In 'Only Murders In The Building', Nosy Neighbors Start A Podcast : Pop Culture Happy Hour Hulu's fun mystery-comedy series Only Murders in the Building stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as a trio of true-crime podcast fans who live in the same ritzy building on New York's Upper West Side. When a mysterious death occurs in their building, they band together to make a true-crime podcast about it. And as their amateur murder investigation goes on, long-buried secrets come to light, the plot gets twistier and and the stakes get higher. Plus, we remember the many iconic roles of actor Michael K. Williams.

In 'Only Murders In The Building', Nosy Neighbors Start A Podcast

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(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

Hulu's fun mystery comedy series "Only Murders In The Building" stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez as a trio of true crime podcast fans who live in the same ritzy building on New York's Upper West Side.

AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

When a mysterious death occurs in their building, they band together to make a true crime podcast about it. And as their amateur murder investigation goes on, long-buried secrets come to light, the plot gets twistier and the stakes get higher. I'm Aisha Harris.

WELDON: And I'm Glen Weldon. And today we're talking about "Only Murders In The Building" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

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WELDON: Welcome back. You just met Aisha. Also joining us from his home in Washington, D.C., is J.C. Howard, a producer of NPR's TED Radio Hour and How I Built This. Welcome back, J.C.

J C HOWARD, BYLINE: Hello. Thanks for having me.

WELDON: Of course. Now, in "Only Murders In The Building," Steve Martin is Charles, a washed-up actor still living off the fame he received as the star of a cop show a few decades ago. Martin Short is Oliver, a Broadway director who hasn't had a hit in years and is falling on hard financial times. And Selena Gomez is Mabel, a young artist who can somehow afford to live in such a fancy building and has secrets that she is keeping. Amy Ryan shows up, as does Nathan Lane and, randomly, Sting. The show has to spin a lot of plates. It has to serve the familiar Steve Martin-Martin Short comedic relationship. It has to introduce Selena Gomez into the mix, has to construct a mystery with enough twists and turns that'll keep viewers coming back week after week, and it has to make fun of podcasting, too.

J.C., did it work for you?

HOWARD: Yes, it did work for me. And I know there's a lot to talk about as far as the show as a murder mystery and as a true crime piece. But honestly, I really want to talk about the podcast part of it because, obviously, I...

WELDON: Yup.

HOWARD: ...Spend every day in the world of podcast production. And the show spent a lot of time there as well without making it a show about a podcast. But there were so many little things, like at one point, Martin Short's character, Oliver, gets Charles, played by Steve Martin, to say something a few times, and then almost as a throwaway, he just says, I can cut them together.

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STEVE MARTIN: (As Charles-Haden Savage) I think I can do better than that.

MARTIN SHORT: (As Oliver Putnam) Try that again.

MARTIN: (As Charles-Haden Savage) I think I can do better than that.

SHORT: (As Oliver Putnam) OK, I can cut these together and then redo it

HOWARD: So half the time, I am feeling very much seen.

WELDON: Yup.

HOWARD: But, of course, other times they miss the mark. They're not people who are as ingrained in the world of podcasting as I am. Like, they finish recording an episode at 5 in the morning, and it seems like they release it at 7 a.m., which...

WELDON: Yeah.

HOWARD: ...Either means they don't appreciate how long it can take to produce a good podcast, or they're not producing a good podcast. But that said, I feel like it really understands the podcast landscape right now. Part of that is just the fact that they started a homegrown podcast. And I feel like today, the phrase, we should start a podcast, is the new, I'm in a band. And the vibes are really strong in this one, from the extremely slow start of building an audience to trying to record in different places. I remember there's one scene where Oliver is coaching Charles through a tracking session, which is, you know, recording the narration for the podcast, and they're inside of his closet.

WELDON: Yep.

HOWARD: And that's a very familiar picture for folks in audio production, especially these days.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING")

MARTIN: (As Charles-Haden Savage) It's so hot in here. Do we have to do this in a closet?

SHORT: (As Oliver Putnam) Now you sound like Patti LuPone. No, no. The acoustics are better. And trust me; you need acoustics.

HOWARD: Other times he's recording in this huge living room with other people standing right there, and I'm like, that tape must sound awful.

WELDON: Yeah.

HOWARD: Like, because of that, I'm not sure if I would want to listen to the podcast, but there are certainly plenty Easter eggs for podcast folks out there, including a character with a name suspiciously close to Sarah Koenig...

WELDON: Yeah.

HOWARD: ...And a very "Serial"-like piano motif that kind of weaves its way through each episode. So if you've ever produced a podcast or produced audio, or if you've listened to a highly produced podcast, you'll probably really get a kick out of the podcast slice of it.

