Producer Gwen Macsai was 31 when, for the second time in her life, she was subjected to that ubiquitous teenage torture device . . . the dental retainer.
Macsai found herself both surprised and humiliated that a mere dental appliance could unearth deep-seated (and rightfully) suppressed memories that unfortunately, she could no longer ignore.
Gwen Macsai is host of Re:sound, the Third Coast Festival’s weekly program on Chicago Public Radio. An award-winning writer, producer and humorist, Macsai’s radio work has aired on All Things Considered, Morning Edition, and Weekend Edition Saturday. She's also the creator of the television sitcom What About Joan starring Joan Cusack, and author of Lipshtick, a book of humorous first-person essays.
Taki Telonidis has been producing public radio for more than 20 years, first with NPR in Washington D.C. and more recently with collaborator Hal Cannon of the Western Folklife Center. Their work has appeared on NPR's Weekend Edition and PRI's Marketplace and The Savvy Traveler. From 1994 to 1998, Taki was Senior Producer of NPR's Weekend All Things Considered. Telonidis has received the CPB’s Gold and Silver Awards.
Looking for more of Gwen's humor? Check out her book, Lipshtick.
BEHIND THE SCENES with Gwen Macsai
How did you get your start in radio?
I dropped out of college after my sophomore year. When I went back to school, a friend told me about a community radio station that held training classes and let mere mortals on the air. I immediately signed up and got a three-hour, once-a-week air shift. As graduation approached I had no idea what to do and thought, public radio is sort of like community radio, I'll call them! So I did. The program director at WBEZ in Chicago granted me an interview and said, "Do you have a demo tape?" "No," I replied. "Can you bring one?" he asked. "Sure," I said. Then I immediately called a friend who worked there and asked him, "What's a demo tape?" He told me to interview someone interesting and turn it into a three to four minute piece. I had never interviewed anyone or edited tape. I interviewed William Warfield, who had just won an Emmy and upon replaying the tape on the way home, discovered there was nothing on it. Anyway, after a long series of mishaps, I got it done, turned it into the program director who promptly lost it. I ended up doing another one, getting a freelance producing job there and learning almost everything I know. Three years later I was offered a job at Radio Smithsonian and while in Washington, started freelancing for NPR.
What was the first piece or essay you produced in which you exposed intimate and often embarrassing things about your life? And what prompted you to do it?
The first piece was in 1990, a treatise on why the third date is so different from all other dates. From that point on, my work got progressively more "intimate." I wrote an essay about why men break up with me after i knit them a sweater, then I produced an essay about my chin hair. I'm most interested in this kind of piece because it's what I'm best able to write about. For some perverse reason, I enjoy taking intimate subjects and exposing what is interesting or funny about them. This is good for laughs but bad when you find yourself living your life as a third party, looking for material.
Chin hair!? I'd love to know what led you to that idea.
Excess body hair has been a source of frustration and annoyance to me for so long, I can't remember when it all began. When I found out that other women had similar predicaments, and it became the subject of many discussions among the gals, I knew that it was universal enough to be the subject of some kind of self-ridicule and exposure. At the time, my producer and I had complete autonomy on Morning Edition so I did the piece without having to run the idea by anyone. If I'd had to, I'm sure it would have been nixed. As it was, we did the piece and it was one of my most responded to pieces. That's something you find out once you start discussing things that other people are too embarrassed to talk about. Everyone loves hearing about them because they can finally get it out and laugh about it. If you have the nerve to say the unsayable, people will carry you on their shoulders through the streets.
Say more about living life as a third party. What's it like to be constantly looking for material in your own life?
It's what every writer does to a certain extent, however when you start removing yourself from your life and acting as an independent observer, this is not good. Trust me, I know. But, this is what's easiest for me. I don't know if it's because of something that happened in childhood or genetics or my diet or what, but I just find it easier to confess things to millions of people than to make a one-on-one personal confession. Perhaps it's because when I write about something, no one's there to react. Then producing the story brings out the frustrated actor in me, and by the time it hits the air, I'm done with it. I don't recommend having better relationships with anonymous people far away than individuals close up, but hey, it's worked for me.
Do you think about the differences in peoples' senses of humor when telling a story?
While everyone has a different sense of humor, most people share a general sense about what is funny. Certain areas of humor, like blue humor or slapstick or assaulting humor, have more limited audiences, I think. But in general, the common denominator is pretty wide. Humor, done well, is always welcome in any story -- even deadly serious ones -- and in my opinion, humor is never taken seriously enough. Humor writing is written off because it is "light," but anyone who has ever tried it knows how hard it is. All you have to do is watch a sitcom to see how much badly written stuff is out there.
So, is there anything that's truly, inherently funny?
I don't think there is much that is universally funny to absolutely everyone. Someone is always offended by something. I'm the only person I know who didn't like Airplane (the movie), but I don't like slapstick. I can't imagine someone not liking the Marx Brothers, but I'm sure those people are out there. On the other hand, I hate Don Rickles, but not because I'm offended by him, I just don't respond well to "mean" senses of humor. Many people do. It's un-figure-outable.
How do you approach a subject through humor yet remain respectful?
There's a very fine line in remaining respectful while doing a funny piece. If you are doing a humorous piece in which you're interviewing a funny character, you have to be very careful that you don't step over that line and make fun of them. If you're embarrassed to send them a copy of the piece, you've probably overdone it.
What are the most common mistakes people make in attempting to be funny on the radio?
I think that the most common mistakes people make in trying to be funny on the radio are that they're either not funny enough to begin with (and unfortunately, there isn't much you can do about that) or they haven't found their own form or "voice." Imitating those people whose work you like and respect is a great way to start out, but eventually, if you don't develop your own style, the work won't be as fresh, innovative, or interesting. It also helps to have an extraordinary editor who doesn't just trim and tuck but actually makes your work better by helping you find that style or "voice."