The new Peacock stop-motion animated show “In the Know” provides a biting yet warm-hearted satire of public radio and well-meaning liberals. It stars cocreator Zach Woods (“Silicon Valley,” “The Office”) as the voice of Lauren Caspian, the third-most-popular host of their version of NPR.
“Some people will be like, ‘I don’t like Lauren Caspian because he’s insufferable,'” Woods said. “Someone else will be like, ‘Lauren Caspian is the comedic centerpiece.’ As long as everyone’s disagreeing about what works and doesn’t, I’m happy about that.”
You can watch the show’s trailer here:
The show was created by Woods, Mike Judge (who Woods worked with on “Silicon Valley”) and writer/improviser Brandon Gardner. Their fictional NPR station appears to be the world capital of virtue-signaling. Woods and Gardner went into the project without a world of inside knowledge, but a deep understanding of the kind of people who listen to public radio: them.
“Truly, Zach and I don’t know a ton about the public radio world. Except as listeners,” Gardner said. “The show to us, I don’t think is that much of a satire specifically of NPR or public radio, as much as it is people like us who listen.”
The show’s proven to be a Rorschach test for viewers.
“I think people see their least likable sides, the most strident aspects of themselves,” Gardner said.
The creators have listened to reviews of the show — including from people who’ve worked in public radio.
“It’s funny how many people feel it strike very close to home, and they either like that or they don’t,” Gardner said.
That included Woods and Gardner hearing reviewers pull a move that’s a subconscious oversight of the show’s fictional NPR host: cutting off women.
“This made me laugh so hard,” Woods said. “[A podcast] that reviewed the show really hated it. Like, hated it. They were like, ‘it’s not funny.’ And, fair. You can not think it was funny. But then at one point, one of the reviewers said, ‘I mean, it did make me think, do I make interviews about myself? Do I cut off women and finish their sentences for them?'”
“The way he delivered it made it seem like, ‘I probably haven’t, but it was good of me to think about it,'” Gardner said. “The woman who was on the panel with them was making a point, and she had not quite finished making her point when he cut her off to make the point he thought she was about to say. It’s like, ‘yeah, dude, you do this thing you’re worried about. You did it on this podcast.'”
Bringing back the “Space Ghost” celebrity interview
Judge’s way into the project began when he and Greg Daniels of “The Office” met with a network that wanted to know if they’d thought of doing a talk show with real guests, but an animated host. According to Judge, the idea stuck with him.
While trying to come up with someone who’d be great at interviewing people, he thought of actor and renowned improviser Woods, whose improvisation skills Judge called “legendary.”
“I just started thinking about the way Zach Woods naturally starts interviewing people when he meets them, and when he does improv, he’s so good at it,” Judge said.
That was mashed up with Woods’ exploration of the public radio world, with Judge realizing that doing a hybrid interview show with real guests would be a great fit coming from a fictional public radio team.
“Partly, it’s ripping it off ‘Space Coast to Coast,'” Woods joked, noting that the classic Cartoon Network and Adult Swim show was a reference point for “In the Know.”
“We did a lot of improv, we kept it pretty loose,” Judge said.
One of the team’s favorite celebrity interviews was with musicians Tegan and Sara, who were eager to provide an example of this behavior in their semi-improvised interview.
“Everyone who worked on the show kind of swooned for Tegan and Sara and wanted to be their friends and their partners, because they were so funny and charming and cool,” Woods said. “And like the second I cut them off, they immediately understood the dumb joke I was trying to make and played along in a way that really elevated it.”
The interviews were done with the guests looking at an image Lauren Caspian in a Zoom-style interview, but without getting to see him animated.
“They’re just looking at a picture of a puppet,” Gardner said. “It would be so tempting to check out of that reality or start to call it out in some way. But they, all of them, I thought did a really great job of treating it like a real interview.”
You even get to see Mike Tyson and Roxane Gay comfort and provide advice to Lauren.
The show had just one largely scripted interview, which was with MMA fighter Jorge Masvidal. They flipped his public persona to give him one of the most introspective, insightful interviews on the show, turning it around on producer Fabian.
“In real life, he knocks people unconscious for a living and he’s like friends with Donald Trump,” Woods said. “Something about the spectacle of Fabian and him having this very tender moment of mutual recognition of each other’s pain and vulnerability was very sweet to me and weird and kind of delirious.”
Some of Woods’ other favorite guest moments came with Hugh Laurie.
“Hugh Laurie, I always just think has a magic face,” Woods said. “I feel like his face is like the Aurora Borealis, where 12 things are happening all at once on his face and it makes everything better. “
Guests on the show also include Jonathan Van Ness, Finn Wolfhard, Nicole Byer, Norah Jones, Ken Burns and Kaia Gerber.
“[Zach is] just so good at making fun of it as somebody who’s not outside bashing it, somebody who’s sort of making fun of himself,” Judge said. “I just thought that would be a perfect vehicle for him.”
What progressives don’t talk about
The characters on “In the Know” span generations, providing everything from an aging hippie perspective to the oversharing bro intern.
Host Lauren Caspian is always eager to smugly share his own knowledge and shame perspectives outside his own.
“Especially among progressive people, of which I count myself one — there’s, appropriately, so much concern over racism, homophobia, sexism,” Woods said. “But two things that I think I hear much less about are classism and ageism. And it’s like, we’re the same people who would bristle at something that reduced somebody to their sexuality or gender, are very comfortable speaking in a dismissive or disparaging way about someone just because of their age.”
