Malcolm Gladwell is co-founder of Pushkin Industries and host of the hit podcast Revisionist History. He is a journalist, a speaker, and the author of several New York Times bestsellers including The Tipping…
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Every writer, podcaster and storyteller obsesses about how they begin a story. But they rarely pay enough attention to endings. Nothing matters more. Malcolm and Mike Birbiglia solve endings for you.
From our first-ever Revisionist History: LIVE events at the Town Hall in New York City and the Fillmore Philadelphia, Malcolm revisits how he’s tried to land the narrative plane.
Malcolm Gladwell (0006)
Hello, hello, hello. Thank you for coming. My name's Malcolm Gladwell. I am the host.
Revisionist History brought to you by Pushkin Industries. I think there's a whole bunch of-
Not long ago in a probably Ill-advised experiment, all of us at Revisionist History decided to do two live shows, one in New York and one in Philadelphia. All kinds of people came to watch, a little treat for the diehards. And in the spirit of that experimentation we thought we'd share a few excerpts from those shows with all of you, the real audience. And what you're hearing is me standing up in front of the crowd confessing I have no idea what's about to happen.
They tried to get me to rehearse and I just didn't want to do it. So you're all kind of Guinea pigs, for which I apologize. But I'm very excited. I broke out snazzy Adidas, [inaudible 00:01:13] Adidas, the seersucker, the whole thing. I rarely dress up. So this is a very, very big occasion for me.
So what we're going to do is we-
At the time I was working on an episode of Revisionist History about a very well-known movie, almost a perfect movie, except the writers had screwed up the ending. If you want to listen to that episode, it's called Starstruck. You could check it out in the feed. It goes in a million directions, Gone with the Wind, A Star is Born, Samuel Goldman, car accidents, Atlanta. We hung out in graveyards and took a group road trip to Margaret Mitchell's archives at the University of Georgia, a very Revisionist history mashup.
But at the live show, I just wanted to zero in on the core question raised by the episode, which is, what makes an ending work? Because the truth is most endings don't work, right? You sit in a movie theater and at hour three of the blockbuster you think, did no one at the studio give any thought about how to wrap this thing up? That's what I wanted to get at, why are endings so hard?
So in our New York show at the town hall, I invited the comedian, Mike Birbiglia, up to the stage to join me in the discussion.
Brilliant, brilliant comedian. A member of the famous Georgetown University Comedy Mafia, which we can talk about with Mike if we want. It's basically every indie comic worth their salt went to Georgetown. I don't know why. Something to do with Frustrated Catholicism. I'm not sure. He's about to go on tour with his show, The Old man and the Pool. It's a brilliant, brilliant title. We're going to start with Mike. Mike, come on out. I hope you're back there.
Mike Birbiglia (0303)
Thanks, Malcolm. This is my favorite podcast. So it's a very strange sensation to be inside of my favorite podcast. I don't know how it go.
Malcolm Gladwell (0327)
It's meta, Mike. By the way, you weren't offended when I said you were part of the Georgetown University Comedy Mafia?
Mike Birbiglia (0336)
No, not at all.
Malcolm Gladwell (0336)
It's a legit description.
Mike Birbiglia (0337)
Why, I mean, gosh, there's John Mulaney and Jim Gaffigan
Malcolm Gladwell (0341)
Mike Birbiglia (0342)
Nick Kroll, Jacqueline Novak. Yeah, there's just a whole bunch of them.
Malcolm Gladwell (0347)
Mike Birbiglia (0347)
Brit Marling. And by the way, Bradley Cooper.
Malcolm Gladwell (0352)
It's kind of unbelievable.
Mike Birbiglia (0354)
I'll tell you a funny thing about when... I intersected with Bradley Cooper. I never knew him except that we were in theater at Georgetown at the same time. I think maybe one year he is a little older than me. And he was most famous on campus for being the most attractive person anyone had had ever seen. I'm not even kidding. Literally, people would say, "have you seen Bradley Cooper?" I swear to God, not in a play, have you seen him?
Malcolm Gladwell (0424)
Yeah. That's got to be hard.
Mike Birbiglia (0427)
Life can be really hard sometimes.
