With its basic set, strict talking-heads-only policy and scarce graphics, “You Can’t Ask That” may look like the easiest TV Show on earth to produce.
Well, it is not, and Kirk Docker, its creator, explains why in an in depth interview that sheds light on the very sophisticated and Carefully planned inner workings of one of the most successful TV formats ever created. The cards are there for a reason, and so is the white background. Even the wall to wall music, says Docker, fulfills a very specific purpose.
Interviewed via Zoom by Anat Sela Inbar & Jonathan Bar Giora
Jonathan: Hi Kirk, thank you for this interview, though I must admit coming up with good honest, penetrating questions to you pose a unique challenge…
Kirk: Don’t worry, if I have to subject my participants to awkward questions, then the least I can do is to answer any questions people throw at me…
Jonathan: Sounds fair.
Anat: I guess we are not the only interviewers trying to go out of their way when it comes to you.
Kirk: It's funny, when I do interviews about the show I find all sorts of unusual things. A while ago I Was talking to a radio presenter in Darwin, which is at the top of Australia, and she said "I've got a confession to make". I said, "yeah, remember that's live on the air…", but she continued anyway: "my favorite episode is “The Nudist”. Since I watched that episode, to the shock-horror of my children, I've become a nudist myself. Now my teenage children have to deal with me being nude in the house when their friends come around. And it all came from watching that one episode". There was this pause and then she continued: "this is the first time I've ever talked about it on air, and said to my audience, I'm now a nudist". You find out funny things when you do these interviews.
Jonathan: Well, so far we are all dressed here, but otherwise we will do our best to make this conversation as interesting as possible :) , so. “You Can’t Ask That”, which by the way is translated here to “Pardon my question”, is a huge hit in Israel. How much are you involved in international versions of the show? And how different are they from the original?
Kirk: Everyone's title of the show translates differently, and of course in the Hebrew version the text also goes across in the opposite direction. It was fun to watch that Look. I'm aware of some other countries that make this show, and I sometimes hear, especially in the early seasons, what episodes they do. And every now and then they'll make an episode that I haven't heard of before. In Spain I know they did an episode on gypsies, and we don't have gypsies in Australia, that's not a type or group of people that we have. So I was very excited to see that they had this new group. It inspired us to do an episode about our traveling people in Australia. We call them "Showies". We have these things called "the Sidney shows" where all the farmers come in and show their animals. It's like a fair or a festival. They're sort of our traveling people.. When they did nudists in Holland, they didn't have everyone nude. But I thought "wow, that's a good episode, that half their people were nude and half were wearing clothes". So that inspired us to do an episode on nudists. But make sure that all my people were nude. So it is cool hearing about the other countries and their own groups and their own questions.
Jonathan: One thing that always amazes me when I watch the show is the fact nobody is ever offended. They take the questions, and never seem to be hurt, or insulted…
Kirk: Choosing the right people for the episodes takes a lot of work, and sometimes we might speak to a hundred people to choose those eight. It doesn't mean that some of the people we don't choose aren't correct, but it's about getting that mix, that really great mix of styles and energies. It is also very important that they accept their story. It's very important that the people who come on accept who they are, accept their label. And in terms of not being offended by the question, I think a lot of that comes down to choosing the right person. Secondly, they have power in the way that they answer the question. In normal life someone might ask them this question in an offensive way, or they might ask them in a supermarket, or in another public place. They're not doing it from a place of care. Whereas even though our questions are rude, they get to read the question themselves, take it in and then answer how they want. And then my follow-up questions are really coming from a place of care, of trying to understand it, trying to unpack it. They realize that. They realize that we genuinely care, and that we want to get their message out. The more the show and the production cares – and that's right from the phase of doing the pre-interviews all the way through, right to the end - the more the people feel comfortable to share their stuff and not be offended. And even if they are offended, if they say: you know what, that's an offensive question, for me I'm interested in why, why is that an offensive question? Let's unpack why that's offensive, and let's understand that. And when we've understood why it's offensive, they will quite often go ahead and say: well, here's my answer. In normal life, people who ask them these same questions just want the juicy stuff. They don't really care.
