Tales from the Aletheian Society is a serialised comedy-horror audio drama about the misadventures of a society of Victorian occultists.
Tales from the Aletheian Society is a serialised comedy-horror audio drama about the misadventures of a society of Victorian occultists.
Chris: The Good Place
Clever writing, sharp dialogue, great acting and some amazing twists. A show that just gets better the more you watch. Kristen Bell is fantastic as always, but I’d really forgotten how great Ted Danson was at situation comedy. It made me want to re-watch Cheers (which I suspect won’t have aged well in terms of sexual politics, but was pretty much the funniest US show on British TV when I was a kid.)
Jude: Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Ok, so maybe Buffy isn’t primarily a comedy, but the humour is an integral part of the show. It’s brilliantly witty, the comic timing is superb, and there’s so much charisma radiating from the core cast that caring about their characters is effortless - and that’s when the writers pull the rug out from under you with episodes like The Body, and The Gift, and Forever…
Stoo: Brooklyn 99
For what should be a straightforward New York cop sitcom Brooklyn 99 is amazingly diverse and funny. The cast are brilliant, the timing, recurring characters, recurring jokes are all perfectly executed. What I love most about it is the strong male role-model in the form of Sergeant Terry Jeffords. He’s big and strong (the actor, Terry Crews, can bench in excess of 200kg (yeah, I googled it), which is you and the person next to you), suffers from anxiety and PTSD which he battles with throughout the show and is a devoted husband and father, while still being a comedic character who supports, and is supported by, those around him. You don’t see enough of that in any TV, let alone a sitcom cop show. Also, about half the cast are left-handed, which pleases me immensely.
Stoo: Big Trouble in Little China
I loved Big Trouble in Little China as a kid and I still do. It’s a cheesy action drama with Chinese myth and magic set against a San Francisco backdrop. The lead character, Jack Burton, is an over-confident buffoon, way out of his depth throughout the movie. Then at some point you realise it’s not a comedy, it’s a completely straight action movie and Wang Chi is the lead character and Jack Burton is the sidekick… Meta-comedy! Two movies in one!
Jude: 9 to 5
I’m going to pick another 80s movie. This one stars Lily Tomlin, Jane Fonda and Dolly Parton as three women who end up kidnapping their abusive boss with hilarious consequences. The scriptwriting and performances are really sharp, and there are some lovely surreal sequences - an all round brilliant comedy.
While I enjoyed the remake, the original is pretty much unbeatable for me. It was the first film I ever remember being desperate to see as a kid, and it’s aged remarkably well. The jokes are still funny, most of the special effects still look good. Pretty much a perfect trifecta of funny, scary and science fiction.
Jude: Quite Ugly One Morning by Christopher Brookmyre
For proper pee-your-pants, laugh out loud comedy, I’ve got to say the works of Christopher Brookmyre (particularly, though not limited to the Jack Parlabane series) have got to top my list. They’re dark, slightly gruesome and extremely Scottish in their humour - I’ve picked Quite Ugly as my favourite, but to be honest they’re all good. He also writes very good (although more serious) crime novels.
Stoo: The Works of Terry Pratchett
I don’t read much comedy so this one was a bit of a struggle. I loved Terry Pratchett as a kid, especially the City Watch related books, but I haven’t read anything of his in… more than ten years. I think Jingo was the last book I read and Wikipedia thinks that was published in 97, so it might be twenty years. I should probably rectify that.
Chris: Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore
I think the last book I read that made me really laugh. Deceptively simple beats, but it somehow makes for wickedly hilarious comedy. I also enjoy the sly addition of the historical stuff (the character that is clearly “Emperor Norton”, for instance). The sequels, and indeed most of Moore’s stuff, are well worth checking out!
Chris: The Establishment (by Edginton & Adlard, Wildstorm)
Despite a criminally short run, this British answer to the Authority was both hilarious and genuinely different to most of the Wildstorm fare. As well as a great central plot, it’s a treasure-trove of hidden references to old television shows like The Avengers and Danger Man.
To be honest, I could have done a dozen entries for this section. I strongly considered Ace Trucking Co and Dr & Quinch from 2000AD, which remain some of of my all time favourite comedy series.
Jude: The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore
I don’t read a lot of comics for the humour, but The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is certainly worth a mention for the way it takes fictional characters and weaves them into Victorian Britain, subverting and mocking the tropes as it goes. It’s also a masterclass in the way it makes the transition from witty banter to appalling horror in the space of a few illustrations.
Stoo: Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Waterson
Calvin and Hobbes is the amazingly charming, insightful and funny adventures of a boy and his stuffed tiger. The entire run of comics is driven by Calvin’s imagination, his loathing of school but love of learning but occasionally hits on some poignant moments between Calvin and his parents.
