It was in the shower that Warren Etheredge finally figured out what he would ask his dream guest, David Bowie.
“His cover of ‘God Only Knows’ — it has every musical Bowie-ism you can imagine,” said Etheredge. “So I’d ask him, ‘With that cover, did you ever think, nobody else could do this. I’m David Bowie?’.”
That wouldn’t be just any question. It would be Etheredge’s opening question, and by far the most important. As host of the Seattle TV and Web series “The High Bar,” Etheredge, 48, has sat down with everyone from actress Jodie Foster to activist Morgan Spurlock. But he’s not an interviewer, he’ll tell you. He’s a conversationalist. The first question is all he needs.
To talk with him is to understand why.
If you’ve ever seen “The High Bar,” which reaches 3 million homes on PBS station KBTC and UWTV, you know his guests all “raise the bar” for something. Foster raised it for mental health. Spurlock, for product placement. Etheredge has had me on the show, too — though I’m nowhere near as cool — and those times we raised the bar for new media journalism and then for community.
Etheredge doesn’t get his guests to open up by staying closed; when I asked him my first question this week — what he raises the bar to — I already knew the answer.
That’s not to be trendy or trite. When Etheredge says it, the word has weight. Conversation, to him, is not quick quips on social media or predictable sowhatdoyoudo? at cocktail parties. It’s not the affirmation of converts or the careful comments of the polite.
Etheredge — who in the past few years has broadened his focus from film to all cool culture — hosts, teaches, curates and speaks. In all of it, he pays tribute to real conversation — the deep, curious, revealing mind meld that on any issue ensures that we, as the show’s tagline puts it, “think responsibly.”
You don’t get there by revisiting old themes. Etheredge never asks a question he “certainly” knows the answer to. And when he researches upcoming subjects, it’s not to know what points to hit, he said, but to know what they’ve said elsewhere and “stay the hell away from it.”
During a chat with “Pan’s Labyrinth” director Guillermo del Toro, del Toro, surprising himself, told the live audience a moving story from his childhood that only his brother had known.
“That’s conversation,” said Etheredge, “when I have moments like that.”
Etheredge lives for those moments, but on a budget. For three years “The High Bar” has been a labor of love, producing more than 70 27-minute-long episodes with no outside funding and an all-volunteer crew. This month, Etheredge is finally looking for financial support. His crowd funding campaign has raised $15,000 of its $50,000 goal, with 11 days to make up the rest.
The campaign asks fans to help “ensure” a fourth season, support Etheredge knows he needs, but he doesn’t kid himself. For better or worse, he’ll find some way to keep “The High Bar” going. “I don’t see it as an option,” he said.
But he’ll only go so far.
Twenty-seven minutes is what he needs to get the good stuff from guests. Ten or even 15 won’t do it, no matter how much easier that makes things. As for production, Etheredge is no Luddite; he owns an iPhone 4 and an iPad. But he’s done interviews over Skype and other videoconference technologies — a favorite method among tech bloggers — and finds it “moronic.”
A palm reader who taught him the craft in New York (he’s also a trained doula) once told him that a book has the equivalent of a soul. He’s resisted the Kindle and has no need for Netflix, preferring video stores, bookstores and his favorite — the movie theater. Technology links us to culture and to each other more easily than ever, he’ll admit, but not more deeply. He needs to be face to face with the people he engages. End of story.
There’s a place you can get in conversation where no good topic is off limits. That’s the sweet spot Etheredge wants on the “The High Bar” and, frankly, everywhere. We have a “primal need,” as he puts it, for connection. He will answer any question anyone asks him if that person is sincerely engaged and interested in the answer.
So we talked about all kinds of things. How much it’s sucked when he’s worked on things he doesn’t really love. How easy it can be in Seattle to surround yourself with like-minded people. That time a few years ago when he lost his house, his car, his savings — something he freely admitted to authors Tavis Smiley and Cornel West when he had them on the show to talk about poverty (his guests think he’s exaggerating when Etheredge hints at it at 2:20. Watch West mouth the word “Wow” at 8:20, when they realize he’s serious).
“When I got your email, I thought maybe you’d want to do a phone call,” Etheredge told me, finishing his fried chicken at Ballard’s Kickin’ Boot Whiskey Kitchen. “That’s why I asked about lunch.”
I’m glad he did. Whatever happens to “The High Bar,” one thing is clear. Nobody honors conversation as he does. He’s Warren Etheredge.
Watch “The High Bar” online at www.thehighbar.tv. On TV, you can see it on KBTC at midnight Mondays, 6 a.m. Tuesdays and 10:30 p.m. Thursdays. It also shows on UWTV at 2 a.m. and 10:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8:30 p.m. Saturdays and 11:30 a.m. Sundays.
Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message to her on Facebook.