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Brendan Newnam Helps You Win Dinner Parties with Quick Wit and a Blue Blazer

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Style Icon is a series that highlights Angelenos who aren't strictly in the business of fashion, but who have an affinity for style, clothing, retail—or just plain looking good.


All photos Elizabeth Daniels, 6/11

Brendan Newnam hosts the very funny and charming Dinner Party Download, which was originally a Podcast, and still one of the most popular podcasts on iTunes. Those of us lucky enough to live in Southern California can hear Brendan and his co-host, Rico Gagliano, on NPR twice a week, talking irreverently about serious cultural events and seriously about irreverent ones in order to help you 'win your dinner party.'

In addition to The Dinner Party Download, Brendan also writes a travel column for CNN, and has contributed to Marketplace and Weekend America. Working from a pair of simple bungalows perched in the hills of Silverlake, he also manages to pull together better outfits than most guys we know who have to leave their houses to go to work.

We visited him to spy on his life, learn more about his show and get more insight on how to be the best dressed guy in Trader Joe's.

Who would your ultimate guest be on your show (and impossible guests totally count)?
Hmm. We recently asked our audience to tell us who their dream dinner party guests would be and their answers were inspiring: Thomas Jefferson, Tina Fey, Werner Herzog, Harpo Marx, etc... Any of them would make great guests -- except for Harpo Marx because mute doesn’t really make for great radio. Let’s see I’d love to chat with Bob Dylan or Joan Didion, but I don’t know how forthcoming they would be on the radio. There are people like Dorothy Parker and Cole Porter who would be the life of a dinner party...but they seem too obvious. How about MFK Fisher? She was an intellect, a food lover, a sensualist and a wit. All traits that I think would make for a great guest.

Who are some favorite guests you've already had on The Dinner Party Download, and who are you excited to host in upcoming episodes?
Predictable diplomatic answer alert: All our guests have been incredible. Truly, we’re pretty picky about who we have on the show so most of our guests are people whose work we admire. But you want names...Rainn Wilson surprised me with his warmth and intelligence. Kid Cudi was charming as all get out. He and I ended up having one of those Youtube back and forths in his hotel suite long after the interview ended (the lingering affects of his glaucoma medicine could have had something to do with it). I wish I could go to Randy Newman’s house every Sunday for dinner. My girlfriend has never talked to me about how I swooned over Greta Gerwig during our interview but other people have.

Do you pre-interview people before they come on the show to make sure they can express themselves on radio? Ever had any disasters?
Nope. I didn't realize people did that until only recently. As a radio reporter you’re trained to stop people from telling you their stories before you record them because otherwise the interview will sound too pat and bereft of emotion. I mean, you need to make sure they're intelligible. We've had to throwaway more than one interview with a foreign bartender because their accents were too strong. But we don’t usually talk to our guests beforehand. The only time this really backfired was when I interviewed the porn actress Sasha Grey She couldn't come up with an answer for one of our standard questions so we couldn't use the interview. (Which, by the way, is kind of understandable since one of our standard questions is “Tell us something we don't know about you.” And if you think about it what could we possibly not know about the woman who starred in ‘Anal Cavity Search 6.’ ) Anyway, that was disappointing. I wanted us to be the first national public radio show that had a pornstar as their guest of honor.


Your show claims to help listeners "win" at dinner parties. What's your go-to look to win dinner parties, and what are some style and manners dos and don'ts you want to share with Racked LA readers?
I usually “go to” what's clean in my closet. Or, on the floor of my closet, to be more precise. Working in radio your audience doesn’t see you so it’s not necessary to dress up for work. That’s why I probably tend to dress up a little when I go to a party. In this day and age, a touch of formality translates into a touch of whimsy, and I think whimsy is a key element to an enjoyable dinner party. So, I’ll wear a sharp blazer. Maybe a tie or a vest or both. And then something that actually is silly: colorful slacks, daffy socks. I always bring wine and I try to bring flowers. Flowers are magic. They are like handing someone fireworks, but without the third degree burns and vision loss. As for dinner party advice, I think the real deficit problem in America is the lack of listening we do. Listening is a wonderful gift and it has the added benefit of giving you, the listener, more time to drink and eat. Oh and always compliment the cook’s food. Even if you’re lying.

A favorite feature of The Dinner Party Download is your A History Lesson with Booze: after your listeners have heard an interesting fact or trivia tidbit, you invite a bartender to create a drink based off that information. What's the most popular drink concocted on the show?
It's hard for me to know which drink is the most popular, but one of my favorites is the “Lolita Haze’ created by Danielle Motor from the Hungry Cat in Hollywood. We did a segment on the anniversary of the publication of Nabokov’s Lolita. It was censored when it was first released. Anyway. Danielle built a drink based around muddled plum because that’s what Humbert Humbert is eating when he first sees Lo. It’s muddle plum, a little simple syrup, some lemon juice and Genever which is...ehem...young gin.

What's your favorite drink, and where would you drink it in LA, and....because this is Racked, what would your favorite-drink-drinking-outfit be?
I've found that a good gin martini is one of the few things in life that’s all it’s cracked up to be. Tanqueray, up, w/olives. Musso and Frank’s makes one of the best. I care more about who I’m with than what I’m wearing while having a drink, but let me conjure an outfit for the purpose of answering this question. I have this blue velvet blazer from Theory that gives me mild superpowers. It makes me gallant and protects me from social evils. That jacket, my default black Acne jeans, a parchment colored A.P.C. shirt and this pair of shoes I call my Rachel Comey Selects. They're not actual Comey's (I would need two martinis AND my blue blazer to get the nerve to spend over three hundred dollars on a pair of shoes), but she did pick them out. She's a friend of mine and when she was visiting a few years back she selected them from a pile of vintage shoes at the Pasadena Rose Bowl and suggested I get them. They are wine colored oxfords that I wear constantly. They cost $30 bucks.

