Annotation Tuesday ventures into a new medium today with our first annotation of a radio story. It’s a natural fit. The human voice is, of course, the original storytelling instrument. Plus, some of the most innovative narrative work out there these days is in audio. (For more on that, check out our interview last week with the producers of the hit podcast “Serial.”)
The piece we’ve selected to inaugurate this feature originally aired on “This American Life” in 2002. Titled “Buddy Picture,” it’s better known today as “The Greatest Phone Message of All Time,” or, more simply, “The Little Mermaid.” If you’ve never heard Jonathan Goldstein’s classic story about the phone message that turned an annoyed mother into a Columbia University celebrity, stop reading and click here now.
We chose this story not only because it’s exceptionally entertaining but because it’s such a classic that it inspired “This American Life” host Ira Glass to create a new award for this year’s competition at the Third Coast audio conference, which opens Friday in Chicago. “The Little Mermaid” prize, to be announced Sunday, will recognize a 3-60 minute documentary or story that is “FUN in subject matter and style,” according to the competition guidelines. As Glass writes on the Third Coast website:
“Now and then it occurs to me that some of my very favorite radio stories would never ever win an award because they’re not about anything Big and Serious and Important. There’s a whole class of stories I love hearing and doing that really are just out for fun. These stories often require just as much craft and thought and cunning as the big important stuff. Radio would be duller and sadder without them.”
Jonathan Goldstein, who wrote and produced the “The Little Mermaid,” now hosts the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s radio show “WireTap.” We asked another former “TAL” producer, Lisa Pollak, to interview Goldstein about the craft and thinking that went into his piece. They met last week at the CBC’s New York City bureau, where they discussed, among other topics, the beauty of the phrase “bitch squealer,” the control-freak nature of good radio production and how a “w” sound can keep you out of trouble.
Also, please heed the caveat on all the program’s web transcripts, which warns that the stories are “produced for the ear and designed to be heard, not read.” In other words, if you haven’t already stopped to listen to the story, do it now, before reading this annotation.
Lisa Pollak’s comments are in red ; Jonathan Goldstein’s responses are in blue . But first, some questions:
Lisa Pollak: Before we get to the annotation, can you tell me how this story came about?
Jonathan Goldstein: Well, I think it started with me wanting to get my friend Josh [Karpati] on the radio. But I couldn’t just say, “My friend Josh is really funny so we should put him on the show.” Working for a show like TAL, which is so story-driven, I had to figure out a story. I’ve described it subsequently as a Trojan horse for me to get Josh on the air. And even the message itself was a kind of MacGuffin — something to orbit around so I could kind of put on stage my dynamic with Josh, which I thought was an entertaining one based on our telephone calls. Josh is a semi-regular on the show I’m doing now, “WireTap” on the CBC, and, in some ways, that Little Mermaid story was a blueprint for the entire show.
So the phone message story was one you’d heard from him.
Yes, it was just something he’d always talked about.
I worried a little that asking you about this story was like asking a band to play that hit song they’re tired of talking about.
It’s a bit weird because I did it like 15 years ago or so. But not everybody has a story like that which connects with people. If you’re lucky you’ll have something like that. So it’s cool. And I feel like I was lucky in terms of the facts of it, the way that things all kind of came together. The fact that the message was preserved, and that everyone I spoke to knew about it. It’s a pleasure when you’re working on a story where everyone wants to participate and everybody has a memory. It was a fun experience.
Any thoughts on why audiences love this piece so much?
I think it adheres to Ira Glass’s idea about what makes a radio narrative work… presenting a new enigma every 45 seconds or so. So it continues to surprise as you listen. I also think it’s fun to listen to someone be yelled at on national radio.