WELDON: They are playing fast and loose with some of the podcasting stuff. I could forgive that because, you know, there were solid jokes. There were some knowing jokes. That's the thing that kept occurring to me is how this show was a lot more in on the joke than I thought it was. I do agree with you that I think their podcast sounds terrible because Oliver doesn't strike me as the kind of guy who's going to spend a lot of time, you know, matching EQ settings on a track or...

HOWARD: (Laughter) True.

HARRIS: But that's the point, though, right?

WELDON: He's not too concerned about LUFS. I think that's the point.

HARRIS: Yeah.

WELDON: So, Aisha, what'd you think?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, that definitely seems like the point. It's like, what I appreciate about this show is that it's interrogating lightly and lightheartedly, but it is kind of critiquing and satirizing the fact that everyone thinks that they can make a podcast and that it's just so easy to do.

WELDON: Yup.

HARRIS: And I think it seems pretty clear that these characters, Martin Short and Steve Martin especially, don't really know what they're doing, and I love that aspect of it. I also really appreciate the way in which it's satirizing true crime.

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: Obviously, we're in the point now where it's easy to satirize true crime. It's done in a different way. It's done in an interesting way because there are some podcasts out there where two friends just spend the entire episodes scrolling through Wikipedia and explaining this true crime thing. I've never been into those podcasts. I don't find them interesting. And it seems like that takes all of what makes true crime as, quote-unquote, "an entertainment form" - which is, like, ghastly to say, but that's what it is.

WELDON: Right.

HARRIS: It takes everything that makes that work and just distills it into basically YouTube commentary that is not interesting in any way. But the fact that this show is three people who happen to be in close proximity to a murder and at the same time are trying to solve it, sort of, but, like, solving it for their own entertainment, like...

HOWARD: Yeah.

WELDON: Yup.

HARRIS: Do they really care? I mean, one of them might really care for reasons that are revealed later in the show. But, like, overall, there is just lots of really great quips and asides where it's very clear, especially the Oliver character played by Martin Short - he thinks of this as casting one of his shows. Like, there's actually...

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...A great moment...

WELDON: That's right.

HARRIS: ...That I want to play where basically the entire set goes away, they're no longer in their living room. Now it's Martin Short's character walking up, and he's going to "A Chorus Line" all of the residents of the building. And it's just really, really funny the way he talks about what he's doing.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING")

SHORT: (As Oliver Putnam) Congrats on making it this far. You should all feel very proud, indeed. But as you know, there can only be one Tim Kono's murderer. I'm looking for motive. I'm looking for means. But most of all, I'm looking for moxie.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: It's just like he wants the juiciest story he can craft. It's not even about actually finding the right person. And I think that's often - you know, this is a funny way of looking at the sort of insidious side of true crime, is that there are a lot of people who make all of these assumptions and wind up ruining people's lives for all of the wrong reasons...

HOWARD: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...Because they're so anxious about being an amateur sleuth in this way. So I very much enjoyed this, and I think it's quite interesting on a few levels.

WELDON: Aisha, I'm so glad you picked that clip because I was going to pick it for a slightly different reason - to talk about my expectations for the show and how much this show defied them and how much of a relief that was, OK? Because in my defense, Martin and Short have both these very clearly defined comedic personas that they're coming to the table with. And separately and together, they've played, like, showbiz phonies in their theatrical show that kind of keep digging at each other. So when you hear that they're going to be in a series together and that Martin Short is going to be playing yet another showbiz phony, you think this is going to be a much bigger, much broader, much more slapstick thing than it actually turns out to be. Now, both of them have played straight-ish roles - straight-ish roles - like, you know, Martin's done "Shopgirl" and Short's done "Damages" and "The Morning Show," where he plays a monster. But this is the first time they're doing a series together, so you worry that they're going to keep pushing each other to go bigger.

And, look; this is going to sound ageist, but I had another expectation for the show, which is that, look; we've all seen examples of comedians who we loved as kids, they come back to prominence after a time away from the spotlight. We go back to revisit them, and we realize that they are still doing what they were doing then, but the culture has changed around them. And then when you find out that this is a show about these two dudes doing a podcast, it's more worry. And then they'd be joined by Selena Gomez, who's clearly there to represent, you know, Youth with a capital Y, so there's probably going to be jokes about millennials and avocado toast. I was worried that this was going to seem out of touch and outdated, so I went into this cautious but very curious.

And the reason I'm wasting so much time talking about my expectations is how thoroughly this show defies them. Martin is really digging deep to find this character's humanity and mostly his sadness. He's a very sad man - a sad and lonely man. And Short, who is usually at 11 all the time, is here at a four, maybe. Now, a Martin Short four is everybody else's nine, but still. It's such a pleasure. In that clip, you could hear him tossing aside jokes as opposed to lunging at them. And it's fascinating that he's still kind of keeping the things that make Martin Short Martin Short. There's a thing that he does whenever he's imitating a showbiz phony, like he is here. When they get excited or emotional - you heard it at the end of that line - he does Liza. He does this little, and I want to hit - that little noise there at the end, that is Liza. And here he does it, but it's so much smaller than what he normally does.

