Home Is Where The Heart Aches: A Conversation With LOCAL AIR’s Josh Raby

This small-batch comedy is the perfect Thanksgiving binge-watch, and we talk with its creator about comedy, pain, and hating your hometown.

Social media raconteur Josh Raby dropped a ten-episode digital series on Vimeo last week, called Local Air. Set around a catastrophic personal incident that happens live on public access television, it's a sad and hilarious portrait of small-town life from the point of view of those who're not only cursed to live it, but to draw a paycheck celebrating it. Josh has uploaded the series for free, partially in the hopes of attracting the attention of folks who might want to fund the creation of more of what he's putting down here. Mostly I think he just wants you to watch it. 

I did, and I loved it. It’s a breezy binge-watch (some episodes are around 15 minutes), it’s got laughs and heart in equal measure, and most importantly it’s an original, uncut, unsponsored voice telling the story it wants to tell. I had a lot of thoughts upon finishing it, but rather than a straight review I wanted to talk it out with Josh himself. He was cool enough to go along with that plan, and in the following conversation I was knocked out by his passion, his thoughtful creative process, and his well-earned sense of pride in creating something wholly unique. Heads up that there are legitimate twists and turns in Josh’s handmade seriocomic small-town epic, so we’ll tread lightly around spoilers, but this interview will probably make more sense if you watch the show first. So definitely go do that.

BMD: This show made me nostalgic for public access! They don’t really make it in Philly anymore. Is it still produced out where you are?

Josh Raby: Not really. I'm sure it's not totally extinct, but the closest you usually get anymore is locally shot commercials. Alex Syler, the executive producer and editor on our show, was actually the camera guy for a little ad agency down here that did a weekly program called "Best Buys", which was our template for "Shoppin' Around with Gil Cotton!". But that died out nearly ten years ago. It's a shame. I love how earnest it all is.

When I was very young, there was a public access show out of Huntsville, Alabama called Wayy Too Early with Jamie Cooper. I was obsessed with it. I got up every morning before school to watch it. They'd talk about the most inane things, like local junior high softball scores, city council meetings, stuff like that. I never believed for a second the host was interested in any of it, but he very obviously believed he was making it interesting for you. (He's still going, by the way. Now his show is called Cooper & Company. I don't know where it airs, but every day I get a YouTube alert saying he's uploaded that morning's show, always in pristine standard def.)

I hate that it's died out. There's something really sweet but also totally bullshit about it, calling in to talk to some guy or gal on your television that you could just talk to at the supermarket later that day.

Local Air is centered around Gil Cotton (played by David Alford), a guy who’s spent 20 years hosting a local morning show in his wife’s hometown. He’s not from there, but he’s made this choice to not just spend his life there, but to be defined by his connection (that he doesn’t even really feel) to the town. The show mines this for laughs, but there’s also a lot of anger to that aspect of the show, and it felt like you were maybe drawing on something personal there.

JR: The first memory I have is packing a suitcase and telling my mom I had to get out of town and go somewhere bigger. I was, like, three years old. My mom loves this story, but I think that's because I got to the end of the driveway and had a total meltdown and ran right back home. I think it's fair to say I've always had an uneasy relationship with my hometown. Bob Morgan has a line in episode 6 where he's talking about New Alfren, and he says "It's not the buying in that makes 'em dumb, it's the never bothering to know what else is on the shelf." That's maybe a little cute, but I tend to identify with where he's coming from.

In terms of Gil's relationship with New Alfren, everything for him hinges on this representation of himself he's created. That image takes a pretty big hit in the first episode. The curtain kind of falls down for him, and for the town. It changes the way they interact. It makes it impossible for everyone to just smile and nod and talk about junior high softball scores. It's a moment, ideally, that should lead everyone to a more authentic and human place, but I don't think any of these people are really equipped for that. It's eventually easier for Gil to just resent the town, and vice versa, than it is to get real about any of it. I reckon that's a thing that makes Gil angry. It makes me angry.

Just as I was wondering if Gil and his love/hate relationship with small-town life was your in-show avatar, you yourself show up as Lee, a guy who’s navigating his own marital meltdown by playing PI and compiling evidence for an impending custody battle. How much of you is there in “Tom Selleck's fucked-up nephew”?

JR: There's a little biography there. I'm a single dad; I went through a divorce several years ago. Lee has a pretty key monologue in episode 7 that the writers lifted straight from my life. I was (I hope) a lot more controlled, a little less wild than Lee, but I get his friction. I understand what he's trying to do.

