-moment. How much do you communicate before recording about who reads what?
Daniel: Oftentimes we meet early before a show and pick the letters right then. There have been times where on the air, I think we've even said it, like, 'Let me find a letter here really quick.' It really runs the gamut, which I like, I don't want it to be one thing.
The only consideration we try to give to it is maybe something heavy and something light in an episode. But again, if we both have something to talk about that is heavy, we do it.
I think that we can talk about anything dark, anything light. Because of who Rory and I are, inherently, we are probably a minute to a minute-and-a-half away from some sort of joke anyway. You can't take the comedy out of it.
Rory: Naturally, we’re just drawn to try to make jokes. The tone of the joke or how it’s said or what that joke can be. If someone writes us something about suicide… These topics come up, someone says suicide or abortion, anything people don’t want to hear jokes about.
I think people get tense because we don’t freely talk about these subjects more openly, as a factual part of life.
Something like suicide is heartbreaking and it’s sad. We also try to say, 'Look at how we’re talking about it!' We can tackle these topics with a little more courage and levity. Not that that’s what those topic need, but we can talk about them to maybe influence how someone perceives them. Not to change people’s opinions but to give them a new perspective.
I think the passion that comes from longtime listeners is because Pen Pals rewards people who stick with it. If the podcast isn't funny at a given moment, it's at least a cathartic conversation. Whether your belly hurts from laughing or not, you feel good when the episode is over.
Rory: I think the fact that Daniel and I just come at it with compassion and genuine responses [to the letters], the comedy comes from wherever the comedy comes from. But knowing that we do actually care when people ask us questions or have stuff for us, we are giving it our actual selves. I think people are attracted to us being genuine.
Daniel: I think some of that is deliberate, including a guest like Conan, where you want your guest to realize, 'Oh, I can get real here. Okay, I'll get real.' Some of that's by design, but I feel like it's important. You don't want to do that every week because it can kind of wash out. But if someone makes it personal, it's probably going to be unique.
...Rory and I are also two people — if I can speak for him — we both were victims of and have dealt with a lot of loss from a very early age. I think that puts in you this feeling of, how important is today? And how valuable is the memory of yesterday? So make them both great. One will make the other wonderful.