The Little Gray Book Lectures
Radio Production: Brendan Greeley / Live Recording: Jeff Towne
Additional help producing/mixing this radio piece came from Jay Allison
w/ advice from Ira Glass and Chris Bannon
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John Hodgman, in a live walkie-talkie conversation with a George Washington impersonator
Photo: Whitney Pastorek
Notes from John Hodgman
On the radio, a man was asking questions. He asked: what common part of
an automobile did a major car company recently suggest was no longer
necessary? The people on stage with him didn’t know. The people in the
audience didn’t know. The man told them the answer: the rear-view
mirror. A gasp.
Yes, said the man. A major car company had recently proposed replacing
the rearview mirror with a state of the art camera and in-dash video
screen, apparently because, said the man “the rearview mirror is
simple, and it works.”
I do not know if I am remembering this joke correctly. You may not even
realize that it is, in fact a joke.
I was listening to it when I was in high school, as I was getting ready
to go out and meet some friends on a very cold night in Brookline,
Massachusetts, and even that very evening I believe I tried (and
failed) to convey how funny this little ad lib seemed to me… the expert
dryness in the man’s voice…
The sarcasm is so perfectly shaped around the words that it felt like a
something you could hold, like something carved skillfully out of very
fine, expensive wood… That pause of acid silence that followed “the rearview mirror is
simple” as the audience prepared for the unforeseeable and yet
inevitable “… and it works.”
And then the laughter following, bouncing up and around in the radio
darkness, that language-defying moment of complete understanding
between humans. My friends had no idea what I was talking about. Like
most jokes, you had to be there. And also it was really very cold, and
so they may have been distracted.
The joke was told by Michael Feldman, host of a public radio program
called Whad’ya Know, which I had never heard before that night. If you
are reading this website about public radio, then you probably have
some passing familiarity with this very funny program, as you also
probably are aware on some unconscious level with the sort of
well-heeled, leafy suburb like Brookline that breeds listeners of
public radio. So I will not describe them further.
People who like jokes often can point to a few that changed everything,
that broke open their brains and exposed those brains to a new kind of
air and sunlight, to a new way of looking at the world and telling
stories about it. I don’t think I have told a joke or story since that
evening that has not, in some way, attempted to recapture the shape and
silence that made that joke work.
And while I think I have occasionally come close, there has always been
something missing, some unique nuance I could never quite recapture.
Eventually, my path was clear. If I was ever going to explain to you
people why this joke was funny, I laid a plan to host my own live
public radio program.
In March 2001, having enjoyed the influence of many more moments of
genius—not least of which was the moment when the writer Arthur
Bradford read a short story to a polite audience of young
fiction-lovers while he accompanied himself on the guitar, and then, at
the end of the story, smashed that guitar against the floor,
threatening that audience, now shocked and giddy, with the prospect of
being injured with guitar fragments, and changing literary readings
forever—I launched the Little Gray Book Lectures in a former mayonnaise
factory-turned-bar called Galapagos in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
This will mean very little to you, as none of the 30 Lectures that I
and my colleagues, Jonathan Coulton and Christine Connor, have mounted
since that date, have appeared on the radio as of this writing.
We hope that this will change, and the discussion that follows this
missive will be a sort of document of that hope (we hope).
At each Lecture, we have welcomed four to five experts (writers,
singers, guitarists (smashing and otherwise), historians, cartoonists,
mixologists, monologuists, one sousaphonist, and one member of the Yale
secret society known as Skull and Bones) to speak briefly on each
evening’s instructive theme: How to Spell Several Common Words, How to
Generate a Winning Character, How to Negotiate All Kinds of Deals and
Contracts, and How to Communicate Without the Aid of Wires.
And while our broadcasts have traditionally extended only to the back
of the room, from the beginning the Lectures were designed, at least in
my own mind, for radio.
Specifically I hoped to emulate that moment I heard on the radio long
ago: that strange faceless intimacy of shows like Whadya Know and
Prairie Home Companion and as well other influential recordings made
more magic by not being able to see what’s actually going on: the
Tarzan sketch from Beyond the Fringe; the concert banter from Tom
Waits’s “Nighthawks at the Diner;” and the crackling, long-playing
weirdness of the old Captain Midnight radio serials I used to heave
home from the library on great inky LPs.
Like Fiorello De LaGuardia reading the funnies to the depressed
children of New York, we have naturally attempted to exploit radio’s
unique visual possibilities.
We have offered plenty of sight gags and unforgettable images:
miniature blimps descending with sparklers attached to them, a man
dressed up as George Washington and another dressed up as a seagull,
and many beautiful live dogs.
In this, we have relied on what I think may be the secret ingredient,
the missing element of the rearview mirror joke: that the pleasure of
live radio is not in the sense of being there, but in the feeling that
you are overhearing something far away that you would like to be a part
In recent months, and with the incredibly generous aid and patience of
our radio guru Brendan Greeley and especially Jay Allison and the Open
Studio Project, we have been making inroads to actual broadcast.
