Recently, Los Angeles-based comedian Todd Glass decided to appear on the podcast hosted by fellow comic Marc Maron—and hilarity did not ensue.
When Mr. Glass first appeared on Mr. Maron’s show, WTF, in 2009, the program, in which Mr. Maron, the alt-comedy fixture and former Air America host known for his sometimes lacerating, self-exposing rants, was in its early days, and Mr. Glass did a little riff on “technophobia”—a fairly typical, if amusingly delivered, comedic bit.
By January 2012, however, Mr. Glass had a weightier issue to get off his chest—and the podcast was ready to accommodate him. Slowly, over the course of the episode, he came out of the closet. As fans heard the interview on iTunes or apps like Stitcher Smart Radio, the episode caught fire within the comedy community, not least because it came in the form of an extensive Socratic dialogue as opposed to a press release to Out or a quick-hit on late-night talk.
Longtime listeners of WTF are accustomed to hearing revealing conversations with figures they recognize from TV or local comedy clubs (or not at all), but for the uninitiated, Mr. Glass’s description of his vacillation over whether to reveal his sexuality, his anger at antigay rhetoric and the fear and anxiety he experienced throughout his life was exhilarating. “I didn’t get one piece of negative feedback—not even a Bible verse,” said Mr. Glass of the torrent of warm vibes listeners sent his way. For both its intimacy and its inside-baseball focus, his coming-out was a conversation that could have happened only on a podcast.
Asked why he’d chosen the forum for his big reveal, Mr. Glass noted that a bigger venue—David Letterman’s show, for instance—wouldn’t have had the kind of time to really explore the issue, whereas on WTF, “I knew we’d have an hour and a half. And I wanted it to be this person who could lead me down the path comfortably.” Mr. Glass and Mr. Maron had been casual friends for decades. “Some people have jokingly or seriously said he’s our version of Oprah today,” Mr. Glass noted. “You get into the atmosphere there and you’re comfortable.”
Mr. Glass isn’t joking. Anyone who believes a comedian as successful as, say, Louis C.K. is imperviously sardonic hasn’t heard him crying over his daughter’s birth on WTF. Mr. Maron, through his twice-weekly interview series, may have drawn more tears than any interviewer since Barbara Walters. “It’s like going on Dick Cavett,” said the comedian and podcast host John Hodgman. “It’s a sign of being taken seriously.”
The show is also, at least in part, responsible for kicking off a movement. Akin to the comedy-club boom of the 1980s, in which every city got its Chuckle Hut, comedy has suddenly become vastly more accessible—or at least, comedians have. Podcasts have given standups a powerful new platform that few seem able to resist. Even Mr. Glass recently started his own show.
Unlike Mr. Maron’s show, Mr. Glass’s is oriented toward humorous chat—basically. “Onstage, you have to be funnier than you are preachy,” he said. “That’s the overall rule in standup. People take a journey with you when you podcast.” (It’s not a short journey, either—Mr. Glass’s weekly show can run to two and a half hours.)
“I can be silly, we can go off on a tangent and be quite serious,” he explained. “The format for podcasts is: do whatever you fucking want.”
Mr. Maron felt little of the joy of experimentation when he first began podcasting. “I sort of came to it through desperation,” he said. “I was in a difficult place, career-wise and financially. I was running out of ideas and options. Jimmy Pardo was doing one and Kevin Smith was doing one. But I didn’t really know much about the medium.”
Episode one of WTF aired in September 2009. After Air America Radio shut down a few months later (“They’d run out of money for the fourth or fifth time, or whatever”), Mr. Maron kept his office security card and snuck into the studio to tape his own show. “We were taking guests up the freight elevator,” he said. These days, having long since ponied up for broadcast mics and an analog mixer, he records using the program GarageBand—in his garage.
“It’s the Wild West, it’s a tabula rasa,” Mr. Maron said.
“Marc only makes legendary episodes,” said Mr. Hodgman. “Marc is an exemplar of the form in the sense that this low-barrier-to-entry broadcast format gives voice not just to a lot of people in the comedy field but to the different kinds of voices and skills comedians can use.”
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.”