You see pictures of him from before, and he looks like a normal guy. I think, like Gil, he's had this idea of himself shattered. The difference is Gil keeps trying to be the same old Gil Cotton, but when Lee's life goes to shit, by god, he's gonna be king of the shit. He spends the whole season chasing down things he knows are gonna hurt him. He's just chugging poison because he doesn't know how to heal. Sure, he wants custody of his daughter, and I think he genuinely wants that for the right reasons. But just as intensely as Gil is trying (and failing) to pretend everything is normal, Lee is twisting everything into this over-the-top shitshow. Neither guy is just squaring up their shoulders and dealing with themselves honestly.

Lee talks a lot of shit about his ex-wife, but I think deep down he knows he's not a great guy. He gets through most of his conversations on charm, and when that doesn't work, he either goes totally blank or he gets dismissive and sarcastic. These are a lot of things I struggled with in my 20s. So I can relate.

I was thinking during the early episodes that setting the series around this public access show was a pretty retro move, but then (without spoiling anything here) the whole thing gets dragged onto the internet in a very significant (and fucking hilarious) way. And with the Bob Morgan character (a TV talent scout from a larger market) we learn that it’s actually a much more pointed commentary on contemporary media than it might have seemed at first glance. Talk to me about those choices, and how they developed.

JR: That progression was always part of the show, swinging around to that in the end. I'm an online guy. I'm probably addicted to social media, which is funny, because at the end of the day I don't see a whole lot of difference between social media and small towns. Twitter is just New Alfren on your phone. YouTube is public access television. People are still people, whether they're in the break room at the bank or posting on Facebook. People act like there's a huge difference, but I just don't see it. We're all slowing down for traffic accidents, we're all throwing out our opinions on people's personal affairs. The internet just makes it a difference of scale.

The only thing that really changes for Gil as his misfortune spreads is that he doesn't have anywhere to run. There's nowhere he can go to pretend everything is fine. That's what the internet does. It makes the whole world a small town.

Bob is easy to read as a cynical character that we're using to criticize the internet, or contemporary media. That's true to a point, but I think he's also just a guy who knows how to use those things. He's quick to weaponize or commodify people's personal experiences, but at the same time, his "online perspective" is actually more open than anyone else's on the show. The fact is the internet is more diverse than the town I grew up in. It's more diverse than New Alfren. And opening yourself up to that means you have to realize the way you've viewed yourself, or the world, might be limited.

Without spoiling anything, I don't think the way it lands is "Bob is a bad guy from a big city, come to do modern wickedness in a small town." I think Bob possesses more self awareness than Gil. He's smarmy and self-satisfied, and he's definitely a user, but I also think he sees things Gil refuses to acknowledge about himself. A lot of the credit for that goes to Jeremy, who really makes this guy feel like more than some cardboard obstacle.

After ten episodes it feels like we know a significant number of New Alfren residents. The Simpsons’ Springfield is the easy reference, but there’s a sense of Christopher Guest’s ensemble stuff in here, Altman’s Nashville - online I joked about Local Air reminding me of Richard Scarry’s world-building. What’s the appeal of depicting the whole town? Was that something that was baked into this from the beginning?

JR: To me, this is why you make a tv show. You get to chase down all the corners of a space. New Alfren doesn't feel like a real town because I slapped its name on a water tower. It's about the people who occupy it. It was always really important to me that we cast the core characters with actors, but surrounded them with real folks. For one, it separates our characters, particularly Gil, from their own sense of authenticity. But it's also part of why I buy New Alfren as a place. If you're gonna have a show about a guy whose whole life is pointing at townspeople, you've gotta really go for that. You've gotta figure out who those folks are, what makes them special enough to be in front of Gil's camera. And that opens up a lot of story possibilities. There's always somewhere to go.

A lot of this comes from taking considerable time on the bible for the show, building out the world. You've always got that reference. You trust that whatever story point you come up with, you can find some weird little character to involve in it. As opposed to sometimes you'll come up with something on the fly, then try to chase it too long, and it ends up slowing your story down. When you've done the work on the front end, you can just trust yourself to dip in and out as needed. You're more confident then; you get stuck less.

How did you arrive at certain narrative sidebars like, say, devoting half an episode to the private life of Vernon Gard (Gil’s boss at the TV station, who fancies himself a straight-talking conservative TV personality)? It took me by surprise but the way it plays out is kind of beautiful.

