Inside Portland’s ‘Live Wire! Radio’

Live Wire! is a radio variety show recorded weekly in Portland, Oregon and broadcast on public radio stations across the country. “Radio Variety That’s Like a Chew Toy for Your Brain,” the show features interviews, music, stand up comedy, sketch comedy, poetry, essays. The show is currently in its eleventh season and now hosted by Luke Burbank (host of the daily podcast Too Beautiful To Live and occasional Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me panelist) and distributed by PRI, it’s making an impression outside the Pacific Northwest. Courtenay Hameister has been with the show from the beginning as a writer, sketch comedy performer, and for many years, the host.

Currently the head writer and producer, Hameister’s sensibility is all over the show. She has been contributing essays to the show for many years. At a time when collections of funny essays have become more common, it’s a surprise that Hameister isn’t better known. Not as dry as Ian Frazier, and wilder than Nora Ephron, Hameister has a voice that is uniquely her own. She writes a weekly column, “The Reluctant Adventurer” for the website and is currently finishing a book of essays, I Got Drunk and Joined a Gym: Lessons I Learned the Hard Way So You Don’t Have To, which is coming out next year from Audible.

I saw a recording of the show last year, so I know that you tape two shows back to back, but what’s the process of putting a show together?

Putting the show together starts really months prior with our Executive Producer Robyn Tenenbaum; she does the majority of the booking for the show. Building the show starts with that. Interestingly enough – I find it interesting – this season we’re doing themes for every show. That’s changing the booking process and it’s changing the way we need to think. We just did a show on Saturday night and we booked Peter Sagal, Chelsea Cain and Eef Barzelay. Sometimes the theme just happens and sometimes you have to look at the people who are on the show and be like, okay, how can we turn this into a theme? Chelsea has just written this book One Kick about this woman who was abducted and she turns into a bad ass and goes after people who have abducted kids. We were like, that’s like “Getting Even.” Peter Sagal is going to be on and this is Luke’s chance to get even with him for all the times he lost on the quiz. [laughs] Luke’s monologue was about gambling, so in this case it was about getting even financially and trying to get back to zero.

If you think of This American Life, you’re sometimes listening and going Ira, come on. The themes can be the teeniest tiniest threads. Once we have a theme, the writers come in the Tuesday of the week before the show and we all pitch ten ideas. Five of them have to do with the guests in some way – like if we want to do a quiz with them or do some weird thing in the interview. The other five are straight sketches or lists or whatever. I tell them my top four or five because a lot of times what happens is you’ll have this great idea for a sketch, start writing it and realize it’s going nowhere. There’s nothing interesting about it. Or the idea was a funny idea, but the entire idea of the sketch was the whole joke and you just have nowhere to go with it. They need to come with three first drafts. I do the same thing. I have to write sketches too. I give them more to chose from if the other two don’t go anywhere. Luke tends to come into the process the week of the show. Luke is great about the sketches in the show that he has nothing to do with. Anything he has to do with I let him know, here are the ideas we have to do with Peter Sagal or Chelsea Cain. He needs to have buy-in and often times he’ll pitch an idea or say, that’s interesting, but what if we did it this way, so he’ll make an idea better oftentimes.

I love all the elements of the show and I wouldn’t say that it feels random, but it is a variety show. To what degree has that changed now that every show has a theme?

We created themes for exactly the reason that you’re talking about. We’ve been talking about doing themes for about five years. Public radio program directors at stations really love the idea of themes because they can run something as a special. They can be like, oh, it’s fall and Live Wire did a show about fall, or holiday themed shows. We knew that and it was always something in the back of our heads but we also recognized that it does change your booking process and it’s a lot more complicated to do.

I had a conversation with Alex Falcone, who’s one of our new writers. Every season during the summer break we look at the entire show and everything is on the table to throw out. Even sketches. A lot of public radio program directors don’t like sketches. This year is that everyone got a couple of shows to listen to and give feedback. Alex Falcone said exactly what you said, sometimes I listen and it just feels random. Maybe a theme would help? Ideally having a theme helps ground the show a little bit. It makes it feel a little bit more consistent and cohesive. For me, it’s satisfying as an audience member to see somebody talk about something in an interview and then see some version of that exist in the comedy and then Scott Poole will come on and do a poem about that.

