When the new animated series In the Know opens, it’s with the show’s protagonist — a pretentious, slightly self-centered public radio personality named Lauren Caspian — hemming and hawing in front of his bathroom mirror. He’s honing his active listening sounds, sharpening his “huh”s and “wow”s to seem more off-the-cuff during on-air interviews.
The gag both digs at and acknowledges the world Caspian inhabits, where being called “Sarah Vowell–level” funny is a grade-A compliment and the actual Ken Burns gets to crack a dirty joke about Sonny Rollins being called the “Saxophone Colossus.”
Most of In the Know — which premieres Thursday on Peacock — takes place inside the studios of what’s billed as “public radio’s third most popular interview program.” Caspian is joined by a ragtag crew of put-upon producers, engineers and coworkers, including Fabian, a nonbinary millennial who, at one point, is hell-bent on proving the host’s voice is making listeners vomit, and Sandy, a surprisingly right-wing ponytailed film critic who eats only hard-boiled eggs and believes in spending two to three years musing over the content of a film before truly weighing in.
Zach Woods, the actor and comedian who voices Caspian and who co-created In the Know with Brandon Gardner and Beavis and Butthead and King of the Hill mastermind Mike Judge, says the idea for the show came from improv riffs he’d do on the set of Silicon Valley, an HBO sitcom he starred in that Judge also helmed. Woods says Judge “noticed that I had an NPR adjacency in terms of my references and interests,” which makes sense considering that public radio was basically the soundtrack to Woods’ childhood.
“If I hear the All Things Considered theme,” he jokes, “I can smell the cucumbers that my parents are cutting in my little kitchen growing up.”
Judge also noticed Woods had an affinity for essentially interviewing friends, co-workers and cast members, which Woods says comes out of his general belief that people are “beautiful, interesting and fascinating.” Putting the two skills together, Judge pitched Woods on doing a stop-motion animation show set at an NPR station but with live-action, Space Ghost Coast to Coast–style interview segments sprinkled throughout.
Ultimately, that idea became In the Know, where Woods’ Caspian is joined on-screen by characters like Fabian, Sandy and bewildered and underappreciated producer Barb (played by Succession’s J. Smith-Cameron), but also by personalities like Roxane Gay, Tegan and Sara, and the aforementioned Ken Burns, who Woods says was “so gracious” about the show’s process, giving “deep, detailed, beautiful answers” as well as a witty retort to Caspian’s suggestion that people hide their porn inside cases meant to hold his documentaries’ DVDs.
“[Burns] was the first interview we did,” Woods says, “and it’s a vulnerable thing to walk into a chat with a stop-motion NPR puppet on a show you can’t see with people you’ve never met, especially when you know they’re going to edit an hour of the conversation down into a little segment.”
The show also challenged its interview subjects by asking them to speak “with” a still image of Lauren Caspian, rather than with Woods himself. “My co-showrunner Brandon would say, ‘This is going to be an interview. Treat it like any other NPR interview,’” Woods says. “‘If something’s funny to you, laugh. If the question interests you, you can really dive deep. The only thing we ask is that you not acknowledge that he’s a puppet, because that’ll totally mess up the suspension of disbelief.’”
Getting people like Burns and Gay on the show was important, not just because it helped set Caspian and company in a world where it’s cool to crack wise about Lin-Manuel Miranda interviewing himself at the New Yorker festival, but also because it helped Woods — who’s also appeared on The Office and Veep — find the comedy in what he calls “the well-intended foolishness of my life and the lives of people like me,” who he says aren’t “made fun of as much as we should be.”
“I remember walking around this kind of tony neighborhood in L.A. right after a lot of the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd’s murder,” Woods recounts. “I was walking past this multimillion-dollar house, and in their front yard was a sign that said something like ‘Defund the police,’ but right next to it was a sign advertising how they had some ADT home security detail with armed guards. I remember thinking, ‘That’s funny,’ and I’m sure I felt smug and superior, and then I went and spent $13 on some grotesque kombucha drink.”
While Woods says he doesn’t necessarily associate that kind of “contradiction and moral theater” with NPR specifically, he admits that it does seem like “an environment in which it could happen.” By accepting that sort of hyperbolic duality in his life and in the world around him, Woods says he’s been able to relax into who he is rather than repress it, which he says “seems kind of dangerous in a way.”
“I think if you don’t own your own shadow, your shadow owns you,” Woods says. “You have to take ownership over the parts of yourself that are complicated or maybe not the most photogenic because, as someone once told me, ‘The loudest conversation in the room is the one you’re not having.’ I’m a big believer in that.”
Crafting Lauren Caspian
As part of creating In the Know, Woods thought about personalities like Michael Barbaro, Ira Glass, Malcolm Gladwell and Ezra Klein, the latter two of which he’d listen to on his way to record his part of the show. (He’s still an avid listener of The Daily and The Ezra Klein Show, as well as of the Film at Lincoln Center podcast, The Director’s Cut and WBUR’s Kind World.)
Caspian — a name Woods picked both because it “sounded like it could be on NPR” and because it lent itself to a gag about the character’s much burlier girlfriend also being named Lauren — is, like all of those hosts, “an emphatically curious person.” The character is full of oddball impishness but also has a true zeal for his job, because, in Woods’ eyes, “people are never more beautiful than when they’re loving something.”
That’s certainly the case, he thinks, with most NPR hosts, who he says you can generally tell are “really having a ball” and who “really like the version of themselves that they are in those situations.” (To put a finer point on it, for Caspian, Woods says, the interviews are like “a scrumptious banquet, a jam session or a kind of passionate tantric lovemaking.”)
There are times during In the Know’s six episodes that the show can feel like a dig at NPR’s listeners and personalities. In one episode, Caspian lays down a scathing string of falsehoods in which he claims Fresh Air’s Terry Gross is “cold as an icicle and dumb as rocks,” and in another, he’s almost wooed away from the show by a private podcasting network offering an $85,000 annual salary. (“We’ll be rolling in Casper money!” the network’s advocate, played by Will Ferrell, proclaims.) Talking to Woods, though, it’s clear that the gentle ribbing comes from a place of love and respect.
“We can’t let perfect be the enemy of good, and I would say public media is definitely good,” Woods says. “I admire it so much. I used to live in a condo where my neighbor worked for NPR, and he just loved it. He gave it his heart and soul, and he wasn’t getting rich off of it, but it was really meaningful to him. There was a sense of vocation about it, too, because anyone who eschews the sexiest or most profitable opportunity in favor of something that makes their heart beat a little faster, I adore those people. That’s a small act of heroism right there.”