What In God's Name Am I Listening To?
What Jail Is Like was the best, and only, radio show in East Central Illinois to feature improv comedy. The show ran Sunday nights from 10 to midnight on community radio station WEFT in the twin cities of Champaign/Urbana.
The radio show was the brainchild of Marc Heiden, Eric Rampson and Matt Trupia. Mr. Heiden originally ran a late-night show titled Radioactive Monsters Over London. Friends often dropped by to help him host, and the witty on-air banter sparked the idea for a show that was nothing but banter.
All three creators of What Jail Is Like were hard-bitten veterans of the comedic arts. All three had participated -- or were still participating in -- The Penny Dreadful Players, a student organization at the University of Illinois designed as an outlet for non-theater majors. PDP has a number of subsidiary groups, such as Potted Meat Sketch Comedy -- which stages original skits of uncommon intelligence. De Bono Improv Comedy, a non-PDP group that shares many of the same performers, was another bubbling stew in which our heroes evolved their primordial talents.
WEFT, a community radio station almost entirely free of commercial constraints, was the ideal place for a weekly two-hour show where nothing was planned, where all depended on the moment-to-moment chemistry between talented citizens. Our heroes put together a demo tape -- in which Matt Trupia broke at least one FCC regulation -- and got themselves on the air.
What Jail Is Like ran from late 1998 to August 2000. In that time our heroes developed a chemistry to rival that of Mel Gibson and Goldie Hawn in Bird On a Wire. Occasional cohosts added spice to the mix: Matt Meador, Mike Renaud and Pete Gray appeared frequently when a regular host was out of town. James Johnson and Jenny Carroll logged good time as well, along with Hank Sprague -- who was actually custom-grown in a pod to replace Eric Rampson when it looked like Eric was about to go to sleep (or "move to Chicago", as they called it).
Since the WEFT studio had only three microphones, it wasn't practical to feature more than three hosts at a time. But the crew of What Jail Is Like overcame this limitation by introducing a regular host who didn't depend on jokes to engage the audience. This host never cracked wise -- but he did crack in just about every other way possible. He had a fine nose for comedic textures, and indeed textures of all kinds. Enriching the flavor of What Jail Is Like every week was -- the rotting corpse of Lawrence Welk.
There's an old saying: "As the rotting corpse of Lawrence Welk goes, so goes the nation." The three live hosts of What Jail Is Like took this adage to heart and took Lawrence with them wherever their sketches led: on the road, to the Superbowl, even to prison. More than once Mr. Welk provided critical backup in a tight situation. And he was always happy to provide sound effects.
Why The Name?
For months the new show had no title. The name barrier was finally broken when the hosts realized that many of their sketches ended with one or all of the characters in prison. A name involving jail followed naturally.
By a phenomenon of convergent evolution, the new name was the same as that of an Afghan Whigs song. Our heroes insist there's no connection -- but polygraph tests have yielded inconclusive results. All the more suspicious because our they were seen downing buckets of goof balls immediately prior to their tests.
How Cool Was It?
Strictly from the point of view of goods and services, What Jail Is Like was head and shoulders above the pack. Almost every week for the last two months the show aired, listeners brought milkshakes and other treats to the radio station. And they weren't rewards for the station's stunning custodial services, either. It was pure aural charisma, folks. In retrospect it's a good thing the show's hosts had datebooks too full to permit them to found a religion.
What Was Actually On The Show?
It took a while for the show to settle into a regular format. A segment of fake news headlines (often featuring towns and townspeople of East Central Illinois, much to their detriment) evolved into a more casual talking segment, which involved real news items. This talking segment was prefaced by an improvised introductory sketch and one of the many theme songs that Mr. Dave Johnson put together.
Depending on the mood of the hosts and listener response, the next section of the show featured one of several segments. Usually they went with Free Advice Is Better Than No Advice, So Shut Your Damn Ungrateful Mouth. Listeners called in with real problems, and our heroes gave actual fake advice that managed to be ten times wittier than real advice would have been. All for the price of listener humiliation.
The advice segment swapped places with Movie Reviews, Underwriting and The What Jail Is Like Lounge. The latter segment was a hybrid of amazing emcee work from Mr. Trupia, amazing fake bad acts and annoying fake audience members. And Underwriting proved that creativity blooms in the world of corporate consulting.
Super Happy Funtime Public Service Announcements came next. WEFT, being a community radio station, had public service announcements (PSAs) in place of paid commercials. Community organizations used PSAs to announce events and programs over the air.
