Why 'Dead Eyes' creator Connor Ratliff Thinks Podcasting’s Possibilities Are Endless

February 16, 2023

If ‘Dead Eyes’ isn’t on your radar yet… well, you might just be missing the best pod of 2022. 

We’re talking, of course, about the breakout hit series that aims to solve a small yet enduring mystery: why Tom Hanks chose to fire actor Connor Ratliff from the 2001 miniseries ‘Band of Brothers. What starts as a semi-superficial investigation into a Hollywood slight evolves into a tender and honest examination of the ways in which rejection can live within us — and ultimately push us to grow. 

The show and Ratliff have won critical acclaim from The New Yorker to Time, Entertainment Weekly and more. And ultimately, ‘Dead Eyes’ won acceptance from arguably the most important critic of all  — Tom Hanks himself, who appeared on the season 3 finale to confront his past and apologize to Connor.

Relatable, charming, and wholly magnificent, ‘Dead Eyes’ is a shining example of why podcasting is arguably the future of storytelling: it grants a narrative the space to shape shift, evolve and keep inspiring us week after week.   

Ahead of the fest, we caught up with Connor to talk about the magic of making his hit show, why doing it live is better, and how podcasting as a medium is ready to find its footing. Read the interview in full below, and catch him hosting day two of On Air Fest 2023!  

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So much of why people connected with your show, ‘Dead Eyes’ – from listeners and the guests you had on, to podcast industry folks — was because of your innate vulnerability and willingness to examine the things in life that may hurt us. What has the process of creating the show taught you about reclaiming moments of personal failure, and the power of owning your own narrative? 

To be honest, most of the "lessons learned" in that realm took place before we ever made an episode; they're sort of the things that made it possible to make the podcast in the first place.  When something went "wrong" making an episode of the podcast, we would usually use that as an opportunity to make things more interesting.  The best example being our S2 finale ("The Big Zielinski") which started out with me being pranked by the lead writer of Band Of Brothers, and then the whole process of making the episode felt like it was one dead end after another, but we used every hiccup to make the episode stronger. 

It's sort like how in improv, there are ideally no "mistakes."  You can use almost anything that's true to make your story stronger. 

(The main things I learned by working on the podcast usually had more to do with having the discipline to cut out parts that are pretty good in order to make the episodes tighter and more listenable.  My early instincts were more like, "let's just release the raw audio of the full 2-hour conversation!"  My producers helped me get better about stuff like that.  Ironically, by episode 31 with Tom Hanks, that is the closest we ever got to a mostly unedited full-length conversation!)

The fanfare and list of accolades for ‘Dead Eyes’ is anything but short (congrats!). The show has been featured everywhere from Vanity Fair and NPR to the New Yorker, Rolling Stone and USA Today. It was also named Podcast of 2022 by Vulture and Nick Quah, who said “I wonder if there’ll be anything like it ever again.” As you think about the new stories you’ll eventually tell, what tends to catch your imagination? Do you have specific themes or experiences you want to add your POV to?

Comedically, I'm always drawn to ideas connected to success and failure.  Because we all keep moving the goal posts, both for ourselves and for others.  It's a thing I keep returning to, in different way.  I'm deep into my late 40s now, so a lot of that is tied into feelings of looming mortality.  What do you want to do with the time you have left?  Things mean different things when you think you are doing them for the first time vs. the last time.  It used to be that when I re-watched a movie, it felt like "I'll watch this movie again at some point."  That's still true of some movies, but if I watch, say, Raging Bull five years from now, there is more of a chance that it might be my final viewing of it.  Not because it's not great, but just because the last time I watched it all the way through was maybe 20 years ago.  So, how many more times am I gonna be in the mood to watch something that heavy? 

I've veered off the point slightly, but where I'm landing is that, going forward, I certainly want to prioritize stories that are worth people's time.  There are a few people who've described the non-Hanks-driven episodes of Dead Eyes as "filler" episodes, and it always irritates me when people throw that term around about almost any series.  As if the only point of a thing is the forward momentum.  Most of my favorite stories we've told did not move the "investigation" arc forward even one little bit.

