The Little Gray Book Lectures

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Notes from John Hodgman

JOHN HODGMAN
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 of.

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 “Podcasting.”

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.

Radio Production + Bonus Audio

Download
Listen to “Brendan Greeley on Amok Alex, German shock jock”
Download
Listen to “Brett Martin on the power of prayer”

These two audio segments, originally presented as part of the two-hour recorded live show, were cut from the hour pilot.

Jeff Towne on Live Recording for LGB

LITTLE GRAY BOOK LECTURES
John Hodgman (podium) and Jonathan Coulton (guitar) with two colonial impersonators, the soon-to-be-deposed King of America and members of the Hungry March Band. Photo: Whitney Pastorek

John Hodgman was pretty determined to record the Little Gray Book Lecture in a bar. And I understood the appeal, that’s the native habitat of the series in Brooklyn, and there’s a certain sticky-floor vibe that can somehow make it down the wires and onto a recording, impossible to replicate with piped-in sounds of ice cubes clinking. So when I was asked for advice on which divey bar to record in as the lectures roadtripped down to Philadelphia, I proposed a compromise. The feel of the space for an event such as this is important, but for listeners at home, noisy patrons at the back bar, blenders, phones, busses going by, independent streams of jokes and pick-up lines are merely distracting, devoid of any contextual charm. As luck would have it, I happened to know of the perfect spot: Indre. It’s a full-on professional recording studio, but with the requisite bohemian mojo, supplied largely by the ancient chandelier and the array of cast-off couches, but also by a thin film of grease and cheese whiz from Pat’s Cheesesteaks around the corner.

I felt it was crucial to get the sound of the crowd, but in less-controlled environments, it’s hard to record only the amused gasps and chuckles without being overwhelmed by the baseline buzz of the city. So starting in a quiet, soundproofed room like Indre’s Studio A, was a helpful step. To capture the applause and laughter, we used a pair of mics that permanently hang from indre’s high ceiling, but we could have just as easily put a pair of mics on stands, somewhere backed-off from the audience. The last thing you want is the sound of one guy clapping directly into the mic, so you need to get the mics away from the crowd a bit. The good news is that applause is loud, and so is laughter, so the gain on the mics can be kept low, barely present during most of the recording. But a little bit of that room sound helps transmit the realness of the event, too much and it’s hard to concentrate on the main event.

On stage, it was a simple affair, with one podium mic, another for the singer, a direct line from his guitar, and one line for audio clips being played from an iPod. We talked the readers into keeping the stage volume low, and kept the level of the audience PA at a moderate setting as well. This went a long way toward avoiding the cavernous ringing that can result from a raging PA in an echoey hall, so common in live recordings. Indre studio engineers Mike Richelle and Pete Girgenti had already wired-up the old stand-by Shure SM-58 microphones as the voice mics before I arrived, and my first reaction was to replace them with something a bit more exotic. The studio has a mic locker with some big, expensive, German condenser mics, much loved for their rich translation of the human voice. But I have learned to listen first, before making assumptions about what is or isn’t going to work. And when we got up into the booth while the readers were running through a timed rehearsal, the SM-58s sounded great. Especially in this circumstance, when there was a PA blaring out into the room, and stage monitors shooting some sound back at the readers, the SM-58 demonstrated why its tight pattern has made it one of the most popular stage microphones for decades. Simple foam windscreens helped reduce P-Pops.

Mike Richelle patched classic dbx 160 compressors into the voice-mic inserts, to even out the inputs on those channels, compensating a bit for varying speaking volumes, and keeping the occasional laugh or demonstrative underscore from overdriving the inputs.

In the booth, we tracked through a big SSL board, sending each channel individually into ProTools, creating the opportunity to rebalance each element later if desired. But at the same time, we mixed to stereo, as if we were on live the radio, hoping that we could deliver a simple stereo mix to the editors that would only require edits for time and the occasional dialog clean-up, not a full mixing job.

Everything went smoothly, and it seems that the comfortable feel of the room made it to tape, aided, no doubt, by the squishy old couches, and abundant Irish Whiskey.

(Thanks to Michael Comstock, Mike Richelle and Pete Girgenti from Indre studios for their work on the recording and live sound.)

Brendan Greeley on Editing/Mixing LGB

LITTLE GRAY BOOK LECTURES
John Hodgman (podium) and a very red Jonathan Coulton (guitar). Photo: Whitney Pastorek

Jeff Towne’s several microphones and one iPod input produced a seven-track ProTools session just over two hours long. It was entrusted to my care, and Jonathan Coulton’s, to make radio.

