A podcaster talks about anonymity, ASMR, and when it’s safe to tell a story.
I can’t post a picture of the man who told me this story.
I can’t tell you his real name.
I can’t tell you where he lives.
So this one’s a little different from my standard way of doing stories.
Or maybe it’s not. The whole thing with The Connoisseurs is meeting with people in their own habitat. And Frick’s habitat, as far as anyone is allowed to know it, is the Internet.
In the mornings after I found Frick’s podcast, I got a lot of dishes done. His wry, understated opening—“Hey, it’s Frick,” offered in a tone of wry apology, as if his next words might be “I keep meaning to call you back”—made it easier to forgive the day for all the stress it would inevitably bring.
His voice—a library-soft, boyishly high register bookended by a weary rasp—had a warm synergy with the soft morning light and the steam rising from the tea kettle.
Not just his stories but the way he told them—like a guy taking a head-clearing walk in the woods—distracted me from my start-of-day anxiety.
I kept finding new tasks that gave an excuse to listen, just for a few minutes more.
Frick’s podcast is described (both by himself and the curator through which I found it) as the traveling diary of a circus clown, recorded in a different city every week. And indeed, you do learn things from his podcast about life on the Circus Train (which is a real thing, to this day), as well as the Clown College (where circus hopefuls go to train) and a place called the Rascal House (where they go to deprogram themselves from the Show).
But it took a lot of listens to get there. The first episodes I heard were about his grandmother’s stash of silver dollars, the mysterious neighbor kid from his childhood, the time he made out with his friend’s sister. He spent one entire episode making pancakes from a box, narrating the process as he went.
I still think the whole circus clown travelog is a swell idea, and maybe someone will do it one day.
But I don’t think anyone’s likely to do what is actually being done on the Frickin’ Circus. It’s podcasting in a form that’s all but impossible to find now—marrying both honesty and craft, art and authenticity. You can’t really tell if he’s just winging each episode, saying whatever comes to mind, or if he’s the form’s craftiest producer to achieve that spontaneous effect with unerring selectivity of details.
He was simply talking into the microphone.
Frick always gave his email address at the end of podcast episodes, but I never took it as a serious invitation, given his sporadic updates, the forbidding spareness of his website, and his general guardedness over identity. I put him on my interview wishlist on the off chance someone would tell me they knew him.
And then he commented…as Frick…on this site.
A few weeks later, I was dialing his number into FaceTime from a hotel in Santa Fe, Nm.
His first words, delivered with a grin:
“Wrong face, huh?”
Despite the veil of secrecy, the details of Frick’s early life are easy enough to figure out, with just a little digging. He not only grew up in P.T. Barnum’s hometown (Bridgeport, Ct.), but he left there in 1986 to enroll in the Clown College founded by Barnum. He spent a decade or more touring the country, first with the Greatest Show on Earth and later with other organizations like Smirkus or Bindlestiff.
Leaving the circus is where his identity subsumes into the mist of sepia-tinted speculation. The best research can only surmise is that he’s a professional musician, possibly still living in Boston. But his episodes are almost entirely rooted in remembrance and nostalgia, so that you can’t tell where he is now, or how old he might be now, or whether he’s achieved…I don’t know, contentment? Stability? Whatever it is that circus life can’t guarantee, that makes it so seductive to the popular imagination.
“When you’re seventeen, there’s a part of you that wants to get away. I wanted to get away from everything that is defining me. That’s the whole mythology of running away and joining the circus. Nobody ever says ‘I became employed by the circus.’”
“I don’t know if I understood how much away I was getting.”
In the hours when you’re not setting up the show, or rehearsing it, or performing it, you’re on the train, slogging through desolate stretches of the country that, in Frick’s time, had even less cell phone accessibility than they do now. To reach someone on the outside, you had to send a letter or call from a payphone; it was unlikely that you’d be there when they tried to communicate back.
The isolation in his nomadic life took Frick by surprise.
“You don’t understand things, you can’t imagine them, until you go into them. You’re seventeen—you don’t understand anything.”
His podcast makes it fairly self-explanatory why he needed so badly to talk to someone on the outside. The circus is a place of visionary performers and uncompromising artists who are also, many of them, liars, cheats and thieves. The upperclassmen clowns prank the new clowns or else ignore them. Meltdowns are a frequent occurrence—you were guaranteed to have one at the beginning of your tenure, and might have another for every time you moved to a new city or a new country, or someone showed up to visit you, or simply some new unexpected thing went wrong that put you over the edge.
The only relief for this insular life, without someone on the outside to talk to, was to get outside voices coming in.
And then, in the midst of a long haul through desolate territory, Frick lost his NPR signal.
“I certainly never thought ‘If it gets lonely out there, I’ll just start a podcast.’”
