Comedy Scribe Monday #12: Hari Rai Khalsa of Radiation World

Welcome back to #ComedyScribeMonday! It’s a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.

This week, our guest is Hari Rai Khalsa (@hariraikhalsa), writer of the delightfully silly post-apocalyptic audio Radiation World.

The digest below includes tweets from Hari Rai (@Radiation_World), and from us, Sean Howard (@passitalong) and Eli McIlveen (@forgeryleague). I’ve reordered and made some minor edits for clarity.

The inspiration of constraints

Sean: I can’t tell you how excited we are to have @hariraikhalsa join us this week. Hari Rai Khalsa is the writer and creator (with her sister Sahib Simran Khalsa) of the hit comedy sci-fi audio drama Radiation World.

Hari Rai: Hello everyone!

Eli: Hello Hari Rai!

I remember you saying in a Radio Drama Revival interview that you discovered audio drama while studying creative writing at Oxford. Hitchhiker’s Guide being a key influence on RW, of course — any other shows that caught your ear back then?

Hari Rai: Trying to expose my profound ignorance, I see! Quite honestly no, I had to listen to a few short pieces for class but nothing that truly stuck with me until I discovered the podcast AD community when we started Radiation World.

In a way this was part of the joy of creating audio drama for us, though. Since we had so little experience of how it had been done, it was a 100% creative process, we had no existing concepts of how it should be done to fall back on.

Eli: Profound nothin’ — geez, you only studied at freakin’ Oxford. ;) Were there any other lessons from your time there that have stuck with you in creating RW?

Hari Rai: So many. I learned too much to know what I even learned. All I know is I look back at my pre-Oxford writing and say haha lol.

Eli: Listening to RW for the first time, I’d always assumed that you were quite familiar with the format! Partly I think because, while a lot of prose fiction writers naturally gravitate to using a narrator, your show is all dialogue-driven.

Hari Rai: I was 100% adamant that I would not use a narrator. For me that would destroy the whole point of trying to tell a story within the medium.

That’s what I love most about writing in different formats, is trying to embrace the limitations and opportunities of each one as much as possible.

Sean: I’m curious what made you choose audio drama as your format. Was it the accessibility? Or just that you had access to recording gear? I’m glad you did choose audio! :)

Hari Rai: It was that I loved the creative constraint of having to tell a story through only sound. And my sister had just started her training as a sound designer. I wrote the first episode as a Christmas gift just so she would have a fun little project to produce. She never got around to it, but then after I graduated we thought hey, why not actually do this as a real thing?

Sean: As a team that also had a delay between the idea and production: how much time passed between that first script and putting out the first Radiation World episode?

Hari Rai: About two years, but it was only the one episode hiding in a drawer for a long time. I didn’t write the rest of the season until we decided we were going to give it a real shot.

Eli: Familiar.

Committing

Sean: If I had to describe your characters in one word, I would say “BIG! GIANT! OVER-THE-TOP!” Okay, that’s a few more than one word. :) I loved the President from the first few lines of episode 1. How do you go about creating your characters?

Hari Rai: Without much intricate thought, to be honest. They are just embodiments of what my inner psyche finds most hilarious. Inept men I guess? Who are really committed to their ineptitude? I guess I like the method of taking a standard trope, subverting it, and then caricaturing that.

Sean: LOL. Yeah. If they were just inept that wouldn’t be so hysterical. It’s their commitment that makes it for me. And yet I want to care about them.

Hari Rai: Yes, I am inexorably drawn to characters who are somehow endearing despite how useless they are. I think commitment is what makes you root for people. In real life and in fiction.

Eli: Oh, so much.

Sean: I like that idea a lot! It’s not dissimilar from the idea of “leaning in” that we learn in improv. The idea of committing to an idea or trait, let alone a motivation that you capture so well.

Eli: Speaking of improv — I so wish we’d been able to see your live show! What’s it like creating an improv version of your show? Were there games? Asks from the audience?

Hari Rai: We actually didn’t improvise anything ourselves, we collaborated with a local improv group. The show was written as an alternative version of episode 1 in which instead of a ship showing up from nowhere, it was a wild improv troupe.

They are invited in to entertain the residents of the bunker, who are literally dying of boredom, and then we have a show within a show, where the improv troupe is performing both for a fictional and real audience.

It was fun because they had to play off live cues (they didn’t see the script at all before they arrived to perform) and also it added a whole different flavor of performance to the evening.

Eli: Oh, clever! So the audio cast all had scripted parts?

