Last year, when his tour of Australia was abruptly canceled midway through because of COVID, comic ventriloquist David Strassman found himself back home in America and bored. According to Ketchikan artist Ray Troll, Strassman “was rattling around the house, had nothing to do, and out of the blue he called me up one day and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got an idea.’”
Strassman’s idea was simple. He and Troll share an obsession with dinosaurs and a love for science. So why not create a podcast celebrating both? And thus, in very short order, Paleo Nerds was launched. One year later, their combined effort is going strong, with the finale for their second 16-episode season set to premier April 21.
Paleo Nerds is a weekly podcast wherein Troll and Strassman invite people from the paleontological world to have lighthearted but evidence-based discussions of dinosaurs, fossils, geology, deep time and the value of science for understanding these topics and many others.
It’s the perfect fit for Troll, known globally for painting fish, fossils, and assorted extinct creatures with painstakingly accurate detail, and then placing them in absurd circumstances. Though not a scientist, he’s beloved in scientific circles for his dedication to detail amid countless visual and written puns.
“Most of these scientists in the paleontological world know Ray or have seen his art,” Strassman said. “Ray doesn’t know it, but he’s a star in the paleontology world.”
In practice, Troll is aware of his elevated standing among scientists, which is why booking guests for the show fell to him. “I’m a fishy guy, but I’m also a paleo guy,” Troll said. “Over the years I’ve established relationships with numerous scientists, paleontologists, and realized in the paleontology world it’s a whole big network of people. They know each other. But it’s really a way for me to pay some respect to some of these people that have been a huge influence on my career, and a science that I find fascinating.”
Those connections have paid off, with some of the biggest names in paleontology joining the duo for lively discussions. Right out the gate they interviewed Kirk Johnson, Sant Director of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, and co-author with Troll of two books about their fossil hunts in North America. They’ve also sat down with Jack Horner, known for being the scientific adviser to the Jurassic Park movies. And in the season finale, which Troll and Strassman claim is the best yet, they will talk with the iconoclastic dinosaur expert Robert Bakker, who both popularized the extinct animals in the 1970s and upended scientific understandings of them.
The pair talk with more than just paleontologists in their podcasts. They’ve interviewed artists, documentary film makers, and others. And apart from dinosaurs, they’ve also discussed ravens and salmon. But, Troll said, “We always take it back to deep time.”
Strassman, who has longstanding Alaska ties, keeps a house in Ketchikan, and has known Troll for decades. He plays the everyman role in the shows, asking questions that people just beginning to explore paleontology might ask. “Ray knows infinitely more about paleontology than I do,” he said. “I can stand on my own two feet, but he knows more. Sometimes I think I know stuff and he’s always correcting me, which makes for a great and fun dynamic.”
Along with the interviews, the shows include humor, sound effects, music, and more to help keep the podcasts energetic and convey the message that learning about science can be fun. It’s a time consuming project, however. Troll focuses on bookings and doing the research for the interviews, as well as choosing art to accompany the webpage gallery for each edition. Strassman edits the audio, a process he said requires about 20 hours an episode. Meanwhile, Troll’s daughter Corinna Troll handles their web presence.
Every podcast has its own page filled with links to the topics discussed, photos, embedded videos, and more. “(Corinna) is the one that really made this podcast gel into something that is tangible,” Strassman said. “Because it was her knowledge and creativity that got us on Facebook and Instagram.”
Each guest spends about an hour on their area of expertise, helping listeners gain deeper understandings of the earth’s 4.5 billion year history, how extinct species rose, thrived, and collapsed, and where we can see both living and fossil evidence of them today. And in a nod to a topic of particular importance to Troll and Strassman, each guest is asked to weigh in on the spread of disinformation and science-denial on the web, and how best to combat it.
Guests are also asked what drew them to paleontology, a question that usually takes them back to the same youthful obsessions Troll grew up with. “This show has really sent me back to my childhood,” he said. “I am right now drawing dinosaurs again at the age of 67. And I started drawing them when I was 4 years old. So I really have gone nowhere in my life.”
With the second season wrapping up, Troll and Strassman plan on taking a few weeks off. But they have several interviews recorded and are busy laying the groundwork for season three. Both agree that what started as a quarantine project has since taken a life of its own. “It’s fun,” Troll said. “And we’re going to keep going on until we can’t do anymore.”
Paleo Nerds can bee heard on all major podcast platforms, as well as at paleonerds.com.