How Comedy Podcasts Are Evolving Into More Than Just Talk Shows
Marc Maron brews a warm cup of Just Coffee, walks outside to his garage to meet his guest, and the two sit down to talk about…well, whatever. That’s it. The simplicity and organic nature of WTF, Maron’s popular podcast, gives it an obvious appeal: it’s just two folks talking.
Sure, Maron researches his guest and prepares questions. And, yes, the episode has to be cut together. But it’s essentially a talk show. Many of the earlier and most popular comedy podcasts of all time—You Made It Weird, The Joe Rogan Experience, The Nerdist Podcast, The Monday Morning Podcast, Comedy Bang Bang—are all variations of the same format. The host rambles, the guest—if there is one—comes on the show and they talk for one to three hours, they plug projects, the guest leaves, and the host does an outro to close the show. It’s the way most comedy podcasts have been for a while.
Yet, when you look at other popular podcasts outside of comedy, you realize there’s a lot more that can be done with the medium. Music and sound editing to increase production value and efficiency, research on topics of public interest, live shows, transporting recording equipment instead of sitting in a stationary room — these are all concepts that a crop of newer comedy podcasts are starting to put into practice. Our podcasting landscape today demands new podcasts to be more than just funny — they need to be funny and incredibly edited, funny and knowledgeable, funny and uniquely formatted. You can’t just be funny in a basement anymore. Unless you’re Bill Burr.
New comedian podcasters are exploring well-worn formats that non-comedy podcasters are already employing, pushing the genre forward. And that’s a good thing. Here are some of the podcasts that are doing this best:
The selling point of most comedy podcasts is a celebrity or special guest — one who’s usually trying to promote a show or movie or book. People want to hear a celebrity talk about their childhood, tell bits, talk about comedy, or improvise. But what if you had to create all the intrigue yourself? What if the guest was completely anonymous and you had to coax something interesting and worthwhile out of them? That’s the premise of Beautiful Stories From Anonymous People (Beautiful/Anonymous): Chris Gethard gets on the phone with an anonymous guest for one whole hour and cannot hang up. And, somehow, his ability to break people down and engender trust in his guest creates magical episodes that cover topics anywhere from alcoholism to making out with a teacher.
Gethard, whether intentionally or not, shifts the focus of the typical comedy interview from the celebrity to the common man, which is noticeably harder to pull off. “Normal” people aren’t funny comedians or charismatic improvisers. Gethard has to steer the guest and find the humor and meaning himself. People are automatically going to be interested in what a celebrity says, simply because they’re famous. They’re also just much better at having a “talk show” type of appearance, because they’ve done it a million times. But you might have to work a little harder to get something interesting out of a middle-aged woman from Kentucky.
Gethard isn’t a therapist, but he serves as a therapeutic guide, drawing out sensitive but important information that, sometimes, people just need to get off their chest. He almost exclusively talks about the guest rather than himself—he’s the listener who makes observations and offers questions to guide the caller somewhere deeper. He’s not promoting himself or his guest, he’s promoting the human condition. It’s about the people he’s talking to; that’s what makes it so powerful. Beautiful/Anonymous is much more than a comedy podcast: it’s a This American Life-esque portrait of people, culture, and society. It’s this that sets Beautiful/Anonymous apart from other traditional comedy podcasts of the same format: it’s not “show up and chat about whatever,” it’s “reach out and talk about everything.”
What 2 Dope Queens lacks in intimacy, it makes up for in “show.” Live hosting banter between Phoebe Robinson and Jessica Williams, live interviews with celebrities, live standup comedy, the hottest audience in town, upbeat musical transitions, and a high production value: 2 Dope Queens is a whole thing. The live element sets the pace and keeps the show moving. Robinson and Williams know they can’t banter too much or they’ll lose the audience. Too little and the show has no personality. They’re forced by the stage to keep their show engaging. You’ll never hear, “Is this even interesting to anyone besides us right now?” Uproarious laughter or deafening silence resolves the question instantaneously.
