Etiquette podcast ‘Were You Raised by Wolves?’ adjusts the rules in coronavirus quarantine
In November 2018, TV journalist Nick Leighton started toying with the idea of hosting a podcast about etiquette.
“There wasn’t a historical event,” Leighton says by phone from his home in Manhattan. “For me, it felt cumulative, a growing sense of, ‘We’re probably going in the wrong direction.’ Internet comments were getting meaner, some of the news was getting darker. Politeness was definitely starting to feel more and more elusive. I thought maybe there was something I could do about it in my own very, very small way.”
Soon he’d mapped out a structure and come up with a cheeky name: “Were You Raised by Wolves?” A mutual friend introduced him to his future co-host, Leah Bonnema, a warm, bubbly stand-up comic who seems to soften the edges of Leighton’s stickler tendencies.
“I can be a little cold with my etiquette approaches, a little strict,” Leighton admits. “You need somebody who has a more empathetic, more emotional response to these issues.”
Almost immediately after they launched “Wolves” in September, the podcast caught on. Listener questions poured in, perhaps because Leighton and Bonnema were willing to take on any topic — from the textbook “What’s the proper way to eat soup?” to modern-day problems such as co-workers who vape at the office or, “Is it OK to ghost a colleague?”
In mid-March, though, when the coronavirus hit hard in the U.S. and New Yorkers retreated into their apartments, the concerns of their audience changed dramatically. Suddenly Leighton was getting texts and emails about the most polite way to decline “virtual hangout” invitations from friends (especially when it’s obvious you are at home and not otherwise engaged) and, “Is it rude to ask someone for their Netflix password?”
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Then, intriguingly enough, after a couple of weeks the scenarios returned to what Leighton categorized as “normal” — a bride married last November still hadn’t sent thank-you notes, and a listener suspected a therapist of texting during their sessions.
“My sense is that people are currently enjoying our show as an escape from current events,” Leighton says, “and not necessarily looking to us to weigh in on the headlines of the day.”
On the podcast, Leighton is the captain of the ship, briskly steering the half-hour episodes in a no-nonsense tone. Meanwhile, Bonnema, who has been known to announce herself by letting out a howl worthy of a Cartoon Network character, is given to bouts of incredulity — sometimes by the nature of the questions but just as often by the starkness of Leighton’s solutions. She describes herself as “a little bit wolf-y.”
Neither of them claim to have actual credentials on comportment. Leighton often turns to what he refers to as “the etiquette greats” — Emily Post, Letitia Baldridge and Judith Martin, better known as Miss Manners — and he always takes pains to cite his sources. But when asked about his bona fides, he cites his San Anselmo, Calif., upbringing in a Buddhist family.
“The idea of compassion and empathy and kindness was very foundational,” he says. “But in terms of the pageantry of etiquette, of fish forks and finger bowls, the sort of thing that people who went to finishing school in Switzerland might learn? I didn’t have that growing up.”
For several years, he was a constant presence at East Coast red-carpet events, especially in the Hamptons, where good manners often brought him success. While many celebrities strolled past aggressive, elbow-throwing reporters, they’d frequently stop for him because his style was to be unfailingly courteous.
“You should ask permission on the red carpet. Like, ‘Oh, Miss Minogue, Do you have a moment for me?’ or ‘Oh, Senator. Do you have a quick second?’” says Leighton, a two-time Emmy winner. “And if they declined an invitation then you accept that gracefully like you would if somebody declined a dinner party invitation. You don’t ask why. Celebrities, they’re just like us: They want to be treated with courtesy and respect.”
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Like Leighton, Bonnema was hardly raised in the world of cotillions and thank-you notes. The daughter of two professional ceramicists, she grew up in a northwestern Maine town so tiny that New York life made her feel like she was always playing catch-up.
“My parents are very invested in other people, being part of the community, wanting people to feel taken care of,” she says. “But as far as etiquette, I don’t think that existed. I feel like part of this show is me still learning the rules.”
