In Everything Is Alive, inanimate objects are given a voice with hilarious and surprisingly moving results

When you dry yourself off after a shower, how does the towel feel about it? Do your front teeth look forward to your lover kissing you? And does a balloon find joy in helping us celebrate, or is it consumed by a fear of bursting? If none of these questions has ever troubled you, prepare for your brain to be rewired by Everything Is Alive, a podcast from the Radiotopia stable that has found a loyal audience despite its outlandish premise. The host, Ian Chillag, interviews objects, and the objects talk back: the result is a ridiculous comedy with surprising philosophical chops.

Everything Is Alive is peppered with funny moments, from a can of cola called Louis recalling the traumatic experience of being part-frozen when he got pushed to the back of the fridge, to Sean the subway seat bitching furiously about the seat opposite. But it is all played straight. Chillag and his collaborators usually actors or comedians with improv experience never laugh, nor acknowledge the absurdity of what theyre doing. What emerges is that most precious of things: a stupid idea that is made to work by the total conviction with which its executed. I cut out things that I love, really funny jokes, Chillag says, down the line from New York. Ill sacrifice laughs to maintain that fragile suspension of disbelief. The flatness of the show is a big part of making it feel real. Thats also why I produce it through improvisation rather than scripting it.

Chillags background is in writing and producing non-fiction for National Public Radio, but he used to struggle with the non-fiction part. I found myself tempted to make things up to make the story better. I felt like, I need to stop doing journalism because thats the kind of thing that could get me fired. I had a fiction brain.

Its a living thing… Ian Chillag, presenter of Everything Is Alive.

So Everything Is Alive was born, a show where Chillags talents as an interviewer and journalist are redirected into comedy. Fact and fiction blur thanks to a clever kink in the format: at some point, every object comes out with a piece of trivia that prompts Chillag to suspend the main interview and ring a relevant expert a real, human one to find out more. So when the balloon mentions that hedgehogs can suffer from balloon syndrome and fill with air, Chillag breaks off to talk to the boss of a hedgehog sanctuary. When the subway seat talks about passengers dropping their possessions on to the tracks, we hear from the guy who retrieves them.

I wanted the show to flit between reality and fiction, says Chillag. Not being sure what something is makes you keep listening.

There is a running joke in the show that youre not certain how much the objects know about human existence, or how they came to know it; whats for sure is that they cant join it. That yearning gives Everything Is Alive its profound emotional core. Take Maeve, the Brooklyn lamp-post who answers Chillags question about where she would relocate herself if she could pick anywhere in the world by saying she would like to go round the corner, to the next street. Thats where the people guided by her light end up. She longs to know what happens there.

Light entertainment a lonely New York lamp-post. Photograph: Joe Daniel Price/Getty

As the show grew in popularity during its first season in 2018, and it became clear how much listeners were responding to it emotionally, Chillag reacted by letting the comedic elements of Everything Is Alive recede a little and a plan to include topical episodes, reacting to news items where a household object was involved (such as White House adviser Kellyanne Conway announcing that microwaves could be used for FBI surveillance), was junked entirely. We heard from so many people saying: Thank you for giving me 20 minutes where I didnt have to think about the state of the world.

Instead, we are encouraged to look at our place in the world from new angles. A standout episode introduces Chioke, a grain of sand who expresses bemusement at us favouring I as a pronoun rather than we, and points out that our lives are, in geological terms, tiny blips that we might consider taking less seriously. It turns out that lifeless items have much to teach people. Is the show more about us than them? Oh, its definitely about humans, Chillag agrees. Its an unfiltered way of thinking about things we worry about.

The new third season has a more opinionated roster of inanimate interlocutors than ever. We have a Sharpie, which is actually the Sharpie and the cap. Theyre a married couple. We have a shirt and pants that live in a closet together: an Oxford shirt and leather pants. So they share a home, but they have very different experiences of the outside world. And theres an angry scented candle. And a chainsaw named Josh. What is Josh thinking about when he cuts through a tree branch? Hes about to tell you.

New episodes of Everything Is Alive are available every Wednesday

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