Behind-the-Scenes with The Onion

This week, we're featuring Episode 1 - The Perfect Murder , the opening chapter of The Onion Public Radio's first true crime podcast: A Very Fatal Murder.

We asked four of the creators behind AVFM - Katy Yeiser (creator), David Sidorov (host), Ryan Natoli (director), and Fran Hoepfner (assistant director): what were the main ingredients - inspirations, goals, conflicts, etc. - baked into this podcast?

Katy Yeiser :

1) Stories beyond the headlines

Putting narrative first might seem like a “duh” goal when creating a longform piece of comedy - however, The Onion isn’t really in the business of longform or narrative storytelling. We’re very good at writing short, sharp pieces of satire where the joke’s point of view is prioritized over anything else. Often, the POV is just right on the surface of the joke... see “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be.”

When I wanted to do a true crime podcast parody, I knew I wanted it to be a longform piece of storytelling, as opposed to a collection of short podcast episodes that functioned in the same way a headline did, where one joke ran through it the whole time. You can’t really stretch that style of writing beyond a two-minute video or 800-word article before it starts to feel very strained. Everyone else was on the same page, of course, and we really enjoyed being able to write for The Onion in a way we hadn’t before.

I really liked the balance we struck with the podcast. This was a story first and foremost about David Pascall and his long, emotional, profound journey to learn nothing. We knew that if we didn’t nail that, the podcast wouldn’t work; the satire was dependent on the narrative and character working above all else too. Even though we kept David at the forefront in often very silly, colorful, and dumb ways, we never sacrificed any satirical elements or commentary. It still felt Onion-esque. I hope it felt both new and familiar to Onion fans.

2) Women

Although the comedy world has made some steps to be more inclusive, or at least I hope it has, it is still rare to have a writers room populated by more women than men. A Very Fatal Murder was one of those rare cases, and I’m always going to be proud of it. The scripting and development of the podcast were lead by women, which means that this was a project created without a lot of ego. (I also think it was important that a group of women primarily wrote a story about an unremarkable white guy who thinks he’s very smart.)

I’m not the first to say that a room, film set, or really any workplace led by women, or led by people who work like women, is more inclusive of ideas, perspectives, and stories. Everyone knew the writers room of A Very Fatal Murder was a space where they could speak their opinions without fear of overstepping a certain hierarchy, and everyone knew they could 100 percent be themselves. It was the most fun I’ve had in a room, and I think the joy we women (and a few boys) experienced everyday in that room came through in the final product.

3) Picking good names

This is probably the least monumental thing to say about the podcast, but: we did a very good job naming these characters. Skiff, Hayley, ETHL, W.O. Calloway, Tropicrazy Soda (OK, not a character, but still good).

One of my favorite memories was the day we wrote different options for how to spell Hayley on the board. Haley was too plain, and like, too pre-‘90s. Hailey was too old. Haelee is fucking stupid. But Hayley felt like the name of a girl whose parents thought she was a princess. Hayley — “it’s spelled with two ‘Y’s” — is the name of a special little girl. (Sorry she had to die.)

Also, Jennifer Jackson, who was the lead writer on AVFM along with Louisa Kellogg, channeled some supernatural power I didn’t know she possessed to come up with the name ETHL in a split second. We were all in the room at an early stage of development, and we were talking about how maybe some type of A.I. that Onion Public Radio built could assist David in finding the perfect murder. Out of nowhere, Jen just blurted out “ETHL - Extremely Timely Homicide Locator.” I don’t remember if her eyes rolled back in her head or if dark matter spewed out of her mouth as she summoned the acronym ETHL in .03 seconds, but it wouldn’t surprise me if that did in fact happen and I just blocked that part out because I was so frightened.