Faced with the loss of NPR, Frick went out and got an iPod, which led him to iTunes, which led him to podcasts. He first subscribed to the storytelling shows he knew from NPR—This American Life, of course, and Garrison Keillor’s segment on Morning Edition. Thanks to the intuition of iTunes, he found Hometown Tales (a compendium of local legends) Irish Firesides (which is exactly what it sounds like), and Love + Radio (are they on drugs? I ask; yes, he confirms, definitely are and always have been).
The voices, he says, felt like companionship.
“You didn’t know who they were, the people who were talking, but you knew who they were talking about. They told the biography of Blossom Dearie—she was an anonymous voice until I heard this podcast. Then there was the girl who played the sister in Different Strokes—what the fuck was her name? She had the child star syndrome–at some point, it all goes downhill, she gets into porn, she dies in the back of a van, OD’ing or something.
“These are obscure things—there’s no mass appeal to any of this. And I was like ‘That’s cool.’
“I immediately thought ‘How is this done? What is the technology? Why would anyone make it for free, and easy for me to get it? Of all the podcasts, how am I getting this one?’”
A few bookstore hunts and internet searches yielded him about as much as there was to know at the time about making podcasts yourself. The field was sparse, with fewer rules or genres to conform to, and it made finding an audience a lot easier than it is now.
“There was nothing to measure up to. There was no standard, there was no form. I took this as a good sign—this is easy, then. All I have to do is just hit record, and talk to you.”
I’ve always wondered what the title of his podcast title referred to. Frick seems surprised to have to explain.
“You know…like when someone says ‘How was your day?’ and you say ‘It was a frickin’ circus.’”
I’ve never heard anyone say that, but okay. It progresses from there—”Frick In Circus”—that’s how he comes by the name of his…well, it’s not fair to call it a character. It’s more like a Greek chorus mask, designed to deflect attention from the storyteller to the story.
What he’s protecting with the anonymity is his process. Just thinking about who might be listening makes him talk differently. He has a less than zero interest in who his audience is; he can’t even have people in the same house as him when he records a podcast episode. He reunites with people from the circus who suddenly mention having heard his show and identifying one of the stories he tells. He winds up in a social group where someone recognizes his voice. They’ll sometimes ask him to tell a certain story, or to republish episodes that he’s taken down from the site for one reason or another. It’s made him take the podcast into hiding for months at a time.
He’s taken certain episodes down that give away too much; he’s thought at times about burying the whole thing. After all, he’s not in the circus anymore.
“The thing that kept me going is just me talking.”
“You listen to my podcast, and there’s this illusion that I am something. And…”
He says it gleefully.
“…it’s not real! You’re totally just seeing more and more of yourself, if you’re listening. The people that think they know you, what they really know is themselves. And what an awesome thing. What a great thing to give people.”
“Somebody should make a fuckin’ podcast for me to listen to, so I can find out who I am!”
I find it hard to imagine someone with a better sense of themselves than Frick, precisely because he so easily inhabits that “what am I doing here?” space that so easily throws off the narrative we’re always trying to forge for ourselves. The stories he tells, with all their undivulged specificity, give the listener a chance to reconstruct their own mental space with someone else’s materials, like a kid playing with blocks in a psychiatrist’s office.
He’s fine with that, but it’s important to remember that his story, or any story you might hear and relate to, isn’t real. It’s an outfit that you can’t own—you can only try it on. No matter how spare he makes it, there’s still the temptation for listeners to climb into it…and you can’t inhabit a sound coming from a set of headphones.
“Whatever meaning you’re attaching to some story I told, it’s an illusion, if you really want to know yourself. What’s real is what you lived. You have to try to live that.”
“There’s a Zen teaching I’ve heard quoted before…”
“I honestly don’t understand what I’m supposed to learn from it. But I love it: ‘If you find your teacher, kill him.’
“And I won’t even pretend to say ‘What’s the lesson in that?’ But I think it has to do with knowing yourself. Again, you listen to my podcast, and now you know yourself better. But kill me, because I’m not you.”
It sounds high-minded when he puts it that way. But how, I wonder, does it feel as a teacher in the moment of being killed?
Frick sometimes misses the freedom and romance of the circus, but not more than he dreads the possibility of being forced by circumstances to go back to it. (More or less the same way I feel about ever having to waitress again.)
He does still work with the Show on occasion as a musician, and when he sees a truly funny clown, his understanding of their discipline makes him feel a part of it again.
“It’s an art form, like ballet or singing in an opera. Something like that. It’s a beautiful, amazing art form. It requires incredible control of the body, the ability to tell stories that are extremely cohesive and concise, there’s an efficiency of movement in it that is like ballet. There’s an elegance of the language to it that is like poetry.”
Or, he adds, like the best podcasts:
“What Ira Glass does, in creating these stories that capture the imagination of the whole country. People who are good at it are unbelievably disciplined and committed, and have a vision…they’re a lens for other people to see the world.
