About halfway through a recent episode of “POOG,” a new podcast that is essentially one long, unbroken conversation about “wellness” between the comedians and longtime friends Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, the hosts spend several minutes trying—and failing—to devise a grand theory about the existential sorrow of eating ice cream. “The pleasure of eating an ice-cream cone for me,” Novak says, in the blustery tone of a motivational speaker, “involves the attempt to contain, catch up, stay present to the cone. Because the cone will not wait.” Berlant, a seasoned improviser, leaps into the game. “And it’s grief,” she says, with no trace of irony. “And it’s loss, because it’s so beautiful, it’s handed to you, and you’re constantly having to reckon with the fact that it is dying, and yet you’re experiencing it.”
From here, the conversation begins to warp into almost sublime absurdity. Novak suggests that what she ultimately desires is not the cone itself but the emptiness that comes after the cone has been consumed, or what she calls “the dead endlessness of infinite possibility.” She makes several attempts to refine this idea, in a state of increasing agitation. And then she begins to cry. “Are you crying because you are still untangling what this theory is?” Berlant asks. “No,” Novak blubbers. “I’m crying out of the humiliation of being seen as I am.”
At first, listening to this meltdown, I wondered what, precisely, was going on. Novak and Berlant are brilliant comics, denizens of the alternative-standup scene that bridges the gap between punch lines and performance art. They had to be up to something. And then, after several incantatory hours of listening to them talk, it became clear: “POOG” is a show about wellness which is, in a dazzling and purposefully deranged way, utterly unwell. Of course Novak can’t process her desire to have everything and nothing at once; like so much of the language of being “healthy” in a fractured world, her yearning can never compute. “POOG” is not just “Goop” (as in Gwyneth Paltrow’s life-style empire) spelled backward—it’s an attempt to push the wellness industrial complex fully through the looking glass. Each episode begins the same way. “This is our hobby,” Berlant says. “This is our hell,” Novak adds. “This is our naked desire for free products,” Berlant concludes.
What is wellness, exactly? The term encompasses a broad range of activities, including juice cleansing, Transcendental Meditation, snail-serum application, buying a Peloton, napping, switching to oat milk, switching to charcoal water, Kegel exercises, sitz baths, citrus diets, maintaining ketosis, HIIT workouts, halotherapy, aromatherapy, talk therapy, past-life regression therapy, microdosing LSD, megadosing CBD, intuitive fasting, avoiding blue light, seeking out red light, reflexology, cathartic-breathing techniques, the Alexander Technique, sensory deprivation, forest bathing, and gargling with Himalayan salt. One report estimated that the entire wellness industry is worth $4.5 trillion, with a growth rate of 6.4 per cent year over year. Paltrow’s Goop—which swelled from a quirky newsletter, in 2008, to a conglomerate that features a Netflix show, conferences, cookbooks, a digital publication, and a beauty-product line—is worth two hundred and fifty million dollars alone.
The desire for alternative forms of healing is nothing new. Given the bureaucracy of modern medicine, it can even feel necessary, and many of the wellness trends that dominated the pastel, high-gloss Instagram campaigns of the past decade—turmeric lattes, sage burning—were ripped directly from practices that indigenous and non-Western cultures have passed down for centuries. Wellness tourism, too, is an old racket—you see it in the “lunger” movement of the early twentieth century, when tubercular patients racked with malaise travelled to the deserts of New Mexico, chasing thin, dry air and fresh perspectives. (According to the anthropologist Nancy Owen Lewis, the Albuquerque Health Department advertised itself as “the heart of well country.”) Still, previous iterations of health-seeking were largely about finding a public cure for discreet problems.
What distinguishes modern wellness, aside from its expansiveness, is its relentless focus on the self as the fount of all improvement. It’s trickle-down wellness—the idea that, if you work hard enough on your body and mind, your inner glow will leak out of your fingertips and touch the world. It can be disorienting to see so much profit attached to the notion of “self-care,” which became prominent in the feminist and civil-rights activism of the nineteen-sixties, and was advanced by such radical thinkers as Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldúa. Their idea of self-preservation stressed nurturing one’s body in a society that both dismisses and endangers it. Today’s wellness movement has, at least in its marketing copy, co-opted that language, severing it from its collectivist roots. Now the project is individual enhancement: poreless skin, pliant limbs, a microfloral garden blooming inside your wild and precious gut.
