Laughing on the Radio

I love listening to Jad and Robert laugh on the radio, because it brings out the smiley, laughey part of myself, and I like that part of myself. I don’t think I’m the only one who feels this way. Consider Car Talk. It’s a nonstop laugh-a-thon, masquerading as a car repair show. And for a while it’s been the most popular show on NPR. It feels good to laugh with the people on the radio.

If there’s one lesson radio producers can take from this, it’s this: apply generous portions of laughter, especially when engaging in some kind of back-and-forth. Now, to discuss this further, let’s look at the “Laughter” episode of Radiolab.

In this episode, Jad and Robert playfully tackle one of the most pleasant enigmas of humanity (or is it one of the most pleasant enigmas of creatures?), and it’s great.

Jad and Robert laugh on the show – a lot. In fact, they laugh on every show — Jad’s giggles, Robert’s guffaws, gasps of surprise morphing into dumbfounded, what-else-can-we-do-but? laughter. It made me wonder. Why are they laughing so much?

I think we can find part of the answer by listening to the story they tell about Fran, called “How Does Laughter Affect Us.” In the story, the sit-com “The Nanny” hires people to laugh during the live tapings of the show. Other sit-coms follow suit, hiring professional laughers on their shows too.

The professional laughters have a profound effect on the performers, who express their appreciation directly to the laughers. The laughers LOVE this, and it encourages them to continue doing their jobs. They love laughing. They are good at it.

Jad and Robert, in a way, are also professional laughers – I feel like their laughter keeps things light in the recording studio while they repeatedly take opposing sides on issues, and I feel like they consciously include that laughter in the final versions of the show because it keeps things light for the listening audience as well. They’re exporting happiness, which is super important in a program that tends to cover weighty subjects.

It’s equally important for Car Talk’s Tom and Ray Magliozzi; they talk about cars to a listening audience that probably doesn’t self-identify as “car lovers”. I like Car Talk because I like listening to how they engage people while also keep the mood up during the show. We all need people in our lives who can engage while keeping the mood up, like Click and Clack can.

It’s no coincidence that Car Talk is both NPR’s most popular program and also full of laughter, and it’s no surprise that distributors want to keep it on the air after Click and Clack stop producing live shows. They teach people about cars and they make people happy – what’s not to like?

Well, there’s actually some controversy over whether it’s a good idea to play Car Talk re-runs… our hope, in the midst of all of this, is that producers will find creative ways to incorporate laughter into their work.

All storytellers can become professional laughers by laughing with/at the people they’re playing off of. Collaborators will appreciate it; listeners will appreciate it, and most importantly, the storyteller will appreciate it.

Just like the professional laughers in the Radiolab story, you’ll feel your mood lift as you incorporate laughter into your work. Go ahead, try it. Laugh on the radio.

Laughter” [1 hr] Especially the piece called “How Does Laughing Affect Us
Produced by Radiolab in 2008

Returning to the Scene of Inspiration

The summer before my freshman year at Stanford, my entire class read three books: Mountains Beyond Mountains, The Kite Runner, and a collection of literary short stories. In the scheduled book discussions that we freshmen had with our RAs, the first two books had the floor. Paul Farmer, we had read, would walk four hours through rural countryside to treat a single cholera victim. Many of us felt we should become doctors. The Taliban, in Hosseini’s novel, was gut-wrenchingly evil. We would go into politics, or international relations. The third book didn’t make nearly so powerful an impression on our ambitions – or at least, my ambitions.

It is surprising, then, that I became a writer. The storyteller’s life doesn’t seem as noble as the life of the other two aspirations. Even though I love being a working writer, sometimes I feel uncomfortable with it. Am I actually having a positive effect on the world? Do stories really generate the kind of change that medicine or politics do?

This American Life recently aired a story that changed my mind about the significance of stories. The story, which is part of the episode “Crime Scene”, is called “A Criminal Returns to the Scene of the Crime.” It is about a man named Bobby. Bobby is a recovering drug addict, a former thief and con artist. In this story, he returns to his old neighborhood, the same place where he stole things and tricked people, to coach a Little League baseball team.

The story, which is narrated by Bobby’s neighbor, Katie Davis, is affectionate, funny, and bittersweet. Bobby, despite occasional bouts of gross unprofessionalism, is trying very hard to do a good job. After spending years not even able to control himself, he has to control a bunch of wily ten-year-olds. It would be a hard task for anybody. But after a while, the kids respond. They like him. And in a way, they’re made for each other. Bobby even says at one point that the biggest troublemaker on the team, Benjamin, is his favorite kid, because Benjamin reminds him of himself. It’s an incredibly touching moment, and when the kids win the final game of the season, you’re right there, rooting for them.

“Return to the Scene of the Crime” originally aired in 2000, but the part that struck me the most did not air until a few weeks ago, when TAL re-broadcast the entire episode of “Crime Scene”. Ira Glass included updates on all of the stories in the episode, and he included one here: Bobby did go on to start a kids’ basketball team, as he had planned. Eventually, however, he relapsed, started using heroin again. He ended up at a halfway house, and he died there. “His counselor,” Ira concluded, “said that among his few possessions, when he died, was a CD with this story on it.”