“It’s totally an art form–something you give your entire self to.”
We come back to this a lot, as we keep in touch over the following weeks. This happens nominally by his invitation, but really more my fascination with the Zen-like bon mots he drops into situations fraught with anxiety. (My anxiety.)
The isolation that he practiced for so long turns out to be very helpful in maintaining an emotional distance from frustrating or confusing circumstances.
When I freak out to him about a work issue,
“If the answer were a chair, you’d be sitting on it.”
When I spin my wheels about the difficulty of creating really good art while still trying to pay the bills,
“How interesting, how meaningful, of a conversation can we have, when we’re making generalizations?”
When I go on and on about the impending likelihood that I will be meeting a guy that I’ve been talking to, pinballling amid excitement, terror, vulnerability and diffidence, until I finally come to an embarrassed halt, he says,
“The worst problems that are out there in the universe for you to solve will be presented to you in the form of a romantic interest.”
“You have this interesting blank slate, when you meet a person for the first time. You get to pick the first thing they’re going to know about you. It’s really amazing. It’s exhilarating. And I feel like if it’s not exciting or charged, in some way…you might not be well! You might need to ask yourself some questions.
“You work away from this exciting pristine moment…your story is clean with them, you have their attention, they have your attention. You’re starting this story, and it’s this way to be loved quite wholly.”
It strikes me that maybe that’s what Frick loves about his own podcast—that he’s always starting the story over, like pushing a rock over the crest of a hill, and riding it until it comes to rest. He never exhausts his audience’s interest because the theme of his whole podcast is finding out what the theme will be.
But to do this, you have to keep your audience at a certain distance. And even they are unlikely to accept that distance for very long—they’ll just refuse to acknowledge it.
“It does cause a problem for me. It makes me more isolated, because they think they know me.”
If Frick let himself be better known by offering more of a context to his podcast, it could potentially put him in a league to join the A-list group of podcasters that has emerged over the last few years. A group like Radiotopia, for example, whom he admires and whose audience he’d love to reach.
The other issue in reaching for more exposure would be the technical issues. Meaning the truth, or lack thereof.
“I’d have to go through and fact-check my stories…or decide to make them fiction. I have to tell you, I’m so at home, wedged right in between those two worlds.”
He’s frank about there being lies in his podcast—details that he changed to protect someone, information that he learned afterward that makes the story muddier, nuances that were true at the time he told them but aren’t anymore.
“I will omit things so that that ending really lands, and you really have a picture. I’ll omit things that don’t relate to that ending.
“I’ve always just thought that you don’t want to look for it to be true. You want to look for the truth in it.
“Does that make it a lie? It’s a question I really don’t want to have to answer.”
He thinks sometimes about having the level of impact that NPR and the podcasts it spawned have—he can see himself in there, talking to that audience.
“I want to feel like what I’m doing is important. I’m embarrassed to hear myself say it, but I do. The conflict is, I’d have to really decide to draw the lines somewhere. At least decide what it is.”
And that is what he adamantly doesn’t want to do. Edit himself. Put something, even consciousness, between his own voice and the “Record” button. The simplicity of the process is what made it a panacea in his traveling circus days, and it has to stay that way.
“I get in a frame of mind where I need to talk about this thing, and then I imagine a person I could talk to about it, and imagine that they’re here, and I just talk to them.”
Incidentally, I’m not the only one who finds Frick’s stories and the way he tells them addictively soothing. He was recently approached to do voiceover work for an ASMR app—the developers had found his podcast to be very popular on the ASMR message boards.
Frick experienced the ASMR phenomenon himself as a child, and only learned what it was recently…from a podcast, in fact. He remembers it specifically from voices—a fourth grade music teacher he remembers particularly, who did more talking about music and instruments and songs than actual playing in their class.
“I was always so happy when he’d come to class.”
But the people who email him asking him to record Frickin Circus episodes in a whisper, or crinkle bubble wrap, or tap on the desk in between sentences, get a grimacing no.
“That seems a little exploitative, to me. I don’t talk to anyone like that! And people are into this binaural stereo thing, it’s like, ‘But I don’t have any bubble wrap I want to crinkle!’”
For his voiceover work, he essentially does the same thing that he does for the podcast—tells true stories about memories—like about the fourth grade teacher, for example.
“Except”—he leans into his computer microphone and drops his voice to a breathy whisper—“I’m talking like this. Very quiet.”
If you experience ASMR yourself, here’s a fact that may shock you: Frick can do it to himself. More the once, he’s found himself lost in that blissful zone-out, fifteen minutes into telling one of his own stories. Such is the power of having someone to talk to. I feel the same as he does about the more “exploitative” forms of ASMR—the crinkling and other contrived stuff—but I think what people get out of that is really the same thing as I do from hearing Frick talk, or what he gets from being able to talk in privacy…the feeling of non-intrusive intimacy.