The first part was easy. We had asked all readers to repeat themselves in full sentences if they misspoke; these we snipped out. I’m sure there’s a more appropriate term for this, but Jonathan called these mini-edits “fixies.” This I will call them forever more. After fixies, we had about an hour and fifty minutes. Do we pad it up to two hours or cut it down to one? We had planned a two-hour special, with the first hour as a stand-alone option, but two hours is a lot of shelf space for a station to free up, particularly for a pilot of a completely new show. Better, we thought, to make one tight hour.

Ira Glass told us “Lose the Ben Franklin jokes.” I had thought that Ben Franklin went over well, but a response that sounds generous and warm to you in the middle of an audience of fifty can sound on tape as if you are among ten people having a moderately good time. Ira was right (and what does he know about radio, anyway?); we lost Ben.

This, we learned, is the challenge of turning a live event into good radio. When you hear a recording of a live event, you’re listening right along with the people in the studio audience. If you can’t hear them enjoying themselves, you’re going to feel a little conspicuous enjoying yourself out there alone in your car.

The cutting gets easier. Much easier. I liked all the little good parts of this piece of audio I’d been living with; I felt each loss keenly and then, suddenly, I didn’t. At around two in the morning of my last day in Jay Allison’s borrowed studio I began to slash and enjoy; it was no longer personal between me and all those mostly-good-bits.

It hurt a bit when, on Chris Bannon’s advice, I cut myself out of the hour. I’m not going to lie here, I’m waiting for the popular Transom uprising that demands I edit myself back in, but I think Chris was right. Of the possible combinations of individual segments, Paul Tough’s and Starlee Kine’s work best together, particularly separated by John Hodgman’s story about vampire call-in radio in western Massachusetts.

To listen for in this final produced pilot: We aren’t playing to our home crowd of Brooklyn, and we’re in a studio with couches, not a vast echo-y former-mayonnaise factory-now-bar. Does it sound like we’re having a good time?

Additional help producing/mixing this radio piece came from Jay Allison w/ advice from Ira Glass and Chris Bannon.

Related Links
The Little Gray Book Lectures
The Little Gray Book Lectures on Public Radio Exchange
Transom Guests: John Hodgman’s Review
Transom Shows: Brendan Greeley’s “The Most German Day Ever”

About John Hodgman

JOHN HODGMAN
John Hodgman was our Guest in 2002. Read more from him in The Transom Review…

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

Brendan Greeley was awarded a silver cup by Severn Sailing Association of Annapolis, MD in 1989, 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 feature about 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 minute twenty.

*Additional credits: Radio Production: Brendan Greeley / Live Recording: Jeff Towne. Help producing/mixing this radio piece came from Jay Allison w/ advice from Ira Glass and Chris Bannon.

Additional support for this work provided by

Open Studio Project

with funding from the

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

John Hodgman

About
John Hodgman

John Hodgman is a Former Professional Literary Agent who lives in New York. He has provided fiction, essays, reviews, profiles, quizzes, and commentary for This American Life, The Paris Review, One-Story, The New York Times Magazine, Groom Magazine, React (a website for teens), GQ, and Men's Journal, where he is a contributing editor covering the drinking-and-lobster-roll beat for their somewhat monthly food column. For 13 months he answered questions on the subject of publishing, writing, cryptozoology, Robert Cormier, and THE LORD OF THE RINGS as part of an occasionally helpful advice column "Ask A Former Professional Literary Agent" at McSweeney's, a task to which he hopes soon to return. Meanwhile, he hosts the Little Gray Book Lectures in Brooklyn on a monthly basis, and he remains an expert on ultra-hot hot sauces, hobbits, and the radio arts as they were once practiced at WMFO-FM, Medford, MA, from about 1988-1990, where he was briefly the host of an actual radio show. He is available to speak on these subjects, or any other, to your group, party, or corporate retreat. In fact, he is apparently desperate to do so. His nemesis is the mad Dr. Craig Kittles. He has two cats.

More by John Hodgman

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  • Jay Allison

    3.10.05

    Reply
    The Little Gray Book Lecture #29

    It would be better if you could go to wherever The Little Gray Book Lecture is being held this month (usually Brooklyn), order a beer, and enjoy the show. But since there are thousands of you all over the world, you can’t. So we turned it into radio and put it on the Internet.

