Cal Fussman – The Master Storyteller Returns (#183)

cal fussman

Cal (@calfussman) is a New York Times bestselling author and a writer-at-large for Esquire magazine, where he is best known for being a primary writer of the “What I Learned” feature.

The Austin Chronicle has described Cal’s interviewing skills as “peerless.”

He has transformed oral history into an art form, conducting probing interviews with the icons who’ve shaped the last 50 years of world history: Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Robert DeNiro, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Dr. Dre, Quincy Jones, Woody Allen, Barbara Walters, Pelé, Yao Ming, Serena Williams, John Wooden, Muhammad Ali, and countless others.

When I asked listeners for questions to present to Cal during this return appearance, about 70 percent of you replied with some version of: “He is my favorite storyteller of all time. Please just let him talk for another four hours!”

I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. I never get tired of talking to Cal. He’s such an incredible storyteller.

If you only have 5 minutes, you’ll want to hear Cal’s favorite interview questions that usually get a great response. 


You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#183: Cal Fussman: The Master Storyteller Returns

Want to hear my first episode with Cal Fussman? — In this episode, we discuss Cal’s interviews with the most influential people in history, how he made himself a guinea pig (Cal boxed against world champion Julio Cesar Chavez), and his best life lessons (stream below or right-click here to download):

145: The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with Cal Fussman:

Twitter | Website | Kevin “The Manager”

Show Notes

  • Cal Fussman prescribes Tom Waits for Molly. [08:16]
  • To Cal, Muhammad Ali’s death was “like having your childhood end when you’re in your fifties.” [08:55]
  • Cal talks about what made Ali unique — especially in the context of the ’60s. [10:04]
  • Cal talks about getting to know Ali. [17:29]
  • Ali was a hero for heroes. [21:34]
  • Contrasting Ali’s childhood training regimen with that of rival Joe Frazier. [26:38]
  • The teamwork of Ali and cornerman Drew Bundini Brown. [31:07]
  • The best time for an interviewer to ask the toughest questions. [32:41]
  • Muhammad Ali vs. Cal Fussman [32:50]
  • Is there a Muhammad Ali for millennials? [40:47]
  • What kind of ice cream did Ali share with Cal? [47:54]
  • When you’re writing an obituary for your hero and dear friend, too many words still aren’t enough. [48:09]
  • Ali’s definition of evil. [51:33]
  • Cal is lucky enough to have breakfast with another one of his heroes almost every morning. [54:33]
  • Cal tells us about the time his friend saved his life by making a camera under his shirt look like a gun to fake out troublemakers in Brazil. [56:14]
  • An interesting story from the James Beard Foundation awards. [1:08:12]
  • Cal’s worst interview — and the aftermath. [1:15:51]
  • How Cal’s writing style makes it impossible for an interview subject to lie to him. [1:27:04]
  • How Larry King’s casual, conversational interviewing style differs from Cal’s. [1:27:43]
  • Cal interviews a guy named “Gerry” for an Esquire cover story. [1:28:28]
  • How Fidel Castro deals with difficult reporters. [1:39:10]
  • What I learned from James Lipton’s interviewing style. [1:41:06]
  • Interviewers Cal greatly admires. [1:42:03]
  • Interview questions that get consistently good results (and a few that would likely get bad results). [1:46:01]
  • How a dinner party game, Jackie Gleason, and Frank Sinatra helped Larry King in the beginning of his broadcasting career. [1:51:35]
  • Developing friendships vs. getting “good tape” from interviews. [1:56:21]
  • Cal’s “jukebox” style of preparing for an interview. [1:59:04]
  • Best strategies to get to the heart while interviewing? [2:04:12]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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40 Replies to “Cal Fussman – The Master Storyteller Returns (#183)”

  1. Tim, don’t even fret about the .0001% of audio glitches in this – I appreciate you expediting your publishing of this podcast rather than trying to fix it further! Don’t listen to any nitpickers!

  2. Favorite quote: “I’ll never ever go into an interview nervous – because it serves no purpose, it only hurts you” (In regards to the ‘scotch’ interview). Also, listening to Cal’s storytelling about Muhammad Ali sent chills up my spine! Cal’s second podcast was as great, if not better, than the first!!

