Getting On with James Urbaniak
James Urbaniak is the kind of podcaster that other producers love to hate. His show, Getting On with James Urbaniak, consists of nothing but a single voice reading a fictional soliloquy, often written by someone else. There is almost no elaborate soundscaping, no intricate plot development, little evidence of endless editing sessions to get the thing just right. Getting On sounds like Urbaniak cruised into the studio, an iced latte in hand, and finished recording before his drink grew tepid. None of this would be infuriating if the podcast in question wasn’t so good.
Consider “Bloodless,” episode 23 of the four-year-old show, which is told from the perspective of a man imprisoned for strangling a woman. Written by Julie Klausner, it features Urbaniak talking with someone named Paulette, who has come to see him in prison. We hear only his side of the conversation as he swings from pitiable to perverse, trying at once to argue his innocence while defending the feminism of strangulation. Though Urbaniak’s words are meant for Paulette, someone we can deduce is a former lover, his use of “you” puts each listener in her place as he waxes romantic in the most disturbing of terms (“If you were a butterscotch pudding, I would scrape my plastic spoon against the insides of your container”).
All of this is morbid, serious stuff. Except James Urbaniak has a voice like Christopher Walken’s, capable of turning the most banal spoken phrase into a wry, ironic remark. The effect is the darkest of comedy. In an instant our protagonist glides from debunking the glamour of strangling someone from behind, a phrase he relishes and repeats, to asking perfunctory questions of our visitor’s family (“How are Bruce and Stephanie?”). Like Walken’s performance as Duane in Annie Hall, there is nothing overtly funny about the way Urbaniak delivers his lines, yet the effect is humorous. Pulling off this deadpan humor so convincingly underscores just how talented Urbaniak really is.
Indeed an actor is nothing without a solid script, and Klausner has handed Urbaniak a gem in “Bloodless.” Getting On works with a variety of outstanding writers, including regulars like Joseph Scrimshaw and Brie Williams, the latter of whom has co-written several episodes with Urbaniak. Strong writing is the ingredient missing from so many fiction podcasts, which instead rely on ornate production and convoluted plots to attract listeners. Getting On proves what theatre-goers have known for centuries: all you really need is a great script and capable actors; the rest is window dressing.
In fact it is the minimalism of Getting On that makes it so alluring. Much—too much—is said about the intimacy of podcasting. The nature of the form, with voices piped often directly into your skull, affords a kind of closeness that few mediums can rival. Everyone with a pulse and a podcast subscription has observed this, and it hardly bears repeating. Except a show like Getting On forces you to acknowledge the power of that intimacy. With the right headphones, you can hear every lip smack and dry-throated swallow as Urbaniak half-confesses to you his darkest fantasies and most sinister of crimes.
Right when podcast networks are ramping up their production budgets and producers are pushing the cinematic soundscaping possibilities of the medium, a talent like James Urbaniak uses Getting On to argue the age-old value of writers and actors. Maybe he’s doing it on a scattershot production schedule that can be most generously described as irregular; and maybe he’s doing it as his iced latte leaves a wet ring on the table beside his microphone—but that doesn’t mean he isn’t right.