For an on-demand medium, podcasting has a cozy relationship with spur-of-the moment storytelling. Some of the best comedy podcasts—like improv4humans, Spontaneanation—rely on improvisation to drive the story and find the laughs. But in the world of kidcasts, scripts tend to dominate. Not so with What if World?, the brainchild of producer Karen Marshall and storyteller Eric O’Keeffe. Every week, O’Keeffe takes a “What if?” question submitted by a kid listener, along with a suggestion of something the kid enjoys, and sets off on an improvised story that imagines a world in which the philosopher-kid’s “What if?” is real. In other words, they use a kid’s imagination as a starting point—a starting point!—for O’Keeffe’s off-the-cuff stories, which stay true to kids’ inventiveness and silliness.
I chatted a bit with O’Keeffe about improvisation, curmudgeonly wizards, and the family connection that sparked the show.
Where did the idea for the show come from? I think I read you used to tell stories to your nephew via Skype, is that right?
Yeah, you remembered that right! After moving to LA, I started telling weekly stories over Skype to my nephew back in Boston. He'd give me a topic and I’d make up a story. I'd also talk to his mom and try to sneak in a lesson he was learning that week. When I set about adapting these stories for the podcast world, the call-in show felt like a great way to let kids feel involved without asking too much of parents.
So let's talk a little bit about the improvisational aspect of it. The inevitable question every improviser loves: How improvised are we talking here? Do you kind of stew on the question for a bit, and then get going, or do you sit down, listen to it, and get rolling?
I wish I could say it's fully improvised, but my apartment is really too noisy for me to record a whole episode in one go. Thus, every garbage truck, leaf blower, and airplane gives me time to ruminate on the story or figure out my next character. Other than that, I try to rely on my experience as an improviser and educator and just dive in!
I'd say pausing for leaf blowers doesn't count as cheating. What do you think the improv brings to the story?
Mostly it's about keeping the energy up and sounding a little less read-y. When I'm in the zone I feel like the characters kind of take over the story and I get to have fun playing catch-up. Someday, I hope to have on special guests to improvise with, too.
You have a whole arsenal of characters to draw from at this point. Do you get requests for repeat appearances?
Not yet, but the first time that happens will be so great. I'm hoping kids (and parents) start to see this world they're shaping and ask questions that sort of advance different story lines. Right now I just sneak repeat characters for my own enjoyment.
Who's your favorite character so far?
Oh, Abacus P. Grumbler the Wizard. A curmudgeonly but kind-hearted wizard with a penchant for disaster. He ends up popping in every third story or so and I struggle to keep him out of every episode.
Because of the style of your show, you're able to bring in all of these different elements—robots, wizards, monsters, etc. Were there any particular stories growing up that you think influence you or your show today?
If we're going way back, it'd probably be the Serendipity book series by Stephen Cosgrove. He used fantastical creatures and animals to convey simple lessons, but I also feel like his stories were socially sensitive. The Muffin Dragon was one of my favorites: a community of baker creatures are being taken advantage of by a hungry dragon until they all learn to work together to support each other. I don't know how well the books would hold up by today's standards, but they helped me become a more open-minded and imaginative person.
At the end of the interview, Marshall and O’Keeffe revealed they are getting married in September. In lieu of gifts, you should subscribe to their awesome show.