It makes sense, then, that the wellness industry has stretched into podcasting. Despite the village it can take to put a great show together, the medium can also be deeply individualistic. Most people listen alone, sealed away in their car or behind the force field of noise-cancelling earbuds. The shows themselves often feel like intimate collaborations between host and listener, but, really, the dialogue always goes one way—and that way often leads to an ad spot. Wellness brands, which flourish by convincing people of some essential lack, are primed for this dynamic.
Take “The Sakara Life Podcast,” a show hosted by Danielle Duboise and Whitney Tingle, the C.E.O.s of Sakara Life, a plant-based meal-delivery service that features dishes like “pecan and mulberry granola served with maple mylk.” (Paltrow is a noted fan of the business.) Each week, Duboise and Tingle bring on a guest to discuss such subjects as “psychiatry, psychedelics, and standing in your truth.” “Sakara Life” and the many shows like it are clearly trying to chase the success of the Goop podcast, which débuted in 2018 and instantly hit No. 1 on the charts. On that show, which still airs weekly, Paltrow and Goop’s chief content officer, Elise Loehnen, tackle questions that include “What does healthy narcissism look like?” and “How dangerous is our drinking water?” The show brazenly recycles topics (there have been at least three episodes on fasting), bringing an unexpected dimension to the idea of sustainability. The work is never done: we are always one goji-berry smoothie away from glory.
This quest-like quality lies at the center of the modern wellness apparatus, and it’s precisely what “POOG” both enshrines and interrogates. (In the first episode, Novak quotes the adage “The ego loves to seek and never find,” which serves as a subtle mission statement.) The series mimics the formula of most wellness podcasts—each episode features a topic such as skin care or sleep, and the hosts gab about various products—but the conversation takes sudden digressions, plumbing the ways in which a mind, addled by the industry, struggles to know peace. What sets the show apart, and what makes it slightly uncanny, is that Novak and Berlant aren’t trying to sell anything; they’ve already bought it all. They’ve travelled far enough to know that wellness is less about a fix than about a state that recedes before you like a mirage.
Both women are ebullient talkers; they sound like they’re trying to out-caffeinate each other at an espresso bar. At one point, Novak suggests that certain health-food products can “taste sweeter when you’ve overpaid.” “Yeah!” Berlant chimes in. “Overpaying is erotic.” The hosts never condescend to the trends or products that they discuss; they really believe in this stuff, and take sumptuous pleasure in its promise. It is this commitment to not breaking—to staying in character as people who have intense arguments about nut milks—that creates the show’s high comedy and wry insight. Recently, the duo appeared on “Late Night with Seth Meyers,” and he asked them for their opinions on crystals. They did not take the bait. “Well, they are simply not a joke, Seth,” Novak said, with a bit of hauteur. “Perhaps you think I’m going to mock them, that Kate will have a little jab here and there. No, no. We accept and embrace crystals as a modality like any other. To mock crystals is a humiliation in itself.”
This approach—a willingness to accept multiple schemas of value at once—echoes throughout Berlant’s and Novak’s work. Novak’s breakout hit, in 2019, was the one-woman Off Broadway show “Get on Your Knees,” a thorny monologue about fellatio that quotes T. S. Eliot and dissects her fraught allegiance to femininity. In Berlant’s standup act, which plays like a self-help seminar, she works through similar tensions between consumerism and self-image. One of her best bits argues that women should be allowed to shoplift cosmetics from corporate megastores. “The situation is women, sometimes upon birth, are forced into an economy where you have to pay for your own subjectivity,” she says, affecting a high-pitched tone dusted with vocal fry. “So, if you don’t have the right creams, powders, lotions, the state won’t recognize you.” The joke kills onstage.
What Berlant and Novak do so well, and what they perfect in “POOG,” is play the role of overeducated, understimulated women trying to reconcile the competing pressures that await them every morning. Often, the only way to survive those pressures—accept your body, but fix your body; be smart, but not so smart that you threaten anyone—is to turn everything into a sort of cosmic joke. Which is what “POOG” is: a laugh from inside the house that the wellness industry built. But Berlant and Novak’s quest, for all its solipsism, also yields something valuable: their conversation, which functions, for the listener, as a form of exposure therapy. It confirms that we want to have it all, that we want to want less, and that, in the meantime, we’ll keep trying to puzzle through it. “I could care less if you arrive at some neat conclusion at the end,” Berlant gently tells Novak, as she grapples with her theory of the cone. In context, the sentiment feels not unlike a cure. ♦