Perfecting The Scripted Sci-fi Podcast with Matt Besser and Brett Morris
You can listen to the first 8 episodes of Estates of Perfection right now on Stitcher Premium. Go to stitcher.com/show/estates-of-perfection to follow the show and use promo code ESTATES at checkout for 30 free days!
How would you like to live in the most “beautiful, comfortable and technology advanced gated community in the world?”
In Estates Of Perfection, the new futuristic podcast from Earwolf’s Matt Besser and Brett Morris, listeners journey into an exclusive society where everything is convenient, everyone is polite, and tofu is printed for you.
Besser, who wrote and stars in the show, is a longtime sci-fi fan, even writing a sci-fi power rankings on his website that lists the best movies and shows of the genre like The Stepford Wives, Black Mirror, and Truman Show, whose influences can be felt in the podcast.
Morris, Earwolf’s lead audio engineer, produces and engineers the show, helping to shape the comedy in editing and give it its futuristic feel. The show centers around Mark Belner (Besser) and his wife Debbie (Danielle Schneider) as they move into, and simultaneously discover some eerie elements of, the Estates of Perfection. The show also features the talents of performers like Andy Richter, John Gemberling, Laci Mosley, Betsy Sodaro.
Though the show takes place after the “economic apocalypse of 2020,” it was not based on the pandemic and was coincidentally written prior to it. Stitcher spoke with Besser and Morris about why the show isn’t a parody of sci-fi, lessons learned from improv legend Del Close, and what goes into creating the sound of a tofu printer.
In the first episode the show mentions the economic apocalypse of 2020. Did this podcast come about because of the pandemic?
Matt: Not at all. We recorded this before the pandemic. And then we added just a couple of lines about the pandemic in recent weeks just because I felt like we had to. It felt weird to talk about an economic collapse and not mention the other stuff too.
Brett Morris: Yeah that line, “economic collapse of 2020,” that blew my mind when I went back in to edit it.
Matt: The funny thing about that is I should have probably changed that to 2021 or 2022, the way most science fiction shows, they always do it like the year after you’re watching something. I wrote this a long time ago. So it was a couple of years in the future when I wrote it.
So 2020 was just a random choice of year.
Matt: It was. And I honestly think at some point in the script it was 2018 or whatever. I just kept changing it as I would work on the script, but when we actually recorded it, it just stayed at 2020.
You wrote the entire podcast prior to 2020, but the recording is still happening through the pandemic?
Brett: We recorded the bulk of it in studio when we could still go in, before lockdown, before the pandemic, like 2019. And then the pandemic hit and the whole production of podcasting kind of turned on its head and so that delayed it a while. But now it’s kind of fitting, it all seems like it’s meant for this time.
Matt: And the part in the show about escaping the cities, that’s a concept that I didn’t think would happen so quickly. That was such a huge concept during the pandemic of like, “you got to go to the suburbs, you got to move from the major metropolitan areas,” which is still a thought out there.
How has the production process been on your end?
Brett: Most of it was recorded in studio and it’s been really refreshing to go back to that audio. One of the things that was important to me was I really wanted to get as many people in the room as we could coordinate. It’s always tough with scheduling, but at least with the main characters, it’s really nice having them in the room and improvising a little bit reacting to each other naturally. I think we got like a really good balance of that for this. But there’s a lot of dialogue that’s recorded separate from the reaction dialogue. I’m dealing with everyone’s isolated audio and everyone’s sitting a hundred miles away from each other and I’m piecing it all together line by line.
Together in a room performers can play off each other, but separately I imagine there can be latency within the recording. It’s like you have to create the comic timing yourself.
Matt: Knowing how to pace the breath between two characters, it’s not easy. You can hear it when it doesn’t work. And I give very few notes on that, but when you do hear it not work, it makes it more impressive to when it does work.
Brett: Sometimes the trick to that is overlapping or a little natural pause. It’s just really, you have to feel it out case by case. But I do feel like that’s just kind of the nuances of editing these things that I’ve come to learn a lot, especially being around so much improv and comedians. There’s just a certain timing to things.
What about sci-fi do you love?
Matt: I love near future science fiction, like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson and Philip Dick. And they’re funny. Like William Gibson in particular. His book, Virtual Light is funny without trying to be.
How did you come up with the idea for a tofu printer?