We picked you for this feature because you have looked well put together every time we've seen you...whether at dinner parties, bars, even Trader Joes.
Where are you favorite spots to shop for men's clothes in LA, and what is something that you would never, ever wear?
It's fitting that you saw me at Trader Joe’s because my food shopping and clothes shopping habits are similar. I go to TJ’s for my reasonably priced, quality basics and then I go to other places for specific items. Gelson’s for tea and bread, the Hollywood Farmer’s market for meat and vegetables and Whole Foods for bulk items and overpriced moisturizer. Clothes work the same way - my basics come from the East Side thrift and vintage circuit: Crossroads, Wasteland, Out of the Closet, St. Vincent’s, the Rose Bowl and PCC flea markets. (I have an unproven theory that stopping by these shops at nonpeak time increases your chances of finding goof stuff.) For new stuff I wait until I come across a sale. The notorious biannual A.P.C. sale is notorious for good reason. I have a theory that the new Bloomingdale's at Santa Monica is just getting the hang of what and how much to buy of something. As a result their men's sale last year was gonzo. Tons of great stuff for cheap. While waiting out traffic after conducting an interview in Beverly Hills recently, I struck upon a Barneys sale and found a Helmut Lang suit that was under a million dollars. My mom once said of my taste in clothes: you have champagne tastes and a Budweiser wallet. Fortunately, I discovered prosecco.

As for my “Never ever” list: I think sweatpants are a human rights crime. I don’t wear shorts (my legs look like ivory pool sticks). And I don’t wear shirts without collars.

You've lived all over the US, and abroad as well...how has your style changed depending on where you've lived/how you've lived?
Hmm. This question reminds me of an imaginary blog I have in my head called My Thirties or LA? All of the fake entries explore whether a particular change that has come over me is the result of me getting older or me living in Los Angeles. Like, ‘Am I asking the woman at Whole Foods about what sort of fish the fish oil pills I’m buying comes from because I’m in my Thirties or because I live in LA?’ Or ‘I finally appreciate Tom Petty, is that because I’m in my Thirties or because I live in LA?.’ I guess what I’m trying to say is that it’s hard to attribute a style shift to one particular factor over another. Living in LA has certainly led me to neglect my autumn clothes in favor of summer clothes. Also, there is a big temptation to go casual here that I fight. That said, I’ve definitely caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror of local coffee shop and thought: “That guy left his house like that?” But again it’s hard to tell if my occasional lapses are the result of my age or my zip code?

You also write a column, The State I'm In, for Cnn.com, where you travel around the US. Any travel jems in this state you'd like to share? Worst part about writing a travel column?
The worst part of writing a travel column is being threatened by your friends and loved ones. “I’ll kill you if you write about this” is a phrase I hear a lot. Usually right before we arrive at an amazing place I’d love to write about. To protect my health, here’s a magic spot I found on my own: Manka’s Inverness Lodge in Point Reyes is a California treasure. Rustic rooms nestled into raw green wilderness. Wood, brick, fireplaces, hunter chic before the lumberjack look overwhelmed men’s fashion. Log beds, deep reading chairs, ipods with every song in the world, and exquisite homemade food delivered at your doorstep in a basket. A roasted chicken, a thermos of tea, warm scones, fine wine. The main lodge burned down a few years ago which I think only heightens the appeal of this quirky romantic spot. The front desk is now in a vintage airstream replete with a stocked bar. Being there I get the whole “California Republic” thing. It’s this state at its finest.

Recently, you and your co-host, Rico Gagliano, were on Top Chef Masters to judge a challenge. Any chance we'll see The Dinner Party Download coming to a small screen anytime soon? Or any more of you and Rico on TV?
On August 2nd we appear on a Bravo show called Rocco’s Celebrity Dinner Party. The theme of the show is fashion. Nicole Miller was one of the guests. Our job was to drink, eat and judge which is pretty much what I do anyway so that was pretty dreamy. I remember as a kid reading an interview with the great shortstop Ozzie Smith where he said he loved his job so much that he feels like he never worked a day in his life. That’s how I felt during that taping. It didn’t feel like work. The fact that I don’t have a television makes it more fun because I won’t have to see what a fool I made of myself. Anyway, TV is a blast. We’d love to do more but we're too busy making radio. If any TV people are reading this please get in touch. Just kidding. No I'm not.

And now, we need to turn the two questions you ask every guest on The Dinner Party Download on you: What would you least like to be asked at a dinner party?
Can you help with the dishes? I learned how to cook so I wouldn’t have to do dishes.

What is something we don't know, or don't know about you?
I'm almost positive no one knew anything about me until this interview so “D) All of the above.” But as someone who asks this question every week I know how unsatisfying that answer is so how about this: 14% of all Americans live in poverty. 35% of people living in poverty are children. Those numbers keep things in perspective for me. I love style and fashion but I recognize that it’s a luxury. People like me who can afford to have discussions like this are among the luckiest people in the entire world.
· Dinner Party Download [NPR]

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