Talking About the Comedy Podcast Explosion with Earwolf’s Scott Aukerman and Jeff Ullrich

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These days, it seems like every comedian out there has their own podcast. Through the melee for listeners’ ears, the founders of the Earwolf network, Scott Aukerman and Jeff Ullrich, have emerged as the one’s leading the charge to progress the art form.

After getting his start at Mr. Show, Scott’s credits include co-creating both the deservedly lauded Between Two Ferns and the renowned alt-comedy showcase Comedy Death-Ray (CDR), which in 2009 he built upon to create Comedy Death-Ray Radio. In 2010, Jeff, a former finance-guy and business manager, came to Scott with a vision, and together they started the Earwolf Network with CDR Radio as the cornerstone.

In less than a year of operation, Earwolf has grown to eight shows with more on the horizon. This includes the Sklar Brother’s sports-centered, Sklarbro Country; Paul Scheer’s bad movie send-up, How Did This Get Made?; Drew Droege’s delightfully off the rails, Glitter in the Garbage; and the Aukerman and Neil Campbell penned serial, Mike Detective, starring Rob Huebel.

I talked to Scott and Jeff about creating their podcasting network, the future of the medium, and what hypothetical podcast would lead to mass audience suicides.

What is each of your backgrounds and how did you two meet?

Scott Aukerman: Born 1970.

Jeff Ullrich: I was born in ‘74.

SA: I got laid for the first time 1988, January.

JU: February ‘97.

SA: Wow.

JU: Yeah, it’s true.

SA: Boy, alright. I got laid for the last time this morning

Nice. Well, maybe let’s keep it to professional things.

SA: Well I started Comedy Death Ray Radio as a radio show a couple years ago. My friend Jimmy Pardo has a podcast I’ve been on a lot, and I knew they were sort of popular, but I didn’t really know that much about them. After the radio station turned it into a podcast, I quickly got a big education on how many people listen to them as opposed to the radio. So, about a year into it, a young man named Jeff Ullrich, a fresh-faced gentleman…

JU: Coming off his first lay…

SA: …With whom I was unfamiliar, contacted me and wanted to have a meeting.

JU: I worked with Jerry Minor, who was a guest host for Scott’s show. He asked if I wanted to go into the studio, I did. I started asking questions and really getting interested in the show. So I did a crash-course lesson myself in podcasting and really got excited about it quick. Then Scott came over and I kind of pitched him on the idea of how to put some organization around his show. He said, “OK, that sounds interesting. I’m going to South by Southwest so let’s get together in about two weeks and talk about it some more.” When he came back, I had a presentation ready, in which I explained how I envisioned this working and how we can work together to make this happen. We pretty much decided at the Red Lion that night, right? We said, “OK, let’s try it.”

SA: I don’t remember those kinds of details, but I’ll take your word for it.

JU: It was probably around end of March, April first-ish. Then we just started.

So what was that original vision that you proposed to Scott, and how has it evolved?

JU: The original vision was kind of simple. A lot of people are listening to podcasts and there were plenty of great shows out there, but there was no leadership. No one had really organized and provided any type of economies of scale or had a centralized center of expertise in anything in particular. It was still really hard to do a show because you had to find an engineer and you had to have a web presence. That’s before you even talk about it becoming a business and it’s just a promotional hobby.

The vision was to say, Scott’s live show is this great platform for the up-and-coming, but also established comedians to come, have fun, and do their things. Scott is the one who does all the work and they show up. In a way it was an extension of that. I said, let’s create a podcasting environment that all you have to do is be one of the funniest fucking people in the world with a great idea. You just show up, do your thing, and we take care of the rest. That was the general idea of what the networking model would be, and obviously Scott already had a lot of great relationships with people we thought we could work with. It just made sense to build something that could be bigger than just one show.

You’ve said each show has a prism in which the comedy is distributed. What exactly does that mean for your shows?

JU: Every show is a comedic show, but where I think Scott adds a lot of value to people who work with Earwolf is that he’s able to help them formulate the point of view and format for distributing the comedy through whatever their passion is. Like Randy and Jason [Sklar], they do sports comedy, but it’s still a comedic show, not a sports show.

SA: Who Charted?, for instance. We are not putting out a serious show where people will follow the charts. We’re putting out a show, sure you could follow the charts along with it, but hopefully you are getting more comedy than charts. It’s like a lot of people could get their news from Weekend Update, but why would you? The prism is sort of using these great comedians that we know and figuring out what shows they want to do, but always keeping an eye on the comedy.

