In 2010, This American Life hit their 400-episode milestone. To commemorate, TAL staff decided to take on a challenge: produce stories pitched by their parents. Ira Glass shared an awkward story about losing his suit on a train, Nancy Updike came up with a jingle about the Erie Canal, but the far-and-away winner of this challenge was Lisa Pollak, who accepted a pitch from her mother to create a piece about “funny funerals.”
In addition to being completely hilarious, “Funny Funerals” offers aspiring podcast producers, like me, a rare insight into how to tackle a difficult story. Lisa Pollak reveals that even if you lack the ingredients of a good story (protagonist, dramatic arc, etc.), all is not lost!
I used to think Lisa’s piece was about funny funerals. It wasn’t until I listened to it about half a dozen times that I realized it was not a piece about funny funerals, but a piece about Lisa Pollak’s search for funny funeral stories.
Even though Lisa’s piece is filled with funny funeral stories, you’ll notice that the central protagonist isn’t a funeral-goer, a funeral director, or even a corpse; the protagonist is none other than Lisa herself. She is the protagonist and this is her quest: to find the ultimate funny funeral story.
Take a look at this rough story arc as you listen to Lisa’s piece:
Inciting Incident: What prompts Lisa to undertake the funny funerals story challenge? A conversation with her mom, where her mom recalls a funeral so funny she “bust a gut” laughing. Lisa wants to find a funeral story of the same caliber.
Rising Action: Lisa pores over old newspapers and books, calls experts and asks people around her for leads. Along the way, Lisa shares her findings with the audience, and although many of them are funny and interesting, she doesn’t quite yet uncover at the “bust a gut” level story she’s looking for.
Climax: Lisa is “just about to give up looking,” when she receives an unlikely tip from a TAL intern, Brian Reed. Brian suggests Lisa make one more phone call to two friends of his who supposedly have the exact story Lisa is trying to find.
(If you listen closely, you’ll notice that Lisa plants doubt and suspense along the way; for instance, a funeral director tells her she will never find a funny story. Suspense raises the stakes!)
Falling Action / Resolution: Lisa interviews Brian’s friends, who share a really hilarious story (rife with unintended innuendo) about a Ukrainian funeral. Lisa calls her mother to share what she’s found.
Reflection: Was it a “bust a gut” type story? Lisa’s mom laughs, but it is unclear if this story was as funny as what Lisa’s mom witnessed at the funny funeral she attended. Oh well. Lisa ties up the loose ends by cleverly suggesting, “she didn’t bust a gut, but maybe for my mom that only happens at funerals.”
So, maybe you’ve got a lot of content, but aren’t quite sure how to present it? Consider crafting your story arc with details from your search. Make yourself the protagonist. Because honestly, who doesn’t love a story about a smart protagonist trying to tackle a tough topic? Your journey might be just as interesting as what you find.
“Funny Funerals,” This American Life, 2010 (11 minutes)