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The post In the Know’s Zach Woods Explains How a Stop-Motion Puppet Interviews Real People appeared first on Consequence.
In the Know star/co-creator Zach Woods talks about his new Peacock comedy with a lot of affection. “I think it’s a very strange show, and I think it’s pretty humanistic,” he tells Consequence. “It’s satirical, but the people who made this show love the characters and feel protective and fond of each of them, even though they can engage in some pretty obnoxious behaviors at their core. They’re wounded, full of yearning, wanting to do a good job… It’s a weird thing.”
It’s perhaps only weird given the context, as the characters Woods is talking about are puppets brought to life by stop-motion animation. In the Know features the Office and Silicon Valley star as the voice of a public radio host, whose awkwardness extends beyond his interactions with his officemates (voiced by J. Smith-Cameron, Charlie Bushnell, Carl Tart, Caitlin Reilly, and Mike Judge) to interviews with figures like Mike Tyson, Ken Burns, Tegan and Sara, Hugh Laurie, and more.
Woods tracks the origins of In the Know to a habit of his that co-creator Judge observed on the set of Silicon Valley: “I think I am both shy and curious about other people, usually. So often, in conversations, I’ll ask a lot of questions, and I sort of end up interviewing people all the time.”
That, plus Judge knowing Woods to be “basically like a nightmare coastal elite NPR embodiment,” led the creator to suggest a stop-motion animation series, featuring Woods as an NPR host interviewing real guests. Woods got on board, suggesting that “His name should be like one of these NPR names. So I was like, what if he’s named Lauren Caspian? And his girlfriend’s also named Lauren, and she’s a Dreamer under DACA, but actually she’s just an undocumented MFA student from Montreal.” From there, the dense and strange backstory of Lauren was developed, with Woods’ writing partner Brandon Gardner coming on board to help bring the idea to series as a co-creator.
The selection of guests was directly driven by the idea of “Who would Terry Gross talk to?” (especially since the Fresh Air host does interview a wide range of people) — Woods credits senior talent booker Hillary Kun (who previously worked on The Daily Show) for bringing an equally impressive range to In the Know.
“[Kun] did a spectacular job,” he says, “because it’s a dodgy proposition to ask people, ‘Hey, do you want to be on a show that you can’t watch, with an NPR host that you’ve never met, who’s stop-motion, and you’ll have no control over the edit. That’s a big ask, and she got all these people to sign on. We were really punching above our weight, thanks to Hillary.”
In the Know (Peacock)
Here’s how filming the interviews worked: Gardner would join a Zoom call with the interview subject, “and he’d say, ‘In a minute, you’re going to see a picture of Lauren. Just treat it like an NPR interview. You can laugh if something is funny, but please don’t worry about being funny. You know, just have a conversation.'” Following that prelude, the hour-long interview would begin, with the subject never seeing Woods’ face — just a picture of Lauren, in his puppet-ish glory.
“I would have an iPad with questions that the writers had helped us prepare that I could reference,” Woods says. “And Brandon would also be able to update the iPad in real-time, so that he could pitch, ‘Oh, ask this one now, make this joke.’ But mostly, they’re improvised interviews.”
There were two exceptions to the improvisation: One interview later in the season, featuring UFC fighter Jorge Masvidal, contained scripted elements, “but he improvised a lot of it, to be honest,” Woods notes. And because of a story point in the episode featuring Tegan and Sara, the producers asked the Canadian musical artists to pretend that they were feeling nauseous at one point.
This is a good opportunity to mention that Woods heaped praise on Tegan and Sara for the way they engaged with him: “They were just really down to clown and funny and great. Everyone fell even more in love with Tegan and Sara — the crew, all the writers, all of us were just like, ‘They’re the coolest people we’ve ever met.’ I want to be Tegan and Sara when I grow up.”
The interview subject who surprised Woods the most was author and intellectual Roxane Gay. “She writes editorials for The New York Times, often about quite serious stuff,” he says, “And when she was on the show, she was so playful and funny and kind of dirty and just a delight. Such a silly billy. And I wasn’t expecting that because she’s such a formidable voice. But she was so fun and so sweet. I just loved that.”
Woods admits that if he’d been pitched something similar, “I probably wouldn’t do it. But these people did, and it was awesome.” Does he think it’ll be easier to book people for a potential second season? “Maybe, or maybe much harder?” Woods says with a laugh. “Depends how people feel about the show.”
In the Know was always intended to be a stop-motion project, Woods says, because “Mike loves stop-motion and never really had a chance to play with it. And also we felt that if you’re making a show about people like me, having the medium be these delicate precious puppets, that break easily and that have handlers and who are being controlled by forces that they aren’t even aware of, felt like an the perfect medium.”
Also, he adds, “we wanted there to be a satirical aspect to the show. And I think you can have a slightly longer leash in terms of where you can go satirically, if it’s stop-motion. Something that could be funny in stop-motion could start to feel mean in live-action. And so that was another reason we were excited about it.”
Another benefit: Other primarily animated series, such as Adult Swim’s Space Ghost Coast to Coast, have featured interviews with live guests. However, Woods says, “the three-dimensionality of him in conversation with other three-dimensional actual humans felt better than 2D. And there’s a warmth to stop-motion, because It’s happening in a real space with real light and real wool and real tiny little shoes.”
Woods had a lot of input into the design of Lauren: “We went back and forth a million times with [director of character fabrication] Georgina Hayns. It’s so exciting. You’re like, ‘I would like him with a slightly weaker chin,’ and then it comes back and you’ve got it. ‘I would like him with a longer forehead.’ Great. It’s like being a geneticist or something.”
For the record, Woods does not currently possess one of the Lauren puppets, but “I want one so bad.” He does note, though, that “if you walk into a room where one of those puppets is, and you’re by yourself, it feels like there’s another person in there. Like, the puppets are designed in such a way, with their eyes and everything… It’s weird. They carry a kind of witchy energy. So it would be intense to have one, but I would like that. Bring on the spooky vibes, baby.”
In the Know (Peacock)
In the Know is the first time Woods has had a real leadership position behind the scenes on a TV show, but he has worked on shows led by many strong creators over the years, including Judge, Armando Iannucci, Pamela Adlon, Christopher Miller, and Robert and Michelle King. Here’s what Woods has learned from those experiences: “I think that flexibility is a real sign of confidence — that the most confident, most accomplished, most talented showrunners I’ve ever worked with are the ones who invite the contributions of others. It’s when you get someone who’s sort of middling confidence, middling talent, that they then are fretting over every little syllable and they need it just the way they wanted it, and there’s a brittle insistence on their way.”
So, Woods says, “People are going to try to give you gifts in a creative process. Don’t be too fragile to accept them. Don’t be too attached to your idea of how it’s supposed to be, that you miss the beauty of what it actually is. I think that’s the big takeaway that I’ve gotten, from all of these different people.”
And working in stop-motion highlights that idea even more. “I think at the core of everything that I make, I think the idea that people are more than one thing is really important, that we’re contradictory and we have a million different, often irresolvable, aspects to ourselves. And one thing that’s so wonderful about the stop-motion process is there’s the voice actor, and then 30 different people all animate each of the characters. So you get a kind of multi-dimensionality bred into the process, because each of those animators brings their own quirks and ticks to it.”
Continues Woods, “The amount of love and care and going above and beyond that is brought to bear on the process in order to make it function at all is so overwhelming to me. There’s something so incredibly moving about how many people love a show into existence.”
In the Know is streaming now on Peacock.