Intro from Jay Allison: Kathy Tu had just finished law school and Tobin Low was working as a cellist when they showed up in Woods Hole for the Transom Story Workshop in the fall of 2013. Now, they're best friends who co-host WNYC's "Nancy," a podcast they describe as "stories and conversations about the queer experience today." For our In Conversation series, Kathy and Tobin talk about what it means to collaborate: knowing each other's strengths and weaknesses, learning how to grow together and separately, handling jealousy if it arises, and other delicacies of creative audio partnership.
Kathy: So, Tobin. . . we are collaborators.
Kathy: We are also friends.
Kathy: I would say we’re friends first, collaborators second.
Tobin: And we’re going to talk about collaboration today. First, let’s talk nuts and bolts of how we do this thing. How would you say we divvy up responsibilities?
Kathy: I like to think of myself as the organization and the detail person and I see you as more of like a high-level ideas person.
Tobin: Yeah, I think to our credit — and I would advise any collaboration to do this — we had talks early on where we sort of figured out what our strengths were.
Kathy: We took an inventory.
Tobin: Yeah, we took an inventory of what our strengths were. You said, “I like to be organized. I like to be able to look at a schedule and figure out where things are.” And that’s how you feel comfortable planning things.
Tobin: And for me, I like to be more like, “What are we trying to say on a big scale?” That’s where I’m comfortable.
Kathy: Yeah, I don’t understand you at all. Does it feel weird sometimes that you and I together make one producer? One super producer?
Tobin: Ha, no. I think that you and I are no worse or better off than any other producer at this stage in their career. And in fact maybe it’s an advantage that we inspire each other in the places that we need to develop. That’s not to say that you only do some things and I only do other things. We both report on stories. We both do sound design and editing. But checking in with each other on what we like doing and how we like to work sets the other person up for success.
Kathy: And we check in with each other a lot, especially when we’re apart. When I’m in LA, I try to make sure I check in with at least one person from the team every day. When you work remotely, it’s really important to make sure that you’re showing up in other people’s lives somehow. And because you can’t just stand up and say hi, you can’t expect folks to get back to you immediately.
Tobin: We have ongoing Slack conversations that have the most delayed reactions sometimes.
Kathy: It’s great.
Tobin: I remember something I read in Tina Fey’s book. She writes about the writer’s room at Saturday Night Live and how there’s always a divide between the very smart people from Harvard who did satire writing and political jokes, and then the other camp in the writers’ room is the improv background writers who can do the silly fart jokes. And she was like neither one can exist without the other. I don’t think we break down that way. . .
Kathy: I was going to say which one am I?
Tobin: I don’t think I could do the show with just anyone. Sometimes people think that there’s a toolkit for collaboration where you can collaborate with anyone. I don’t think that’s the case. I think it’s that we work particularly well because we have things that the other doesn’t have.
Kathy: So, the takeaway is you’ve got to find people that you mesh with but also who have the tools that maybe you don’t have.
Boundaries And Fluidity
Kathy: I’m curious, Tobes, what is the hardest part for you in being part of a duo and collaborating?
Tobin: I think — and I actually think this is a thing that’s hard for both of us — I think we’re both people who see a problem, or see something that needs to happen, and we’re like, “How do I do all of it? How do I fix all of it?”
Tobin: And I think you get to a point — especially if you’re part of a team, especially if you’re collaborating with someone — where you have to learn how to let go. And you have to learn how to delegate so that the other person can elevate it, bring it back to you, and then you can elevate it.
Kathy: Yeah, I agree. The sense of trust builds eventually.
Tobin: I think some people have a concept of collaboration as meaning like every step along the way you do it together.
Kathy: Oh god no. Definitely not.
Tobin: That’s a big mistake. And I think we’ve tried to do some things that way. I’m thinking of the Tina Healy story where we were both working on it — every draft we did together, every telling of that story we did together. And then what inevitably happens is you’re lost in the same way. At that point, you need to get out and have a third person come in so you can be like, “Do you see a light here?”
