Ed Helms has managed to find the amusing parts of impending nuclear Armageddon.
The actor, writer and comedian hosts “Snafu,” a nonfiction comedy series in which he’ll dissect some of history’s most notorious screwups. In the inaugural season of the iHeartPodcast series — set to premiere Oct. 5 on major audio platforms — Helms tells the story of Able Archer 83, the NATO military exercise that may have almost triggered a real nuclear war in November 1983.
“It kind of felt like a story that needed to be told, and it also seemed like a story that would be fun to tell – it’s loaded with drama and spy-thriller intrigue,” Helms told Variety. “There’s a lot of comedy baked in. But ultimately it’s an intense and somewhat mortifying chain of events.”
Able Archer 83 was a NATO exercise that year simulating conflict escalation with the Soviets that culminated in the U.S. military achieving DEFCON 1, the highest-level alert status indicating a coordinated nuclear attack is imminent or has already begun. The simulation was a little too realistic: The Soviet military began activating their nuclear stockpile on the assumption that the U.S. was actually gearing up for a first strike.
“This event that goes down in 1983 is just a really instructive moment in history in how we approach adversaries when the stakes are so high,” said Helms, a self-described “history nerd.”
Helms compared the comedic tone of “Snafu” with films like “Argo” and “Dr. Strangelove,” where there’s drama and tension “but there’s also humor in the telling of the story.”
“Snafu” Season 1 uses firsthand interviews, archival audio and research from both the U.S./NATO and Soviet sides to document what some historians consider the closest America came to nuclear war since the Cuban Missile Crisis. For the series, Helms also conducted interviews with guests including actor Matthew Broderick — who starred in 1983’s “War Games,” which, in an eerie coincidence, is about a computer simulation that nearly precipitates a nuclear war — as well as former national security official Dr. Fiona Hill, former KGB sleeper agent Jack Barsky and nuclear expert Dr. Jeffrey Lewis.
Helms said that watching “War Games” on HBO as a kid left him deeply disconcerted. “Nuclear paranoia was just a fact of life in the ’80s,” he said, adding, “That movie really kept me up at night for a while.”
The podcast is a production of iHeartMedia, FilmNation Entertainment and Pacific Electric Picture Co., which Helms founded with producer Mike Falbo, in association with Gilded Audio. (“Snafu,” of course, is a military acronym coined by U.S. soldiers in World War II that stands for “situation normal all fucked up.”)
Helms is best known for his recurring role on NBC’s “The Office” and for starring in “The Hangover” film trilogy. For Pacific Electric Picture Co., he has produced and starred in “The Clapper,” “Corporate Animals” and “The Fake News With Ted Nelms.” Helms stars in Peacock’s “True Story,” an unscripted comedy co-hosted with Randall Park, and “Rutherford Falls,” a comedy series he co-created with Sierra Teller Ornelas and Mike Schur.
“Snafu” is the first podcast that Helms hosts. he also executive produces alongside Falbo, Dylan Fagan for iHeartPodcasts, Milan Popelka for FilmNation, Andy Chugg and Whitney Donaldson for Gilded Audio. Producers are Alyssa Martino and Tory Smith for FilmNation, Sara Joyner and Carl Nellis for Gilded Audio.
“We are thrilled to be partnering with FilmNation to launch this unique nonfiction series and honored to have the incredibly smart Ed Helms as our host,” said Will Pearson, COO of the iHeartPodcast Network. “Ed’s comedic take on these largely unknown historical blunders is both entertaining and educational, and we’re excited to offer history buffs new stories to enjoy.”
Listen to the trailer for “Snafu”: