Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Pistol Shrimps Radio is one of the podcasting revolution’s strangest and most unexpected success stories. On paper, Pistol Shrimps Radio sounds utterly perverse, more like a bizarre stunt than a sustainable premise for an ongoing podcast. After all, who would possibly be interested in listening to two men who, by their own admission, know, respectively pretty much nothing about basketball (that would be the honorable Matt Gourley, beloved podcast and SuperEgo fixture) and a very modest amount about the game (Gourley’s SuperEgo colleague Mark McConville) call a recreational woman’s basketball it’s doubtful even the friends and families of the participants feel particularly emotionally invested in?
Professional women’s basketball has never really taken off in our country, and podcast listeners are not exactly known for their interest in women’s athletics. Besides, the appeal of listening to broadcasters announce a game is inherently timely; sports fans want to hear or see the game as it’s happening. By the next day or night, that broadcast is quite literally yesterday’s news.
Yet Pistol Shrimps Radio has been an extraordinary success all the same. It has attracted some of the most intense and passionate listeners/fans in all of the medium and inspired a feature-length documentary produced by Morgan Spurlock that’s playing the Tribeca Film Festival. It’s the little recreational women’s league basketball podcast that could.
Listening to the first episode of Pistol Shrimps Radio, from April of last year, it’s easy to see why this recreational women’s league basketball podcast has attracted such a fierce following among people who you’d never expect to care about recreational women’s league basketball, or about sports in general.
In that respect, it almost helps that Gourley knows nothing about basketball. It allows him to serve as a listener surrogate for all the people in the audience who similarly do not know, or care about basketball, yet are in for this strange experiment all the same. It’s not just a basketball comedy podcast for people who don’t know anything about basketball; it’s a basketball podcast by people who don’t know about basketball either.
Accordingly, the announcers have a tendency to talk about what’s happening in their vivid imaginations as much, if not more, than what’s actually happening on court. The announcers fill in the abundant blanks in their sports knowledge with wild, often hilarious conjecture and a series of running jokes, some involving referees whose names are constantly changing.
Early in the podcast, for example, Dire Straits is referenced, and the Dire Straits reference don’t stop there. They continue throughout the podcast as Gourley and McConville challenge themselves to awkwardly shoe-horn references to Dire Straits lyrics into the proceedings as often as possible. By the end, it’s likely that the announcers have actually talked more about Dire Straits than they did about women’s basketball.
In another brilliant running gag, the announcers start off by announcing that it’s water bottle night, and get sillier and sillier with variations on “this is _____ night” until they say it’s “Magna Carta night”, but unfortunately only one person can receive that one real copy of the Magna Carta, and disastrously for both the audience and humanity, the person who received the Magna Carta was the villainous King John.
Magna Carta jokes on a recreational women’s league basketball podcast are what podcasts are all about. Pistol Shrimps Radio is proof that in the right hands and with the right people, anything can be funny.
There are moments in improvisation when the magic happens, when the improvisers lock into a fruitful groove with a palpable sense of glee and milk it for all its worth, before segueing smoothly and effortlessly into something equally inspiring. Pistol Shrimps Radio is full of those moments, those tantalizing bursts where improvisers find something that works exquisitely in the moment and transform it into comedy for the ages.
Gourley and McConville make their limitations work for them. By their own account, they are wildly unqualified to announce basketball, have terrible seats that afford them an awful, wildly constricted view of the action, have an exceedingly shaky grasp on basketball terminology, and, on the game itself, and are talking about a basketball game so inconsequential it’s doubtful it even matters to the women on the court, who include familiar faces from the Los Angeles comedy and improv scene, most notably Parks & Recreation star and real-life Daria Aubrey Plaza.
Yet in the podcast that started an unlikely movement, Gourley and McConville create something hilarious and lovable and scruffily human and addictive. They took a big chance on an experiment that very easily could have yielded an hour of unlistenable audio but instead resulted in something wonderful and unexpected and ongoing. It certainly does not hurt that Gourley and McConville sound like they were born to talk into microphones and have a wonderful tendency to sound authoritative and convincing, in true sports announcer form, even when they have no idea what they’re talking about.
Pistol Shrimps Radio offers some of the funniest clueless announcing since Fred Willard took to the microphone in Best In Show. It’s the recreational women’s basketball league podcast you never knew you absolutely have to listen to.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.