Anat: Still, it is sometimes hard to comprehend why people, especially in very difficult episodes, like the one about people who accidentally killed somebody, why they're willing to participate. These are areas where most people tend to suppress painful chapters in their lives. How can you persuade someone, and why would they come and talk about something so hard?
Kirk: Yeah. Look, that was a difficult episode to make. It took us two years to make that episode, we just couldn't get enough people to say "yes". Plus, we were debating whether it was ethical to put these people on television. Whether it was too sensitive a topic to put on air. A lot of our episode ideas come from, like, a simple question: what would it be like to "blah", you know? In this instance, it did not start with ”what would it be like to kill someone, and how would you deal with that?”. It started with a much broader question:what's the worst thing that could happen to you? And our answer was, accidentally killing someone feels like the worst thing that could happen to someone. And so, if that's the worst thing, how does someone deal with that? The other thing about accidentally killing someone is it being so sudden. You wake up one day completely normal, and at the end of that same day your life is completely changed. It's not something that happens over a slow amount of time. It's "boom". And not only that, often when you kill someone by accident It can be someone that you know. In Australia, we have a lot of drunk-driving related road accidents. And we often talk about it in the news as statistics, but you don't often hear it from the people that do it. So it just felt like a really important question to ask, a fascinating question to ask.
Jonathan: but how can you convince someone to talk about it publicly?
Kirk: Convincing people to tell stories is a complex mission. First, you have to understand: what do they want out of the experience? Why would they do it? And every one has different reasons for that. Some people may just want to go on TV, right? Not necessarily "killed-someone" people, but some people just want to go on TV. Some people feel like their story is misunderstood. Particularly people with mental health issues, things like postnatal depressions or eating disorders. I think there's a lot of misunderstanding around that. A lot of people ask them a lot of questions, and they feel like: "hey, I just want these issues to be cleared up, and I feel like this is a forum where we can trust our story to be told". And then some other people carry this stuff on their own. This is a huge burden that they carry. In terms of the "killed someone" episode, I think it's such a huge burden these people carry, that it's like an elephant in the room. Something that no one will talk to them about it, but everyone knows that they've done. No one knows how to bring it up, no one knows the right time to bring it up, so they're just walking around constantly with this thing on their shoulder, they've done this thing, yet no one will talk to them or ask them about it. They don't know how to talk, they don't know what to ask, they don't know how to bring it up, so it never gets spoken about. Every single day, they carry this burden on their own. I felt like that was something that was true for a lot of these people, and that this was, maybe, a chance to talk about it and clear it up. It still didn't make it easier.
Anat: How do you make such burdened people trust you with their innermost painful memories?
Kirk: I think the important thing is that they know we are coming from a place of care. That we were doing this for the right reasons. We weren't doing this to exploit them. And when we spoke to these people on the phone, we asked them: do you want to understand this? If so - we want to try and help you explain this thing. And so the first people we contacted about it weren't necessarily the people that came on the air. There was this gentleman I spoke to, he killed his girlfriend in a road accident, coming back from a music festival, and he lost his family, he lost her family – they were engaged, I think, or were about to get engaged, so his family just felt disgraced by him, her family felt disgraced, and he just became this loner. I spent a lot of time talking to this guy on the phone, just understanding his experience. Now, he never ended up being on the show, he didn't want to come on the show, but we spent a lot of time trying to understand the experience, and when you really care, and you try to understand the experience, when you speak to others, and they realize that you're coming from that place, they trust you with their story.
Jonathan - You are sometimes dealing with deep traumas that theoretically can be emotionally explosive.
