’Toban Listens: The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air)

Tuning into a radio show on top of the Eiffel Tower

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Loneliness is a complex emotion. It can strike any one of us at any time, even amid our loved ones and even during what might be the best times of our lives.

For myself, even though my life has incredibly improved, even though I’m in love and in the job of my dreams, loneliness still creeps up every now and then. It is grand in its vastness and cruel in the way it returns only after I’ve recovered from the previous visit, forgetting it was ever there.

The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air), written and co-directed by Julian Kostner, founding member of indie rock band Neutral Milk Hotel, and also co-directed and developed with Ellie Heyman, perfectly encapsulates that vast loneliness and the lengths we go to remedy it along with the desire for human connection.  

The podcast follows Julian, a lonely janitor employed in Eiffel Tower who is obsessed with a live radio variety show that broadcasts from the top of the tower — “The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air).” 

Things aren’t what they appear to be with Julian however, whose life and perspective are narrated by a voice only he and the listeners can hear. 

The podcast’s first season contains eight episodes, each one jumping from Julian’s point of view, with his narrator, as well as intermittent cuts to the broadcast of the variety radio show itself.

The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) occasionally features an impressive roster of guest celebrities, such as Mandy Patinkin in episode two who performs a “musicological demonstration.” The host of the fictional radio show, Mr. Cameron, is voiced by John Cameron Mitchell, writer and director of the iconic film Hedwig and the Angry Inch (2001).

Despite all the praise I’m giving it, however, the show is hard to follow initially, which is what turned me away from it for a long time. 

The first episode starts with the narrator explaining what Julian is doing — which is pretending he’s on the titular radio show, only for the show to suddenly play as if the audience is now tuning into “The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air)” itself.

With some adjustment to it, the podcast has so much to offer — the whimsy of a radio show broadcasting circus and live performances atop the Eiffel Tower, the romance of the performances as well as the feeling of falling in love with a lonely janitor who desperately wants to be on the show. 

Listeners should take a warning for darker subject matter, such as mentions of childhood trauma and a particularly sad ending for Julian and the fate of the circus. 

The Orbiting Human Circus (of the Air) is a beautiful little podcast with depths and layers that seem never-ending, with a cathartic conversation on connection, loneliness and a love for the circus.