One is an award-winning comedy actor that will forever remain a pop culture icon and the other is a well-known #1 bestselling author & scholar. Though they come from rather different backgrounds, in reality, Rainn Wilson and Reza Aslan are two peas in a pod with their united curiosity in search of the meaning of life. Through their in-depth conversations surrounding a variety of topics, they are currently in the second season of their insightfully entertaining Metaphysical Milkshake podcast with Kast Media.
Rainn, arguably best known for playing Dwight Schrute for nine seasons on the hit NBC series The Office, founded the digital media company SoulPancake in 2009. “The whole reason that I founded SoulPancake was my love of life’s big questions,” Rainn reveals to me at Forbes. “We were doing our YouTube channel and digital media company and I did Metaphysical Milkshake as a little talk show in the back of my van, which lasted for several years and was a lot of fun and got a lot of views and was really a good time. Several years later, Reza and I knew each other through the grapevine and participated in many similar events and our paths always crossed. I said Let’s have breakfast sometime and we had breakfast and we were just talking about life and death and meaning and then we just kind of mutually said like Our conversation here at breakfast should be a podcast. This is really, really good stuff. First thing we did is we approached SoulPancake [and] they agreed to help produce it. It has gone through a few iterations right now but we decided to just keep the Metaphysical Milkshake name from previous because it’s just fun and crazy. It’s like philosophical and kind of irrelevant at the same time and that’s how the whole thing began.” Reza adds, “These are questions that I have always wanted to know like How do you be a good person? and What happens after we die? and Is religion still relevant? We like to say that we take the subjects very seriously, but we don’t take ourselves seriously. We treat some of these big existential, unanswerable questions with the weight that they deserve, while also having a good time doing it.”
Beyond exploring life’s big questions, SoulPancake’s mission is to celebrate humanity and champion creativity through its multi-platform storytelling content. Between SoulPancake (which was recently purchased by Participant Media) and now his Metaphysical Milkshake podcast, Rainn’s objective with these communication outlets is clear. “I really felt like we need to make conversations like this cool again, you know? Dwight has a lot of fans. I want to use my platform for good but you know maybe a different kind of good of saying Hey, we’re all human beings. We’re all struggling on this planet and someday we’re going to die and what’s the meaning of it all? To make it like okay and fun and interesting and kind of cutting edge to be having those discussions. They’re not just discussions you have at 2am when you’re stoned in your college dorm room. They can continue throughout the entirety of your life.”
Throughout their conversations together, both in everyday life and on their podcast show, Reza has been able to witness a side of Rainn that many do not often get to see. “Rainn is a profoundly spiritual guy,” Reza reveals. “Deep, deep thinker. I think that often surprises a lot of people because they know him as the goofy guy on The Office and they don’t know he’s a very well-read, deeply philosophical person.” Rainn has his own positive impression of his podcast co-host. “From my perspective, I really admire Reza,” Rainn continues. “I think he’s a great thinker, a great writer. I love his books. He always has an interesting and unique take on big questions, so I was just thrilled work with him. I know him as a friend and hang out with him and his wife and his kids but it’s a thrill sometimes to get to hear his unique take on some of these questions and their relevance. There’s a lot of things we see eye-to-eye on.”
Born in Iran and now living in the U.S., Reza is also making quite the impact with his diverse storytelling today through BoomGen Studios, a company which Reza founded in 2006 and became incorporated in 2007. One such project Reza and his team recently brought to primetime network television is United States of Al, a new CBS series which Reza proudly shares just got picked up for a second season. When speaking of BoomGen, Reza says, “We started this company because we thought there’s this entire world, this greater Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, which is literally the cradle of storytelling. That’s literally where the concept of story arose. What we wanted to do was explore it and mine it for its stories, to interpret those stories in a way that they would be appealing to a broad audience. We also are absolutely, 100% committed to the notion that stories are how we break the barriers, the walls, that separate us into different communities and ethnicities and religion.”
Reza goes on to share how sitcoms can be so much more than just for their entertainment value, as projects like United States of Al are creating a lasting effect in our world today. “We’re in this new kind of environment in Hollywood. I was just reading an article in The New York Times about the plan to rescue the Afghan interpreters. Biden said we’re leaving there and didn’t mention a thing about the 17,000 Afghans that we promised that we would save and their families. And now, the show has been entered into the congressional record as part of this larger attempt to, at the very least, maybe airlift these 17,000 Afghans somewhere at least to a third [world] country while we figure out how to process their visas.” Rainn quickly chimes in to Reza’s shared points by saying, “That is really incredible because who would’ve thought a sitcom could literally save thousands of lives.” Reza continues in agreement, “A sitcom changed how this country thinks about black people. A sitcom changed how this country thinks about Asians or Latinos. A sitcom changed how this country thought about LGBTQ people. The power of the sitcom should not be, I think, underestimated.”
Speaking of powerful sitcoms, Rainn’s legacy on The Office continues to strengthen today due to the growing popularity and accessibility of video streaming, now eight years since Rainn’s character Dwight ended his run on the series finale in 2013. “Thanks to Netflix and a lot of bored teenagers with hundreds of billions of hours of time on their hands, The Office became one of the biggest worldwide television phenomenons of all-time,” Rainn shares. He is also not the only star from The Office to transition from television to the podcast world. Rainn’s former co-stars Jenna Fischer and Angela Kinsey host The Office re-watch podcast called Office Ladies, a show in which he has made an appearance on before. When discussing his continuing bond with his sitcom cast, Rainn says, “I’m a big fan of the Office Ladies podcast and I love Jenna and Angela and you know, my co-stars and I are all real tight and we text a lot and hang out when we can.”
While remaining on the topics of podcasts and sitcoms, when I asked Rainn where he thinks Dwight would be today during this pandemic in the real world, he playfully responds, “Right now, Dwight is doing his own podcasts from his survivalist basement. I bet if Dwight had a podcast, people would tune in. You need to make that happen, Jeff.” With The Office fans often very vocal on social media about their want to see more from the fictional characters of the paper and office supply company of Dunder Mifflin, Rainn is quick to remind us all of a missed opportunity just a few years back. “We tried to bring Dwight back to primetime television back at NBC. We did a “backdoor pilot” they call it called The Farm, which would’ve been Dwight running his Bed and Breakfast but the brilliant minds at NBC passed on that and probably they’d have a billion dollar franchise.” Even with the somewhat recent setback, might Rainn still be interested in Dwight returning to television in the near future? “Yeah, I think it would be fun to bring Dwight back. I don’t know if it would be a full-time TV show or some kind of limited series. What if it was a travel show with Dwight, and Dwight was like the Anthony Bourdain?”