Kirk: We have our own psychologist on board. So there's a lot of care that goes into it. You know? It's not just "call these people up", "come in". It's hours of carrying the moment, it's making sure they're cared for afterwards. One of the things that is true for, I would say, every person that had been on the show is that it's been a positive experience for them, that people in their life have admired them, their bravery, or admired their courage, or honesty for speaking. It's never true that someone who comes on and speaks openly and authentically about who they are gets ridiculed for that. And I think there's this misconception around the world that people are going to judge you if you're being honest and truthful about your life. It's the opposite. If you accept who you are, you're honest about it, you're truthful about it, people admire you. Even if it's something like the "killed someone" type thing. So, all those people that came on the show got a lot of family and friends supporting them afterwards, because… their family and friends have been wanting to support them, but they didn't know how to do it. And so this, in a way, has allowed this story to come out for other people to hear it, and for them to come around and go: wow, I didn't realize what you were going through, I didn't understand that part of it. Well, now I understand it, and now I've got more courage to ask more questions, because they've opened up. This is true for every single episode.
Jonathan: Let’s talk about the music. A perfect mixture of almost comic good vibe with a touch of tension. And it's the same music all over the world. I would like for you to tell me how you chose this specific sound, that’s so very accurate for the show. This is true for the title music, but also for the almost wall-to-wall music that’s underneath the chapters.
Kirk: The opening title's music - we got lucky there. As part of the network we're part of here, the ABC, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, we also have a series of radio stations, and they have a youth radio station, on which they have a section called "Talented musicians who haven't got a break yet", where they give these people a chance. When we first started the show we were on a very small budget, a tiny show, and we wanted to find some unique music for the opening titles. That’s when we hit up this unearthed part of the network, and said: hey, have you got any young music that's come through? And they said: here's all this music. So my editor, who's also a very good producer in his own right, found this piece of music, re-edited it himself, and then just thought it was a right fit for the show. I actually got the full length music, and it goes into quite a dance track. So it starts that way, and then it turns into a full techno-track. The piece we use is really the introduction. You're right, we couldn't foresee how perfect that music was, it was just this peculiar sound that was inquisitive, curious, yet something that was catchy. It was something we all liked, it felt timeless, I’m afraid I can't give you much more insight than that. The composer, A young artist that made that, he's now stopped making music, but he still gets a royalty from that, he happens to have made this one piece of music that is being played all around the world, and we've never met him, we just found his piece of music, we only ever corresponded by email, so it was just a stroke of luck.
Anat: and the rest of the score?
Kirk: The music for the rest of the show is all composed by one composer. We give him a locked-off episode, and we tell him where all the… what we call it "articulations", little moments where it changes. Because, we're trying to weave all these different stories together. So within a section of one question we sort of think that there's, like, three or four chapters, Mini-chapters. And so when we give it to the composer we mark the time codes: here's where it changes, here's where it changes, and so he works very specifically to these time codes all the way through, and sometimes he'll compose a piece of music that suits certain characters, so it weaves in and out. Each question has almost its own little soundtrack. So it's quite a task, composing eight episodes per season, thirty minutes each, he's composing four hours of music for every season, and each has its own thing, its own sound. When we do an episode about cult survivors, you can feel the influence of the cult, and he weaves that through. We're trying not to be obvious in the composition of the music, but we're also trying to feel like it's comfortable, it feels right. If we had to use library music, we'd find it very difficult. It's the composition of the music which ties the whole thing together, and it's a really beautiful part of the show. And no one ever asks about it, so I'm glad you asked.
Jonathan: I'm proud! And if I may, one more question about the soundtrack. You chose almost wall-to-wall music, and I wonder, is that something that you have to do because that's the style of broadcasting in Australia, or something else?
Kirk: It's a good question. No, it's not a thing in Australia where they do wall-to-wall music, it's very unusual, actually, what we did. In season one we didn't have a composer, we worked with file music, and my editor at the time, he would go through and find these individual pieces of music and put it through, and really it was just that we'd choose a piece of music that we use and weave through.You take a three or four minute piece of music, and you try to cut it to suit the ebbs and flows of the question. When the composer took over, he sort of took his cues from what we did in season one, and did wall-to-wall music. I think that if we had our time, we may not do that, because it is such a big effort to compose that much music. Having said that, the thing with that show is it's talking heads, so you don't have that many elements to play with. You have the graphics, you have the music, and you have the breaks, the confession rings, and so it's almost like the music in itself becomes the overall vibe, becomes the pictures. So when we did this episode on firefighters, when they're talking about what was it like, coming face to face with the flames, it's really the music and the sound effects that we weaved through it that helped you visualize this stuff. So we're really leaning on the music, maybe more than other television shows, to help paint the picture, because we haven't got other pictures, to create an atmosphere, to create an idea, to create a feeling that maybe will be created on other shows with overlays or cutaways.