Listening to this last line, I literally dropped what I was holding and started to cry. I felt I had been slapped in the face; it was the most visceral reaction I have ever had to a piece of radio. Not much later, I realized that this moment both embodies the central problem I have with stories, and offers a redemption for that problem.

One of Bobby’s only possessions at the time of his death was his own story. It did not save him. Stories, to my dismay, do not save you. They are not the doctor who walks four hours to find you. They are not diplomats, or drug rehabilitation counselors.

But stories can still be our most important possessions. They give us meaning, a reason for going about – or trying to go about – life in a certain way. They do not dictate our actions, but they can smooth our paths in one way or another, and they can help determine which of those paths we find fulfilling or beautiful.

I wanted to become a doctor, not because I knew anything about chemistry, but because I read a story that I loved about a doctor. I wanted to become a diplomat, because I read a story that presented a battle to be won.

When you listen to Bobby’s story, you’ll see clearly the importance of stories; they’re so valuable that you’ll want to have them with you, even at the very end.

A Criminal Returns to the Scene of the Crime
Produced by Katie Davis for This American Life in 2000
21 minutes

Learning to Lie

When asked what trait they want to instill in their children, most parents answer “honesty.” But in truth, learning to lie is a crucial part of childhood. This week, we take a deep look at how and why we learn to lie, and what lying does to you. Our first story investigates the most common lie of the western world and how it ushers us into the world of lies. Our second story is about the irrepressible urge to tell the truth, and our third and final story is about lying as a form of love.

Producer: Natacha Ruck

Featuring: Joshua Hoyt, Victoria Hurst, Poncie Rutsch, Christy Hartman, Dana Kletter, Dr. Gail Heyman, Dr. Karl Rosengren, Anish Mitra, Ian Girard, Rebekah Morreale, and Ashley Artmann.

Release Date: 1 August 2012

show image via flickr




Joshua Hoyt Interviews psychologists to find out when and how children learn to lie.

Featuring: Austin Meyer, Dr. Gail Heyman, Dr. Karl Rosengren.



Story 1: The Santa Game

Victoria Hurst tackle the big one: Santa Claus. He’s the biggest, Jolliest lie in the western world. For his sake we’ve cleaned our rooms and smiled when our great aunts pinched our cheeks. Because of him, we believed wholeheartedly in the fairness of the world and in bearded old men from the North. But What has he really taught us?

Producer: Victoria Hurst

Featuring: Anish Mitra, Ian Girard, Rebekah Morreale, and Ashley Artmann.

Image Courtesy of Ken Grobe



Story 2: The Lying Lesson

Dana Kletter was only seven years old when she found herself in a situation where she needed to learn how to lie–and to lie well. It was a matter of survival. But like any little girl, she also felt a big pressure to tell the truth, no matter how dangerous that may be.

Producer: Poncie Rutsch

Featuring: Dana Kletter

Image Courtesy of Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru / The National Library of Wales



Story 3: Lie to Me

What happens when lying takes over your home, and comes between you and the ones you love? In this story, Christy Hartman explores how hard it can be to face the truth about your family, and how learning to lie can be a gift of love.

Producer: Christy Hartman

Image Courtesy of Christy Hartman


Form Follows Function

Hidden structures and forms constantly influence the way we think, from social norms to rules of grammar. This week we give you four stories that illuminate the forms that underpin our lives. First, you’ll learn about a successful cosmetic surgery industry in modern day Korea. Second, a software predicts hit songs before they’re hits, based on a formula (note: this piece also aired on our “Prediction” show). Third, Iambic Pentameter makes itself known in the modern world. And finally, An artist incorporates naturally occurring patterns into her audio art.

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Host: Bonnie Swift
Producers: Bonnie Swift, Hannah Krakauer and Noah Burbank
Featured: Olivia Puerta, Nellie Olsen, Olivia Prevost, Noah Burbank, Sarah Rizk, Sam Alemayehu, Jill McDonough and Jen Carlile
Music: Palaviccini, Talisman, The Yeltsin Collective

Release Date: 2 June 2008


Story 1: Beauty in the Eyes of the Beheld

Western culture can influence Eastern perceptions of beauty, and in this story, the body-image of women. This piece surveys a growing trend, in which Asian women undergo a surgery called blepharoplasty (more commonly known as “Asian Double Eyelid Surgery”).

Producers: Olivia Puerta, Nellie Olson and Olivia Prevost


Story 2: Are You a Hit?

A new software predicts the next big music sensation, and some local talent is put to through the software to see how they measure up. Does this mean the end of true artistic integrity and creativity? (note: this piece also aired in our episode titled “Prediction”)

Producers: Sarah Rizk and Sam Alemayehu

Story 3: Prison and Poetic Form

Stegner poet Jill McDonough uses the structure of the sonnet to write a book of poetry honoring people who have been executed in the United States. Then she is interviewed by our Fiction Editor.

Producers: Lee Konstantiou
Featuring: Jill McDonough


Story 4: The Sounds of Clouds (and of other Natural Things)

Have you ever wondered what clouds sound like? Jen Carlile uses a programming language to convert visual images of clouds into a musical experience.

Producers: Noah Burbank
Featuring: Jen Carlile


Images: :Dar., hellocatfood, and msnc on Flickr