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 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.”
Enjoying this feature?
Help Transom get new work and voices to public radio by donating now.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
with funding from the