Comedy Scribe Monday #7: Thoreau Smiley of Attention HellMart Shoppers!
You don’t have to be a corporate zombie to work here, but it helps! Welcome to another #ComedyScribeMonday — a weekly Twitter chat where comedy writers gather in a supportive environment to share and expand their craft.
This week’s guest is Thoreau Smiley (@ThoreauSmiley), the creator, producer and sound designer behind the supernaturally satirical serial Attention HellMart Shoppers! (@TheHelloMart) — not to mention the voice actor for most of the main cast.
The HellMart Story
Sean: A big welcome to Thoreau Smiley! For anyone who isn’t familiar with your hysterical and very original show, can you give us a brief summary of Attention HellMart Shoppers? I was going to, but I wimped out. :)
Thoreau: Hi Sean! Sure, Attention HellMart Shoppers is a horror/comedy audio drama set in a big box store called HelloMart that happened to be built on top of the gates of Hell, which happen to be in a small southern town called Strickland.
Sean: I have to also share the one-sentence elevator pitch from your website: “Our cast of retail wage-slaves will battle the forces of darkness in order to bring you the very best in minimum wage customer service!” #GOLD
Thoreau: Lol, yeah, the idea was that fighting monsters was just part of the job, like stocking and working the register.
Sean: I have to ask. Did you work in retail? And when and for how long? Because I certainly did and this stuff is just too on the nose, zombies and vampires aside. Or maybe those are more prevalent in other chains? I only did Target. :)
Thoreau: Oh yeah, I’ve spent years in retail. Never a big box store, but plenty of smaller chains. The premise of the show is very much that the zombies and vampires aren’t so bad compared to the customers and corporate culture.
Sean: I was hooked from the opening scene where Daniel (Danny) walks into his manager’s office. I was there. The dirty back corridors of a big box store. The door marked “Manager”. #shudder
Thoreau: Oh god. I’ve been in so many of those rooms. had so many interviews with middle-aged men in polos.
Sean: Can you take us to where the idea for Attention HellMart Shoppers first came from?
Because Daniel is brilliant — a high-rolling Manhattan Enron embezzler now in a work-release program in the South and working in a soul-crushing “customer service-oriented retail environment” built on the gates of Hell. HOW DID YOU COME UP WITH THAT?!
Thoreau: It actually came to be by accident. It originally was going to be a regular, average Joe audience surrogate, but then I had a collaborator drop out and I thought the character needed a reason to stay there. What better than court mandate?
Learning on the job
Sean: So you lose your collaborator; what then led to you committing to create HellMart pretty much single-handedly? The voices. The audio design. The editing. What was it like to even contemplate that?
I ask because we see people every day with ideas for an audio drama. And we are in a medium where the barriers to entry are lower than anywhere else in the serialized entertainment industry. And yet… so many are scared to take that first step.
Thoreau: Not knowing just how much work it would really be! When my collaborator dropped out I thought it would be simpler and easier to just do it all on my own, since I was rehearsing the timing using all my own voices anyway.
I rewrote some of the parts to make the voices more distinct from each other and drafted my wife to do the female voices. It was actually simpler, but I don’t know about easier to do it all on my own.
It was definitely scary taking that first step. Honestly I don’t know what made me listen to others’ shows and say, “I can do this!” My first audience was actually my 11-year-old son. I’d read the scripts aloud to him, doing all the voices.
Sean: OMG. I love this SOOO much!
How did reading your work aloud inform or change the finished piece? Or did it help in some other way? Dying to know!
Thoreau: It definitely helped figure out the pacing. I could see where it was slow, or where a story element was unclear, or where two characters had too similar of voices. It also made me realize that I was writing way too much. My first seven episodes are all two-parters because I wrote them all before I read them aloud and discovered that I had written hour-long episodes.
Eli: Cool! Are there other things you’ve learned about writing from your roles as sound designer, producer and so on?
Thoreau: I’ve definitely learned that just because you write it down, that doesn’t mean you can make it understandable to your audience. For instance you can write a character is quietly dignified, but how do you portray that in an audio medium?
Sean: Which parts of the whole process from idea to finished show do you dread and which parts surprised you by how much you enjoy them? If any? :)
Thoreau: I hate writing! It’s funny because I talk to Paul Sating (@paulsating) sometimes about how much I hate writing and love the editing and producing process, and he’s just the opposite. Once I record I’ll happily edit and tweak and score endlessly, but actually writing it? ugh!
A people-focused company
Sean: A retail store built on the cursed burial ground, lunatic asylum and Long John Silvers is so much fun. But so much of what we love about HellMart is the characters. How do you create a character? Does it start with a quirk? A story need? A joke?
Thoreau: They come about in a variety of ways. I’m a big structure-nerd, from a story perspective, and I did use the classic 5-man band template originally, although that quickly was washed away as the story progressed. Then there were some characters that started as a joke and were fleshed out as the story progressed. I love the idea that every background character has their own story going on, it’s just a matter of whether we’re focusing on it.
Eli: Does it take a while to find a new voice? Do you ever find a voice first and then write them in as a new character?
Thoreau: I almost always write the part first, then find the voice to fit it. However, once I have the voice I’ll rewrite it a bit to fit the voice I came up with. Some voices go through a lot of changes before I settled.
Daniel, for instance, went from an ordinary, flat voice, to a fast-talking car salesman guy, to a Hollywood Troy McClure type, to the voice he is now.
Sean: OMG! Daniel as a Troy McClure voice is HYSTERICAL to even contemplate. But I love the voice you have now. We want to like him despite his obvious failings.
#SPOILER# I love that the Season 1 arc was strongly driven by Jimmy hiring Danny instead of Merl. And in re-listening to Episode 1, I now caught the reference to Chet’s family chicken farm. Did you plan the firing from the beginning?
Thoreau: Oh yeah. I plotted out the first season completely before I began. I basically treated it as one long story. It’s pretty classically structured, and the firing was always going to be our midpoint reversal for Daniel. Plus I wanted to see the chicken farm.
Sean: I could do with some “un-seeing” of that chicken farm. :) But so so brilliant and I love how you evolved Daniel through that experience.
Thoreau: Thanks! I always wanted Daniel to arc, but it wasn’t until I realized what a terrible person he really was at the beginning that I knew he had to sink as low as he possibly could. I understand well now why so many creators enjoy torturing their characters.
Eli: Ahaaa. As someone who often struggles with writing bad things happening to my characters, this makes a lot of sense. It’s so much easier if you make ’em jerks!
Getting a foot in the door
Sean: Last question time! What do you have to say to someone thinking of starting a comedy horror podcast? Or any audio drama podcast? What tips or advice would you offer to someone who feels overwhelmed or insecure?
Thoreau: Just begin! If you’re passionate about creating, in whatever medium, just create! Those feelings are just that, feelings. They’re not an outside barrier keeping you from doing it. It may be really hard and you may have a number of setbacks along the way, but you’ll never be able to overcome them unless you start. There are very few AD creators that made a show and regretted it, I’d wager, so just start. That’s always the hardest part. I know once I got the ball rolling myself it became a lot less scary.
Sean: That’s our hour! Gah! We can’t thank you enough for doing this. Where can people learn more about Thoreau Smiley, Attention HellMart Shoppers and what’s coming next? #somethingnewthiswaycomes
Thoreau: Thanks so much for having me, Sean! It was a lot of fun!
Thanks again to Thoreau for joining us. And until next week… hang in there!
#ComedyScribeMondays are brought to you by Sean and Eli, the writers of Alba Salix, Royal Physician. Join us on Twitter every Monday at noon ET / 9 PT in North America, or 1700h UTC, wherever you are!