Matt: The tofu printer is probably already a real thing. I go to South by Southwest every year and they have all this science stuff and artificial intelligence in this convention center and the stuff from South Korea and Japan is always crazy. It’s cool and weird and a lot of it serves no purpose. All the American stuff is like apps for balancing your checkbook, really boring stuff. And then you get to Japan and it’s like, a table with holograms that you can put your image on the table when you drink a glass of lemonade, it’s just like stuff you would never think of. I saw a sushi printer at that place at that convention, and everyone was gathered around it and was going, “Holy fucking shit.” And I was like, I’m going to put that in my show.
How much thought went into the futuristic sounds of the show? Without this show I would have no idea what a tofu printer should sound like.
Brett: I love that kind of thing. We discussed the tofu printer sounding like just ridiculously over the top machinery. The reality of a printer like that, it would probably in the future be silent, but I like this kind of old school vision of the future of heavy machines, gears rotating round, beeps.
Matt: It’s more Terry Gilliam.
Brett: We actually did discuss that and Besser gave a good note early on, the golfing sniper scope, almost sounding like a full transformer. I really like that, in the audio medium, you get to just imagine how ridiculous that little device is. You know, it’s just a little thing that should pop out, but it sounds like this crazy contraption, and then you just hear a simple golf shot right after that.
Matt: Just as you said that I flashed back to my first play I wrote when I was in my twenties that my mentor, Del Close, came and saw. He was hugely into sci-fi himself. So I was already nervous about that. And my play was all based on virtual reality. And the machine that the main actor stepped into to do the virtual reality was like as big as one of those video gaming machines at the arcade. And after the show, one of the first things Del said to me is, “in the future, I think VR devices will be very small that you can slip it on your wrist or hold in your hand. I don’t think it would be as big as an arcade.” But in sci-fi this would be such a boring show if it was all silent stuff.
While training with Del Close you worked on the Movie Form, a form of improv in which you create an improvised movie. You’ve said how a big element in making the Movie Form work was to show respect to the genre you were working with rather than mock it. Was this a factor in creating the podcast?
Matt: I think one of the epiphanies of the movie form you’re talking about that we did with Del Close, was with the type of movie we do, when we improvise, whether it was baseball movie, a western movie, a mafia movie, Del would say, “respect the movies. Don’t make fun of the movies. You’re not going to come up with a movie as great as The Godfatherin a half hour. So you’re surely not making fun of that movie. Instead, you need to put it up on a pedestal and worship the form and try to emulate it the best you can.” And the funny comes from the meat and side, all those scenes. You’re not making fun of the movies when you do it. You’re just doing comedy within the structure of those movies. And you can see that in Estates of Perfection.
I love sci-fi and I see the potential in clones in particular, of the comedy of that, of people being phony or being real. It’s not a parody. You wouldn’t listen to this and go, “this is a parody of clone movies”. It isn’t that at all. Um, it’s a, it’s a comedy of manners in a clone setting, I’d say.
Regarding the scoring of it, the show can move from relaxing, calming music to more intense futuristic sounds. And even the theme sounds very futuristic. What was your approach in scoring the podcast?
Brett: A lot of it is experimentation and then something happens and you’re like, “Oh, that’s really cool.” One of the things for the main theme that I really liked, it would be like, just guitars and traditional instruments and stuff, but I really wanted to play with like, glitching future sounds. There’s this artist Poppy now, I don’t know if you’ve heard her. She’s really interesting. She plays with new metal sounds, really fast edits and it almost sounds like impossible production. Devin Townsend is another big influence in this heaviness. Is so outrageous. Like, it just feels like I tried to include that where it’s all like going wrong and then it keeps glitching out. It’s not just like a steady drum beat, or a steady pattern. And then like all of a sudden it cuts out and there’s kind of this big, beautiful choir note. And then it goes right back in it, just to me, it sounds like something an AI would come up if it tried to imitate human music, but fucking up in some way.
You have an All-Star cast in this show. Did you know who you wanted to play while writing it?
Matt: I wanted my wife to play my wife. And I knew I wanted Mary Holland to be the artificial intelligence and I knew I wanted Richter to be Jack King. And Gemberling, I had him in mind back when I was writing it as a sitcom.
Any final words about the podcast?
Brett: I’m just really proud of it. I love the characters, the actors. Besser has a really unique voice. Like you can just hear Besser through the scripts. And Andy Richter. Oh my God. Like he, he crushes it as Jack King. He’s such a good villain. And then Gemberling, really just so perfect. Laci Moseley is great in it. Everyone really brought their A game. And so I just hope people listen. They did such great work on it.
– Ian Scott Goldstein