In a Dungeons & Dragons campaign August is currently entangled in with some friends, he plays as a character called a Kenku, a bird-like humanoid creature. On the outside, it looks like a crow wearing a brown cloak; underneath it carries tools and weapons. Its alignment? Chaotic neutral.
"John's stroke of brilliance was to decide his particular Kenku was more like a parrot, so he's incapable of saying anything out loud unless he's heard someone else say it," Craig Mazin writes to me in an email, issuing an all-caps "DEEP NERD WARNING." "And he has to say it exactly like they do. Seriously. The dude keeps a list. His character is smart, but limited by circumstance (and the bizarre random phrases he happens to hear our characters saying), and the result has been the funniest, most creative ongoing performance I think we've ever had in our game. I don't think any of us would have ever thought to do that in a million years."
After a dozen sessions, his Kenku has created its own lexicon of phrases, a language picked up through resilience and savvy. It's an apt metaphor for the way August has navigated an industry that remains in a state of flux. Keep moving. Glean what you can from others. Struggle. Persevere. Grow. It's a simple formula, but it allows him to approach the perceived genius of more brand-name Hollywood figures.
"When I finally got to meet Steven Spielberg, I think the thing that was simultaneously depressing and exciting was, 'Oh, he's working really hard. It's not like everything is easy for him,'" says August. "When you realize these folks are working really hard at being good at the thing that they are, you realize, 'Oh, I could work really hard, too.'"
"There's always this sense that people are born with magical abilities and then they are the ones who can do stuff and us mere mortals can't. That hasn't been my experience at all."
For the last six years his podcast Scriptnotes, which currently has over 340 episodes, has wrestled with these larger issues while also diving into hyper-granular discussion of screenwriting minutia, like whether to use two spaces after a period. (August was a two-spacer, but he's evolved into a one-spacer.) Friends of the show like Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, comedian Mike Birbiglia, or Star Wars: The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson might appear as guests, but most episodes just feature August and Mazin bantering and answering listener questions. They're anti-gurus.
According to Mazin, August is the perfect podcasting partner because "he does everything." The behind-the-scenes machinations, the distribution, and the transcripts of each episode archived on his site are overseen by August. "It's a dream come true," writes Mazin. "For me, I mean." He goes on: "Everyone should get a John August before even thinking about doing a podcast."