A comedian discovers a way to communicate directly with his or her fans, and suddenly every other comic tries to reverse engineer this template for success, hoping lightning will strike twice. But it never quite does. Then some other inventive comic breaks new ground and the process repeats itself.
I could be talking about the halcyon (?) days of Dane Cook’s MySpace ubiquity, the perverse hilarity of Rob Delaney on Twitter, or those charming early years when YouTube launched Andy Samberg and The Lonely Island (with Saturday Night Live’s help), which spawned the rise of YouTube comics like Bo Burnham and Jon Lajoie. But in this case, I’m talking about Marc Maron.
A few years ago, with his popularity at an all-time low, he watched other comics draw audiences he couldn’t match. With nothing to lose, he started recording conversations with his comedic pals about, really, whatever—professional resentment, shared neuroses, stand-up as emotional catharsis. The more he spoke, and the more he interjected himself into those conversations, the more people listened. He wasn’t expecting it, but WTF With Marc Maron resuscitated his career, and suddenly podcasts became all the rage for comedians. As comedian Chris Hardwick told The A.V. Club in 2010, “Podcasts are the new comedy albums.”
Certainly WTF wasn’t the first comedy podcast, but Maron had discovered a way to use the form to his advantage unlike anyone else. You Made It Weird host Pete Holmes isn’t talking about Maron explicitly in The New York Observer, but he might as well be:
“You can put out such a specific product that the podcast web can meet a listener’s needs more specifically than a TV network ever could… It’s like any relationship—like a friendship or a romantic relationship. You can become somebody that shows up in their lives every week. That fosters a kind of intimacy with your fans."
Maron fosters an almost uncomfortable level of intimacy with listeners, such as frequently (over?) sharing details of his relationship with his girlfriend, but it’s not just interview shows that pull back the curtain. Comedy Bang Bang (hosted by Mr. Show writer Scott Aukerman) and Never Not Funny (hosted by comedian and Conan associate Jimmy Pardo) are ostensibly more about the jokes than comedians’ shared humanity, but they can still be revelatory. Listeners overhear conversations among friends taking place in a cozy setting, instead of in a large room within the normal constraints of stand-up comedy. The audience on those podcasts is a distant, nebulous entity, so the comedians come across as more genuine, even when they’re simply goofing around.
Because of its potential to forge direct bonds between comedians and fans, “Check out my podcast” is becoming the new “Follow me on Twitter.” Earwolf Media (the company behind Comedy Bang Bang) hosts 17 podcasts at earwolf.com. Nerdist.com—home of Hardwick’s Nerdist podcast—has 15. Currently on iTunes, comedy accounts for 21 of the top 100 podcasts, two of which just started this year, The Dana Gould Hour and Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend.
Podcasts have given comedians distinct voices and a means to share that voice directly with comedy nerds. But for the good of comedy, people need to stop creating new ones.
For starters, just about every comedy podcast involves at least one guest, and the pool is only so big. The most popular ones these days—particularly those based in Los Angeles—rarely venture outside a small group that includes comics like Paul F. Tompkins, John Hodgman, Andy Daly, Garfunkel & Oates, James Adomian, and Maron himself. Todd Glass, who came out on a stellar recent episode of WTF, appeared on Comedy Bang Bang in early February, then hosted Paul F. Tompkins that same week in a two-part episode of his own podcast that lasted 175 minutes. Pardo called the podcast scene “incestuous” in an Observer follow-up post. He was a guest on The Todd Glass Show in mid-January.
In a New York Times piece that published a week before that Observer article, Paul Brownfield worries that podcast overexposure is deflating the thrill of live stand-up albums: “Listening to a live show, performed in front of an audience, now feels inevitably deflating—the energy off, the crowd response interruptive, the comic now working a crowd, instead of just working you.” I understand what Brownfield is saying, but I don’t completely agree. Live comedy surprises me in a totally different way than a podcast might. Podcasts might feel like they speak directly to an individual, but a live show taps into the collective consciousness of everyone attending—a shared laugh is a pretty powerful thing. Obviously the experience is heightened when you’re actually at the club, but even recorded laughter can bring about that moment of togetherness; it’s kind of the same philosophy as a laugh track, only genuine and earned. I’m not only bonding with the comedian, but I’m bonding with those around me, with the comedian acting like a lightning rod.
What bothers me about overexposure is that appearances by comedians no longer feel special, either on podcasts or at live shows. The notion of “special guests” implies scarcity, which just isn’t the case when there are a growing number of ways to hear that person every single week. A few months ago, I attended a Comedy Bang Bang show at Los Angeles’ Upright Citizens Brigade theater—the weekly stand-up show that gave the podcast its name—and Bob Odenkirk stopped in to do some sketch work. By all accounts, that’s a pretty cool thing—I love Odenkirk. But after hearing him so many times on the CBB podcast and a slew of other Earwolf shows, it didn’t seem out of the ordinary. Maron was at that show, too, doing a bit he’d done a week before on his podcast. Then, the next day, Maron was at another comedy show I attended with the same material—and even the same clothing.
This is, of course, an on-the-job hazard of seeing a lot of comedy shows, but what worries me is that this kind of experience will only grow more common as the number of podcasts grows. It used to be a welcome surprise to see a comic work out material—“Louis CK is at this open mic!”—but with the proliferation of comedy podcasts, that raw material is thrust upon you every time you refresh your podcast subscriptions in iTunes. The more podcasts there are, the less chance there is to be surprised.
It’s tricky, though, because one of the reasons why comedians podcast is to drive people to live shows—podcasts themselves are extraordinarily difficult to monetize. There’s a fine line between exposure and fatigue; and much like the way I instantly archive almost every invite I get on Facebook (the latest incarnation of Cook’s MySpace gumption), there will soon be a point when we know too much about comedians to retain any of the magic that initially attracted us to the art form.
If the podcast pool stopped growing today—if every comedian with a germ of a podcast idea decided to go in a different direction—nothing would suffer. There are enough quality podcasts right now that could sustain the interest of all types of listeners: loose, joke-filled podcasts; serious interview shows; theatrical shows like Thrilling Adventure Hour, Superego, and Rob Huebel’s serialized Mike Detective; quasi-game shows like Doug Loves Movies; the fascinating experiments in sketch comedy, interviewing, and Cake Boss impressions that is The Pod F. Tompkast. There’d be no danger of podcast overload. The raw creativity of those potential podcasters could be diverted toward something that doesn’t exist yet, perhaps the next industry game-changer or comedy-nerd unifier. And most importantly, comedy podcasting would have less of a chance of growing stale. As every comedian ever has said, “Leave ’em wanting more.”