Regular listeners know that every 50 episodes of the Skeptoid podcast is a lavish musical production, some song or show that promotes science or critical thinking in a way that I hope might reach a new and unexpected audience. This is episode 600, representing the 600th consecutive week of the Skeptoid podcast. Now that's quite a milestone, obviously, but there is no musical today; and the only reason is that I was moving and writing a book simultaneously and just couldn't get it together in time with the right quality. So instead, I want to present this retrospective on the previous musical milestones, and talk about what each one represents and how each plays a real role in Skeptoid's mission of promoting literacy in critical thinking. And also to remind you that you can get them all on the website, and on the USB drive offered to premium supporters.
Contrary to popular belief, I don't sing at all in most of them. There is singing, but usually by professionals who are way better than me, and the music is usually composed and performed by professionals as well. Not that I'm a slouch: I did play keyboards in a band called "The Bulldogs" in college, named for what our barber called our crewcuts, even though we played 80s newro cover songs. Shockingly, our lifespan was a grand total of one gig.
I first got the idea to mix things up a bit with an annual musical podcast as the three-year anniversary of the show was approaching. I had the idea of a meeting of all the world's Illuminati at their mountaintop hideaway — lamenting their loss of control over the sheeple, who had discovered all the world's woo stuff, and were no longer buying expensive fraudulent medical and other services from the elite. A little bit abstract, but that was the idea.
So I called up Lee Sanders, the composer with whom I had just finished working on my 2008 film Here Be Dragons. Lee's shelves of BMI Music Awards are all from his years of scoring The Amazing Race for CBS. We contrived a grand production, which arguably turned out to be the most expensive podcast episode ever produced. At one point we had a whole sound stage filled with a choir of actual paid human singers.
I've worked with Lee on many projects since this one, so I asked for his thoughts on these musicals looking back:
The thing I think about when I think about those episodes is how much fun we had while we were doing something important. I share your passion for making sure that skepticism, rationality, and an awareness of the scientific method are part of the toolkit that every human being brings to the unknown and to the challenges that we're all going to be faced with moving forward. But mostly what I think about with those episodes is the late nights and the long hours and how much fun it was at every step along the way. You made it that way.
In retrospect, the meeting of screwed Illuminati probably wasn't the best subject. Some listeners didn't get it. The satire compounded with the alternate reality where all the woo is real left some people confused as to what I was trying to say. So I decided that I'd make the next one less cerebral.
As you can tell, there were no musical instruments, it was all me, cementing my place in history as one of our a capella beatboxing greats. I asked listeners to send in ideas for product pitches which I wrote into the lyrics, and I wrote and arranged all the parts in about a day — it wasn't exactly Beethoven's Ninth. The final mix and mastering was done by Bill Simpkins — another Skeptoid regular.
The idea behind this episode wasn't only to poke fun at all the fallacious pitches used to sell worthless products — though obviously that's the vehicle by which it was delivered — it was also to raise awareness of such pitches. Humor is one way to reach some people about scientific literacy, and if they hear a pitch that has been persuasive to them in the past lumped in with all these other goofy ones, they're more likely to question its value in the future. For example, "Chinese have known these secrets for thousands of years" is something that many people do in fact find compelling. When they hear how silly it actually is, well, maybe their skeptical radar has just improved a notch.
#250: The History of Knowledge
This amazing tour de force is the only musical episode where it's me doing actual singing — and doing so amazingly well, in twelve different musical genres — all thanks to the sound editing of composer Peter Zachos who put this one all together. It's a sampling of music from periods spanning all of human history, from cavemen to the Renaissance to Wagner to psychedelic to autotune, each one illustrating some popular pseudoscientific belief of that age. I said let's do three or four, Peter said no let's do twelve, I said that's way too many we'd never get it done, and Peter wrote twelve. All I had to do was hand in the lyrics and stand in a sound booth for a couple of days. Peter also brought in a session guitarist who played about six different genres.
We had 20th century jazz on seances, we had the Andrews Sisters on rampant materialism, we had Elvis on the Red Scare, we had indy rock on conspiracy theories. It was amazing.
Twice we made abortive efforts to take the final number in the piece, called "Energy", and turn it into a single on iTunes, but life always got in the way. It was a perfectly good piece of house electronica, and we reasoned that it might get downloads from the genre crowd, and thus sneak Skeptoid to a new audience.
#300: The Secret of the Gypsy Queen
This one was another great huge production because I wanted an animated video of it as well. Inspired by my admiration for the Brothers Grimm, this was a folk story in the German romanticism tradition, about a little girl who saves her village when she is the only one who doesn't fall for the popular pseudoscience of the day. In this case, it was a blindfold promoted by the evil Gypsy Queen as an Überscarf, which when worn, prevented you from realizing that you were being robbed.
I narrated, and the little girl was sung by TV's Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (and Golden Globe™ winner) Rachel Bloom.