In a room full of couches in Philadelphia, we recorded something akin
to a pilot episode, which you may now purchase for your very own public
radio station via the indispensable PRX.org. And thanks to the
unflagging desire of Jonathan Coulton, our musical director, to take on
more and more and more work, we have arranged to make brief digests of
earlier Lectures available via an exiting new technology called
As I have heard and listened to these experiments, I am glad to say I
have found more than a few moments that rival that fleeting joy I felt
when I heard that Michael Feldman joke, none of them involving me. I
have also heard a number of those moments when we have failed, when the
joke doesn’t carry, when the silence is simply dead air, and what works
on stage gets lost in the recording.
We have wrestled with ways to speak at once to those people in the live
audience, to those people at home, and to those people who sit in
little soundproof rooms with our tape after the fact and require the
proper intros and outros, the pauses and elocution, and, frankly, the
hard brevity that will allow them to compress the whole night into
something that can feasibly be put out into the American air.
For example, we have been told we cannot talk about whiskey all the
time on the air. And so we have had to consider: is it the same sort of
show if we talk about gin?
And we endeavor to continue without losing the essence of the
Lectures—without replacing, as it were, our modest, simple, working
rearview mirror with an elaborate camera and video-screen array that
nobody in the world wants.
These are the questions on our minds, the questions only you can
answer, those of you who might take the time to listen to the samples
provided on this page. Does it sound like fun, or like horrible
torture? Do you feel that you are sitting in the audience, or in your
own miserable home? Do you understand now why that rearview mirror joke
I heard so long ago is funny? Do you get it?
We are flattered and lucky to have your insight. But I wish to remind
you, as I must remind all of our contributors: until we hit that huge
public radio payday and are all driving around in Bentleys, you shall
not be compensated. All I can say is thank you.
That is all.
John Hodgman was our Guest in 2002. Read more from him in The Transom Review…
About John Hodgman
Known to the world as a writer, former professional literary agent,
occasional voice on the radio, was designated one of the New York
Observer’s “Power Punks” — a list of “young” people who are under 35
and who exert undue influence on the culture of his home, New York
City. He remains under 35, but for how much longer?
His disembodied voice has appeared on The Splendid Table and CBC’s
Wiretap, and with some frequency on the program This American Life,
which included his meditation on FLIGHT VS. INVISIBILITY on its latest
compact disc collection “Crimebusters and Crossed Wires.”
His embodied voice has appeared as a commentator and emcee on many
great stages of the world, including the “Eating It” comedy series at
the Luna Lounge, its literary cousin “Reading It” at the Ars Nova
theater, and the Starbucks Literary Stage at Seattle’s 2004 Bumbershoot
festival, and has served as the host of several well-attended events
for the literary journal McSweeney’s, including installments of the
MCSWEENEY’S vs. THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS concerts in New York City,
Chicago, and at the Barbican in London.
He is a contributing writer at The New York Times Magazine, and the
author of the forthcoming compendium of complete world knowledge, “The Areas of My Expertise” (to be published by Dutton and Riverhead, 2005).
He is available to speak to your group function, family reunion, or
corporate retreat. And he is apparently desperate to do so.
About Jonathan Coulton
In his capacity as Musical Director for The Little Gray Book Lectures,
he writes and performs a theme-appropriate song for (almost) every
show, as well as providing the occasional quirky cover, haunting
interlude, or graceful transition. His unique musical stylings can only
be explained this way: start with the solid backbone of snare drum in
the high school marching band, add the sweet syrup of sad folky guitar
songs that make ladies cry, and re-forge it all in the crucible of
college a cappella singing. Also, make it funny. In addition to his
work with Little Gray Books, he has written music for television, and
tries to perform as infrequently as possible. He invites you to enjoy
his full-length CD entitled “Smoking Monkey.”
About Christine Connor
Christine Connor is a television producer and all-around getter-done of
things. She has been producing TV for 10 years, and in that time has
provided programming for PBS, History Channel, Discovery, Court TV,
MSNBC and CNBC. Having spent a great deal of time both making and
watching TV, she realizes that this flash-in-the-pan medium is probably
on its way out, and suspects that it might be wise to start
diversifying her experience to include other more vibrant forms of
entertainment, such as “radio” and “live lecture.” To that end, when
she is not busy filming dramatic re-enactments and interviewing
murderers she can be found right up front at every Little Gray Books
lecture, where she can watch the show and the clock at the same time.
About Brendan Greeley
In 1989, Brendan Greeley was awarded a silver cup by Severn Sailing
Association of Annapolis, MD, engraved with the words “Nicest Skipper.”
He has never, before or since, won any other sports award. He is
presently the site editor of the Public Radio Exchange. His writing has
appeared in The New York Times, The New York Times Magazine and The
Wall Street Journal Europe.
Brendan’s audio work has been featured on transom.org, as well as the
weblogs wonkette.com and andrewsullivan.com. An audio
German lawn mower racing was recently acquired by Radio Netherlands;
the Dutch are evidently eager to hear anything that makes fun of the
Germans. He has read at several Little Gray Book Lectures, discussing
the purchase of a piano, the purchase of a boat and the reason why
Bobby Darrin was a genius. Brendan can open a dozen oysters in under a
The Little Gray Book Lectures
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