Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast. Ties are allowed/encouraged. For more podcast coverage, see Podmass, The A.V. Club’s weekly roundup of the best ’casts out there.
The podcaster: As one of the voices (and the diligent editor) behind the “improvised and analyzed” series Superego, Matt Gourley has played some of the most deranged characters in the comedy podcast canon. When he’s not portraying the terribly British head of MI6, the secretly sweet master of biomechanical surrealism, or any of Superego’s many ambiguously gendered supporting characters (“I’m a woman”), Gourley helps develop the next generation of programs for the Earwolf and Wolfpop podcast networks. For the latter, he also hosts the interview show I Was There Too which offers “inside stories of how cinema and television history was made from a fly-on-the-wall perspective you’ve never heard.” Superego’s latest project, Forgotten Classics, is one of several audio miniseries available via Midroll Media’s Howl app. [Full disclosure: So is The A.V. Club’s I Know It Sounds Crazy—ed.]
Matt Gourley: This one has my favorite moment from Superego. It’s during the Family Feud sketch where Paul F. Tompkins is playing the lightning round with Patton Oswalt’s Richard Dawson. And she—or he, you can’t even really tell what gender the character that Paul is playing is—is about to have a heart attack and dies and they just keep moving on. The exchange between them is so funny and the questions that Patton prepared are so brilliantly answered by Paul as polar opposites of what could ever be an answer. It’s just flush with improv denial, which made me laugh so hard.
It’s also an early taste of not knowing what gender our characters are. We’re not acting them out physically really, so we often have in our heads that we’re doing a woman but everybody else still thinks it’s a man, and then we have to defend ourselves by saying, “I’m a woman.” That’s where the catchphrase came from for Superego, where we have to label that we’re women after the fact because it’s not as clear as it is in our own heads.
The A.V. Club: Can you give a quick primer on how Superego is recorded?
MG: We have four microphones that have these vocal reflectors on them so that each mic can be recorded independently into its own channel. It is weird because you’re improvising standing up while all facing each other, however, you have these things blocking your faces and you just see eyes peeking over the top. When we record with Andy Daly, you just see his eyes and when he’s doing that Don DiMello character, he so inhabits that character 100 percent that it’s like this creepy old man is peeking over a fence at you and it’s really, really strange.
The way [our] Family Feud worked is Patton went into the kitchen and wrote down some questions that we all got asked at the time of the recording, because we improvise it. And so those are our honest and legitimate answers to questions he had prepared. It worked so well the first time that we did it twice—there’s actually two sets of three Family Feud sketches in Superego, and I think this one is the second one.
AVC: How did Patton’s portrayal of Richard Dawson come about? He doesn’t try to do a vocal impersonation of Dawson, but he does embody the sort of barely repressed condescension that he brought to Family Feud.
MG: Yeah. [Laughs.] I always feel like in the original show Dawson was the aggressor or the antagonist or something. So this was a surreal Family Feud where Dawson goes to hell and he is beset by all the people he sexually harassed on the show and it’s kind of a karmic version of retribution [Laughs.].
I think in the mid- to late ’90s, I’d gone to Largo—before it was Largo At The Coronet—and I think Jeremy [Carter, also of Superego] was there, too. Paul F. Tompkins was hosting and we didn’t know him at all, and Patton did an act where he was talking about Richard Dawson, and I remember it being so funny. The night we met him for the first time, I told him how much I admired that [Dawson routine] and I can’t remember if he said, “Oh, we should do that sometime,” or if I said, “Oh, we should do that sometime.” We didn’t know what it was going to be, but it ended up being our regular, batshit Superego characters that give you no leeway up against Richard Dawson. But it all came up from a stand-up routine he did 20 years ago.
AVC: The rest of the segments in this episode follow a Christmas theme. You have H.R. Giger reading “The Night Before Christmas” and Heartlines has the Bob Seger version of “Little Drummer Boy” running beneath it. What is it like to do Superego with a holiday theme?
MG: That was back when we used to do the podcast every month so it was really easy to know what holidays were coming up. None of us are religious, as you can tell by our dressing down of religion on the show. But we all—and I especially—love Christmas so much, and it’s such a fun tradition in my family, that any chance to do something Christmas-related and get that music in there—whether it’s a horrible version of that music or a good version of that music—was a treat.