Podcasting for standups is usually a different art form altogether: either you’re sitting in a room, alone, talking into microphones or you’re on stage doing standup. 2 Dope Queens bridges the gap between the two—the closest thing to a live comedy show you’ll get with podcasting. 2 Dope Queens has a diverse set of today’s top comedians performing new material, but it also has Robinson and Williams in a studio recording transitions and doing a little offstage banter, too. And somehow, with all those different elements of the show cut together, episodes are still only about an hour and a half long. Via self-editing and post-production, any excess is cut out and that’s what makes it such a fun, fast-paced show.
Metamorphosing a format The Moth live storytelling podcast has followed for years, 2 Dope Queens adds music and seamless transitions between both live performance and in-studio segments. It shows just how much thought goes into each aspect of the podcast to run smoothly and seemingly without effort. The amount of editing that goes into this curation of live and studio recordings is impressive alone. Consider all the effortful tinkering just one episode takes to order all the audio clips together in a way that makes sense, cut out the fluff, record transitions, and insert music. With all due respect, it’s not Joe Rogan jumping on a microphone in a stationary studio; it demands a lot more preparation and afterthought.
Compare the knowledge and preparation packed into each episode of Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History to Bill Burr’s easygoing Monday Morning Podcast. Of course, in-depth research isn’t Bill Burr’s appeal. “Carlin’s way” approximates the approach that Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski shovel into Last Podcast on the Left and, more recently, Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark have infused into My Favorite Murder. No, these aren’t history podcasts. Appearances from serial killers, cult leaders, and urban myths are much more frequent than those of historical figures. But, the philosophy remains the same: work hard on the research, then goof off during the recording.
For the 200th-202nd episodes, LPOTL covers the history of serial killer H. H. Holmes, the primary source material for which they cited as both The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson and Depraved by Harold Schechter. The trio had to read not just two whole books, but also a bunch of other secondary research to put the episode together; it’s an entire research project. And this isn’t unusual—they’re releasing new episodes just like this every week. This type of research provides us with context, like the fact that Holmes’s good looks let him get away with a lot. Zebrowski remarks, “What I love about the 1890s is whenever they describe someone as ‘handsome’ it means that they did not take a soft bullet to the face during the Civil War.” It’s silly jokes paired with research. Comparable research to Carlin, and they’re making it funny.
In addition to being well-prepared, the outline of each episode of LPOTL is highly intensional; roughly one hour of research on the subject mixed with jokes. Each host also has a clearly defined role: Marcus Parks reads the research, Henry makes jokes and does voices, and Ben Kissel does the transitions and keeps them on track. Each of them has a very specific reason for being there—it’s not just a free-for-all where they invite three random guests on the show and you can’t tell who’s talking.
If you can’t tell, I’ve listened to a lot more LPOTL than My Favorite Murder, but much of the same can be said for MFM. The structure of MFM is a little looser than LPOTL. There’s more banter off the top, there’s more of a friends-hanging-out vibe with hosts Karen and Georgia than there is when listening to a funny lecture from Marcus, Henry, and Ben…but simplest of all: both podcasts are about something. The hosts are huge fans of the occult and everything spooky and creepy, and they turned it into something they would enjoy. It couldn’t work any other way.
On the spectrum of podcasts from “standard talk show” to “something completely different,” My Dad Wrote a Porno unquestionably falls toward the latter end. Week to week, friends Jamie Morton, James Cooper, and Alice Levine read aloud a chapter of the porno book penned by Morton’s father, who is referred to by his pen name, Rocky Flintstone. Before and after each reading, we check in with Morton to hear what it’s like to go through the singular experience of having his father’s porno read aloud to him in front of a huge podcast audience. During the readings, the triad picks apart the logical inconsistencies and hilarious word choices of Mr. Flintstone.
Like Last Podcast on the Left, this is also a case where the content of the podcast dictates the format of the show itself. These hosts borrow a structure from Mr. Flintstone, but they honor it with professional and clean cuts, intros, and transitions that enhance the storyline. A throwback to literary periodicals and a cousin of podcasts like Serial, My Dad Wrote a Porno is a skillful manipulation of a story to keep listeners engaged. Unlike many comedy podcasts, we have one story that spans from week to week; we have something to look forward to. We have a reason to tune in next week.
