Monday, May 17, 2010
Interview with Brian Thompson of the Amateur Scientist podcast
First, congratulations on passing the 100 show mark. In my podcasting experience, the first 6 or 12 shows are the hardest to get by. After that you get into a routine and before you know it, you've got 30, 50. 60 shows under your belt. What challenges did AmSci have in the early days?
As my court-appointed therapist has told me many times (often before a hard slap across the face, which seems unprofessional), I'm my own worst enemy. Before I started the podcast, I had a wake of prematurely aborted projects trailing behind me. Sometimes I'd start something and abandon it because the finished product didn't meet my ambitions. Most of the time, I was just lazy.
So, I didn't expect the thing to last. Especially when the show first started, it was an ordeal. I figured the best way to trick people into listening would be to schedule a guest for every episode. Booking people who really had much better things to do turned out to be surprisingly easy. But scheduling interviews, then following through on them was a time suck.
Recording the show itself was also a challenge. I was determined not to do a show that sounded like it was recorded on a Radio Shack microphone at the bottom of the Mediterranean, and my friend Richard had all the good equipment. So I had to leave the house to do a show. As you can tell from the healthy translucence of my skin, I'm not good at leaving the house. I also tried to rig a system where the whole show could be done without post-production, since I thought the burden of adding in music and transitions later would encourage me to abandon the whole project.
Like everything else I'd ever done, the show didn't turn out as well as I'd hoped, but people started listening pretty quickly. I felt obligated not to abandon the whole thing. Plus, I still hadn't met my artistic goal of leveraging my internet celebrity to lure Angela Lansbury into my bed. It's a race against time with that one, I must admit.
I've also been able to focus less on the end result of any project and learn to enjoy the process. The show still isn't as good as I'd like it to be, but I enjoy making it more than almost anything else I've ever done. I never would have imagined I'd make it to 100 episodes, though. Hopefully it won't take many more to force Angela Lansbury into recognizing my power.
I noticed on your recent show with MST3K's Crow (aka Bill Corbett) you and Bill were riffing off each other like two old pros. Bill, you know, he's a professional show man who gets paid moderately large coin to be funny. But your name doesn't turn up in IMDB, TV Guide's Starshine-o-pedia, or even Maxim Magazine's annual "100 of the Sexiest Funny Men Who Can Still Score 20 Year Olds" list. (I checked their lists from 1998-2010 and no Brian Thompson.) What's your background in the dark arts of being a funny guy and how come you manage to bring consistently funny stuff to the podcast dial on a weekly basis?
I've always done weird little performances, but I didn't start getting serious about it until about eight or nine years ago. I wrote an hour's worth of material (stories, poems, other pretentious nonsense) and asked for a spot on a Saturday night at a local coffee shop. I printed up a bunch of flyers and invited my creative writing class. I was a moron. And the show was awful, but there was an Armenian guy in the audience who I could make fun of when nothing else provoked a laugh. Racism is the comedian's crutch.
I'm not a professional funnyman like Glenn Beck, but I've done many live comedy shows over the years. I've also published a few comedy pieces here and there. The thing I'm most proud of about my show these days, actually, is its emphasis on comedy above all else. In the early episodes, there was more focus on "skeptical movement" grandstanding and a little less on just putting on a weird, funny show. There's a reason that I chose to put the show in the iTunes "comedy" category from the very beginning, and I think that's more evident now.
The show may not be any funnier, but it's closer to what I intended to do from the start. As you can tell from Bill Corbett's appearance, I'm carrying that philosophy into my choice of occasional guests. I don't want anyone to make the mistake of believing I know what I'm talking about.
I still identify as a skeptic, but I wouldn't call mine a "skeptical show". It's not necessary. Comedy has to be skeptical to be funny. It can't have an agenda, and its purpose is to question. That's why "conservative comedians" and "Christian comedians" and "blue collar comedians" are so awful. They present themselves as shilling for a philosophy rather than poking holes in everything that deserves it. Comedy is about honesty, and skepticism is nothing if not a constant effort to keep the world honest.
I'm pretty comfortable talking to actual comedians, since most of them share the kind of self-obsessed comedy autism that's demonstrated in the previous paragraph.
