Although the on-air chemistry between Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, hosts of WNYC's Radiolab, is a big reason for their show's success, their initial collaborations were not so smooth. They first met when Krulwich ripped up Abumrad's script for a fundraising promo and then proceeded to improvise a new one — somehow mentioning aliens in the process. The pair soon began to meet for weekly breakfasts to chat about science and other worldly matters, and from that the beginnings of Radiolab emerged. One of their first tests came in the form of a pitch to Ira Glass, host of This American Life. The duo submitted a dramatic account on how to properly fold an American flag, which was met with less than enthusiastic reviews.
Abumrad told Ask Me Another host Ophira Eisenberg about Glass' response: "Not only do I hate this, but my entire staff has had multiple meetings over how much we hate it." Krulwich admits that he is still proud of that piece, to the point of refusing the payment that was promised even though the piece didn't make it on air. "This is the thing about Robert," said Abumrad. "He, to this day, with the fierceness of a stampeding herd of wildebeests, will insist that is the greatest piece of radio ever made." You can decide for yourself in a clip we played to the audience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Given the countless hours they've spent together in a radio studio, we wanted to find out just how much Abumrad and Krulwich know about each other's habits and obsessions. So in an Ask Me Another Challenge called "Lab Partners Forever," we challenge the co-hosts to guess how the other person answered some of life's biggest questions. It turns out they both have a fascination with footwear, but only one of them can't live without a shoehorn.
OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:
Welcome back TO ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR and WNYC's hour of trivia, puzzles and word games. We're coming to you live from the Brooklyn Academy of Music. I'm Ophira Eisenberg, and we have some special guests joining us. They are the hosts of the award-winning radio show and podcast, Radiolab. Please welcome Robert Krulwich and Jad Abumrad.
EISENBERG: I made the joke about you can almost read each other's minds, but it seems like you work together so well and like you're having a ball. And I know that's from years of working together, but it's also chemistry. When you first met, Jad, you were a freelancer, right?
JAD ABUMRAD: I was sort of kind of. I mean, the Radiolab had began, but it was a small neglected show...
ABUMRAD: ...On Sunday nights in the AM. And in order to justify the show, they would - the station, WNYC, would have me do, like, little things - like, little extra things, promos and various things.
ABUMRAD: And they made me go out into the world and interview a bunch of people who were supporters of the station. This dude was on the list. And he was the last guy that I went to talk to. And I handed him the script that I had written - a nice little gentle...
EISENBERG: A fundraising script?
ABUMRAD: Yeah, a fundraising kind of thing. In my memory - this might not be how it actually happened - but in my memory, he took the paper out of my hand, tore it up, threw it into the air. And it sort of scattered like confetti. And then he turned around and wrote some crazy improvised thing about alien tycoons in oil cult - I don't know. It was really weird. And that ended up being the promo. And I remember, I was so like, who is this guy?
ABUMRAD: And we just started talking. And then, fast forward a week, we had had breakfast.
ABUMRAD: And then, the next week after that, we...
ABUMRAD: We had breakfast again.
ABUMRAD: Totally platonic.
ABUMRAD: And then - I don't know. Somewhere in the stream of breakfasts, I had played you something that I had been working, which - for this show called Radiolab - very different show at that point. And he decided he would come and experiment with me.
ROBERT KRULWICH: Totally platonically.
EISENBERG: So - and then, you guys came together to do some radio. We actually have a clip of your very first radio collaboration that - about the correct way to handle the American flag?
KRULWICH: Oh, you have that one.
EISENBERG: That was a submission for This American Life.
KRULWICH: Well, now this is - this is still a controversial question in my mind.
KRULWICH: So Ira called up one day, and he said, we're doing a show where we're only going to do two-minute pieces. Can you guys do a two-minute piece? So Jad had just discovered a how to fold your American flag record.
