A Conversation with Yeardley Smith and Zibby Allen of 'Small Town Dicks'

We talk true crime, the danger of sharing personal trauma, and what they've learned since starting their podcast.

Karlin Villondo Photography
Karlin Villondo Photography

There are a lot of true crime podcasts out there, too many to keep up with. The podcasts that end up being popular are the ones that bring something new to the table. Unlike so many true crime podcasts, Small Town Dicks isn’t just people obsessed with true crime talking about murders without any connection to the cases or the facts. Small Town Dicks includes the detectives who worked on the cases. To guide us into the minds of law enforcement are the charming Zibby Allen and Yeardley Smith. You may know them better for their careers as actresses, but their love for storytelling and their detective friends Dan and Dave inspired them to start a podcast. They discuss cases with the detectives on their podcast, but they both have shared personal experiences with crime as well. They’re passionate about true crime and we had a chance to sit down with them before their panel with Paul Holes at the True Crime Festival last weekend.

You talk about some disturbing topics on your podcast at times, especially the last episode about child abuse. How do you two deal with that and why do you think it’s important to talk about?

Yeardley Smith: I would say for both of us, we have two actual editors that know Protools and know all the stuff, but Zibby and I really handle the creative side. Zibby does the shaping and sends it to our editor. He then takes her notes and takes a two-hour interview and shaves it down to at least an hour. Then it comes to me and I’m what I call “the flea comb” and I smooth out all the nicks and cuts. The only way to listen to an episode over and over that has such disturbing content is that you take it from the emotional side of the brain and put it on the analytical side of the brain. That’s so that you are no longer reacting the same way. The right side of the brain is creative, so you put it on the left side and say, “Okay, can I follow the story? Are there some bits that are distracting?” That’s the only way to do it.

Zibby Allen: Yes, it definitely helps us manage and take it off the experience and put it on the effort of trying to package the experience for the listener like a producer. Even still, I will say that there are certain cases that take longer for me to metabolize. When we are sitting there, we are experiencing these stories in real time. We don’t do a ton of research ahead of time so that we can really be the listener hearing the story for the first time. So, our responses are pretty in the moment. After we tape, I have to process and sometimes we go out to dinner with the detectives to have a drink and just come down. Sometimes I call my partner. You know what else, I’ve been doing is I’ve been writing little murder ballads. So, I have this stupid, very unpolished love for singing and songwriting.

Smith: You have to omit the word stupid because she’s very talented. They’re funny, quirky, and so charming. Everyone who hears her songs are like, “Oh my god, I need 50 more of these.”

Allen: Whatever she just said, I don’t even know how to process. I’ve been writing the songs on the ukelele and they’ve been becoming about men behaving badly and doing horrible things. I think it’s an extra unconscious way of processing it and getting it out in story form. As Yeardley said, really looking at what the story is and separating from the personal experience is genuinely helpful when you deal.

Smith: The other piece of your question was why do we tell the stories that we tell. We actually just had a pretty in-depth conversation about why we talk about particularly sex crimes and child abuse because those are the hardest ones to hear. I think a lot of people, “Oh, that’ll never happen to me.” There are some very specific and distinct signs of what detectives call “grooming” and certain behaviors that these predators inflict on their victims to see how far they can continue to push the boundary. Though we aren’t an educational podcast, we do get a lot of response from listeners going on, “Oh my god, I had no idea,” and that has been really unexpected and meaningful for us.

Allen: By leaving out those specifics, then it feels like we aren’t actually telling the real story and what’s crazy is sex crimes, particularly against children, are rampant and they’re everywhere. It’s still something that people don’t talk about and what we find so remarkable is that while it may difficult to hear, Detective Dave works with this stuff day in and day out. When he talks about it, he’s very direct and honest. For someone to just deal with it for what it is, we find that really remarkable. To be able to say these things and hopefully, people may be able to recognize some signs and different behaviors that may prevent this from happening again to someone else.  It feels like maybe a potential by-product of talking about these things.

I think it was very brave for both of you tell your personal stories on the podcast. What made you want to do that?

Smith: I don’t think we wanted to do it, but I remember encouraging Zibby to tell her story. I’ve heard that story several times and I’ve found it so harrowing. The grace of it was that she’s had this tale sitting inside of her. I think for a lot of women there’s a fair amount of shame when you consider yourself having been a victim of anything, especially women who are independent, accomplished. There is this feeling like I’m working my own path and so, when something happens to you it really sets you back on your heals. You think, “Well, fuck I thought I was a really good judge of character.” I kind of reexperienced that shame for my story, but for Zibby’s story is so specifically what detectives call the “goofy loop,” where you find yourself in this spiral of repetition of going over the events and going over the events.

