Tracing the Birth of the Comedy Podcast Boom
The Montreal Just for Laughs Festival is not every comic’s cup of tea. That being said, many consider it to be the most prestigious event of the year. Not only is it the largest international comedy festival in the world, it is also the best attended by industry representatives, precisely the put-off for some. Last year at the 29th installment of the summer rendezvous in Quebec’s cultural capital the Keynote Address was delivered by Marc Maron and kicked off the Conference finale — a three-day parade of panels, parties, pitching and pimping between the purse-holders and the performers.
“I have never been more nervous about anything than to be doing this speech,” Maron recounted.
On the afternoon of July 28, 2011 I arrived at the Jeanne-Mance conference room inside the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Montreal thirty minutes before showtime. Maron, in jeans and a short-sleeve flannel, paced onstage. Stopping at the podium, he scratched his head and nervously sipped his coffee, a sea of neurotic rage swirling inside him. A producer inquired about a post-speech Q & A.
“Maybe. I don’t know. I couldn’t fucking sleep because of this shit!” he shouted. “I had an old-style, ruin-my-first-marriage kind of anxiety attack last night.”
“Because of this? No, come on. You’ll be great.”
“You have no idea who I am or what I’m capable of.”
Maron was right. She had never heard of him. Marc Maron is not exactly a household name, yet thousands of people know more about Maron than they know about their own family.
“I am the future of show business,” Maron proclaimed during his Keynote Address. “Not your show business, my show business. They want me to do this speech because I am the future of our industry.”
Maron’s Keynote seemed to signal the arrival of the podcast. Twenty million downloads in less than two years must have caught the organizers attention. Apparently, that was not the case.
“Then my new manager got back to me and said, ‘They liked the jokes you did when you introduced [Andy] Kindler a couple years ago. That’s why they asked you.’”
So they say. Either way, the success of WTF with Marc Maron has cast a new light on his work and inspired a generation of comedians to experiment with a medium that is less than a decade old, has no rules and exists — for the most part — outside of traditional media.
Two hours after Maron’s Keynote the Festival gave an official nod to podcasting by bringing him back on stage — joined by four other podcast hosts — for a panel on the emerging art form. “This one’s called ‘The Podfathers,’” said the presenter. “I’m not sure if we have a sponsor, the sponsor is, the Internet in general.”
While the production of comedy podcasts booms and coverage in the the press steadily increases, big advertisers remain shy. Only the top podcasts draw major ad money. Though podcasting is still largely a labor of love, many are beginning to see the residual benefits of a popular show, namely, empowerment. Comedians with successful podcasts are taking greater control over their careers.
Marc Maron opened the 2011 Just for Laughs Festival Conference with an emotional and sincere Keynote Address in which he seemed unsure of his position in the industry. This year he is closing the Conference with a stand-up show and a live WTF recording on July 28. And it becomes increasingly difficult for Maron to maintain his signature anger.
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Before comedy podcasts arrived the purveyors of audio funny were radio theatre actors and shock jock/morning zoo personalities. A small vanguard of joke-hustlers were slinging non-traditional audio dope online at the dawn of the new millennium. Greg Proops — host of The Smartest Man in the World and the moderator at ‘The Podfathers’ panel in Montreal last year — was recording weekly rants for Audible.com back in 2000. That same summer comedians Greg Behrendt and Dave Anthony — hosts of the much beloved “podcuddle” Walking the Room — did an Internet radio show called Manversation, which ran for almost a year before their host, ComedyWorld.com, folded.
The first person to call himself ‘The Podfather’ was Adam Curry, a Dutch-American ex-MTV heavy metal VJ and Internet entrepreneur credited (by some) with inventing podcasting software. (Others credit Dave Winer.) Among the Internet start-ups Curry collaborated with in the early 2000s was an outfit called Odeo, which failed to grow and eventually sold for next to nothing. Before bowing out of the podcast game Odeo’s board members came up with the idea for the micro-blogging giant Twitter.
In the early days of podcasting most programs focused on technology or music. Hobbyists, sci-fi fans, language coaches and educators of all stripes threw their hats in the ring soon after. Eccentric geeks began broadcasting their lives in a podcast-as-audio-blog-entrée. By the end of 2004 a sizeable audience of early podcast adopters had emerged and on June 28, 2005 Apple released an update for version 4.9 of iTunes, their media player software, which featured native support for podcasting. Thus began the reign of Apple. Today over 65% of podcasts are listened to through iTunes, either on a computer or mobile device. The introduction of the suggestion engine — a “Listeners also subscribed to” recommendation bar in the iTunes Store — was a game changer.
