Glory and gore: Bolelli makes history fun again

The savage philosopher, the middle finger of the gods.

That is Santa Monica College history professor Danielle Bolelli as introduced in one of the podcasts of his hugely popular series "The Drunken Taoist."

Like Nietzsche hitting the airwaves, Bolelli's podcast is a Renaissance ride that tackles with philosophical tones, every conceivable topic including politics, sex, Thomas Pain, the Pope, and Nutella.

Since starting the podcast in 2012, Bolelli has reached a wide audience. "The Drunken Taoist" is regularly in the top 10 iTunes listing for philosophy podcasts.

"I've been writing books for a while and then I entered the world of podcasts which I knew nothing about and people dug it," said Bolelli.

Bolelli's podcast has turned into an open forum for exploring any question concerning life itself. Heated debates have been opened with guests and listeners on topics as taboo as open marriages and as serious as school bureaucracy.

He airs two a month, each episode taking about 10 hours to prepare, not counting all the reading and research.

"It takes philosophy in a very loose kind of sense," said Bolelli, "in this sense it's life. It's anything that goes. The whole thing is based on Taoism in a way. It's philosophy in a very humanistic way as opposed to 'Kant said this and this.'"

Guests on the show have included Bruce Lee's daughter (Bolelli is himself a black belt), Christopher Ryan, controversial author of "Sex At Dawn," and cyber figures such as Dan Carlin, a journalist turned successful podcaster on historical topics.

"He's a journalist, which means he can tell a story," said Bolelli.

Of course Bolelli's own students at SMC have tuned in and have given him overwhelmingly positive feedback.

"Students like it, they dig it. The beauty of podcasting is that I don't have to depend on anybody saying 'yes.' You get started, do it and if people like it they come to you," said Bolelli.

According to Bolelli, the world of podcasting is different from other media in that there is a lack of the usual brand of cutthroat competitiveness.

"You don't get these stupid egos like 'you're stepping into my territory,'" said Bolelli.

A native of Milan, Italy, Bolelli was an international student at SMC in 1992 and graduated from UCLA before returning to SMC to teach. Now he juggles two worlds, one academic and the other as a pondering, restless voice in cyberspace, all while raising a daughter.

Now he is planning to start a second podcast exclusively about history to launch in the fall. He is even approaching the Santa Monica College Foundation to see if they would like to sponsor the podcast.

"It would be edgy, but in a more polite kind of way, it would be purely about history," said Bolelli.

Glory and gore go hand in hand when Bolelli discusses world history. He believes in making a historical narrative as exciting and compelling as "Game Of Thrones" both in the classroom and in media.

He emphasizes how there's a fine balance between being entertaining and having substance, a trick that is difficult to master when educating an audience and keeping it interested.

"We have this cultural convention where entertainment is superficial and academic learning is dense and very boring," said Bolelli.

He pointed out how history as a subject does extremely well as the subject of big movies and TV shows like "Vikings," yet is ranked nationally in popular student polls as less popular than math.

"How bad do you have to be to be worse than math? There's this fascination with the subject but hate for academic history," said Bolelli.

The first topic Bolelli will tackle with his history podcasts will be Spartacus.

"Picture being on this road between Naples and Rome with crosses all along the way, with 6,000 people crucified between Naples and Rome," said Bolelli. "It's good to get that gut reaction and then raise the more interesting historical questions about values and what would you do in certain situations."

Preparation for the historical podcast will be particularly intense.

"You have to read about a gazillion books," said Bolelli. For him, a key task as a teacher is to help students understand how major, historical, and current events tie to their own personal lives.

"I want them to find in history the specific examples that helped them shape their own values and priorities and ways of life," said Bolelli.

Aside from his podcasts, Bolelli also has another major project on his plate, a television series which aims to make history exciting, relevant, and enticing for audiences. A producer of the film "300" has shown interest and the idea is being pitched to studios.

"We would talk to people who love John Brown and people who hate John Brown," explained Bolelli. "Here's a guy who would drag people out of their homes and chop them to pieces in front of their family. On the one hand he's a bad guy for killing these people but on the other hand he's a hero because he's fighting slavery. They're both true but we're going for the complexity."

In the meantime, Bolelli can be found discussing the intricacies of life with his listeners, and sharing the visceral drama of history in all its bloody spectacle in class with waiting students.