I, probably like many of you, grew up on TV, the movies, and now the internet – all visual media. Also, I started my career as a filmmaker and also co-wrote a live sketch comedy (with Ellen Bordman, Michele Markarian, and Wendy Kincaid, by the way). When I write a new sketch, I “see” it in my head. I think visually and the characters play out in a movie in my head. The problem is, I’m not making a movie. I’m not making anything visual and as I brainstorm sketches, a lot of ideas go in the trash because they are sight gags and I don’t see a good way to translate them to audio. That’s not a dig against audio. In fact, what I really love about audio is the challenge of the format. When I started this whole podcast adventure, I didn’t realize how much I would enjoy the constraints.
One thing I’ve learned in writing an audio-only show is that setting and characters have to be introduced as quickly as possible. Like thirty seconds or less quick. Your listener has to know right away where you are, who’s there, and what their deal is. If not, the listener can’t figure out what’s going on and they literally tune out.
First, let’s talk about setting the scene. In the first episode or two, Brian did the traditional old radio announcer thing and set us up with a short intro about where we were. In Angel of Death, for example, he tells us that we’re in the bedroom of Sadie, an old woman lying in bed, surrounded by her family, on the verge of death. Here the narrator has established the place and generally set the scene for us. We know it’s a bedroom. Dying woman. People around her. Each listener fills in the details of the room with their own imagination.
A narrator works nicely to set the scene. But I don’t use a narrator anymore. I don’t really remember why. Maybe I forgot to have Brian record an intro or a sketch worked fine without one and I just went with it. And, since it requires less recording time for both Brian and me (our schedules don’t sync very well – there’s always a sick kid or a birthday party or a giant lizard eating one of our homes), I now try to intro all the sketches without a narrator.
To establish setting, I use a combination of sound effects and character exposition. In Superhero and Supervillain Walk into a Bar, first you hear the clinking of glasses and background chitchat. Then immediately the Accelerator says, “Bartender, a drink!” Within the first few seconds, we know we’re in a bar. In Pluto’s Really Great Advertising Agency, we hear a phone ring. Minnie answers it, “Pluto’s Really Great Advertising Agency.” She tells the caller that Pluto can’t come to the phone because he’s in a meeting. Then we “cut” to the meeting. The purpose of that “scene” with Minnie is strictly to establish the setting. It’s about fifteen seconds. If we had started the sketch already in the meeting, I would have had to write some (perhaps awkward) dialogue to explain where we were. This way, it gets done in an efficient, and hopefully entertaining, way. Pluto is such a bizarre sketch, but it was soooo much fun to record. Brian, Michele, Michael, and Ellen came of with these voices, suddenly all the characters came to life. As a writer, to experience that “click” is an incredible feeling.
Speaking of voices, something I’ve been working hard on is having fewer, yet more distinctive, voices. I love The Tree, but I’m probably the only one who understood it. We had, like, six different people playing nine or ten different characters. It was insane! With a visual, you can at least see and keep track of who’s in the room, even if they aren’t speaking. But with audio-only, if someone’s not speaking for awhile, you kinda forget that they’re there and, quite frankly, who they are. So now I’m writing sketches with fewer and fewer characters so it’s easier for listeners to follow.
Even if there are only two people in a sketch, the audience can still get confused if the voices are of a similar pitch or tone. While Ellen and Michele don’t look or sound anything alike in person, I realize how easy it is to get confused when listening to voices in the same vocal range, such as two females. So in our Antiques Roadshow parody, I originally wanted to pair a male and female for each appraisal segment. But scheduling dictated otherwise, and I’m thrilled with the results. Ellen and Michele – smart, thoughtful actresses – created characters with distinctive speaking styles and tone which makes the sketch easy to follow.
In Superhero, we also played with speaking speed not only as character trait, but also for listeners to more easily distinguish the two characters. Accelerator speaks quickly (she’s The Accelerator, of course). Dumb Blonde, on the other hand, not only has this crazy caricature cartoon voice, but she also speaks much slower than Accelerator.
Hmm, I realize I don’t have a good “summation” for this blog. I’m sure I’ll talk about this topic more in the future because I’m slightly obsessed with it. Making sure that your audience knows where you are and who is there is vital to the success of your work. If they’re confused, like I said, they’ll literally tune out. Hopefully you haven’t already tuned out of this blog!
Thanks for listening and enjoy the show!