    John Hodgman was once our Guest on Transom where he wrote about Vampires, Werewolves and Radio. He expands on that subject in this, Lecture #29. John says, "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." In Lecture #29 the theme, appropriately, is How to Communicate Without the Aid of Wires. We invite you to judge and discuss how well we have wirelessly made the transition from a live event to something radiophonic, and be sure to read the interesting production notes on the process which even include out-takes.

    It’s tempting to call The Little Gray Book Lectures "This American Life meets Whad’Ya Know meets Prairie Home Companion," but I’m going to resist and just say that it’s smart, funny, and alive. You should hear it. As John says in his thoughtful little background piece on Transom, "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 of." This very first radio edition of The Little Gray Book Lectures is far away, right here on Transom.

    This hour-long broadcast is also available to stations on the Public Radio Exchange (PRX).

  • Andy Knight

    3.11.05

    Reply

    Wonderful show. Any advice on how to force local stations to pick it up? Keep in mind that the only tools at my disposal are an incomplete pizza-box mannequin and a willingness and desire to blackmail.

    Wire producer and maintainer and general industry shill Leonard Pierce can be found at his website Ludic Log. Also, the link to the main show page via the picture at the top of this one is broken. It should be …www.transom… not …talk.transom… hiya

  • Roger

    3.13.05

    Reply
    Feldman

    This isn’t about the show, but about the paragraph preceding the show –

    I never thought Michael Feldman was funny. I don’t know anyone who does. To listen to his shows, *he* thinks he’s funny, and he’s about the only one. He’s just mean and spiteful. He apparently thinks that being funny is equivalent to to belittling people far too polite to call him on being such a prick. I quit listening to any show with him in it for that reason.

    People will hear his show on the radio and say stuff like, "Why is this guy trying SO hard to be funny?" That’s a good question. Because it doesn’t work.

  • hodgman

    3.13.05

    Reply
    Thank you, Andy Knight

    Thanks, Andy, for your kind words. But I do not advocate FORCING anyone to pick up the show, as I have found forcing people to do anything typicallly leads only to ill will and vengeance. I do not have to deal with any further vengeance, believe me.

    Programming directors who are curious may simply dial the internet to http://www.PRX.org, where they can purchase the Lecture at a reasonable price, and entirely voluntarily.

  • Bente Hamel

    3.16.05

    Reply

    Just like to let you know that I had a really good time listening to The LGB Lecture. I’m a radiomaker from Amsterdam, the Netherlands. We also have live shows with writers / music / actors on Dutch radio. They tend to be more melancolic, nice radio to listen to at night, alone, drinking. But I also love the humor and nonsense in LGB (I mean that in a positive way!) The way you mix reportage-fragments with live-storytelling also works out well. Inspiring stuff, thanks.

  • hodgman

    3.16.05

    Reply
    Dear Bente

    If we have given you the impression that the Lectures are inappropriate accompaniment for melancholic nighttime lonely drinking, than I feel we have somehow failed.

    Still, we thank you.

    Jay–time to put the whiskey back in?

    Jh

  • sara wood

    3.17.05

    Reply

    Hiya. I really dig LGB as radio. I confess, once I heard about it, I was kinda skeptical about how well it would work as radio. After listening, the bottoms of my shoes DID feel stuck to the floor, and I could easily make this a routine in my listening habits. Which is great, because it saves me the embarrassment of paying for whiskey in quarters at the bar during a live show…

    So now, a question. I was reading what Brendan G. said about how a radio listener will feel a bit strange about enjoying the show alone if they can’t hear the live audience enjoying it for themselves. Did you at any point during the taping find yourself making unconscious (or conscious) attempts to make the show work for two different audiences, or did you start with the notion that both audiences are the same? Was there ever a moment that you changed something during the live show because you were unsure of how it would affect the radio listeners?
    I’ll stop before I start confusing myself. But really, thanks for LGB.

    Sara

  • hodgman

    3.18.05

    Reply
    two audiences

    Hello, Sara

    Yes, we did make conscious decisions. For example, we decided not to charge the live audience for whiskey so as to spare them the embarrassment of paying in quarters and to be sure that we would draw a crowd in the strange (though affable, and hoagie-filled) city of Philadelphia. And we wanted that crowd to be happy. And they were. They were so happy they threw walkie talkies at each other. This is not a lie. But it may be the reason as to why all mention of whiskey was ultimately cut from the edit you have heard.

    And for the audience at home, we had a dilemma. The show has always had visual elements (slides, sight gags, etc.) which we obviously had to tone down. Paul Tough’s piece on his father and the aliens had a number of slides in the original version that we decided to cut, for example.

