Entertainment

'This Is Branchburg' Is a Welcome Departure from Reality

VICE spoke to the two creators of the fictional podcast.
Ashwin Rodrigues
Brooklyn, US
December 10, 2020, 9:53pm
Brendan O'Hare and Cory Snearowski Branchburg town sign
Photo provided by Brendan O'Hare and Cory Snearowski

Brendan O'Hare and Cory Snearowski's podcast fictionalization of their hometown of Branchburg, New Jersey, is midway between an NPR satire and low-stakes Borat. While the stories are grounded in this real suburb, the comedic premises are unhinged, and every denizen has the personality of a Jack Handey character. The characters, voiced by O'Hare and Snearowski and a stacked lineup of guests, incarnate characters like a new falcon owner, and a Little League coach who's found an overseas team sponsor complete with polished audio and musical accompaniment, mirroring the public radio format they are sending up. It's a sonically pleasing and much-needed break from reality. 

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 "We wanted to make it a nice escape, Snearowski told VICE. Season two of This is Branchburg concluded today. "We were making this pre-COVID. Even moreso with COVID hitting, we hope it's something that people can tune into, and it can be familiar and an escape at the same time."

O'Hare and Snearowski have a fascination with suburbia that shines through on the show, which is produced by Abso Lutely Productions and Adult Swim. Highlights include a new 9/11 conspiracy, a man who is 5'8 and 155 pounds, a mysterious goblin, and other recurring fixtures. Guests on this season include Ezra Koenig, Ellie Kemper, Aidy Bryant, Tim Heidecker, Tim Robinson, and Conner O'Malley. After concluding the second season, the two are currently trying to figure out how to potentially adapt the Branchburg world to a TV setting. VICE spoke to O'Hare and Snearowski about the comedy of suburbia, the podcast, and real-life Branchburg.

VICE: It was funny timing—I was listening to the second to last episode on a walk. And it was snowing in Brooklyn. It was very immersive.
Brendan O'Hare:
Is that the blizzard episode?

Yeah. 
O'Hare: Oh man, that's amazing. 

Cory Snearowski: Beautiful.

How has your year been? What have you been up to?
O'Hare: It's been a great year. Nothing's wrong, and me and Cory are killing it. No. I'm in Brooklyn, as well, so I've been spending a lot of time inside. You know, fretting and freaking out.

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Snearowski: My year has been as good as it can be, despite the circumstances. I still have a job. I'm able to volunteer, which I find rewarding. And yeah, I still get to work with Brendan over videochat and whatnot. For the most part, I'm very thankful.

When did you put together this last season?
O'Hare: I think we began in earnest in November of 2019, and then we wrapped up sometime in February of this year. It was about three months of recording, twice a week. And then every other day during the week, Cory and I would be writing. And we would record in New Jersey at our sound guy's house. I would drive down from Brooklyn, and we would spend the whole day yelling and screaming into a microphone. 

If you go back to your earliest videos—obviously, the production value has improved since then—but the premise is always occurring in a vacuum, and you can't really tell what's going on in the world. There's a recent video of the guy who—as a principle—doesn't own money. He walks and picks up some money in front of a Trump rally. But the rally is not mentioned at all in the audio.
Snearowski: That guy, his name is Difficulty Man. He's a recurring character on the podcast. He's in his own world. He has no idea what's going on. I don't think he even knows who Trump is. He's totally just [consumed] by the shininess of that dime.

The characters of This is Branchburg are in that vein. The shoe feels like its own universe, without really acknowledging anything that's going on in the world. What appeals to you guys about that kind of comedy?
O'Hare: It's the type of comedy that has attracted us since we were kids. Stuff like The Simpsons and Tim and Eric. The Onion—a lot of that is current event stuff, but their evergreen stuff has always really appealed to us. On the one hand, it's just the thing we grew up with. And then second, I think we're more interested in trying to infuse our comedy with that type of stuff on a subtextual level. 

Cory and I are very interested in the suburbs and small towns as a concept. We both believe that the suburbs in America are kind of sad, lonely, atomized places—but we try to address it [from] more of an absurd, surreal angle, where we have these people wandering around, mired in their own monologues and stuff. It probably wouldn't be fun to just have a sad milkman wandering around, so he also has to have these weird memories of what it was like in the 50s and have his own weird opinions about milk, the state of milk, and stuff like that. Does that make sense?

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Snearowski: I don't know.