Woods doesn’t think everyone wants to embrace that kind of introspection.
“There’s very little conversation [about that] because that, especially among over-compensated Hollywood types like me, would require a degree of self-interrogation,” Woods said.
On the show, that bias leads to the median-aged members of the team, Lauren and producer Fabian, being contemptuous of the show’s co-executive producer Barb. She’s a well-meaning, older Gen X representative who isn’t quite as progressive as her younger colleagues, but still seems to do the most to contribute without making a show of it.
“At the same time, Barb has lived this big, beautiful, vivid, painful life,” Woods noted. Viewers discover in the season finale that she was a war correspondent.
“We don’t think people are one thing, and we wanted to complicate the characters through the episodes,” Gardner said. “All the time in real life, for myself, I’ll make a judgment about someone and then find something else about them or see them in a different context and be like, ‘oh, I now feel guilty about the judgment I made.’ ‘Cause there’s much more humanity to them than I was giving them credit for.”
“There was someone who said, ‘Are we still in 2024 making fun of liberals?'” Woods recalled. “And I was like, ‘Yes, of course! Like, hopefully forever we’ll be making fun of liberals and conservatives all the time. I don’t think anyone should be exempted We’re all ridiculous. Let’s have fun, you know?”
Woods also wanted to explore why people often behave in unkind ways.
“I guess a core bias of mine is that when people behave in ugly ways, it’s usually because they’re scared that they are ugly,” Woods said. “People’s coping strategies and kind of social camouflage can often be the most off-putting thing about a person, and if they could trust that at some core level they were lovable and worthy of attention and care, then they wouldn’t have all of these exhausting social ticks and pretensions and bullying, and all the ways people try to armor themselves against the terrifying world and a terrifying feeling of your own shortcomings.”
Woods doesn’t feel like people do a great job making space for that on the internet.
“One thing I really hate is when online, people call people a ‘piece of s–t’ or ‘human trash’ or things like that, because it’s so cruel and it’s so reductive,” Woods said. “Even people who have done really horrible things that maybe can never be undone — still, to talk about people in this way, it’s a kind of emotional death sentence. I just feel like that is a way of creating distance between them and you. You know, you call someone ‘a piece of trash’ or ‘a piece of s–t’ or whatever. It’s a way of reassuring yourself that you have nothing in common with that person and that they’re kind of a different subspecies of person. But I actually feel like one of the reasons we can become so angry and so punitive about people who disappoint us is because it awakens an anxiety in ourselves about the ways in which we might be disappointing or critical.”
Targeting public radio specifics
The show goes deep with specific references that Woods and Gardner felt would play to public radio listeners.
“They’re all things Zach and I find funny, and we get the references ’cause we wrote them,” Gardner said, “but at different stages, a lot of people would be like,’I don’t think people are going to know who Sirhan Sirhan was.’ Or like, ‘I don’t know if enough people know Malcolm Gladwell to mention him so many times.'”
Gardner was thrilled when a Connecticut public radio show reviewed “In the Know” and connected with those reference points.
“They were even like, ‘I don’t know if these references are for everybody. I don’t know how many, but I fell out of my couch laughing when they mentioned Sirhan Sirhan,'” Gardner said. “If one media professor on this panel fell out of his couch, then I’m happy about that.”
Judge voices Sandy, the station’s spaced-out film critic, based on a character he’d animated a long time ago.
“I’m just slightly younger than the hippies. All those hippies were around when I was a little kid, like friends of my dad and my uncle. And they seemed like they were always name-dropping Ken Kesey,” Judge said, along with other “old hippies that young people haven’t even heard of.”
The show combines comedy about public radio specifically with situations relatable to many office environments, especially in liberal enclaves.
“I’d say a lot of corporate American offices right now are sort of public radio types in there,” Judge said. “I think that that Venn diagram is at a pretty strong correlation.”
Using stop-motion animation
Judge had been a big fan of Aardman Animations (the studio behind projects like “Wallace and Gromit” and “Chicken Run”) particularly their “Creature Comforts” franchise.
“They would interview real people and then animate them, and just all the subtle little things — I don’t know, I just love seeing the stop-motion approach here come alive,” Judge said. “I’ve wanted to do stop motion since I was a kid, and I did a little bit when I was first messing around with animation, but this is the first project I’ve really done with stop motion.”
The show turned to the animation team at ShadowMachine, who previously worked on Guillermo del Toro’s “Pinocchio.”
Judge hopes that fans want to see more of the show’s characters and this animation style.
“‘South Park,’ like the first time I saw Cartman, I was just like, I want to see more Cartman. I just want to see that weird little cutout animation talking like that,” Judge explained. “When the character becomes more than the sum of the parts, I just love that. And I think, I feel like we have it with these characters, and so I hope that the audience likes it.”
Judge likened the feeling he wants to evoke to how he felt when he saw “This Is Spinal Tap.”
“I was a young rockabilly guy — I was like, ‘oh man, this is so great. I love that they’re making fun of these glam metal guys.’ And then I thought all the glam metal people would hate it, and then all the glam metal people loved it and metal people loved it.”
So far, he’s seen public radio audiences enjoy the show and he hopes everyone enjoys seeing that world satirized.
“I would hope that it’s not divisive, but it entertains everybody,” Judge said.
The show’s voice cast also includes Carl Tart, Caitlin Reilly, J. Smith-Cameron and Charlie Bushnell, along with guest voices from Will Ferrell, Amy Landecker, Chris Diamantopoulos and others.
All episodes of “In the Know” are available now on Peacock.
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