Kathy: That was a tough one to crack. We both could not see the forest because we were lost in the trees. And I like the way we work together now — we both almost independently produce the stories we’re interested in, and then bring the other person in at various points in the story that make sense.
Tobin: Are there any collaborative teams that you would admire?
Kathy: Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie.
Tobin: Oh boy.
Kathy: Just kidding! Who do you admire?
Tobin: The one that pops into my mind is Abbi and Ilana from Broad City. I have seen them talk about collaboration and how both of them have this one project that they’re primarily known for and that they collaborate on, and then they both have side projects that they’re passionate about. And it seems to me at least that they have a really healthy attitude about how your creative partner can inspire you by going off and doing their own thing and then coming back. They seem to have that fluidity of healthy respect and competition that I think makes each of them better in their creative relationship.
Kathy: I’d say my collaboration role models are Hamish and Andy.
Tobin: Oh yeah, you love them.
Kathy: I do! Hamish and Andy are these Australian radio hosts. A few years ago, they gave a talk about what makes their collaboration work, and there was a tip that I took away that I think is really important. On their radio show, they share a lot of their personal lives. And they’ve made it a rule that it is up to you to say if there’s something in your life that’s off limits to talk about. That way the other person isn’t sort of guessing what you’re sensitive about. And I think that makes sense whether you’re chatting as co-hosts in the studio or as producers in an editorial meeting. It’s important to be vocal about what your boundaries are so bad communication doesn’t tank a collaboration, or so that resentment doesn’t build up.
Tobin: Yeah, I like that a lot.
Navigating The Pitfalls
Tobin: What do you think the pitfalls of collaboration are? What would you warn people about?
Kathy: When you work in a creative field or on a creative project, it really can be hard, at least for me, to not take things personally. You’re always trying to come up with ideas and share them with your partner, and I think sometimes I lose myself to the voice in my head that’s like, “He hates this idea. Does he hate me too?”
Tobin: Well I think this gets at something we have talked a lot about, which is the idea that, especially if you’re friends who are about to collaborate, it’s a separate relationship from your working relationship. I feel like there is a pitfall if you’re trying to get something off the ground that you would look around and be like, “Who do I super get along with? Who are my friends who I want to work on a thing with?” And you mistake that friendship relationship for a good working relationship when really, they are two different things.
Kathy: I mean it’s very much a relationship. I’ve told you this before, I feel like we’re married sometimes.
Tobin: Yeah, I feel like that too.
Kathy: And I really love your parents. Really great in-laws.
Tobin: You guys text.
Kathy: It’s true. Do you think that collaborating has impacted our friendship?
Tobin: Yes. Absolutely yes.
Kathy: I’ve seen you in situations I don’t think I would have otherwise seen you in. There are times when it’s a work day but something’s happened and I treat you more as a friend than a colleague.
Tobin: We do comfort each other as friends. But, I mean, we had a situation recently where you told me about something that was happening in your life, and I responded with the work hat on. And you had gone away to work on something, but then you came back and you said, “Actually I was hoping you would respond as a friend.”
Tobin: And I think that’s a thing that we’ve had to learn how to navigate. We have to be very upfront about what we need from the other person in those moments of stress or celebration or whatever. You need to be able to say “I need you to be my friend right now,” or “I need you to be my co-worker right now.”
Tobin: How do you think we do interviewing folks together?
Kathy: Nowadays whenever we have an interview together in the same room with a third person, I think we really ride the rapport wave. Like, when we were talking to Patti Harrison, I felt like you and Patti really clicked and had some great back and forth that I loved. So, I put myself in more of a supportive role, interjecting every once-in-a-while because I didn’t want to ruin the flow. And I think you did the same thing with me when we were interviewing Asia Kate Dillon.
Tobin: Yeah, that all came with time too. I think in the same way that people always tell you it takes 10,000 hours to figure out your own craft, there’s also something to thinking of your collaboration as almost like a third person that also has to do their 10,000 hours.
