Podcasts are making more noise: Comedians taking a nontraditional route to TV


Talk show host Conan O'Brien, left, and Pete Holmes . Holmes latest project is “The Pete Holes Show.” (Evan Agostini/Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
October 25, 2013

Here’s a monologue idea the comedian Pete Holmes is working on for his new late-night talk show. It’s about sports, generally a pretty safe late-night topic. But he’s worried it won’t ever be funny.

The premise? “The reason I don’t like sports is it reminds me of the futility of doing anything.”

Specifically: “Because people are like ‘Why put the ball in the hoop?’ But it’s like, ‘Why brush your teeth?’ It’s just, like, the problem of life.”

Which is maybe a lot to think about at midnight, when his new show will air, after “Conan,” on TBS. Sleep well, viewers. Also, everything is pointless. Stay tuned for a celebrity interview.

But Holmes might give it a try. He already has a pretty good idea that people like to listen to him talk about life’s bigger questions. Now he just has to hope they want to watch him, too.

Holmes, a comedian whose one-hour special on Comedy Central premiered this spring and whose most broadly recognizable credit at this point is “voice of the Etrade baby,” hosts a podcast called “You Made it Weird.” In episodes that can cross the three-hour threshold on occasion, he leads his guests, usually fellow comedians, on intimate discussions that cover comedy, relationships and religion. And also the benefits of raw chocolate, how close he is to his mother and the value of transcendental meditation.

When it came time to pitch the show to TBS, he says, he could point to the 100-plus interviews he’d already done — plus sketch comedy videos for College Humor, his stand-up experience and time spent writing on television shows. He had essentially DIY-ed his late-night bona fides.

“For better or worse, these days, because it is possible to do so many things on your own, nobody really believes you can do it until you’re already doing it,” Holmes says.

Holmes is the latest comedian to propel himself on a podcast-to-television-show pipeline. The group of comedians using experience with podcasts – easily downloadable and generally free audio shows, featuring interviews, sketch comedy, monologues and other experimentation – includes Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer, who turned the rapport they demonstrated on their podcast “You Had to Be There ” into “Nikki and Sara Live” on MTV, which will have its season finale Tueday. Chris Hardwick, who recently launched “@midnight” on Comedy Central, also brought his “Nerdist” podcast to television on BBC America this past spring. In pursuing more comedy programming, IFC has developed two shows from podcasts. Marc Maron, of the popular podcast “WTF,” has a scripted show on the network based on his life as a podcaster called “Maron,” which will be back for a second season next spring. Scott Aukerman brought an absurdist faux talk-show version of his “Comedy Bang Bang” podcast, with band-leading assistance from Reggie Watts, to television viewers. The network just announced that it is bringing the show back for a third season and announced a development deal with the podcast network Earwolf, which Aukerman co-runs.

Television executives like comedy podcasts for the same reason comedy fans do:They are an easy way to hear funny people doing funny things.

Jennifer Caserta, IFC’s president and general manager, says that about three years ago, her network began to focus on original comedy development. The landscape was changing, she says. “It wasn’t that same old ‘go to comedy clubs and sit and watch talent’ every evening. There were so many points of entry in order to develop and find talent to bring to the television screen, one of which was podcasts.”

She used to sign expense reports on a daily basis for nights out at comedy shows and clubs for her development team, Caserta says. Now, they are more likely to depend on playlists filled with podcasts.

It’s cheaper, she jokes. “And it’s a better use of time.” Development executives listen to podcasts while washing dishes and on their commute. “You can be far more efficient in your discovery of who’s great at the craft,” she says.

Honing skills

Of all the ways the electronic devices we carry around with us in our pockets and purses make us feel less bored or alone in the world, the fact that we can always be listening to someone or something has been a particularly fruitful development for comedians.

An audience is just one touch-screen swipe of the download button away. This means there is an expanding universe of ways to refine a comedy persona.

For Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer, who got to know each other while launching their podcast, the format allowed them to develop the special chemistry that they showcase now on their TV show.

“We could interview people, learn our comedic vibe and how to play off each other,” Schaefer says of the podcast training ground. “Just as we were figuring out our own individual voices, we were learning this joint voice, our third voice,” which, she says, helps them stand out.

Scott Aukerman’s pre-podcast credits include writing and performing on “Mr. Show” and co-creating “Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifinakis.” He says launching “Comedy Bang Bang” as a podcast allowed him to develop the straight-man voice that he uses to great effect in his show now, and he sees the benefits of the medium for comedians more broadly.