You’re performing all of this in front of a live audience. Is there ever a tension between what works on the radio and what works live?

That’s something that we’ve struggled with for ten years. [laughs] Our actors are stage actors for the most part. These people are used to working for the crowd and so oftentimes they’ll do physical things and that will get a response but it’s terrible for the radio audience. There’s nothing worse than feeling like you’re not in on the joke. We’ve really had to work to try to remember that there’s 400 people in that room but there’s 100,000 people listening. We try to do comedy that utilizes the sound effects, that creates an interesting aural space to be in and that’s tough. Same thing with Luke. He’s so used to doing TBTL and sitting in a studio that now that he has an audience and he’s so good at playing to the live audience, it’s easy to forget about the listeners. It’s something you need to constantly remind yourself about.

Besides having themes, has anything else changed this year?

Luke is such a different host than I was. He actually enjoys interviewing people. [laughs] For me it was interviewing people that stressed me out. I liked doing essays, I loved being in sketches, but interviewing people made me a little nuts. Luke loves to talk to people. This season we’re talking about booking and have booked people like Ben Jacobsen, who’s a guy who harvests salt out of the ocean in Oregon. He just does something cool and Luke loves to talk to people who do cool shit. That’s something that’s a little different in terms of the booking. Also we really want to try to book more standup comics. There’s not a ton of standup comedy on public radio right now and I think the people who are listening to public radio are changing. That’s something that we’re going to try to book more of.

You mentioned that it can be a challenge to get on stations and a lot of public radio listeners would say, yes, public radio does not have much comedy.

[laughs] Prairie Home Companion has been around for forty years at this point and that’s comedy. Our station, OPB, is largely a talk station and the people who work at that station tend to be okay with humor as long as it’s sort of educational. They love The Moth and This American Life, where there’s humor, but there’s always a reason why it’s there or it’s within a story. I think humor for humor’s sake has tremendous value. Most people don’t need a reason to laugh. The only reason to laugh is fear of dying alone and stuff like that. We all have that, right? [laughs]

Live Wire signed on to be distributed by PRI earlier this year. Has that changed anything?

At one of our shows, there was a particular sketch. We actually changed one line and it was hotly, hotly contested. I think that the writers were like, does this mean we’re going to change as a show because we’ve been picked up by PRI? Overall that was it in terms of content. Really the difference is that we’ve never had help. All of these other shows – Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me, Wits – have stations behind them like Minnesota Public Radio, WBEZ Chicago. We’re on our own. We’ve been independent since we started. PRI is helping to distribute our show, but we’re still an independent show. PRI has been working their asses off to help us pick up more stations. Moving forward it’s amazing to have help – and it feels like validation, frankly.

As part of that, do you have plans to do live shows elsewhere or expand in different ways?

We’d love to. We’ve been hoping to go to Seattle and we’ve talking about doing a show in L.A. That just has to do mostly with having a budget and finding sponsors. You have to find a hotel willing to put up a bunch of public radio nerds. [laughs]

You also have a book of essays coming out next year.

I had a book proposal and I really didn’t try to send it to very many people – or any people, really. [laughs] Here’s the thing, some advice for writers, you should send your book proposal to people so they can read it. Somebody at Hachette requested it and read it and I got good feedback. It was a book of essays and what they were saying was, nobody wants a book of essays. Unless you’re hugely famous, nobody wants a book of essays. Sometimes even if you are hugely famous, they don’t want that. They said, if you can turn this into a memoir, we’d love to look at it. I was in contact with Susie Bright. She was on the show and she read my essays on my blog and had contacted me about something completely different. Audible wants to do original content. She contacted me about that and I said, I have this book I’m working on and she said, I’ll take it. [laughs] So the book is coming out on audible first. It’s a series of humorous essays called I Got Drunk and Joined a Gym: Lessons I Learned the Hard Way So You Don’t Have To. In each of the essays there’s some sort of lesson that I learned. I try not to be too ham-handed with it. I’m not like, here’s what I learned, though in the first version of my book there were “lessons learned” and a box with the top three lessons. They were all jokes, mostly.

Are you reading it?