At its core, ‘Dead Eyes’ is a mystery — except, ultimately the real reveal isn’t necessarily solving the case itself, but rather unraveling what the case even means to begin with. How did you approach subverting the genre, especially given that it’s so popular in podcasting?

It helped that it was a comedic device and not a real life-or-death situation.  If this had been something more serious, then the kind of delaying I leaned into would be a real problem.  But I designed it from the start so it would be satisfying even if we never got to Tom Hanks.  It was our goal for each episode to be satisfying on its own, and to embrace the weaknesses of the "investigation" as things that could be funny.

At the same time, we weren't a straight-up parody, so it's not like we had to load it up with jokes.  We had the benefit of just trying to be sincere and trusting that the comedy would flow naturally from that.

It’s no secret that the podcasting industry has been going through it. Personally, we believe that while challenging, times of uncertainty can also unlock a well of creative innovation. Are there any new trends or concepts that you think we’ll start to see evolve in the industry this year?

I'm the worst person to ask.  I'm drowning in podcasts and really bad at keeping up with the ones I like.  It was easier when I had a bookstore job, because I had a guaranteed 2 or 3 hours per day just to listen to things while shelving before the store opened. 

I do think it's interesting that the medium is still finding itself.  Partly that's because you had the Golden Age Of Radio with comedies and dramas and all these kinds of shows that just got crushed by television, and then a certain kind of audio production sort of went into hibernation for like 60 years.  I grew up thinking that that kind of thing was over and not coming back.  Radio was now for music and news and talk, and audio books were maybe the one area where there was some sliver of that narrative audio drama remaining.  But with podcasts, the whole spectrum of possibilities came back in a big way.  It's almost like if people had stopped making movies shortly after Citizen Kane and then didn't come back until The Matrix.  The shift from analog to digital happened during the gap, everything is different now. 

But it also means the possibilities are endless.  The hardest part will be for the best & most surprising innovations to find their way through the glut of content.  It will require people to step up and champion unusual things when they encounter them!

What makes On Air Fest so special is that these conversations and worlds we hear in our headphones start to come to life on the stage in really exciting ways. When you think about performing and recording live, how do you keep the same energy as in-studio? What are the differences between building community live vs. in-studio/streaming?

I think the biggest difference is that an in-person audience can have a collective experience, which is particularly important for Comedy, because so much of laughter is a social reaction.  We laugh more, and more intensely, when we are surrounded by other people who are also laughing.  It takes a lot more for me to laugh when I'm watching something funny all by myself.  So many people listen to podcasts on headphones, in isolation, which can be a great thing, but it's a different kind of intensity.  It's exciting for fans of a thing they listened to that way to be in a room with other people who like it, too. 

As far as my performance energy, if it's me doing a live interview or performance on stage, my priority is still mostly focused on what's happening on stage, the same as it would be if we were doing it in the studio with no audience.  For me, doing live shows with an audience is easier because whatever happens happens, and everybody understands when things go wrong.  You can have fun with it.  In-studio, when things go wrong, it's just frustrating.

You’ll be kicking off day two of On Air Fest 2023… personally, we can’t wait! What excites you most about hosting? Who are you most looking forward to seeing and/or hearing at On Air Fest?

I'm looking forward to being on stage with Mo, because I've been a fan of his for a very long time and I love Mobituaries.  I used to love watching whenever he was on-air with Larry King, seeing how delighted Larry was by everything Mo said.  I was just watching Mo's CBS Sunday Morning piece about Burt Bacharach, and he just has a way of celebrating the lives of special people, conveying wonder at the things they did and the effect they had on the world.  And asking the kind of questions that lead a story towards a more interesting direction, which is exactly what he does on Mobituaries.  He's so great at it, he doesn't take anything for granted. 

The Saturday I'm hosting is such a packed day, I'm excited to be there for all of it.  I'm looking forward to seeing if people have different energies in person than they do on their podcasts.  I hope I'm able to be of use as a host, in terms of just setting up a pleasant energy in the room.