Putting 'Branchburg, NJ' On the Map
A talk with 'This Is Branchburg' creators Brendan O'Hare and Cory Snearowski about telling the stories of an absurd town and its people, and creating the funniest show in audio
The first citizen we meet in Branchburg, NJ, is Johnson Laboratories CEO Darryl Roach. He’s hoping that he can maintain high employee morale at his company by giving them three things: A livable wage, an hour lunch break and paid time for recess. It’s at this time that the employees of Johnson Laboratories chase Roach.
And they go all out. Sometimes they want me to taunt them first. You know, get them riled up and get those juices flowing. I typically try to guess who their crushes are in the office and, ho ho, do they hate that. Then we’re off to the races.
That’s just the first minute or so. From there, across the 10 episodes of This Is Branchburg, a comedy podcast by Brendan O’Hare and Cory Snearowski, we meet the grizzled last milkman in a town that doesn’t care about him anymore, a megalomaniacal middle school principal who enlists nine school buses as his personal motorcade and eventual funeral procession, an adult man who accidentally becomes an exchange student in Israel, the town’s mayor who tries to sneak in extra birthday celebrations for herself, and much more.
The real Branchburg, NJ, is a pretty normal Central Jersey suburb. But the Branchburg described by Brendan and Cory is far from that. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. It’s normal in that every small town in America has its fair share of wacky characters and stories. Let’s just say the fictional Branchburg is more eventful, or at least better-documented than other suburbs in America. And the way they cram all of these storylines and people into flowing 15-minute episodes is nothing short of masterful. Some skits are narraties where they break the fourth wall, others are vignettes of a scene in town, sometimes it’s public radio announcements, and sometimes it’s even fully in the second-person. It makes sense that they can pull this off, though, considering they have the master of absurdist quarter-hour comedy in Tim Heidecker in their corner as a producer.
But fictional narrative audio isn’t exactly a medium that the Kids are screaming for in 2020. Much less one commonly set to a peppy jazz score, reminiscent of the comedy duos of radio and black-and-white TV and “cigarettes are healthy for you” times.
Audio isn’t Brendan and Cory’s only medium. They do plenty of videos on YouTube (which kids do scream plenty for) and write for other televised comedy shows that you’ve certainly seen. They also took a Branchburg live show on the road. But, the comedy judges at Adult Swim must have seen (heard) something in that first season of Branchburg, since they picked them up for a second season. This season, it’s the same town, but with new faces (and a few new voices) and bigger budgets.
For my money, Brendan and Cory are two of the most consistently funny people online (and presumably real life, but I haven’t met them since there is a pandemic about). Both of their Twitter accounts are always hilarious, too. In an online comedy party where everyone is shouting over each other to get the biggest laugh or last word in, Cory and Brendan are the guys on the couch quietly making jokes, possibly just to each other, but with better timing and more clever ideas of anyone in the room.
Their brand of humor absolutely nails this minuscule point in the comedy spectrum of parodying the earnestness of America’s most mundane people, adding some absurdity, and doing it all without actually being malicious or mocking anyone. And it’s not deadpan. It’s just delivering jokes how normal people talk.
Brendan and Cory’s brand of comedy is so unique and so hard to describe, but once you’re immersed in that world, it’s like understanding a language. Describing why something is funny is a surefire way to suck all funniness out of it, so I’ll stop trying, and include a link to their YouTube here and a link to the Branchburg podcast here, as long as you promise not to click them until you’ve read my whole interview with Brendan and Cory. Deal?
Here’s my conversation with Brendan O’Hare and Cory Snearowski of the This Is Branchburg podcast, which starts its second season this Thursday, Oct. 1.
Brendan (Menapace): First off, congrats on the new season of Branchburg. I have no idea what getting renewal of something like this entails, but it still is probably no easy feat. How long have you been working on season 2?
Cory Snearowski: Thank you! We’ve somewhat been working on season 2 since season 1 ended, at the very least brainstorming stuff for it potentially happening. Then once Adult Swim got involved, we just hit the ground running.
Brendan O’Hare: We started working on it in earnest sometime in November when Adult Swim was officially on board, then finished in mid-February. So about three and a half months straight. During that time, we were recording and editing probably twice a week with our sound guy Alex Gilson, and Cory and I were writing pretty much every day.