To take something like H.R. Giger—which was still a relatively new character for me—and do “The Night Before Christmas” was a natural fit. I think it was something where, at that time, we were going to try to make it a tradition. Early on, Jeremy had done Nick Nolte reading “The Night Before Christmas” and we thought, “Let’s do this every Christmas.” But I don’t know if we ever did it again.
AVC: What’s your favorite part of your characterization of H.R. Giger?
MG: This isn’t something that I necessarily developed right away: I like it when he’s sweet and nice and has a little moment where he likes something very innocent, because I almost think that’s how that guy was. For all of his weird rape imagery and dystopian aesthetic, there was something childlike about him and I can’t explain it. He never means any harm. He just doesn’t know better. He’s been given this blessing and curse of being a weird, sadistic type of person, but I think he wants to treat people well. [Laughs.]
AVC: I think he sums it up on Comedy Bang! Bang! when he says, “You see how I’m an opposite guy?”
MG: [Laughs.] It’s like he can’t help it. He’s genetically predisposed to be the antimatter version of everything, but that doesn’t mean he’s evil. He’s just the opposite.
AVC: This episode has a great callback at the end with an ad for Furniture Dick’s, the store that’s plugged by one of the Heartlines On The Shore 104.4 callers. Was that fake commercial prompted by the Furniture Dick’s line in the previous sketch, or was there already a plan to include the commercial before making the episode?
MG: If I remember correctly, that’s exactly it. We were doing the Heartlines sketch and Jeremy came in with the Furniture Dick’s thing that just cracked us up and I can’t remember if it was that same night—it must have been—so we said we’ve got to try that.
Part of the joy of that sketch is watching Jeremy in the room. That’s something I wish people could see. Most of Jeremy’s characters are just as physical as they are creative with audio. He does a thing with Furniture Dick’s where he’s flexing and pointing at the same time and moving like some rabid robot and it’s something that only Jeremy can do. The same thing when he’s doing Shunt McGuppin, where he’s off playing a guitar, smoking a cigarette, putting the cigarette in the strings of the guitar up by the tuner keys like rock musicians do. He’s not even doing it to make us laugh, he’s just doing it because he so absolutely inhabits his character and he’s so funny and so ridiculous.
AVC: Furniture Dick’s is such a perfectly Superego name for a business. You guys have a knack for very precise but unique phrasing. Do you think this is a result of the improvisation?
MG: Yeah, I think so. I think we’ve all informed each other’s style so much. We started off with pure chaos, but we’ve understood through everybody’s improvisation what makes us laugh and all of us have focused toward that direction—sometimes to its detriment, because I feel like now I have three characters and that’s it. Everything is getting finely tuned down to our style of absurdity to the point where I’m having a hard time. All of us are right now. We’ve talked about this a lot: We’ve got an old person, a young person, and a weird boy, and that’s about it.
Names are one of our favorite things to do and one of the reasons I love this episode is that moment with Paul and Patton in Family Feud. Paul says his name—or her name—is Dauchard. I think I asked all of us to write down how we think that’s spelled, and all four of us came back with different spellings. To me, it’s so clearly “D-A-U-C-H-A-R-D,” but Paul made up the character and he had a different spelling, and I think everybody else did, too. It’s a name you’ve never heard before, but it somehow doesn’t sound alien. I just love that—it’s the details.
AVC: When it comes to the credits in an episode, are those names assigned retroactively?
MG: Absolutely. What happens is that when we’re finishing up the episode, usually Mark McConville and I get together and put all the data into the website and write out the credits. We just slap some names on there at the end and see what works. [Laughs.] We don’t give it too much thought.
AVC: What’s the best name that you’ve assigned to a character in the credits?
MG: Oh my God. I’d have to look at them. I literally can’t remember a single one. [Laughs.] I know that I often take my character names from either people I went to elementary school with or teachers. I have a character named Pete Balch that is the actual name of a social studies teacher I had in middle school. Jeremy has a character named Dr. Hoobing that was a teacher of his. Allard Mundy, which is a preacher character we did, that’s from a teacher.
