Inside A Special Thing and ‘Never Not Funny’ with Matt Belknap
Matt Belknap has had many aspirations. As a teenager he hoped to make it in Hollywood after reading a Spike Lee book on screenwriting. After attempting to make films, he carved his own path by starting A Special Thing message board, originally designed as a place where Tenacious D fans could congregate. But AST morphed into an alternative comedy hub where fans and comedians alike could post and discuss comedy. Belknap soon started A Special Thing Podcast and since 2006, Belknap has been cohosting the weekly podcast, Never Not Funny, with one of his favorite comedians, Jimmy Pardo.
Along with his cohosting duties, Belknap cofounded A Special Thing Records, which produces artists including Marc Maron, Scott Aukerman, Paul F. Tompkins, and Jonah Ray. Belknap also began running See You Next Tuesday at UCB in 2005.
On Friday, Belknap and Pardo will be hosting Pardcast-a-thon ’14, a podcast/telethon that runs from noon-midnight and has previously welcomed guests including Amy Poehler, Jon Hamm, Sarah Silverman, and Andy Richter.
I spoke with Belknap about trying standup, meeting Conan O’ Brien, and the benefits of procrastination.
The 6th annual Pardcasthaon is coming up. How did the Pardcastathon start and what goes into it?
It started in 2009. Jimmy and I and a friend, Pat Francis, a regular on our show, were talking about doing something kind of different, something outside of the regular weekly podcast. And I think Pat brought up the Jerry Lewis telethon and we thought that it’d be funny to just record a podcast for 12 hours and put it out. It seemed like such a stupid idea that we thought it was funny. Then the more we talked about it the more we thought could we actually do it. We invited some fans and whoever wanted to come. The first one was nine hours long. And we thought about what charity we wanted to donate to. Jimmy and Pat had recently discovered Smile Train and we thought it was a great idea for a charity because for $250 you can actually change a style of life and help somebody in a tangible way. We’ve done it every year since then.
You and Jimmy Pardo have an interesting dynamic. He seems to go out there with his jokes and you reel them back in. How did that chemistry between you two develop?
The few times I’ve gone back and listened to early episodes of the show what I’m really struck by is how, I remember at the time thinking, how much fun it was to be bantering with one of my favorite comedians. [Jimmy] is able to make the person he is talking to feel funny. He’s really funny, but he also bounces off of anyone who’s near him. He creates this atmosphere of riffing that is contagious. You get caught up in it and you just start to play along. But when I listen back to it now, what I seemed to be doing mostly was trying to correct him when he would say something for humor that was obviously not real. I would be this scolding teacher, thinking that being pedantic would be funny. But that was that genesis of our relationship. He would do his thing and I would sort of pull it back to reality. He wanted someone to keep him on track. I felt like my responsibility, as producer, was to keep us on schedule and give him whatever information he was looking for. I think that sort of made me the straight man, also the fact that I’m not a comedian.
The first hour or so of the show is just you two talking, either Jimmy Quizzing you or you guys going on tangents. It goes everywhere.
The formula from the beginning was let’s just talk about whatever comes up and riff on it, follow every tangent. We probably go on fewer tangents than we used to. Something about my brain tries to tie up every loose end and not leave anything hanging. Jimmy’s mind moves so fast that we’d get on like five topics and I’d say “we didn’t wrap up that other thing.” But he didn’t care because the point was to find funny. Now I just try to roll with it more and go along with wherever he’s going and if I can come up with something funny along the way too then I feel good about myself.
You once tried standup, but you said you were too aware of how mediocre you were. Do you still have any aspirations to do it?
Part of the problem was that I became friends a bunch of comedians who were well established. If I could have magically skipped ahead to be at the same point in terms of experience as my friends it might have gone differently. I did open mics for six months, maybe one or two a week, it wasn’t a lot. I knew too much. Most people don’t know anything, but they really want to do it. The main thing I knew was that I wasn’t going to be funny for a long time. And I didn’t have the patience to push through that phase. I didn’t feel like I was getting anything out of it. It wasn’t rewarding. When you’re posting on a message board, people respond and there’s a conversation, but when you do an open mic there’s maybe seven people out there and usually they’re all comics and they’re not listening.
I read that you started A Special Thing message board based on procrastination. What were you procrastinating on?
I was working on a micro-budget feature film that I shot with some friends. I moved to LA right out of college where I studied film. I wanted to be a screenwriter. My day job was reading scripts for a production company. I would be writing my own stuff half the time and then reading other people’s stuff. And so I wrote this script I was really happy with and my friend thought, “hey we should make this.” So we shot it and put all of our money in it. And when we were done shooting it took a lot out of me and I couldn’t find an editor. We hadn’t lined up an editor for the movie. I was faced with the prospect of editing it myself. But I was so devastated. You want to make the best thing you could possibly make. And during the process of shooting it I realized this isn’t going to be my Clerks. I didn’t want to look at the footage. I was kind of depressed about the whole thing and I was just avoiding it. And instead of editing the movie or even reviewing the footage I started reading message boards. And at that time I was obsessed with Tenacious D. So I was like, I’m going to make my own message board for Tenacious D because there isn’t really a good one. That became the main thing I was doing when I was reading scripts for a living.
