(Ed. Note: This feature, written for the Fall 2014 issue of Convergence, appeared in the magazine under the title Pocket Sized Comedy.)
By Jared PD Clinton
On a small stage in Baltimore, Md., 20-year-old Ryan Sickler took the microphone and began his stand-up comedy career. In that room, he spoke to a crowd of strangers, a relative unknown comic looking for ever-valued stage time. He still calls it his worst show.
“I wasn’t prepared for anything like that and I just ate it. Just tanked,” Sickler says. “I got nervous. I was comfortable hiding behind the mic, in the sense that even if I whispered it was going to project [into the audience] so I didn’t mind being somewhat small on stage.
“But when you don’t have a mic and you’re screaming to a room full of people, you can’t be so small. That just did not go so well.”
Sickler doesn’t simply speak to a room full of people any longer. He speaks to Feasters – a bunch of diehard fans of The CrabFeast, the podcast Sickler hosts with Jay Larson. Every Toozdee – that’s Tuesday, for those not listening as religiously as fans hashtagging FTCF (F*** The CrabFeast), the podcast’s slogan – every week Sickler and Larson have a new episode online, a fresh hour-plus of storytelling.
And it’s the storytelling that makes the podcast so successful, says Dylan Gadino, the founder and editor-in-chief of Laughspin.com, a comedy news website.
“It seems that people are really embracing the concept of conversation as opposed to a straight up interview,” Gadino says. “I think it makes people feel like they’re part of something, hanging out in the same room as comedians. I think that’s what’s really attractive about these sort of podcasts.”
Now Sickler and Larson are taking their act to All Things Comedy, a new podcast network run, in part, by comic Bill Burr, which aims to put money back in the pockets of the comedians creating the product. Bringing Sickler, Larson and The CrabFeast on board further solidifies podcasting as the medium comedians, and All Things Comedy, are turning to.
Unlike terrestrial radio, where the format is well-established, there’s an art to podcasting. You can make light of attempted murder or riff on life-threatening illness. And that’s what makes podcast fans so dedicated: it’s a free-form conversation that can leave you with your mouth agape or holding your sides from laughter. Sometimes both.
And what podcasts really have on radio is a connection with individuals. No longer is it tune in for the drive, tune out when you arrive. Now, listeners aren’t fans for their commute, they’re fans for the duration of the story, fans of the personalities, the comedy and the medium. Terrestrial radio has tradition, but podcasting has a following.
“[The fans are] very loyal, even though I’d say the majority are a few episodes behind,” Sickler says. “They don’t listen weekly, but they do listen eventually. Even myself, I do find myself saving a couple of them for a hike or for a long drive or when I’m travelling or flying. It gives me something to do.
“I’m tired of terrestrial radio, I’m tired of Pandora, and you can’t listen to some of that stuff on flights anyway. But you can podcasts. And you’re dialed in, it’s you and them, right there. And that’s what people really like. It’s like a fireside chat on steroids.”
Now with a strong foothold in the podcast world, Sickler and Larson are helping change the way we listen to talk radio. While they’re not the only ones, they’re some of the most recognizable, especially as an iTunes featured comedy podcast nearly every week.
However, Jeff Ullrich, co-founder and CEO of Earwolf, one of the biggest podcast networks, says he’s still unsure about the reach.
“It still feels like no one is listening,” he says with a laugh. “It depends on who you trust, but some people say 15 per cent, some people say 30 per cent of people in the States have listened to a podcast. That doesn’t feel right. For as long as we’ve had merchandise, I’ve only worn Earwolf shirts and sweatshirts every day. Over a thousand days of my life, I’ve only worn Earwolf clothing, and I’ve maybe had three or four people stop me to comment on it.”
Ullrich is unsure about how widespread the listenership is, but Feasters worldwide have been vocal. Sickler says they’ve had emails from listeners in Winnipeg, South Africa and across the pond.
“Right now, the podcast audience is growing immensely,” Sickler says. “It’s not huge yet, but it’s on its way there.”
When The CrabFeast began in 2011, with Sickler and then-cohost Matt Fulchiron, it was one of a stable of other shows on the Toad Hop Network.
“I think at the time [Toad Hop] had 40 or 50 shows and most of them, or at least a lot of them I should say, weren’t comedians,” Sickler says. “They were just people who had never done anything and thought ‘Oh, I can get on a mic and talk!’ And they were doing exactly that.”
Podcast networks, in the days of Toad Hop, were a relatively new idea. Think radio network, but entirely based around online content and audio podcasts available for download at any time.
Adam Carolla, a television personality, former Loveline co-host, former Los Angeles morning radio host and premiere podcaster, used his radio background to create a podcast empire. He’s not called the Podfather for nothing.
“What’s radio?” Carolla says. “Well, radio has a morning show, and then they have an afternoon guy, and then they have a drive time guy, and they have an overnight show. A radio station would be idiots to just have a morning show and then just play white noise after 10 a.m., because Budweiser doesn’t want to have their ads on white noise.
“I treat [podcasting] like a radio network – who’s going to be my afternoon guy?” Carolla says.
As the world record holder for most downloaded podcast – the Guinness Book of World Records had Carolla at just fewer than 60 million unique downloads between Feb. 2009 and March 2011 – Carolla is the de facto voice of all things podcasting. In fact, Carolla is on a crusade to fight for the future of podcasting.
In a late-November episode, the AceMan, as his fans affectionately call him, told his audience he’s fighting legal battles against patent trolls in Texas. The suits take aim at the way Carolla distributes his network’s podcasts across his Carolla Digital label, which is no different than any other podcast available online. He says in the month of October alone he spent over $20,000 USD fighting the suit.
