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New comedy podcast tackles serious subjects

BABY CARL, VOICED by Doyle Dean, right, talks with Sister Gail Worcelo of the Green Mountain Monastery about the community’s efforts to care for the planet and its inhabitants. Worcelo is one of several Vermonters interviewed in the new Baby Carl’s Happy Apocalypse podcast, a production of the New Perennials Project at Middlebury College. Photo courtesy of Bill Vitek

MIDDLEBURY — Bill Vitek and Doyle Dean know that talking about the climate crisis, social injustice and other pressing issues facing the world today can be challenging.

That’s why the pair has teamed up on a new podcast that uses comedy as a vehicle to start those conversations and make them more approachable. 

“It’s a little break from the tone, from the endless statistics and the endless blaming of another group that’s not you that’s causing all of the problems,” Vitek explained. “We spend so much time being on a side, being angry and blaming others. I feel that there’s another way to do it, or to be relieved from it for a little bit.” 

The show is called “Baby Carl’s Happy Apocalypse” and is a production of the New Perennials project at Middlebury College. It features Baby Carl, a curious toddler, voiced by Dean, with lots of questions about the world.

During each episode, Baby Carl and Vitek talk with Vermonters about their concerns for the planet and how they’re responding to those issues in their everyday lives. Each episode is also filled with singing, jokes and the frequent quips of Baby Carl.

According to Vitek and Dean, the show is an intentional blend of silliness and serious topics, meant to invite listeners to laugh as they contemplate their role in the world and in caring for it. 

“One of the takeaways (of the project) was a pretty well known fact that if you can get people to laugh, then you can get them to feel,” Dean said. “There are moments of levity in the podcast but also very serious moments, and I think that if you concentrate on only one you tend to lose people.”

Baby Carl’s Happy Apocalypse podcast is a collaboration several years in the making. Creators Vitek and Dean first met while working in New York’s Saint Lawrence County, where Vitek spent over three decades teaching philosophy at Clarkson University and where Dean currently works as production manager of North Country Public Radio. 

The pair has previously worked together on “The Baby Carl Show” on YouTube, in which Dean would interview experts in topics like politics and electronic music and perform light-hearted songs with Vitek. 

More recently, the duo began to consider expanding on that initial collaboration. 

“We wondered if we could do a podcast where we’d go out and interview people to talk about the scary things in the world, but also what they’re doing,” Vitek recalled. 

HAPPY APOCALYPSES 

The pair wanted the project to focus on the word “apocalypse” in particular, which is at times used in discussions of the more troubling aspects of today’s world. 

Vitek noted that while the term can be used to describe the end of the world, the word’s original meaning is to reveal or uncover something. 

“We came about this idea that the word ‘apocalypse’ is being bandied about quite a bit to talk about these bad times, and that we would use its original meaning, which is just a revelation, and flip it,” he said. “We’d have this somewhat innocent baby, who loves to ask big questions and who hangs out with a philosopher, to explore that.” 

In each episode, Baby Carl talks with Vermonters about the happy apocalypses, or revelations, that led to their current work in farming, education and other fields. 

He travels to the Willowell Foundation in Monkton to talk with educators about connecting with students and nature through outdoor education programs; to Shelburne’s Bread and Butter Farm to learn about regenerative farming; and to the Green Mountain Monastery in Greensboro to explore how the community of Catholic sisters cares for the earth and its inhabitants. 

DOYLE DEAN, LEFT, and Meghan Rigali of the Willowell Foundation smile with Baby Carl, the fictional star of a new podcast that explores how Vermonters are tackling pressing issues like climate change and social injustice in their everyday lives.
Photo courtesy of Bill Vitek

While each interview is filled with laughter and the jovial banter of Baby Carl and his guests, conversations also venture into the many challenging issues the world is facing. Interviewees express sorrow over the changing climate, the country’s loneliness epidemic and other pressing matters. 

Though, they also share how they’re working to address those concerns each day and make the world around them a better place to live. 

“We think the interviews really speak to extraordinary people, but they’re also just people in our neighborhood, in Vermont, in our region, who have taken a risk in their lives,” Vitek said. “That’s what a revelation sometimes does. It says ‘OK, you want to do this, it’s going to be scary; people are going to laugh at you or not reward you financially, but you do it anyway,’ and they’re doing it. They’re doing it in education, in regenerative farming, they’re doing it as Catholic sisters in Northern Vermont and throughout the world.” 

A NEW STORY 

The podcast is one of several publications and productions of the New Perennials Project, which Vitek leads at Middlebury College. The initiative explores the idea of using perennial plants as a model for how to live, such as by exploring and sharing the role and influence of perennial agriculture and education. 

To achieve its mission, the New Perennials Project team teaches a course at Middlebury College, distributes informational material through its publishing platform and works with community partners. 

Vitek explained the new podcast fits into the project’s efforts to collaborate with individuals working to nourish and support their communities. 

“We think it’s part of the work of the New Perennials Project to tell a new story and to do it in a way that’s inviting and not judgmental,” he said. 

A key characteristic of the podcast is approaching serious and important conversations through the innocent, curious eyes of Baby Carl. 

Vitek noted that having a toddler-age character guide these discussions was an intentional choice meant to introduce a different way of talking about pressing issues. He and Dean are hopeful the podcast’s comedic and child-like approach will help make such conversations more inviting. 

“Comedy has been used throughout history to push back against what’s wrong in a particular society; to make fun of it and to say, ‘do better,’” Vitek said. “We’re taking this comedy seriously, and we’re not just having a good time. We’re trying to use it to get to some serious things.” 

However, the pair acknowledges that not everyone will agree with the concept, as talking to Baby Carl about serious topics might be strange or upsetting for some. 

“The Baby Carl podcast is a concept piece, we’ll admit that,” Vitek said. “There’s a fine line in comedy, and people might not think it’s funny and get angry, so there’s always that danger.” 

The pair is grateful that those they’ve interviewed thus far have been fully on board with the idea, which has led to fruitful conversations. 

“People speak differently to Baby Carl than they do to anyone else interviewing them,” Dean noted. “(With other people), there’s an ego involved, or a self-awareness that goes away once they’re talking to the Baby Carl character. They reduce everything to its basic meaning.” 

The pair has released five episodes of the Baby Carl’s Happy Apocalypse podcast beginning this past June and is hoping to talk with more Vermonters for a second season of the show. 

In the meantime, they’re looking forward to sharing the podcast with listeners. Those interested in listening to Baby Carl’s Happy Apocalypse podcast can find episodes at babycarl.buzzsprout.com.

Dean and Vitek are hopeful those who tune in will be prompted to consider their own happy apocalypses and how they can inspire change in their everyday lives. 

“I just want people to feel something, to enjoy it and to get inspired to see what they can do to change their lives in small ways because we’re all on this planet together,” Dean said. “I think environmental issues have often been put in a column with everything else; ‘I like skiing,’ or ‘Oh, I like painting,’ or ‘Well, I like the environment.’ But there’s no skiing or painting or anything else with a planet that’s ruined. The environmental issue and concern have been kind of shoehorned into a hobby or an interest or a vocation when it really needs to be at the top of everything else because, without a planet, what are you going to do?”

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