Following the news last week of leading audio storytelling giant Audible expanding its scripted comedy slate with six new original comedy podcasts set to release in 2022, one of the very funny projects encouraging laughs for the new year is the hilarious Paul Lieberstein-created Audible Original, MIDDLESPACE: The Rebels Attack, And Then The Other Side Attacks As Well..., out Thursday, Nov. 18. Leiberstein, best known for his role on The Office as Toby Flenderson, is helping to set a very high bar with the company's recent lineup of ambitious scripted comedy podcasts. His new outer space workplace comedy — starring the voice talents of Will Forte, Rainn Wilson, Alex Moffat, Gillian Jacobs, Fortune Feimster and John Malkovich — is not your typical intergalactic series, though. In an interview with PopCulture.com, the Connecticut native admits it's actually an "anti-sci-fi" comedy that he was working on for quite some time.
The Audible Original and Above Average Production finds Starship Captain George Cottonhammer (Forte) bored out of his job, annoyed by his staff and hopeful over a dream to one day open his own intergalactic burger franchise. But his life soon changes forever when he refuses to answer an intergalactic distress call, which turns out to be a trap, offering him the chance to make himself a hero. With origins in a short play that the creative Lieberstein put on in the past, which featured Captain Cottonhammer, Lieberstein admits he really liked the role he imagined and just kept writing until he developed MIDDLESPACE.
"It's basically like a sci-fi, but I'm kind of calling it anti-sci-fi. I've always felt that these captains of spaceships care so much about their jobs and put themselves, put their lives on the line every week it shows and it just seems so false to me," he said. "I just feel there'd be a union and people would want to put themselves in the line zero times. And so this was taking that position, and trying to put a more realistic, or at least, comic character."
Adding how the show, for the vast majority of it, is about life on a spaceship with Captain Cottonhammer and his shipmates, Lieberstein reveals how some things happen but not much else. "There's an episode where the captain mispronounces the word violin, says violine. And then not wanting to be proved wrong insists that there is an instrument, violine and proceeds to build one and give a concert. This is the kind of stuff that happens in space," he laughed.
Saying how he is "lucky" to work with Forte, who embodies the hilarity of Captain Cottonhammer, the quirky character that Lieberstein built is most noticeably one grounded in an endearing framework much like Michael Scott from The Office or even Ted Lasso. Enthusiastic, silly and charming, Lieberstein calls the appeal of these kinds of quirky characters "really interesting" for audiences. "One of the things Will [Forte] did was just — he's just such a likable guy that he can do some, maybe unlikeable things. But I think we all know people like that," he said. "We've all experienced it and it's not the exact same situation, but it's a classroom and there's a teacher like that and we've all been there and we've probably all had a job in which we're there. I mean, we've all experienced it at one level or another."
Recorded last year and in "different locations," Lieberstein reveals no one was able to work together in person for the Audible Original but the chemistry with everyone was just perfect. "We were on Zoom, but then we built this little blanket fort for everyone for sound and shipped them a microphone," he said. "Then one of the actors who played Gunnery, Chris Smith, read with everybody and I credit him for, kind of, really helping it make it seem like they were all in the same room. Because he just mimicked everybody and just had such great timing and improv skills of his own that."
With so many funny actors and comedians on board for the podcast, Lieberstein admits it was "challenging" for any of them to get improvisational on the script because of them not being in the same room. "There was a little bit of improv, but it was very hard to use most of it. They did some really funny stuff, but you need both sides, so sometimes somebody would do something, but I've already recorded the other side," he said of the process. "There was a couple of cases where I went back and the other actor came back and I was just like, 'We just have to keep this. This is so funny.'"
Lieberstein teases a moment in the podcast where Cheri Oteri gets a job doing closet design on the ship. "Will Forte's character, who didn't have an office, was asking, 'Can you design an office?' And she says, 'No, I just do closets.' And he says, 'Okay, let's do an office. Can you design me a closet? And instead of where clothes would hang, can you do like a flat thing? And then instead of where the shoes go, can you do like three drawers and then maybe a space for my legs?' And that was an improv and some stuff that we threw at Will and wrote on the day and then we had to get it. We really did a lot more with Cheri, and we had to go back and get Will, so that was a great one."
Hoping the Audible Original brings listeners as much "joy" as he had creating and producing it with his team, Lieberstein shares he really enjoyed working on this project for the audio streaming platform. "It was fun to do it, it was fun to write it. It was a blast to record it and I hope people just have fun listening."
The Audible Original, MIDDLESPACE: The Rebels Attack, And Then The Other Side Attacks As Well..., is out Thursday, Nov. 18. For more on Paul Lieberstein and all your podcast news, keep it locked to PopCulture.com for the latest!