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Professor Blastoff host Tig Notaro talks podcast inspiration and using listeners as guests

Tig Notaro

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Science is one of those subjects that many people are interested, but many fewer actually know anything about. At the intersection of those two groups is “Professor Blastoff,” Tig Notaro’s weekly podcast in which she and her two co-hosts wax poetic on all sorts of lofty issues – typically in the service of bringing them down to our level. Notaro, a comedienne and performer, admits she serves a bit as the class clown or proxy audience for the trio, providing the show with an undercurrent of humor that she says she’s grateful is as entertaining to her as it seems to be to their listeners.

IFC recently caught up with the incredibly busy Notaro, whose recent appearance on “This American Life” almost immediately begat another one, proving that even if she’s not the academic in the group who regularly appears on “Professor Blastoff,” she understands the value of a well-conducted experiment. In addition to talking about the process of getting the podcast started, she discusses the adjustments and differences that make podcasting such a unique experience, and offers a few insights into where she’s going in the near future.

(Explore “Professor Blastoff” and more in IFC’s new podcast section!)


IFC: Talk about how you first got involved in actually doing podcasts and how sort of you got acclimated to the process. And how different is it from other sorts of performance that you do?

Tig Notaro: How did I get into becoming a guest on different podcasts?

IFC: Sure, yeah.

Notaro: Just friends having them and inviting me on. Once the whole podcast world started to take off, it just seemed like I started to get an invitation. And it’s definitely different than standup and anything like that. It’s kind of learning to be conversationally entertaining with more than by yourself, because I’m involving anywhere from three or more people. And it’s kind of bizarre, because going through the learning curve, with standup I was able to privately learn how to do standup in open-mic. But with podcasting, it’s just being immediately broadcast for everyone to hear. And it was just kind of funny starting out — people are so harsh with their criticism. And I’m certain I have a million miles to go, our show still has a million miles to go — but I think that we’ve grown a lot over the year.

IFC: How did you come up with the idea for “Professor Blastoff,” and how difficult was it to create what would eventually be a format for the podcast?

Notaro: Well, I have a writing partner, Kyle Dunnigan, who is one of my co-hosts, and then David Huntsberger, who is also a co-host, and I just know that these guys in my life were constantly talking about science and religion. And it was just a common theme with these two people that I was with all the time. And David and I were, I think, somewhere in Idaho, and I was like, what if we tried to do a podcast about science? I was the one that got the deal with Earwolf, but they were who I brought in to kind of make it happen — because I don’t know stuff about science or anything like that, but I have an interest in it. So I’ve kind of been the person that’s like, wait, what is that? Or this makes no sense. Or I don’t know what that word is. David keeps things more on track. He’s very much informative, and wants information, and wants to go from point A to point B, whereas Kyle and I will kind of go off the rails a little bit, even though Kyle is more knowledgeable than I am. He is absolutely ridiculous. And some people describe it as a silly NPR. And I feel like another way to describe it is that it’s kind of my fantasy situation for my childhood, which is that I get to learn and I get to interrupt, and make jokes, and do stupid things without a teacher telling me to be quiet.

IFC: What was the most conscious adjustment that you had to make from a kind of performance where people could actually see you to where they’re just following your interactions audibly?

Notaro: I don’t know if I made a conscious adjustment about myself or anything. I know that even though I find David and so many of our guests and people that come onto the show so enjoyable and funny, Kyle is just that person that inspires me and makes me laugh just outrageously. When Kyle’s around, it’s just I don’t ever stop laughing. And it’s not quite, I think, what people are used to when I’m seen on stage, because I’m not this giggly ridiculous person on stage. But if Kyle’s face appears in front of me then I have no control.

IFC: Sort of further along the lines of the performance in general, how much interactivity are you able to have, and do you want to have with an audience? And how does working on a podcast differ from a live audience where you might be able to feed off of energy as they’re sort of reacting in real time?