So how has CDR evolved from its day on Indie 103.1 to now?

SA: When I first started, I had a different conception of what the show would be. I thought it was going to be more of a talk show. Really, my only experience with podcasting was with Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny, which is such a great, hilarious conversation between people. I kind of viewed that it was going to be advertising for the weekly show we did. If you listen to those early shows, it is very based around what is happening that week in the live show at UCB.

By my third episode, the radio station came to me and said, “Hey, you know we’re not really interested in you interviewing comedians, we’re interested in the comedians being funny.” They were looking for more of a comedy program. Once I started doing that, I think the show really started hitting its stride. We stopped talking about comedy — which a lot of podcasts do and are really good at — but started to actually do comedy. That’s when I started enjoying the show more and when I think the audience started enjoying the show more.

How does an episode work? Many episodes feature a serious interview interrupted by a character like Paul F. Tompkins’s Andrew Lloyd Webber or Nick Kroll’s El Chupacabra. How much of that is telegraphed? I’m reminded of the recent episode featuring Adam Scott and James Adomian as Alan Rickman, where it had that huge dramatic ending. Do you plan out beats or do you just get the people in and see what happens?

SA: Maybe one out of 25 episodes we’ll plan a few beats, but normally it’s just dictated by who the guests end up being. Normally, I book it with guests that would complement each other. The Adam Scott/James Adomian show that you mentioned had a huge ending, none of that is planned, it’s just us searching in the improv for what would be a funny thing to happen. That was really just serendipity, where Adam started repeating himself accidentally and then realized that it would be funny if he was stuck on a loop. It was nothing we had planned at all.

That’s when I really enjoy the show. You know, it’s a long show, it’s an hour and a half usually, and I try to not have stuff planned, so it could be a little dangerous, and because the human mind could not probably plan something that weird.

I was listening to the Kyle Kinane episode recently, in which you two and Paul F. Tompkins talked about a pizza delivery menu. Since then, that’s become a major bit in Kyle’s routine. And Jeff, in your discussion with Seth Morris and Nick Kroll you talked about how CDR reveals the process of creating characters. Do you think a lot of your fans enjoy seeing the behind-the-scenes of bits or characters?

SA: I really have found that the more planned-out it is, the less exciting it is to listen to. Occasionally, we’ll come in with written sketches for stuff, but for some reason those haven’t really worked all that well. If we do come in with a prepared sketch, what really works is when we go off the page and start riffing around it.

Though, that Kyle Kinane bit you mentioned is a bit he does in his stand-up that he wanted to do, but I think what makes it special is that anyone could just listen to stand-up. But I try to ask questions that would lead into unplanned stuff. That’s where it’s fun for me, instead of just setting up guests like a regular talk show, where the whole conversation is very planned in order to get into a bit, I try to puncture the bit a lot and lead people into unexpected places. Which I feel is more fun for people to listen to.

JU: I’ll say just as a fan, there is something really exciting to know that there is a 10% chance that I am about to hear the origin of a character that could be in a TV show in three years or in a movie in five years. It’s the groundbreaking place where things happen and Scott pushes the envelope. It’s exciting and you don’t know what’s going to happen but you trust that Scott is bringing on people that you are going to want to hear them play with each other. It’s like you are listening in on a workshop for people who don’t need to be at a workshop because they’re already the best in the world at what they do.

SA: Luckily, the people I have up on the show are amazing at what they do and they can roll with the questions I throw at them in a great way. That’s where it’s really exciting for me. Even if we have the barest of bones to a bit, like, “OK, well I’m going to come in and I’m going to be Bob Ducca and I’m going to read such-and-such a list.” The exciting part for me is, I love the list but love finding out more about the character’s history. The guest has to think of things they never really thought of for the character and it just leads us into strange, unique places.

Bob seems to be a breakout character; do you think he could ever get his own show?

SA: I don’t know if you could listen to Bob every week. Could you? I would love it. Just how depressing his life is from week to week. I think it would cause mass suicides from listeners.

Where did the idea for Mike Detective come from?

