Comedians Turn to Podcasts to Boost Success

Just like albums, all podcasts have cover art. Courtesy of Scott Moran

In a small, cozy boardroom on the second floor of MTV’s Hudson Street offices, about a dozen people wait, making conversation and snacking on popcorn. An audio recording system and three microphones sit on the table. The room is dimly lit—just the right mood for intimate conversation.

After a few minutes, comedians Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer enter the room. A couple moments later, the recorder is turned on, the microphones are picked up and Glaser and Schaefer begin speaking to one another.

They talk about Glaser going home for Thanksgiving and confronting a childhood bully. They talk about Schaefer dealing with her father being with a new woman. All the while, the conversation dances between introspection and levity. Twenty or so minutes in, the duo turns to their guest and welcomes him into the fold. Brian McCann begins speaking, and over the next 45 minutes, the three voices entertain the spectators.

In a few days, though, thousands of others will hear this conversation, as well. Anyone who wants to, in fact. The comedians were recording the latest episode of their podcast, You Had to Be There. Their guest is the head writer for their television show, which will debut in early 2013. They got the show as a direct result of their podcast.

The number of podcasts has exploded in recent years, with more than 91,000 produced in 2011, compared to less than 70,000 two years earlier, according to the Pew Research Center’s annual report on the state of American media.

Comedians, in particular, see the medium as an alternative way to get their work and name out there. This is especially true for those who work in New York City and Los Angeles, the two hot spots for standup comedy.

While fans must be in a certain city at a certain time to see a comedian perform, podcasts allow comedians to reach their audience at all times virtually. As well, podcasts are distributed freely, with almost all having no pay wall. Today’s comedians are giving their comedy away.

Glaser, 28, and Schaefer, 34, met at a party toward the end of 2010. Glaser, a standup comedian who was a contestant on two seasons of the popular television show Last Comic Standing, and Schaefer, a comedian who won two Emmy awards for her blogging on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, instantly clicked. Within minutes, they agreed to do a podcast together.

“I think we both just had it rolling around in our heads,” Schaefer said. “And then when we met, we struck up such a great conversation and we thought, ‘Why don’t we do one together?’”

The chemistry that Glaser and Schaefer formed is what binds the podcast together. It is also one of the primary reasons the two enjoy the medium. While comedians try to be themselves as much as possible when performing, there is always a dissonance between their true personalities offstage and their personas onstage.

Podcasts do not follow a script. Although the specifics of a standup comedian’s bits are surely up to the performer, the act is more or less set in stone once he or she takes the stage. Podcasts, on the other hand, by virtue of their looseness and spontaneity, allow comedians to tap into areas and work through ideas they do not have the luxury to onstage, where they are beholden to consistently landing laughs.

“There’s a pressure in standup that you have to be funny all the time. You can’t get serious. You can’t kind of see where something takes you,” Glaser said. “The podcast is just a looser format that appealed to me. I thought, you know, ‘I’m a funny person off the cuff but no one ever gets to see that. There’s not a place for that.’”

The podcast is the ideal medium for comedians to showcase their true personalities. The dynamic of most comedy podcasts involves a host or two welcoming a guest for an hour-long conversation. Sometimes, it becomes immensely personal. Often, it’s just funny.

What is so striking about the proliferation of comedy podcasts is that for all the time and energy they take to produce, they are generally distributed for free.

“We knew that to commit to a career in comedy, you sign on for not making money for a long time,” Schaefer said. “You’re used to doing things just for the sake of creativity and developing your material and your voice and your fanbase.”

There are advantages to this business decision, however. Glaser and Schaefer, for example, parlayed their podcast success into a deal for a television show. After becoming comfortable working with one another, the duo pitched an idea for a late-night show to MTV.

“When we found out that we got the show, I had a negative bank account,” Schaefer said.

Landing potential television deals is not the only benefit of comedians doing podcasts, however.

Robert Kelly, 42, is a New York-based standup comedian with more than two decades of experience. He has inculcated a stronger fanbase and watched his ticket sales go up as a direct result of his podcast, You Know What Dude!

“The people who follow my podcast are my real, true, solid fans.” Kelly said. “To listen to something for an hour, if you don’t like that person, you can’t do that.”

Kelly, whose television credits include Louis C.K.’s Louie, Dane Cook’s Tourgasm, and Tough Crowd with Colin Quinn, believes podcasts are more effective for building a fanbase than are other, more popular social media.

“I think it’s way better than Twitter. Way better than Facebook,” Kelly said. “All those people don’t support what I do. They’re just watching. Some of them just hit ‘Follow’ and will occasionally glance at something.”

Jesse Thorn affirms Kelly’s position. Thorn, 31, started podcasting at the end of 2004 during “the pioneer days,” and is now one of the most respected names in the industry. At 22, he became one of the youngest national hosts in the history of public radio when Public Radio International began distributing The Sound of Young America, a radio show he created in college. Today, Thorn is the host and producer of several popular podcasts, as well as the proprietor of Maximum Fun, an independent podcast and radio show production company in Los Angeles.

“Standup comics, in particular, make their money doing shows,” Thorn said. The way they make more money is by drawing more fans to each show.

“[Comedians] end up looking for work to do when they’re not on stage and looking for ways to expand their drawing power when they’re on the road,” Thorn continued. “The podcast is perfect for both of those.”

Other than using standup comedy as a launching pad for a television or film career, there are not many ways comedians can use their skills to make a living. Podcasts, despite the fact they are distributed freely and require startup costs for equipment, have become the go-to medium for comedians to indirectly boost their income.

Simply creating a podcast, however, does not guarantee future success or even a high number of downloads. With a litany of podcasts to choose from, and a finite amount of time to listen to them, fans have many options at their fingertips. And with new podcasts continually springing up, comedians need to stand out in some unique way.

“Even when we got into the mix, I remember thinking there were too many,” Glaser said. “So I don’t think it’s ever too late to start. You find an audience. If you’re good enough, people are gonna tune in. And if you’re not, then they’ll go away.”

Download data for podcasts are not made public unless the podcaster chooses to, making it difficult to quantify what determines a successful podcast. The top-level ones, however, typically receive a couple hundred thousand downloads per episode.

In standup comedy, comedians cannot simply pick an identity, as in order to be successful, the comedian has to honor who he or she naturally is. With podcasts, however, comedians can be more flexible. They can decide what format they will use to draw in listeners.

Glaser and Schaefer, for example, record their podcast in front of a live audience—a tactic few comedians regularly employ—in order to simulate the dynamic of working live. Kelly, on the other hand, hosts a more traditional comedy podcast, typically having several people on, and framing it as more of a roundtable discussion rather than a straight-up interview.

No matter the format, though, if comedians do not consistently deliver quality content, fans will not listen. Similar to standup comedy, podcasts often take time to find their voice. Formats may be tinkered with and interview styles may be modified. Any small change can lead to a podcast doing something truly unique.

“I think podcasting is a must for a comedian. But I think it’s hard to do,” Kelly said. “I think the key to it is consistency. You have to put one out every week. And I think another key to it is it has to evolve. You have to allow it to become what it’s going to become.”

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