Notaro: Well, as far as interaction with them, a lot of our listeners are guests on the podcast. We’re not really celebrity-oriented, which has been an interesting thing. A lot of those podcasts are constantly bringing in the biggest names and they’re trying to kind of boost their numbers in that way. And we’re trying to obviously boost our numbers, but we really are trying to have on people that would be good for the show, and are our fans, and are interested in the show. And so I interact in that way, whether they come in or call in. And then with my standup I’m very interactive with the audience. But as far as interacting, I think David is more interactive with the audience.

IFC: What is it about podcasting that you feel like, not just that you enjoy, but what does podcasting allow you to do that other kinds of performances don’t let you do?

Notaro: Well, even though I go on stage and do structure jokes, and I also go on stage and improv a lot, I do the majority of my writing on stage where I just talk through ideas. With podcasting, I don’t really even go in with any idea of what I’m going to say – and it is really very much as though I’m just hanging out with Kyle and David, my co-hosts. And it’s also like personally, beyond the creativity, it’s something I look forward to every week. Because with as busy as our schedules get it’s kind of that, it’s so cheesy, but it’s that one hour every week that I know I’m going to go have an absolute great time. And even if we walk out feeling like it wasn’t a good episode, we’re still laughing at how possibly not great that just was. I love those guys so much, and it just, it kind of just frees me up. And we all explore different stories. With our format we’ve started just opening the show with what’s been going on with each of us. And usually Kyle offers up some atrociously embarrassing story, and he’s typically not like that. His standup is nothing like that. So we all kind of just come in just kind of free of everything, which is so much fun. It’s just a completely different thing from standup, and every other world of entertainment that I’ve worked or dabbled in.

IFC: Gotcha. What are you working on now, and what’s coming up for you?

Notaro: Well, I just did “This American Life,” and Ira Glass called me a couple days after my segment and said that they wanted me back immediately. So I’m now working on two new pieces for “This American Life.” So that’s kind of a big focus for me right now. And I’m working on new material just for my standup. And I have a movie coming out with Lake Bell, Demetri Martin, and Nick Offerman and it’s called “In A World.” And I can’t remember what I have going on — just touring here and there. I don’t know, I don’t know. I have a couple projects that I’m working on that are not needing to go into specifics. But that’s pretty much what I’m doing.

IFC: With all of these different things in the works, are podcasts a foundation for the other stuff that you’re doing? Or is it a respite from the other stuff that you’re doing?

Notaro: It’s definitely more relaxed. But I would say it’s really my baby. Like, it’s not some place I just show up and kind of be like eh, no cares, no stress. There’s not really stress to it, but it definitely feels like I go meet with Kyle and David every week and somebody secretly mics us, and everybody that listens gets to hear it. But to be honest, it has gotten more popular than I ever would have thought. We may have low self-esteem, but we all were a little surprised that people took to it.

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A-O Rewind

Celebrating Portlandia One Sketch at a Time

The final season of Portlandia approaches.

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Most people measure time in minutes, hours, days, years…At IFC, we measure it in sketches. And nothing takes us way (waaaaaay) back like Portlandia sketches. Yes, there’s a Portlandia milepost from every season that changed the way we think, behave, and pickle things. In honor of Portlandia’s 8th and final season, Subaru presents a few of our favorites.

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Put A Bird On It

Portlandia enters the pop-culture lexicon and inspires us to put birds on literally everything.

Colin the Chicken

Who’s your chicken, really? Behold the emerging locavore trend captured perfectly to the nth degree.

Dream Of The ’90s

This treatise on Portland made it clear that “the dream” was alive and well.

No You Go

We Americans spend most of our lives in cars. Fortunately, there’s a Portlandia sketch for every automotive situation.

A-O River!

We learned all our outdoor survival skills from Kath and Dave.

One More Episode

The true birth of binge watching, pre-Netflix. And what you’ll do once Season 8 premieres.

Catch up on Portlandia’s best moments before the 8th season premieres January 18th on IFC.

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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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