Is your middle name, by any chance, Lafayette? That would give you the initials BLT. Do you agree those would make for funny initials?
My middle name is Adam, so my initials are BAT. Not as funny as BLT, but equally as embarrassing, as I also have two brothers who share my initials. And since my parents were the first to build a house on it, they were allowed to name the country road on which they live. It's called Batboys Lane. Ridiculous.
Some personal questions if that's okay: Where do you live? How old are you? What do you do for a living? Are you married? Dating? Do you like girls? What's it like to have an actual girlfriend?
I live in northeast Louisiana, which is less like Louisiana and more like southern Arkansas. We have bayous and alligators, but chances are good anyone with a Cajun accent is faking. Despite the humidity, it's not a bad place to live. The food is pretty great. There's this local dive called Outback, where they take an onion and -- get this -- make it look like a blooming flower. True story.
I'm 28 years old and currently make most of my money doing research for a law firm, because these guys are too rich and/or stupid to use Google. You're not printing my name, right?
Previously, I've worked as a writer and producer of TV commercials, a high school English teacher, and a quest writer for a sci-fi MMO that was never released. (For those who don't know, "MMO" stands for "Virgin Guarantee".)
I'm not married, but I am in a long-term relationship with a human female. I swing both ways, though. Put an extraterrestrial female in front of me, and I'll probably try to get in its shiny, skintight pants.
Bigfoot. Was he a top or bottom?
I can only speak from a single experience, but I'm pretty sure he's a switch hitter. Emotionally, I'd say he's a top. But I blacked out halfway through, so there's no telling.
You're trying to raise some funds for your podcast this month with a pledge drive. What prompted you to try and increase listener support? Bandwidth charges? How many people download each show? I think SGU said they're getting 100,000 downloads per show. Which is like, whoa.
Okay. This is going to get detailed and possibly uninteresting to anyone who isn't a content producer of some sort, so I recommend skipping ahead to the next question if you're a narcoleptic or an ADD sufferer or a baby or something.
Still there? Here we go.
I decided to do a pledge drive for two reasons: I need the money, and I'd like the money. Let's start with the former. There are lots of things I'd like to do to expand the scope of the whole Amateur Scientist operation that require more money than I have. The show sounds pretty good, but it could sound better with some different, more professional equipment. It doesn't cost nearly as much as you'd think to set up a commercial radio-quality studio, but it's more than I can afford at the moment. In addition to equipment, I'd also like to pay some professionals for things like a spiffy site redesign that would spruce up the front and back end of AmateurScientist.org. In other words, I want to make it look better and work better. Plus, I would like to start making regular video content for the site, which requires a bit of money for hosting. And possibly an iPhone/Android app. But most of all, I want to go on the road more often and do live shows, which requires a certain cash guarantee so as not to come out the other end buried under a mountain of debt.
Now, the second part is where I get a little uncomfortable. I'd like to generate enough income from the show to be able to do it full time. I'm not interested in getting rich and stupid like some attorneys I know, but it would be nice to be able to afford to spend more time making the show better. I put in enough hours that it's already a full time job, but I enjoy doing it enough that I'd be happy to double those hours if I could. But at the same time, I want the show to remain free. In which case, the NPR beg-a-thon model seems like the least intrusive way of generating some income. I also strongly believe that people who are able should pay for the things they enjoy. There's a mental block against anyone buying most things on the internet, but I look at it this way: I'll pay $25 or so to take my surprisingly hot girlfriend to a movie every couple of weeks, and chances are good it's a movie neither of us will enjoy. So I feel like it's not a tall order to fork over five bucks a month for something that genuinely entertains me week to week.
That said, I also think the standards for donations should be very, very high. People should work hard on the things they ask others to pay for, and they should treat those who don't pay as motivation to work harder. There are thousands of podcasts out there, if not more. People can't afford to listen to them all, much less support them financially. There are many podcasts that I think are great, but I don't have the time to listen to them. I'm a bigger podcast junkie than most, but my list is still limited. So it necessarily has to be limited to the shows that I dearly love.