Malcolm Gladwell (0430)
Mike. Okay. And the reason I wanted to talk to you with endings because I've often felt that no one's more obsessed with endings than I am, and I'll tell you why. And I say this also to say that I think you might be as obsessed as I am. I will very often read a thriller and stop five pages before the end because I'm concerned that the author isn't going to pull it off. And I just don't want to be there for that. I'm just like, all right. It doesn't matter that I've spent three days getting to page 395. I just can't-
Mike Birbiglia (0505)
No, no, I'm similarly obsessed. I go through four or five endings before I land on an ending.
Malcolm Gladwell (0513)
You don't start with the ending and work backwards?
Mike Birbiglia (0514)
No, no. As a matter of fact, The Old man and the Pool, I'm deliberating right now between two distinctly different endings.
Malcolm Gladwell (0521)
Wait, describe the two options simply? Describe them emotionally. Is there a difference in the emotion?
Mike Birbiglia (0528)
I can't give away what the ending is because it will fundamentally-
Malcolm Gladwell (0532)
Oh, come on.
Mike Birbiglia (0533)
But you know what?
Malcolm Gladwell (0533)
Mike Birbiglia (0534)
But you know what I'll do? I can tell you that there are two different endings for last show, which was called The New One, and one of them is me and my wife and my daughter sort of laughing together on the couch together in our house. And earlier in the show, I talked about how... The premise of the show is I never wanted to have a child and it's all the reasons why I never want to have a child. And then it's about how we had a child and how I was right. And then the emotional turn of it is that I was wrong. But there were two different endings that we had along the way, and one of them is the one that it is, which is my wife and daughter and I are laughing together on the couch. I don't say this, but I basically become all the cliches that of parents who I find so annoying, which is like, I just want to see the world through baby's eyes.
Malcolm Gladwell (0636)
Wait, we have that. Should we show the people?
Mike Birbiglia (0638)
Oh yeah, please. Yeah.
Malcolm Gladwell (0639)
Okay. Okay. Let's just show this clip.
Mike Birbiglia (on tape) (0643)
Una loves the couch. She goes, "Couch, rug, pillow. She's a genius. Three of us sit on the couch in the department store. Una's hiding behind each of us and I go, "Where's Una? Where's Una? She's clinging to my back as I spin. The more she clings, the more I'm committing like, "Where is it Una? Where is she?" And she starts laughing so hard, the hardest I've ever seen anyone laugh my whole life, and I'm in the jokes business, at this idea that she's tricking us, the people in power, the people who know everything. She's fooled us completely at least this once.
Look, I know she's going to grow up and find out that the earth is sinking in the ocean and we might have to live in an almond milk jug in Pennsylvania and people can be horrible. But as I'm staring at this monkey on a couch, I feel like she might be one of the people who changes that trajectory. She's laughing so hard that I start laughing in a new way from my perspective and Jen's perspective and Una's perspective all at once, we're laughing as one. And in that moment I feel full. I'm seeing the world through baby's eyes.
Malcolm Gladwell (0837)
So what's the work that ending's doing?
Mike Birbiglia (0837)
So that ending is-
Malcolm Gladwell (0839)
You're tearing up, Mike. Are you tearing up? You teared up. You teared up watching yourself.
Mike Birbiglia (0846)
How dare you, sir. At the town hall. You call me out where we have our town meetings every week. We're all at them, right? No, it is. It's emotional because it's about when my daughter was 18 months old. And she's seven years old now. So that part of it's emotional. So the goal of this ending is the show really mocks to the point of... It mocks people with children so mercilessly. If you never want to have children and want to mock people who have children, you're going to love the first half of this special. For example, a year after this came out, this came out a few years ago, I was sent a Reddit thread that was from a child free community on Reddit and I have never seen a group of people more excited about the first half of a comedy special because they don't know it turns to me having a child and then they feel completely betrayed when I have a child. Then they hate it.
Malcolm Gladwell (1004)
That's one of my definitions of a story. The difference between a story and an anecdote is a story is a narrative that betrays the listener's expectations. There must be an act of portrayal for the story to work.
Mike Birbiglia (1016)
Malcolm Gladwell (1019)
Mike Birbiglia (1020)
So there is a betrayal. But then ultimately with this ending, the goal is to point out after all the cliches of seeing the world through baby's eyes and all this stuff, and it's the most joy I've ever experienced and all these things that you hear, these annoying parents say all the time. I concede that I have a moment of that, a moment where I'm seeing the world through baby's eyes. And to me that's the essence of the type of ending I enjoy. Not everybody enjoys. I enjoy an ending where there's a hint of we understand that the emotional journey of the story is this big. We've swung to all over the pendulum, but ultimately the person, the character who we invest in changes this much.
