Nancy Updike

On Sunday, I had the opportunity to hear Nancy Updike of This American Life at the Third Coast international Audio Festival’s annual conference. I’ve always wanted to go to the conference but could never justify the fees or day off for the three-day conference. This year, they decided to open up the last session to the general public so I had to go.

Her talk was “Nancy Updike’s Favorite Things: Up with the Bad.” She explains: “Fearful people are drawn to scary movies. I’m drawn to stories about embarrassing mistakes, wrong-headedness and vice. Perhaps you see where I’m going with this?” She presented several examples of audio that explored the uncomfortable or relished in the mistakes. She started off with a clip from Steve Martin playing around with the microphone. He starts with some banjo music, then some singing in a possibly made up language. Ms. Updike loved how he basically did whatever he wanted on the mike. There was no obvious agenda. It was just fooling around. And then Steve Martin tells that he claims to aim at plumbers. He repeats that this joke is just for them. He tells the joke and everyone laughs at the punch line. Nancy Updike points out that no one really gets the joke and that is why people are laughing. We are all laughing at our lack of comprehension, seemingly lack of humor in the joke. That’s what is hilarious.

Nancy Updike also talked about this strange fairy tale by Tolstoy about a raven carrying his young sons over water. While flying, he starts to tire so he asks his sons one by one, “Will you carry me in your old age?” The first son lies and says, “Yes of course.” His father senses the lie and lets go. The raven falls to his death. The father picks up the subsequent sons and drops them all as they lie. However, the last one tells the truth: “No. I’ll be too busy with my sons” and the father lets him live. What a strange fairy tale! She talked about how she kept listening to it over and over again as a child, trying to make sense of it. Her best conclusion is that the story is about how terrible things happen in life.

She then talked about how she really loves the wonderful work coming from comedians like Louis C.K. and others. She showcased a clip from Amy Schumer’s show Inside Amy Schumer called “Awful People.” Amy plays a friend who is more concerned with her sandwich than her friend’s lengthy and not entirely relevant 911 story. What Nancy Updike loved about this sketch was how it captured our daily lives so well. All of us have been on both sides of the conversation. Sometimes we are the friend pretending to listen and sometimes we are the friend who is telling a lengthy irrelevant story that could be summed up in one sentence.

Nancy Updike then shared with us a clip from the WTF podcast with Marc Maron. From what I understand, it’s an interview show with other comedians. She talked about how he has a tendency to launch himself headlong into serious issues like race and politics. She shared this raw clip where Marc Maron makes an enormous gaffe where he mistakes Jamaica for Haiti. And it’s horribly uncomfortable for him. The comedian he is interviewing is totally riffing off of his mistake and it is hilarious. And one point, Marc Maron comments that he can’t even edit out this humiliation since it’s a live show. Nancy Updike’s response was “Thank God!” that he couldn’t edit it out.

Then Nancy Updike talked about an awkward scene from Love + Radio, a podcast about “all of life’s gray areas on an eclectic range of subjects, from the seedy to the sublime.” She talks about an interview with a man who ran a strip club from his apartment. It’s quite a tense situation; the man is constantly making comments about how the interviewers have no interest in hiring a stripper. It’s rather menacing at points; he even pulls out a gun at one point. Ms. Updike talked about how this work really brings you into the room so you too can feel the implied threat.

Finally, she ended her speech by talking about Serial. It’s a new podcast from the same people as This American Life. Sarah Koenig is the host and the executive producer and Ira Glass is the Editorial Advisor. It’s a podcast that follows one story week after week. It’s about 1999 murder case involving high school students. A young man was convicted of murdering his ex-girlfriend and has been in jail for fifteen years. It’s an incredibly compelling podcast. Sarah Koenig really makes you want to hear more. I can’t wait for the next installment. I go back and forth whether I think the young man is guilty or innocent of the crime. I love the ambiguity of the show.

Nancy Updike first prefaced her comments to explain that while the show is from the same folks from This American Life, she had nothing to do with the show itself. She walked us through the first few minutes of the first episode to explain how it was that Sarah Koenig drew us in. The first minute of the show explores the concept of memory and time. If you had to account for what you did in a specific period of time last Wednesday, could you do it? She then interviewed some teenagers and asked them what they did two Fridays ago. And the results were what you expected. Vague recollections, and contradictions. Because it’s hard to recall a regular day. Then Sarah Koenig points out: What if you had to account for an hour on a day six weeks ago? Or realistically 22 minutes if you had to? And that’s how she draws you into a 15 year old case. Those 22 minutes of time. Very neat.

Nancy Updike assembled a rather unusual selection of strange, even awkward, pieces. I think she suggests that we need to revel in the grey spaces, the in-between places. Radio/podcasts don’t have to just be polished and perfect; there’s value in the awkwardness, the ambiguous, the unsaid menace, and more. It’s about telling all kinds of stories, even if they don’t make sense all the time or are really embarrassing.

That’s all for now!

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