Storytelling and the Art of the Talk Show
After reading The War for Late Night, Bill Carter's history of last year's late-night television dustups, why would anyone want to attempt to host a show in a segment of the entertainment industry that is about as welcoming as a knife fight?
But Brandon Wetherbee is talk-show host. The creator and host of You, Me, Them, Everybody, Wetherbee is taking a low-key yet highly entrepreneurial approach to the format. A Chicago expat, Wetherbee, 28, started YMTE about three years ago as a podcast in which Wetherbee conducted contemplative, long-form interviews with Windy City writers and musicians. The podcast gave birth to a live show in November 2009, recording from the Hungry Brain bar in Chicago's Roscoe Village neighborhood. Wetherbee moved to Washington last fall for a common enough reason—"girlfriend and a job." He brought the show with him.
Broadcasting from the Looking Glass Lounge in Petworth since last December, YMTE—which still produces a Chicago edition—has quickly become a new platform for area writers, comedians, and musicians. The show's format is simple enough—a monologue by Wetherbee, followed by an interview with a local journalist or blogger (City Paper contributor Ryan Little was a recent participant), then a comedy set followed-up with an interview, and finally the evening's musical guest.
Wetherbee began last week's show with a monologue based off a compliment he received at his day job working Everybody Wins, a childhood literacy nonprofit that works in D.C. Public Schools. A colleague had called him a "rock star" for performing a routine task, prompting a reflection on the definition of the term:
"Elvis Presley: he's a rock star. He makes a lot of money for the mob, he steals songs, he sleeps with anyone under age—hello, ladies—people love Elvis," Wetherbee began, rehashing a litany of actual rock stars before the term began applying to people who add tabs to Excel spreadsheets.
Recording in a bar, YMTE needs to be loose and open, and during this monologue, Wetherbee was interrupted several times by an outrageously drunk patron. But Wetherbee wasn't above telling the guy to shut the fuck up. The moment was a "shitshow" and a definite rarity, but it reflected the honesty that Wetherbee wants to guide his program. The style of YMTE might be that of a late-night show, but the inspiration is raw storytelling in the tradition of Studs Terkel or Terry Gross. Wetherbee's first guest last Thursday was Jon Meyers, editor of the Vinyl District blog. The interview got personal, covering not just the state of Meyers' website, but deeper things like the virtue of vinyl records and the motivation to run a full-time blog about it. Post-set discussions with the evening's comedian, Haywood Turnipseed Jr., and musician, Lisa Reed of the band Lenorable, were just as delving.
"It's just storytelling like Studs Terkel or Ben Hecht," Wetherbee told me. "I want to be part of that tradition. And also it's fun to talk to fun people."
As a host, Wetherbee's role model is Craig Ferguson, host of The Late Late Show on CBS. "He's a storyteller," Wetherbee said, citing Ferguson's knack for personal monologues instead of the general-knowledge norm of other late-night talk shows; one example is the Scotsman's on-air eulogy for his mother in December 2008. Ferguson's other mark on Wetherbee is in the conversational interview style, one that embraces when a segment goes off the rails. "[Ferguson] makes it OK to fail. He'll rip up the cards in an interview."
YMTE has also produced music-only podcasts since its inception in Chicago; there's now a D.C. version of that too. Wetherbee still flies back to Chicago regularly to contribute to the original edition of the podcast and stay involved in that city's music and comedy scenes; he's also taken the show to New York on occasion. Tonight's guests at the Looking Glass Lounge: The writers behind the site 2birds1blog, the comedian Brandon Wardell, and the Junior League Band (which includes City Paper contributor Sadie Dingfelder).
Tonight, 8:30 p.m. At the Looking Glass Lounge, 3634 Georgia Avenue NW. (202) 722-7669
Photo by Mindy Tucker, courtesy of Brandon Wetherbee.