OAKLAND -- Giant puppets, wild music, improv comedy and tried-and-true banter come together for a special two evenings in Oakland when Radiolab Live comes to downtown's Paramount Theater.
Radiolab, the unconventional public radio show with a unique take on reporting science and human nature, is so popular here in the Bay Area a second show, for Nov. 17, had to be added after the first on Nov. 12 was sold out.
"Oakland's lucky because I think in some ways these are going probably come down as our best shows because everybody who's the craziest is there together," said co-host Robert Krulwich.
The live show, called "Apocalyptical," is more than a live session of a radio show, it's an extravaganza of theater, telling stories of destruction and survival in unusual and challenging ways. It brings elements of the well loved radio show, such serious science reporting and the rapport of its hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, but throws a few crazy wild cards into the mix.
"This is a cockamamie, completely different sort of project," Krulwich said.
But it's one with an instant following in the huge public radio listenership of the Bay Area. KQED, at
88.5 FM, is consistently in the top three stations nationwide, according to the station. KALW, at 91.7 FM, is one of the oldest non-commercial radio stations in the West and introduced NPR to the Bay Area in the 1970s.
"When we look at stats at who listens, for whatever it's worth, I think maybe more people listen in your part of the world than in any other part of the world," Abumrad said.
Turning a radio show into a live show isn't an obvious step for most people, but for the experimenters behind Radiolab it makes more sense.
The radio show is known for its tight but unconventional script, deliberately including the laughs and stumbles of ordinary talk but hewing to the strict rules of science reporting. The live show, on the other hand, will purposefully incorporate spontaneity and a little bit of chaos.
"It's too many shows to do the same thing every night," Krulwich said.
But the variety is not just to keep the hosts from getting bored. Rather it's a way to capture some of the experimental nature of the radio version, which is known for breaking many of the "rules" of radio.
"The moment we ever feel we have to stand on a stage and say the same sentences over and over again -- suddenly I feel like it would be a different thing," Abumrad said. "It wouldn't be called 'Radiolab' anymore. It wouldn't be honoring the initial spirit of the show."
For "Apocalyptical," the live banter of Abumrad and Krulwich will be interspersed with pre-recorded and reported elements, including a very unconventional look at the end of the dinosaurs. Abumrad and Krulwich will be also be joined by On Fillmore, the acoustic bass and percussion duo of Darin Gray and Glenn Kotche, and electric guitarist Sarah Lipstate, who together will create a live sound environment for the show. Erth, a theater company from Australia, will bring incredibly realistic 30-foot-tall puppets.
Various comedians have joined the tour in different cities, but Oakland will see Seattle-based Reggie Watts, a beat-boxer, vocalist and comedian who Krulwich calls "a big brain."
"Essentially we've asked the most adventurous people we know to play with us. And the emphasis really is on 'play,' in the easiest, most happiest sense of the word," Krulwich said.
The show will travel to 15 cities in total, including Cupertino, Portland and Seattle. There was only one show planned for Oakland, but the tickets sold out so quickly a second show was added. It's the second live tour for Abumrad and Krulwich, after a successful run of their live show "In the Dark" in 2012.
The current form of Radiolab started in 2005, after Abumrad spent some time at WNYC experimenting with what would become the sound of the new show. When veteran radio and television reporter Krulwich joined the show, everything came together. But initially the strange new music and irregular seasons raised a few eyebrows in the public radio world.
"Ten hours -- like, what is ten? Ten what? Ten, that's not a season, that's not anything. 'Why don't you do them more often?' Or, 'Why are there so many sounds?' All those were perfectly sensible things to ask. We just said -- 'Yes!'" Krulwich said.
Since then Radiolab has become a major hit, known for a distinct soundscape designed by Abumrad, who has a background in music, and its philosophical take on some of the most fascinating topics in science. In the recent show "Inheritance," Abumrad and Krulwich took a look at how a historical famine shaped future generations, while in the 2008 show "Choice," they visited the Berkeley Bowl produce department to illustrate how we decide between options.
"Part of our mandate is to be a few ticks to the left of "sensible" at all times," Abumrad said.
Although the live show "Apocalyptical" is about endings, Krulwich and Abumrad said not to worry about it being too depressing.
"It's actually quite a joyous show. It's really, really funny. There's a lot of a laughing," Abumrad said. "There are definitely moments which are poignant and reflective, but I feel like you should walk away feeling like every moment you're on this planet is kind of a gift. That's the ultimate spirit that propels the show."
Produced by New York's WNYC, Radiolab heard on more than 450 public radio shows across the country. In the Bay Area, you can catch the Radiolab show on both KQED at 88.5 or 89.3 and KALW at 91.7. Episodes are also downloadable from the Radiolab website, www.radiolab.org, as are web-only podcast "extras."