What would you get if you crossed the intimacy of a Janet Cardiff sound piece, the irreverence of MTV's Daria, and the small town weirdness of David Lynch's Twin Peaks? My best guess would be Turner Masters Memory Hospital, a six-part mini epic of radio theater out now on the Forever Dog podcast network. Co-written by comedian, voice artist, and poet Catherine Cohen ("It's A Guy Thing" at Union Hall; "The Twist? She's Gorgeous") and comedian, video artist, and writer Steven Markow (The New Yorker; McSweeney's), it tells the tale of residents in the town of Riverwater following the death of popular local teenage sex offender Turner Masters.
The show's title comes from a plan hatched by Turner's mother, one Mrs. Benina Masters (played by the borderline flawless performer Peter Smith), to shutter the local hospital and turn it into a living memorial for her atrocious son. While Turner's death seems to have clearly been an accident aboard a yacht, his surviving girlfriend, Magrissa (Cohen), and best friend, Gronathan (Markow), somehow convince themselves that foul play is afoot and bounce around town interrogating multiple unsavory locals in an effort piece together clues.
In a recent feature on the A.V. Club, writer Rebecca Bulnes astutely observed, "Across the scathing satirical series’ six episodes, every character is written with such id, and each is grotesque in their own unique and surprising ways. It’d be wrong to categorize the show as pure gross-out humor, though. It takes some very smart people to write characters this dumb..."
The continued references to Turner's violent dismemberment of neighborhood animals, his repeated sexual assault cases, and his insistence that virtually everyone besides him was a "fag" could be lazy fodder for shock-and-offend bro-comedy. However, Cohen and Markow have managed to strike that difficult satirical chord where the piss is taken out of those in positions of power. Don't get me wrong--there are plenty of cringe-worthy moments throughout the series. It's an endurance test to digest the horrendous things spewing out of virtually every character's mouth. But its ability to confront, head-on, serious topics like rape, homophobia, misogyny, and privilege is part of why it's such a successful piece of art. Instead of creating a world where the abject is mined for easy laughs, it exacerbates the rampant problems of suburbia to a point where discomfort yields introspection. Good satire holds up a mirror to society, and the reflection of ourselves within the simultaneously sprawling but suffocating universe of Riverwater is unsettling and effective.
Any artist interested in sound collage, world-building and narrative, persona and performance, or cultural critique will find plenty to chew on in Turner Masters Memory Hospital. The ugliness of its characters is countered by warm and seamless audio production, permitting one to get lost within the world, and then be violently shaken up without warning. And it's a who's-who of comedy and performance art voice talents including Jaboukie Young-White, Jo Firestone, Bowen Yang, Brett Davis, Mitra Jouhari, Matt Rogers, Dan Chamberlin, and many, many more. Chicago-based artist and comedian Sarah Sherman (AKA Sarah Squirm) contributed a series of bizarrely grotesque illustrations of many of Riverwater's residents to the project, adding a bonus layer of fuckery to the series' universe. Check out her pieces below. And tune into the next episode of the Humor and the Abject podcast dropping on Sunday night where Cohen and Markow will be my guests.