A Serious Thing Happened On the Way to the Podcast

Marc Maron, Comedy's Oprah, and Others Play It Straight

Mr. Hodgman, for his part, has been hosting the podcast Judge John Hodgman since 2010, a version of which has since begun running, in miniature, in The New York Times Magazine. “I have a natural affinity for telling people why they are wrong,” he said.

The boom in available comedy material online—so many niches available for fans of judgmental comics and sketch comics and former stars of The Man Show!—and the conversion of so many “comedy fans” into “comedy geeks” has built an audience for what might be called meta-comedy. Mr. Maron’s show, for instance, is about funny people—and their desperate attempts to meet their recommended daily allowances of attention and validation—but is rarely funny itself. Indeed, the host’s ongoing battle with addiction is one of the show’s leitmotifs. “I’m not sure you could call it a comedy podcast,” said Mr. Hodgman. “It’s not hilarious when you’re weeping.”

While Mr. Maron produces WTF independently, not everyone is lucky enough to have the sponsorship of Adamandeve.com and Stamps.com. One alternative is the Earwolf podcast network. Founded by Scott Aukerman, whose own show is the sketch-comedy oriented Comedy Bang Bang, it currently is home to shows as diverse as Ronna and Beverly, featuring two fictional Jewish relationship experts; the comic “noir serial” Mike Detective; and the comedy-and-sports-oriented Sklarbro Country.

“There’s a trick with two different kind of shows,” Mr. Aukerman said, “some where you’re giving people what you know they want and some where you’re giving people what you think they should want.” The ads sold on the most popular shows (as well as a recent partnership with the moneyed website Funny or Die) help buoy the more experimental programming, from “superlong shows, two hours, to two-minute daily shows” to something truly off-beat: shows hosted by non-white-males, still a rarity and something Mr. Aukerman is eager to encourage. (Mr. Maron’s WTF features ads, and paid users get full access to the archives; Jimmy Pardo’s Never Not Funny is for paying subscribers only.)

Interestingly, Mr. Aukerman’s improv-based show faces resistance from listeners who have come to prefer their comedy podcasts to take a more serious approach. “I get a lot of random criticism from wonderful people on the Internet,” he admitted. “They say stuff like, Why would you have Patton Oswalt on your show and not interview him? Because Patton Oswalt is not interested in that! He loves coming on my show and doing comedy.

“I have to overcome that with new listeners. They’re unaccustomed to hearing something other than a comedian baring his soul.”

That said, with endless “airtime,” there’s room for everyone. “It seems like there’s too much content,” admitted Pete Holmes, the host of You Made It Weird, “but you can put out such a specific product that the podcast web can meet a listener’s needs more specifically than a TV network ever could.” (Despite this, Mr. Holmes calls his show “a really big ripoff of Marc Maron’s show.”)

“It’s like any relationship—like a friendship or a romantic relationship,” said Mr. Holmes. “You can become somebody that shows up in their lives every week. That fosters a kind of intimacy with your fans.”

Whatever happened to “killing”?

Perhaps it’s a two-way street—comedians want to address their fans, and fans are willing to listen to favorite comics experiment with the form. “If a show didn’t go as good as I thought it did, I’m happy—that’s the learning process,” said Mr. Glass. “And the people who listen, they’re O.K. to take the journey. They say, ‘We love him, we’ll stay together.’” Subscribers are different from ticket-buyers at a random tour stop—to maintain loyalty, comedians are practically friending their fans.

Recently, the podcast host Julie Klausner, of How Was Your Week, held a live taping of her show in Gowanus, Brooklyn. The room was at capacity; the NPR host Ira Glass and the comedian Sandra Bernhard appeared as guests. The audience was intimately familiar with Ms. Klausner’s material—one woman had submitted a slam-poetry piece based on the show to win a free ticket. Her bonus prize was sitting next to Ira Glass. After the NPR host talked about his favorite snacks, the musician Ted Leo duetted with Ms. Klausner on Avril Lavigne’s “Complicated.” Representatives from the two snack brands sponsoring the evening faced off over whether Pretzel Crisps or Peanut Chews were better.

“I’m always flattered when people listen to my show and I never assume that they do,” Ms. Klausner said later. “There’s people who know me from Twitter, or who know my other work, but when they listen to the podcast, I’m like, oh. You know me.”

A Serious Thing Happened On the Way to the Podcast