It would be easy to assume Everything is Alive, the new podcast from Ian Chillag, is a joke: a meta satire on podcasts akin to Left Hand Radio’s What If…? or The Onion’s A Very Fatal Murder. Hosted by long-time radio and podcast producer Ian Chillag, producing with Jennifer Mills, each episode of the ‘unscripted interview show’ sees Chillag interview an inanimate object – a bar of soap, a lamppost – played by talented improvisors. But on listening, what quickly strikes you is just how little of a joke the work is. Instead, Chillag creates something much more compelling: a genuinely unique take on the podcast form.
Many of the produced podcasts I’ve written about this year could be described as creative nonfiction, thinking about method and form to construct a narrative around a true story. But Everything is Alive exists in a very different zone of creative nonfiction. In its fortnightly, 20-odd minute format, ‘a different thing tells us its life story – and everything it says is true.’ And, indeed, while we might be listening to life from the perspective of a can of cola (‘Your average person wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between me and a can of regular Coca-Cola,’ says Louis, played by Louis Kornfeld, ‘but, yeah, “bottom-shelf”. We can describe it comfortably as bottom-shelf. I’m at peace with that’), the side facts about the 1920s radioactive energy drink Radithor are all true. From a facetious start, Chillag and Mills take a deep dive into obscure trivia, asking us to cast a new eye over objects we might ignore – and to consider some big life questions while we do so.
Chillag and Mills take a deep dive into obscure trivia, asking us to cast a new eye over objects we might ignore.
Chillag’s dulcet American tones are classic NPR – nerdy and intelligent, with a propensity for slight hesitance and a genuine interest in inquiry. Everything is Alive is part of the Radiotopia podcast network, a company that focuses on the curated uniting of independent podcasts rather than direct production, which can perhaps be defined by its emphasis on an interest in niche spaces – Ear Hustle telling stories from inside a prison, The Allusionist’s focus on etymology – high production values, and a trans-Atlantic slate. However, the network cannot be defined by a singular tone: the deep personal stories of The Heart could never be confused with the almost clinical dissection of crimes in Criminal.
In this, Everything is Alive follows familiar beats of not a ‘Radiotopia podcast’, but perhaps something akin to the ‘quintessential podcast’ we are all familiar with: the meandering interview which takes us from light surface questions to the deeply personal; the ring of the phone recorded when an expert is called up to comment on the facts (themselves all people, genuinely knowledgeable on the topic at hand); the content notes for stories that could be traumatic (‘This episode contains descriptions of pumpkin carving that some listeners may find gruesome’); the way music and sound are built in to create emotional resonance or bring us closer to the speaker’s world, memory, and thoughts.
Despite the setup and winks toward common constructs, Everything is Alive is a delight to listen to precisely because it isn’t a joke. It never hides what it is about, never works towards an ‘aha’ moment where you suddenly realise what object you are listening to. The identity of each character is set up from the start; the conversations and dissections are compelling and gentle. With each episode crafted in conjunction with the comedian guest playing the object, a sense of humour and levity runs through the series in both content and form. It gently pokes fun at podcast tropes, but is, ultimately, a passionate composition which takes itself seriously. And working with comedians, comedy and wit aren’t at the forefront of the improvisations: instead, the conversations feel embedded in truth, improvisation used not for form laugh-out-loud comedic situations, but for the quiet studied way a character’s world can be built.
Everything is Alive is a delight to listen to precisely because it isn’t a joke.
Chillag’s previous work on the productions Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and How To Do Everything has demonstrated his love of obscure trivia. Here, working with his guests, the facts are placed into the ‘brains’ of these objects: who would know more about elevator history than an elevator? Who would know more about the fate of un-bought pumpkins than a jack o’ lantern?
Much of the joy of the work comes from the curious oddity of thinking of a voice prescribed to these objects: a simple thought exercise in what we would hear from a pillow or a bar of soap. But Everything is Alive is so much more than that: stepping away from humanity and observing us from the outside – often from a place in the world which is defined and fixed – we get new and insightful meditations on humanity. How humans create things, and how these things can be destroyed. At various times, the work becomes a meditation on loss and grief; a consideration of trauma; a love-letter to rom-coms.
We sit within the anxiety of Ana the elevator (Ana Fabrega): given a view on the outside world, she asks, ‘Is there no weight-limit outside? So how do you know if you have too many people outside? […] It looks so overwhelming out there.’ We sit within the mindfulness of Chioke, (Chioke I’Anson), a grain of sand: ‘All of my existence is observation and reflection’, he says.
Frequently, we return to the very human question of how can a life be measured. ‘I’m asking myself: Were you as important as you thought? Were you as valuable as you thought? What kind of a mark will you leave?’ says Tara (Tara Clancy), a bar of soap. ‘Mildew? A soap stain?’
We are taken through stories of the limited lives of a can of cola, of a pumpkin; of the eternity of sand. The nightmarish story of the Tooth Fairy, as told by a tooth: one who threatens to take you away from your family. The pressure put on a pillow to give its person a good night’s sleep.
Launched in July, at first the production seemed to be a look at our relationship with objects humans create; but by October it began to show a shift towards inanimate objects which exist outside our engineering: the tooth, the sand, a jack-o-lantern which wholly existed as a pumpkin before being carved, and who remembers every twist of the knife in her flesh.
The interview construct of the show allows it to go on strange segues … At times it explores the mundane … at others the utterly bizarre.
The interview construct of the show allows it to go on strange segues: a question as to why we have a grain of sand, but not a grain of human, leads to conversations about mass nouns, unity and divergence. At times it explores the mundane, such as Maeve (Maeve Higgins), a lamppost, talking about her workday; at others the utterly bizarre. In the series’ first (and still arguably strangest and most beguiling) episode, Chillag ends the interview by drinking Lewis the cola can. ‘Are you sweating?’ asks Chillag; ‘With joy,’ Lewis breathlessly responds.
Although no other episode released to date ends with such finality of the object at hand, it is possible I view this episode as the strangest only because, as the first episode, I had no point of comparison. Much like the work could, at first, be mistakenly read as a joke; its conceit could seem limited. And, of course, we are only eight episodes in. But as each episode takes in the big questions of our lives and asks us to look at them in a new way, with introspection and a dash of humour, never sticking to a singular set of rules for how each of these disparate objects should behave, there is a long way for the work to grow yet.