by Craig Stephens
NPR radio’s bastion of PC storytelling, “This American Life”, peppered with obligatory helpings of leftist dogma, verbose introductory warble and sound effects is getting some well intentioned ribbing in the form of a parody program -‘This American Wife.’
Brainchild of a slick (though underpaid) team of satirists and comedians “This American Wife (TAW)” started in 2010 and has since gained national exposure as an increasingly popular parody of the NPR mainstay.
Their weekly podcast has seen collaboration with Zooey Deschanel’s Hello Giggles, The Atlantic Monthly, the all-star Thrilling Adventure Hour show, and more. They also received just over 1 million episode downloads in 2011, and are now creating a new 5-episode web series produced by Fremantle for YouTube. They’ve even been featured on NPR – great sports they are.
Founder Eric Martin offered some insights to LA Post about wrangling his new comedic monster. Asked how it all began, he reveals, “This American Wife started in April of 2010. I had been collaborating with my friend Ned Hepburn on some writing projects. Ned is a popular blogger, who among other things began the “Fuck Yeah” phenomenon on Tumblr (e.g. fuckyeahsharks.tumblr.com). We were pitching projects around town, and doing some video stuff, having lots of fun, but nothing was quite landing.”
Martin says his partner in crime; Ned actually conceived the idea for a podcast called “This American Wife.” “Immediately I saw the value in something like that. I was a podcaster myself, and listened constantly to public radio. I had the idea to make it a public radio parody show. Truth be told, I didn’t listen to This American Life regularly when we first started. Whenever I did listen, though, I was usually headed somewhere in the car, and I would park and then couldn’t leave the car until the story was over. They’ve absolutely mastered the radio narrative, and set it up so that you need to know what happens next, and then what happens next. Brilliant, funny, empathic people over there.”
And from there things snowballed. “We did a sample episode of TAW, put it on Tumblr, and the response was amazing. Just from that, we got a couple thousand listens, and a lot of encouragement. So we started layering on some other NPR stuff – one of my strange talents is that I’m able to imitate All Things Considered’s anchor Robert Siegel really well, so we had his character start to do interviews as well.”
“By Episode 4, we had a website, and posted the show to iTunes. Less than 24 hours later, we were getting thousands of hits, and I discovered to my huge surprise that we were on the main page of the Apple iTunes store, and leaping to the top of the charts. That episode got over 100,000 downloads, and then we were off to the races.”
Asked whether there has been any negative reaction, Martin says, devoted fans were offended at first. “Oh sure – there was some negative reaction right at the beginning – mostly it was from people that were upset that we were parodying their beloved show This American Life, and not parodying it particularly accurately at the time. Thankfully there were enough people that saw the promise in what we were doing, and provided the encouragement for us to make it a better show. It takes time and hard work to make a show like that, and I’d say after about 10-12 episodes, we really started to hit our stride.”
Are your stories genuine? Or are they fictitious? “Generally speaking, the stories are genuine. We usually interview real people – authors, comedians, musicians, etc. And in these cases, we put a funny spin on serious topics. For example, with our Atlantic-based episode, we interviewed Kate Bolick, who wrote last year’s incredibly popular piece “All the Single Ladies,” on single women of a certain age, and Natasha Vargas-Cooper on her great piece on hard-core pornography.”
“We had a real discussion of the issues, while simultaneously cracking jokes and finding humor in the deadpan public radio tone. It’s a fine line we walk – to be serious and earnest underneath layers of parody and jokes. But that’s the space I love to work in. Similar to the movies Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz – those guys are parodying the zombie and action buddy movies, respectively – but at the same time, their movies have real heart and by the end, they’ve become a full-on celebration of those genres. Same with our show. We want to make you laugh and break your heart.”
“Sometimes, we get the opportunity to make stuff up, too, and it’s great. We’ve been lucky to work with some of the most talented performers in the world – collaborating with Ben Acker and Ben Blacker’s all-star Thrilling Adventure Hour show, the geniuses behind the Superego podcast, and master impressionist James Adomian (Comedy Bang Bang). It was a thrill to have our Robert Siegel character go head to head with James’ Huell Howser and Christopher Hitchens characters.
“Probably the best example of a true top-to-bottom This American Life parody is in episode 37, where we had an all-star cast (Julie Klausner, Eddie Pepitone, Dave Holmes) act out an “investigative report” from Vanity Fair writer Mike Sacks, while Conan writers Todd Levin and Andres du Bouchet read stories from his book. It’s one of my favorite episodes, just because it was such a huge undertaking, and it came together so quickly and effortlessly. And it’s funny as hell.”
How did/have NPR folks reacted?
“Thankfully, they have a great sense of humor over there! NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour show featured us on a segment last year, and we’ve talked to a few folks in public radio who enjoy the show. Haven’t heard directly from Ira Glass, but I hope he doesn’t mind, and that he appreciates the show. We certainly love what they’re doing over there, and I think that comes through in what we’re doing.”
Who is the TAW team? Drama students? How did you meet?
“Ned Hepburn was our co-creator and remains our consultant, although he’s moved to New York to pursue other projects. After our live show at the Bridgetown Comedy Festival last year, Paul Jay and Jen Goldberg came on board. Funny story there. Paul was my college roommate. We reconnected a couple of years later. At the time, I was in a relationship, and my girlfriend’s best friend Jen really hit it off with Paul. Flash-forward, and I’m single these days, but Jen and Paul got married last year, and Jen became our actual “This American Wife.” Paul is our host, and Jen is our co-producer.”
Martin adds- “The storytelling scene has become absolutely huge in the last couple of years, and our show has been right alongside that phenomenon. Shows like The Moth, RISK!, and of course This American Life showcase the huge demand for real and true stories, and we’re thrilled to showcase so many amazing storytellers.
This winter, we did our first collaboration with Zooey Deschanel’s Hello Giggles website, featuring stories on “Letters to My Younger Self” including one from HG cofounder and frequent guest Molly McAleer. We’ve also featured stories Kelly Carlin’s “A Carlin Home Companion,” about her dad George, and featured the sequel to a story Danny Lobell told on This American Life.”
“I’m on the #1 rated RISK! podcast this week telling a true story, and we’re launching our own monthly storytelling live show, “This American Wife presents: In Real Life (IRL)” at Bar Lubitsch Wednesday, August 15th.”
“We’re also working with Fremantle to create our own “This American Wife” video web series later this summer, and writing it with some of our friends from the UCB theater. The 5-episode run will investigate YouTube trends in our signature parody style. We’re working with some incredible talent from past episodes of the show, and will be a companion piece to the podcast. I don’t think anybody else has done this yet.”
“We are set to become the first show with a podcast, a web series, and a live monthly show – all different from each other, and each supporting the other. This project is a labor of love, it’s a chance to collaborate with some of the most talented and cool people in the world, and it’s really, really fun. Who knew there was such a demand for fake public radio?”
Listen to This American Wife @ http://thisamericanwifepodcast.com