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Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang Send in the Clowns

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

On a recent phone call, I was kicking around a question for the pure academic hell of it. At the other end was Hans Sahni, who heads up content for Big Money Players, the podcast network governed by Will Ferrell. The question: Do characters created by comedians — Bill Hader’s Stefon, for example, or Kel Mitchell’s slacker Good Burger cashier — necessarily need to be a critique or satire of something to be effective?

Sahni pondered the query. A good character, he submitted, is one that either clearly references something familiar in a way that illustrates how ridiculous it is or shows us something unique and specific that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before. “It’s a clarity of voice,” he said. “The success of the character is how well it maps onto the thing being observed. How authentic does it feel? And how ridiculous can you push it without breaking the law of believability to the point where it’s not even funny?”

I was asking mostly because I have been spending quite a bit of time observing Clown Parade, a relatively new anthology project from Big Money Players. Launched back in June, Clown Parade presents listeners with a string of miniseries that are each built around a different character or persona created by a different comedian. The podcast just concluded its second series, which featured a disgraced entertainer, created by Martin Urbano, who hosts a surreal collection of Sábado Gigante–esque fake game shows, including Cash Cab knockoff where strangers are shoved into the trunk and forced to participate. Before that was a miniseries by Senior Superlatives’ Greta Titelman, who wrote and performed a stepmom persona with a vaguely Suze Orman–style course teaching women how to “hunt a husband” in four steps: SEEK, PURSUE, CAPTURE, SECURE.

Each miniseries typically takes the form of a four-part arc, and this debut season will feature ten comedians by the end of its run. Aside from Urbano and Titelman, the others are: Rekha Shankar, Chris Burns, Desi Domo, Raphael Chestang, Milly Tamarez, Sarah Smallwood Parsons, Steve Han, and Sudi Green.

Sahni tells me that the idea for something like Clown Parade has been kicking around since the earliest days of the company, which was created back in 2019 through a partnership with iHeartMedia. Ferrell had already developed a footprint on the podcast charts by then, having completed two seasons of The Ron Burgundy Podcast, which translated his blustery Anchorman persona to the format. “We started out thinking about this project as an extension of that,” said Sahni. “Something like, ‘Let’s see if we can find another Ron Burgundy Podcast,’ getting a really funny performer with a specific character that’s semi-scripted, semi-improvisational in a way you can repeat a bunch of times without writing a 30-page script for every episode.”

The original idea was to build something that could help introduce rising comedians to more people. What would become Clown Parade only properly came to life after Yang and Rogers signed on — their show, Las Culturistas, had been part of the first wave of podcasts that joined the network as co-productions in the summer of 2020 — and the project eventually fashioned into a kind of rotating curatorial platform. Officially beginning production in January 2021, Clown Parade is largely curated by Rogers and Yang, working together with Ferrell and various people from Big Money Players and iHeartMedia more broadly. “We had a long list of people Matt and Bowen were really excited about: friends of theirs, people they’re fans of who haven’t yet made it in the way that they have,” said Sahni. “We all threw a few names into a hat, and did a bake-off where we reached out to, like, 20 or 30 comedians and let them know what we were looking for. They submitted pitches, and we narrowed it down to ten favorites, and went from there.”

“There” includes a fairly involved development process. About half of this first batch’s comedians came in with preexisting characters; the other half were conceived specifically for the podcast. A team at Big Money Players works with the comedians to flesh out the character, work out the scripts, and produce the actual four-parter. Sahni serves in an oversight role throughout the production; scripts and cuts ultimately go to Yang and Rogers, who have determinative say in noting and approving them.

Conceptually, I find Clown Parade really intriguing, speaking as a regular listener of Las Culturistas and an admirer of Rogers and Yang’s work. That they’re now able to assume curatorial and taste-making responsibility feels like a natural extension of the cachet the duo has developed over the years through Las Culturistas, and it feels exciting that they’re using that capital to promote a diverse, interesting stable of comedians.

As a company, Big Money Players is coming into full view at a very interesting moment. Institutional comedy-podcast operations are kind of all over the place these days. The Earwolf brand has been completely subsumed by SiriusXM. Spotify doesn’t seem particularly interested in the category. Headgum continues to be compelling but remains rather small. Meanwhile, staying independent via Patreon or some alternative appears to be the go-to choice for a lot of comedians, especially up-and-coming ones, looking to make a mark.