So one of my favorite endings of all time is from the movie Big, Penny Marshall movie with Tom Hanks and I wish I was big. And then he goes to the carnival. And then he's such a grownup and he is a girlfriend and a job and all these things and he lives and he does the whole thing. And then he gets to choose at the end, He's going to be bigger or he is going to be small again. And he chooses small and there's this devastating moment where she looks back at him and it's his child self in a suit. And it's the visual metaphor of what we've experienced because he's both, he's both of those things. And the change in him is imperceptible. But we know he's changed probably this much.
Malcolm Gladwell (1205)
Wait. I want to go back to your show for a moment. When you were doing that show, did you have that turn in mind, that idea that you were going to be moving just a little? Did you start with that?
Mike Birbiglia (1220)
Because the alternate ending. I've literally never spoken about this. I performed an alternate ending because I toured these shows for numbers of years, like Old Man and the Pool, which I'm touring now, I've toured the show for probably three plus years, probably three and a half years have been workshopping. So this one was called the New one. I had another. I have another ending where this true story where my wife and daughter and I, we go on a vacation together to the beach in California, and we're on the beach and we're having this beautiful moment on the beach. And Una's like, it's similar to this, it's like sand, osha, water. It's similar. It's like she's a genius. It's sort of the same joke.
But then she picks up a piece of plastic from the beach and she's just place garbage. And it invokes all of those feelings I have about we're just living in the dystopia and why are we having children? This is insane, right?
Malcolm Gladwell (1327)
I could see why you didn't go to that end.
Mike Birbiglia (1330)
Malcolm, how dare you. In the location of our weekly meetings. No, it was too sad. It's too sad.
Malcolm Gladwell (1341)
Yeah, it's too much movement. You wanted a little movement.
Mike Birbiglia (1343)
Yes. So that's why that ending went away because ultimately people would leave the theater and they would go, that made me feel sort of bad about stuff. But the ending that we went with, just to be clear, I mean, endings are very personal for people. In that ending, you just watched. Some people left the theater and said, 'You're still kind of a jerk." You know what I mean? I would get very personal responses where people are like, yeah, you're like an ungrateful dad, you're a bad dad, all this stuff. And I'm like, "No, no, no, I'm being honest with my experience. And this is pretty close."
Malcolm Gladwell (1432)
This is exactly what we're talking about, which is that endings carry massive disproportionate weight. You don't go to a show or a movie or read a book and decide after the first 10 pages that you love it. That's it. I mean, you might say that, but it's a contingent conclusion. You will rescind that opinion in a heartbeat if the last five pages or the last five minutes don't work. And what's weird about this, of course, is that it's the opposite of the way we evaluate human beings. There's a famous set of studies about college professors where they take student evaluations of their teachers that are generated over an entire semester and compare them to teacher evaluations made by students who've only seen a tiny video clip of the professor like 10 seconds. What do you find that the two sets of evaluations are the same.
In other words, you're sitting in a class, you listen to your teacher for the shortest moment, and you decide, I like them, I don't like them. And you never revisit that conclusion. The ending doesn't matter. If you have 30 classes with your history professor, your experience in the final class or the final five classes, or even the final 29.99 classes does not alter your impression about the teacher. Our evaluations of other people are front loaded. That's why correctly our parents told us again and again about the value of making a good first impression. But our evaluation of stories is the opposite. It's back loaded. What happens in the last five minutes? Colors every conclusion we drew in the first two hours. Now, why is this? I have no idea, but I will guarantee you that every screenwriter and author and podcaster frets endlessly about how their stories begin, rewrites the beginning a million times, but aren't nearly as fastidious about the ending, which is nuts. We're all idiots, with the exception of course, of Mike Birbiglia. When we come back, endings part two.
A week after we did our town hall show, we took the train down to Philadelphia, rented out the Fillmore Theater, eight cheese steaks, got into the mood. And for the opening of the Philly show, I decided to reflect back on some of Revisionist History's most and least successful endings.
What we're talking about tonight is endings, because I happen to be obsessed with endings. If I'm watching a movie and three quarters of the way through there's just too many balls in the air, I'm out. I'm not going to be party to that kind of destruction of the narrative form.