Our heroes did not pass up this golden opportunity to skewer the community at large. The Staerkel Planetarium and The Early American Museum were among the institutions pierced by merciless wit. Our heroes went so far as to make a road trip to the Museum and lampoon every single display.
The highlight of the segment, aside from its half-hour intro, was Eric's weekly reading of a PSA from the Alzheimer's Association in a style which suggested he'd never seen it before. Marc and Matt were perfect foils, reacting just as relatives of an Alzheimer's sufferer would have done: half pity and half rage.
The final segment deserves some explanation. The Radio Harold was based on a form of theatrical improv called, appropriately enough, the Harold. In the stage version, the performers ask the audience for a simple one-word (or at most one-phrase) suggestion, and build a twenty-minute piece around it.
Once they have the suggestion, the performers start free-associating. Each relates a short, usually personal story inspired by the word. Then they begin building three separate sketches inspired by the suggestion (or by the previous monologues).
Each sketch has three scenes, and as they progress they begin to cross-connect. It may be the plots of the scenes that connect, but not necessarily. The connections can be subtler than that.
Interested readers are referred to the book Truth In Comedy by Charna Halpern and Del Close. Though it discusses many forms of comedic improv, the Harold is its centerpiece.
Harolds on stage involve up to twenty players, switching in and out from scene to scene. The hosts of What Jail Is Like did an amazing job with three or even two performers. It's a testament to their skill that they made the Harold work with so few people.
Sadly, Radio Harolds are no more. What Jail Is Like is que peut.
So Why Are You Maintaining A Web Site For A Defunct Show, You Moron?
Well -- because I'm needy. This seemed like the best way to get attention.
So Where Are The Radio Guys Now?
As always, the crew is doing more than -- if you do the math -- they actually have time to do.
Marc is up to level six at the Player's Workshop, level two at the ImprovOlympic, and working on his second musical production -- a reworking of the Faust legend -- with musician James Johnson. The silver screen was graced by his presence in a short film called Out of the Box at the Chicago Comedy Film Festival, and the History Channel will be equally jazzed up with his impersonations of major crime figures in January 2002. And -- of course -- Marc registered the whatjailislike.com domain and runs a blistering website there -- called i woke up in a strange place -- which, in terms of sheer magnitude, rivals Carel Struycken and Christina Ricci rolled together.
Eric has successfully walked the razor-thin line between selling out to The Man and living in his mother's basement. He's at level 4 with the ImprovOlympic and performs with an improv group called White Noise. Online, his inimitable voice can be found at Thinking of Hesterman, musing on spiced rum and limousine-related activities. Finally, his ghostly presence can just be made out if you digitally enhance his weblog at i hate this part of texas.
Meanwhile, Matt sweats tirelessly in the service of pop culture -- with SkinnyGuy.Com. This is a funky beaut of a site which sells entertainment -- but Matt gilds the lily by making the site itself entertaining at no cost to you. Check it out. He can also be found sweatin' to the oldies at the Second City Conservatory, and writes occasionally for Weep Magazine.
So Why Go On? Why Not End It All?
'Cause the show is on the web now. Duh.
Not the whole show, unfortunately. The hosts started taping themselves only after the show passed the nine-month mark. And I (that is, Kurt) started a couple months after that.
If you have early episodes of What Jail Is Like, they're probably worth a mint. Maybe even a peppermint. At one point I put my own copies up on eBay, anticipating that innumerable small towns in East Central Illinois could be drawn into a bidding war against each other in an effort to avoid the merciless publicity the show gave them. But the auction collapsed when I realized that most small towns use their computers as temperature-controlled storage bins for their hotdogs, between baseball seasons.
Seriously, though -- if you have any shows prior to October 1999 and especially prior to August, please consider contacting us. We'd like to make a digital copy of your tape and return it to you, safe and sound. We might even give you a milkshake.
The whatjailislike.com site has a total of 500 MB of space to work with, divided between the happy little elves who call it home. Each show is about 40 MB in RealAudio, give or take. This isn't enough room for all the shows, so we'll cycle through them as time and upload speed permit.
How Do I Listen To The Show?
Click the Contents link, here or to the upper left. Then choose a show and go to town. You'll need RealAudio.
The shows are divided into segments, each anywhere from ten to thirty minutes long. So you'll need a steady connection. The shows stream at 16 Kbps, so most modems can keep up with them just fine.
