LOS ANGELES — One of the first things Georgia Hardstark and Karen Kilgariff figured out is that the true-crime genre isn’t just a vehicle for sometimes gruesome tales of women in jeopardy. At its most primal level, it’s storytelling. It’s town gossip, but with hatchets. And gossip is for everyone.
Hardstark and Kilgariff, the hosts of podcast phenomenon “My Favorite Murder,” believe that anyone who claims not to like true crime just hasn’t found the right murder yet. Are you grossed out by serial killers like the Vampire of Sacramento (“My Favorite Murder” Episode 10)? Perhaps they can interest you in a family annihilator (like Episode 29 subject John List, who murdered his entire family, then started over with another one). Got a delicate stomach? You may want to avoid Cannibal Week (Episode 11), but you might enjoy the story of Jennifer Holliday, who outwitted the rapist who murdered her cousin (Episode 51).
True crime has been considered a guilty pleasure at least since the ’90s rise of documentary programs like “Forensic Files” and “Dateline.” Audiences for these shows, and for true-crime podcasts and books, tend to be overwhelmingly female. True crime has been stigmatized as a Thing Women Like, the way bodice-ripping novels and soap operas used to be. But that has changed recently. “Serial,” the original true-crime podcast phenomenon, helped legitimize the genre with its first season. Documentaries like “The Jinx” and “Making a Murderer” became hits and with “Serial” losing momentum in its second season, there was something of a perfect environment for Hardstark and Kilgariff to launch their show.
“My Favorite Murder” — empathetic and profane, a cheerful, chatty vehicle for cautionary tales of death and dismemberment — is based on a simple premise: Each week the hosts each bring in one murder story to tell the other. And they’ve found a massive audience, with more than 10 million downloads a month. Turns out true crime isn’t a niche interest after all.
“It’s kind of like this secret society of people figuring out they’re not the only ones,” Hardstark says, over lunch with Kilgariff in their home town of Los Angeles.
Jason Smith, chief executive of parent podcasting network Feral Audio, estimates the show’s audience “is about 80 to 85 percent women, 10 percent men, and 5 percent creepy weirdos.” Its download numbers make it one of the most successful podcasts in history, but it has also become a movement, a separate organism which Hardstark and Kilgariff regard with nervous awe. There’s a private Facebook group with 130,000 members, and an ongoing live tour playing to increasingly larger venues, including a sold-out stop at Warner Theatre in the District on Friday. “I don’t think we’ve done a show that wasn’t sold out,” Hardstark says. “Unless they’re lying to us to make us feel better.”
The show has made celebrities out of everyone in its orbit, including one of Hardstark’s cats, Elvis (#ElvisTheSiamese on Instagram), and their producer, Steven Ray Morris, co-host of the cat-related podcast “The Purrrcast.” Fan-generated artwork, including mugs, tank tops and cross stitches, generates a brisk business on Etsy.
Rebecca Miles of Cornelius, Ore., and her 21-year-old daughter recently got matching tattoos of the podcast’s sign-off slogan, “Stay Sexy and Don’t Get Murdered,” complete with decorative blood splatter. Until becoming a “Murder” fan (known as a “murderino”), Miles concealed her love of true crime from everyone except her husband. “I didn’t tell anybody, and now I post on Facebook, and I’m on their group,” Miles says. She even uploaded a photo of her tattoo. “My friends were all, ‘I don’t get it. I don’t understand.’ ”
Kilgariff and Hardstark also discuss their battles with alcohol and anxiety, and their career disappointments and therapy appointments, prompting thousands of fans to take to Twitter and Facebook to do the same. “Murder” feels like eavesdropping on a conversation between friends, which is crucial to its success — hosts and murderinos look at each other and see themselves.
