Commentary

NPR Soars With 'Serial,' 'Wit' And 'Angel & Devil'

My sense of humor - indeed, my entire worldview - can be encapsulated in three little words: farts are funny. They are never, ever not funny, even at confirmation hearings for judicial appointees. I hold this truth to be self-evident, like “water is wet” or “Van Halen rocks.” If you can’t enjoy the sub-lowbrow mirth implicit in every fart or fart-related dispatch, well, I feel sad for you, friend.

That’s probably why I’ve never warmed up to NPR’s offerings, despite the urging of family and friends to give them another chance. “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!,” “A Prairie Home Companion” and the rest - they’ve always struck me as programming for people who crave wittiness and/or intelligence by association. This is just one guy’s opinion, of course, and that one guy just declared his undying love for fart jokes.

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And then came “Serial” and “Wits” - neither technically an NPR production, but certainly kindred cultural spirits - which together shattered my resistance to anything and everything with an NPR tinge. “Serial,” in fact, prompted this verbatim text from my wife after I extolled the show’s virtues for 11 straight days: “NPR?! Terry Gross means divorce, dude.” She’s still here. She thinks she’s going to dinner tomorrow night to celebrate her birthday, but really it’ll be a showing of “Dumb and Dumber To.” Don’t spoil the surprise.

[While I’m already off-topic, can I talk about “Serial” for a second? Forget the backlash and the backlash to the backlash and the counter-reverse backlash to the anti-backlash: This is the most ambitious and intimate feat of storytelling of my lifetime. With each successive episode, I’m even more stunned and thrilled it got made. In my 2014 ranking of “people with whom I’d like to have a beer and relentlessly badger with questions until they get creeped out and pull a fire alarm and escape amid the wails of approaching sirens,” Sarah Koenig slots in right ahead of Andy Daly and the War On Drugs guy.]

Anyway, because these things come in threes, I’ve happened upon another piece of NPR content that I dig - and conveniently, it’s one that makes a whit of sense for this column. Anybody catch this trio of “NPR Angel & Devil” animated appeals for donations to stations that air NPR content? Designed to get listeners’ attention before they do their end-of-year giving, the clips exchange NPR’s studied whimsicality for an off-kilter, anarchic approach that plays far better on the Internet.

It doesn’t hurt that NPR had the good sense to snare two of TV’s most appealing personalities, Gillian Jacobs and Nick Offerman (having quite the viral week, that one), to voice the Angel and the Devil. Too, the clips affect a different tone than one might expect: None could be described as “droll” or “antic” or one of those other adjectives used when somebody attempts to describe something that falls short of funny-funny. The comedic set-ups, in fact, owe far more to “Saturday Night Live” than to anything that has found a regular home on public radio.

To that end, we hear about Offerman’s plans to record a “hybrid spoken word/jazz-fusion kind of thing” and listen in as a pro/con debate over the merits of donating veers into a discussion of whether bees are disappearing due to public radio (“they’re just gonna spend [your money] on honey… Terry Gross alone consumes over 900 barrels of honey every year”). Even better, the clips acknowledge listeners’ vague annoyance with pledge-drive season. Referring to it as “the most wonderful, fun-derful time of the year” is a sly commentary on both the necessity and thorough lameness of such appeals.

While the “Angel & Devil” clips occasionally reference NPR personalities, they don’t shine a spotlight on specific programming from the year almost behind us. This is a wise choice - and, from what little I remember of the PBS appeals of yore, a departure from usual practice. In creating content that stands on its own, NPR has done more to underline its worth to viewers than any programming recap ever could.

To sum up: I love everything about “Serial,” “Wits” and “NPR Angel & Devil.” The next time you see me, there will be a promo tote bag slung confidently across my chest. Dick Cavett, ho!

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