What she brings to the table, she says, is the thousands of hours she has spent on a comedy club stage observing a vast array of humans and how they conduct themselves. Just this past October she made her network TV debut on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“I often make a joke that if comics had to stop working we could all be profilers for the FBI because we’ve seen so much behavior across so many situations,” she says. “You spend so much time watching people. So I think that heightens that awareness.” Then she adds, “I’ve also been in therapy for a decade.”
“At the end of the day, our values are very similar,” says Leighton. “She’s not an oaf breaking china, eating with her hands.”
“Sometimes!” Bonnema corrects him with a laugh.
So far, Leighton and Bonnema have had just one significant disagreement during the podcast — over whether or not it’s OK to use your mobile phone flashlight app to read a restaurant menu. Leighton saw the practice as inexcusable, comparing the disruption to “waving with their LED all around the room like we’re in a European discothèque.” Bonnema was more forgiving: “What if they can’t see? How do you expect people to read?” But as an edge crept into Leighton’s voice, Bonnema began to wilt. “This is like our first major disagreement,” she said. “I sort of want to cry a little bit.”
The incident did not go unnoticed. “I will say based on the amount of feedback that I got from our listeners, Leah was right,” Leighton says today, sounding contrite. “So I stand corrected. I was wrong. For that I apologized.”
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Listener feedback also prompted bonus installments for the show, which was originally conceived of as a bi-monthly podcast. Leighton began noticing almost immediately that when they’d get a negative comment on iTunes it was often about the distance between fresh episodes. The bonus spots, which appear every other week between regular shows, give them a chance to discuss listener emails, texts as well as voice mail messages, which attracts the most freewheeling queries.
“We got a drunk call last week,” Bonnema happily reports. “They kept [passing] the phone back and forth and then they got in a fight with each other.” “That was the best,” Leighton agrees.
One recent question — “Is there a polite way to eat Cheetos?” — led to the discovery that Leighton has never actually eaten a Cheeto. “It didn’t come up in my macrobiotic-vegan household,” he said before suggesting that he would offer chopsticks to guests if he decided to serve Cheetos as “an amuse bouche.”
Each episode of “Wolves,” recorded before the country’s shutdown in Leighton’s Chelsea apartment, goes out almost entirely unedited.
“The way it works is Leah comes over and I make a pot of coffee, then we gossip and catch up on life, and then we record [several] episodes, which are pretty much live to tape. So what you’re hearing is exactly what we talked about,” says Leighton conceding that he occasionally has to excise “um”s or a siren wailing on his busy street.
Sometimes he feels required to remove one of Bonnema’s too-lengthy digressions, but even that is rare. “One of the beautiful things about Leah is that her whole life is live, she’s a storyteller. And that’s how I think of the show — as a 30-minute story with a beginning, middle and end.”
Separated by the quarantine, Leighton has been posting Instagram photos of “before times” trips around the world and Bonnema has put up excerpts from a 2011 series she did called “Tips for the Post Apocalyptic Relationship” (“Wow, did I call it,” she says). To tide them over until they can record together, through times of self-quarantine, they’ve banked enough episodes to get them through May. “But our show is designed to be evergreen. It’s meant to be timeless,” says Leighton about the lessons to be learned in their back catalog, which teems with advice about returning damaged gifts, hitting reply all and stealing baby names.
In other words, as we shelter in place inside of our homes or wait in a social-distancing mandated supermarket line or take a head-clearing afternoon walk on almost empty streets, the rules of etiquette still apply.
“The reason etiquette is important is that it’s a set of rules that society agreed upon,” Leighton says. “We know that when we go to someone’s house, they take our coat, they offer us a drink, we sit down. We know what we’re supposed to do when we walk in. It’s not like, ‘Where do I go? Do I go into your bedroom?’ No! Knowing about etiquette can make us feel better about like how we’re supposed to act. And how we’re actually supposed to act today is no different. It’s the same template, it’s still available. We just need to know how to modify it slightly.”
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