Now, I talked a lot about Martin and Short, but here's my hot take that I'm going to throw back at you guys, and I want to hear what you think. This show's MVP, the one without whom the show doesn't work at all, is Selena Gomez. J.C., what do you think?

HOWARD: Absolutely. Could not agree more. The Steve Martin-Martin Short dynamic was one of the things that made me interested in watching, and I was afraid that Selena Gomez might feel like a third wheel to the pair, like, you know, that she would just be a sounding board or a foil for them to be funny at instead of, like, being a character in herself. But, no, Mabel was a fully formed character. And she had a very distinct relationship with Steve Martin's character and with Martin Short's character. And on top of that, Selena was good. I mean, I haven't seen her in anything scripted before, so I wasn't sure what to expect.

WELDON: Not since "Wizards Of Waverly Place."

HOWARD: I was just too old for "Wizards Of Waverly Place."

(LAUGHTER)

HOWARD: But she held her own.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING")

SHORT: (As Oliver Putnam) "Every Breath You Take" - only one of the biggest love songs of all time.

SELENA GOMEZ: (As Mabel Mora) Oh, now I know. He did "Sledgehammer."

MARTIN: (As Charles-Haden Savage) Ah, that's Peter Gabriel.

SHORT: (As Oliver Putnam) That's Peter Gabriel.

GOMEZ: (As Mabel Mora) Guys, I know who Sting is. And by the way, "Every Breath You Take" is no love song. It's about a jealous stalker and surveillance, and it actually seems like it was written by a killer.

HOWARD: Holding your own when you're sharing screen time with Steve Martin and Martin Short and Nathan Lane - you know, that's saying a lot.

WELDON: Absolutely.

HARRIS: I was a little cooler on her, at least at the beginning. The first couple of episodes didn't quite work for me, in part because I was worried that that was going to be her role of being this sort of millennial or Gen Zer who is just there to be the butt of jokes. And she has this, like, way of speaking that is very sardonic and at times kind of monotone. It wasn't gelling for me. But by the third episode and by the time I really was able to understand what her relationship was going to be with these two characters, I really warmed up to her, and I thought her character got better and stronger and more defined. And, of course, you know, you have to establish these characters.

But one of my favorite things about their interactions with one another is the way in which there are a lot of jokes about age and whatnot and the age gap between them, but it's so warm and doesn't come from a place of, like, cynicism or anger in the way sometimes these things can come off. I think it's kind of a nice contrast, actually, to the generation gap in "Hacks," the HBO Max show, between Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder character, which also, I think, works in its own way, but that one had a bit more of, like, a sharpness to it, and this one has a more warmth to it. Like, even the way in which she responds to their age gap, she also is not cynical about these things. She's very warm and, like, just thinks of them as kind of like the kooky uncles or like the kooky grandpas.

WELDON: Yeah.

HARRIS: And it really shows. And I really - I think that's part of what makes this work so well is that as much as it's like a commentary on how cynical amateur true crime sleuths can be and how that world can be, the show itself has a warmness to it that I think really just makes it so entertaining. And I didn't feel on edge about anything, which is what I appreciate.

HOWARD: I very much agree with that. And I want to mention, also, the casting was overall just really good. There was a really diverse cast and not just racially, but there are a couple people with disabilities, including a character who cannot hear played by deaf actor James Caverly. And I really appreciate the thought that went into representation and accessibility in the show without making several virtuous overtures about how accessible it was and how representational it was. Without getting too deep into it, many of the side characters got some really well-deserved spotlight, which I also appreciate.

WELDON: Yeah, definitely. But I think the Gomez character is there. She's fulfilling the role of millennial or Gen Z or whatever she is, but she's there for another reason, too, because this show is set in a very fancy Upper West Side building. So these characters are rich or, in her case, rich-adjacent. Now, look; a lot of the media that we consume is about rich people - "Succession," "White Lotus," "The Crown." And certainly, I got to admit one of the things that intrigued me about the show was its setting because how many times have I passed one of those buildings on the Upper West side where you see this courtyard inside of this gate and you just wonder, what is life like in there?

But you always risk the Woody Allen factor. I mean, I'm speaking of a very specific Woody Allen factor here - maybe not the one you leapt to. But you are putting forth incredibly entitled characters because you are writing what you know. And you may or may not be conscious of how entitled they're coming off to your audience. You know, like, oh, the clasp of my Faberge egg broke again. Don't you hate that? That kind of vibe you get from - sometimes from some Woody Allen. I think the inclusion of the Gomez character is an attempt to correct for that. Did it work for you guys?