By Jonathan Goldstein
“This American Life”
January 11, 2002
Ira Glass: And so without further ado, let us turn now to Act One. This Act One is the story of the greatest phone message of all time. Some people see it that way anyway. You may judge for yourself. A quick warning that there is one famously nasty word in this story that occurs exactly seven times. Count them yourself. But do not worry. We beep the word every single time. Producer Jonathan Goldstein tells the tale. Since this is Nieman’s first-ever annotation of an audio piece, I’ll point out that this is called a host intro. Did you write it or did Ira? Ira did, I’m sure, though I remember that he thought we needed to get in front of the swear words and I believe it was my idea to make that into a joke and actually count them, and possibly allow the listener to count them down. And while we’re on the subject, how does a having a host intro affect the way you write a lead? Do you think of it as a headline or something more? I think the intro can be helpful. It can get the paperwork out of the way and let you get to the meat, the jokes, more quickly. It allows you to coldcock the listener [and] take the stage in the best way possible. It’s not so much a headline, as a headline might tell too much and step on what’s to come, but is the work of an introduction… sometimes delivered by a hype man.
Jonathan Goldstein: The first thing you should know about my friend Josh is that he calls me a “bitch squealer.” Now, “bitch” isn’t the bad word you’re going to be hearing in this story. And that’s because it’s referring to an actual dog, a fenced-in security dog that barked at me and Josh while we were out walking one night. And while my scream may have been louder that evening, Josh’s scream was definitely higher-pitched, which to my mind means Josh should rightfully be called the “bitch squealer,” while perhaps I should be called something like “bitch bellower” or “bitch loud crier.” Just the same, “Quit your bitch squealing” is what Josh says to me when I ask him to please change the station on the car radio or to stop crowding the armrest in the movie theater. Was it a no-brainer to start with bitch squealer or did it take some work to figure out the lead? I feel like everything I’m going to say will do nothing but take away from people’s enjoyment of this story. But I think it’s a kind of poetry. Like certain phrases and word constructions such as “bitch squealer” or whatever are just funny. Like “diggy do.” And you can feel it. The other thing to know about Josh is that he thinks of himself as an idea man. And he always refers to his ideas as pure gold. So a few years ago, when I first started doing stories on the radio, I would call him up and ask him if he had any story ideas. And he always did. The thing was, most of them involved hot dog eating contests and all-nude car washes. One time Josh talked to a French-Canadian waitress who used the words “diggy do” as a conjunctive phrase, as in, “My mother, she gave birth to me in Lac Saint-Louis, and diggy do, I’m in Montreal.” Josh tried to convince me that this semantically innovative young woman was most definitely worthy of a 40-minute interview on national radio.
Just the other day, Josh was telling me about this really funny phone message that he heard back in his college days, and how I should definitely do a radio show about that. He swore to me that it was the defining moment in his class’s campus life that year. Now, how is a person supposed to believe something like that? At the risk of further crushing the audience’s enjoyment, can you break down your decision to frame the piece around Josh trying to sell you on his idea? I think a lot of writers would have heard about the phone message and figured that was the whole story. I felt like [the message] was one of those kinds of pitches that on paper wouldn’t sound like very much… a story about one of these fancy-pants guys from Columbia and the rip-roaring time that they had in college. There’s no stakes there. The stakes come from me looking like an idiot because I don’t believe Josh. And in the end he is right and I’m wrong and I get my comeuppance and everyone goes home happy. It feels like something happened. And it’s kind of meta …like the story itself becomes a character because you’re rooting for it to succeed. So not only do you get the satisfaction of hearing the message, but there’s the added satisfaction that it actually exists, that Josh was right.
Jonathan: I can imagine you really liking this message.
Josh: Oh, I see. I see.
Jonathan: But you see, I can’t imagine it being the kind of thing that was like—
Josh: That your sedate NPR audience would appreciate?
Jonathan: No, no, no. I mean it sounds like you got a kick out of it at the time. But I can’t imagine it being like an atomic bomb that hit the campus or something.
Josh: Yeah. See, this is clearly another example of the failure of your imagination. How many times have I given you ideas that you have naysaid? How many times have I given you gold-standard ideas— So where did this conversation take place? Josh went into a studio in Montreal and I was in the studio in Chicago at the time. I remember having a conversation with Ira where I said, “Aren’t people going to wonder, when I say, ‘Just the other day Josh was telling me’….Won’t that seem strange that we conduct our conversations in a radio studio?” And [Ira] was like, ‘No you have to understand, the audience, they think we’re these little people that live in the radio…’ He had this whole reasoning for it, and he was right. He just knew it was going to be invisible, and I was overthinking it. I feel like it goes without saying that this tape is brilliant, but can you spell out why it was important for you to record Josh telling the story? I thought to just tell the story in script wasn’t enough. What I wanted to do is give people the enjoyment of hearing the story the way I heard it, and in order for that enjoyment to exist, you had to get to know Josh the way I know Josh. You had to get to know our dynamic.
