Shelby Wolstein and Caleb Hearon’s podcast is out of this world. The comedians host Keeping Records where guests answer two profound questions: What would you send into space so aliens could understand humanity? What would you delete from human history?
These questions aren’t theoretical. In 1977, NASA shot a time capsule into space aboard the Voyager mission. The “Golden Record” included a whale greeting, a map of human DNA, photos of the Taj Mahal and Golden Gate Bridge, greetings in 55 languages, the sound of a kiss, and a recording of Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Goode” (among other things). NASA hoped the Golden Record would find its way to aliens and communicate important truths about humanity.
Shelby and Caleb’s guests have included Chicago’s Beth Stelling, Samantha Irby, Lauren Lapkus, Megan Stalter and Abby McEnany. When Caleb and Shelby’s humor sent Abby into hysterics, it seemed that delightful sound should be on the Golden Record. Beth Stelling’s episode includes a delivery thief who stumbles into the podcast and a shocking, laugh-out-loud exposé of her landlord. Most recently, Caleb and Shelby interviewed Daniel Chua and Alex Rehding, authors of the newly released Alien Listening: Voyager’s Golden Record and Music from Earth.
In an episode I’ve listened to four times and counting, Shelby and Caleb speak with Jon Lomberg, who created the actual Golden Record with Carl Sagan. Jon revealed Golden Record secrets like why Chuck Berry is represented, but the Beatles are not, and talked about how to be significant and make your life count. Every time I listen, his insights move me to tears. You’ll also hear revelations about what went on behind-the-scenes as Voyager’s deadline loomed and why Lomberg and Sagan rejected a proposal to include images of men in suits and ties. Creative folks will love the reasoning. Folks who wear suits and ties will question their life choices.
Keeping Records is a bright star in the podcast universe. Caleb and Shelby, who became close in Chicago and lived together in L.A. for most of the past eighteen months, feel like an iconic duo ordained by the comedy gods. Their synergy sparks hilarious and powerful insights into what makes humanity, humanity.
Independently, they both continue to rack up accolades. GO Magazine named Shelby a “Woman We Love 2021.” Caleb is a writer for Human Resources, Netflix’s spin-off of Nick Kroll’s Big Mouth. He has appeared on Abby McEnany’s Showtime series Work In Progress and on Variety’s list of “10 Comics to Watch.” Last summer, his standup show in Chicago sold out weeks in advance.
Shelby and Caleb kindly spoke with me about their history in the Chicago comedy scene, their life-changing partnership, and how a time capsule hurtling through space inspired an excellent podcast here on earth.
IN THE BEGINNING
Teme: When did you know you had chemistry?
Caleb: The sketch show where we met was at Second City with Shelby and our friend Gabbi. I thought they were both so funny. Then Shelby and I started hanging out with Gabbi and other people. I was like, “Oh, I think I can get a spot at iO for a show.” So Shelby and I started talking about Studio Eleven and came up with it together. It was a variety sketch show that we produced for two years with a bunch of friends. That’s where Shelby and I spent the most time together. We have very similar styles and find a lot of the same things funny. So it was pretty natural. Unless Shelby thinks it was super not natural. Shelby, what do you think?
Shelby: It was extremely forced. No! Caleb does this thing where he’ll text you at 11:00 PM, like “Hey, I’m going to this cafe to write. Do you want to come?” You either say yes or you say no and he goes, “Oh, wow. I thought you took your career serious.” Then you go to the cafe, you hang out for a while, and you become close.
Caleb: Shelby is one of the only people that responds positively to that. In Chicago a lot of times I would go to a 24-hour coffee shop and I tried that with many people. Everyone would just be like, “Shut up. Bye.” But Shelby would be like, “Yeah, I can come for an hour or two.” We ended up doing that a lot.
Teme: How would you describe your partnership?
Caleb: Romantic. I would say rawly sexual. No! Our comedic partnership is very much experimental. Shelby and I are always trying to be in a space where anything could happen. Our podcast is very much based on the idea of chaos and the idea that we could do anything anytime.
Shelby: Caleb and I both have a desire for having the most fun in comedy and also having it be good.
Caleb: Yes. Quality.
Shelby: Finding that happy medium is probably what makes us work well together. Sometimes we want things to be polished, but for the most part we’re like the polish doesn’t matter. People will have fun if we’re having fun. We have fun and also do something that is interesting enough to listen to.
NOTHING CAN SHAKE THIS FRIENDSHIP
Teme: Please tell us a quarantine story that says something about your relationship.
Caleb: We moved twice together during the pandemic. Once from Chicago to L.A. We drove with our moms. (The minute I said “moms”, my mom sent me a text out of nowhere, that’s so insane.) Most people moved away from cities during the pandemic. We moved from one big city to –
Shelby: – one with bigger problems. We have two stories and they’re both about earthquakes. Our first week here there was an earthquake. A few weeks later, there was another earthquake that was particularly long. Caleb and I were sitting in the living room watching TV, and both of us just sat there in deafening silence and held onto our chairs, didn’t say anything and waited for it to pass. And when it passed, we were just like, “Huh.”
Caleb: That was that.
