The Invisible Tour Guide

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I’ve launched a new podcast called ‘The Invisible Tour Guide’. It’s my first foray into the medium since Technoloics, the humorous technology and politics vidcast I co-presented with Jason McCandless and Francis McGillicuddy, shut it’s doors way back in 2006. I’ve wanted to get back into podcasting for quite a while now. Technolotics was an ungodly amount of work to get edited on a weekly basis, but enormously satisfying. There’s something deeply cleansing about about a net producer, rather than consumer of entertainment.

I’ve kept involved in audio production, producing a variety of shows on the excellent student radio station Trinity FM, as well as a couple of shows for RTE 2XM, and several dramatised readings for the podcast ‘Starship Sofa‘. But nothing beats the freedom, creative expression and accomplishment that accompany writing and performing your own work.

I’ve worked over the past couple of years, at learning to write comedy – something I never imagined I’d have the cojones for. There’s a big leap somehow, from believing you can produce an entertaining, well constructed story, to imagining you can be funny. Luckily for me one of the fine crew I met in Trinity FM was a man with no small comedic ambitions.

Andrew Booth had been writing parody reviews (and indeed releasing his own satirical zines) since secondary school. Finding a shared appreciation of the creative renaissance that erupted in British comedy in 90’s, from genius writers and producers like Steve Coogan, Armando Iannucci to of course Chris Morris; we embarked on a variety of bizarre comedy project. While none of these projects – from postmodern reviews, to novels, to popular imaginary MySpace celebrities – garnered much critical attention, it was and remains a rewarding creative partnership. One that provided me with the confidence and experience to dip my toes in the waters of comedy. When Andy became editor of the always controversial, but frequently unfunny Trinity satire magazine Piranha!, I jumped at the chance to write and rewrite for the outfit. The results of our work, and the input of great writers like John Hoysten, can be seen in the issue of Piranha! released last September, of which we’re all justifiably proud.

Before the first issue landed, Andy and myself had the displeasure of attending a dry as dust recruitment meeting, attended by hordes of the sort of smug, social climbing, journo-critters to be you might imagine embarking on a media career at trinity. To take the edge off I decided to attend the event in character. I’d been obsessively watching Youtube videos of the wonderfully eccentric New York playwright Edgar Oliver, and attempting to mimic his inimitable prosody. Wandering about the obscenely grand Graduate Memorial Building, tiresomely sober (its never wise to drink around such people), Edgar’s voice escaped from me in the form of ‘Christoff Englebert’ – an unfortunate whose nametag I’d been gifted. Oliver’s voice, morphed through severely deficient mimicry into even more grandiloquent pomposity, was wonderfully empowering. I flitted hither and tither camply bitchy and flirtatious – terrifying all about me, loosed of the bonds of convention and propriety. It was, I imagine, much how a drag queen must feel, compering a wild night at a gay bar. Christoff maintained his voice all evening, and doubtless there are those whom to this day, remain convinced that the lunatic character is really a fellow student.

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Around the same time, I came across a wonderful interview (on Jesse Thorn’s podcast ‘The Sound of Young America‘), with writer and humorist John Hodgman. Hodgman is a sort of American Stephen Fry, a humble jack of all trades, with a uniquely dry, urbane wit, and a tremendous ability to articulate his theories of humour. While Hodgman’s books are fanciful compendia of untrue facts, purporting to represent all world knowledge; the man himself has a habit in interviews of being oddly honest and literal, and as I listened to him speak about the history of volumes of arcane knowledge I had a flash of insight. If I could combine the character based humour of British comedy, with the fictive universe building of writers like Hodgman and Shea and Anton, I could produce something fairly unique that would be tremendous fun to perform. The copious notes I made that night include the phrase ‘Test several voices of varying seriousness, including Christoff’. There was in truth, no contest. Christoff became Professor Byron Frump, and his playground, art and history. I’d recently heard of a wonderful art project reminiscent of an alternate reality game which directed two listeners on a journey through Dublin city – moving independently, signalling to one another and interacting in mysterious ways, apparent only to them. I’d also seen wonderful videos of ‘flash mob‘ happenings, where strangers – directed by tapes or downloaded MP3’s – would dance, perform aerobics, or simply gather in huge numbers and identical dress, to the confusion and delight of their accidental audiences.

I realised that if I took this character (who my notes describe as ‘across between sister Wendy, and an ex-british army cricket reporter’), into the real world, his natural proclivity to pontification (well mine), could illuminate the absurdities inherent in high culture. Humour could emerge from the juxtaposition of elements of real life with an absurd headphone soliloquy. Listeners could perhaps be convinced to perform bizarre and inappropriate acts. Museums could become comedy venues, and galleries have their inherent pretension exploited.

I set to work developing a ‘location based comedy’. A programme which would follow the listener into the real world, fusing character based humour with ludicrous lies. I wanted the comedy to emerge not from stupidity or buffoonery, but rather the characters absurd pretension, and surreal take on things. There’s a tendency in much contemporary comedy – from Elton’s Baldrick, to Atkinson’s Mr. Bean, to Larry David’s Larry David, to every Will Ferrell character – to derive humour from a characters bumbling stupidity. I find this lazy and boring, like filling a cinema screen with explosions. Don’t get me wrong, slapstick when done well can be ingenious – my friend Tom makes wonderful short comedic films in the vein of Buster Keaton. That said – obnoxious ‘shouty make a scene man’ (the focus of most SNL sketches) has been done to death, as has ‘untalented but likeable guy’ (I’m talking to you Mr. Apatow), and ‘sweet quixotic looser’ (Wes Anderson territory). How much more interesting are satire, parody, surrealism, word play? How much more funny are clever, disturbing protagonists? Hence professor Frump, Fulbright scholar and ‘Lord of Cotton Wolf on Surrey’, ‘born into a life of almost unimaginable privilege’.

Ten episodes are planned – there’s no natural limit to a podcast, and I’ve learnt from Technolotics the limits of my interest in a project. Each show will include background sound – recorded on location, and densely scripted fictional history. Each episode will be a real tour – which can be listened to wandering around its location, or at home. The plan is for each successive show to become more like a radio drama – with additional characters, effects and music. There’s a tension here with the more passive situational humour, but there’s method to my madness. The ultimate aim is to teach myself how to write scripted comedy. I’ve an idea in mind for a sequel to the Invisible Tour Guide, something a little more conventional, which might be suitable for radio. I’d like to put a script together and ultimately get it into production at Radio 4, or one of the independent British production companies. Wish me luck!

The first two episodes of The Invisible Tour Guide are available to download free from http://www.TheInvisibleTourguide.com. New episodes will be available every Monday.

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