When Jessie Kahnweiler sat down to interview “pharma bro” and notorious Internet troll Martin Shkreli for her podcast, she didn’t expect that she’d be the one pouring her heart out to him. The L.A.-based writer and comedian isn’t known for being shy — her viral YouTube videos have titles such as “Jessie Gets Arrested,” “Jessie Fucks a Vet” and “My Boyfriend Is Homeless” — but even by her own standards, the interview with Shkreli was particularly unhinged. She told him about the time she shit her pants after taking too many laxatives on the set of her own movie (she’s long been open about her battle with bulimia) and then detailed the sex dream she’d recently had about him (honestly, it was more of a nightmare: He’d forced her to sign a contract agreeing to have an abortion if she were to get pregnant).
“I was like, ‘Fuck, Terry Gross would never do this,’” Kahnweiler says, referencing the host of the NPR show Fresh Air. “I felt like, ‘What have I done? I’m an asshole, I’m a pussy, I’m a coward.’”
But Kahnweiler isn’t a coward — nor does she claim to be a journalist — and so she decided to embrace her on-air flubs, rather than editing them out of the podcast or attempting to re-tape the interview. Acknowledging her own failure to hold Shkreli accountable, she recorded a postscript in which she consults a family member (“He was playing the victim,” her grandmother agrees); gets chewed out by her producer (“You were so friendly and funny and chummy with him that I felt like it was letting him off,” he chides her); and analyzes exactly what went wrong (“I don’t think I was fully honest about how scared I am of him and what he represents, and what I do when I’m scared is I make sex jokes,” Kahnweiler admits). They’re the type of introspective, behind-the-scenes revelations that don’t often make the final cut of a podcast. They’re also part of what makes Schmucks, a new Stitcher Premium series about the most hated people in America, so thrilling to listen to.
“I went into this interview and I felt prepared, I felt very connected to him. I felt like I just showed up and did it,” Kahnweiler says. “It wasn’t until afterward that I got these feelings of dread.” Those feelings of dread later multiplied into sensations of shock and then self-loathing. When Kahnweiler posted to Instagram a photo of her and Shkreli embracing prom date–style, it was met with enraged comments about his marking up the price of an HIV drug. She realized that maybe it was she, not Shkreli, who was the biggest schmuck of all.
“Oh my God, I let everybody down. It was this thing of like, ‘How do I live with myself?’” Kahnweiler remembers thinking. “Not to be melodramatic, but it felt like my whole self-worth was kind of on the chopping block.”
To her credit, there are plenty of redeeming moments throughout the interview with Shkreli, who was recently kicked off Twitter for harassment and is currently on trial facing federal charges of securities fraud. Kahnweiler gets him to open up about his childhood with racist and emotionally abusive parents, his heartbreak over a repeatedly failed relationship and his poor hygiene habits, including that he hates brushing his teeth with a passion typically only seen in preschoolers. The point of the podcast, she says, isn’t to convince listeners that Shkreli is a supervillain — he does a pretty good job of that on his own — but to examine the person beneath the headlines, many of which declare him the most hated man in America.
“Just try sitting in a room with somebody. It’s such a different experience than being on Twitter and having your opinions,” she says. “You’re forced to be in the humanity of the moment.”
Kahnweiler is no stranger to being on the receiving end of internet hate. As a filmmaker and performer who frequently uses the medium to explore her own sexuality, body image and eating disorder, she’s gotten rape and death threats from male commenters across Reddit, YouTube and Instagram. “It’s one thing to be like, ‘Oh, this person called me fat.’ But it’s another to be like, ‘Oh, this person wants to rape and kill me,’” she says. “I’m very fascinated by the emotional and psychological effects of living your life out loud online — because obviously I have a personal vested interest in it because I love the internet, but also, the internet can suck a dick.”
Nicole Arbour, another interview subject featured on Schmucks, likely can relate. The former professional cheerleader turned YouTube personality achieved viral Internet fame in 2015 after her video “Dear Fat People” — which might be described as the opposite of a love letter — garnered a tidal wave of backlash from celebrities who accused her of bullying and fat-shaming. Steve Rannazzisi, the other guest Kahnweiler tapped for the three-part podcast series, is a television actor who became a pariah after admitting he lied about having escaped from the World Trade Center on 9/11.
“There’s the concern with the podcast that we’re just giving a platform for hate, and that’s something that I was really nervous about,” Kahnweiler says. “But it’s like, well, I’m not going to not do the podcast, and that’s a risk — I’m going to try as hard as I can to make this thoughtful.”
Kahnweiler has gotten heat for sympathizing with guests like Shkreli, whom she allowed to downplay serious accusations. But she says the social experiment at the center of the podcast could serve as a powerful lesson in a country that's divided by political extremes. “I look at all these people now who voted for Donald Trump,” she says. “What am I going to do: Am I going to hate these people, or try to understand them? I think that’s the next level is trying to understand them.”
Are there other dream guests she’d like to book on the podcast someday? “I wrote to Charles Manson,” she says. “So, fingers crossed.”