    But largely we decided to retain as much of the live show experience as possible and rely on me in effect to narrate what was happening when the radio audience couldn’t see it. This accounts for the amateurish transparency of the whole endeavor, including the little opening, when I ask Christine Connor to explain what everyone is doing here, and when I explain to the home audience (not entirely successfull) the secret of Coulton’s amazing AM radio trick.

    On the whole, I enjoyed these asides to those who were not in the room. I think it made those who were in the room feel like they were in on a certain joke when otherwise they might have just been confused and angry; and I hope it makes people at home feel like they are in on a completely different joke.

    The ideal would be to create an atmosphere in which both audiences feel that they are getting the best end of the deal. Or better, to keep both worrying about who’s getting the worse deal, thus promoting insecurity and ultimately pitting one audience against the other. Finally, their mutual distrust of one another will distract them from what is actually happening on stage, and that will make our job much, much easier.

    That is how the white house does it, I think.

    Thank you for your kind words.

  • Sydney Lewis

    3.18.05

    Reply
    cheap night out

    I’ve been on the LGB e-list for a while, and always regret missing out on the events. I thank you much for taking my head right out of the still wintry woods and into the land of culture, cocktails, and cuckooness. And I didn’t even have to put on my shoes. Nice. It’s a little too early in the day for a single-malt, but listening to this LGB made me feel like I was at a small marble-topped table, sipping and feeling swell. It’s a pleasure to hear real not canned laughter, and there’s nothing better in the world than being told a story. The production felt real smooth and of a piece…the crowd present, but not so present I wanted to shush the guy repeating funny lines.

    How do you go about planning the lectures? A voice in your dreams? The material shows up and you make a theme? Do you have stalkers? That cat looks a little demented, if you don’t mind my saying…

    I particularly like your astute analysis of white house methods and pray for your immediate dispatch to cover said house. Such sensible reportage we desperately need.

    Again…thank you.

  • Cap’n Ahab

    3.18.05

    Reply
    I am a 9 on LGB

    On (almost) any given Cape Cod weekend, at any time of the day or night you can hear Prairie Home Companion on one of the local public radio stations; there must be some local AARP bylaw that requires it. Which is fine I suppose because it is a radio institution, and it has some great moments when the live audience is stirred to laughter that grows in intensity as Garrison waxes poetic. But it makes me feel old and a bit stuffy listening to it, even when it makes me laugh.

    Listening to the pilot of LGB, on the other hand, made me feel jealous of those sitting on one of the 8 couches in the audience with beer in hand (whiskey gives me heartburn). This is funny clever stuff, and the radio weekend would be much improved if LGB could be heard just once a weekend even, on our precious public airwaves. So Yes, it sounds like fun: the live audience’s giddiness tells me that; they sound like they are surprised to be having such a good time; and it becomes even funnier when there is that palpable risk of it turning into horrible torture, most obvious during the walkie talkie moments.
    so I guess I should ask a question: who told you you shouldn’t discuss whiskey too much and why?
    ps. It would have made vegetable peeling a joy, which is my true measure of radio nirvana.

  • hodgman

    3.22.05

    Reply
    hello Jeff Towne

    Letterman is obviously a deep influence I should have mentioned earlier–both for his various provocations of the line between himself and the audience, and as well for his clear reverence for broadcasting. Hal, however, was not an influence at all. Please don’t mention him.

    The raggedness was, as you suggest, a way to help the radio audience feel in on a joke–their own separate joke.

    I hadn’t thought of it til now, but I think that helping the audience to feel in on something has been one of the motivating factors from the beginning of the Lectures. There were many I never even bothered to tape, as in some ways the shows were designed to make the audience feel in on a very specific joke, in a single place in time, at a single place in Williamsburg. We’d react to them and develop little jokes with the audience along the way, sometimes carry those jokes over from lecture to lecture. Nothing that doesn’t happen on stage all the time, but I never really trusted that it could be replicated.

    While it was imagined as radio, it also was imagined in some ways to evaporate the moment it was over, leaving only memory.

    And believe me, the memories of some of those early tapes are far better than the tape.

    Part of the maturing of the Lectures has been learning to refine material and weave jokes that will stand up to repeated listenings and include more people–I’m talking about quips and asides and on-stage gags and individual Lectures, and then of course the whole complex joke of the lectures themselves.

    I hope people will keep coming as we constantly evade the punch line.