Shelby: Then the other story about an earthquake was that Caleb wanted to watch a scary movie and I didn’t. He said, “If you don’t watch this scary movie with me, I’m going to start pranking you around the house.” I said, “No! The reason I don’t like scary movies is I don’t like to live in fear. If I think I’m going to get pranked, it’s the same thing!” Then we went to bed. Then at 3:00 a.m. there was an earthquake. And I, because I was half asleep, thought Caleb was under my bed or under the apartment, shaking to prank me.
Caleb: She thought I was strong enough to shake the entire house.
Shelby: Then he texted me, “Hey, are you okay?” And I was like, “Shut the fuck up!” He was like, “What?” I thought he was not only pranking me, but mocking me about it. And then I was like, “Oh, what am I talking about? He can’t shake the house. This is an earthquake!”
FRIENDSHIP AT ITS BEST
Teme: What do you like best about each other?
Caleb: Shelby, you go first and be really detailed.
Shelby: Caleb is, first of all, just incredibly funny and very smart. He’s also very fair and measured. He’s very thoughtful in how he provides feedback or provides motivation. He’s always really nice to be around. He’s also very hardworking. Even when we were working day jobs in Chicago, he was writing 9:00 PM to 4:00 AM every night.
Caleb: Shelby is sexy, I would say. So short. Could not be smaller. No. Shelby is one of the most loyal people. There is nobody I’ve ever met in my life, and I’ve met a lot of people, that you can count on more. If Shelby says she’s going to do something, she does it one-hundred percent of the time. Shelby doesn’t fall through on stuff.
She is obviously so funny and so smart, and also can talk to anybody. Most people don’t have what Shelby has when it comes to relating to people. You can put Shelby in any situation which is a really valuable thing to have in a best friend because they can go anywhere with you and you can trust them.
A RECORD OF HUMANITY
Teme: How did you come up with Keeping Records?
Shelby: Caleb’s friend introduced the Golden Record to Caleb. We thought what a weird thing. This is interesting.
Caleb: We couldn’t believe they did it.
Shelby: Not many people know about this record of humanity that will outlive us. It’s almost impossible to comprehend. But it’s such a cool thing because one of the inherent things about people is that you don’t want to be forgotten. That’s really touching to me. With the things that we think are coming for the earth like climate change, it’s nice to know that we have something that says “we were here!”
Caleb: As Shelby touched on, she and I may be absolute clowns, but we do have a very sincere desire to talk to people about what makes them tick. We like asking people, “What is it that really makes you feel alive? What do you think our existence as human beings is about?” They’re such fun topics to talk about, especially with funny, smart and interesting people.
Also, one of the first things you learn when you start writing comedy, at least in Chicago, is that when you find the funny thing in a scene, do it bigger and bigger and bigger. Take it to space and blow it up! That principle really applies to this podcast because literally these records went to space. We’re asking people, “What would you send into space for aliens as a picture of humanity? It’s also a way of giving people the opportunity to say what makes them giggle or feel good or feel seen.
Teme: What is the most unexpected answer so far?
Shelby: A mop.
Caleb: Yes. I was literally going to say the Swiffer. Sydnee Washington told us that she wanted to send a Swiffer WetJet mop. Shelby and I were both floored. We had not heard something so practical before.
Teme: That’s a good one. I’ve heard there’s a lot of dust in space. Your episode with Jon Lomberg! What he said about why each individual is significant was so profound. Everyone should listen to the podcast so they can hear it first-hand. It was life-changing.
Shelby: He’s such a truly delightful man who did something that he’s rightfully proud of and just loves to share his thoughts on it. It was such a treat to talk to him. He sent us a poem after that. Talking to him made Caleb and I both cry afterwards.
Caleb: I’m going to cry talking about it right now. He was so thoughtful about this project. He wanted so badly to make it representative of human life. For 1977 and a team of mostly white people in America, [the Golden Record] is remarkably not nationalist, not ethnocentric, not Christian or Western. They really worked to make it as diverse as possible which I think is so impressive and really kind of wild. He’s a beautiful person. We will absolutely have him on again.
Teme: What would you each add to the Golden Record?
Caleb: Shelby and I are both keeping a big list that we’ll reveal eventually. But I actually thought of one last night that I’ll tell you.
Last night I did two standup shows. Then I got food with a friend and then I was driving home. It was late and the roads were clear. It was nice in L.A., so I rolled my windows down and I was listening to really loud music. There’s this feeling … it’s not necessarily about driving because I felt it when I was going home from a show in Chicago on the “L.” There’s something about doing a comedy show, having fun, seeing your friends, talking to audience members afterwards, and just the busy-ness, and the chaos, and the excitement of that, and the adrenaline and then, particularly when you go home alone, the stillness, the release and comfort. It’s a feeling of being completely not stressed. Like you achieved everything for the day. And just going home at night when the city is a little bit quieter than it usually is. It’s a feeling that’s so beautiful and reflective. I would definitely put that on a record right now.
Shelby: Something that’s so much less profound than that, I think, is-
Caleb: Yeah, this is the duality of the Pod.