When the update for iTunes 4.9 was released comedy podcasts were few and far between. That changed when a British ex-New Wave singer-turned-comedian burst on the scene and claimed ‘The Podfather’ crown. Like many popular comedy podcasts, The Ricky Gervais Show has roots in terrestrial radio. Ricky Gervais — the “talent” half of the 1980s duo Seona Dancing — teamed up with a young comic and college radio host named Stephen Merchant in 1997 for a Sunday afternoon show on London’s Xfm 104.9. The radio station was taken over in 1998 but the duo returned in 2001. That is when they met Karl Pilkington, their idiot savant producer. In 2004 the trio left Xfm and by December 5, 2005 they released the first installment of a 12-episode podcast series promoted by The Guardian’s website. The BBC reported nearly eight million downloads in just ten months. Gervais and company cashed in on subsequent seasons with a pay-per-episode and pay-per-season model.
“We liked the freedom of podcasting,” Merchant wrote in an email. “Not just in what you can talk about, but in the means of production. We built our own studio in our office and recorded everything there when we felt like it. Also, there is really no limit to the audience you can reach. We even have some eskimo listeners.”
On this side of the pond an aspiring filmmaker and comedy nerd from The Berkshires named Matt Belknap moved to Los Angeles in the early 1990s and developed an obsession — whether it was healthy or unhealthy remains unknown — with the comedy rock duo Tenacious D (Jack Black and Kyle Gass). Unsatisfied with Tenacious D’s official message board on their Sony Music Group website, Belknap launched A Special Thing in the summer of 2001. The site originally served as a distraction for Belknap from his day job but evolved into a hub for all things comedy.
By writing about and supporting the LA alternative-comedy scene on A Special Thing Belknap helped foster a community of artists and fans on the website’s message boards. In 2005 Belknap formed the AST Records label and started recording a podcast, AST Radio. After recording an episode with Jimmy Pardo, a veteran comic, Belknap suggested they work together on a comedy podcast.
“We thought the boom was going to happen when we started. We worried we were too late,” Belknap said about the April 2006 debut of Never Not Funny. Their initial idea was to record one of Pardo’s live game shows. Instead, they opted for something in the vein of The Ricky Gervais Show; the original line-up was Pardo, Belknap and comedian Mike Schmidt. Taking another page out of Gervais’ book, Belknap and Pardo began charging a subscription fee after the second season, though the first twenty minutes of each show remains free. “Two years went by and nothing happened with podcasting and our numbers leveled off,” said Belknap. “We figured we couldn’t wait around forever for it to take off and become financially viable, so we had to do it ourselves. Or we had to stop.”
“When we started we were on this island to ourselves,” Pardo said over the phone during his drive to Warner Brothers Studios where he works as the warm-up comic on TBS’s late night talk show Conan. “When we said to people, ‘Hey, you want to come on my podcast?’ They said, ‘Yeah, I don’t know what that means, but okay.’ It felt like I was asking people to come on this cable access show that plays at three in the morning and nobody ever watches. I kind of felt like a loser, to be honest with you.”
In the two years after Never Not Funny debuted the pool of comedy podcasts hardly expanded but Pardo’s guests became familiar with a medium that most of them would eventually try. Given the empty playing field in 2008 Belknap and Pardo’s move to a paid subscription model paid off; a quarter of their regular listeners signed up, exceeding their expectations.
“What’s happening right now in podcasting is that everyone is focused on growth,” said Belknap. “It’s the typical Internet model of grow as much as you can and worry about making money later. We did sort of the opposite, where we grew in our first two years then we monetized early on, which stifled our growth to some extent. But we’re able to pay our bills, so that’s a trade-off.”
“In the very early days of podcasting in 2005 there was a lot of venture capital going into it,” said Jesse Thorn, host of Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (formerly The Sound of Young America), a podcast and nationally syndicated radio program. “Some of these companies were very well-organized but the advertising and revenue model wasn’t there. Advertisers are generally uncomfortable with podcasting now so you can imagine how they felt about it seven years ago.”
Liberated Syndication, or LibSyn, a Pittsburgh-based hosting platform, is one of the only companies that survived the podcasting boom of the mid-2000s. Now part of the Wizzard Media conglomerate, LibSyn hosts more than 10,000 podcast producers and had 1.7 billion downloads in 2010. Their most popular podcast category in 2007 — based on the percentage of their top 100 downloads — was Education at 37%. Comedy made up just 7% back then. That number is now 46% and climbing.