  • hodgman

    3.22.05

    Reply
    hello ahab

    I’m sorry you felt jealous, for as I say, the idea from the beginning was to make the audience always feel included. To show them people who I think are incredibly talented, and to show talented people and audience who I think is great and warm and receptive, and draw us all together into a great burning circle. and then to kill a goat and bathe in its blood.

    See, now I’m nervous. Is the goat-blood-bathing going to turn off some program director somewhere? Is it too pagan for these times? And this plays into the question of whiskey.

    I should clarify here that Jameson’s Irish Whiskey kindly offered the audience in Philadelphia a case of amazing whiskey, and we worked it into the show repeatedly.

    For example, we needed a way to cue the audience to clap at certain key points. Thus everyone was instructed to applaud me every time I took a sip of delicious Jameson’s Irish Whiskey. which, of course, has long been my dream (and nightmare).

    (A quick defense: We did this for the recording only. We have never otherwise faked applause before or purchased a response in this way.)

    (Well. I suppose we have always bought the audience’s easy, intoxicated laughter by doing the Lectures in a bar. But come on: buying laughter with whiskey is as old as theater itself. It is a known fact that the Globe Theater had a cover and a 45 drink minimum. End of my defense.)

    Anyway, the concern about whiskey was that it would seem too lush, I suppose, for a lot of public radio programmers and listeners. This had never occurred to me, and I agreed it was probably wise to edit it out.

    But I think it will be an ongoing challenge to wed the sensibility of a particular, gin-soaked, late-night, cuss-filled room in Williasmburg with the radios of the whole wide world. But it’s a challenge we must take if we are to keep maturing.

    We were going to do a whole lecture about a rabbit visiting lesbians in vermont, for example. That seems less likely now.

  • hodgman

    3.22.05

    Reply
    hello Sydney

    With regards to planning lectures, this is something very much on my mind, as we are planning the next one.

    Usually a single lecture or contributor or theme idea will come first. Coulton and Connor and I sort of talk and mull around until we strike upon what feels like a perfect concept that we just can’t avoid doing. Then we build a show around that person/idea.

    The Brookline show worked this way. It made no sense to do a whole show about Brookline, Massachusetts. But we had been asked to contribute to a larger literary festival which had the theme of "home." Like everyone, I and my collaborators had built such a mythology around our home town, that it seemed like it would be fun to explore that.

    It also seemed like it would be a fun way to torture Jonathan Coulton, who is married to someone from Brookline and is, frankly, tired of hearing about it. Then the ideas just flowed–Danzy Senna, Adam Mazmanian, Conan O’Brien. It came together very easily and worked out, I think, rather well. YOu can hear excerpts from that show here: http://www.littlegraybooks.com/hear.html

    Generally I get fixated on a single idea and chase it down like a mad rabbit on a Vermont farm full of lesbians. This is not always a good thing. Most professionals in public radio have wisely suggested that we start planning out holiday-themed shows that can be recorded well in advance, which will be useful to Program Directors looking for specials to run around that holiday.

    This makes absolute sense. But I also know I have Adam Stein ready to give a lecture on shoplifting that is going to be a showstopper, and he’s away until June, so now what do I do. Come up with ANOTHER idea? It just feels impossible to me.

    And yet, I must do it.

    With regard to the cat: it is demented. Like all cats.

  • Jonathan Coulton

    3.22.05

    Reply
    On Planning

    I should point out that while most of the good ideas come from John, they frequently come at the last minute. The day before we do a show he’ll say "Wouldn’t it be fantastic if we dropped 200 balloons after the mock presidential election?" or "Hey, could we use your robot vacuum cleaner to navigate a giant chalk-drawn Ouija board?" Unfortunately, he’s usually right, and then someone has to go to some weird warehousey district to buy a confetti cannon.

    This is, of course, part of the fun (you should all go out and buy confetti cannons RIGHT NOW because they are excellent). And once you imagine something like the Ouija board stunt, it feels like the show no longer makes any sense without it.

    Also, I don’t want to talk about Brookline.

  • whitney pastorek

    3.22.05

    Reply
    I don’t understand

    why there isn’t free whiskey all the damn time. I come to a lot of these things. I believe I’ve earned it.

  • hodgman

    3.22.05

    Reply
    there was free whiskey punch at the presidents’ day show

    i’m just spraying

  • bente

    3.23.05

    Reply
    may?

    the whiskey seems to be quite an item at LGB. i’m getting more and more interested. getting fed up with lonely drinking too. is there a show planned in may? i’m in NY then. i’d love to come.