ABUMRAD: Yeah. It was, like, one of these 1950s picture book things, where each one, like, has a little (imitating tone) when you turn the page - one of those.
EISENBERG: Yeah, yeah.
KRULWICH: It was like, take the flag and place the left corner on the right side - bing - you know? So I thought that would be a great two-minuter if we could sort of dramatize it.
ABUMRAD: So it...
KRULWICH: And I happen to feel that what we did...
ABUMRAD: Don't - no, no, no - don't bias them.
KRULWICH: All right.
ABUMRAD: Let them hear it.
EISENBERG: Let's play it. You're right.
ABUMRAD: And we can have the argument on the other side.
EISENBERG: Let's take a listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: When the flag is displayed over the middle of a street, it should be suspended vertically with the union to the north on an east-west street...
KRULWICH: Excuse me?
MAN: ...Or to the east on a north-south street.
KRULWICH: Does this street run east-west? I think it runs east-west, but I'm not sure. It has run east-west since I was a kid.North-south. That's the answer. It's run north-south since I've been a kid.
EISENBERG: Jad is rubbing his eyes.
KRULWICH: So we get a call from Ira, who said, like, what was that? I said, it was a delightful active imagination, in which I played all the parts. Jad put it the beeps...
EISENBERG: Those were your voices?
ABUMRAD: Oh, he did - yeah...
KRULWICH: Oh, I did all the voices.
ABUMRAD: Every single voice, I fear. Can I just - I just would like to amend the something you just said. He called and said, not only do I hate this, but my entire staff has had multiple meetings about how much we hate it.
KRULWICH: And I said, any group of people who were still arguing about how much they hated it in the shower - which he also said he did - I said, is a group of extraordinarily limited people who have a very narrow sense of possibility. And if folding the American flag in 13 voices in a hilarious little thing is so offensive to you, I pity you all. And then, they asked us whether we wanted a kill fee. I said, no, I don't want a kill fee.
EISENBERG: You didn't take the kill fee?
ABUMRAD: No, 'cause - this is the thing about Robert which I always - he, to this day, with the fierceness of a stampeding herd of wildebeest, will insist that is still the greatest piece of radio ever made.
ABUMRAD: And it was that conviction that he convinced me to do it.
EISENBERG: OK. So did you learn anything from that not being green-lighted by This American Life that you took into your - the beginning of your Radiolab series?
KRULWICH: That we were broader-minded, more able and more deeply musical than they are.
EISENBERG: All right. You guys, you seem to know a lot about each other, but we are going to actually test that. So - but I need to ask you, are you ready to take an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?
EISENBERG: OK. Fantastic. Give it up for Radiolab's Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich. So we know that you spend tons of time working together and anticipating each other's needs and thoughts, maybe kind of like a marriage, with the breakfasts, or perhaps a marriage is like co-hosting a radio show. Either way, we wanted to know how much you know about each other in a game we're calling Lab Partners Forever.
EISENBERG: So before the show, we asked you each a few random questions about each other, and your job is to guess how you think the other person answered. So for this game, let's welcome back our house musician, Jonathan Coulton, and our puzzle guru, Art Chung.
JONATHAN COULTON: Robert, what did Jad say is his superpower?
KRULWICH: Well, it's not dancing.
ABUMRAD: He's never seen me dance.
KRULWICH: What would be your superpower? I think it's his shoes. I think he wears the - probably the most interesting shoes. I'm always aware of his shoe choices and I think if you just stuck - if you just kept looking low, you'd find his superpower right around his feet.
COULTON: So shoe - you - shoe selection is his superpower?
KRULWICH: Shoe selection.
COULTON: That's a heck of a superpower.
KRULWICH: It's a rare one, but in his case, a very choice one, I feel.
COULTON: It's going to get you out of a lot of binds. Jad, here's what you said, and I'd be curious to know what the hell you were talking about.
COULTON: You said, controlling the volume of the universe with my pinky.