I wanted it to say somewhere in my contract that they would at least audition me to read it, but Susie was like, I can’t imagine why you wouldn’t read it. I just spoke at Rose City Comic Con on a humor panel and they were talking about tone and being able to keep a consistent tone. It’s really tough because the subject matter of this book varies. There’s an essay about my father’s death. There’s an essay about being broken up with at a graveyard at a funeral. Then there’s also one about this struggle I had over the course of a day where I was trying not to eat a Three Musketeers bar and I did all of these things to the Three Musketeers bar to try to get myself not to eat it. Including putting it down my pants. [laughs] It’s going to be interesting to figure out a way to make this not emotional whiplash for people.

In that sense it’s like Live Wire, trying to combine all these disparate elements and you want it to jump around and be a little jarring, but not give people whiplash.

I hadn’t really thought of that, but totally true. We just had a cancer doctor on our first show and we got some feedback from the live audience where they were like, that was a little whiplash-y. We actually switched around some elements in the recorded show.

Does it feel easier in a sense that you’re writing this book of essays, but you’ll be performing them, which you’ve done before for many of them?

It just feels comfortable. I know that I’ve been incredibly lucky. How many writers get the chance to test the material for their book out in front of people? I would say fifty percent of this book has been read at least once in front of a live audience and I’ve edited afterwards. I essentially have a focus group for my work. I don’t know if that’s a good or a bad thing. I’m always thinking of the audience as I write. I think that for humor writers that comes with the territory just because the audience is there. They’re an actual physical presence every time your work is read so of course you think of them as you write. It’s impossible not to, I think.

It’s easy to say they didn’t get the joke, but you still have to deal with 400 people staring blankly at you.

Exactly! There’s 400 of us and we didn’t get it, so maybe that says something.

If one person is doubled over laughing, maybe you got a bad crowd, but nobody laughing is a problem.

Exactly. For me the audience was this amazing place for me to go to get proof that I wasn’t a freak. That was an amazing experience. To hear people laughing. To hear people recognizing themselves in my experiences. When you’re neurotic, that is an extraordinary gift to be able to get from the audience. To hear them go, yeah, that’s happened to me too. At the same time, for someone who has struggled with self-esteem issues, to put myself in front of 400 people, where you’re looking to these people for your sense of self-worth, wasn’t a healthy thing.

As far as less humorous projects, I heard Seed, which was a show where you paired writers and musicians to create new work directly inspired by each other. It was an incredible show. Are you interested in doing that again?

That show was the thing that I’m the most proud of that I’ve ever produced. I’m really interested in that interplay between artists and hooking people up and seeing how art affects art directly. Musicians are affected by prose writers all the time and are inspired by them, and vice versa and it was amazing to be able to see that happen in a very direct way. I can’t tell you how inspiring it was for me to watch the other people. I thought the cool thing would be to just hear the new work, but the real cool thing being there was watching the people see this new work created based on their stuff. They were like kids, they were so excited.

My story was obviously a story where I hadn’t been able to find the rights to say to this person who’d said something super shitty to me – and this band wrote a song. It was incredibly satisfying. It’s really hard for me to figure out that line and to trust that people are going to be interested in reading my work if I don’t throw humor in there. I think that it’s what I’ve been doing for ten years and it’s scary to think of writing something that doesn’t. I don’t think that humor is a crutch, but it’s a style. I have a voice and my writing voice has humor in it. It’s definitely out of my comfort zone, but I’m interested in it and I hope that people will want to stick with me through a piece that doesn’t have any jokes in it.

Is there anything you want to do on Live Wire that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

I would love to do something like Seed on the show. That has to do with budget. With Seed, I didn’t pay people a huge amount of money but it was really important to me that I paid them a respectable amount of money to do that work on that show. I think that giving writers or creators of any type a project and a deadline is a gift to them. The thing that I love the most about Seed is all of this work exists now that didn’t exist before it happened. That’s the best thing about it. People now have this work and people were able to see it and hear it and it was made because of this project. That’s exciting for me. I’d like for Live Wire to be that way too

It’s nice to hear that you paid people!

I know! [laughs] One of the things that I love about Live Wire is that every single show we have a writer from the community on our writing staff. We bring in a local humor writer and again, we pay them. We don’t pay them enough, but we do pay them. There are some people who are our guest writers who have never been paid to write comedy before. Like Ben Coleman – I just thought he was funny on twitter so I asked him to come in. We have such a strong writing staff, but every time you bring in someone from the community it ups everybody’s game a little bit.

Inside Portland’s ‘Live Wire! Radio’