There’s so much of our young life that has influenced Superego indirectly. Leffingwell Grocers—I grew up near a street named Leffingwell. Buffum’s Fragrance Counter is named after Buffum’s department store, and that was near the town where I grew up. Whittwood Branch Library—all that stuff was sort of a cheat-y shortcut, but if you haven’t heard of it, a lot of it works.
AVC: For a sketch group with a psychological theme, it’s fitting to include so many influences from your childhood.
MG: [Laughs.] Yeah. More than we know.
MG: I think it was my first Comedy Bang! Bang!, and it got such a nice response. And you are never in better hands than when you’re with Scott [Aukerman, Comedy Bang! Bang! host] and Paul, because they’ve been doing it together for so long that I really didn’t have to do a thing other than just coast along with them. At that point, it just writes itself. I just know how to respond, it’s very simple and it felt fun on the day and felt fun when it came out.
An interesting note about Paul’s character, Reverend Parsimony: That character was actually developed in a Superego sketch that we recorded to be animated for Adult Swim, but then that whole web series basically fell apart and we were sitting on that sketch forever—eventually it ended up on season four of Superego. He went on to do that character on Comedy Bang! Bang! and other places, but it was originally a Superego sketch two or three years ago or something, and so it was nice to see that guy live in the real world in a long-form improv sketch, too.
AVC: How soon after H.R. Giger’s death was this episode recorded?
MG: Not long after, but it wasn’t the first Giger thing to come out. We had done an animated webseries with Nerdist, and we had done five sketches: “H.R. Giger At Home,” “G.I. Joe,” “Family Feud,” “God’s Crazy Monsters” and “General Zod.” They were just about to come out, and I think Giger was toward the end, but right when Giger died, Nerdist said, “Let’s put out the Giger one right away,” to ride on the publicity of his death. It wasn’t our choice at all. Some people have called it out for bad taste—but at the same time, if ever there was someone you could capitalize on the morbid elements of, it’s H.R. Giger. So I’m left feeling ambivalent—at worst—if it was a bad call. [Laughs.]
When Giger died, I don’t think I’ve ever gotten more online response. I realize I’m about the only person that does anything fictionally—or somehow people associate me with Giger—like I’m supposed to somehow be his PR person or something now that he’s died. I felt obligated to say something, which I never do. Usually when a celebrity dies, I don’t feel like it’s my place at all, but I got so much response that I felt I had to say thank you. It’s such a strange and wonderful thing to receive that.
AVC: As a performer, how do you feel about those associations?
MG: Just fine. I find it flattering, and the fact that people are listening and remembering is wonderful. I think I make a joke in this episode about Paul Blart where I call him “Mall Blart”—when Paul Blart 2 came out, everybody was throwing back at me “Mall Blart 2” and it was something I had completely forgotten, so that podcast continues to resonate with people and it will always come up whether it’s the death of Giger or a Kevin James movie.
AVC: Did you feel like you couldn’t do Giger after he died?
MG: No, I don’t think we were going to do anything right away with it. But like I said: The guy made his life on the subject of death and there was never anything I was doing that was directly making fun of him. My impression of him comes from a place of love. It truly does. I think he’s brilliant. I never really felt that bad about it.
We used to put animation in our live show, and at the end of one of our Leffingwell Grocer sketches, it played “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, and in the animation, a picture of Whitney Houston’s face comes up and her eyes go red, and this was made before she died. When we were airing it at the live show, it was the day after Whitney Houston died, and we didn’t know what to do. So Paul made this announcement at the beginning of the show where he totally defused it and said, “Look, we’ve already planned and built the technical run list of the show. You’re going to see something in one of these videos that you’re going to wonder, ‘Why would they put that up?’ And just know that we already have done this, and it’s not in bad taste, and when you see it, you’ll know it.” So it became a fun treasure hunt, and everybody knew it when they saw it. It did not get a groan. They all kind of went “Ohhh” and applauded because we were acknowledging that we didn’t mean to make fun of her passing, it was just bad timing. It turned out to be kind of a decent moment.
AVC: In this episode, the spirit of H.R. Giger possesses one of Paul’s Comedy Bang! Bang! staples, Buddy “Cake Boss” Valastro, which means you’re in the position of playing the character together. What was that like?