  3. Thank you Tim! When Cal was stating his worries about today’s generation’s (my generation, as I’m 27) heroes and wondering who our heroes are – I immediately thought about Elon Musk. I didn’t have a hero or role model for a long time until I read Elon’s book and started following him. Keep up with the good stuff, Tim 🙂

  4. I listened to the last Cal Fussman interview, on my commute, for a week straight.

    Cant wait to go though this one!

  5. Hey Tim,

    Quick note to say Totally Freakin Awesome!!.

    Can I also hijack this comment by asking if you across the The Escalade Project? Please google it and decide if it is something your followers may care about.

    Sorry to do that man but we only have 3 days…

    Hope to raft the Grand Canyon with you one day, it’s mind altering.

    Cheers, Jason Pullman

  6. QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode?

    Thank you so much Cal and Tim! Made my day! Entertainment + Education! Does it get any better?

    Life lessons wrapped into the most amazing stories with such a mastery!

    I wish it was 10 hours or more 🙂 So loved it!

    My favorite quotes:

    The best way to make the dreams come true is to wake up.

    Evil is unfriendliness.

    What you are thinking about you are becoming.

    When you are right nobody remembers. When you are wrong nobody forgets.

    Thanks again!

  7. Love the Frank Sinatra story. Thank you. Huge fan of yours for a decade.. Planning my next 4 hour workweek idea. I’ve tried 2-3 times but haven’t succeeded- yet.

    Please have more females interviewed! Love to see some greats that are diverse.


    Smita Lal

  8. I think you would greatly increase your listener base if you edited these episodes. Have you considered that? I just listened to the Chris Young episode on the recommendation of a friend, and there was some great content there, but way too much that I didn’t care about (i.e. what movies he’s into right now). I love the people you pick to interview, but I probably won’t listen to more because I feel like the extra length does not mean extra value here.

  9. Hi Tim, On previous podcasts you mentioned you were diagnosed as having Lyme disease. Here’s the title to an article that just appeared in the August 25, 2016 issue of Scientific that I thought I’d send as a small way of paying it forward for all the good stuff you put out there for your listeners. Hope you find the prospect of a better understanding of the bacterium as encouraging for future research and a possible cure. “Something to Grapple with: How Wily Lyme Disease Prowls the Body”

    The sneaky germ uses a mechanism like that of white blood cells to reach vulnerable tissues and hide from antibiotics

    August 25, 2016 — Knvul Sheikh

  10. Thank you so much Tim. Your podcast it’s like having some of the most gifted on the planet in my couch sharing their lifes, expertise and experience all in one – truly thankful for that.

    For the deep divers on the meta learning of interviewing principles and practice, do you – or anybody here – recommend any books? Besides your terrific and several podcasts (please forgive if slipped already given info about it). Kind regards from Portugal, Júlio

  11. Awesome interview, Cal sure is the master when it comes to story telling, the Ali story sent a little shiver down my spine. Thank you Tim.

  12. Loved the William Buckley story. Lest you think that Buckley never lost a debate (RFK declined to appear), watch the documentary Best of Enemies – it’s on Netflix and Amazon Prime. It is a documentary ostensibly about Gore Vidal debating William Buckley in conjunction with the 1968 Republican and Democratic conventions – but it is so much more than that: psychological drama, LGBT history lesson, fortifier of spirit. An excellent, excellent film. Check out the decider article too “Why You Absolutely Must Watch ‘Best of Enemies’ on Netflix This Week. I had a surprisingly emotional reaction (to a political documentary?). The themes of 1968 discourse and today’s are remarkably similar and the movie does a superb job of showing how the flawed, brave and clever (and prepared) beat sanctimonious bullies (spoiler alter: that’s William Buckley) in the long run. I saw it at Landmark’s E Street Cinema in DC, and the crowd broke into spontaneous and vigorous applause when it was over.

  13. This was really great Tim! Cal has some amazing stories and a gift for telling them.

    I’d really like if in part 3 or a short episode if you could deconstruct Cal and other masterful storytellers tools. The way Cal is able to use language and pace the story is something I’d love to get more in depth on.

    Thanks for all the great work Tim, keep it up!

  14. Deeply saddened to learn that the universe has not placed the music of Tom Waits in your path yet. You would see someone about that immediately.

    I’d be really psyched to hear you interview him as well.

