When Podcasts Meet a Live Audience

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“It’s weird not in the closet,” Greg Behrendt says, looking at his partner Dave Anthony. It’s 8:15 PM on Saturday, November 19, I’m sitting in the gallery at Meltdown Comics in LA, and I’m kind of shocked that there are other people present.

Podcasts, especially Walking the Room, are usually best experienced alone. For those unfamiliar with the podcast, its format is flexible and static; Anthony and Behrendt (that guy from that book they made a movie out of) sit in Behrendt’s closet and discuss their lives, social issues, and their continuing attempts to resurrect their moribund careers. Every week, Anthony and Behrendt produce one of the most simultaneously vile, hilarious, and good-hearted hour of internet radio currently available for free. For example, perhaps their most famous and funniest episode is the one in which the discuss “No Snitching” Ellen Degeneres, who they imagine to turn to the audience of her talk show and tell them “I have someone else’s blood on my pussy” before commencing with her program.

But there are other people present — more than 50 by my count — even a few couples sitting next to me that spend the duration of the podcast snuggling in the plastic folding chairs. Anthony and Behrendt sit in varying degrees of clown attire in chairs next to each other, in front of a picture of sad, melting ice cream, which does an excellent job of visually metaphorizing the podcast’s general content and tone.

So how does transporting the experience of my car on the way to work into a room full of strangers change the experience of the podcast? It gets much, much better. Like most things enjoyed and discovered in private, podcasts are a difficult medium to introduce to others: you get into the inside jokes on your own and develop your own private affinities for characters or situations. You don’t think about how your friends would react to them until you’re turning it up on your car radio, over-laughing at your favorite parts, and giving them sidelong glances to make sure that they, too, understand the genius of your favorite program.

The live podcast replaces that anxiety of introduction with what amounts to a big laughter-hug. Instead of the dual-attention to the podcast and to your friend, people that share your enjoyment of (and willingness to spend $10 on) the product sit together in a room and confirm, with their laughter, that maybe you are a twisted individual for laughing at their descriptions of “dollops,” but at least you’re not alone.

If that sounds an awful lot like a normal comedy show, that’s because it is an awful lot like a normal comedy show. The live podcast has to take a different form from the studio episode because of the demands that an audience places on the performance. Whereas they could theoretically spend the hour talking about serious topics (rare but it does happen), in this format the demand for humor increases — as evidenced by their use of two guests (Jen Kirkman and Brendon Walsh), instead of the normal zero.

This move — the increase of the guests and a heavier emphasis on jokes and funny stories rather than sober discussion of politics or social issues — is one mirrored by other podcasts, especially Marc Maron’s excellent WTF?. Maron, who was present at the podcast, spends his hour at the Cat Ranch delving deep into the psychology of his guests and attempting to either figure out what makes them tick as comedic performers or explore some facet of their relationship with Maron. In the live format, though, he increases the number of guests exponentially and changes focus more to play to the guest’s humor. Doug Loves Movies, usually a live podcast, changes when it goes in-studio by allowing host Doug Benson to play the Leonard Maltin Game, which he usually moderates.

The move in front of a crowd means that comedians will start to act more like comedians and less like the comedians/radio hosts that the podcast forces them to become. They gain knowledge of which jokes land and which segments fall a little flat, but they lose the freedom to explore the segment without worrying if they’re boring the people that paid them money to watch. Overall, the experience shifts from a private one into one of not only the performers but of the public. We can see with our own eyes that the pair makes each other laugh, really, really hard — often so much so that they lean away from the mic in a way that would be inaudible to those listening at home.

Anthony and Behrendt probably don’t wear clown suits in Behrendt’s closet, but they did this time, and that change says all you need to know about the live podcast.

“It’s a super-cuddle,” they say at various times throughout the program, and they’re absolutely right.

Michael Hafford lives in Los Angeles and writes a blog about people with dreadlocks and a talk show about the insane.