Jonathan: Josh yells at me a lot, especially when he thinks I’m not taking his ideas seriously. When we go out to eat, he yells at me loud enough to make the other patrons turn around and look at us. Sometimes though, he’ll get all unexpectedly silent, and just stare out the restaurant window, and then turn to me and say something like, “Wouldn’t life be better if there was a big old pig sitting out there by the fire hydrant? Why can’t life be more like that?”
But anyway, to get back to the phone message, the one Josh heard in college, I’m telling you about it not to demonstrate what a slightly misguided colorful character Josh is, but to chart with honesty the unfairness of my pre-emptive bitch squeals of doubt.
Josh: I went to Columbia University in the early ’90s, OK? Late ’80s, early ’90s. When I was there, they had this phone system– I’ll just give you a little bit of background, all right? And then I’ll cut to the chase. They has this system there called the Rolm system, Rolm phone system, R-O-L-M. And you could forward messages to people. You could forward messages to everyone on campus if you wanted.
Jonathan: Sort of like a precursor to the Internet.
Josh: Yes, like a precursor to the Internet. Thank you, Mr. Current Affairs Guy. So it was an amazing utility. People could forward all kinds of crazy messages. So one day, there was this guy named Fred. And his mother left him a message on his answering machine. And he forwarded it to maybe one or more of his friends. And his friends turned around and did a Brutus, and they stabbed him in the back. And they forwarded this message across campus to everyone. So do you want to hear the message? All right. So he prefaced it by saying–
Jonathan: You have it? You have the message?
Josh: I do not have the message. I have the message in my head. I am telling you a story. All right? What’s going through your head as you do this interview? At every beat I know that certain things are going to set [Josh] off and I know that’s only going to prolong the gratification. It was like, even when he’s about to tell me what the message is and then I ask him, “Oh, you have the message?” And I knew he didn’t have the message, but I also knew he would beat me up for it. And then when he’s just about to tell the message he’s like, “You’re ready?” And I’m like, “Yeah, yeah,” and then he goes, “Oh, one more thing.” And I left that in because I felt like, you’re with him. You’re along for the ride in this wonderful way. This isn’t the first time Josh is telling you the story, but it sounds like it could have been. How do you do that? There’s this idea in radio that the best kind of tape is tape in which something is “happening.” So if there is a feeling of you reacting, being surprised, laughing, it makes it feel — though it’s only a conversation in a studio — like something is happening. And the listener will have a bit more of that vicarious thrill… the joy of being in it together. So you want to find a balance between knowing some things but still allowing room for surprise. And I have to admit, I’m not much of a laugher, which has made my career in radio more difficult. I do not have the free and easy laugh that makes subjects feel like they are the wisest, funniest people in the world. I try to sound like I’m smiling but that doesn’t always come across. I have to do things like say “Wait… you what?” or repeat what they just said to underline it for the listener. And one of the things I love about Josh is that he makes me laugh in a way very few people do and so he makes me a better broadcaster than I am.
Josh: All right. So he prefaced it by some kind of a sad little lead-in. In a little voice, he was like, “I think you’d would appreciate hearing this message from my mother.” And then the message played. This was the entirety of the message. And I’m going to do the voice for you as best I can. You ready?
Josh: Oh, sorry. More background. Apparently, he was not a hit with the ladies, Fred. This is what I was led to understand. I’m not sure if this is true or not. But he had managed to score a date to go see “The Little Mermaid,” of all movies. “The Little Mermaid.” OK? So this is the message his own mother, his blood relation, leaves for him. And I quote, “You and ‘The Little Mermaid’ can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. The books you wanted, they’re not here. They must be in La Jolla. I’m not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbyyye.” That’s the entirety of it. All right?
Jonathan: Yeah. That’s the message that his mother left him?
Josh: That’s correct. You catch that part? “You and The ‘Little Mermaid’ can both go [BLEEP] yourselves.” I love you, son. That’s gold.
Josh: And then– no, hold on. Are you going to listen?