My ultimate goal is to make a show that people love. I'd rather have 10 listeners who consider my show their favorite than a million who think it's just okay. And the only way I know how to do that it to make it unique and to work as hard as I can on it. It pisses me off to no end when podcasters beg their audiences for cash but put out a lazy show week to week. People might hate my show, but at the very least it's consistent, it has some standard of production value, and there's a least one thing that's a little bit outside the normal formula every week. The upside of that is that you cultivate a more devoted audience, so the percentage who are willing to shell out some cash is maybe a little higher than it would be otherwise. Hopefully so, anyway. And it helps me sleep at night to believe I'm offering people something that's pretty good in exchange for their hard-earned money. Because I'm surely not entitled to it.
But on a nuts and bolts level, I don't have a lot of day-to-day costs. Currently, my show has about 5,000 regular listeners, but it wouldn't cost me any more to have 100,000. I use Liberated Syndication, which is the same hosting service many other podcasts use. There's a monthly fee for storage, but bandwidth is free. If I started producing more shows per week, it would cost more money, but other than that, the expense isn't much. On the other hand, there's the expense of buying the equipment and software that I currently use, which wasn't cheap. And to expand the show like I mentioned before, the expenses will have to rise.
In any case, I'm a little paranoid about coming across as a complainer. If people like the show, I hope they'll support it somehow. If not, that's also fine. I do okay.
What's your on going spat with "psychic" Chip Coffee all about?
It's not really ongoing anymore, since it's difficult to sustain any level of anger at someone so ridiculous and borderline anonymous on a pop culture level. But it started back when I was writing a regular column called "Ask an Amateur Scientist" for PinkRaygun.com, a geek culture site for girls and boys and ladyboys. The editor of that site sent me a copy of the first season of "Paranormal State" on DVD, because she thought I could come up with an entertaining review. The show is terrible, of course, but I was particularly annoyed by Chip Coffey, who acts as the show's resident psychic medium. His schtick is just so clownish with the hand waving and the bug eyes and the not actually providing any factual information.
But then I learned Chip did this show called "Psychic Kids" where he went to disturbed children and told them the monsters they thought they saw were actual demons and that they had psychic powers. It was the same nonsense from "Paranormal State", but directing it toward defenseless children just seemed despicable. So, I started writing a series of articles on my website about my investigations into Chip. It didn't take a lot of effort to turn up all sorts of suspicious inconsistencies in his website and his promotional materials. The most damning was when I contacted the school where he claimed to have earned a post-graduate psychology degree, and they had no record of it. A&E, the network that aired his shows, subsequently removed any mention of his "advanced degree" from their website. Last I checked, however, his show is still on the air, so I guess I failed. But the information about him is out there for those who want to find it. My "Operation: Coffey Roast" articles still attract a lot of traffic to this day, but I'm pretty much done with Coffey.
My favorite show was your interview with a "psychic to the stars" guest. I think you mentioned on my podcast The Conspiracy Skeptic that was a challenging interview to edit. Could you tell us a bit more about the making of that episode? You banned her from your message board after she started preaching 9/11 conspiracy crap. Does she still try to contact you?
That was a weird one. For a while there, I tried to have as many cranks on my show as possible, both for comedy value and also because I'm genuinely interested in how people are able to delude themselves so thoroughly. I had a British psychic medium on the show, and I also interviewed Fred Phelps, Jr. from the "God Hates Fags" church. But the lady you're talking about (and whose name I won't mention, as I don't want to fuel her Google Alert) contacted me out of the blue. I think she had had an inter-psychic spat with Chip Coffey, actually, and found my site through that.
Anyway, she said she was a successful psychic in Hollywood who wanted to do a reading for me to prove she was the real deal. I asked if we could do it on the show, and she agreed. But then she insisted on calling me beforehand, and I was dumb enough to let her. She did her "reading" for me then, which basically consisted of her tossing me a bunch of ass-kissery about how I'm going to be wildly successful and on "Saturday Night Live" and things like that. So when she actually appeared on the show, it wasn't so much a reading as a long (REALLY long -- over two hours before I cut it down) rant about herself and her history and how her particular brand of astrology was more scientifically accurate than others. I asked her why no psychics predicted 9/11 before it happened, and she became a little unhinged. The whole thing was a disaster, but I posted it anyway. Like I said, I'm a moron.
