True Crime, Fake Homicide: The Onion's 'A Very Fatal Murder' Podcast

Apr 5, 2018
Originally published on April 6, 2018 1:56 pm

David Pascall is in search of the perfect murder — a murder so beautiful, so moving that it could be the subject of his new podcast for OPR. That would be Onion Public Radio. He narrates:

I know that this is the most compelling murder in America. I know that the victim was a supple young girl in the prime of her life. And I know that she was killed by simultaneous gunshot-stabbing-strangling-drowning.

With A Very Fatal Murder, The Onion satirizes all those true-crime podcasts that many of us have come to know and binge: Serial, S-Town, My Favorite Murder.

We spoke with David Sidorov, who wrote for the podcast and played host David Pascall, and Katy Yeiser, the head writer. For them, it's both an ode to the genre and The Onion doing what it does best.

"So we never at any point said we need to take down podcasts, or NPR, or Serial, or S-Town," Yeiser says. "We all love these podcasts, and­ any time there's a moment in media or the zeitgeist where something is just capturing the nation's consciousness — like a true-crime podcast — we always ask ourselves: What would our version of that be? And so it was fun to think of what The Onion's version of a true-crime podcast would be."


Interview Highlights

On whether David Sidorov had to audition for the role of host David Pascall

David Sidorov: I didn't. I was cast without an audition, which was pretty flattering. I was — at a certain point in the process, Katy sent me, like, a Gchat message that was like, "Hey, just so you know, we kind of are imagining your voice when we're reading these in the room." And I didn't know whether to be flattered or offended because the character's kind of a sociopath. ...

I think that he is someone who probably doesn't have the instincts that a lot of other journalists doing this have — like stopping himself before he goes too far in inserting himself into the story. I mean, another line that he has in the first episode is something like: ["So what happened to Hayley Price? And how can I get in on it?"] I think that's his driving force throughout it, and I think that real journalists probably stop themselves whenever they feel themselves getting too personal into the story, I guess.

On how the podcast helicopters in and romanticizes small-town America

Katy Yeiser: David [Pascall], without a doubt, knows middle America better than middle America knows itself. He understands why it is the way it is. And he's going to be the first to tell you about it. So that's just such a fun way to heighten these tropes you see in these types of podcasts, where a New Yorker — or someone from somewhere else, but it's mostly a New Yorker ... and they come down and they're going to solve the ills of middle America for you. And, you know, humbly, of course.

Sidorov: And I think that's not even just a podcast trope at the moment. Like, there are so many journalistic pieces that are just doing that similarly, of like, "Let's explore the psyche of middle America right now." So that's definitely something we were trying to explore. And you know, the character David Pascall is just incredibly condescending about it. He wants to get to the bottom of what's at the heart of America, but he brings all of his New-York-is-superior baggage along with him.

On the popularity of the true-crime genre, then and now

Sidorov: I think like Katy said, we're not trying to take down podcasts, and we're definitely not trying to only parody one particular podcast, or anything like that. We're kind of using the format of a true-crime podcast, which is super-recognizable right now, to talk about bigger targets. And I think that like you said, it's ultimately kind of about that oversaturation of "murder content." And even the fact that you can call it "murder content" is sort of what feels gross about it. ...

Yeiser: And we can't get enough of it. Like, I can't get enough of it. And I think it's worth stepping back and kind of exploring: Why are we doing this? And is it good? When is it good, when is it bad and everything in between.

Jessica Cheung and Melissa Gray produced and edited the audio of this interview. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

I've been listening to a new podcast from OPR. That's Onion Public Radio.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A VERY FATAL MURDER")

DAVID SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) I don't know why the Bluff Springs Police Department hasn't been able to catch a killer in a town of 11,000.

CORNISH: It's called A Very Fatal Murder. And there's something about it that feels familiar.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A VERY FATAL MURDER")

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) I don't know how many Pulitzers I'm going to win for this podcast, but this week I'm looking for answers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (As character) 911, what's your emergency?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (As character) A full moon?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (As character) Horrible. Just horrible.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (As character) I'd keep an eye on Calloway if I were you.