MG: It was something, because we didn’t really discuss much other than saying, “Let’s do something where Cake Boss gets possessed and then the reverend will come deal with it.” But we never exactly—to my recollection—said when or how that would happen, so that’s where the improv comes in. I think the few times I’ve done Comedy Bang! Bang! it’s never exactly clear when you should start your entry into your bit, and you just have to find a place and dive in. Once you do, nobody is going to say no, because they’re so friendly and open there. Then you just sort of roll with it and that show is so tangential that you really can’t take a wrong turn.
AVC: Do you think you could have pulled off the possession of Cake Boss with someone who you hadn’t performed with as often as you have with Paul?
MG: I don’t think it would have been as easy. Paul is one of the most generous improvisers there is. Doing The Dead Authors Podcast with him is some of the most fun because not only does he set you up so well, he sustains what you’re doing. He never shuts it down. I don’t think it’s how well I know Paul, I just think it’s Paul as an improviser. Andy Daly is the same way. They’re two of the funniest human beings and, yet, they have no dominance on the field. They’re there to help you and support you and I highly recommend, if you get a chance to improvise with either of them, [Laughs.] do it.
AVC: Was it also easy to fall into the pre-existing dynamic between Scott and Paul? There are a lot of callbacks and in-jokes in this episode that are specific to Comedy Bang! Bang!
MG: Yeah, that’s a factor because I listen to that show, I love that show, but I don’t know every inside joke 100 percent. So if I wasn’t sure, I’d lay out unless I felt I really had something to add. They have such a wonderful rapport that it’s sometimes best to let that go. Like any other thing that’s successfully happening in improv, don’t beat it down by adding too much weight to it.
MG: This was a tough choice because I’ve had so many guests that I’ve loved, but this one was really special to me because I was such a fan of [Goldstein’s Aliens character, Vasquez] when I was younger. Truthfully, I think this role is too big to fit the concept of this podcast. The whole concept is it’s just a person that plays a smaller part—and she’s not necessarily a lead in that film, but she’s a major supporting character.
You never quite know what you’re going to get with guests on that show. A lot of them maybe aren’t working anymore, or they are and you just never know what kind of personality type it’s going to be, unless it’s someone I know like Paul F. Tompkins or Paul Rust. And [Jenette] was such a wonderful person and gave such great insight, and I was such a fan that it was one of the only times I was nervous to do the show, because it was a piece of my childhood nostalgia sitting across the table from me. I think you could hear the nerves in my voice, too. I fumble a little bit. [Laughs.]
AVC: Has that happened with other I Was There Too guests?
MG: It has in a sense. Someone told me Paula Malcomson is a real character and she might be difficult, so I was prepared for that. Then the minute she walked in the door, she was all smiles—and, man, we hit it off so well and so quickly. So sometimes I’m very nervous because I don’t know how quickly I’ll to be able to adapt to the personality of the person. “Do they want to be there, do they feel obliged to do this?” I find these guests in so many different ways.
There’s an episode on Speed, with a bunch of people from the bus, and they were all types of characters and personalities. I did a few of them on the same day, and I had to go back and forth dealing with someone who was a lot more serious and someone who was a lot more lighthearted. It’s tiring, actually, making sure that the person feels warm and comfortable because I have to do that to make them talk. I appreciate them coming in, so I want them to feel happy to be there, and that takes a lot of energy sometimes. [Laughs.]
AVC: What has I Was There Too taught you about being on the other end of an interview?
MG: I learned that you have to listen so carefully. It’s always that way with improv, but I feel like the improv listening is more second nature. I’m not consciously listening to their words, I’m listening to their whole performance. Here, I’m listening to everything they say to see if there is something I want to follow up with—but, at same time, I have my notes in front of me and I need to have the next question ready to go. So it’s a bit of a dance between those two things. Also I want to get good stories out of them, and not to tell a public-relations version. I want them to tell their own personal version of it and that’s hard. Some people are predisposed to just do that, and they’re the best, but some it’s a little hard to get—not the gossip or the dirt, but to get them to feel comfortable enough to talk like you would with a couple of beers at a cocktail party. I’m not always successful at that.