Allen: And it’s irrational. Really, we were talking about it at dinner after recording one night after recording. They told me that the goofy loop is a thing and that’s when Yeardley said I should tell the story tomorrow when we record. Also, I was, like you said, kind of ashamed and very embarrassed about the way I really responded to that attack. Then I told it and I was so sick with nerves when I knew it was gonna come out. I felt so exposed and I was really afraid, but the response was so positive from our listeners. It wasn’t just supportive of me, but so many people wrote in and said they had a similar type of experience and they related so much to this. Because we’re best friends and we know each other’s stories and once I had that experience telling my story, I thought, girl you have to tell your own. There’s value in it, not just in this intimate moment, but there’s a platform that we’ve created so that we can speak to some of the pieces of the puzzle that we couldn’t really put together then. I think Yeardley had an overwhelming response as well.

Smith: Yes, I did. To Zibby’s point, to be that vulnerable ever in public, I think people think that when you say you want to tell your story you craft the responses that you hope to get. Then, of course, you get a whole roster of responses and some of them are not favorable. Although, we didn’t really get much of that. Nothing was mean, but there is the fear of “Oh no, I’ve exposed myself and I can’t control what you think of that.” I think that is very scary, but we were gratified that the fans really responded and our listenership is mostly women, at least 70%. And Zibby was talking about why women are so attracted to true crime and you should share that.

Allen: Because these crimes by and large happen to women. It’s happening to us. We’re looking at these things and wondering what information can we learn from this? I’m identifying with the suspect and I’m identifying with the victim. I’m looking at the circumstances and relating to them. I’m then going out into the world and looking for some signs of whether I’m safe or not. I don’t know that I did that my whole life and if I was into true crime as much as we are today, I might not have sat in my car for 10 minutes in the middle of the night on the phone and then got out of my car without my wits about me.

Our fascination with true crime comes from the fact that we as a gender are victimized statistically way more. The responsibility is definitely on us. We’re always told to protect ourselves. You may recall, I had mace in my hand, during my incident, on my keychain given to me from my dad and none of that came into play when you’re in that fight or flight situation. I think it’s useful in some fucked up way. We also love to solve puzzles. We love to observe humanity in its most extreme forms from a safe distance, which is watching these programs and listening to these stories. I also think there’s a searching for an answer to these scenarios as it may pertain to us in a future scenario.

Smith: And I think people love heroes. I think they have all through humanity. If you look at the Greek myths and all through time, people want the good people to win. In an inadvertent way, having a platform to highlight very exceptional police work, which they don’t actually find exceptional. It really is their day to day for them.

Has doing this podcast changed the way you view law enforcement or police investigating?

Smith: I can’t say that I was in any way knowledgeable about what went into it, but the number of boxes you need to check in order not to violate someone’s rights is infinite. I’m a big fan of a hero like I said. I want the good guys to win, and they seem like the good guys to me. I was totally on board with them, because I was a fan already. I certainly didn’t know what went into it.

Allen: To be honest, yes my perception shifted. I’ve always considered myself to be a very hard liberal. Though I didn’t have much knowledge of what went into policing and detective work, what I did know was skewed by what is fed to us on social media and a lot of that was negative press regarding the fact that the relationship between law enforcement and the community is pretty crunchy right now. When you actually get to sit across from the human being and in this case, the human being behind the badge, there’s an instant recognition of your shared humanity. In meeting all these detectives, there hasn’t been a single one yet who hasn’t said “This is a calling. It’s not a job. It’s not a career. It’s a calling.” They’re all in it for the right reasons and their integrity is second to none. They’re so dedicated to fighting on behave of their community. So, between that and the experience of their own humanity, it’s really softened me and made me equal parts sad in terms of where we’re at with public perception and equally excited that our podcast gets to tell a different story by nature. We’re just putting these true stories and these true voices out there. I love that we are inadvertently this platform for another kind of voice that you can head in the media.

Something that struck me was during the Sociopath and the Whistleblower series was that the detective investigating the case acknowledged his own bias in thinking that a cop couldn’t be guilty.

Allen: We were dying. It was a five-hour interview. We sat there and all of us were crying in the end, including him. He was so candid about his personal journey and how his own bias was shattered throughout that whole process. It was remarkable to experience not only just the story, which is in of itself so crazy and convoluted but his personal side of that tale is amazing.

So, why did you two want to be a part of the True Crime Festival?

Allen and Smith: It’s our first one!

Smith: Zibby and I are inherently curious and we really believe that if you invite us, we want to treat that invitation with reverence and the same curiosity we address our lives with. Without knowing much, we thought, “Why wouldn’t we?” I’m actually from Washington D.C., but that wasn’t so much deciding factor. I think there’s so much about the tone. We liked that the women were organizing the festival. Even though it’s the first one, we’re not those people that go, “You know what, call us in five years when you’ve done this a few times.”

Allen: Yeah, we get it. We’re baby podcasters. It’s been a really amazing year for us. We’re like the little engine that could. So, we love and respect the fact that it was their first go at the True Crime Festival.

Smith: And that they were willing to try it and we thought that we wanted to try it out with them. We’re scrappy!

Broke writer in the making.