Behind the scenes of NPR’s “All Things D” spoof video

09Jun10

While I was on vacation in Mexico last week, Small Mammal had its first viral video hit. NPR asked me to create a “clever intro video” for their CEO’s appearance at the annual All Things D technology conference, and this was the result:

Not only did it not suck (somewhat surprising, given that straight comedy is not my usual metier), the internets actually went a bit nuts for it.

NPR first asked me to create this video all the way back in February. I was a bit intimidated by the prospect of a) successfully pulling off “funny”; b) with their CEO as the star; c) in something that would be seen by the likes of Steve Jobs and James Cameron.

But it all worked out, so here are some things I learned along the way (plus a couple deleted scenes, if you like that kind of thing):

1. Sometimes, committees aren’t a bad thing.

I can’t believe I’m saying this — I once purposely pulled the plug on a successful web series I’d created just because I couldn’t deal with the outside meddling — but I guess there’s an exception to everything. Over the two months I spent zeroing in on the concept and final script, NPR looped in people from their communications department, multimedia editorial, creative services, and even the producers of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me just for good measure. We had a half dozen conference calls and twice as many email threads, dissecting three or four different concepts and scripts. And then when we finally presented to Vivian Schiller, the CEO, we went back to the drawing board a couple MORE times. I shot much more than we ever intended to use, and edited a dozen different versions — hell, I even DELIVERED four different final copies, just in case someone on their end had a change of heart about something.

Ordinarily a process like this would make me want to put a .45 in my mouth. But this time, I’d give the committee-ing a lot of credit toward making the final product as successful as it was. Why? Because I’m no comedian. I know what makes ME laugh, but if it doesn’t play to the room, then it’s pretty much worthless. And the only way to find out what plays is to have people weigh in on it, all throughout the process. (Hey, it works for Judd Apatow.) They knew when to trust the majority opinion and when to throw it out and trust the instincts of one or two individuals; quite a fine line to walk successfully, but they managed it.

2. NPR is actually full of people with wonderful, irreverent senses of humor.

Who knew? He may act stuffy on the air, but Robert Siegel can whip out a mean ad-lib:

It killed me not to be able to use that line. And don’t even get me started on Scott Simon, or Ken Rudin (who doesn’t appear in the final cut, but actually went on Chatroulette live and uncensored to collect the “moments” you see in the video — I shot Peter Sagal’s lines separately). Suffice it to say, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a middle-aged NPR host make dick jokes… off the record, of course.

Even the PR team was refreshingly open-minded about what was fair game: Amazingly, their only complaint about the “junk shot” in Chatroulette was that the dude’s hand could be seen moving up and down. (They asked me to use a still instead.) And Vivian, as you can tell, is anything but stuffy about the NPR brand. She was game for anything, and a total blast to work with.

3. Auto-Tuning is f*cking HARD.

OK, at this point, what with the T-Pain iPhone app and everything else, you could be forgiven for assuming — as I did — that applying a funny Auto-Tune effect to spoken voices would be as simple as flipping a switch.

How very, very wrong you would be.

We went through half a dozen versions of the “Auto-Tuned Things Considered” effect with as many professional engineers and musicians willing to give it a shot. All of them gave the same disclaimer up front: unless you have the right voice and cadence to work with, Auto-Tuning spoken words usually does jack squat. Turns out that the well-known “NPR style” — even voices, perfectly modulated and enunciated — is very nearly immune to Auto-Tune.

At the 11th hour, in sheer desperation, I reached out to The Gregory Brothers (of “Auto-Tune the News” fame), figuring that if anyone could wrench Robert Siegel’s dulcet tones into robotic submission, they could. Evan Gregory did in fact succeed — his handiwork graces the final video. But he had to really slice and dice the audio and snap it to a totally custom musical rhythm in order to make the effect “pop.” In fact, if you listen closely, much of the actual voice effect doesn’t sound that unusual. It just goes to show you how much musical craft it takes to make a “cheesy” effect really work.

4. Here’s that deleted scene. I think it’s pretty funny — and Andy Carvin, NPR’s social media honcho, does a great impression of an a-hole IT guy — but the gag was too high concept to hit quickly and it just ruined the flow of the video, so we cut it. What do you think?

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7 Responses to “Behind the scenes of NPR’s “All Things D” spoof video”

  1. Testing in a committee-like atmosphere is the same way Pixar guarantees their gags are funny and that their scripts work. I guess what really matters is, who’s on the committee? If it’s a committee of NPR geniuses, you’re good to go. Also, it has to actually be sort of democratic.

    I can’t believe NPR was willing to go this far for a single promotional video. This workflow is EPIC.

  2. 2 Me

    Well, this was a special circumstance because it involved the CEO and a very high-profile conference. Funny, though, how even with the epic workflow I still was doing work on it 24 hours before it showed at the conference… just the way of things, I guess.

  3. Of course Ken Rudin can make dick jokes. Politics is his beat.

    The Appalachian Trail

    Depends on what the definition of “is” is

    Mills getting a piece of Fanne

    Let’s just sum it up with this: “The only way I can lose this election is if I’m caught in bed with either a dead girl or a live boy.”

  4. GReat job. I think the google plug-in was the funniest part. Oh well.

    I guess The Gregory Brothers have the whole spoken-auto-tune market cornered. Can’t outsource that job.

    Actually when i watched it before reading the whole post, I kinda thought the final auto-tuned intro was kinda weak and was like, “The Gregory Bros woulda done it better!”

  5. 5 Me

    @Nate – it’s interesting how differently the same content “plays” in different contexts. I think the Google clip is somehow “funnier” on a small screen, playing to an individual person, than it would have been on a big screen to a room full of a hundred people; vice versa for the Autotuned-things-considered bit.

  6. 6 alfiesaden

    hi there – is it just me !! can any one explain why when i type in the yahoo browser “johnpavlus.wordpress.com” i get a different site yet whe i type it in google its ok? could this be a bug in my system or is any one else having same probs ?
    alfie saden


  1. 1 Auto-Tuned Things Considered « audiotrope

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