A comedy insider for the past decade-plus, Matt Belknap has had courtside seats for the rise of the second or third wave of alternative comedy. Founder of both A Special Thing, the legendary message board, and A Special Thing Records, Belknap has since made his living in the podcasting world. He acts as producer and co-host of Never Not Funny, Jimmy Pardo’s sparkling chat show, and, alongside Pardo, will participate in this weekend’s Pardcast-A-Thon, a 12-hour comedy marathon that promises plenty of jokes and special drop-ins from Sarah Silverman, Michael Sheen, Scott Aukerman, Ben Schwartz, and more. Though Pardcast-A-Thon has brought laughs to Los Angeles and beyond for the past six years, it’s also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Smile Train, an international charity that helps children with cleft palate problems.
Pardcast-A-Thon kicks off this Saturday, March 5, at noon pacific, and you can donate to Smile Train online right now. There’s also an online auction going on, with guest openings on podcasts like Doug Loves Movies and spots on the Never Not Funny fantasy baseball league up for grabs.
The A.V. Club: You’ve been around the comedy scene, both as an observer and as a de facto insider, for so long. What’s changed in the past 10 to 15 years, besides everything?
Matt Belknap: It’s crazy. Paul Rust has a new show on Netflix last night called Love, and my wife and I were watching it. It was like, “Wow, they’re basically taking everyone we knew in the comedy scene when we were just going to shows every week. People we became friends with 10 or 12 years ago are all on this show now.”
And that happens a lot; just in the last few years, all of the people I just saw at the Upright Citizens Brigade when I was doing shows around town trying to learn the craft or whatever, they’re now at the stage where they’re getting the opportunity to do what they wanted to do. People have come up to them and said, “Hey, do you want to make a TV show?”
It’s kind of surreal to me because as a fan, I got involved in this stuff accidentally because I was frustrated by the stuff I thought was good in comedy not getting its due. I was only seeing it in clubs and small theaters in L.A., so I felt like these people deserved bigger platforms for their talent and that’s why I sort of got involved, first, through my website A Special Thing to spread the word about these guys and then with record labels trying to work with these people I thought were hugely talented to make albums so that more people could hear their comedy.
But then really with podcasting, that became, over time, the simplest, most direct form of delivering pure, uncut versions of these comedians doing what they’re so talented at doing, which is being funny in the moment. That’s what I always responded to the most: people that are funny being truly funny without a lot of structure or even any preparation. That’s what led me to working with Jimmy Pardo and doing Never Not Funny, so it was really gratifying to see all these guys are succeeding on their own terms.
Luckily there are a lot more platforms for people to do their own things with Netflix and Hulu and Seeso and stuff like that. It’s amazing. A friend of mine from the old days said we kind of won because the whole time we were fanboy-ing out over the whole thing and were like, “Why aren’t these guys getting all the TV shows and movies and specials?” Now, all the people we were championing are in that position, so it’s like, “Okay, now we got what we wanted.” And they’re doing their thing. I’m really excited for them and it’s just cool to see it.
Now the only problem is that I feel like it’s too much, like I don’t have the time to watch the great things that are put out. But that’s a good problem to have.
AVC: Is there less of a curtain now between the performer and the audience? And if so, is that a good or bad thing?
MB: It’s so funny because we were recording an episode of Never Not Funny yesterday and had that exact same conversation. Jimmy is one of those old-school types in his approach to showbiz and it’s ironic that he does really believe there’s a need to keep that clear separation between the performer and the audience. But we do owe all of our success to the internet and the fact that the internet allows you to remove that curtain and that’s what people respond to. With Never Not Funny, we’ve always tried to make it a one-way street in as much as we can on the internet with a thing like this. We’re doing our show and we interact with our fans, but we don’t take suggestions. Jimmy is very adamant about that and also makes a joke out of the fact that it’s his show and if you don’t like it, just stop listening. That’s your choice; we provide you with the thing we want to be doing and if you like it and if you respond to it, great; if not, move on. So it’s tricky.