JR: That's kind of a swing, spending such a late episode, where we're wrapping up a lot of plot, focused on a character who had been in the background for most of the season. But that's kind of the deal with our show. We figure there are no rules for us because we're making it ourselves. We have the freedom to turn wherever we want. And in an episode that's about everyone having very loud opinions and reactions to Gil, it made sense to us to key in on the one guy who has been managing this the entire time. Gil Cotton doesn't exist in a vacuum. He's the focus of our show, but every episode we've been following him around, other characters have been having to live their lives.

In the end, we're building to a moment where Gil has to sort of reckon with yet another presentation of himself, one he may not like. It made sense to us to step back and approach that from the perspective of his strongest link to the town. Plus, I adore Richmond Ross (the actor who plays Vernon). He was one of the first folks we cast. Everyone else got a chance to show their guts. I wanted my buddy to have that. And I think he does lovely work with it.

He does. It’s a really disarming moment when you see him at home, after he’s been this kind of blowhard asshole for much of the show. But the whole show is kind of fearless in its willingness to juxtapose such things. One of the most impressive balancing acts I noticed is that you’re okay with making Gil and Lee’s struggles kind of ridiculous - Gil’s frozen face during his wife’s on-air departure, Lee’s various private investigator antics - but you never invalidate their pain or make it inauthentic. Is that Hal Ashby/Alexander Payne sweet spot an important focus for you? Are my name-drops way off here?

JR: Payne is a great reference for this kind of thing, the way he takes moments that, on paper, are personally deflating or outright devastating, and shoots them like sight gags or bits of physical comedy. That’s how my eye works. Sadness, loneliness, these are things I’m pretty familiar with, and the only way I know to process them is by stepping back and realizing how sloppy and silly they can be. Not in a mocking way, but in a lovely sort of “god, this goofy life we get to have” sort of way.

What you’re also hitting on here is the private/public split of the show. We are writing characters who are actively writing their own characters at the same time. Does anyone think Gil Cotton is a real name? Lee actively lies and tells people he’s a detective. Vernon barks, for god’s sake. These are all projections. 

Breaking those down private moments is the joy of the show for me. Watching these guys, alone, taking off their costumes, exhausted but not knowing how to stop, that’s the heart of what we’re trying to do.

We had a rule on Local Air that went “show is show.” Basically what that meant was that in writing and editing, whenever we were watching a broadcast, we didn’t cut to “real life.” It’s presented as a broadcast. We don’t get to run away from that or communicate the human emotion through nice widescreen dramatic beats. We play it straight. As the show goes on this gets chipped away at, because their projections are getting chipped away at. It’s one of the choices I’m proudest of, but man- it’s hard. Because public access, as fun as it is to replicate, gets boring FAST if you don’t do it right. 

The women in your protagonists’ lives are almost ghosts- their existence is felt, but they’re rarely actually present. I can see that being a kneejerk criticism for some, but to me it felt like a pointed decision - there’s this sort of phantom limb effect when a relationship ends and there’s this echo felt in everything.

JR: It's definitely a choice. There were two reasons for that. The first is as you said, you want to sell that absence. It's hard to truly carve that hole in your characters if you're constantly checking in on the people that left them behind. Little moments, like Gil hosting his show next to an empty chair, or Gil trying to call Sandy only to get a "this number has been disconnected" message, they're just so much lonelier if you as an audience don't even get to see where she's gone.

The second reason is more thematic. The show was always going to be about these guys reckoning with their self-image, and divorce is, in my experience, a pretty solid mechanism for that. With this first season, our goal was to key in on these guys and how they're processing this shift in dominance, this sort of sense of impending irrelevance. If we're lucky enough to move forward with a second season, the scope of the show will widen to include a lot more voices and faces. The majority of new characters we hope to introduce are women, and that's by design.

I also think it's important for guys to tell stories for other guys about processing this kind of loss. Not for guys to create victim narratives - none of these men are victims of anything. But to tell stories about the emotions involved in recognizing how slight you've been, how much you've taken for granted.

Gil has a line in episode 8, and it's probably the most crucial line of the season for his character. A woman is talking to him about how being left by her husband made her jealous, not because he ran off with someone else, but because he left to be someone else. She asks Gil if he understands that, and he just sort of sighs and says "No. I was fine." That's what it's all about. A lot of men get by in relationships just feeling "fine", and not being very invested or engaged. We wanted to focus on a man coming to terms with his own indifference. You know, the stuff of all wacky country comedy.

Tell me a bit about the production schedule, and what kinds of challenges you faced making a low-budget webseries sitcom that’s as professionally executed as this one.