Will there be any returning characters/storylines from season 1?
C: There are a few returns. I’m not sure if it’s something we’d want to give away, but I think some returns are the favorites from season 1.
B: When season two was announced on Twitter, there were multiple people who asked if the “Everybody wants to see my teeth” guy would be back. I will say right now, no, he will not be back. He is dead.
From a production standpoint, this one has the formal tie-in with Adult Swim, which is new for this season. How did you guys get hooked up with them, and how has that partnership changed the process/production at all?
B: Cory and I knew that if we wanted to do another season, we needed a bit more of a budget to be able to do it the way we wanted. Tim had heard from people at Adult Swim that they really liked season one, so he inquired if they were interested in funding a season two. They said no, but we’re saying they did anyway.
C: As far as process, it didn’t really didn’t change anything at all. Adult Swim has been extremely easy to work with. They seem to really value the creators and artists they cultivate. You can’t really ask for much more. Their only real note was that we should consider having guest stars this time around, which we were planning on doing anyway.
Also, how did you initially partner with Tim Heidecker?
C: We go way back!
B: Nice joke, Cory. In all seriousness, folks, it started when the great Vic Berger shared our video, “I Am Going To Throw My Christmas Tree Into The Ocean,” on his Facebook page. Tim saw it and then posted about how he really liked it. I reached out to him to thank him, and we started talking a little. He then shared our follow up video, “My Barber Cuts My Hair On The Side Of The Road”, and set up a call with him and his partner at Abso Lutely, Dave Kneebone. On that call they said they would like to work with us and help us out, and have been doing so ever since.
C: We go way back!
I think one of the things I like most about the show is how it feels like the scripted radio shows my grandfather had in his car and then left in the car when it became my car. Did this kind of thing play as an influence for you guys at all?
B: The scripted radio show influences for me are a lot of Chris Morris stuff—On the Hour, Blue Jam, Why Bother?, etc. I don’t think it really gets better than that, particularly Blue Jam. But for the type of thing we’re doing, they’re probably less influential content-wise, and more so in their formatting. Hearing something like Blue Jam gave me confidence that we could pull off linking together a loose string of vignettes and that the audience would know what was going on.
C: During season 2 we also listened to Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and used a tactic of theirs when making some sketches. For instance, for some sketches we knew what we wanted to tackle but needed to flesh out, so we just hit record on one of our phones and improvised, and that was pretty much the script.
B: I also got a book that was transcripts of all of Peter Cook’s work, and so much of his work with Moore is the perfect reference point for writing a successful two-person sketch for audio. All that stuff is so tight and precise.
C: I’ve always been influenced by Jonathan Winters and the small-town characters he’d play, all so warm but misguided.
Also, it’s funny how, despite podcasts being around for as long as they have and sort of replicating traditional radio programming like interviews and political talk, this scripted fiction has sort of been underutilized in this medium. And it seems so obvious, but it’s not as common as everyone trying to be Maron.
B: I think the simple reason why it's been underutilized is because it’s so much work. It’s way easier to just interview your comedy friends for an hour. Not saying that’s the easiest thing in the world either, but when Cory and I are putting together a season, we’re spending months on it, seven days a week. There also currently aren’t too many places willing to pay people to be able to put forward that kind of effort.
C: Right. You also can have a more consistent output by doing podcasts the Maron way. We worked for months which produced three or so hours worth of material we’re releasing over 10 weeks, whereas with an interview format you can do an hour show weekly, or even daily if you wanted, for however long you want to engage listeners. Going back to your grandpa’s time, there were overwhelmingly more talk radio hosts or disc jockeys than say, someone like Jean Shepherd, Bob and Ray, or whoever your grandfather was listening to where the stories or acts were more scripted. So it makes sense that a similar disparity would be true for podcasts.
I also want to talk about the 15 minute (or so) runtime. Even before you were with adult swim, you were doing that. These quick snippets seem to work so well in comedy, especially when it’s made up of vignettes. I think of things like High Maintenance, I Think You Should Leave and, of course, Tim and Eric. How did you land on this runtime? Did it just feel right or was it someone saying this should be the format?
B: That was a suggestion by Tim. He was the one who encouraged us to do a podcast focusing on the Branchburg universe after he heard a short story I’d uploaded to Soundcloud back in 2018, and thought the episodes should be roughly 15 minutes long and made up of four or five sketches.