AVC: You’ve said that in preparation for each episode you re-watch these movies through the lens of the character whose performer you’ll be interviewing. You’ve now done this twice with Aliens: First with Ricco Ross, who plays Frost, and then with Jenette. How did the experience of watching Aliens through Vazquez’s POV compare to watching it through Frost’s?
MG: It was much more like watching the movie itself to watch it for Vazquez. For me, she was always the focal point, she was probably the most interesting character in that movie, so I was always drawn to her. So when I re-watched the movie, I don’t think I found anything new because I was so familiar with her stuff.
When I watched for Frost, I found so much new stuff because I had never done that, so it almost makes me want to go back and watch for every character. I was also supposed to have Cynthia Scott, who plays Corporal Dietrich, but we never got connected. When I watched for her, I found interesting stuff as well. Frost was the most because you realize he handled all the weaponry, and the stuff he’s got written on his armor—there’s a story on the podcast about that and it’s just a lot of stuff. Some characters from other movies you watch just for them, it’s not detail-laden like Frost was.
AVC: Who’s your I Was There Too dream guest?
MG: I haven’t thought about my dream guests, but these are two that I would love because I think they would really fit the concept of the podcast. One is Dak from The Empire Strikes Back, because he’s got such a classic line—“Right now I feel I could take on the whole Empire myself”—and he dies. He’s in one scene, but it’s a big scene, and I feel like there’d be a lot to talk about. Wedge would be great, too—Denis Lawson from all three Star Wars movies. But that’s such a pie in the sky, I don’t think he’d ever do it.
I’d love to have Putter Smith, who is one of the two hit men from Diamonds Are Forever. He’s a jazz musician and he didn’t do much acting and he lives nearby where I live and I’ve written him an email, but he hasn’t gotten back to me. Dak, I spoke with his publicist and he was all ready to go, but it just never happened. So that’s the other thing I find: There’s a high flake factor in this show. I’ve had one person come to the studio and still back out. [Laughs.] Until you’ve got it recorded, it’s not a sure bet.
AVC: Could you do an episode like the Speed one for all the dead Rebel Alliance pilots from the Star Wars saga?
MG: I would love nothing more! [Laughs.] I love those kind of super episodes. If I can get it together, I want to do one for the Halloween franchise. A person from the first movie, a middle movie, and one of the Rob Zombie movies, to kind of get the full perspective of it.
AVC: The franchises covered on I Was There Too have often gone through three or four iterations: Alien, Star Wars, The Terminator, The Exorcist, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Your Friday The 13th episode isn’t about one of the original films in that series, but rather an interview with Derek Mears, who plays Jason Voorhees in the 2009 remake.
MG: That was an interesting thing because I knew that he would be a great interview, but it’s about the remake, which people don’t really think of instantly when they think of Friday The 13th. But I also thought, “Oh, it’d be so fun to have the perspective of one of the faceless serial killers.” [Derek’s] also a friend of mine, so I also knew it’d be easy to book him as a guest [Laughs.] which goes so far with me. Having a friend in, I already know what I’m getting and I know it’s going to be a good interview, so I always walk into those interviews breathing easier than I would with someone I’d never met, because I’m not always a great small-talker. I’m relatively shy, so this has forced me to come out of my shell to where I have to meet the person, make them feel comfortable right away and feel like they can have a good time. I’ve had to hone those skills.
AVC: Interviewing is a weird, precarious balance, because you’re speaking from your own curiosity, but there’s also no telling how a person will respond to a question.
MG: I agree, and I think it’s made me more sensitive as someone who is being interviewed, too, to try to give the interviewer all that they want and be as open to a question as possible. I think everyone should have to interview someone at one time to understand what it’s like. [Laughs.]
AVC: A frequent I Was There Too topic is your life-long goal of being “squibbed.” Has the podcast gotten you any closer to being squibbed?
MG: I think it’s getting me closer, because people are bringing it up more. When I see a friend that’s being squibbed, we usually have a conversation about it. But I have to say I’ve never been professionally squibbed, but I’ve squibbed myself. As a kid, I figured out how to make them with electronics and explosives, so I used to do them to myself. I haven’t really talked about this on the podcast, but I’ll probably do a special segment on it. I’ve technically been squibbed, but I want a professional machine-gunning squib.