ABUMRAD: Yes. It's the superpower - Jonathan, as a troubadour yourself, perhaps you will appreciate this - it's the power to control the volume of the world. Like, you, sir, quiet, down.
ABUMRAD: That's - that would be my...
EISENBERG: So you're, like, conducting the universe?
KRULWICH: But I feel the feet is actually the better place to go.
EISENBERG: We asked Robert who has to have the last word more often.
ABUMRAD: That presumes that the arguments we have ever end.
ABUMRAD: Which often they do not. What would Robert say, that's what I'm trying to guess.
ABUMRAD: Not what is actually the journalistic truth of the matter.
EISENBERG: Well, yes to each its own.
ABUMRAD: I think I would say Robert would say that Robert has to have the last word. Is that true?
EISENBERG: Yes, that is what Robert said.
COULTON: Robert, we asked Jad, if you had your way every episode of Radiolab would feature what thing?
ABUMRAD: Look deep into my soul.
KRULWICH: There's so much clutter in your soul.
KRULWICH: A fierce downbeat.
COULTON: You're very close. The answer is an athlete bursting into tears.
EISENBERG: All right, Jad, Similar question. We asked Robert to fill in the blank - Jad is obsessed with blank. What does he think you were obsessed with?
ABUMRAD: Personal stories about music?
EISENBERG: OK, yeah. I mean, that's very close. He said Kevin Spacey.
ABUMRAD: Dammit. He's right.
KRULWICH: We were at an awards ceremony where he was going to pass by and Jad wanted to be, like right there in the line so we could - so he could - when he went by we could be really near him.
ABUMRAD: I got a picture of like, this portion of his ear 'cause he was moving so fast and I was like yeah and I just got an ear.
EISENBERG: But you got the ear?
ABUMRAD: I got the year.
EISENBERG: OK, I'm going to move on to this one, just to see if you can do this. Jad, what is the one piece of technology that Robert said he could not live without?
ABUMRAD: The one piece of technology he could not live without? I want to say - and also not figure out, would be to telephone. His cell phone.
EISENBERG: OK, can't live without it, can't figure it out. Do you remember what you said about it?
KRULWICH: I have no idea but he's right. My phone is a challenge to me.
EISENBERG: He said a shoehorn, which I think...
KRULWICH: That was actually - you don't know this but I bought on a street right near here. I bought these shoes with very unusual laces, and I thought I loved having them but I couldn't get them on. So I got a shoehorn and every day in the morning I need the shoehorn. I really can't begin the day.
KRULWICH: I mean, I can begin the day in my socks on the train with two shoes but it would - they would be best on. This is becoming a very foot oriented.
EISENBERG: Yes, foot forward.
COULTON: We are learning on awful lot about the both of you.
KRULWICH: It is getting sort of dangerous isn't it?
COULTON: This is the last question here. Robert, we asked Jad, of these famous duos which a best embodies your relationship with Robert. Batman and Robin, Laurel and Hardy, or Beyonce and Jay-Z?
KRULWICH: I'm getting go for the third 'cause it's actually the most interesting one to think about and I have no idea what have to do with anything. But that's the one I'd go for.
COULTON: Jad, is that right?
ABUMRAD: That is correct. That is correct.
ABUMRAD: There is a sort of marital quality to our situation. There's a Bonnie and Clyde thing that they have. And I like to think we're a little rough and Bonnie and Clyde like. That people are a little frightened of us. That we command a certain amount of, like attention as we walked the streets of Brooklyn.
EISENBERG: You guys are both winners because that's how it works when things go well together in a friendship, marriage and breakfast partners. So we're giving you both an ASK ME ANOTHER anagram T-shirt for a prize.
KRULWICH: Thank you.
EISENBERG: Big hand for our VIP's Radiolab's Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISTANBUL, NOT CONSTANTINOPLE")
EISENBERG: They Might Be Giants.
(APPLAUSE) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.