“It really lets people hone what they’re doing and find their voice and put it out in a regular fashion,” Aukerman says of podcasting.

Aukerman is chatting backstage at the 9:30 Club in the middle of October, where he will perform two live versions of his podcast to capacity crowds, demonstrating another benefit of podcasting for comedians: Once you find the voice, you find out that people are listening.

“This is such a great time for comedy fans,” says Paul F. Tompkins, who is in town with Aukerman for the tour.

“I grew up loving comedy, and if I was 12 years old and there was all this comedy content available for free — like so much — and all these people interacting with each other, I’d lose my mind.”

Keeping the vibe

How do you put all that is weird and intimate and wonderful about a podcast on TV?

You don’t just turn a camera on. You have to pick what to keep.

“Our show is vastly different from our podcast, but the thing that we maintained is our chemistry and our vibe,” Schaefer says of the show she and Glaser developed.

Aukerman started his first television season trying to retain many familiar elements from the podcast. Ultimately, they weren’t his favorite parts of the show, so he has adapted and hopes fans will follow along for both distinct experiences. (He also notes that the podcast, which, according to him, has approximately 175,000 “listens” a week, has a larger audience than the televivion show.)

Maron’s podcast has 2.5 million to 3 million downloads each month, according to IFC. For the television show — which has an audience of 2 million, when combining live viewership plus a week of playback on DVR — he says the natural thing for him to try to do would have been an intimate talk format.

So he went the other way and pitched a fictional show, based on his life as a podcaster, talking to people in his garage.

“It’s a fairly unique world. If I had pitched that world 10 years ago, it would have been a fantasy world.” Louis C.K. or Sarah Silverman just talking in his garage. It would have seemed ridiculous.

“I don’t know that at the time that any of us could have really known the cultural visibility that [podcasts] would have especially within the industry,” Maron says.

The podcast as a platform to a higher profile in entertainment isn’t a fantasy world anymore. It is, however, a fantasy fulfilled. In second grade, or maybe it was third, Holmes was already the star of his own show. “The Pete Show,” he called it. It was mostly him talking to himself in the mirror.

He debated recycling that name for the late-night show just “to make it like a one-for-one dream-come-true sort of thing,” he says, but he was worried it might alienate viewers who have no idea who this Pete guy is.

When his show debuts Monday, viewers will quickly learn — perhaps more than they want to — all about Pete. He promises to maintain the “overshariness” that is a trademark of his podcast while incorporating sketch comedy segments, interviews with friends and monologues that aren’t strictly drawn from the headlines.

In talking about his approach to the show, Holmes quotes the late comedian Bill Hicks, who said “as a comedian and as a performer if you’re being yourself no one can be yourself as well as you, so you’ll have supply and demand covered.”

Judging from his prolific podcast output, he has the supply part down. And he’s optimistic about the demand.

A listening guide to new TV hosts and their comedy podcasts

Comedy podcasts are propelling their hosts to new television opportunities. But the original medium isn’t being neglected. A listening guide to get you downloading.

You Made It Weird With Pete Holmes

Holmes’s show on the Nerdist podcast network features lengthy, intimate discussions with fellow comedians and others. He says his favorite episode is the March 2012 conversation with his friend Emily Gordon, a writer and producer (and the wife of the comedian Kumail Nanjiani).

“Comedy Bang Bang”

The Internet funhouse that Scott Aukerman built on this podcast features comic chatter and oddball characters. If Amy Poehler rapping in place of Sarah Palin on “Saturday Night Live” back in 2008 was — as it should have been — a highlight of your entertainment consumption, check out her recent appearance on this podcast. There is some freestyle rapping.

“WTF With Marc Maron”

Maron is a comedic conversational podcast pioneer. One recent highlight includes Natasha Lyonne. But if you’re starting from scratch, listen to the Louie C.K. episode.

“You Had to Be There”

Sara Schaefer says the feedback she and her co-host Nikki Glaser often get is: “You two remind me of me and my best friend.” The show is a chance to listen in on these friends — and their comedian guests.

And a guest recommendation from comedian Paul F. Tompkins:

Tompkins says it’s been great to see how many people are pushing past just “the conversational thing” and doing sketch and radio drama. One example: Getting On With James Urbaniak.” “I only listen to it at night — it’s very moody,” Tompkins says.

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