You're Listening to Radiolab – and Watching It, Too
Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad take their show on the road
By Monica Riese,
9:30AM, Wed. Nov. 6, 2013
"Beginning at the beginning? That's for wussies."
So decreed Radiolab co-host Jad Abumrad at the start of Apocalyptical, his and Robert Krulwich's roadshow episode of the WNYC and NPR production that's aired some 60 episodes in 300 markets to 1.8 million listeners. And so, the duo – perfectly physically encapsulated by Abumrad's literal bouncing onstage while Krulwich awkwardly scratched his head wearing a tucked-in plaid shirt with a binder under one arm – began at the end.
Over the next two hours in the University of Texas' Bass Concert Hall, the audience learned about endings on every scale – the macrocosmic cataclysm of the dinosaurs, the microcosmic finality of a Parkinson's diagnosis, the microscopic death of elements heavier than Bismuth – as well as what exactly it means when a radio show hits the stage.
In broad strokes, Apocalyptical had all the usual trappings of a Radiolab episode: the scientific exploration of a question or theme, complete with Abumrad's youthful energy and trademark recaps, Krulwich's softer skepticism, and an ever-so-slightly esoteric soundtrack to punctuate and bridge the segments. But in this case, the musicians were right up onstage, flanking the hosts, and the entire set was dominated by three large projection screens in the backdrop. That's right: Radio went visual.
And for most of the first act – about a new theory for the end of the dinosaurs – that extra dimension was skillfully incorporated. We watched timelines whizz by; we dug under the Earth's surface; we got to associate actual faces and demonstrative videos with some of the expert interviews. We didn't have to simply imagine what Krulwich described as "a Mount Everest-sized bullet" hurtling toward the surface of the planet, since there were accompanying visuals with every part of that phrase. Sure, sometimes the gang fell into the trap of showing more than necessary ("I just threw that in 'cause it's cool," Abumrad confessed), but for the most part, their multimedia additions were assets to the show.
Other supplemental pieces on board for the evening were comedian Simon Amstell – who served as introduction, warmup, and intermission with wry comments on everything from the Queen to Jeff Goldblum to "sarcastic blowjobs," all in the service of furthering the night's theme of death and living in the moment – two giant puppet dinosaurs, and a mascot-esque creature now named (thanks to crowdsourcing) Schrëwdinger. ("I can't even explain to you guys what a crisis this was for the staff," lamented Abumrad.) But all their staged antics aside, it was clear that the audience was there for Jad and Robert, and even more clear that the hosts are most comfortable behind their desks.
And there they stayed for the duration of Act II, which centered on two New York actors who were diagnosed with Parkinson's Disease and ultimately staged a performance of Samuel Beckett's Endgame together. This segment, for whatever reason, completely stripped back all of the evening's earlier glitz and glam, and returned Radiolab to its aural roots. That the audience was notably quieter for this half was hard to deny, but whether that was due to a more contemplative, captivating story or an energy lull after the first half's parade, we couldn't say for sure.
So while Krulwich and Abumrad literally ended their show following the advice of one of those actors – "Start at the end, go to the beginning, then stop" – they ultimately followed that mantra in a broader sense as well, leaving their audience in a headspace not far removed from the one regular listeners find themselves in after each new show. Radiolab had danced and dallied in the multimedia landscape, but eventually it came home to that warm space between earbuds that paints its own pictures: a place of thought, of curiosity, and of wonder.