For those who enjoy a behind the scenes look at the production side of things, here's a little background on how a comedy podcast with a national cast of actors came about during an unusually crazy time for pretty much everyone on the planet.
If you've ever thought about starting your own podcast, band, web series or any other kind of production, I hope these stories show that anything is possible if you really want to do it.
And thanks very much for listening to our show. We all appreciate it!
There's a running joke among my friends that my most entertaining stories always seem to begin with, "All I wanted to do..." Well, entertaining for them, anyway. In this particular case, I had been trying to get some studio projects going because, well, creative people like to create. It seemed harder than usual to find musicians and actors, and I didn't really understand why.
Then one day Scott comes by and asks to borrow toilet paper, which was the first I'd heard about this new virus thing that everyone was talking about. As you might imagine, trying to get people to come out to a recording studio in the middle of all that was nigh on impossible. For the record, if he ever asks to borrow toilet paper again, I'm stocking up on canned goods.
Having run several ads for actors and getting nowhere, I was on the actor ad site again when I noticed a new checkbox that said, "This is a remote / work from home gig." I had been kicking around the idea of doing a simple two person comedy audio play with me and a female actor, something based on AI going out of control. Shooting video is one thing, but these days it's easy and inexpensive to record podcasts and I knew lots of people had basic home studios. So, I put an ad in for a remote voice actor. And that's when it all started spinning out of control.
Before I could even finish writing the ad, I was already getting a steady stream of responses. I'd mentioned a female lead and maybe someone to do episode specific side characters. Except each audition reel I listened to was great, and the people were all nice. So I thought, okay, just this one more person. Suddenly, I realized I had a cast of around a dozen people. There was just one small problem. I didn't have a script.
Normally, when I write any kind of series I do the entire thing at once. This is good from a writing perspective as it insures continuity. However, it's also good to have it all done before you announce it so that life doesn't take control and create a three month gap between episode two and three. However, in this case I didn't follow my own rule. I'd had such a hard time finding actors that I wasn't even sure I could get anything produced. So, I just had a pilot episode. Only now, I had a pilot episode and a group of people who were all ready to go. Oops.
I was both enthusiastic about producing the show as well as somewhat embarrassed, as I normally have my act together better than this. Fortunately, I got nothing but good feedback from the entire cast. In fact, this turned out to be a rather unusual group as creative creatures go.
It's long been my assertion that actors were created to make musicians look normal. Having spent many years playing in bands as well as doing the occasional video project, I'm used to the less than reliable nature of both. They're late, they show up unprepared or don't show up at all, and that's on a good day.
However, for some reason, every single member of this cast was as dependable as they were productive. In fact, as I hurriedly cranked out each episode, handing it out was like tossing a bowlful of shrimp into a pool of underfed piranhas. I'd barely finish telling them an episode was ready before the parts were done and delivered. Fitting for a show about altered reality, because it certainly felt like one to me. I've never experienced a group of creative people who were this motivated and consistent. And I've been at this for quite some time now.
Back when I wasn't sure I could find actors, this was going to be a simple story about a programmer who created an artificial intelligence that came to life and made things crazy for him. It was going to be me and another actor, something quick and easy to write. However, once I had the cast and started writing the episodes in earnest, it was the story, not the AI, that took on a life of its own.
I'm not going to offer spoilers here, but let's just say that this turned out to be a wilder ride than I had originally envisioned. I had all these actors, and as each one came in I thought they were so great that I'd write a character just for them. For some I even wrote several.
My writing instinct was to stick to the script I originally had in mind and just work these characters in, but fighting the flow is never a good idea. Each new character I wrote told me to take the story somewhere new, so I just went with it. What I ended up with was galaxies away from where I had intended to be, and it's a far better story for it. If you enjoy the ride, you should know that all of the characters and their ensuing adventures were completely inspired by the talent and performances of the cast. I just let the story write itself.
The thing I found most surprising was how easy it was to produce a show with a cast that was literally coast to coast. Even Scott, who lives in Atlanta and was part of my crew for Talking Head Games, recorded all of his parts at home.
During the pandemic video conferencing became popular, and I noticed that everyone doing remote recording was trying to emulate the real time feeling that you get from being in person. However, because of the nature of the Internet there are problems you just can't get rid of, such as latency (that lag between people speaking), things glitching out, disconnection, degrading quality, etc. I thought there had to be a better way.
As it turns out, I make a living as a programmer, and I have a separate website for my recording studio. So, I tried something new. I rapidly wrote a database driven back end system for the studio that would let me manage the entire show through the web portal. People could see what scenes they had to do, download the scripts, record them, and upload them back to the site, with all the notifications and communication you'd find in a professional product, since that's what I do to pay the bills.
As scenes came in I put together dialogue-only mixes that the cast could access so they could hear each other's performances. When I got scenes in, I was able to use the site to give them feedback, reset a scene to be done again, etc. The performances were so solid it was usually just a missed line, or asking for a particular emphasis. It was far easier to do than I'd imagined.
When you hear the show, you'd never know from listening that they weren't standing in the same room working off of each other. They didn't record over a video conference, at the same time or even on the same days. Each person did their parts in isolation. And yet, the performances blend together seamlessly.
I'd love to take credit for how it turned out, but the truth of the matter is that with the right people, all you really need to do is give them a good framework, tell them what you're looking for, and then get out of their way. They all knew what we were going for, so it was just a matter of keeping it organized.
When the parts were all turned in and a few tweaks done to the performances, then it was time for me to return to my life as a studio rat and do the mixes. For that, I needed two things - music and sound effects. Since this isn't a paid production, i.e. we're just doing this for the fun of it, there was no budget to pay for either. Spending time on Google searching for royalty free sound effects was... tedious. Music was no different.
Fortunately, just like the other aspects of the show, things just came together on their own. I happened to notice that YouTube had an audio library of royalty free music, and that's where all the background music came from. Their license says attribution isn't required, but that's just not how I roll, so they're all listed on the music page out of gratitude for their generosity.
I couldn't find the sound effects I needed in YouTube's library, so I thought that was going to be a slog. Then I realized that one of my keyboards had several built in sfx sound libraries. That's where all the sound effects came from, so once again things just magically worked out.
I'm actually writing this as the final episodes are rendering to the mp3 files needed for distribution. That's enough for them to be played here on the site, but there's still a fair bit of geek work remaining to get them published on all the major podcast channels, plus a few other things. Nonetheless, by the time I call it a night, this five month ride will for the most part be complete.
Somehow, in the midst of a global crisis and despite being massively unprepared, this weekend ends with uploading the final mixes of Way Better Than Fingers ready for you to hear. I've seen plenty of creative projects fall apart over the years, and that's when things were normal and everyone was in the same room. And yet, in the most unlikely of scenarios, I somehow stumbled upon an outstanding group of people who were able to bring this story to life, and have a good time doing it.
I hope you enjoy the show as much as we have bringing it to you.