Could Big Money Players be the one to fill the vacuum? The network currently houses around ten shows, including Las Culturistas and perennial fan favorite Poog with Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, and this week, the network officially brought Vulture favorite StraightioLab into the fold. Sahni tells me that they expected to add a few more shows by the end of the year, and that there are another ten or so projects in some form of development. And who knows? That number could well grow quickly, especially since part of the hope with Clown Parade is the possibility that any given character could spark, find a bigger audience, and become something viable to build a dedicated series around.

So yes, there is maybe an opportunity for Big Money Players to become the next Earwolf. We’ll see. It’ll depend, as usual, on boring but important things like downloads. When I asked how big the network has become these days, Sahni waved away the question. “Yeah, we can’t comment on that,” he said. But he quickly changed his mind: “Huge.”

Executive producers on Clown Parade include Will Ferrell, Matt Rogers, Bowen Yang, Hans Sahni, Olivia Aguilar, and Anna Hossnieh. Becca Ramos serves as supervising producer. 

Meanwhile …

➽ After an extensive period of quiet and nothing, buttressed by much speculation, Spotify’s partnership with Archewell Audio has finally borne its first fruitArchetypes With Meghan Markle dropped its first episode yesterday, with the newly retiring Serena Williams as debut guest.

➽ Big week for reunions. After some months away, The Read reconvened for a close read of Beyoncé’s new drop, titled “Renaissance in Review.” And longtime You’re Wrong About Heads rejoice: Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes’s Maintenance Phase just released a crossover with You’re Wrong About, reuniting Hobbes with Sarah Marshall, that tackles a target that sits in the Venn-diagram overlap between death and diets: “The Scarsdale Diet Murder.” The horrors, they compound.

➽ This week, Radiotopia will begin distributing Mumbai Crime, a new fiction anthology series from Goldhawk Productions, a studio formed by John Dryden and Ayeesha Menon. Goldhawk is retrospectively listed as the studio behind Passenger List, that fiction podcast starring Kelly Marie Tran from 2019. The studio was also responsible for an adaptation of The Jungle Book that won a BBC Audio Drama Award earlier this year. Anyway, the hook for Mumbai Crime is how it’ll serve as a container for various English-language-genre audio-fiction projects produced in India. An aesthetic note worth pointing out is the production’s approach of recording its material outside a studio and in the streets of Mumbai itself. The first miniseries, which debuted on Monday, is an adaptation of Vikas Swarup’s Q&A, which some folks might recall as the source material behind Slumdog Millionaire, the Danny Boyle film that first introduced most of us to Dev Patel.

➽ Consider this a second plug for Shameless Acquisition Target. What Laura Mayer is doing with this incredibly offbeat personal project is well worth keeping your ear on. She’s working to be astonishingly honest about the sheer amount of bullshit floating around the podcast business these days (that she, as a journeyman executive, has waded through), and doing so with a highly specific and thoroughly unique voice.

➽ Speaking of which, is it just me or does that new C13Originals series about a questionable drug-treatment program, The Sunshine Place, sound suspiciously like Reveal’s award-winning 2020 serialized podcast investigation into the exact same questionable drug-treatment program, “American Rehab”?

➽ Apple Podcasts has introduced a brand-new chart system for paid subscription channels, which you may or may not have spotted yet. On the one hand, it’s always helpful when there are more tools that can help consumers find more shows and publishers they might like. Definitely a plus. On the other hand, are those features really ready for prime time, and by extension, are podcast-subscription channels more broadly ready for prime time? There’s some pretty random stuff in there (though, to be fair, there’s always strange stuff on the charts), such that one can perhaps wonder what an interesting impression they might leave someone dipping their toes into podcasting for the first time. Further, the channels chart in particular makes it seems like there aren’t very many publishers making this new non-Patreon subscription channel work, whether true or not. Anyway, I agree with Hot Pod’s Ariel Shapiro: Amazon has really banked hard on this approach, and they’re almost certainly going to really benefit from this early-stage visibility.

➽ NPR has officialized its throwing of podcasts up on YouTube, chiefly having gone the whole “audio-only with a static cover art” route. But if it’s really smart, it should grab that guy who does the Planet Money TikTok account, pump him full of money, and let him loose on NPR’s YouTube-podcast page.

Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang Send in the Clowns