Peacock’s new show, In the Know, introduces us to NPR’s third most popular radio host, Lauren Caspian (voiced by Zach Woods, who co-created the series with Silicon Valley’s Brandon Gardner and King of the Hill’s Mike Judge). Touted by Peacock as a, “well-meaning, hypocritical nimrod, just like you and me, he’s also a stop motion puppet.”
Each episode follows the making of an episode of Lauren’s radio show in which he conducts in-depth interviews with real world human guests including Kaia Gerber, Jonathan Van Ness, Ken Burns, Finn Wolfhard, Norah Jones, Tegan and Sara, Nicole Byer, and Jorge Masvidal.
We caught up with animator Malcolm Lamont of Shadow Machine to ask about his experience being part of Peacock’s first adult animation comedy. “As Lead Animator,” he told us, “by the time I came onto the project the concept had already been in development for some time. In fact I believe that Zach Woods, who is the co-creator of the project along with Brandon Gardner and Mike Judge, initially came up with the concept back when Zach was working on one of Mike Judge’s Silicon Valley for HBO.
“They had this idea about an NPR radio show, where the host and radio station employees are animated and the guests are real life actors, musicians and other celebrities. But the main aim wasn’t to just crudely mock NPR and the NPR demographic, which I think they felt would be kind of low hanging fruit. I think Zach and Brandon really wanted to turn the spotlight and humor back on themselves and try to make fun of their own flaws, mostly because they were openly admitting that they were the exact demographic of people who were desperately trying to save the world one NPR pledge drive at time.”
This, as far as we can tell, has been a great call. Without that self-reflexive approach, we may have missed out on the hilarity of moments like asking actual real-life Mike (Michael) Tyson if he’s ever wanted to stop a boxing match to tell his opponent, “I am enough,” or checking with Tegan and Sara about, “being an honorary lesbian twin.”
“As an animator,” Lamont continued, “the thing I loved the most about working with Zach and Brandon was that they were, at least for the majority of my knowledge of their work, predominantly actors. And so to be directed by actors—it was like an acting masterclass, and to be directed by these guys who were these incredible comedy actors, as an animator it was a goldmine of acting notes!
“I remember the first meeting I had with Zach, Brandon, and Mike where they just spoke non-stop for a couple of hours about each character’s personality in such depth that I came away from that one meeting feeling like I knew everything I’d ever need to know to be able to start animating pretty much any shot in the show. This might sound obvious, and most stop motion directors would probably be able to give you something similar in regards to the lead character and maybe one or two others, but Zach and Brandon could tell you the backstory to everyone in the show right down to the janitor.
“I’ve worked with a lot of different directors in my career and generally how it works is, you’d go into edit and the director would talk about where the characters are standing, maybe they walk from A to B and pick up something while saying their line. Sometimes you’ll have a conversation about the motivation of the character in this scene.
“With Zach and Brandon, it would always start something like this ‘I had this softball coach when I was a kid, his name was Joey Bonetti, I think he was connected to the mob or something, anyway, he had this thing he’d do, he’d always squeeze the back of my neck just a tiny bit too tightly whenever he spoke to me and it always made me feel comforted and terrified at the same time, and THAT’S how Lauren feels in this shot.’ And then maybe because Brandon has more of a background in improv, he’d have a story he’d tell, almost to one-up Zach, and then that would remind Zach of another anecdote, and so on and so on.
“I could sit in edit for 30 minutes listening to those guys just make me howl with laughter. And then right at the end someone would be like, ‘oh yeah and also Sandy is on fire and he’s running around the room and everyone else is panicking, y’know, no big deal, you’ll work that bit out!’”
According to Lamont, one of the things Gardner and Woods imparted to their team that was really crucial to the humor of the show was how things are funniest when you’re not looking for the laugh, you had to believe these characters were genuinely committed to their own actions and beliefs, and as soon as you try to do something obviously “funny” the humor dies.
“We talked a lot about the UK version of The Office,” Lamont said, “as a big reference point for our humor, that thing of walking the line of documentary and naturalism rather than the US version which tends to go a bit bigger and broader. As animators, I think this was one of the bigger challenges on the show. It was one of the notes we had to constantly keep reminding ourselves of.
“You could maybe argue that historically animation tends to be bigger and broader in terms of humor and performance, and so I think sometimes our muscle memory would kick in when it came to animating a joke and we’d inadvertently make it too big or silly and Zach and Brandon would just reign us back in a bit each time.
“I mean every great animator is trying to be a great actor and so to have these actors giving you notes on your shots was so rewarding. I personally would always shoot video reference of myself acting out all the characters in each of my shots and I’d show them to Brandon and Zach before I’d start animating so that they could give me their notes. And I’d always have this moment of terror, like I’m showing my half-assed attempts at acting to these guys…who get paid to do this…professionally. But they were always really supportive and great, most of the time they’d zone right in on something tiny like ‘don’t break eye contact until Lauren says this word,’ and it would always improve the shot 100%.”
Lamont also reflected that the learning curve seemed to go both ways. “I think it was also really rewarding and eye-opening for Zach and Brandon. I don’t know how much experience they had with stop motion before we started and I don’t think they knew how much to expect in terms of the level and quality of acting that we could give them.
“I actually think their expectations were maybe a little low, and so it wasn’t until I finished the first animation test with Carl and Barb, it was this long conversation between Carl and Barb in an elevator who are both secretly in love with each other but are quite admitting it—and when we showed it to Zach and Brandon suddenly you could see eyes went wide and the realization hit them that we could really bring these characters to life and give them genuine depth and emotion.
“I think at that moment the show became real for everyone involved. We all knew the writing on the show was so strong and if we could give these characters the kind of performance that the scripts deserved we’d be able to make something really special, and really funny. I really hope we get another season as this group of oddball characters that we have created have a lot more stories to tell.”
So do we Malcolm, so do we.