Technically classified as a comedy podcast, “Murder” is tasked with doing the virtually impossible every week. It must make something entertaining out of something ghastly, without seeming either too solemn, or too insensitive. “We’re not relishing [murder]; we don’t love that it happened,” says Kilgariff. “Quite the opposite. It’s the digging-the-nails-into-the-arm thing. ‘Can you believe this happened? I know you understand, and you’re not going to think I’m a ghoul for talking about it.’ ”
Studies suggest women are drawn to true-crime stories because they provide instruction in what not to do. The podcast regularly dispenses lessons in murder avoidance: Be aware of your surroundings. Pepper spray first, ask questions later. Nothing good ever happens to women alone in a forest. It’s okay to not be nice to the creepy guy at the bar (“F--- Politeness” is the show’s unofficial motto). “The things you’re not supposed to talk about can get you killed,” Kilgariff says.
Because of the podcast, “I’m more aware at night when I’m walking to my car, or I won’t be nice to a guy who approaches me,” Hardstark says. There are intangible benefits, too. “I’m aware of the law of averages. If I talk about someone stabbing me to death, it’s probably less likely to happen.”
Kilgariff and Hardstark were latchkey kids in the ’80s, an era that was dark and full of terrors: Stranger danger. “Unsolved Mysteries.” The kid on the milk carton. “I think we’ve all been scared since we were little,” says Hardstark.
Kilgariff remembers the day she discovered serial killer John Wayne Gacy. “I flipped a book open, and it was a hand-drawn map of where the bodies were buried in Gacy’s house,” she says. “I was like 11 or 12, and it was like a movie, (zooming) into the picture and going back out. It was like, this is a possibility. Suddenly it was this idea of, there’s something they’re not telling me, and I have to find out for myself.”
Kilgariff, 47, moved to Los Angeles from Northern California in the mid-’90s, tried unsuccessfully to make it as a sitcom actress, and eventually settled into life as a stand-up comic and writer, most notably for “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” and HBO’s “Mr. Show.” Hardstark, 36, had a show on the Cooking Channel with her friend Alie Ward, with whom she also hosts the podcast “Slumber Party With Alie & Georgia.”
Kilgariff and Hardstark, who had friends in common, met at a Halloween party in 2015. Kilgariff began talking about a horrific car accident she had witnessed, alienating every partygoer except Hardstark, who wanted to know every detail. Bonded by their love of murder stories and their shared desire to never again have desk jobs, they launched “My Favorite Murder” in January 2016.
Early download numbers were respectable, but when Kilgariff and Hardstark appeared on the “Cracked” podcast a few months into their run, it catapulted the show into the Top 10 on iTunes’ Comedy chart, where it remains. Then things started to get weird. The podcast, which drops a regular episode every Thursday, and minisodes with listener hometown murders more sporadically, began showing up in the upper reaches of iTunes’ regular chart. The number of listeners doubled every month. Fans began to recognize them on the street.
After years spent asking other people for permission, cobbling together as many projects as they could into something approaching a livable wage, the thing that finally broke Kilgariff and Hardstark was the thing they made by themselves, for themselves. “It feels like it came in a time in my life where I thought the time for this had already passed, for some kind of fame,” says Kilgariff.
Now that Kilgariff and Hardstark have fame, they’re unsure what to do with it. It used to be that podcasting was a means to an end, a thing you did to get enough attention to be able to quit podcasting and do something else, preferably television. It’s now almost an end in itself. A television show would be the next logical step, but TV has a distancing effect. The intimacy of the podcast, and the accessibility of its hosts, may be impossible to replicate. “It’s like, let’s not sacrifice the podcast, which is doing well and making money and could be our career forever,” Hardstark says. “I don’t want to do something half-assed and alienate a lot of people who feel like they know us.”
As Kilgariff and Hardstark see it, “My Favorite Murder” could theoretically go on forever as it is, even without spinoffs, existing merely to bear witness to the ingeniously terrible things human beings do to each other. “There’s value that could come out of it, if you just repeat the story and remember,” Kilgariff says. “Two kids riding their bikes to an empty lot? It never ends well.”