Josh: Then somebody took it– some evil mix-meister genius took it and remixed it into a 12-inch dance version. “You and The Little Mermaid, La Jolla, La Jolla, [BLEEP] yourselves, [BLEEP] yourselves. They’re not here, the books. Goodbye, goodbye, goodbye, goodbye.
Jonathan: And there are other people who remember it?
Josh: Are you even listening to a word I just told you? This was the “The Producers” of its day, OK? Everyone heard about it. Everyone knew it. Everyone had an opinion about it. Every single person who attended Columbia that year, I guarantee you they would know what I’m talking about.
Jonathan: I still didn’t believe him. But just for the hell of it, I phoned the Columbia alumni magazine to see if there was anyone there who might remember anything about the Little Mermaid message. I ended up speaking to someone who not only attended Columbia in the early ’90s and remembered the message, but just like Josh had, he actually quoted it to me, the whole message. “You and The Little Mermaid can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. I can’t find the books. They must be in La Jolla. I’m not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye.” The guy then became so excited at the thought of someone doing serious research about the message that he offered to use the Columbia database to look up every Fred that might have graduated around that time. No matter how long it took, he said, it would be worth it if I could track down some recording of the message and allow him to hear it again. Were you surprised by how into it they all were? Yes. I remember making this call at my desk and then the person’s whole tone changed. I wasn’t even recording the call.
I called other Columbia students from that period. And every one of them reacted the same way to the message, like this guy Ben Feldman, now an entertainment lawyer.
Ben Feldman: Hello.
Jonathan: Is this Ben?
Jonathan: I have two words for you, little mermaid. This guy is on the phone and not in a studio , so you were recording your actual first call to him? Yeah, with the phone you can take more chances. When you book someone into a studio, you have to know a bit more and take less of a gamble, because you have to book a tech, have them drive to the studio, etc. I think this was an idea from Ira that he had gotten from a story he had once heard. He said when you call up this guy, say ‘I have two words for you…’ I took a chance and it led to that great opener.
Ben Feldman: This is the funniest call I’ve ever received. Well, you and “The Little Mermaid “can go to hell.
Jonathan: A few days later, Josh called me back. He had found out Fred’s last name from his older brother, who it turns out graduated the same year as Fred. Josh said that Fred’s last name was Schultz. And I told Josh that this was great news. And Josh told me to shut my squeal hole, which I did.
So I called Fred Schultz. And it turns out that he had recorded the original message and still had a copy of it, a copy which I am now going to play for you. Remember, this is a phone message that was forwarded from one person to the next, each person re-prefacing the previous prefaces as it made its way from one voice mail message box to the next.
Voice Mail: Received at 4:20 PM Friday.
Woman 1: Guys, I have never heard a phone mail message like this one. Listen to the first person. You are going to die.
Man 1: No seriously, this is the funniest one of all of them.
Woman 2: All right, here it is–
Jonathan: These giddy introductory messages continue for two and 1/2 minutes, each one revving up the impending drama, acting as a kind of stage curtain that opens onto another curtain, and yet another one still, each one teasing you with the tantalizing proximity of the main stage about to be bathed in the spotlight. The way you set up the tape here makes it even funnier and more dramatic than it would be on its own. Can you talk about the thinking behind this writing? Basically, I’m telling people what’s happening as it’s happening. But you have to be economical. I can’t play all two and a half minutes of tape here so I want to give people the pleasure of the tape in a tighter way. I want people to find the tape entertaining in the way that I find it entertaining That’s the great thing about radio, how you can juxtapose script with tape and have each one enhance the other and work in tandem and that’s the pleasure of mixing. There was a lot of time and thought put into what would be the tape that comes up –the funniest blip that really pops, and you use the other stuff underneath while you’re talking.
Man 2: OK, I’ve gotten like 95 phone mail messages in the last two days, but this is the funniest.
Man 3: This is going to blow you away. This makes the other ones look like chopped liver.
Jonathan: And then finally the chain of deferral ends with the very first forwarded student’s solemn pronouncement.
Man 4: There comes a time in life when we hear the greatest phone mail message of all time. And well, here it is. You have to hear it to believe it.
Fred Schultz: I thought you’d get a kick out of this message from my mother.