My Dad Wrote a Porno also contradicts the resistance to editing that surrounds a lot of comedy podcasts today. Cuts can be just as good as additions, evidenced by the simple and fast flow of MDWAP. Each episode is a very manageable, binge-able 30-40 minutes. And, if you listen closely, you can catch some cuts here and there. Cuts where you can imagine the trio of hosts straying a little too far from the plot of the episode — places where a little trim might help. MDWAP is not afraid to cut anything they don’t see as vital to the story, a philosophy that some 3-hour episode podcasters could benefit from borrowing. The hosts of MDWAP aren’t comedians, but comics could learn a lesson from this successful cult show. If not the humor, then careers in television and radio have surely helped the economical, structured, and amusing storytelling of the show.
What if you could throw a bunch of structures altogether into one big shitpile of a podcast? That’s what this group of podcasts is all about: toying with as many different ways to entertain people with audio as possible. These are shows that either don’t have a set structure or have too many formats. You just have to listen to hear them work.
In one episode of the classic radio show The Best Show with Tom Scharpling, Scharpling does a segment called “Tom can’t complain” where callers try their hardest to get known griper Scharpling to complain about something, drawing on years of fandom for inspiration. If Scharpling fails to hold his tongue, he must donate $10 to an animal charity. A show split into call-ins, music chat, live musical segments, and characters, The Best Show is constantly toying with new ideas and meta-humor. The innovation isn’t so much in the structure but in the lack of it: the ability to break conventions.
What makes Scharpling’s call-ins so funny is that he’s submitting himself to a task that he doesn’t even want to participate in. It’s the audience’s goal (and delight) to capitalize on it. Because they’re so open-ended, these shows often find humor in the format of a podcast itself. Hollywood Handbook is a classic example: an entire show envisioned to be a satire of a “show business” podcast. Sarcastic Hollywood “expert” co-hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport explore a semi-fictional world of writing and acting, spending an inordinate amount of time one-upping each other and name-dropping rather than pursuing their stated goal of generously and humbly teaching their audience about show business.
In fact, it’s the typical format of a comedy podcast the duo goes out of their way to satirize. They’ll play the “Hollywood Handbook” intro music three or four times during the course of an episode, create fake drama with their guests (who you’re never 100% sure are in on the joke or not), and, most recently, claim over the course of several episodes that the podcast will be coming to an end as they continue to interview guests from week to week, business as usual. Each episode is named after the celebrity guest followed by the phrase “our close friend,” ridiculing the idea that a podcast can be good by association.
The Bone Zone takes this idea to another extreme. Any given episode could start with 10 minutes of air horns and other soundboard noises mixed with incomprehensible speech. At points, the show is so bad that it’s funny. It’s a show with bizarre prank phone calls, soundboard antics, music, and characters, but it’s also brazenly just some idiots hanging out. Whereas many basement podcasts are inherently infused with an air of self-importance, The Bone Zone accepts and leans into its own immature stupidity. The Rad Dudecast shares the same DNA, going out of its way to pursue segments you’d think no one would ever want to listen to. The Dudecast philosophy of “never saying no” to an idea has birthed some pretty weird stuff…like reading the entire script of Forrest Gump in accents one week and doing a cooking show the next.
The ability to try new things–and, equally important, to fail–mirrors the way standup comedians improve and grow: you try a lot of bits to end up with a few big hits. These shows turn podcasting into an experiment with the purpose of not just doing one thing well, but of trying different styles, executing, and having fun.
Stu Melton is a NYC comedian and creator of the blog A Comedian’s Notebook. Along with co-host Jake Fromm, Stu hosts and produces Green, a seasonal podcast where two green comedians talk to successful comedians about stuff they’re really good at. Classical talk-show-style podcasts share a morsel of great comedy advice about once every 183 minutes. With guests like Jo Firestone and Nick Vatterott talking about topics from writing for television to performing on late night and editing down to the best stuff, Green does better than that. Episodes 1-3 of Green are available for download on iTunes or Soundcloud today. Subscribe for future episodes!