It’s why I never cease to get excited to see a new Frickin’ Circus episode, no matter how long it’s been since the last one.
It’s why Frick hasn’t quit posting them.
“It comes back to the very beginning: I have found some companionship, from doing the podcast. I don’t want to leave you behind.”
Frick says a lot of people whom he meets through the podcast forget about him and fall out of touch. I’ve come to depend on his frequent check-ins, the bon mots he drops into my frenetic inner monologue, and the fragments of his own narrative, told mainly through snapshots he sends to my phone, always devoid of any context. Sometimes it’s a half-lit backstage photo where I can almost see someone naked; sometimes it’s a sliver of his own face, hovering over his accordion; sometimes it’s a weird tchotchke he’s found in a back alley store.
The first few times he did this, I asked for an explanation. Then I just started sending weird photos of my own.
This is something he used to do with his sister–have these context-less photo conversations. He’s told me a lot about her in the past few months–I’ve become a bit obsessed with her. She was a performing artist who made these hauntingly beautiful dance pieces, at once ethereal and macabre, that look like a collaboration between Tim Burton and George Balanchine.
I’ve wondered why he hasn’t talked about her on the podcast. He says he’s tried several times, but has stopped short of posting them because he hasn’t felt like it’s time…while worrying that maybe he’s let too much time go by since her death for the stories to matter.
“If you wait too long to tell a story, it’s less true. If you tell it too soon, then you don’t get the whole truth. I don’t know where that point is, when you jump in the boat.
“When I commit a story to an episode, I have to live with it for a while. I have to know if I have the story right. You can’t help but talk about other people. Does it affect the way I think of them? Does it make my version of the story the truth? I don’t know if I want that responsibility.”
This hits me pretty close to home. In fact, it shines a gentle light on what’s been holding me back from posting the many interviews I’ve collected over the past few years and still have yet to finish.
As I’ve come to expect with Frick, he disdains giving advice or embittered empathy. Instead, he offers one of those Zen-like pronouncements that transcends both.
“It’s good to be stuck. It’s good to have something to work through.”
“It’s a weird world we’re in. You put a frame around something and it’s art. And then you have all these expectations. If you didn’t have the Mona Lisa hanging in a museum, what would be the discussion around it? The discussion is really attached to that building, that frame.
“Even just the idea ‘is it interesting enough?’ has been brought into this story that doesn’t need any justification. It doesn’t need to be qualified. It’s complete. It doesn’t need any validity.”
Frick thinks about why we’re here, we humans–what we’ve got going on in the universe, and how in the midst of it we completely fail to take care of each other.
“That, to me, is like saying robins eat worms. That’s their nature. Human beings fucking fail to take care of each other. Men have failed to take care of women. Two countries in the middle east who are flinging missiles at each other have failed to take care of each other. Young people have failed to take care of old people. It’s an across-the-board problem, for humanity. We just fail, at every opportunity.”
This makes me think of the tagline on Frick’s website. It says “Damn everything but the circus.” I’ve heard this line before but can’t remember where.
He can’t remember, either.
“It’s a poetic reference… I just saw this on my friend’s wall. That’s where I got it, because I don’t read poetry.”
He pauses talking so he can Google it. It turns out to be a line from an e.e. cummings play called “HIM,” first performed in 1928 and hardly ever since.
He reads it aloud, his voice like the soft crackle of leaves aged and fallen before their time, the spaces between the syllables like the wash of wind down the hall.
When he finishes, a beat falls.
“Well, that really has nothing to do with my tagline. But it’s a really nice poem.”
When Frick started his podcast, he hadn’t thought much about these ideas–how we fail to take care of each other, how stories might be truer if certain details were changed, how the circus might just be a microcosm of life, painted and costumed and turned up to eleven.
But a lot has happened since then. He left the circus he was on when he started the podcast, then left the circus altogether. He’s worked on other podcasts, besides his own. He’s fallen in love. He’s moved in with his girlfriend. His grandmother died. His sister died. His career has changed radically. He’s gone from being deeply in debt to out of it. He’s evolved as a musician. His hair is falling out.
In other words, he’s lived a lot of time within the time of the podcast, and still there are things that the process hasn’t unearthed. The circus he’s really talking about is still going full bore, even if it’s a long time between acts. But the space between them is where the audience, getting restless, might see a little deeper into the performers they’ve been watching, and get some idea of the art involved.
Just a few days ago, I got a text from him. We hadn’t talked in kind of a while, and I’d just been feeling guilty of doing what so many of his podcast friends have done.
He said he was going to start publishing the episodes he’s recorded about his sister, Lisa.
The first one is up already. You can stream or download it here. I won’t tell you what it’s about except that it’s about everything.