In my own life and experience, I actually think it’s a good thing, but obviously things have changed massively. I still think there’s a slight of hand, there’s still an illusion happening. It’s much more subtle and I think people and audiences are still catching up with what the actual trick is. They feel like they’re getting total access to some people—
AVC: —Pete Holmes.
MB: [Laughs.] Pete Holmes. Yeah.
Everybody has a private space in their life even if they’re not a public figure, even if you’re not a performer. You still have the things you share with the world, that you share with social media, there’s the things you share with just family and friends, and then there are the things that you just don’t share with anybody and so there’s always going to be tension. And I think the tension is good and what makes all the stuff interesting. You can kind of feel the little internal tug of war of “how much do we reveal?” and “how much do we give to the audience?” Jimmy loves to play with that and as much as he’s like, “I’m an old-school guy,” he’s always playing with how close you can get to that line and then pulling back.
I don’t know if he’s even aware that he’s doing that, but one of the things people love about our show that I’ve noticed anecdotally is that they feel like they know us, and that’s true. We do share a lot on the show, but then I was talking to a high school friend the other day, and we don’t talk that often, but he listens to the show. He said, “I feel like I’m keeping up with you just by listening to the show.” And I said, “That’s cool, but there’s ton of stuff about me or my life that hasn’t come up on the show,” and that’s true for Jimmy, too. It’s great that we can create this illusion of sharing and it’s great that people respond to that, but I do think there’s still something inherently showbiz-y about it because even when you’re doing that, you’re still actually withholding and still playing a game. That’s the heart of entertainment, really.
AVC: Everything you might put out there on social media or a podcast, there’s still a point behind it. You’re doing it for a reason.
MB: The big thing about our show is that you’re seeing the process a lot more than some entertainment. We don’t sit down and say, “Okay, what funny things have happened to us this week?” That process happens on the show and it happens with us just talking and testing things out.
But you’re right, what we’re doing is with the goal of finding humor. Anyone in their right mind would understand like, “Okay, this one story—there is no humor to it, there’s no story to it really, it’s just humor from my life and I brought it up.” Unless it comes up organically and something comes out of it, we’re editing ourselves to some extent. Even if it seems like we’re not, we’re picking and choosing things that, in the moment, we think would lead to humor.
Jimmy is really gifted in finding humor in things that might not seem like they’re going anywhere, but we have that huge advantage that if someone brings up something that’s not going anywhere—even if Jimmy brings up something and suddenly realizes this is nothing and this is going nowhere—he’ll make fun of himself and we can have fun with that. It’s part of what I think is the appeal of the show—that it does feel like the green room at a club or a writers’ room or a comedy show where you’re hearing funny people work out ideas in a really unfiltered way. I think comedy fans, myself included—this is what I always loved about it. This is the stuff I loved because I’m interested in the process. I also think there is genuine entertainment value in this part of it. This can go on to become something more polished and great, but even in its most raw form, I think there’s something really entertaining about it when you get the right people doing it.
AVC: You used to catch heat for writing reviews of shows and posting them on A Special Thing. Eventually you stopped and just posted recaps. With what you know now, why do you think comedians are so sensitive? And are they more sensitive than other people?
MB: I go back and forth on that question. Sometimes I feel like everybody is sensitive, but comedians are the only ones who are sharing that. But then I realize that might sound dark to people who are sensitive. For the most part, I do think that almost everybody is sensitive to some degree, but they’re not in a line of work where…
AVC: Where people tell them what they’re doing wrong?
MB: Right. We’re strangers to them. And, by the way, I could not handle a job where somebody, a superior, tells me what my flaws are. I actually find that more horrifying. I would rather a stranger tell me so I could just brush that off.