Joan Schultz: Hi, Fred. You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. I told you to stay near the phone. I can’t find those books. You have other books here. It must be in La Jolla. Call me back. I’m not going to stay up all night for you. Goodbye. Do you think you could have done the story without a tape of the message? I think I needed to have it. It makes [the story] so much more satisfying, doesn’t it? It feels like we’ve gone someplace. Because we really aren’t going anywhere. It’s just me talking to people in a studio. There’s no real scenes. And yet it feels like we’ve gone on this odyssey.
Jonathan: These days, Fred Schultz lives in Venice Beach, California. He plays in a band, he skateboards, and he pretty much seems happy. When he sent me the recording of the Little Mermaid message, he also included burnt incense and a CD of his band’s soundtrack for a film about cannibalism called Eat Me. Here’s a clip. [MUSIC – “EAT ME”] Fred is the kind of guy who, when the subject gets on to future plans, will tell you he’s thinking pretty seriously about moving onto a boat. Did you meet Fred in person? No, he went into a studio in California. Years later, I met the technician who had mic’d Fred. [The technician] told me, and this speaks to what’s great about radio, because you weren’t distracted by the fact that Fred showed up to the studio barefoot with just half a beard on one side of his face and clean-shaven on the other side, and I think dreadlocks on both sides of his head. And then I got on his mailing list and he was running for president, I think with a dog as his running mate or something. I think so many writers would have use a cliche like “free spirit” or “doesn’t follow convention” to describe Fred. The boat is so memorable and totally gives you a picture of him. I remember that as being Ira’s idea. He asked what I knew about Fred and I mentioned the thing about the incense that he sent in the mail and also that he talks quite a bit about his plans to move onto a boat. Ira could see that it was all you needed to know about him in a way that I don’t think I was able to clue into then.
When I ask him about the phone message from his mom, he says that from the moment he got it, he knew he was sitting on something big. The question then became, what was he going to do with it?
Fred: I did sit down and stress and think about it for like an hour or two. I debated whether to send the message out to anyone. And then I sat down and listened to music, and just thought about it, re-listening to the message and just thinking, should I send this along or just let it die, kill it, hit erase.
Jonathan: But Fred decided not to hit erase. And he explains his mother’s cryptic message this way. He had called looking for an old school notebook. She said she’d search for it, but only if he’d wait by the phone while she did this special favor for him. But did he stay by the phone? No, he did not. As for “The Little Mermaid,” this was the one thing Josh was completely wrong about.
Fred: My whole life, I have had a thing about mermaids– and dolphins, but mermaids.
Jonathan: When you love mermaids that much — and dolphins– you don’t keep that to yourself.
Fred: My outgoing message, first it had Ariel from “The Little Mermaid” singing “Part of Your World,” singing like, “Part of your world/What would I give if I could live out of these waters?” And then I jump on and say, “Hi, please leave a message for me and ‘The Little Mermaid.'” And then you hear beep.
Jonathan: Now put yourself in his mother’s shoes. To hear Joan Schultz, Fred’s mom, tell the story, that outgoing message was like a call to arms.
Joan: I hear “The Little Mermaid” music. And he said, “Sorry I can’t answer you now. Please leave a message for me and ‘The Little Mermaid.'” Well, that’s all I had to hear. I was so infuriated and so incensed, that without even thinking– and I never ever say this word– I said, Fred, you and “The Little Mermaid” can both go [BLEEP] yourselves. And I slammed the phone down. The moment we first get to hear from Joan is so surprising and satisfying. It’s like, You got her to talk! And she’s really likable. Yeah, you’re sort of on her side a little bit. Because Fred’s kind of like — you can imagine if he was your son he’d be driving you crazy. I’m overstating it but you know, I wanted her to have her moment too. Was she different than you expected? I think I was most surprised by how formal she was being. Like she was on her best behavior. She reminded me a bit of my own mother. We weren’t in the same studio but if I were to imagine her, I would picture a woman dressed up for going out in the Sixties. Cat’s eye glasses. Stole. Handbag on lap. I’m not sure why. At no point did I feel sorry for Fred.
Jonathan: So late that night, studying in his dorm room for finals, Fred finally decides to forward the message to his friend Jeff. Then Fred goes to bed. And by the next morning, he wakes up to discover, that just like one of those guys in one of those movies, his life has suddenly become forever changed.