But it’s not just a battle for the safety of the medium or being one of its biggest success stories. The former Man Show host is also the face of an era of change where those who may not have been at the forefront of the tech wave are now riding its crest.
“It’s comical, because I’m the guy who started using a computer ten years after everyone else did and I wasn’t even online,” Carolla says. “And really, the only reason I went online was to go on eBay to find cars.”
And while Carolla lacked the knowledge of technology, Ullrich was the opposite. He knew the technology but didn’t have experience in radio. With no background in broadcasting, Ullrich got his network off the ground by understanding what people want to hear.
Earwolf has more than 30 podcasts on the network – including Randy and Jason Sklar’s Sklarbro Country, Jeff Garlin’s By the Way, In Conversation with Jeff Garlin and Earwolf co-founder Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Bang Bang: The Podcast, which has also become a television program.
Ullrich and partner Scott Aukerman have been the most forthcoming about their branding of the Earwolf radio station, but he says it’s not like traditional terrestrial radio. Instead, it’s a 24-hour loop of Earwolf’s content, of which there is plenty. It may catch some by surprise that Earwolf was the first to take this step, as he’s one of the comedy podcasters with no background in traditional radio.
“We don’t even think about [terrestrial] radio,” Ullrich says. “I have no experience in radio. None. Zero. The idea that I would be trying to run a radio company and be similar to it – or even dissimilar to it – is not part of the conversation. I have no idea how a radio station is run – I don’t know best practices and worst practices. We’re just doing our thing. For a while, you could have said we were making it up as we went along. Now, we’re more mature than that, but things are still fresh and new.”
What it comes down to is reach. Sickler, who like Ullrich doesn’t have a radio background, says there was a point where it became apparent it was time to move on from Toad Hop. They needed their audience to grow. It was then that friend and fellow podcaster Jay Mohr called him up asking if he would like to be “his Nirvana,” the first podcast Mohr signed to his Fake Mustache Studios podcast network.
Sickler says in the days after establishing itself on Fake Mustache The CrabFeast saw a massive increase in its following. He can’t give exact figures, but says it’s easily over a 100 per cent bump in listeners.
“The benefit of Toad Hop was they already had an audience of podcast listeners, so we were able to tap into that small audience first,” Sickler says. “We had a small fan base that followed us to Fake Mustache. But still we had a fan base. We weren’t just throwing up a show and fishing. We were throwing up a show into a pot full of fish. Then we got Fake Mustache and Jay was just awesome at promoting us, letting people know about us. You have to put up a quality product, and we did. It spoke for itself. And the numbers just considerably jumped.”
It wasn’t just about increasing listenership for Sickler and Larson, it was about having the ability to mobilize the podcast and get guests anywhere.
“Whether we were going to Fake Mustache or not, we were leaving Toad Hop to buy our own gear and equipment and just be portable,” Sickler says. “That way we could record at 10 a.m. on Wednesday if we had to – which we have. We’ve gone to people’s hotel rooms, homes, apartments, offices, you name it . . . As long as the audio quality is good, people don’t care where it is.”
Sickler credits the portable model of podcasting for their success. While at Toad Hop, they had a studio time and had to make sure he, Larson and their guest that week could all be at the studio when requested. It’s not the route every network takes. Carolla says he has multiple studios, and Ullrich says Earwolf uses the studios to coordinate times.
“Our world is different than [being portable],” Ullrich says. “We’ve got a studio in Hollywood and people like to go there because it’s professional. We’ve got two recording rooms, full-time engineers and it’s convenient. People already have auditions, agents and they’re already having lunch with their buddy. People are in Hollywood to work.”
And podcasting has become part of that work. Carolla, Sickler, Larson and a handful of the Earwolf shows have become big enough to drive audiences to stand up shows, merchandise purchases and donations – Carolla even crowd-funded a $1 million movie project with help from his podcast fans.
Gadino says for him, Never Not Funny podcaster Jimmy Pardo set the bar for what a podcast can do for a personal brand and a comic’s own little share of show business.
“When Pardo started podcasting . . . he really revolutionized the concept of the comedy podcast,” says Gadino. “That: a) you can make a lot of money and b) it can really affect ticket sales on the road.”
Sickler says Todd Glass is another great example of using podcasting to build a business with The Todd Glass Show.
“We’ve known Todd for a long time, and he told me ‘You know, I fought this podcast thing for a long time.’ But he told me that in a year ‘I’ve built my audience bigger, quicker, faster than ever. And he’s touring around the country. And you can easily podcast, right behind that little microphone, you can do it in a car if you want to do it.”
And the Feasters, Sickler says, do more than just support guests who have their own podcasts. They show up for the guests who knock it out of the park during their appearances on the show.
“Tom Segura’s a great friend and he’s coast-to-coast every weekend doing shows, and he says to me ‘Ryan, more than anyone, your CrabFeast fans come out, they wear your merchandise and they’re the nicest, coolest fans,’” Sickler says. “There’s a ton of comics who have been like ‘Dude, I had a show up in Wichita and somebody came out from The CrabFeast, told me they heard me on The CrabFeast.’”
Like terrestrial radio, hosts still promote the show and guests promote their latest offerings. Sickler says the podcast alone has boosted the sales of his comedy album Above Ground Cool more than 100 per cent.
“[It] sells more now just because I have people go through my site and I promote it on the podcast,” Sickler says. “It’s definitely made a difference. As a matter of fact, now, a lot of comics – Tom Segura, Matt Fulchiron – they release an album and do the podcast circuit. Tom did ours, [Joe] Rogan’s, Ari Shaffir’s – all the big ones to promote their CDs and sell. You’ll make more money that way, these days, than you would the old school way.”