Podcasts help comedians spread the laughter
Stand-up comedy was on the verge of becoming a stale, played-out punchline. Now, it's going through a Renaissance of sorts, where the hippest music festivals are booking David Cross and Patton Oswalt, and people like Bob Odenkirk and Louis C.K. are reinventing television comedy. Suddenly, comedians aren't just striving to get that sitcom deal — they're doing TV and movies to build an audience for their stand-up.
Stand-up comedy has a lot of things going for it: plenty of cable TV hours to fill on HBO and Comedy Central, the rise of satellite radio and a few driven talents, such as Louis C.K., Ricky Gervais, Dave Chappelle and Larry David, who relentlessly push the form forward.
While the rise of online media has devastated the music industry, it has had an opposite effect on comedy. Podcasting, in particular, seems to be giving the careers of many stand-up comedians a boost.
Podcasts function like episodic online radio shows, but they don't have to be accessed live to be heard. There's a lot of crossover in the skills department with terrestrial radio — though podcasts have the advantage of not being regulated by the FCC.
Local fave Jim Krenn just started a podcast, “No Restrictions,” found at www.jimkrenn.com.
After being let go from his radio gig on the WDVE morning show, Krenn thought the move online made sense.
“That's what I miss the most — the connection with the listeners,” Krenn says. “Doing it for two decades, we had created a bond. Listeners were like family. I thought this would be a neat way to do it.”
The theme of the show is comedy and sports.
“Like the morning show, but no restrictions,” Krenn says. “Topical things in the news. Vintage SNL — fake commercial and skits, played like a real commercial. Guests on most shows. The first episode is recorded with an invited audience. There's a surprise guest — (former Pittsburgh mayor) Sophie Masloff. She's 95.”
Podcasts aren't limited by time and commercial breaks. To help keep the banter moving, Krenn picked a few co-hosts, starting with Terry Jones.
“I didn't know him,” Krenn says. “I'm at this charity show for a friend in June, with a bunch of comedians. We were jumping up and doing 10 minutes each. Terry was blowing me away — doing Sam Jackson, Chris Tucker — and I'm howling. I thought he was out of L.A. He was that talented. He said, ‘No, I live in Penn Hills.' We became fast friends. It was like a first-round pick.”
Others on the show include John Evans, who was a finalist on “Last Comic Standing,” and Mike Wysocki.
“It's a great outlet for comedians,” Krenn says of podcasts. “This gives you a little peek inside the personalities involved — a behind-the-scenes vibe. It's a natural fit for a comic to do a podcast.”
Like stand-up, the show is very structured, he says. “You have to get six to eight laughs a minute.”
Though podcasts are typically prerecorded, there's nothing like a live audience — especially for stand-ups. Many podcasts have elements of both. Krenn's first episode was recorded before a live audience at Bricolage, Downtown.
There are plenty of comedy podcasts — from entertainment-industry brand names such as “Mohr Stories” (Jay Mohr) and “The Adam Carolla Show,” to bit players building their brand, to total unknowns looking for an audience online. The groundbreaking “Ricky Gervais Show” was simply the two British creators of “The Office” talking to and ridiculing their friend/producer Karl Pilkington, and it became a worldwide smash.
Stand-up comedian and TV host Paul Gilmartin's “Mental Illness Happy Hour” (www mentalpod.com) is about heavy psychological disorders like depression and anxiety, but his empathy and skill as an interviewer — and sense of humor — make for compelling listening.
Comedian Chris Hardwick's “Nerdist” (www.nerdist.com) podcast — an interview-packed show about all manner of geeky subjects — has transformed into an entire podcast empire, with about 20 separate podcasts, a Youtube channel and a TV show on BBC America.
It's no surprise that natural talkers like stand-up comedians and radio hosts would excel at podcasting. But it's sometimes surprising who makes the leap.
For example, Marc Maron's comedy career was falling apart until he started “WTF” (www.wtfpod.com), a podcast that featured him talking to other stand-up comedians about the craft of comedy. It has evolved into an audio first-person history of comedy, from up-and-comers to legends such as Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. He's unearthed uncomfortable secrets, discussed dark subjects like depression and addiction with humor and candor, aired out feuds, solved mysteries and tackled controversies — like Carlos Mencia's alleged joke-stealing.
“Marc Maron is probably the gold standard of podcasting. I think it helps the audience get a look into the real lives of comedians,” says Pittsburgh-based stand-up comic Matt Wohlfarth, whose podcast is “Creative Over Coffee” (www.creativeovercoffee.com). Podcasts can help a comedian find an audience.
“For a comedian who has 23 hours to kill a day, it's a great way to build a following,” Wohlfarth says.
Derek Minto, a comedian from Pittsburgh, began his comedy/interview podcast “Haters for Hire” (www.hatersforhire.com) out of frustration with radio.
“I started out in radio,” Minto says. “I liked radio, but I became very disillusioned with terrestrial radio.
“When I started listening to podcasts, I realized that people could have a real conversation without a producer telling them to go to a commercial break. It was so natural, and that's what I like about listening to interesting people talk.”
Comedians don't necessarily need their own podcasts — being a guest on a popular podcast is almost as good. When Wohlfarth was a guest on comedian/TV writer Greg Fitzsimmons' popular national podcast, “FitzDog Radio” (www.gregfitzsimmons.com), he was amazed at the response.
Fitzsimmons finds that podcasting helps him refine his stand-up material.
If comedy is changing for the better, you can't rule out podcasting as a contributing factor, he says.
“Pure stand-up seems to be as strong as ever,” he says. “I have definitely seen a lot more people coming to my shows because of the podcast.”
The key, for Krenn, is considering one's audience. He's a known quantity in Pittsburgh, but the Sideshow Network asked him to do it with a bigger audience in mind.
“I'm the Pittsburgh guy, so it will have that Pittsburgh flavor, but it's going to be a national show,” he says. “When I talk about the Steelers and Penguins, that's religion. It's an interesting balance. I feel like I can do this. Funny is funny.”
Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-320-7901.