In 1995, comedian Marc Maron likened the rise of the Internet to the CB radio craze of the ’70s. Neither, he said, amounted to much more than some weirdo broadcasting banalities from his backyard shed. “It’s all hype!” he ranted on the “HBO Comedy Half-Hour.” “I’ve been on the Internet — there’s 12 people out there!”
In 2009, Maron set up recording equipment in his garage (almost a shed) and started talking. Thirty million downloads later, it appears those 12 people have been awfully busy.
Maron, 48, is one of an increasing number of comedians reinventing themselves via podcasts — free, downloadable audio series tailored for iPod consumption. “Everyone thought there was no possible way to figure out something new on the Internet, that it’d just been tapped out,” Maron says. “Podcasting was just this wild card. It’s a medium that anyone can engage in, relatively inexpensively, and throw their hat in the ring.”
In many ways, podcasts are the new and improved talk show: a safe place where celebrities are free to be more open, where conversations are dictated by flow, not talking points. “Comics are designed for this,” Maron says. “We talk on mics for a living.”
Maron came to podcasting in need of a jolt: His stand-up career was stagnating, television wasn’t calling, and he’d recently been fired from a gig at the liberal-leaning talk radio station Air America. So, with his key card still active, Maron started sneaking into the Air America studios at night to record what would become his own pirate broadcast, “WTF.”
Maron’s intimate conversations with comics and actors have set a new standard for celebrity interviews.
“These are people that don’t always function as real people,” he says. “Given an hour with anybody, they’re going to become a person for somebody who only sees them as Don Draper, or only sees Richard Lewis as Richard Lewis.”
Maron’s show often touches on the darker and emotional sides of a guest’s life. “The garage has become a sacred place,” Maron says. Dane Cook, Carlos Mencia and Robin Williams have all copped to stealing jokes. Louis C.K. cried when discussing the birth of his first daughter. Gallagher stormed out when Maron criticized the nature of his humor.
Fellow comedian/podcaster Chris Hardwick also realized early on that he didn’t have to approach his guests as interviewees. “You can have the same kind of conversations that comics have backstage at shows,” he says. “You can just talk like human beings talk.”
Hardwick, 39, started podcasting after a pilot he thought would be a career-maker was canned at the last minute. “It was a reaction to a business where we have no control,” says Hardwick, who hosted the MTV dating show “Singled Out” in the ’90s. “The entertainment business constantly reminds you that you are disposable at any given time, so I wanted something that didn’t feel disposable.”
A few days later, on Super Bowl Sunday 2010, he recorded the first episode of “The Nerdist.” Focusing on the nerdy sides of film, television and pop culture, Hardwick has released a new “Nerdist” episode every week since. The host of G4’s “Web Soup” also curates a network of podcasts under the Nerdist Industries umbrella.
One of the most successful podcasting networks is Earwolf, co-founded by Scott Aukerman, a former writer on the cult HBO sketch series “Mr. Show.” Aukerman stumbled into podcasting by accident, when his radio show, “Comedy Death-Ray” (later renamed “Comedy Bang Bang”), was recorded and released as a podcast in May 2009. A year later, Aukerman met Jeff Ullrich, who persuaded him to band together with other podcasters to form “a collective of like-minded people,” Aukerman says. Earwolf has since teamed with Funnyordie.com to become the humor site’s official podcast network.
Aukerman’s “Comedy Bang Bang” has the feel of an improvised sketch show, with guests playing games and riffing on whatever comes up. “We just fly by the seat of our pants,” says Aukerman, 41.
Aukerman’s approach differs from Maron and Hardwick’s in that comedians interrupt his chats with guests, in character. El Chupacabra, comic Nick Kroll’s take on a stereotypical Latin radio host, is a regular.
“El Chupacabra was developed almost entirely in podcast form,” says Kroll, who stars as Ruxin on FX’s “The League.” He’s used podcasts to try out several characters that would later appear in his stand-up special, “Thank You Very Cool.”