You started off wanting to be a screenwriter after reading a book on filmmaking by Spike Lee. Did you find you had more passion for discussing comedy than writing it?
I was 16 years old when I read that Spike Lee book. At the time I thought I had my whole life planned out. I was going to do what Spike Lee told me to do, which was start writing and get good at that. I was very single minded about that. But you’re not really fully formed as a person at that point in your life and I hadn’t really written anything at that point. I wasn’t this Stephen King type of person who couldn’t stop writing, who just needed to write or they’ll die or something. I found it fulfilling. The biggest struggle I had as a writer was the lack of feedback. As a screenwriter you work for months and months on end without anyone else seeing what you’re doing and then you’re finally done and you show it to people and most of the time they don’t want to read it or they read it grudgingly and they don’t know really what to say about it. Or you send it out to the world, to agents or producers, and you never hear anything back. You don’t hear no you just hear nothing, just silence. That was the hardest thing for me. I just wanted a response. I think most creative people want to get a reaction when they create something because they want to share it with people. When I write something on a message board I get a response almost right away and people start posting a response to what I said and that leads me to think of something else. And then it’s a conversation. I prefer conversations to a monologue. That became my passion because it was instant gratification.
Who are some of the more memorable guests you’ve had on the podcast?
We’ve had Conan O’Brien on twice. It felt very surreal to sit next to him. He’s insanely fast on his feet. You only see it in small bursts on his show, his ability to be funny in the moment and on the fly. And that’s all our show is — an hour and half of being funny off the top of your head in a conversation. It was amazing to witness that because Jimmy is one of the fastest guys I’ve ever met and Conan is obviously at the level too. To see them go back and forth was crazy and really fun. Richard Lewis was another amazing guest because I grew up loving him and watching him on TV. He’s just a force of nature. He came in to the room and within ten seconds I think he had thrown a bottle of soda at Jimmy. He was so Richard Lewis.
Never Not Funny is one of the more popular podcasts out there. Now that there are so many people doing podcasts, do you think the medium is becoming oversaturated?
I’ve learned from experience not to predict the decline of podcasts (laughs) because I honestly thought it was over in 2009. Part of why Jimmy agreed to do the show was that he was worried about getting left behind. He felt like for once it was a chance for him to be on the cutting edge. We started in April, 2006. We thought it was going to take off. And it was like two or three years where it felt like nothing happened. It wasn’t going anywhere. And that’s when [Adam] Carolla and Comedy Bang Bang and Nerdist and a bunch for other things started and it seemed to explode. So many of these shows, just like us, built a real following and built a real living out of it.
It does sometimes feel like it’s oversaturated that the market can’t bare another show with three guys talking. That may be true. But I also think the medium of podcasting is so flexible. Television has to fit some type of time constraint, not only budgetary concerns but format and who’s going to watch, who’s it right for. But anybody can make a podcast and put it out. The fun part is seeing how people find new ways of doing it that will capture people’s attention and their imagination…Welcome to Night Vale is a phenomenon and I think the main reason is because it’s so original. It’s a totally scripted show that creates an entire world of audio in your head. Shows will come along that will break the mold.
It’s almost as if some podcasts are taking a cue from the fictional radio programs of the 1930’s and 1940’s.
TV pushed radio aside because it was so much more technologically exciting, but yet 70 years later we still have points in our lives where our eyeballs are not free but our ears are and so when you’re driving or exercising or working you want to be entertained by something without being visually distracted. I think podcasting has proven to be a powerful way to fill that time. It’s cool to be able to give people a narrative experience in these sections of their lives where they’re doing something else. I think that’s always going to be valuable. People will always be looking for something to do in their car.
People build strong connections with podcasters. They seem to become almost like friends.
That’s what we hear all the time. People think of us as their friends or family because they’re literally spending hours and hours with us every week. Howard Stern pioneered that because he created a world with his show that people became really attached to. Everybody I know who has a successful podcast tells me their fans tell them they’re like family. That’s something you can’t accomplish in two hours or an hour and a half; it takes years of sharing and sharing and putting it out there. People come for the laughs and stay for the fact that they become attached to you.
What are you looking to do in the next couple of years?
I would love to come up with some new ideas for different types of podcasts. I like the idea of doing something totally different in the medium of podcasting and seeing what we can come up with. I’ve been thinking a lot of about that and maybe I’ll get around to doing something about it at some point (laughs).
I guess that goes back to the whole procrastination thing
Unfortunately I’m too busy to procrastinate anymore. Luckily I love doing what I do so it’s not so hard to show up at work every day.
You can hear new episodes of Never Not Funny weekly at Pardcast.com.