If you prefer, you can download copies of segments and listen to them offline.
If possible, listen to the segments in order. Just as a Harold grows from recurring themes, most What Jail Is Like episodes contain ideas that go through a sequence of variations throughout the show -- often ending up in the Radio Harold. And I do mean variation: mutations that work splendidly in context. Not repetition, which is the staple of SNL, and pretty much all late-night television. Trust me on this.
For copyright reasons -- among others -- the music breaks aren't included. Which is a shame, for what was really on display was each host's unique yet impeccable musical taste. These breaks starred innumerable celebrity guests. Lou Reed appeared to lie on the couch and act as inspiration, Salvador Dali gave a rousing performance of his classic Giraffe Torching a Violin, and Vladimir Nabokov shared his favorite tunes from Chess.
What Are These Funny Breaks, Hisses and Missing Things?
Didn't your parents have this talk with you? Okay -- it's not your burgeoning adolescence. It's the little invisible magnets on the analog tape, voicing their displeasure. We have to be nice to them, because they have the power to throw What Jail Is Like into the dustbin of history. And that bin can only hold so much. (Unlike the charwoman of history -- she puts away the Häagen-Dazs like nobody's business).
The tapes are of decent quality -- certainly clearer than the RealAudio format can reproduce. Hisses from the original radio reception intrude sometimes, but almost never get in the way.
Unavoidable breaks occur from flipping the tapes. The breaks mostly show up during the Advice segment. (Or Underwriting, or Movie Reviews, or...) You'll hear a skip a couple of seconds long, then the segment will resume.
I almost never taped the first few seconds of an Intro sketch. For one -- the show never started exactly on time, and for another -- it was preceded by goth-ambient music, which I was less than eager to hear again whenever I played a tape.
The worst negligence on my part involved failing to tape large chunks of some shows. I thought I was recording for my own benefit rather than for posterity, and was often somewhere else when the show started -- or I had to leave home after it started. I made a decent effort, but I'm too in-demand as a public figure to devote two hours of uninterrupted time to anything. Especially on Sunday night.
The upshot is: for almost every week starting in October 1999, there's at least part of a show on tape. Often the whole show, and usually the major part of it. But quarters, thirds and halves of some shows are missing. Mostly beginnings, but a couple of endings. And one middle part from when I went out to buy milkshakes for our thirsty hosts. Heck, I only did it to see the shakes drip down their glistening chests. It was well worth the price of eternal damnation.
Seriously, Though. You Like Girls, Right?
Hey, who wouldn't?
Was There Other Stuff Besides the Radio Show?
Certainly. As just one of the services our heroes provided for the listening community, they pioneered East Central Illinois' first "Adopt a Hades" program. As part of this program, local volunteers spent four hours a week picking trash out of the River Styx. Or, if they preferred, the band Styx. Many is the time that Marc, Eric and Matt braved the hazardous current to fish out Dennis DeYoung and have him shipped to recycling. (Look, people -- you can't just toss out your used lead singers and expect them to sail away. They can always be recycled for solo projects, or at the very least for Farm Aid).
One day, however, our hosts dredged something new. Something other than a Mr. Roboto action figure that some child had given a burial at sea. That fateful Sunday, Eric rescued a small boat of reeds -- which on inspection proved to contain a tiny, infant thirty-two-year-old boy, whom loving guardians had apparently set adrift in hopes of his landing in a new and better life.
Since their particular corner of Hades frequently subcontracted for The Gap, our heroes considered starting their new adoptee on the fast-track career path of clothing manufacture. However, none of our heroes needed wide-fit pants -- having just broken in a pair to fit them all simultaneously, with the perfect degree of snugness -- so they chose a different direction for their protegé.
Months earlier Eric had started a website and mailing address for What Jail Is Like. However, none of the hosts really had time to spend with the website. Realizing their thirty-two-year-old adoptee was the equivalent of two sixteen-year-old girls and could work for the pay of one, our hosts set each girl to work laboring fourteen hours a day to produce web content and layout. And so the What Jail Is Like startup transnational empire flourished, combining brand-name appeal with admirable economy of production.
That website is still around -- here, in fact.
Incidentally, those two sixteen-year-old girls were me. Your content provider and wildflower-sexy correspondent -- Kurt Tuohy.
What Is This Improv Thing, Anyway?
Find out for yourself. Do I have to tell you everything? Christ.
Wow, Dude. I'm Tapped.
Me too. Get out of here and enjoy the show.