(CHEERING, SOUNDBITE OF DOG BARKING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (As character) What do you mean Hayley's dead?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: (As character) Oh, my God, you didn't know?

CORNISH: If you haven't already figured it out, this is a parody of all those true crime podcasts that many of us have come to know and binge - Criminal, Dirty John, Serial.

KATY YEISER: Anytime there's a moment in media where something is just capturing the nation's consciousness we always ask ourselves, what would our version of that be? So it was fun to think of what The Onion's version of a true crime podcast would be.

CORNISH: That's Katy Yeiser. She's the head writer of The Onion's A Very Fatal Murder. And in her version the host, played by David Sidorov, is a narcissistic gumshoe.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A VERY FATAL MURDER")

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) These people needed me. And maybe I needed them, too. But they definitely needed me more.

CORNISH: Sidorov said says his podcast doppelganger, also named David, is just in over his head.

SIDOROV: He is someone who probably doesn't have the instincts that a lot of other journalists doing this have like stopping himself before he goes too far and inserting himself into the story. I mean, another line that he has in the first episode is something like...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A VERY FATAL MURDER")

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) So what happened to Hayley Price? And how can I get in on it?

I think that's his driving force throughout it. And I think that real journalists (laughter) probably stop themselves whenever they feel themselves getting too personal into the story, I guess.

CORNISH: As you're doing this kind of writing, I mean, you have to know your subject really well. So what do you think makes a true crime podcast good? You know, is the mystery? Is it the storytelling? Kind of what were you looking for?

YEISER: There's a clear protagonist, and then a strong host who is able to lay out the story for you in very kind of layman but also intellectual ways.

SIDOROV: Yeah. And I think probably what we think makes a true crime podcast good is probably a little bit different from what David Pascall thinks makes a true crime podcast good. Like, I think it's great when...

CORNISH: Well, it sounds like for him it's number of downloads (laughter).

SIDOROV: Yes, exactly. Yeah, how famous he gets from it for sure. Like, you know, I think that some of the best true crime podcasts are the ones that are able to actually, like, expose something very real about how, like, the criminal justice system has failed someone. What David Pascall thinks is probably, like, you know, that it's important with a capital I, that it - he has a whole long list of things that he's trying to check off.

YEISER: Yeah, and the murder has to be unsolved. It has to speak to the decline of middle America, deforestation, saturated fats, beauty standards...

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A VERY FATAL MURDER")

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) Deforestation, saturated fats, modern beauty standards, the gig economy, factory farming, the fragility of love, the golden era of television and CO2 emissions. And most importantly, no one had done a podcast about it yet.

CORNISH: And he also very shamelessly jumps to major conclusions.

SIDOROV: Yes.

YEISER: Right away.

CORNISH: (Laughter) Doesn't think too hard about it.

YEISER: No. No.

CORNISH: Just like, I've stumbled on something just because my tape recorder is on.

YEISER: Yeah. And this is the perfect narrative, so this must be how it happened.

SIDOROV: Right. He's listened to all the much better podcasts, so he sort of knows - he knows the beats that he needs to hit. And so he gets to this town, and he's like, well, I need to have a prime suspect who's not in jail. So he sort of just picks the town millionaire because it fits with his narrative that he wants to tell.

CORNISH: And the town millionaire is the mysterious W.O. Calloway. Calloway once owned the town's main industry, TropiCrazy soda. And here is Pascall romanticizing, you know, this small-town America he has stumbled upon, Bluff Springs, Neb.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A VERY FATAL MURDER")

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) Bluff Springs was essentially built on TropiCrazy money. And the people of Bluff Springs are still nostalgic for the days when a young man could go down to the TropiCrazy factory and get a job with no trouble. But when health lobbyists turned the public against TropiCrazy, the industry suffered, and so did the people of Bluff Springs. I was starting to understand how even though he almost definitely killed Hayley Price in cold blood the town of Bluff Springs could still love W.O. Calloway. In their simplistic minds, he represents the orange-tinged days of yesteryear when work was easy to come by and soda flowed freely.