Kathy: That’s a good point, Tobin. What a great point.
Kathy: Oh my gosh, we did. How dare we.
Tobin: But we had to figure out our dynamic and allow us that time to be bad. One could argue we’re still bad.
Kathy: Um, how dare you.
Tobin: I think our skills have improved.
Kathy: Let’s hope.
Improved skills = improve worked. You agree?
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Celebrating The Other
Kathy: You got a question for me, Tobes?
Tobin: You know, something that’s unique about us is that our collaboration isn’t just behind the scenes. Our friendship is also part of the selling point of the show. And I think something that surprised us both is that also means that people are reacting to both of us, or people are reacting to just one of us. You know, that sort of thing.
Tobin: I am just honestly curious if you’ve dealt with jealousy or having to parse that.
Kathy: I think I’ve felt like a hint of nervous jealousy when I’m not clued in on, say, an event that you’re doing solo. That catches me by surprise. I’m sort of like, “Why didn’t I know that this was happening.” But I don’t know if that’s jealousy or general feelings of FOMO. [Ed. note: for MO elders, that’s feelings of missing out.]
Kathy: What I have felt is a genuine surprise that listeners and fans have responded to me as positively as they have. Because having known you for a bit now, in any situation I can easily say you can work a room so much better than I ever could. I am like the super awkward, need-to-take-anti-anxiety-pill, kind of person. And so, the fact that folks have responded well to me honestly still surprises me. And sometimes I think I feel kind of. . . I feel grateful that I can tap into like this queer-women support network. And I think this is just a function of how our society works right now. Queer women (generally) really support each other. Whereas I think queer men are supportive as well but maybe not in the same way.
Kathy: What about you?
Tobin: It’s the thing that I have had to think about more than I was expecting to, just the way that for some people one host will be their person over the other. And once in awhile, you see a tweet and you have a moment of insecurity or jealousy. But then I think the thing that I quickly have to remind myself of is that it’s not a dynamic that you or I are creating. Do you know what I mean?
Kathy: Yeah. We’re not competing for more followers. People just respond to each of us differently.
Tobin: It’s just the nature of being a co-host. Something Jad (Abumrad) said once was that you have to think of whatever comes to your co-host or your partner as a thing that is a result of both of your work. You both have built this thing that lets you shine in different ways. And whatever happens to each other that is good or praise or whatever, the other person is a part of that.
Tobin: So, I think there’s two things: 1) you have to let go of how an audience is going to process you as collaborator because there’s no control over it, and 2) you have to learn how to celebrate each other. I think it’s crucial.
Tobin: That’s not to say that I haven’t experienced my own share of people being lovely.
Kathy: Oh, Tobin, people love you. Just look at you. You’ve gotten a marriage proposal or two.
Tobin: But I think it’s fair to say that there’s some Kathy-stans.
Kathy: I still don’t understand that.
Tobin: But I think it’s like what you were saying: queer women, especially queer women of color in a leadership or a highlighted role is rare and it should be celebrated.
Kathy: Okay here’s my question: how long do you think this collaboration is going to last?
Tobin: Oh boy, that’s the real question. We had a really serious talk at the beginning of this project in which we asked each other how long you think this show could last, and I think this is so important and something I would recommend to everyone. I think it’s changed for me. The last time we did this we assumed that we would be doing the show on our own. And we didn’t know how much of a show order WNYC would give us. So, in the mindset of “we’re really going to have to hustle,” we had said five years. We had given it a finite amount of time to really be killing ourselves to make it there.
Kathy: Yeah. And then something would have to change.
Tobin: Since then though, I think about it less in terms of years and more in terms of how will this creative partnership evolve so that we both still feel creatively fulfilled by collaborating and in the roles that we want to play. To me, it’s more about “does our collaboration, in the way that exists now, still work for us?” I don’t see an end point to it. I just see that it will maybe evolve some day.
Kathy: Aw, that’s great.