The Firefighters’ scene
Jonathan: Has anyone ever become famous, or made a career after being on the show?
Kirk: Yes! There's definitely some people who have written books, there's people who've… you see them pop up on other shows now, as guests on panels, or they appear on as sort of expertise in certain topics that they know about. There's quite a few, actually. And then sometimes, we have people who are famous on our show, but not for the thing they're famous for. So in our episode on OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder, the host of "The Bachelor" has OCD, and it's not widely known. So we had him on as a guest on the OCD episode. Sometimes we'll put celebrities, very rarely, but they're not given any special treatment.
Anat: They don’t do it here in Israel, we have no celebrities in the show. I don't know if it's the same in the Australian version, but in Israel you don't know their names and where they are from until the end of the episode.
Kirk: Yes, that was a very deliberate choice.
Anat: How does it start? They come into the show, and they sit down, and at the end they step out, and then suddenly you see how old they are, where they're from, what's their name…?
Kirk: Yeah, we didn't want the audience to get caught up in the name or where they're from, anyway that they could judge the person. We just wanted to eliminate all that. Say, with the backdrop: very plain. We just wanted it to be about the person and what they had to say. We wanted to credit the person at the end just because you got to hear them, you got to know them, got to understand them, and then you got to say: and this is how they are, rather than the other way around: here's this person, and here's their title, and here's where they're from, and already you're coming up with ideas of who is this person. We just wanted to let their stories speak for themselves. The walking-in, we call it, like, "a decompression moment" at the end. It's the same with the "piggy-up the question", it's a little moment of breath. It's partly… in the middle of it, it's to give you a breath. At the start, at the end… we just wanted to, because it's so tight in it and all the way through, we just wanted to remind the audience that they're just normal people. They're not actors, they're not experts, they're not spokespeople, they're not these perfect, polished humans. And so that bit at the start, "I'm a bit nervous about how it's going to go", or "I'm excited", or "I can't wait to see this", or a funny little joke. And at the end, that same, a little sigh. Just so at home, you go: Oh my god, yes! That's how I would be! And again, it's just little moments of connections, just so, that, for the audience, to reminds them: it's just like you and me, it's just like someone that's just walking down the street. Because I think if you're watching it yourself, and you go: that's how I would have gone! Or: I didn't like that person so much, but when I saw them take a breath – oh, right! It just reminds you it's just a normal person. So it's all about just reminding the audience: Yeah, we're ordinary just going through an extraordinary situation, but they're just like you and me at the end of the day. We love those little moments, and there are other ways to get little moments of humor, and other moments to get in a joke. I think an important part of the show is the humor. I think a lot of shows, documentaries, about "ice", you see, you know, "ice", "the drugged", or "schizophrenia" or "domestic violence", or whatever. It's serious from start to end, there are no jokes. But people deal with life with humor. You know, that's how people survive. They laugh about something that no one else would laugh about, or they make mistakes, or they say something that's a bit wrong or a bit weird. We embrace all that stuff, the weirdness, the strangeness, the silliness.. We talk about these things called "Fuck me!" moments, when someone seeing it at home is like: my god, I can't believe they said that! And I'm always looking for moments where the audience are shocked. You know? To shock them, to surprise them, to put things on TV that normally would get edited out because they're being a bit rude or a bit wrong. If we're going to ask them these rude questions, the most obscure, rude, wrong questions, the least we can do is not edit out their answer, if it's a bit rude or wrong or shocking. We try and leave it in. and so we will often fight against the executives of the network, who might say: We want that edited out. We say: No! That's how they've answered it! That's how they want to be portrayed. So we've got to at least give them the respect to put that in, but do it in a way that looks after them too. We're not trying to ridicule them, or anything like that. So we are careful to look after them, but we want to put those shocking things in, we want to put those moments in with the old water-cooler, you know? When people watch this show at home they go to the pub, or they go to their work the next day, and say: my god, did you see that thing that that person said? We want those moments. I don't know about your show, but in ours we don't have many tears, we're not the classic show looking for people crying, you know? That's not what we're going for. Because that's not really how people are. Sometimes it will come out, but we're not going for those typical ways of milking that emotion from the participants, like those big current affairs shows, where they're trying to milk out that emotion. It's almost a pushback against those types of shows.