Fred: My message machine was blinking that all 10 messages that it accepts are filled. They were all filled with people– like chains of 20– it had already gone around to say each chain had hit 20 or 30 people.
Jonathan: How many people heard it over the course of the night?
Fred: Hundreds had already heard it in the middle of the night.
Jonathan: Over the course of how many hours?
Fred: Like four hours.
Jonathan: What was then to follow for the Schultzes was nothing short of campus-wide celebrityhood. Women ran up to Fred and hugged him. Men envied him for his ability to inspire that much raw transparent hostility in his mother. The phone message was so popular that, like a hit TV show, it spawned spin-offs. Other messages circulated with people commenting on the original.
Woman 3: As a history major, I think we’ve got to put this into a class struggle perspective. His mother represents–
Man 5: From a political science standpoint, I would say that both Fred and his mother are products of the political system.
Man 6: I feel that Mrs. Schultz’s sexual desire for her son, Fred, is manifest.
Jonathan: And Josh was even right about the dance remix version of the message.
Joan: You and The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves. The Little Mermaid can go [BLEEP] yourselves, yourselves, mother, mother.
Jonathan: Although no official at Columbia could confirm this next claim, virtually everyone I spoke to who graduated Fred’s year remembers this as a point of fact. The popularity of the Little Mermaid yielded message threads that were too long for the new voice mail technology to handle. And so the messaging service for the whole of Columbia crashed.
It goes further still. Fred’s mother’s message went on to become the most crowd-pleasing musical number from the year-end Varsity Show, a time-honored all-male production that goes back to Columbia alumni Rodgers and Hammerstein in the early 1900s. The choreographed routine involved a kick line of hairy-legged men in seashell brassieres and mermaid tails. Steve Nadick, the show’s lyricist, dug out the words and favored me with a few select lines.
Steve: Oh, here it is. Look at that. But I don’t even know if this is the final wording, because I see some handwritten notes on the side. It starts off, “We beautiful creatures inhabit the sea. Fish-women, frolicking frivolously. Although no one said that we’d have to enjoy-a, it still could be worse. We might be in La Jolla.” And we sang “in La Jolla” as Handel’s “Messiah.” “So it’s time to decide what you might want to do. We’re not going to wait up all night for you. Goodbye.”
One thing that’s impossible to appreciate in this transcript is how much the music adds to the comedy and pure enjoyment of the piece. This spot, where “Hallelujah” plays, seems like a good time to ask: Did you pick the music? I scored the piece, yes. Explain what that entails. Generally, I would audition about an hour, an hour and a half’s worth of music that seemed appropriate… trying out various songs. A great deal of time is put into this, as you know. And usually happens until late at night , the night before broadcast. It’s kind of an ineffable business, but the idea is to have songs in there that round various bases, make you feel like you’re going some place, being told a story. Were there any particular choices that you’re really proud of? In listening again, I do like how the music stops in the diggy do story — like it’s an old-timey snare drum rim shot — and kicks back up. It’s subtle but time consuming. I’ve jokingly said that radio can be such a control-freak kind of thing because you can read the script the way you feel it should be read, you can apply the kind of scoring music you want, all of these things. If it’s the wrong song, you can see the wires and you feel like you’re being pushed to feel something that you’re not inclined to feel. But if it’s the right song, it gives you that extra little push to feel some emotion. It’s telling people what to feel. And if you’re on the money and you’re telling them to feel the things that’s appropriate, then it’s great…but if it’s off, it just feels like people see the artifice of it.
Jonathan: As even the most casual viewer of VH1’s “Behind the Music” knows, fame like this doesn’t come without a price. When Fred’s mother came to New York for her son’s graduation, she experienced the darker side of super stardom.
Joan: On Broadway, in restaurants, in the shops there they would say things like, that’s Fred’s mother. That’s the Little Mermaid. And I was mortified. Wherever we were, people would point and laugh and snicker.
Fred: So she just made it her job, at that point, to just walk up to any random group of people, and just start saying, “You don’t understand. I never use the F word. He provoked me. He provoked me.” So she felt that that was her responsibility, to clear her name, to at least let them know she never curses.