Shelby: Well, this one is still tender. The moment you’re in a revolving door, and a stranger is coming the opposite direction, and you lock eyes for a second and push at the same time. That weird moment of teamwork between strangers. You never talk to them. They’re in a different door. That moment is one of the most interesting human moments to me. It’s like, “We are agreeing to do this together. It’s easier if we do it this way. Are you ready? Let’s go.”
NASA INCLUDED EARTH’S RETURN ADDRESS: GOOD IDEA OR MISTAKE?
Teme: I’m shocked that NASA included directions on the Golden Record on how to find us. Do we want aliens to find us? I had mixed feelings about that.
Shelby: Caleb and I touch on that in the podcast. It’s like, alright, this Record is to make aliens our friends and also not threatening or scaring them. But there’s so much we just don’t know. I do think it would be interesting, obviously. But no, I don’t want them to come to my house.
Caleb: If aliens turn out to be real, I don’t personally ever need them to come here. I can’t judge them because we don’t know anything about these creatures. We don’t know what would set them off or how they would feel about being here.
But even more than that, I do know us and I don’t trust us. I don’t trust us to not blow it and make it bad. I just feel like if they’re real, we should just stay separate. They should do their thing, and we should do ours. At least while I’m alive. After I die, if they want to come around they can go nuts.
SIGHTSEEING IN CHICAGO FOR SPACE ALIENS
Teme: If aliens landed, where would you take them in Chicago?
Caleb: I would take them to a show at The Hideout. Then I would take them to get hot wings at Bird’s Nest. If we still had time in the night, and I could go back in time, I would go back to the old Pick Me Up Cafe in Wrigleyville. We could do a late coffee and dessert with some friends. That would be my alien trip.
Shelby: I would also take them to the waterfront for a bit, go swimming. Yes, the Hideout for sure. Or the Isle Bar when it was packed. Or, you know what? Caleb, you’ll agree. “BYOT” at The Crowd during the height of “BYOT.”
Caleb: Yeah, that was crazy. Several of us used to run a show called “BYOT”, “Bring Your Own Team”, at the Crowd Theater. It was on a Tuesday night. It started at 10:00 PM and usually went until 1:00 or 2:00 AM. People would bring like forty improv teams. We would cram into this attic theater in Buena Park/ Uptown, and just do the stupidest, shortest, dumbest improv sets. Then we would all go across the street to Windy City Gyros and get milkshakes and gyros. It was a weird but great time in Chicago comedy for me and Shelby and a bunch of our friends.
BEST AND WORST CHICAGO MEMORIES
Teme: What are your favorite and least favorite Chicago memories?
Shelby: Studio Eleven, the show that we produced, is one of my favorite memories overall. Some of our best shows and favorite sketches were when the room was packed. We were still just messing around with our close friends on stage. That’s got to be tops for me. The least favorite would be my day job.
Caleb: Definitely same on Studio Eleven. Any of those nights that we did shows and went out with our friends afterwards. I don’t think, “Oh man, I wish I appreciated it then.” I feel like we appreciated it. In the moment we thought, “God, this is so special, and we have so much fun, and I’m so grateful for it.” That felt like I just started living the coolest life ever in Chicago. I still feel like that, but now in L.A.
Echo Shelby on least favorite being day jobs. I have another memory because I wrote a poem about it. Shelby will probably laugh at that because I don’t really write poetry and I definitely would never put out poetry. I remember middle of winter. A boy that I was kind of dating had really hurt my feelings. I was transferring to a different train at Fullerton and I was standing on the platform and it was so freaking cold outside, because it was deep, deep winter and I was crying and so my face hurt so bad. And I just viscerally remember, “This sucks, but it’s also so cool to be in a place like this, having a bad day. I’m at a train stop. It makes me feel like I’m so artsy.”
ESSENCE OF LIFE
Teme: What is a unique insight that you’ve earned from your life experiences?
Caleb: Something came to mind when you were asking that. I certainly don’t think it’s specific to me necessarily, but it’s something I am passionate about. Which is, I think people are everything. I always say I’ve loved every place I’ve ever lived, and it’s because I hang out with people that I love. If you invest in people and you’re nice to people, you take care of people, and check in on people, and if you do the things that a good person would do and want done to them, I feel like everything else will fall into place in one way or another. Be good to people and be around good people who are good to you.
Shelby: I think I will second that and add to it. Specifically about comedy: make fun shit with people you like to make stuff with, and stuff you like to watch. It is a people thing. That doesn’t just apply to comedy. I think that probably works in a day job, too.
Teme: What is next for you and the podcast?
Shelby: Caleb, kick it off. You’ve got a long list.
Caleb: People can follow me on Instagram or Twitter, and I’ll put stuff out when things are coming out. I’m working on some cool stuff in L.A. Shelby and I are working on the podcast right now and really excited about getting more and more different kinds of guests. The comedy is just going to keep being funnier and funnier. Please listen to the Pod and we’ll let listeners know what all we’re up to. We hope that everybody who reads this will be new fans. Shelby, what about you?
Shelby: Same. Just getting back into performing here, and working on the Pod, and working on other stuff out here. But follow us on social. We’ll always be posting what we’re up to.
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