  15. Tim,

    Your podcast has continued to be The most valuable source for learning and inspiration I have yet to encounter in the podcasting world, and I listen to several. So, Sevendust is coming to a small Venue in Spokane Washington on October 16, 2016, and it would be even more so, a night to remember, if you could join us(I know you love Sevendust). I have an extra ticket for you and I can easily make arrangements at a very nice hotel in Spokane(The Davenport) though we would be honored to have you stay at our home in Coeurdalene Idaho. My 46 year old identical twin brother and I are going, as well as my lovely wife of 27 years. It would be cool and ridiculous if you could come. My brother and I own our own businesses but are nowhere near the level of your usual podcast guests or social sphere, but what the hell, might as well give it a shot. Thanks for the great content and even a response, I know you are actually Busy now.

    From one who benefits greatly from your efforts, Thank You for your time, Sincerely, Steve Crotinger

  16. Hey Tim! Really been enjoying your podcast! It’s up there with the unedited onBeing podcast by Krista :D!

    There are interesting changes happening in organizational development and I’d love it if you interviewed the folks over at Holocracy: holacracy org

    I’m curious about alternative management systems and leaderless organizations. Especially since my interest in open source seems to lead me in that direction. But things like teal organizations: reinventingorganizationswiki

    and Holocracy haven’t clicked intellectual with me and I didn’t know why.

    It was during this conversation that you discussed something that finally made it click. I think leaderless organizations is against our nature. Going to read that chimp book you recommended. Also, we need a hero, or at least we crave them.

    What does this mean for individuality, millennial individualist “everyone a brand” notions? I’m not sure, but they’re some great questions to grapple with here and I think chatting with Brian Robertson, an ex-CEO, could be super interesting 😀

    Stay wonderful!


  17. Great interview. I even got my mitts on some of that Yogi Soothing Caramel tea. Drank a cup a few evenings ago. Nothing happened. But then I could hardly wake up the next morning. Then I was kind of mellow and sedated all day. That’s some strong stuff.

  18. Hi Tim,

    There’s a topic you might want to explore for your next book: gardening.


    You’re the only one that I know about who would go the extra miles to get to the bottom of it.

    A lot of people (in America and over the world) love gardening, even some without a real garden, they grow plants in pots.

    A lot to offer people would love to know how to maximise the products of the garden, the tools people need and the layout of a garden…

    Just thought you might be interested.

    Thanks for your great work. I’ve read the 4-hour workweek, applied what you wrote, and I’m reading the 4-hour body and chef now.

    Have a nice week!


  19. I’m a huge fan of your podcasts Tim! In fact, I regularly recommend them to others and mention you all the time on my blog!! Okay, enough gushing! Loved this interview – Cal is a lot of fun. Storytelling is hugely important and I feel like it’s just going to get more so over the next few years. Keep up the great work.

  20. Very powerful song you’d enjoy.

    Called “Happiness” – jonsi and Alex

    No words, great for meditating and deep thinking.

  21. Fantastic storyteller.

    The audio glitches weren’t horrible, but please don’t

    embellish and say that it is 99.999% ok when clearly its not. You didn’t need to say that. It just ruins your credibility when clearly the glitches were more substantial than that.

  22. Be careful with that coffee. Rhodiola can have some surprising side effects. While it is promoted as a sexual enhancer, it can often times cause reverse effects (i.e. impotence). I experienced this first hand, and did my research after to confirm. Once I quit the rhodiola all was back to normal.

  23. WOW, Tim! What a great episode. Especially Cal’s stories on Ali touched me a lot. I could relate much of it to the recent loss of one of my heroes – Prince. Besides that it made me binge listen to 20+ other interviews as well. Thanks a lot.

  24. NEVER have Cal as podcast guest again! I can’t afford any more questions of my co-workers about my swollen eyes because I cried like a bitch on my commute listening to his amazing Muhammad Ali story…

  25. I’ve listened to both of your interviews with Cal now and I hope you have him on again. He is a master storyteller and you do a fantastic job of setting him up and then letting him weave story. I could listen to them all day. Please keep up the great interviews

  26. I was sitting on a train last friday after an exhausting week with 5 hours left to go, looking for something to cheer me up a lil. I instantaneously thought about Cal, particularly this episode. And it worked like a charm. Again.

    It gave me that priceless, soothing campfire sensation – this sweet spot of calm awe. Thank you guys so much for that!

  27. It’s truly very difficult in this active life to listen news on TV, so I just use internet for that

    purpose, and take the newest news.