C: That runtime does work really well. It also makes us much more selective of the jokes we put in, and keep only the details that make the most sense for a story. Ultimately it keeps the pieces cleaner. So many shows or podcasts require some sort of attentive investment before actually getting into them, and I hope the length we have keeps prospective listeners from feeling that way about our show. I will say in this new season, we do go a little longer. The shortest episode is a little over sixteen minutes, and two episodes are over twenty minutes.
Since Branchburg is, after all, a real place, have you gotten any feedback from people about how it’s fictionally portrayed?
C: Ultimately, no. We have some people our age who are familiar with the podcast and love it, but as far as the general population of Branchburg goes I think they have no idea this exists. It’s been posted a few times in some of the town Facebook groups and it goes either mostly ignored or a 60-year-old man going “This is a disgrace.”
B: A lot of times they’re just baffled.
Despite the zaniness, there’s never any malice, which I think is a trap a lot of people fall into when they write about their hometown—painting it as full of undereducated rubes. There are silly and often dumb characters, but there’s always a sense of love toward it, too. How did you balance this?
C: Thank you! This is corny but I think it’s because we do love the characters we create. Like even when something bad happens to them it’s due to faults people can somewhat relate to, even as the situation grows out of their control.
B: I think it also helps that we are using the town of Branchburg as a catch-all for the types of small town people we want to write about, rather than specifically trying to write about the actual people who live in Branchburg. There’s some overlap there of course, as some people in Branchburg have inspired certain characters, and we are heavily influenced by the geography and setting of Branchburg in the writing. But we didn’t set out to make a podcast specifically about Branchburg.
C: And even if we are referencing something specific in Branchburg, say, a certain landmark or type of person, it’s a thing most people from small-town America can recognize in theirs. Like in season 1 we did a sketch based on the memorial of a WWII hero who grew up in the area, but then you realize most small towns also have someone like that. It’s this phenomenon where the more specific you get the more universal the thing you’re referencing becomes.
B: I also think the suburbs in America is currently a pretty sad place, to me it feels the people who live there are very atomized and dislocated, there isn’t too much communal life anymore. I think a lot of people are pretty lonely. So when you meet our characters, a lot of times it’s through their inner monologue, and when people actually DO talk to each other, the conversations are very strange and people don’t really seem to understand one another. This whole thing is kind of our absurd, surreal take on all that.
Since you guys also obviously do a lot of similar style productions for video, how do you decide what works best as a video and what works best as audio?
C: I think it all depends on what's visually possible. Many of these premises in the podcast aren’t too achievable with the budget Brendan and I have.
B: The budget we have is twenty dollars.
C: Ten after lunch.
Finally, an easy one: Who is your favorite character you’ve created for Branchburg, and what are you looking forward to the most with the new season?
B: My favorite character is the middle school principal. A lot of our Branchburg characters, life just sort of happens to them and they deal with it. But this guy is proactive, in the sense that he has completely warped his reality so that he acts like the king of a middle school, and it’s an absolute mess for everyone around him. Also Cory’s performance of him always makes me laugh.
C: My favorite character is one Brendan does in season 2, episode 3. He’s a one-off (at this point) but the sketch feels new every time I listen to it. The music, the jokes, the big turn that’s made during it—I think it’s a home run.
B: As far as what I’m most looking forward to, I’m probably most interested in the fan response. I think season two is pretty different from season one, at least in my mind. I think it’s just a lot more ambitious and we try a lot of new stuff—performance-wise, writing-wise, formatting, music—but we tried to keep the same sense of humor that people latched onto initially. I’m very interested to see what people think about this, and see who gets mad at us.
C: I’d say what I’m looking forward to most is people listening to the guests we have this season. Each guest knocked it out of the park and made the town feel that much fuller. Brendan and I still comprise the majority of the show, but for one sketch every episode for a listener to stop and go, “Wait, is that [redacted] from [redacted]?” will be really fun. Maybe they won’t and just think it’s Brendan or me, that’s fine too.
Anything else you’d like to add or plug that I haven’t asked about?
C: My computer is dying.
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Today’s Snakes and Sparklers musical guest is (appropriately) Tim Heidecker.