Hari Rai: Yes, the RW cast had scripts in hand, and the improv troupe just watched and reacted. And we made it a musical! (One musical number at least…)

That was super fun. Cheesy Radiation World-style songwriting is apparently something I can really get into. Not saying season 3 will include a musical, but I’m not saying it won’t include a musical either, if you catch my drift.

Eli: Ohhh dang. Looking forward to S3 even more now.

Sean: That. Now THAT must have been HIGH-STERICAL!!! How did it go? What did you learn? Would you do something like that again?

Hari Rai: I learned that live shows can be really exhausting! Normally we just vomit stories into the void, but when you have a whole room of live breathing bodies it’s a lot of energy to take in and expend again.

Casting and recording

Sean: Talk to us about how you recorded this show. I believe you brought actors into studio vs. remote recording, yes? What led you to build your own recording studio in the garage? And did that change how you approached writing the show?

Hari Rai: We actually already had a recording studio, that’s what led us to decide to actually make the show. Our dad is a musician and had converted our garage into a studio when we were kids. So we had a pretty sweet hookup ready to go.

Honestly it would never have occurred to us to even try if we had to build our own setup. That’s what separates us from the rest of you. We’re even lazier.

Sean: LOL. I don’t think we’re going to buy that. You recorded TWO SEASONS of a show! And you had to get people to come to your house. You mentioned at PodCon that you don’t live in a city. How did you find your actors?

Hari Rai: Film casting boards! We do not live in a major city, but we do live in a major film industry state. Most of our actors live in Albuquerque, the nearest big city, an hour and a half away. What was that we said about commitment again? ;-)

We wanted to start with everyone in the same room because we felt like we had enough stuff to figure out without having to deal with directing remotely and syncing audio. As a first-time director I was pretty stressed about the whole thing.

Once we started to find our sea legs we did start incorporating more remote acting, but we still like to have everyone in the same room as much as possible. The energy (and the sound!) are never quite the same as when everyone is together in the same space. But using more remote recording has also been awesome because it has widened our potential cast to the entire globe and has allowed us to invite on so many awesome people from the AD community, like Eli!

Eli: *mumbles, blushes*

The writing life

Sean: Are you a seat of the pants writer or an outliner? Or both? Or other? How do you go about writing a script. And I’d love to know about how you revise — do you read them to someone? etc.

Hari Rai: 100% seat of the pants. I once wrote a whole episode in 5 hours (that’s revision time included) and I once wrote an episode in 5 months and what happens when you compare their quality? A valuable lesson in the benefits of efficiency, that’s what.

My process usually involves calling my sister, saying something like “is it funnier if the robot eats spaghetti, or if the robot IS spaghetti?” and then whatever she tells me I write down and pretty soon we have an episode.

Sean: LOL. Gold. I need to call my sister, stat! That’s been my problem!

Eli: So how far ahead do you plan when you’re writing a season? Has that changed in creating S2 and 3?

Hari Rai: With season 1 we generally knew the arc and how it was going to launch us into season 2 (things still changed a LOT as I wrote of course). Season 2 was more of a collection of ideas I wanted to hit that I had to organize into a through-line.

Season 3 is the wild west. I have literally no idea where that is headed. But I have some ideas starting to percolate.

Sean: We have to put you on the spot! When might we might expect Season 3 of Radiation World?!?

Hari Rai: To get serious for a second, one of the things Radiation World has taught me more than anything is how important it is for me to be in a healthy, mutually beneficial relationship with my creativity.

Sean: OMG! I SOOOOO LOVE THIS THREAD! PLEASE CONTINUE!

Hari Rai: Season 1 was the most exciting and creatively enlivening things I’ve ever done. If I’m very honest, that got out of balance with season 2, and by the end I had reached a point of feeling greater obligation to getting material out than to my own well-being. It burned me out, and Radiation World and I broke up for a little while, and I needed a long time to recover.

And I think that’s a common story for a lot of creators, and I want to encourage people to remember that the story can only be as alive as you are, and that driving yourself into the ground is driving your story into the ground as well.

So I’m not pushing season 3. I’m letting it be a slow drip that enlivens both of us at the same time. And we’ll both be better for it.

When the creative process is going well, my life is going well. When it becomes a chore, my life becomes a chore. Pretty straightforward, pretty difficult to remember sometimes. But that’s the goal.

Eli: Yes! I feel this way whenever someone grumps about an author being “late” with the next book in a series.

Hari Rai: Absolutely! Give the story a chance, people!

Sean: On that note. Thank you, deeply and sincerely, Hari Rai! Where can people find out more about you and Radiation World?

Hari Rai: Thank YOU! We can be found at radiation.world, and right here at @Radiation_World, and on Facebook, and while we are not always super active on the internet (percolating!) we really love to hear from people!


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