  • hodgman

    3.23.05

    Reply
    to coulton

    first of all, Jonathan, I did not send you to a warehousey district for the robot vacuum cleaner ouija board gag; please do not try to obscure the fact that you PERSONALLY OWN a robot vacuum cleaner.

    second of all, Jonathan, what do you think about a show on May 12?

  • bente

    3.23.05

    Reply

    May 12 I’m visiting my lesbian aunt in Vermont. Too bad. I’ll listen to the internet
    (But if you guys happen to do a lecture between May 15-21 I’ll definitely come. And I’ll bring my aunt. Promise)

  • hodgman

    3.25.05

    Reply
    Greeley

    Yes, I think it’s a tribute to Brendan’s editing skill and good taste that the ragged edges intrigue the listener and do not bore him or her.

    It’s amazine what he and Jay were able to do in the editing room, especially with the theme song, which sounded much different I assure you. (They cut out all the sousaphones and the 45 minute call-and-response section, for example).

    The trick with the "ragged edges"–even on stage–is to show just enough to make the audience feel comfortable and part of the show. Then, when you reveal to them that the show really does have some advance planning involved, and in fact you are not entirely incompetent, it feels like a magic trick.

    Brendand and Jay were right in identifying that that radio can tolerate only a very small amount of raggedness–one or two lines tops.

    As with all radio, you really need to cut it all down by something like 80 percent in order for it all to just feel life size.

  • Jonathan Coulton

    3.25.05

    Reply
    Robots

    John is right. For the record, the robot vacuum cleaner in question was my own personal private Roomba, which I use to clean my floors (and also to communicate with entities in the spirit world).

  • cw

    3.29.05

    Reply
    so many opinions, so little time

    Thus far I have only heard tell of the Little Gray Book Lectures and so was glad to see it up on Transom where I could sample the wares. I thought this was an interesting amalgamation of salon/coffeehouse/bar reading thing and a radio show. If I was driving around and heard it, I’d certainly listen.

    Paul and Starlee’s stories were more interesting and dense (not to mention better written) than the ones I’ve usually heard read at such salon/coffeehouse/bar/alt. bookstore-in-a-hot-warehouse gatherings, so that was great.

    I would disagree with people’s no whiskey comments if by that they mean clean it up b/c I think it’s already pretty Clean, despite the raggedness referred to on other posts. Maybe the issue is there isn’t exactly a public cultural space for people to be literate, fun, and funny and you’re trying to build one and since I’ve rarely been in so public of one (like with an audience) it feels a bit strange to be there.

    It kind of reminded me of these readings they would have at the Maple Leaf bar on weekend afternoons in New Orleans a long time ago (they may still have them) and people sat around on the back patio sweating and getting drunk. Except the few times I went it seemed that if the writers seemed too serious or polished, people started noticing how hot and sweaty and miserable they were and wanted to leave.

    The only suggestion I have is that the show might benefit from the texture of including one shorter, less well-written piece in the mix– one that seemed raw– like someone recently wrote it on the back of a napkin maybe– but one that also didn’t suck. Like that one really excellent and odd piece that some weirdo always gets up and reads amid a bunch of bad High Lit stuff at almost every reading I’ve ever been to. Except here that short, toss-off thing would be the diamond in the rough in the mix with the really good pieces you already have. Then you would be at 110 percent.

    I really liked John Hodgman’s fly-by-the-seat-of-the-pants seeming stuff, but by the end I relate to him more as emcee than participant, if that makes sense. So he may not be able to be the back-of-the-napkin man.

    After listening to this, I also realized that I don’t hear storyteller type songwriters on the radio that often and I liked it.

    So…interesting work, good luck, and don’t be afraid to dirty it up even more somehow. On the other hand, maybe the average Public Radio Listener likes things clean?

  • Jay Allison

    1.31.06

    Reply
    two things

    Two things happened today…

    1) We posted a new hour of radio from the Little Gray Book Lectures. This one is #30 – "How To Observe Presidents’ Day Observed". You can hear it over on the Public Radio Exchange, or broadcast it if "you" happen to be a public radio station:
    http://www.prx.org/pieces/8738

    2) We were alerted to the Audiofile column at Salon.com which just featured Transom, citing Alwine’s Traveling Tomato piece and this one, LGB #29. You can read it here, although membership may be required:
    http://www.salon.com/ent/audiofile/2006/01/30/listens/index.html

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