I can go on forever about this and we will actually this evening be going on forever about this. But the crucial distinction in my mind is there's a distinction between an anecdote and a story. An anecdote is a narrative that conforms with your expectations. So the craziest thing happened to me last night. I found a hundred dollars bill on the street. That is not a story. That is an anecdote. The first sentence, craziest thing happened is the equal of the second sentence, a hundred dollars bill on the street.
A story by contrast is a narrative that betrays the audience's expectations. So a story would be, the craziest thing happened to me last night. I found a hundred dollars bill on the street. I tried to give it to a homeless man, and he said, "I don't want your F-ing money." That's the story. It betrayed your expectation. That's not how you expected it to end. And the challenge of revisionist history is we always want to tell a story. We always want in some way to betray our audience's expectations. So I wanted to give you a couple of examples of how we approach that at Revisionist History.
A couple of seasons ago we did an episode called Free Brian Williams, which some of you'll remember, and you'll remember Brian Williams was the NBC anchor who was fired from his job because he went on Letterman one night and he told a story about being in a helicopter during the Gulf War, flying low over the desert and he was fired upon by the enemy and he was terrified. And it turns out he wasn't fired on. So all kinds of people brought this up and called him a liar and a self-aggrandizing.
And he was forced to out of his job. And if you've listened to it, the whole episode is a defense of Brian Williams. It's this sort of argument about memory that says that our memory, particularly in high stakes moments like that is profoundly flawed. And all of us make mistakes of memory along the lines of Brian Williams.
So he wasn't a self-aggrandizing liar, he was just a human being. And now none of that of course betrays the expectations of the audience. The show's called Free Brian Williams. You know I'm going to defend Brian Williams. But here's how it ended. It's a clip of the very end of the show. It's a clip of Brian Williams apologizing for his mistake.
Brian Williams (2009)
Looking back, it had to have been ego that made me think I had to be sharper, funnier, quicker than anybody else, put myself closer to the action having been at the action in the beginning.
Malcolm Gladwell (2030)
Oh, please. Stop apologizing for a crime you didn't commit. Free Brian Williams. Now, do you see the betrayal there? You thought this was a defense of Brian Williams. But the last thing I do in the entire episode is attack Brian Williams for not defending himself. He's not a liar, but he's a coward. You didn't do anything wrong. Stand up for yourself, big man.
All right. Now, we don't always pull this out. There are times when the endings don't work and a really good example of this is we did an episode last season called I Love You, Waymo, which was... Waymo is a division of Google that makes autonomous cars, the kind that drive themselves. And they have them in Phoenix. You can go to Phoenix and you can order a Waymo and it just shows up. There's no driver and you hop in.
So we went there, me and my producer, Jacob, and we drove around these Waymo's and our whole point was that people worry about autonomous cars because they think that they will make a mistake and run over pedestrians. They think they're imperfect, but that's actually completely wrong. The problem with autonomous cars is that they're perfect. They don't make mistakes. I mean, they got 20 cameras and lidar and radar. They're so perfect that they allow everyone else to misbehave. If you jaywalk. You want to cross the street and you see a waymo coming, you just jaywalk because you know it will stop, right? It's perfect. And if you're a kid and you're playing soccer in the middle of the street with your friends and a Waymo comes, you keep playing soccer, you don't move.
And if you're a cyclist and you want to cycle to work down I95, you cycle to work down I95 because the Waymo will drive very patiently behind you. It's not ever... So it's been sold to us by Silicon Valley as this kind of epic technological breakthrough. It's not. It's a complete non-starter. You can't drive a Waymo through any urban area because people are just going to go nuts when they see the Waymo. So we thought the I love you Waymo was sarcastic, right? So here's how it ends.
Jacob and I, we order a Waymo to this parking lot of the Eleanor Steakhouse in Tempe, Arizona. And it comes and then we just start, forgive my language, fucking with the Waymo. And we throw beach balls at it, like a $4 beach ball, and it just stops because it's Waymo. It's like super polite, not going to harm a hair on the head of the beach ball. Then I decide, what I really want to do is I want to run next to the Waymo and then just constantly cut in front of the Waymo to see what the Waymo will do, right? So here's run. Run the clip.
No, he's taking off. Oh, he comes through. Waymo is freaked out, freaked out. He thinks he's going. He's got ahead of me. I'm got to catch him. Waymo, Waymo, Waymo. Hold on. Wait. Let me get in. Waymo stop.