HARRIS: Yeah, I think it did. I mean, there is a glut of content about rich people, but I do kind of enjoy - I have a soft spot for murder mysteries and a soft spot for murder mysteries that involve rich people because I just think (laughter) - I think it's interesting to see them, like, wriggle within that sphere. And there's also at least one episode where they leave the building, and they're engaging with people who are more like us or working class or whatever. And I think the way it approaches the differences of class, it's not preaching in a way. It's just kind of, this is the facts of life. I don't know.

I'm curious to see - so we should probably say that we're talking about this having only seen eight out of what are supposed to be 10 episodes that were made available to us. And so we're not quite sure how it'll wrap up. But I do think that there are some, like, loose ends that could be tied up in an interesting way, especially when it comes to class. And it's trying to, you know, gin up all of this suspense around the mystery, but I don't know if I care as much (laughter), and I think that's OK. But some people might - if they feel that way, they might be like, well, then it's failed. But I think it works.

HOWARD: That is a really good point, Aisha. Like, the mystery itself, to me, is intriguing, and I do want to know how it ends. But you're right. Like, more important than that is what it's kind of saying about true crime, about the true crime genre. It does really well at engaging in two things that true crime as a genre tends to ignore.

The first one is this question of, what if the murder victim was a jerk? Obviously, the homicide should still be solved. But true crime rarely deals with this question, and it usually just tries to paint the person as a saint in order to make the audience care. As a matter of fact, they even say in the show, every great Episode 2 makes you fall deeply in love with the victim.

HARRIS: Yeah.

HOWARD: But there are some times where the question of if they were a jerk is at least a valid question.

And the second thing is, finally, after they've been on the case and they've been making the podcast, it occurs to Charles that true crime is true for someone and their podcast could actually be exploitative. And I'm just thinking, like, finally, someone has said it. And I'm not here to judge anyone who loves true crime. Like, I've listened to and watched plenty of true crime, so if that's your thing, no judgment. But we should always bear in mind that true crime is not just entertainment, right? It's people's lives. And I think the fact that it says that about true crime, that it's at least exploring that side of true crime, I think it's far more important than the murder mystery of it.

WELDON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Only Murders In The Building." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh.

That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to both of you for being here.

HARRIS: Thank you.

HOWARD: Thanks for having me in the building.

HARRIS: Before we go, I wanted to take a moment to remember the incredibly talented actor Michael K. Williams, who passed away earlier this week at the age of 54. Like many people, I was first introduced to him through "The Wire," where he played the dynamic, swaggering stickup man Omar Little.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE WIRE")

MICHAEL K WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Look; in my game, you take some care and you play the safest way you can. But it ain't about no hiding forever. You heard? And frankly, you been in it as long as me, you do the thing on your name.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Anyone going to come after Omar, they're going to know Omar's coming after him.

WILLIAMS: (As Omar Little) Oh, indeed.

HARRIS: It doesn't seem too hyperbolic to deem Omar one of TV's greatest characters ever. Williams' performance was multifaceted, sensitive and groundbreaking, coaxing audiences to love and respect a shotgun-wielding robber who also happened to be gay. Omar was the heart of that show, a man who lived and died by a code and never wavered. But Williams was so much more than Omar, and he proved it in many of the other roles he took on in front of the camera and in life. After "The Wire," he played a different, more urbane kind of gangster, Albert "Chalky" White, in the period drama "Boardwalk Empire."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "BOARDWALK EMPIRE")

WILLIAMS: (As Albert "Chalky" White) We're supposed to be protected from these ofays.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Look; I can't control...

WILLIAMS: (As Albert "Chalky" White) No, you look. I'm done with this [expletive]. I got my family, and I've got my people.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Your people.

WILLIAMS: (As Albert "Chalky" White) Ten thousand Black folk who make this city hum - busboys, trash collectors, porters.

HARRIS: He also got to flex his comedic chops in a recurring guest role on "Community," which I loved. Later this month, he might win an Emmy for his work on "Lovecraft Country." He even got well-deserved Emmy acting nominations for "Bessie," "The Night Of" and Ava DuVernay's "When They See Us," where he portrayed Bobby McCray, the father of one of the young boys wrongfully convicted in the 1989 Central Park jogger case.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "WHEN THEY SEE US")

WILLIAMS: (As Bobby McCray) When the police want what they want, they will do anything. Do you hear me? Anything. They'll lie on us. They will lock us up. They will kill us. I ain't going to let them kill my son.

HARRIS: But one of my favorite things about him is the fact that his performing roots were in dance. In his early days, he was a backup dancer for Madonna and George Michael, and he choreographed and appeared in house icon Crystal Waters' video for "100% Pure Love."

There's this great video of him from last year cutting loose with wild abandon in a New York City park. He looks so joyous and so free, and I encourage you to seek it out if you need a reason to smile. He'll be very much missed.

And that brings us to the end of our show. Thanks for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we will see you all tomorrow.

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