On a frigid Monday morning this month, Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth of "How to Do Everything," their dizzyingly random, cult favorite of an advice podcast, gathered with producer Steven Tobiasz in an airy conference room in the corner of the National Public Radio offices on Navy Pier. The occasion was their semi-regular ideas meeting, to see where they were with new segments. Outside the long floor-to-ceiling windows, a pair of men and an old woman cast fishing lines between the frozen chunks of harbor. Tobiasz flipped up the screen on his laptop and glanced out at the snowy scene: "When are we going to talk to someone who swims in the lake now? We talked about it — the people you see swimming?"
Danforth crossed a leg: "I thought about it today on Lake Shore. I thought: 'What if I hit a pothole or something and this car went into the water?' I thought about how I shouldn't be afraid. People do swim it."
Which reminded Tobiasz: "Did you guys see the dog-video thing I sent around?"
Danforth: "The doggy paddle."
Tobiasz: "It's interesting. This guy says the first dogs without limbs were probably not great at swimming."
Danforth: "You mean … seals?"
Chillag: "The first dogs were not great? Dogs still aren't good swimmers."
Danforth: "Hence the doggy paddle."
Something jostled inside Danforth, and he sat up: "Another thing we have never addressed is award shows. I want to know: How do you lose an award? Like, how do you hold your face correctly when you don't win?"
Chillag: "Could we talk to Tom Hanks?"
Danforth: "If we could …"
Tobiasz: "You know, one idea we never followed though on: How do you get rid of glitter?"
Chillag: "And how did that one come up?"
Danforth: "A question about nail polish."
Two years ago, between work on "Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me," NPR's popular Chicago-based quiz show (the day job that consumes most of their time), Danforth and Chillag were asked by NPR executives in Washington for any ideas they might have for a new entertainment show. Danforth, 38, a former researcher on "A Prairie Home Companion," is executive producer for "Wait, Wait." Chillag, 35, a former producer on "Fresh Air," is a "Wait, Wait" senior producer.
Together, operating as a team, they generated a lot of good will within the public broadcaster: Specifically, they helped revive "Wait, Wait," which, when they began producing in 2009, was a decade old and going stale. Today, it's among the most popular shows on NPR, with 4 million listeners a week, a turnaround that host Peter Sagal puts squarely on their shoulders.
"Really, they created a renaissance for us and improved our office culture. You know how Aaron Sorkin used to write 'West Wing' by himself? You can't do that with comedy," Sagal said. "It has to come out of the back and forth of people being loose, cracking each other up. Which is what we get from them. They raise our game."
Anyway: So the suits in Washington tossed them ideas for a puzzle show, a food show, an advice show. "They wanted something that appealed to the audience listening to 'Car Talk' and 'Wait, Wait,' maybe to follow those shows," Chillag remembered. "They said, 'If you had an hour of radio, what would you do with it?'"
Danforth and Chillag took the weekend to think.
The following Monday, inspired by the then-popular "Worst-Case Scenario" handbooks, they pitched "How to Do Everything" (howtodoeverything.org). Their premise was ingeniously simple: They would explain how very disparate and often unusual things are done. They would solicit answers from surprising sources. Some questions would come from listeners, some from themselves. Some segments would be how-tos, some would be more like how-might-this-work. Given an OK from NPR, they set to work developing the show, and among the first questions answered were: How do you order wine? How do you break up with your hairdresser? How did the shorthand "OMG" originate with Winston Churchill? How does one get invited to a royal wedding? And how do you remove a tongue frozen to metal?