That swashbuckling score comes again from Lee Sanders; he's actually scored a number of short fairy tale videos so this was right in his line. The animated video, on the other hand, was something none of us had attempted before. We decided to do "drawnimation", basically a time lapse of someone drawing each scene. I brought in my friend the director Ryan Johnson to light it and shoot it, and we got the children's illustrator Jesse Horn to do the hard work. Poor Jesse had to stand at an awkward angle and draw on a whiteboard for two full days. We were in a vacant classroom with huge whiteboards, but it was in a portable building and the floor would shake anytime one of us moved. It was actually pretty brutal, but the results are well worth it. The drawnimation is super entertaining and really complements the music. The video is free on YouTube and on the Skeptoid website.
We took this one even one step further. It was Jesse's idea; he wanted to turn it into a full-scale printed storybook, and that's exactly what we did. Jesse created all-new art and you can get it on Amazon, and it includes a special URL so you can listen along with the song as you read. Little kids love it and it's a beautiful book.
Episode 350 is the only other musical that was all me, though again the engineering and mastering was done by Bill Simpkins. This one was to make fun of the "Holy Trinity of Pseudoscience": Dr. Oz, Alex Jones, and Deepak Chopra. What better way to showcase their buffoonery, I reasoned, than to have them singing as the three chipmunks. Here's Dr. Oz getting the chipmunk harmonies started:
I had this song that I wrote for The Bulldogs all those many years ago and I was always fond of the music, so I dug it out and wrote new lyrics for our three characters. This wasn't really "singing"; recording chipmunk music requires half-speed talking in pitch. Having all the music in Logic Pro, which is what I record in, makes it easy to slow it down by half. So I recorded each chipmunk's vocal track in half speed, listening to a guide pitch on the headphones with a double-speed click track. And then, since it's a three-part harmony, you have to do this three times, in the three different voices, each on a different harmony part. It's a laborious process, but I think the end result was a lot of fun. Dr. Oz tells us how medical science doesn't know anything; Alex Jones tells us how everything's a conspiracy; and Deepak Chopra descends into a pit of pseudo-profound nonsense that the God of consciousness himself couldn't make any sense out of.
The point of this song was that each of these three guys has a lot of followers; and we hoped that for people to hear their favorite lumped in with these two other bozos might give them pause to think twice about their guy. And speaking of bozos:
#400: It's Just Science
For 400 I was way too busy with other projects and wasn't going to do a musical at all, but Ryan Johnson and Lee Sanders came to me and said "No no, we'll do it for you," and I agreed to just show up like a hired actor and do whatever it was they had planned. They contrived a whole hip-hop music video. The theme was all these freaky phenomena; but no, they're not that, it's just science. An actor friend, John Rael, was engaged to swell our ranks with extras who would each have to play about six roles in the video:
I'm always happy to help Brian with his extra Skeptoid productions, especially when my task is to recruit all the pretty people I know. Not only do I enjoy Brian and his content, but I'm always impressed by the amount of production value that goes into his side projects. Even a production as rushed and dorky as "It's Just Science" had great lighting and camera work. I wish more skeptic science organizations would put that kind of effort in, or at least have the gumption to reach out to skilled craftspeople.
We shot at Ryan's studio, New Rule Productions, and they were blowing stuff up with flames and lights and all kinds of stuff going on. The main set was a science lab and throughout the video its gets crazier and crazier, lab workers turn into dancers, with cash from the shill payouts raining down like leaves. Ryan said:
That was a really fun, fast-paced production, and we had a really good time poking fun at all the tentpole topics of skepticism. We used pretty much every available resource that was free and easy for us. Each setup was done really quickly, and we didn't really take it too seriously. For example, the boxers, if you look closely, there's only one pair of gloves between the two of them, so we didn't let little things like that slow us down. Sometimes those of us in the skeptics community look too seriously at how everything's getting put together, and this was a way to lighten things up and promote science. I think that being a critical thinker doesn't mean you have to be boring. Be creative, be passionate, funny, and in this case, even wacky.
Again, Lee did the music and I wrote the lyrics. We recorded Susan's vocals at Lee's studio one morning in Tarzana. That's a drive from where I was living, so I went up the night before and crashed. Unfortunately we had a little too much fun, polishing off an entire bottle of Ardbeg Uigeadail. So when the classy and much-beloved musical star of stage and screen arrived, she probably thought she'd stumbled into some Dawn of the Dead remake.
Now, those of you who saw our 2017 film Principles of Curiosity might recognize the song; it was used over the movie's end credits. Secretly, this had been my plan from the beginning. Lee was in on the secret repurposing; and the musically inclined among you may have noted a clue. The song ends with a little 9-note them. And if you note the animated Skeptoid logo at the beginning of Principles of Curiosity (and also now in all Skeptoid Media videos), listen to the music accompanying our little Skeptoid owl, and you'll hear the same 9 notes.
Cool, huh? So that's an easter egg for you. And that's your nickel tour of Skeptoid's past musical specials, and some of the people who brought them to you. So when 650 comes around, I'll make sure I get it in on time. Wheels are already in motion, leaving me about 46 weeks to get it done! Stay tuned.