JR: We started writing in November of 2013, and we set to filming season one in August of 2014. We ran a 32-day shoot, and that was that. We started editing immediately. I was incredibly impatient. I'd left a good paying job and tossed myself into all manner of hellfire to do this, and I was glad I did, but I have two daughters, so I felt a lot of pressure. We cut four episodes and put them out in early 2015, but I wasn't happy. The problem wasn't that the show was outright bad or not working, it was that it was just good enough to make you notice the places where it wasn't working even more.

What really happened was that we got to episode 6 in editing, got to the banquet scene, and it knocked us on our ass. There was some real work being done there, we felt, that exceeded even our expectations for a web series. So I pulled the episodes we'd released, and I said "We'll release again when we make the rest of the show as good as this scene."

From there, we spent 2015 doing a lot of additional shooting. To my surprise, everyone except one person not only came back, but was excited to come back. I'm very fortunate to have found the group of people I have on this show. There have been many times I've wanted to quit, but their faith and work has kept me going. It's not easy when you're self-financing and largely working alone to complete it. Alex (my EP) and I have both struggled to manage our real lives making ends meet while still giving this show what we felt it deserved.

It's hard. Like I said, I have kids. They were feeling lonely, as dad was hunkered over a computer. I took a good six months off to focus on them.

We spent 2016 integrating all of our new footage. Finally, we felt we'd lived up to the promise of the work everyone had done. But we'd spent all of our money getting to that point, so we needed to fundraise to pay for a lot of post. So we put the first episode on YouTube in October of 2016 and tried to shove that on people to get us the funds to finish things up properly.

And it worked, after a fashion. We got the money to get the sound done, and I can't say enough about how pleased I am with the way this show sounds. It really saves our ass and expands the world in ways I never expected. But that was a job between jobs for Doug (our supervising sound editor), so it was bit by bit over 2017. I ended up doing all the color and visual effects myself. Doug and I finally sort of finished at the same time in November of this year. It's been a process, but we've ended up with a show we're all proud of.

All of this is to say, people showed up on weekends, I stole hours when I wasn't waiting tables or helping kids with homework. It's an hour here and there, a favor called in for this weekend, etc. I'm gratified when people use the word "professional" about the show. Most of that is a combination of community generosity and my own lack of sleep.

What parts of the series do you feel you nailed?

JR: When I started this project, my goals were to create a world that felt lived in, to show I had a voice, and to honor the work of the people who gave us their time and honest effort. I feel like I've met those goals. New Alfren feels very real to me, and from what I've seen so far, it feels that way to the audience. The people who made the show all want to go back, and so far it looks like the viewers do, too. Can't do any better than that.

Working on a microbudget show like this, you'll always leave with a lot of technical hangups. There are a lot of things that bother me, and will probably stick out to folks who do this professionally. That's just the deal when your budget is "the yearly salary of a waiter". Most of this show was shot with a crew of 3-4 people, running around like wild things, storming local bingo parlors and cookie shops. When I watch it now, I know we missed the exposure here, or the continuity got jacked there. But we mostly nailed it when it counted.

What parts are you less satisfied with?

JR: The main dissatisfaction I have is that I didn't trust myself earlier. I was very conservative when we conceived of this show. The episodes were designed to be 8-10 minutes each. The shot list was limited. We left a lot of story on the table. More than a couple beats we could've gotten if I hadn't constrained myself visually. We bulked it up, and I feel at peace with it, but I do wonder how much more we could've gotten out of it if I'd planted a flag and said "20 minutes, every time." right out of the gate. There are episodes that suffer from that narrative thrift, and there are moments that suffer from that "just get the guts" shooting approach. I'm happy with the season, but if we got to proceed, we'd aim for 20 minutes every episode. I trust myself more, and I trust my team a great deal.

Now the question everyone I know who’s watched Local Air asks upon finishing: what happens in season two, and when do we get it?

JR: Underground illegal remote control race-car gambling ring.

An episode shot like an episode of Ghost Hunters.

Sex, but, you know... sad.

And we are going to the beach.

We have three seasons mapped out. That's all we want. And we think it's a nice little journey for these characters. As I said, we put this first season on our backs. We went into a dozen small towns and had whole communities show up and offer services and locations, support. But that's a bullet you can only really fire once. We'd love to go back to New Alfren, but it's going to take someone seeing value in the work and moving forward with financing. We're looking, though. Everyone involved loves working on this silly, sad little show. I'd love to reward them with more work for their effort. Maybe someone out there with some heavier pockets will feel the same.

All ten episodes of Local Air are available to stream on Vimeo now.