But, yeah, I think the assumption from the audience side or the critic side is, “Hey, if they’re putting it out there, they’re doing it because they want a response.” That’s true to some extent, but it’s also not the same thing as, “Hey, I’m putting this out there so everyone can tell me what they think of it.” I’m doing what I do and you have a right to your opinion, but I don’t have to listen to your opinion because it’s not for everyone.
You run into trouble when an opinion smacks you in the face and sometimes you go, “Okay, this person just doesn’t get it. I know what I was doing, and I know other people enjoyed it.” But this is kind of a weird criticism, because it reveals more about the critic than the actual thing. And that’s frustrating because you want to be understood, but I think everybody, especially performers—well, the thing that frustrates me in life is when I feel like I’ve been misunderstood. That drives me crazy; you can not like what I say or what I’m doing, but I don’t want you to misunderstand what I was doing and then put it out there as, “Oh, this is what he was doing.” Sometimes that’s on me, but it still drives me crazy.
You’d think constantly putting yourself out there would toughen you up, but it has the opposite effect. The more you’re putting yourself out there, the more weary you become of negative responses because you’ve gotten enough of them. Knowing Jimmy as well as I do, I think he kind of feels, “Haven’t I earned the right to not have to hear these basic criticisms because I’ve been doing this for 25 years? What you’re saying I’ve heard it before, I understand it, I don’t agree with it, or I’m still doing what I’m doing it because that’s what I do.” There’s some control over it, but then there’s also, “I am what I am and I’m sorry if you don’t like it, but I’m not going to suddenly become a completely different comedian because one person or a handful of people don’t like it. I can only do what I do, and that’s what I’ve been focused on for so long.”
AVC: There are also those people that you can really brush off because they’re just some knucklehead on Twitter with 12 followers and an egg icon. On the other hand, maybe comedians were sensitive to what you were saying, for instance, or what some comedy reviews might say because they actually use those sites, or they know those people are just like them to some extent.
MB: I’ve never gone back and read some of the things I said. I’m sure I’d be horrified if I did. I know at the time I was like, “Hey, first of all, I’m nobody, and second of all, these guys are performing and I’m telling fans of theirs how things went down in a very small corner of the internet. I’m not blowing up their spot.” It’s not like a billion people are seeing this; it’s like 20 nerds reading it. I just feel like it didn’t seem that important, but it’s all about the perception and they don’t know the scale of the site or who I am necessarily, so they’re reading way more into it than what’s actually there.
On the other side of it, I can say now that the comments that have bothered me now that I’m on the other side of it—and it doesn’t bother me that much because, honestly, no one gives a shit about the second banana on a podcast—are the ones that hit me in my insecurity; part of me thinks they might be right and that’s why it stings.
I don’t want to give trolls their due or give them ammunition, but the really effective trolls are the ones who pinpoint your insecurity and just really go right at it and stick the knife in. Maybe that’s what happened when I posted on AST for a little bit, but I don’t remember being that critical or harsh; I think I was just trying to say, “Here’s my opinion.”
AVC: Do you think you’re “one of the gang” now, meaning “the comedy gang”? You’ve been in it for so long and you produce a very popular podcast.
MB: I mean, I guess so. I think when 12 or 15 years ago or whenever it was I got into this stuff and I was young and naïve, I thought these people hung out all the time and I thought there was a clubhouse where we hung out and made jokes all the time. And that’s obviously not the reality. I’m not like, “Oh yeah, I’m in this club and we act all cool and laugh all day,” but I’ve made good friends.
AVC: And you’ve made a living out of it, which speaks highly of you.
MB: I think the thing is that I found my place in it, which is to be a little bit peripheral and work with the people I enjoy and whose company I enjoy.
The other thing is that I have kids now and they’re young and so I don’t get to go out really. I mainly socialize with people when they come to do the podcast or I go and do someone else’s show. Sometimes I have to go record something at UCB and I get to hang out a little bit with people, but it’s pretty limited with the social interaction.