This sparked a really insane back and forth in the comments and on the forum at AmateurScientist.org. People showed up to talk about how crazy she sounded. She showed up to defend herself. None of this really bothered me except that she kept harassing me afterward. I was getting four or five emails from her every day. Sometimes more. She kept saying we should do a TV show together. It got pretty creepy. I stopped responding to them, but then she claimed on my forum that I'd edited her to make her sound crazier than she really was. I explained that I'd actually edited out some of her more esoteric rants, but the damage was done. I used to have a strict policy of not banning anyone short of spammers, but I was just tired of dealing with her. She started posting her 9/11 conspiracy theory stuff, and I'd just had enough. In addition to being wrong, the Truthers also denigrate the memory of those who died by spinning those tragedies for their own paranoid aims. I banned the psychic and directed all her emails to my trash folder. Sometimes I'll check it and still find some stuff she's sent me, but I don't read it.
One of the advantages to having a sharper focus on pure comedy these days is that I don't have to deal with nearly as many crazies. Well, at least none that aren't also standups.
For people who might think you're a callous hard ass who just spews scorn on anything that's not cold and logical, is it not true you actually rescued a puppy out of a trash compactor and adopted him? Confess.
This is sort of true. A little over a year ago, I adopted a beagle puppy who had been rescued from a dumpster by people who are not me. Someone trashed his whole litter, and the puppy whimpering attracted enough attention that they were saved. My dog, however, didn't make any noise when the rescuers arrived, so he ended up trapped in the Dumpster an extra day. And then he was the last of the litter to be adopted. I named him Darwin, but I told the adoption people I would name him Landon, since they had a spot for prayer requests on the adoption form. Better safe than sorry. Apart from an almost Woody Allen level of neurosis, he's doing well.
What's the best thing about being a podcaster?
What's the worst thing about being a podcaster?
Your 100th Anniversary Show featured a few clips from your most recent Who drummer, I mean, cohost Bob Teague. But I didn't catch anything by your first co-host Richard Nightingale. Did he say nothing of merit during his 3 or 4 years as your co-host?
No, he didn't. But that's not why he wasn't in the tear-jerking montage. He made the first cut, but it was over an hour long. I apparently think all moments from the show have been the greatest moments. In the editing process, his stuff got whittled down. I tried to make up for it by soliciting a new "Truth for Youth" audio drama from him, but I think he's still a little miffed. It's his own damn fault, though, for not being more interesting.
When do you think you'll hang up your podcaster's $6.99 Walmart headphones and call Amateur Scientist a day?
When I stop having ideas for how to make the show better, when I'm offered an equally fulfilling and more profitable job, or when the groupies start to dry up.
Many people seem to confuse you with Brian Dunning of Skeptoid fame. But frankly while I can picture Brian Dunning skippering a sail boat, the mental image of you all gussied up like an OT3 level Sea Org type just doesn't do it for me. If you know what I mean. I can picture you more in the stands of a pro/am lawnmower racing event. But I'll say this: you do a far better and more credible German accent. Nothing makes me want to give up skepticism more than when I hear a skeptic do a cheap ass German accent and I think it's a real issue in the skeptical community. Care to comment on other spooky non-similarities between you and the real Brian as well as the German accent issue that's tearing skepticism apart?
There's a Skeptoid podcast? Tell me it's not just some guy reading those essays out loud. Though if they're read in a bad German accent, I might just listen.
Anything cool in the pipeline for AmSci or even your website/underused forums?
The underused forum just got a substantial makeover, so it can continue to be underused in style. I also have plenty of amazing guests in the pipeline for the podcast. Some of my comedy heroes, in fact. Actually, groupies may not be the best thing about podcasting. I've been able to talk to many admirable people who would otherwise ignore me. So, that's something.
I'm also working on more video content and some kind of live touring schedule. I need money for these things, but they'll happen one way or another. Right now, the next sure thing is a live show at Dragon*Con in September, but I'm hoping for a couple of gigs before that.
I've also ordered a lovely demitasse set from eBay, so my stuffed animals and I should be having a lovely tea party soon. You're not invited.