“I think calling it a boom is probably an overstatement,” said Thorn. “There’s a boom in production, a boost in audience. Right now there are a lot of performers who are excited to have a venue to perform. There are a lot of talented people who are involved in it but I think time will tell how many of those performers are committed to the form as more than just a venue to get exposure.”
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When the celebrated raconteur Paul F. Tompkins came to Minneapolis last May for a one night stand at the Parkway Theatre he polled the sold-out second show:
“How many people found out about this as a result of Facebook?” A spattering of shouts echoed through the room. “How many of you came because you heard me on the radio the other morning?” Crickets. Not even a distant golf-clap or lone hoot. “How many of you heard me plug the show on a podcast?” The room erupts with resounding applause, cheering and whistling.
Exposure is why so many people in the comedy business recommend starting a podcast or at least making appearances on them. Paul F. Tompkins — who hosts his own critically-acclaimed program The Pod F. Tompkast — knows this well, the man is a serial cameo artist. This website even renamed their “Best Guest” Year in Review award to “The Paul F. Tompkins Award for Best Guest.”
A feature spot on a podcast can actually be more effective than radio or television because podcasts are opt-in media. Active consumers are seeking out the content they want, on-demand. It’s DIY meets DVR.
“One of the reasons comedians love podcasting is that now they get stats when they host with us,” said Rob Walch of LibSyn. “They get to see which cities they’re getting the most downloads from and they can plan their road schedule accordingly.”
Podcasting has not only strengthened the stand-up scene but also laid the groundwork for a healthy future. When two comics sit down for a conversation they tend to talk shop. As a result, there are thousands of hours of advice available to aspiring artists.
The uncensored nature and regularity of podcasts has allowed for unprecedented access to both a comic’s work and their personal lives. Many interact with fans on Twitter and through email. “There’s something amazing about the audio format because people build a relationship that is unique, it’s individual,” said Maron at ‘The Podfathers’ panel. “You don’t know where they’re listening to it. It could be on the treadmill, it could be cutting up a body. But nonetheless, the relationship they build with that content is so personal.”
Sitting next to me in the front row at ‘The Podfathers’ panel was Jackie Kashian, a South Milwaukee-native, Los Angeles-based comedienne and host of The Dork Forest podcast. “‘The Podfathers.’ Yeah, right. I know these guys and I’m quite sure not one of them has got kids,” she quipped. “I’m up front so I can make them as uncomfortable as possible.” At one point the gentlemen on stage turn to Kashian to confirm when Never Not Funny began. They suspect she knows because she started her podcast a few months later.
“I was doing a show with a comic by the name of Joe Wilson. We did it with something called BlogTalkRadio.com. Very easy to use, you just call in and it gets recorded automatically. It’s essentially recorded conference calls. The Sound of Young America said about the show, ‘The quality of the first 213 episodes can sound like a telephone being held up to AM radio.’ That has the disadvantage of being slightly accurate,” she admitted.
At the beginning of last year Kashian started to get complaints from new listeners about the audio quality of The Dork Forest. “People pissed and moaned so much that I said, ‘Well, give me some money.’ And I put up a donation button thinking that they would just shut it. Then some people actually sent me money. Then an audio engineer volunteered to balance the audio. And another fan offered to do my website.”
“The amount of love that comes out of doing a podcast is a thing of beauty,” Kashian said enthusiastically. “It creates the best fans in the world. They’re just interested in it going well.”
If it were not for a fan recording of Comedy Death Ray Radio the first few episodes would have been lost in the digital ether. Scott Aukerman — writer on the cult 1990s HBO sketch program Mr. Show — has produced a stand-up show in Los Angeles since 2002. When local radio station Indie 103.1 FM went off the air in January 2009 they immediately began recruiting for an Internet rebirth. Aukerman signed up, thinking the radio show could be a way to promote the live gig.
“I had been calling into my friends morning show on Indie doing characters and he suggested that I do a show. The price that I was asking to do it, zero dollars, was perfect for Indie,” said Aukerman over the phone. “After the third show the station said they weren’t really interested in interviews with comedians, they wanted an entertainment program, an actual comedy show.”
Aukerman’s weekly mix of interview, characters and semi-structured improv — renamed Comedy Bang! Bang!: The Podcast — is now recorded in a stylish five-story office building on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood. Behind reflective blue glass and a single palm tree sits the home of the Earwolf comedy podcasting network, which Aukerman co-founded with Jeff Ullrich, an ex-Wall Street consultant who came to Aukerman with the idea in March 2010. Two years later Earwolf has produced more than a dozen shows, partnered with Funny or Die, and co-produced a television incarnation of Comedy Bang! Bang! for IFC, which debuted this summer.