CORNISH: Ouch.

(LAUGHTER)

CORNISH: I mean, this is not - this is not unusual, I think - right? - for this kind of way that people can talk about what they think the rest of America is like.

YEISER: Yeah.

SIDOROV: Yes.

YEISER: David without a doubt knows middle America better than middle America knows itself. He understands why it is the way it is, and he's going to be the first to tell you about it. So that's just, like, such a fun way to heighten kind of these tropes you see in these types of podcasts where a New Yorker - or someone from somewhere else, but it's mostly a New Yorker, mostly New York...

CORNISH: Yeah, it's mostly a New Yorker. Let's just say Brooklyn.

YEISER: Brooklyn, yeah.

CORNISH: Let's just be honest with ourselves right now.

YEISER: It is Brooklyn.

CORNISH: Yeah.

YEISER: Yeah.

CORNISH: It's Gowanus (laughter).

YEISER: And they come down, and they're going to solve the ills of middle America for you and, you know, humbly of course.

SIDOROV: And I think that's not even just a podcast trope at the moment. Like, there are so many just journalistic pieces that are doing that. And, you know, the character of David Pascall is just incredibly condescending about it. He wants to get to the bottom of what's at the heart of America, but he brings all of his, like, New-York-is-superior baggage along with him.

YEISER: And then immediately becomes a Bluff Springs resident. He has a little bit of a sociopath that he says, like, this is my town now. You know, these are my people.

CORNISH: Right. He becomes police chief.

YEISER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

CORNISH: At one point referencing (laughter) one of his own press releases.

YEISER: Yeah.

CORNISH: He's like, I remember when I said - and I was like, wait; what? (Laughter).

YEISER: Yeah, how could my police department have missed that?

CORNISH: Right (laughter). You know, at the end of the day, I think true crime is a popular genre, you know, in magazines, right? In the past it was like nickel fiction. I mean, this is something that we love, and maybe podcasts are just the newest version of jumping on that train.

SIDOROV: Right. We're not trying to, like, take down podcasts. And we're definitely not trying to, like, only parody one particular podcast or anything like that. We're kind of using this format of a true crime podcast which is super recognizable right now to talk about, you know, bigger targets. And I think that it's ultimately kind of about that oversaturation of murder content. And even the fact that you can call it murder content is sort of what feels gross about it.

CORNISH: Right, because it's people's lives that we're talking about, right?

SIDOROV: Right. Right.

CORNISH: But it has become grist for storytelling.

SIDOROV: Right, and entertainment.

YEISER: Yeah. And we can't get enough of it. Like, I can't get enough of it. And I think it's worth stepping back and kind of exploring, why are we doing this? And is it good? When is it good, when is it bad, and everything in between.

CORNISH: Well, Katy Yeiser, thank you so much for speaking with us.

YEISER: Thank you.

CORNISH: And, David Sidorov, thank you for speaking with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

SIDOROV: Yeah, thank you so much for having us.

CORNISH: Katy Yeiser and David Sidorov - they're the creators behind The Onion's fake true crime podcast A Very Fatal Murder.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "A VERY FATAL MURDER")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: (As character) Would you mind passing me that box of tissues?

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) Actually, your sniffles are coming through really well on the mic, so let's just stay on this. Mr. Price, would you mind talking more about Hayley's hopes and dreams for the future?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (As character) Well, she just - she was going to go off to college, had her pick of schools.

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) Oh, did she apply to NYU? That's my alma mater.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: (As character) No, she was going to stay in-state. Hayley was really a...

SIDOROV: (As David Pascall) That's a shame. I really think she would've loved it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAPPER SCHOEPP SONG, "THE SCAT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.