Davy Rothbart Finds the Hidden Tales in Lost Items

The editor/publisher of Found magazine explains how his team made the jump from pages to podcasts and tells us about heart-warming root canals.

Photo Credit: Dan Busta

Davy Rothbart is probably best known for his wonderful pieces on “This American Life” and for his magazine Found. The latter has been turned into a musical and, most recently, a hit podcast. In the audio above and the text below, Davy explains how he made the jump from magazine to podcast and shares a few astonishing tales from the show.

Be sure to also listen to Rico and Brendan on “Found” podcast’s live episode here, alongside Starlee Kine of “Mystery Show.”


On how “Found” evolved from a magazine into a podcast

Davy Rothbart: So, we’d been doing Found magazine for 15 years. And about one issue a year [is] just notes, letters, things that people have found on the ground on the street. Love letters, journal entries, to do lists. Real things written by real people.

And I love the notes that I publish. And I always wonder, “What if I could meet the real person that wrote that and find out what the real story is behind what they are talking about?”

So, doing the podcast, the idea was: let’s track these people down. Let’s explore the themes behind these stories, but also, let’s try to find the people themselves.

On the riveting story they chose for the first episode

Photo Credit: Dan Busta
Photo Credit: Dan Busta

Davy Rothbart: So, for example, the first episode, there’s a letter that somebody found, like, 15 years ago in Hollywood. It was a guy pitching himself to entertainment companies. He wanted to become the Asian Oprah. And he wanted to be, he says, “A mega-famous TV talk show host like Oprah.” And he points out, reasonably, that there’s no big Asian mega-stars — you know, talk show hosts — and he says, “I should be the guy.”

And his name is Jet. And, obviously, he didn’t become the Asian Oprah. But my question was, “Well, where is he now? What is he doing?”

We managed to track him down after a little bit of sleuthing… So, basically, he’s like the Oprah of root canals. In Chicago… he performs root canals for indigent people who would not be able to get dental work otherwise. He does it [at a] super reduced cost. So, whether [it’s] homeless people, people with mental issues, people will come hundreds of miles from small towns throughout the Midwest.

And he’s this heroic guy just living in obscurity. He still nurses these Hollywood dreams, but he basically, at some point, decided to go to dental school and do something else even more worthwhile.

On another unbelievable tale from the show involving an abandoned baby


Davy Rothbart: [Our stories] might seem ridiculous when you read the notes. But then, to actually find the person who wrote it or created this thing, sometimes reveals a very incredible story of its own.

There was another episode where these two guys in New York City — they had been dating for a couple years, these two guys, kind of casually. And then, one of them is on the way to meet the other guy for dinner on the subway, and he sees a baby laying underneath a bench in the subway station.

So, he’s like, “Oh, my God!” Grabs this baby, meets his friend for dinner — like, now he’s got a baby. And they call the police, turn the baby in. At a hearing that the police asked him to go to a few weeks later, just to testify about what happened, the judge all of a sudden says, “Why don’t you adopt the baby?”

And he says, “Yeah!” And the boyfriend’s like, “What?!?” Now, they are married — those two guys. That same judge that gave them the baby, that had the idea of them adopting the baby, was the one to marry them. The boy’s, like, 17.

Anyway, we did a whole interview with these guys. It’s really a moving and affecting story. But just like any of these things, when you find a note, it’s the tip of the iceberg. And to hear the real story is really fascinating.

On the “Found” musical, now playing in Philadelphia

Davy Rothbart: Well, these found stories are fascinating. They’re all real stories. So, these great playwrights and storytellers, created a musical. It was off-Broadway at the Atlantic Theater, which is William H. Macy and David Mamet’s theater company in New York, last year. Now it’s at Philadelphia.

They hope to bring it to Broadway, and I hope it’ll happen. They have this incredible cast. This woman left “Hamilton” to be in the “Found” play, which is, I thought, insane.

This is what I’ve learned about how theater works, is that it’s a big deal to originate a role on Broadway. So, if you go from a smaller part in “Hamilton” to a starring role in “Found” in Philadelphia, and then it goes to Broadway, then it’s a good career move. I’m like, “What are you…?!? Like, ‘Hamilton’! Maybe you should think double… you know, think twice about that.”

There are some theme songs [in the “Found” musical]. My favorite song, the theme is, “I just want to do something that I love and do it with people that I love.” Sounds, maybe, a little cheesy, but that’s any of ours feeling, I think.

I mean, why does anybody that’s here at this podcast festival? Why do we make podcasts? Why do we do the creative work that we do? We want to do stuff that we love and do it with people that we love. So, it’s a beautiful play.