SA: I was looking for something to do on CDR Radio. At the end of last year, I’d been so busy that I felt like I wasn’t giving the show the attention it deserved. I’d sometimes show up with nothing planned and no idea what was going happen. I listen to the shows from 2010 and say, “Jeez man, I sound tired on some of them.” I really wanted to put some fresh energy into the show, so I was looking for stuff to do.

I was reading this book that I got for Christmas that was all about the origins of the Mickey Mouse Club in the fifties. They would have on that show a continuing serial, which I think was about a rich kid who goes to live on a ranch with a cowboy kid and they strike up a friendship and solve a mystery, or something like that. And I just thought that that was a really fun idea to do in the middle of my show. When I was five and six years-old, I used to listen to KFI here in LA, and they used to do a continuing soap opera that would air right before I was dropped off to school that I used to love. So I really just loved that form.

When I was talking to Neil Campbell, who I was writing bits with for Comedy Death Ray Radio, we both thought it would a great idea to put into the show. We started writing it and quickly realized it could be its own podcast, it was that strong. I thought the sound effects weren’t going to be as great as they ended up being, but our engineer, Doug Sadler, does such an amazing job with it that we were like “Oh, this shouldn’t be relegated to being in just my show, it should be its own thing.”

JU: That’s the best thing for me. I had nothing to do with that show, so I should get zero credit. Scott just had this show working with Neil. “Ok, we are going to go with this.” And all I had to do was get the e-mails thanking me for getting Mike Detective out. That’s what makes it great for me. I don’t even have to do the stuff, it just shows up and it’s so amazing. Mike Detective, Scott, I don’t tell you enough, it is brilliant. I love it. It’s my favorite show I think we have.

Did you feel it was important to push the boundaries with what was being done with podcasts right now?

SA: Yeah, I love doing that.

JU: I think Mike Detective is an example of something that’s been done so much better than I could ever hope for. Again, I know that I keep remembering dates like Scott and I are dating here, but, Scott, remember we were at the W [Hotel], maybe like six or eight months ago, when we went through that long list of all the different show ideas we had. What we wanted to do is, as Scott said before, change the idea of what people think a podcast could be. That means playing with everything: how long it is, how often it is, how it’s structured. I think that Mike Detective is a perfect example, along with Ear Drop, of how to do that in a way that has been successful. Mike Detective was Scott’s brainchild, but, in a general sense, it fits the profile of how we want to change that every show has to be an hour-long, every-week show where people are having guests on talking about X. We are just trying to push that a little bit.

Moving on to the Wolf Den, which is your show, Jeff, what made you decide to get in front of the mic and do a show yourself?

JU: It kind of evolved in different ways. At first I got tired of trying to feed Scott boring information about business stuff to read on his shows. It didn’t fit and I didn’t want to interrupt the comedy necessarily for announcements we had to make. There was nowhere set up where we could have a dialogue with people who were the hardcore fans about why we were making the moves we were making. What would end up happening is I would end up sending a million different e-mails to people about why we couldn’t ship internationally and why we made this decision or that decision. So I thought, let’s just open it up, only a couple hundred people are going to listen, but it will be worth it anyway to just get in front of those people, pull the curtain back a little bit, and let them see what we do and why we do it. I thought I’d just have on the people we work with and that would be that.

It kind of quickly became a chance to then bring on other people who weren’t just us to give their views on what we do, podcasting in general, and what matters to them. That’s when Seth [Morris] and Nick [Kroll] came on. Then I saw Doug Benson, I asked him if he wanted to come on and talk about podcasting. He was like, “Yeah, I’d love to.” So Doug came on and it kept evolving. I have people like the head of Zune and the head of YouTube advertising contact me and say I love your show. I’m just like, “OK, do you want to be on it?” I am trying now to expand the conversation to where it’s between talent, podcasters themselves, producers, advertisers, and distribution channels. And let’s just see if we could all have a conversation so that we’ll all get a little bit smarter about what we’re trying to do.

Do you have a sense of who the Earwolf fan is? Do you think it has gone beyond the comedy nerd audience?

JU: It’s hard to say, I think in general podcasting’s base of listenership is expanding beyond comedy nerdom — let’s just say general nerdom — there are a lot of shows that are not comedy shows. We are going beyond that, but I haven’t sensed that we tipped over to the point that we are in this mass media where it’s all kinds of people listening.