It’s always good to see someone who I have a common history with, because outside of this little bubble nobody really cared what was happening before. So there is that little bit of acknowledgement. And I don’t just mean successful comedians; everyone who was around at that time in the scene shared history that you can reminisce about. It’s fun to look back and think about the good times from 10 years ago.
I’m not necessarily where I thought I’d be then. I guess in my wildest dreams I thought if I got involved in this—and this sounds so opportunistic—but I was at a time in my life where I was trying to figure out a way to break into show business and I really wanted to work in some capacity in a creative way in entertainment and wasn’t having any luck with screenwriting or anything else. And so I was like, “Well, this is the comedy I like and the people I feel like I’m on the same wave length as and if I become friends with some of them, then maybe that’ll lead to writing jobs or whatever.” But over the years, there were some things where that maybe could have happened, but I ultimately realized I liked doing what I was doing too much to sacrifice it because I would have had to give up other things if I was going to pick up a staff writing job on a sitcom or something. So I’m not where I dreamed where I would be, but in a weird way, I’m somewhere better because I’m doing what I love the most and I still get to be creative a bit and work with the people I work with on my own terms; I feel very lucky.
AVC: Let’s talk a little bit about Pardcast-A-Thon. This is your seventh year. Is it getting easier to book guests and program and the whole thing?
MB: You know, I don’t know if it is. We always try and outdo ourselves, which always feels hard, even if maybe it’s not that hard. We have two things that we try and accomplish: raise more money than we did the year before, which is hard each time because we keep raising more, and try and pull out all the stops and top ourselves on the show level, which, if we’ve done that every year, then obviously that makes it harder the next time.
Eventually, we’re going to let someone down in some way. I don’t know what that looks like, but the fallback position in my mind is that we have a certain number of people that basically manage to do it every year and it’s amazing. We have these great core friends that love to do it and I think they’re as invested in the show as we are. And I think that list grows, too, because we’ll go to it and say, “Okay, half the show is booked because these people want to do it and we always want them” and that part is super easy because it’s like, “Okay, this is great because we have 15 people out of the gate.” We just have to email them and say, “this is what’s happening,” and unless there’s some conflict, they’re there.
Then it gets hard because it’s like, “What do we do with those other slots?” Because we have other people we love to have on the regular show that we haven’t always been able to fit into Pardcast-A-Thon that we want to get involved, and we keep meeting new people that we think are great. Every year, we meet these great people and we’re like, “Oh, they’d be great on Pardcast-A-Thon, too,” but as I said, the list keeps growing.
At a certain point it might end up being all show regulars and that doesn’t really leave room for crazy surprises or people that you wouldn’t expect to be there, which we like to do, too. We like to have a little something. But that’s okay, too. All that means is that it’s going to be a really great show with guests our fans love.
We’re really in sync with our fans. Yesterday, we did a show with Steven Weber, who had never been on before, and he clicked instantly; he was so great and so fun, and I predict the fans will be like, “Wow, he fit in perfectly, that’s so great.” Because I think they can understand when somebody gets it. You can tell when someone gets what Jimmy does and they respond to it and they can return it in kind and keep up and it’s fun is to see a new person do that.
It’s always fun for us, but it’s always better when it’s people we enjoy spending time with and enjoy joking around with on the regular show. So if it’s all that, I know I’m going to have a great time, and I know the fans will, too. That might be the future of the thing, barring anything like if Jimmy gets a TV show and becomes famous and instantly has access to all of these crazy people that he doesn’t have access to right now, then it’ll be like, “Oh, if we can get George Clooney, we might as well get George Clooney.” That’s the pipe dream for the future where we can do it on television and do it on a bigger scale, but for how we do it now, we sort of created our own little world of people and our fans know their stories, so it’s fun to bring them in and joke around with the shared knowledge of what we’ve all heard them talk about. There’s this running joke we have with a large number of frequent guests now that we can draw from, and I think that’s kind of fun to explore.