“The benefits you get as a performer have been huge,” says Aukerman, whose show recently hit 10 million downloads.
Maron puts it more bluntly: “I can actually get work, as opposed to not.”
There’s money coming in, too. Maron profits from merchandising, advertising and sponsorships, and as a paid subscription service for older shows (the 50 most recent ones are free). Both Aukerman’s and Hardwick’s shows are completely free. All three are available on iTunes. “I think on paper, I’ve made a little bit of money,” Aukerman says. “Not that I’ve written myself a check.”
Because, for most hosts, podcasting isn’t about the money. It’s about controlling your own destiny, and it’s about community.
“All of us have worked in corporate entertainment structures for so long that are so hyper-competitive that the fact that we all support each other’s shows is a reaction to that,” Hardwick says.
“It’s like this big freaking comedy podcast orgy.” And everyone is invited.
So, you’ve read about the podcasts and now you want to give some a listen. Here’s a few of our favorite episodes, all (currently) available for free on iTunes.
Comedy Bang Bang (with Scott Aukerman)
Episode 107: A full hour with Georgetown alums Nick Kroll and John Mulaney means a fast-paced episode, with the two comics jumping back and forth between various characters and themselves.
Episodes 76.1 & 76.2: Longtime friend of the show Zach Galifianakis stops by for two hours of conversation and games (including fan favorites “Would You Rather?” and “What Am I Thinking?”). Paul F. Tompkins drops in as Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber and things gets really zany.
Episode 120: The bits don’t always work for “Parks & Recreation” star Adam Scott and writers Harris Wittels and Chelsea Peretti in this ep, but there’s something to their dry humor that makes it special.
WTF (with Marc Maron)
Episode 183: Amy Poehler discusses her early days at Upright Citizens Brigade, her run-ins with Maron as a young comic in New York City and her marriage to Will Arnett; Maron grills her about “Saturday Night Live’s” Lorne Michaels.
Episode 213: On this live “WTF,” an eight-guest panel hosted by Maron in Brooklyn, “This American Life’s” Ira Glass recalls getting blackout drunk; comic Joe Mande talks Twitter beefs; and Artie Lange makes an unexpected, sober appearance after some recent trials with addiction.
Episode 200: There are two types of “WTF” fans: those who come for the guests and those who come for the Maron. On the 200th episode, Mike Birbiglia interviews Maron using questions from past guests.
See him live: On Dec. 2 and 3, Maron will do three sets of stand-up at the Arlington Cinema ’N’ Drafthouse ($22).
The Nerdist (with Chris Hardwick)
Episode 20: Alison Brie of “Community” and “Mad Men” shows off her wacky side while Hardwick and his co-hosts fawn over the greatness of the two shows she stars in.
Episode 100: Simon Pegg discusses his book, “Nerd Do Well,” and the differences between British and American comedy; “The Soup” and ”Community” star Joel McHale makes a surprise appearance.
Episode 119: Come for Bryan Cranston talking “Breaking Bad”; stay for his bit about a new culinary treat, the name of which we cannot print.
See him live: Hardwick’s “The Nerdist” tour stops at the 9:30 Club on Nov. 6 at 6 p.m. ($25). The stage show brings elements of the podcast to life while also mixing in stand-up from Hardwick and his co-hosts, Jonah Ray and Matt Mira.
Transition Game: Naturally, podcasting can serve as a bridge to television. Chris Hardwick recently brought “The Nerdist” to BBC America, hosting a one-off episode after an airing of “Doctor Who.” Scott Aukerman’s “Comedy Death-Ray,” in which he interviews people such as Judd Apatow and Sarah Silverman, airs between shows on IFC, and he recently filmed a “Comedy Bang Bang” pilot. Marc Maron is shopping “Maron,” a single-camera show fictionalizing his life as a podcaster.