Earwolf’s second show, Sklarbro Country, was somewhat of a coup from satellite radio. Shortly after twin brothers Randy and Jason Sklar finished work on ESPN Classic’s Cheap Seats they started filling in for sports commentator Jim Rome on his nationally syndicated radio show. In 2009 the Sklars produced six shows as a pilot run for Sirius Satellite Radio but it was left on the shelf. “They just dragged their feet,” said Jason, the bespectacled one, while we waited for a table at Brasa Rotisserie in Northeast Minneapolis. “It wasn’t that they didn’t pick it up. They’re like, ‘This could happen two days from now, it could happen two years from now.’”
“We really wanted to do a show and we didn’t want to wait. We were two weeks away from doing it ourselves,” Jason said about the day that Ullrich and Aukerman approached them about joining Earwolf. “The fact that they caught us in that moment was amazing.”
“I remember having deep conversations with [Chris] Hardwick at UCB Theatre in LA about podcasting,” said Randy, referring to the host of The Nerdist podcast, a panelist at ‘The Podfathers’ in Montreal and the captain of another podcasting network, Nerdist Industries. “Hardwick said, ‘You will connect with your fans in a way you never have before.’ And that came true more than anything anyone has ever said to us about this business,” said Jason.
“More people are coming to our shows and it’s energized our fan base,” said Randy. “We yelled out ‘Henderson!’ at the beginning of our set last night, which is a catchphrase from the podcast, and on a Thursday night in Minneapolis over a third of the crowd gave a response.”
“The crazy thing about podcasts is that you’re literally inside of someone’s head when they’re listening. It’s hard to get any deeper inside someone without having sex,” said Jason.
When film connoisseur and stoner comic Doug Benson hits the road, which is often, his fans demand a round or two of the “Leonard Maltin Game,” the anchor to his Doug Loves Movies podcast. And even though his television show The Benson Interruption was canceled after a short run, it lives on as a premium podcast.
“It works better in the unedited, uncensored world of podcasting anyway,” Benson said in an e-mail, most likely written from a hotel bed during the commercials of a movie he was watching on television.
Doug Loves Movies and Sklarbro Country are among a select group of podcasts that have been able to take their show on the road (Sklarbro Country will be performed at Montreal Just for Laughs on July 25). When I spoke with Jimmy Pardo he had just returned from the first Never Not Funny live recording in New York City. “I’ve performed in front of four or five thousand people in a venue before but I’ve never felt as welcome as I did with those four hundred people. They weren’t there because ‘Hey, it’s Tina’s birthday, let’s go to the Funny Bone.’ Nobody was there not to see us and that was amazingly overwhelming to me.”
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While the conversation format reigns supreme and the most popular programs are macho affairs that have spawned podcasting empires (The Adam Carolla Show, Smodcast, The Joe Rogan Experience), there are all kinds of comedy podcasts, from well-crafted sketch (Superego) to totally unscripted improv (Improv4Humans). Many podcast hosts have become de facto journalists because comics are more likely to be open and honest when talking with a friend or fellow artist. And the format is perfect for characters, since makeup and costume are not required.
“I spent so many years doing sketch comedy, lugging around bags of shit with me just to perform in character,” said James Adomian, one of the most sought after guests on the podcast circuit thanks to his wildly hilarious characters, infectious energy and advanced improv skills. “Podcasting has made it so much easier.”
As more and more comedians guest on each others shows the camaraderie in the community deepens. “You go to a comedy club and you see people out, you gag around, you find out what they’ve been up to lately,” said Jason Sklar. “But to talk for 20, 30, 40, an hour, you really get to know where they came from and what their story is.”
Podcasting has (so far) brought comedians closer together at a greater rate than it has brought bags of money closer to their bank accounts. “Getting advertising can be difficult,” said Walch of LibSyn. “For the first time these marketing firms have to deal with a medium that doesn’t have FCC regulations. You end up spending a lot of your time educating the advertisers why it’s okay that someone drops an F-bomb before, after or even during the commercial for their product.”
Prior to Marc Maron’s critical success and subsequent advertising pull — he reportedly charges up to $15,000 for a sponsorship — he was operating on a public broadcasting donation model. WTF has since moved to a premium service where the most recent 50 episodes are free and listeners must pay to access the back catalog. Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show went to a pay-per-episode system but abandoned it shortly thereafter. So far no one has been able to replicate the Never Not Funny formula, a subject discussed extensively on ASpecialThing.com in a January 2011 thread titled “The Pay-per-Podcast Era?”