AVC: You also presumably have a lot of Pardcast-A-Thon listeners or viewers who aren’t regular Never Not Funny people who might have heard Jimmy on Doug Loves Movies or Comedy Bang! Bang! They probably get on board because they’re fans of the scene and not just of the show.
MB: That’s part of the goal from a selfish perspective because we’re raising money for a charity, but it’s also promotional to some extent. Especially when we were behind a paywall, we said, “Here’s a free 12-hour thing that anybody can watch and we hope people will check out and become fans and come to our own show.”
I think we pick people up every year, but that’s kind of happening all the time with podcast guests. There’s sort of a cross-pollination. Jimmy is always going on other shows; he goes on Doug [Benson’s] show and Scott [Aukerman’s] show and a million other things and they come on our show, so it’s hard to pinpoint exactly where the convergence is happening. It could be from Pardcast-A-Thon, or it could be, “Oh, I heard Jimmy on Jordan, Jesse, Go! last week and I’m going to try this out and become a fan.” Maybe I’m not supposed to say it out loud, but when we started this, we were like, “It’s kind of a stunt—how can we get the podcast listening public to pay attention to our show, especially with more and more shows coming along and a scene that’s getting more and more competitive?” I know, as a listener myself, that I don’t have time to listen to all the shows I’d like to because there are so many great ones. Part of how we stand out is this—again, this is sort of a silly, old-school show business trick—but, “Hey, what if we did this for 12 hours?! They’d pay attention to us then!” so that was part of the equation.
I think what happened was that we became pretty invested in the charity pretty quickly, and especially since we went to Mexico last December, it changed all of our perspectives on it. As much as we’d like people to watch it and be entertained and become fans of us, I’m thinking more and more about the charity and what it means to raise money for the people we met in Mexico and that’s the sort of schmaltzy, cheesy part of it that’s in play.
AVC: That’s totally legit. You want to do the best you can for those people. This is the set of skills you have, so you think, “What I can do for you with what I can do?”
MB: Yeah. I don’t know how to perform a cleft surgery, but I can be a jackass on a podcast for 12 hours, and if that helps raise money, that’s fantastic.
AVC: Have you thought about pushing it? Have you thought about going 24 hours, or 36 hours?
MB: The problem is that we were better suited to doing that when we were younger and before we had kids, so the older we get, the less possible that would be even if it seems like we should be upping the ante.
AVC: Add one hour every year.
MB: There was a moment in time where it was 2012 and we were doing 12 hours and then 2013 we did 13 hours, so I was like, “We should just keep doing one more hour each year,” but Jimmy nixed that. I think it was just really difficult to imagine doing that with the age of our kids at the time and where we were in our lives. But I don’t know. Maybe when our kids are a little older and independent we can go back to being like, “Hey, we can do what we want! Who cares?”
The other thing I want to say about that—and it may sound like a brag—but I think we could do it. The preparation for it can be kind of intense and stressful, but doing the actual show flies by. It’s not that difficult; Jimmy has the hardest part, he has to carry the most weight, and I think even he would say he gets a little tired. But we’re bringing in these great people every 20 to 30 minutes and we just wind them up and let them go in most cases. And we just love hanging out and laughing so it’s an excuse to just hang out and laugh. It’s one long party, basically. A party that won’t end, but you don’t want it to because you’re having so much fun.
I could see doing it at a certain point, and hitting some other wall that we didn’t know existed yet, and now we’re so physically exhausted that we can’t even form words, which did happen back in the days when we did it overnight and into sunrise. But even then, it was like, “That was fun.” It was never as difficult as I thought it would be, but I’m sure I would eat my words if I attempted to do it for any additional length of time.
I don’t know if the audience would even be able to handle that, but that would be interesting, too. The people who come and sit there? That’s crazier than what we even do because they’re just sitting there watching people talk for 12 hours, which is truly insane to me. But God bless them.