Jonathan: And it works wonderfully, and there's magic in this format. My question is: especially the cards, I can't figure out why the cards are so magical. As opposed to asking a question, like I'm asking you now, you are taking in the question, you listen to it, and it's more personal when you hear someone talk to you. I would like you to try and explain this to me.
Kirk: Well, because we get the questions from the public, the idea of the card is that it eliminates me as an interviewer. It's like they're talking straight back to the audience. It's nice to say to them: on the cards are 10 questions that the audience sent in, questions you can't ask. So that's the first thing, it's supposed to be reminiscent of the audience. The second thing is, like you said, there's magic in them picking up the question and reading it themselves. They're the first people who get to see the question, before the audience. So they power is in their hands. When the question comes from an interviewer, the power is in the interviewer's hands. So they get to look at it, and then they get to react. You know, respond, they can laugh. You can see that in their eyes, and then they read it out. I think that there were a lot of unforeseen benefits in the response, the reactions, the theatrics of the card. And it's funny, you know, because it's like you said about people not being offended that much by the questions. Initially, it runs nervous about "what can be on the cards?", you know? When they come in, they're nervous. Especially if there's two people: they're fighting for who gets to read the next card! They love reading the cards, they can't wait to read the next card. They'll fight to see the cards. And when it's finished, they always say: oh, I was expecting worse, I thought the questions are going to be worse. When people send in the questions, we like trying to find the most ridiculous or obscure or silly or funny or rudest way that someone had sent it in. Because that's what's fun too, they like seeing how stupid their questions are. That's part of the joy, I think, of it. They haven't been written by producers, and they're not politically correct, they're not the right English. It's all a bit wrong. Like, for example, in our "Gay Men" episode, a lot of people sent questions about anal sex. Everyone wanted to know about anal sex. But the question was: isn't it a bit gross sticking your willy in someone else's bum? Does that translate to you guys? No one would ever ask that question that particular way. So when they picked it up, and they read it, they go: Who sent this question in? That's the most, silliest, stupidest way…! It's creating these little moments of fun and playfulness within topics, that some of them can be very serious. So the cards were a stroke of genius. I often get the feedback: "Oh, it's such a simple concept! How did you come up with that? And it's like: Good, I'm glad you think it's simple! Because that's what we want people to think. But actually, every single element is thought through, and one thing that I haven't spoken about is the set. The set, we can pack it down into eight bags, and we can take those eight bags and put it on the smallest airplane. Because we fly to where the people are. You know, Australia is a big country, and we wanted to make sure we represented voices from the whole country, not just Sidney and Melbourne. We wanted to go to remote places. And that was really part of the designing of the set that gave us, you know… we wanted to be able to access people that normally wouldn't appear on television, that haven't got the time to fly, and haven't got the money to take a day off work. The stool that we chose was one that you can buy everywhere, in every place, it's a very generic stool, so we didn't have to travel with the stool, we can buy them wherever we went, and they're only $30. And often, actually, my camera operator, he would leave all the tags on them, and we would return it back to the shop, and we'd be on the plane and fly, we'd fly back home, and they never knew we'd filmed with it all the day, and then we returned it back, so we didn't have to spend the $30.
Anat: Classic for students! Thank you for this interview, Kirk.
Jonathan: See you in the festival.