The host of the satirical news podcast “The Last Post” explains how writing an alternate reality’s headlines helps her deal with the ones from our own.
For the first six months of 2020, every new day brought a new episode of “The Last Post.” Even on weekends, host Alice Fraser was there to provide the headlines from a slightly off-kilter dimension where the Democratic primaries took place — but were marked by the upstart candidacy of a floating mass of sentient trash. In “The Last Post” universe, The Wiggles aren’t just children’s TV royalty, they’re the unwitting new heads of state of a European nation.
As the show’s writer, Fraser has the consistent, daunting task of navigating the world of this tumultuous year through the lens of one that only exists in part. Challenging as that might be, it’s been helpful for her to process the unpredictable headlines of each passing day.
“Not being able to address a large project, feeling really defeated by the prospect of doing anything big, having these quick deadlines, I’ve just got to get it done. I have to get it done it whether it’s good or not,” Fraser told IndieWire. “And that has been truly mental health-saving for me, just having something that I need to get done for other people, not just for myself.”
“The Last Post” features Fraser and any one of a number of rotating guest co-hosts “broadcasting” from this alternate dimension. In a format derived in part from the long-running satirical series “The Bugle,” where Fraser also serves as a regular contributor, a dissection of the day’s headlines give way to a series of fictional ads and letters to the editors. Over the past months, the familiar stories of pandemics and bumbling world leaders have been interwoven with secret underground societies and interplanetary exploration.
A key distinction that makes “The Last Post” an entertaining means of escape is that it’s not satirizing the terrible things happening in our world. Instead, Fraser said her goal is to draw some of these exaggerated alternate-universe details from the way certain people have responded to them.
“There are certain news events, particularly tragic or gruesome things, that I don’t want to mock. Usually my solution to that is to take a step back and look at the news coverage the way it’s being covered and see if I can make fun of that side of things or what that says about something broader,” Fraser said. “If I can draw attention to something that’s serious, I will do that. If I can make make more digestible something that is incomprehensible, I will do that. But yeah, there are things that I wouldn’t want to bring into another universe because they are very of this world.”
Over the course of the year, “The Last Post” also has gleefully embraced its own self-referential mythology. The opening episodes explained that they landed in Fraser’s inbox as a kind of accidental dispatch from the alternate dimension. The structure of the show is set up so that the more she and whatever day’s guest lean into what makes this an absurd spin on our own reality, the easier it is for people to spot where the foundation of truth gives way to the exaggerations placed on top. The cycle of returning comedians have embraced fictional alternate-world occupations ranging from space lawyer to tech billionaire to disgraced former government official.
In recent weeks, that’s also included Fraser’s increasingly faux-dismissive responses to the letters to the editor, particularly the ones that try to poke holes in the “Last Post” internal logic. It’s part of that idea that the show is something of a “90-degree” rotation from reality. “When I was a kid, I always wanted to be a villain in an action movie. And that’s very much not who I am. As a general rule, I’m very conflict-averse. So being able to play against type is a choice, even if it is only 30 seconds while I tell someone that their question is really dumb,” Fraser said.
One of the true joys of the show is that ads section, which has grown its own set of ongoing narratives. Recently, the show has introduced the writings of a romance novelist D’Ancey LaGuarde, an author with a penchant for erotic interspecies fantasy tales. (Of all the recurring jokes on the show, this is the one that can most dependably get Fraser and her co-hosts to crack.) The show’s longest-running “sponsor” is Half a Glass of Water, extolling all the virtues of hydration in all its forms.
“I really am not super comfortable with the idea of doing ads. I’ve only ever done one ad myself, for Australian avocados. Sometimes ad breaks in a 15 minute show feels icky. My solution was to make these fake ads and make a feature of a bug,” Fraser said. “And then I thought, ‘What would I not feel guilty about advertising?’ Half a Glass of Water. I don’t feel like it’s the wrong answer. Usually it’s not going to fix the problem, but it won’t make it worse.”
In a way, those evolutions, however absurd, have a dual purpose. Fraser records multiple episodes at a time with each co-host, so there’s a way she can keep the show’s self-contained ideas rolling over successive weeks. It keeps “The Last Post” from being locked into a restrictive formula, but it also has something to say about how media functions in our everyday life.
“My academic history is in narrative rhetoric, in the way that the shapes of stories communicate. One of the things that the news does that I think is completely under-analyzed is presenting these arcs which are not reflective of the actual world. A 24-hour news cycle should rightfully mean that we’re hearing a lot more news from Botswana and not the same six stories on repeat. It’s a ridiculous conceit,” Fraser said. “The difficult thing with nonsense is that it could get very same-y. If it’s just random every day then it’s just 15 minutes of nonsense a day. But if I want people to listen to it over the whole year, I want there to be these developing arcs and I want you to feel like there are characters that are moving through the storyline.”
Prior to 2020, Fraser was no stranger to podcasting. In addition to her many appearances on “The Bugle,” she released the phenomenal “The Alice Fraser Trilogy” in 2018, which collected audio versions of three different comedy specials from her stand-up career. (“Savage” and “The Resistance,” two parts of that trio, are now available in the U.S. to watch on Amazon Prime Video.) Although they tackle clearly different subject matter, Fraser has managed to find in “The Last Post” another project about the way we tell stories. It’s a fitting, unexpected complement to the comedy she’s drawn more directly from the stories about her family.
But getting to the finished product is a completely different process.
“When I write a [live] show, I start with a moment of emotion that I want to communicate to the audience. And I think, ‘How much of the story do I need to tell to put the people in the audience in that moment of insight or enlightenment or epiphany that I had? What pieces do I need to assemble, what stepping stones to get you to that point?’ I start with the endpoint and work back from there,” Fraser said. “With ‘The Last Post,’ there’s no endpoint, really, other than the sort of vague idea of where it’s going. I just start writing. It’s much more loose and haphazard. I’m dragged along by the joke.”
Like any substantial writing venture, part of making “The Last Post” is knowing that there are sections that will never see the light of day (or whatever the listening equivalent is). Especially when guests are able to really play along with the show’s premise, overpreparation is almost inevitable. But in addition to being part of the job, Fraser sees it as a valuable learning experience, however narrowly applicable it might be.
“I do like the marathon of it,” Fraser said. “It’s really hard when you’re writing your fourth episode of the day. You’re just wringing the dregs out of it. But at the end of this year, I will be an incredibly good writer of something that is completely non-transferable.”
For more of the best podcast episodes of 2020, check out our full mid-year list (including an episode of “The Last Post”) here.
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