Joan: Before my message came along, the funniest message they had sent around was something like other kids’ mothers begging them not to forget to use their rubbers in the rainy season.
Jonathan: Here’s an example of what Joan Schultz is talking about, one of those feel good homesy messages. This is a message from Huey Hockman’s grandparents, making sure he was taking care of his cold. This message was amazing. Do you remember who gave it to you? I know, that was such a treat and such a fortunate thing to have. Fred was really helpful so he might have saved it, but it might have been somebody else at the school. I don’t remember.
Huey’s Grandmother: Huey, we heard you have a cold, darling. We called to see how you feel.
Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah.
Huey’s Grandmother: And to tell you we love you.
Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah.
Huey’s Grandmother: That’s all. We hope you’re OK, darling.
Huey’s Grandfather: Yeah, me too.
Huey’s Grandmother: Good night.
Huey’s Grandfather: Good night.
Joan: Mine was so far and above that that they won’t even go back to the old one.
Jonathan: Do you take a certain level of pride in that?
Joan Schultz: I guess so. In a strange way, yes. This was a great moment. I think if I unraveled the raw tape, I might find that I had to dig to get her to the point where she admitted her pride in the message. One funny thing about Joan is how she says “I never use that language” and then the way she throws it off in the retelling so casually, you just know she can curse like a character in a Guy Ritchie film.
Jonathan: The Little Mermaid message was everything Josh said that it was. And now that I spoke with everyone about its glory, there was really only one more person left to talk to.
Josh: What do you want?
Jonathan: I made some calls to Columbia. I spoke to some people who went to school the same time that you did. Yes, I did. And diggy do, you were right. It was all true. The message made a great impact.
Josh: Wow, thanks John. Listen, what a bastard you are. I gave you gold. Don’t you understand?
Jonathan: But anyway, you are missing the point that what I’m saying is that I apologize, because you are right.
Josh: I diggy don’t give a rat’s ass.
Jonathan: I am going to read to you a piece of the script that I’ve written that I’m thinking I might actually end this whole story with, because I want to get some of your feedback. OK?
Josh: Oh, I’m ready.
Jonathan: I would say something to the effect of, “And so a recording intended for one person unintentionally became the beloved property of thousands. And in so happening, the message went from being what might have been considered a rather tragic personal artifact that spoke of dysfunction to becoming a triumph of contemporary American humor.” To me, this was like you got to have your cake and eat it, too. You’re able to gesture at the TAL “big idea” ending and make fun of it at the same time. Was this the actual ending you’d written? Maybe I was still figuring out how to write endings, but I think it was a bit of a parody. I wanted to give Josh something really juicy to sink his teeth into.
Josh: What is that? That’s public radio wussy talk. Be a man. He did sink his teeth into it. What he actually said was, “That’s a lot of public radio pussy talk.” Which in its alliteration is just a beautiful way of putting it. But we couldn’t put “pussy talk” on the radio. So we spent a ridiculous amount of time in Ira’s office taking the “wuh” from another word — probably a “what” from Josh getting angry at me and saying, “What the fuck are you talking about?” — taking that “wuh” sound and I swear to you it might have been a half-hour cutting it together and cross-fading it with “ussy talk.” The beautiful irony of it is that it’s the most public radio pussy-talking thing you could possibly do, to spend all this time changing “pussy” to “wussy.” And even after doing that crossfade for half an hour, I still feel like it doesn’t sound right. I always hear the edit.
Jonathan: No, a part of that whole statement is that I’m actually saying to you, “You were right and I was wrong.”
Josh: All right. Whatever. If you want to talk that fancy talk, you do your thing. But don’t drag me into your serious voice nonsense. And you get to speak in this stentorian tone, like, “And then America laughed at this inadvertent piece of comedy. I’m Jon Goldstein.”
Ira Glass: Jonathan Goldstein broadcasts his bitch squeals these days as host of the CBC’s program “WireTap,” which you can hear on some public radio stations in this country and also find on the Internet. His friend Josh is a regular contributor to the show. Before we go: Any thoughts about “The Little Mermaid” becoming an award at Third Coast? That seems like a suitable epilogue to the whole thing. Dance remix. Musical. Radio award.