Small Town Murder offers new take on true crime phenomenon

Brittany Moseley
Jimmie Whisman and James Pietragallo of Small Town Murder

Before every episode of Small Town Murder, hosts and longtime friends James Pietragallo and Jimmie Whisman offer the same warning: This is a podcast where we talk and make jokes about murder. If you don’t like it, turn away now.

“I think it was after the first episode we got some reviews that were like, ‘How dare they make jokes? They're talking about murder and they're making jokes,’” Pietragallo said. “So we just wanted to say up front, ‘Hey, if you don't think you want to hear any jokes along with your murder, [you’re] not gonna like our show. Take a fucking hike before you get angry at us and write us a bad review.’ I'd rather tell jokes to 10 people who are laughing at them than 100 people with 90 hating me.”

Fortunately for Pietragallo and Whisman, there are many who find their mix of true crime and comedy appealing. The duo started Small Town Murder in January 2017, two years after Serial debuted and made true crime podcasts the cultural juggernaut they are today. (They also host the podcast Crime in Sports, which began in February 2016.) Small Town Murder is different for a few reasons: 1) They only cover solved crimes; 2) The crimes must have been committed in a town with a population of 30,000 or less; and 3) Jokes. Lots of jokes.

Pietragallo acts as the master of ceremonies. He does extensive research on every crime and town and goes into each recording with 40 to 50 pages of notes. He tells the audience about the town, the cast of characters involved and the crime. Whisman is his sounding board, offering commentary as the story progresses. Like listeners, Whisman is hearing the story for the first time.

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“It's genuinely my favorite thing to talk and just be an idiot while listening to James talk, and then creating jokes or characters playing off of James,” Whisman said. “That's the most fun of my day.”

Through it all, nothing is safe from their comedic tongues, from the racial make-up a town (an ongoing bit is that crime always happens in towns without any minorities) to the average cost of a home. “You could buy one with a credit card!” Whisman quipped in a recent episode after Pietragallo revealed the median home cost in Guide Rock, Nebraska, is $22,975.

Of course, the majority of their barbs are reserved for the criminals, from a man who kidnapped a 13-year-old girl and was later hired by Dunkin’ Donuts while getting therapy at the Massachusetts Treatment Center for the Sexually Dangerous, to a woman who admitted to killing her brother by suffocating him with plastic wrap in the same nonchalant tone one uses to order a turkey sandwich.

Their humor is brash, sometimes even crass, but always sharp and quick. Conversation flows easily between Pietragallo, with his deep voice and deadpan barbs, and Whisman, who has an unmistakable laugh and a knack for saying what listeners are thinking. Both come from standup comedy and have the kind of relationship that reminds you of riffing with your oldest friend.

“My goal is to one day kill Jimmie with laughter,” Pietragallo said. “I feel like that's a worthy way of going. He’s gonna die anyway. I think that's the way he would want to go, too. It would be very good for the podcast.” (In the background, Whisman’s famous giggle can be heard.)

The duo is bringing their show on the road this summer and fall, including a stop at the Riffe Center Theatre Complex on Friday, Aug. 2. So what can fans expect from a live viewing of Small Town Murder? Expect the usual kind of story with a mix of visual elements and, yes, even more jokes.

“Honestly, the live shows tend to be a lot more humor centric than the [podcast]. We want it to be a comedy show. We want people to walk out and go, ‘Holy crap. I've never been to a standup show where I laughed that hard,’” Pietragallo said. “And we feel like between the two of us and the story and the pictures, it's almost not fair. We have too much ammunition to make people laugh.”

Without missing a beat Whisman pipes up: “So that's what the audience gets. And what I get is drunk, so it works out perfect.”

Riffe Center Theatre Complex

8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 2

77 S. High St., Downtown

Small Town Murder