“The one phrase I kept seeing on there was ‘embarrassment of riches,’” said Matt Belknap. “Comedy fans know they have it really, really good right now.”
The trouble with asking the Internet generation to pay for digital content is that they are so used to getting it for free. Reaching a broader audience will require breaking down the technological barriers to entry. Until then monetization will continue to be a challenge for networks and new producers.
“If podcasts are really just competing with radio then the biggest barrier is not being able to turn on your car stereo and listen to a podcast,” said Belknap. “But in a few years cars will have Internet connectivity automatically. If podcasting can get on a level playing field with terrestrial and satellite radio, if we all do the work now that we need to do to position ourselves for this, then it’ll be a watershed moment.”
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If the comedy podcast movement has an official motto it is an oft-quoted phrase attributed to Kevin Pollak: “Create, don’t wait.”
“As an actor, a comedian, a writer, you’re constantly looking for work,” said Jason Sklar. “One way to take the power back a little bit is to create something that people can consume and that you can get involved in. Ideally, if it’s making you money, then you’re getting all the power back.”
“Someone said to me that this is us taking back the means of production,” said Greg Proops at ‘The Podfathers’ panel. Marc Maron extended a fist in the air. Chris Hardwick chimed in, “We’ve had it so engrained in our minds that a job is a large company hires you and there’s a bunch of hoops you jump through and they tell you what to do. And then we go up and we talk and we’re ourselves and it’s a bit of a mind-fuck, because you’re like, ‘Well, I’m not really doing anything. I’m just being myself.’ And then you realize, ‘Oh, that is a thing.’”
“There are no TV producers, no agents, no meetings, no bullshit,” said Proops. “We pitch up and have a go. People love that it is for them and not a demographic.”
The podcast effect may have even inspired a new distribution model for stand-up video specials, as there is something inherently “podcastian” about the recent uncensored, independently-produced, globally-available, low-priced offerings from Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, and Jim Gaffigan.
For some, like Comedy Bang! Bang!, podcast success has been parlayed into television opportunities and beyond. HBO and Channel 4 turned The Ricky Gervais Show into an animated series, which just finished its third season. Funny ladies Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer were tapped by MTV to produce a show following the popularity of their podcast You Had to Be There. The brothers Sklar booked a History Channel gig (United Stats of America) thanks to a bit from Sklarbro Country they performed on NPR’s The Madeleine Brand Show. According to Jason, a producer from the History Channel was driving in Southern California, heard their take on the radio and requested an audition.
At one point during ‘The Podfathers’ panel the group discussed censorship. Maron: “So I don’t see any future [with censorship] until someone comes up to one of us and says “I’ll give you a million dollars to own your podcast,” and you’ll say “Alright, can I still do whatever I want?” and they’ll say “Of course you can.” And then all of a sudden you’re censoring yourself.”
“Exactly,” said Hardwick.
“You looking forward to that day?” asked Maron.
“I kind of am,” replied Hardwick. The audience and panelists burst into laughter. But Hardwick wasn’t joking. A year later that day came for The Nerdist host (though the price tag is unknown). It was announced last week that Legendary Pictures, the production company responsible for the recent Batman trilogy and The Hangover series, purchased Nerdist Industries and made Hardwick the co-president of their digital wing.
Two days after Marc Maron’s tense, touching and triumphant Keynote Address in Montreal his fans packed a small venue above a skateshop on Sainte-Catherine Street for a live midnight recording of WTF. In the middle of the show Canadian comic Jeremy Hotz looked Maron in the eyes and exclaimed, “When are you going to have your own talk show? Like, legitimate talk show on television that you fucking deserve and it should’ve happened twenty years ago. When’s that gonna fucking happen?” The crowd proceeded to go nuts.
“Hold on, let me ask,” said Maron, turning to the audience, shielding his eyes from the stage lights. “When is that going to happen back-of-the-room-people-with-laminates?”
“Don’t worry, there’s no industry here,” said Hotz.
“I know. They left ten minutes ago…I’m okay with it.” Maron lowered his head and his tone, speaking softly into the microphone as if he was disclosing a secret. “I don’t need them anymore.”
(On March 20 IFC announced it had ordered ten episodes of a scripted television show based on Maron’s life, slated for a third quarter release next year.)
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As a little bonus, here’s a one-off podcast featuring lots of the interviews I did with various folks from the podcasting world, most of which had to be cut from the above piece for space.
Joey Grihalva is a freelance writer and videographer from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, currently based in Montreal. He has a hard time staying in one place but you can always find his work at www.joeygee.com.