Stoo: The Doug Anthony Allstars
I’m not sure how this will have aged but DAAS were an Australian musical comedy trio in the 90’s. I never got to see them live but a mate had a video tape (yes, VHS!) of one of their shows which we watched repeatedly. They told jokes, sang songs and had a very rough and tumble physical humour to go with it. Their material was hilarious then they’d side-line you with something poignant and moving. Aso, listen to the comedy-goth-musical stylings of Voltaire.
Chris: Ask Lovecraft (youtube channel)
Should it be funny? A guy answering questions and holding forth while pretending to be the reanimated Howard Phillips Lovecraft? Somehow it is, though - very funny. Leeman Kessler has an amazing line in deadpan delivery (and out-of-character comes across as a really nice guy.) Thankfully it’s entirely shorn of any of the real HPL’s odious beliefs.
Jude: Old Harry’s Game (BBC radio comedy)
I was a big fan of audio drama and comedy long before I came across the AD podcasting scene, and my all time favourite has got to be Andy Hamilton’s Old Harry’s Game, a sitcom set in Hell about the devil, his assistants and an assortment of damned souls. The writing moves seamlessly from beautifully observed parody, to slapstick, to outright horror, and the biting satire is as relevant today as when it was written.
Chris: Attention Hellmart Shoppers
While I think We Fix Space Junk is probably my favourite podcast overall, in terms of sheer humour Attention Hellmart Shoppers is hard to beat. I particularly love Daniel’s speech from the first episode, explaining why he went to prison, where he just keeps adding more and more layers of financial shenanigans to his resume.
Jude: The Dark Ages
There are so many great comedies at the moment! Top of my list at present are The Dark Ages, which is a brilliantly subversive take on the fantasy genre with very Pratchett-esque humour, A Scottish Podcast, which has had me laughing out loud at its sweary rants and deadpan social commentary, and Attention Hellmart Shoppers, which took a little while to grow on me but very soon became a firm favourite.
Stoo: Wooden Overcoats
With a brilliant cast, fantastic production and hilarious writing this is the high bar for audio drama and something like what I’d hope to achieve with the Aletheian Society. The ever-changing interactions between the main characters is what drives the humour behind this and the twisting, turning ending to season one was amazing.
Jude and I have been writing and running LARPs together under the banner of Shadow Factories for many years. We’d had a lot of success, but LARP is incredibly time intensive and quite expensive, and relies on the goodwill of a lot of friends and family to accomplish. Given we’ve both got young children, this seemed like perhaps something we could do in the evenings with less disruption to the daily schedule. (Hah! Probably a blog post about how the grass always seems greener in there somewhere!)
Now along the roadside to the LARPs that we have run there lies a rich seam of materials that we considered and ultimately discarded. One of these was a Victoriana setting in which the players would take on the roles of members of the fictional Aletheian Society – a secret order dedicated to fighting the ghastly eldritch powers that lurked in the shadows. We’d snuck a little bit of it into the backdrop to our Ragnarok LARPs, which were set during WW2, but it had never had a chance to live and breathe in its own heyday. Perhaps now was that time?
I wrote a single scene as a rough proof of concept (and boy was it rough – by the time we got to the end of the writing process that scene had been gutted and rebuilt completely, and I still think it’s weak.) But it was enough for the kernel of possibility to show through. We met up, hashed out the characters and plot for series one, did a bunch of research and then got writing. Now for those that don’t know Jude that well, it’s worth pointing out that she’s a human dynamo – as well as writing her half of the scripts in about a third of the time that I took, she also directs and splits out the dialogue for scenes. When she gets on board with a project, it’s going to get done. Thankfully Stoo was happy to get involved, so we had sound and editing, and our friends were kind enough to volunteer their services for voices.
For character for this ur-scene, I turned to an old tabletop RPG character that I’d created for a Cthulhu-by-gaslight game - Dr Hieronymus Cadwallader, trigger-happy botanist at large. While the original character was too ridiculous for the tone we wanted, he served as a framework on which to stretch a new skin. His character draws quite heavily from George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman (although slightly more intelligent and brave, but considerably less handsome and charming.) I also very much enjoyed Kim Newman’s take on “Basher” Moran in Hound of the D’Urbervilles, and I’m sure he was a strong influence on Cadwallader. Lastly he is a caricature of British Victorian imperialism – almost everything he likes is awful to modern sensibilities and vice versa.
So Cadwallader took shape, Frankenstein’s monster on the slab, a creation of many parts. I wanted him to be deeply flawed, verging on outright villainy at times. But the closer you look at him, the easier it becomes to at least understand how he ended up this way. While he lives a life of immense (and largely unearned) privilege, he’s spent it trapped by the expectations of others. Now at the tail end of his existence he’s steeped in cynicism and world-weariness, and doesn’t give much of a damn about the upset he causes while drowning his regrets.
Of course, it’s disingenuous to pretend that you write a character as a terrible person purely for plot reasons when it’s you that’s going to voice them. Actors love to play villains; villains get to do and say outrageous things. A hero is nothing without a good villain to oppose them. In a sense, opposing Dr Cadwallader is a large part of what keeps the rest of the Chapter going as a comedic situation. Jessie and Sophie strive to outdo him, Gillespie despises him and Cressida tries to control him. Only Arthur looks up to him (partly because Arthur’s not the sharpest tool in the box, but partly also because Cadwallader conforms more to the archetype of the imperialist ideal of masculinity.)
And of course, you can’t have a good villain without a few redeeming features. He has some physical bravery and is fairly competent in military matters. He shows a certain amount of insight into the lot of the downtrodden of the world (not enough to actually help them, but enough to empathise with them occasionally.) Although he clearly has an inflated opinion of his physical and mental capabilities, he tends to have a pretty clear view of his own moral weaknesses (and by extension those of Victorian Britain in general.) While clearly not keen on the Scots, Cadwallader shows little sign of xenophobia towards other cultures (could there be a reason for that, dear reader?) So there are hints that he could have been a better person under different circumstances.
But if from all this you’re now expecting an arc where Cadwallader suddenly “learns his lesson” and turns good then you’re in for a sore disappointment. Momentary flashes of good intent are the best he can hope to muster by this stage, take them for what they are and expect no more. The younger characters still have time to make decisions about who and what they are, but the good Doctor’s arc doesn’t allow that latitude.
But that said, working within a broadly historical setting posed challenges. Attitudes to women at the time were pretty despicable - and we chose to have Cadwallader embrace the misogyny of a man of his time, though we made sure to be clear that he is utterly wrong, given that the women he disparages are considerably more competent than he is. Jessie and Sophia are deeply flawed human beings, but their failings aren’t related to the fact that they’re women. Overall, we thought we were getting the balance about right, and were feeling quite proud of the fact that we’d written such a show with such good representation of women.
How wrong we were. Rhi (who plays the Tribune in Season One, and does the best monkey noises of any human alive) reviewed the scripts for episodes 1 and 2, and shockingly, in episode 1 only 20% of the words were spoken by women - 10% by Sophia, and 10% by the other female characters combined. Cadwallader had 52%, Gillespie 16%, and the remaining 12% were spoken by Arthur, Godalming and other minor male parts. Even accepting that Cadwallader was the narrator and therefore would have a bigger share of the lines, the demographic was still hugely skewed in favour of the men. We kept going - surely episode 2 would be better - after all, the women were doing all the actual work while the men blundered about ineptly. Well, yes and no.
In episode 2, the women do have greater than 50% of the dialogue - 62% is shared more or less equally between Sophia and Jessie, but there are only two other female parts giving a total of 66% to the women. Remove Sophia as narrator and only 35% of the remaining words are spoken by women - which is astonishing given how female-dominated it seems on first hearing.
We’re aware of the unconscious bias that makes people think that non-men are dominating a conversation when they’re only half of the participants - but it was still a surprise to see it so obviously in our own writing. Part of the problem is that we’d wanted to keep the backdrop historical - so of course butlers, police officers, ministers and similar ended up as men. We’d vaguely intended on introducing Mrs Gillespie as a character, but we never quite got round to it, and while she’s there as an offstage presence (maybe contributing to the impression of there being more female characters about) she never actually appears. The other problem that we ran into was that - for the simple reason that the women were staggeringly more competent - it was harder to get them into ludicrous and funny situations, and their share of the plot suffered as a result. The final contributing factor was that when the casting call went out we got a lot more interest from men, and when seven guys turned up to the first session compared to three women we ended up finding bit parts for them to play. This had the effect that roles which could theoretically be played by any gender ended up as men by default. If we hadn’t taken the last minute decision to make the Tribune a woman, it would have been even worse.
So, what are we going to do about it? We realised by midway through season one that we were going to need a new regular female character, and we hope you’re looking forward to her arrival considerably more than Dr Cadwallader is. We’ve recruited another regular female cast member, and we’ve made sure that there are more parts for women throughout - a cursory examination of the gender balance of roles for the season appears roughly equally balanced, though we won’t know the final statistics ‘till we’ve broken it down line by line, which we promise to do once the season is recorded. And in the meantime, we’ll keep writing strong characters with motivations and story arcs of their own, and we remain utterly committed to seeing the women of the Aletheian Society and their excellent actors getting their fair share of the limelight.