Cory—you have a background in neuroscience or something brain-related, right?
Snearowski: I did it for a semester at Rutgers, and then I dropped out. [laughs]

O'Hare: It somehow turned into "Cory's a neuroscientist." 

Snearowski: I'm Dr. Ben Carson.

 At least you got to mention the parietal lobe in the podcast.
Snearowski: I love the parietal lobe; I have a joke with the temporal lobe that I'm hoping to use sometime down the line, with the same character.

I know this is a fictionalized version of the actual Branchburg. Could you tell me a little bit about things you drew from actual experience, or that you gleaned from the real Branchburg?
Snearowski: Branchburg has two highways that it connects to: 202 and Route 22. So that's a big theme. Even before we made Branchburg, we always were doing things along the highway, which made [for] a visually interesting setting. Those are some reference points we use. We use one or two small businesses that actually exist in Branchburg. I will let listeners just research themselves, because I don't want to get sued. 

O'Hare: We also use people's names—people we grew up with. No one's reached out to us about it. It helps us a bit with grounding this style of humor. At least internally, [it keeps] us from going off the rails too much. We want these scenarios to—at least initially—seem real, for there to be some sort of internal logic.

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Snearowski: We want to draw from something that someone from across the country can listen to and go "Oh, I grew up with someone like that," or "Oh, I know, someone's dad who was like that."

O'Hare: Start off in that zone. It'll veer off somewhere crazy by the end. The new season, there's a whole thing about the little league coach—what does he do again?

Snearowski: He gets funding from the United Arab Emirates for the baseball team.

O'Hare: The seed of that is just Cory and I remembering any number of sweaty, trying-too-hard Little League coaches we had over the years.

In the Branchburg Wikipedia entry, I figured since it's a small town, they'd be more accepting of a podcast focused on it. But they barely mention it. [Brendan is listed as Notable Person for the This is Branchburg podcast, Cory is not.]
Snearowski: No, I've been blackballed. They really ice me out in this town.

O'Hare: I feel like a lot of people in the real Branchburg, their attitude towards the podcast is just they're kind of mystified by it. They try to pretend it doesn't exist, or it's just, "We'll let these two guys do what they're doing, and try not to pay too close attention to it."

Snearowski: They're very indifferent about it. There's one guy who likes it who's on the town council. He told me just in passing, "Hey, I like your Branchburg stuff." And that's it. 

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What other feedback have you gotten from Branchburg residents about the podcast?
Snearowski: I think with mystification also comes hostility, sometimes—not that we're hated in any way. A link to us will be thrown in one of the community groups and whatnot, and there's an older person who's always like, "I don't get this," or "This is a disgrace." But that comes with the territory.

O'Hare: I think most people our age, though—I wouldn't say they're proud of it, but they like the podcast. They don't see it as a blight on their hometown or anything. 

Sound design is such a crucial part of a show like this, when you're trying to capture a feeling. The music goes from NPR-ish style but then randomly, it's Halo.
Snearowski: [laughs] The principal's Master Chief. You're right: It does change. I think we do a pretty good job searching this music library database that we have called APM; we find some golden ones in there that we're super excited to use.

O'Hare: A lot of it, too, is just trying to keep the show as interesting as possible. On this new season, we have nine-minute stories, and we're just figuring out how we can ensure the listener doesn't zone out. 

What are your favorite bits from this season?
O'Hare: My favorite bit is probably from the third episode of this season. Cory's whole saga about trumpet practice and finding the little boy in the car who's practicing his trumpet. Cory's performance, the music, the sound design, the story itself—I just love it.

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Snearowski: Thank you. Mine's also from the third episode; it's Brendan playing the guy who thinks the mafia did 9/11. It's such a perfect comedic premise to play off of. And then the switch at the end is one of my favorite things. The music switching; it's perfect. 

O'Hare: I change my answer to that, also.

I remember where I was when I heard that sketch, actually.
Snearowski:  Right in front of the tower [both laughing].

NJ.com called you "comedy heroes." I want to know what acts of heroism you've performed.
O'Hare: Cory and I perform CPR on each other all the time. We're constantly drowning.

Snearowski: We're putting each other's lives at risk just to give each other [CPR.] Branchburg News won't pick up our phone calls anymore. Rescue Squad knows us by first name.

O'Hare: Do Not Resuscitate.

Snearowski: They enacted that. 

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

This is Branchburg is streaming now wherever you listen to podcasts.