SA: I don’t think it’s comedy nerds, I really don’t. I think every week, I hear from people who are introduced to the show or shows in a different way. I don’t think you need to be a comedy nerd to know who Patton Oswalt is, and maybe that is the only comedian you’ve ever heard of, but you read on his Twitter feed that he is on my show. This week’s show with him got a bunch of new listeners just from him talking about it. So, you can be introduced to these shows in any way, but you don’t have to be a comedy nerd, you don’t have to be a podcasting nerd. As the weeks go by, more people are finding out about the exciting art that goes on within the realm of podcasting and are figuring out it is one of the only mediums in which people are actually expressing themselves freely.

Do you guys feel like a large portion of your potential audience still doesn’t understand how to use podcasts?

SA: Podcasts are growing exponentially. Just even in the last four months our numbers have shot dramatically up. I think more and more people are figuring out about it and not everyone knows exactly how it is. There’s been stuff that has been great for the industry. Like the New York Times article on Marc Maron legitimized podcasting as a medium and it makes people go, “Oh well, I’m going to check that thing out.” Which is just great for the industry as a whole. I think that in a year from now, 99% of the people on Earth will listen to my show. That’s my prediction.

Podcasting still has this Old West feel where every comedian is rushing to the medium. Jeff, in your interview with Doug Benson, he said that every comedian should be looking to start a podcast. Can the market get too flooded?

SA: It’s a fear, but that’s why we’re trying to do different things. Yeah, every comedian can have a podcast, but what are they going to talk about? There are only so many celebrities that we all know that we can interview. It’s really why we try to do different things with our shows. I say every comedian should have a podcast. Yeah, that doesn’t mean they’re all going to be good, but I hope they would be. It’s a great way to express yourself.

JU: I think it helps everybody. At some point maybe things get more competitive, but right now they’re not. It’s a very friendly community. It’s very open. People share information, share guests, talk to each other. I think the more of that, the better. The key is going to be making sure you stand out amongst an ever-growing amount of supply. All we can do is worry about ourselves and keep pushing the envelope and try to do new things. Hopefully that will set us apart from the masses.

What is great about these podcasts is that the listener gains insight into this large community of comedians. Have you gotten feedback that your shows allow them to feel part of this world?

SA: Oh, yeah, definitely. I had one comedian come back after a tour and she said, “You’ll not believe how many people listen to your show.” Everywhere she went, people were shouting out catchphrases from her appearances from the show. It really is an amazing thing to get whatever you do out there to the world. I think people are really viewing all the comedians we have on our shows like a family and they go out and support them when they come around live. It’s really great.

Touring is a big part of how a lot of comedy podcasts make money. Have you guys stuck your flag into the ground of how podcasts should monetize?

JU: Scott, do you want to say anything or do you want me to just run my mouth for a few minutes?

SA: No, you go ahead. I wasn’t listening.

JU: I don’t know about sticking our flag anywhere so much as to be open to any way to do this. I don’t know, Jesse, it’s a hard thing to answer because I really do think that the advertising model is going to work and going to make sense for people. It’s just we’re working at getting to the point where that’s sustainable. Based on the meetings I’ve had, the people I’ve talked to, and what I’ve seen and heard, it feels like it’s getting really close. But maybe it isn’t. In the mean time there are different ways to try and bring in money and pay the bills. And all you can do is try all of them.

Podcasting is still a very young medium, but where would you hope it would be in five years?

SA: Five years is so long that who knows what will even be embedded by then. By then everyone’s cell phone will probably be implanted into their thumb and pinky so that people could walk around doing that holding their thumb up to their ear and pinky up to their mouth thing instead of a cellphone. So that’ll be interesting.

JU: While you were describing it, I just tried to do that and was like, “Oh, yeah, that’ll work.”

SA: So that will change the industry, I think. Like any company you want to grow, provide a lot more content, and branch out into other mediums. I don’t know, the future is so open. I was thinking the other day about how when I grew up there weren’t even push button phones and now there are these amazing devices which can transport my voice all over the world. It’s so crazy to me. Who knows what’s going to happen in five years? It’s really exciting.

JU: I agree with Scott. It all goes back to trying to keep coming up with new content that’s fun and interesting and exciting. That whatever distribution method people use to be entertained, we would then hopefully continue to be a part of that.

That seems like a good way to end it.

SA: Can we actually end it with RIP Nate Dogg?

Jesse Fox is a writer/podcaster who lives in San Francisco and is incapable of walking, washing dishes, or tying shoelaces without a podcast playing.