Waymo was the perfect gentleman. He let me be the crazy one. Remember this the next time some Silicon Valley visionary promises you a future of perfect mobility, efficiency and clarity from the backseat of an autonomous vehicle. No, no, no. It's much better than that. It's me and Lance and Jonathan Waters and Jacob with his beach ball taking back the road. I love you Waymo.
So we tweet out the announcement of the show, and you know what happens? Waymo retweets the tweet. They're like, we love the show. It's fantastic. So we said that autonomous vehicles don't actually work. And Waymo's like you called the show I love you Waymo, that's all. They refuse to have their expectations betrayed. Now, whose fault is that? I think it's my fault. And then we started to get emails from... I'll read you some of the emails we got from readers.
Big fan of Revisionist history. I'm trying to figure out if I love you Waymo is sponsored content. Wait, I thought we were attacking Waymo. Email number two. I'm sure Malcolm and whoever is managing the show is smart enough to disclose when they're being sponsored. But this really felt like an ad. No, it wasn't an ad.
Number three. At first I thought my podcast episode didn't download correctly, blah, blah, blah. It was just a 30 minute Waymo love fest. No, it went on for 38 minutes. You had to listen to the last eight. Number four, what the hell was that?
Number five? Was that an infomercial for one? Are these people dumb? No one who listens to Revisionist History can be dumb. No, they don't believe in stories, they believe in anecdotes, right? They think that you can only have a narrative that conforms with your expectations. They don't understand that, no, no, no, no, what a real story does is betray your expectations. You screw up if that's the story you tell, right? If you can't convince people to make that turn.
Sometimes you really have to grab people, the listener, by the scruff of the neck and say, "No, no, you blockhead. This is going off in another direction." The perfect story to my mind is the story, will you start with the ending and work backwards? Will you know absolutely the turn you want to make? And there's one my of my absolute favorite episodes was exactly this. It's called The King of Tears from season two or three. And it was about the saddest song in the world.
Anyway, I'm rooting around late one night on YouTube and I run across George Jones' Funeral, which is one of the, by the way, if you have three extra hours, like if you're incarcerated and have time in your hands, you must watch George Jones's Funeral. It's one of the most epic, extraordinary, fantastic national events. They're all there. They're all weeping. It's just schmaltz upon schmaltz upon schmaltz. So I'm watching it like I'm weeping in my pajamas. It's 02:00 AM in the morning.
Every single person in all of Nashville is there in full regalia, cowboy hats up to Wazoo. Everyone's like finding a way to out weep each other on stage. But the climax is the great George Jones song was of course the saddest song ever written by Bobby Braddock. It's He Stopped Loving Her Today, about a guy who's in love with a woman and he stops loving her today when he dies. He only stops loving her when he's... And the whole song leads up to... You think he's alive and you realize, oh, no, no, no, he's dead and that's why he stopped loving her.
I actually want to play this. Play Alan Jackson. Hold on a second, Alan Jackson, who's at the end of the funeral, it's the climax, sings He Stopped Loving Her Today for George Jones's wife, who's in the front row. So it's so geniusly made. Play the beginning of Alan Jackson.
Alan Jackson (2827)
(Singing) As the years went slowly by...
And you realize as he sings that Braddock's song has gotten even more specific. It's no longer about a long ago love affair, it's about right now. This is the day George Jones stopped loving Nancy Jones. Alan Jackson takes off his hat and places it over his heart.
(Singing) He stopped loving her today.
Malcolm Gladwell (2907)
And if you aren't crying, I can't help you.
Alan Jackson (2910)
We love you, George.
Malcolm Gladwell (2918)
If only every story ended as well as that one.
Revisionist History is produced by Eloise Lynton, Lee Mengistu and Jacob Smith. Our editor is Julia Barton. Our showrunner is Peter Clowney. Original scoring by Luis Guerra. Mastering by Jason Gambrell. Engineering by Sarah Bruguiere and Nina Lawrence. Fact checking by Keishel Williams and live production by Kate Downey.
Special thanks to the Pushkin crew who helped pull off this live experiment, Carrie Brody, Heather Fain, Blair Gilkes, Jason Gambrell, Nina Lawrence, Nicole Morano, Eric Sandler, Jon Schnaars, Maggie Taylor and Jacob Weisberg.
And a big thank you to Mike Birbiglia, as well as the Town Hall in Manhattan and the Fillmore in Philadelphia. Stay tuned for more of Revisionist History live coming soon to a city near you. I'm Malcolm Gladwell.