Storytelling With Lessons -- & Jokes: "Mostly Functional Humans" podcast
It's the last Tuesday in February at Alley Bar, and Mostly Functional Humans co-hosts Rich Retyi and Andrew Dooley are sitting in a booth, preparing for their live podcast. Friends and fans pour through the doors in a steady stream, and the upscale dive bar takes on a party atmosphere. Back in the booth, the two co-hosts recall the origins of Mostly Functional Humans. Canadian transplant Retyi was working at MLive when he struck up a rapport with Plymouth native Dooley. Almost immediately, Dooley recognized they were on the same intellectual and comic rhythms, and after conceiving the podcast in this very bar, decided to take it into the studio. As luck would have it, the Ann Arbor District Library was more than happy to accommodate by recording Mostly Functional Humans in its podcasting studio. This is where Matt Dubay -- aka Engineer Matt -- enters the picture. The library’s production supervisor was tasked with recording the Mostly Functional Humans podcast. In a way, most of what you need to know about the tone of the Mostly Functional Humans podcast can be gleaned by noting that the two current sponsors are Alley Bar and Literati Bookstore. Literate yet far from pretentious, it appeals to the entire spectrum of listeners in the town that seems to value an IPA nearly as much as a Ph.D.
Mostly Functional Humans 13: Pets (March 2, 2017) The entire world is scary as heck right now. You know what might fix that? Petting a dog! You know what might make that worse? Killing a bird on accident!
Retyi has dark, short-cropped hair and a well-coiffed beard; he sits across from me at the cozy both. He may have been born in another country, but Retyi’s heart beats for Ann Arbor. He views audio endeavors such as this podcast and his other one, Ann Arbor Stories, as an opportunity to capture a moment in time; a multimedia historian on a mission to document the town's rapidly changing cityscape in real-time. The older and ostensibly more conservative of the pair despite his visible forearm tattoo, Retyi approaches his co-hosting duties with an endearing balance of fearlessness and vulnerability. The digital and social media strategist for the U-M Health sytem isn't afraid to make himself look bad if it means getting a big laugh or connecting with the listener. In short, he was the perfect partner to pair with Dooley, the towheaded yin to Retyi's swarthy yang. The Duo Security employee is a self-professed radio and podcast nerd with a flair for dry, self-deprecating humor, Dooley cites The Dollop as essential listening before rattling off a list of other favorites that include Your Mom's House, My Favorite Murder, Hardcore History, Slate Political Gabfest, The Irish Times' Second Captains, and Planet Money as other key influences. Together, the duo manages to match wits, fill in the gaps of the other's knowledge, discourage one another's better judgment, and occasionally let loose the type of good-natured snipes that can only come from a place of brotherly love. But don't mistake them for besties; despite their cracking banter behind the mic, both are quick to point out that they never socialize outside of the studio. Perhaps that's what makes each pre-recorded episode of Mostly Functional Humans feel so urgent and unpredictable -- a modern reflection of the early days of late-night talk shows, before the "pre-interview" strangled any real sense of spontaneity. Yes, the show is pre-recorded, but it manages to possess the immediacy of live radio. The only thing missing are live callers and listener feedback, though not if Dooley's fiercely supportive mother has her say about the latter. It's something of an endearing, running gag on the show, still in its relative infancy, but from the looks of the crowd tonight, that could soon change.
With the bar buzzing, the Mostly Functional Humans make their way to the makeshift stage area against the backdrop of bustling Liberty Street. It's unseasonably warm outside, and the townies are taking advantage. As the the Human's hypnotic, robotic-voiced theme song cuts through the barroom chatter (it really is a fantastic tune), the place goes quiet, and the show begins. Though the crowd is robust, Dooley is under no illusions, quickly joking that any couples there on a date are about to have a bad time. The tattooed twentysomething couple sitting in a booth half-way back don't seem intimidated as the three Humans and one particularly brave female fan distinguish the savage butt-wiping techniques from the civil. Naturally, everyone has their own approach (Dooley swears by his Squatty Potty), but the true winner here is Engineer Matt. He pumps his fist to his heart in solidarity as a laughing female fan at the open mic confesses to sharing his methods. If you've ever heard the name Karl Pilkington, you have some idea of what Engineer Matt brings to the table here. The ostensible straight man of the team, his nonchalant demeanor inevitably leads to a some blindsiding, left-field reveal that plunges the conversation into uncharted territory. In those moments, the Mostly Functional Humans podcast is at its most human. Mostly Functional Humans 12: Nicknames (February 16, 2017) Is it better to have a good nickname or give excellent nicknames? Neither! It's way better to have a wonderful name to begin with.
Mostly Functional Humans is, Retyi's own words, "Storytelling with lessons, centered on a topic." Co-host Dooley views those topics as an access point to delve deeper into the psychology of the trio, and in turn, the listener. Anecdotes, reflections, speculations, and, of course, plenty of jokes, all swirl into a nostalgia-flavored audible stew that reminds us that the common factor uniting us is that, yes, we're all slightly off-kilter in our own unique ways. But it's one thing to record yourself talking in a library studio; tonight, this brave trio is putting all of their peccadilloes on display in a crowded bar. It's a gamble that appears to have paid off; a show of hands segues into Retyi revealing that he's been off his "brain pills" for a few days. He's confident that he's been successful in supplementing with caffeine, however, and doesn't miss a beat in returning any verbal volleys as the trio moves on to their main topic for the evening: games. Bursts of laughter erupt as Retyi recalls the games he used to play with his neighborhood friends. Dooley seems especially amused by the revelation of a home-brewed game dubbed Werewolf, succinctly summarizing his co-hosts more elaborate digression on the rules to "tag with a broken BB gun," before himself launching into the description of a game called Statue, which, upon reflection, may not have been exactly what he initially perceived it to be. Over the course of the next hour, various guests use the open mic to chime in, the merits of Cards Against Humanity are pitted against those of Apples to Apples, and we discover how one mother's bout with carpal tunnel syndrome resulted in a home gaming console being replaced with a pair of tennis racquets. It all adds up to a communal blend of improvisational stand-up and audience participation that pairs perfectly with Alley Bar's casual-cool ambiance. As with their pre-recorded podcast, the gang wraps things up here with the audience still wanting more. While they obviously enjoy talking, they also embrace the virtues of brevity, and as the show concludes, Retyi and Dooley are absorbed into the boisterous crowd of friends and fans. As for their own thoughts on Mostly Functional Human's maiden voyage into the public, Retyi reckons that things went smoothly despite getting slightly parched ("So the next time, two drinks. Or I'll bring some kind of personal valet"), and not quite knowing where to look in the crowd. Dooley, meanwhile, doesn't hesitate to admit: "that was one of the scariest things I've ever done." For the guy who has confessed that he doesn't want people to look at him when he enters a room, it must have taken some measure of courage. Still, no one there was likely the wiser. As on the pre-recorded shows, he was sharp, engaged, and entirely composed in the spotlight. Mostly, he's just grateful for the show of the people he loves and "the Twitter strangers I've always tried to impress." It's precisely that unguarded attitude that makes Mostly Functional Humans worth a listen, and a night like this a communal experience that's worth getting out for.
Jason Buchanan is a writer and movie fanatic living in Ann Arbor.
The “Mostly Functional Humans” podcast can be downloaded from iTunes or via mfhumans.buzzsprout.com. The duo’s other podcast, “Ann Arbor Stories,” can be downloaded from iTunes or aadl.org/annarborstories. “Mostly Functional Humans” can be reached at facebook.com/mostlyfunctionalhumans and @mfhpodcast.