David Sidorov :

4) Tea With Honey

I had never done much voice acting work before, and was very flattered and surprised to be cast in A Very Fatal Murder . All of my lines as AVFM host David Pascall - for the entire podcast - were recorded in one weekend. We did a lot of takes, so I was very concerned about losing my voice and/or sounding terrible. Tea with honey was absolutely crucial to protecting what I now exclusively refer to as "my gift," especially as we got into the later episodes where (spoiler alert) I do a good amount of screaming. Nathan Rabin wrote a very, very nice review in Splitsider where he said "Pascall's voice is so soothing in that gently narcotizing Ira Glass kind of way, that it can be easy to overlook that he's an idiot, insane, and something of a low-level sociopath."

If any of that is true, the dozens of cups of tea with honey I drank that weekend are purely responsible.

5) STown

We definitely weren't setting out to imitate or "take down" any specific podcast or podcasts, but
S-Town had just come out and was very big when we started writing AVFM, so it was inevitably something we talked about a good amount at the beginning of the writing process (in addition to many other podcasts and doc series.)

I binged S-Town very quickly and liked it a lot - it's super impressive and sad and unlike any other podcast I've heard. And all of the theories, interpretations, praise, and criticisms were just as fascinating and addicting to read as the podcast was to listen to. I think S-Town has a lot of the things David Pascall is relentlessly trying to find: massive popularity, critical acclaim, cultural relevance, and a bunch of juicy metaphors.

Ryan Natoli :

6) True Detective: Yellow King Theory

The story we like to tell is that one day in a table read of A Very Fatal Murder , David Sidorov started reading the script aloud and everyone had a sudden revelation that he should play the role of David Pascall, the host of AVFM. But the truth is we've all known David for a long time, know exactly what his voice sounds like, and sort of always knew he would play the role of intrepid podcaster perfectly.

One big reason we knew David would be perfect for this role is that he has this character "Kyle" who he used in a series of funny fan theory videos. The first video in the series explores who the real Yellow King from True Detective might be (it's a big yellow man dressed as a king).

Much like Kyle, podcasters also have this way of stating facts, or things they already believe to be true, as though they are questions that they're extremely curious about. That was certainly an aspect of Pascall's character that we wanted to be able to tap into, and that we knew David could nail. In fact, anytime we wanted David to get more into that kind of tone, we would say "do it like the Yellow King" as our shorthand in recording.

7) The Staircase

You can't work at The Onion without having seen The Staircase . Long before The Jinx , Making A Murderer , and Serial , The Staircase dominated true crime conversations in our office, and still does to some extent (we're pretty split on the Owl Theory). New employees are often immediately pressured into watching the Sundance documentary covering the murder trial of novelist Michael Peterson, and every time a new person finishes the miniseries, it opens up the conversation and debate as though we've all just seen it for the very first time. From the twists and turns, to the filmmakers' unfettered access to the defense team, leading to incredible real-time revelations, this is not only a shared point of reference for most everyone who worked on the podcast, but also (at least in my opinion) the standard to which every piece of true crime storytelling is held.

Fran Hoepfner :

8) Teenagers

On one hand, I think there is a tendency in adults to project themselves onto teenagers and read too much into their intentions. I honestly think most movies/TV/books about teens are made by adults who believe in some sort of youthful retrospect. Adults put a lot of meaning onto teenagers - how pure and funny and horny they are represents some kind of past version of our adult selves. How many of us love to think if we went back to high school we’d be able to really nail it the second time around?

We wanted David Pascall to enmesh himself with the teenagers in this story as a way of trying to understanding Hayley Price, but himself and how he fits in with literally any type of clique. On the other hand, teens are pure and funny and horny, and writing them for AVFM was such a treat.

9) An alleyway in downtown Chicago

Even though Onion Inc. is one of the richest companies in North America and would have gladly paid for all of us and our 50+ person cast to fly to Nebraska for our exterior recordings, we opted instead to do all of them in an alleyway off of Franklin Ave in the River North neighborhood of Chicago. It was perfect and secluded, and we could successfully get some of Chicago’s signature wind and trick people into thinking it was the soft, prairie breeze of Nebraska.