Read of the Day: “How Podcasts Conquered Comedy”
5:30 pm, August 28th | by Colette McIntyre
Today’s Read of the Day is The New Yorker‘s in-depth look at how the relatively new medium of podcasts has transformed the culture and economics of comedy and launched the careers of comedians like Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer.
For much of the short history of modern comedy, there have been few viable paths for comedians to parlay their acts into broader success. A killer appearance on “The Tonight Show” that left Johnny Carson heaving with laughter could launch a career, as it did for Steve Martin in the mid-nineteen-seventies. And for decades, successful stints on “Saturday Night Live” have meant the difference between obscurity and stardom for a number of improvisers, sketch writers, and standups. But a bad showcase in front of industry executives could set back years of diligent striving—a young Jim Carrey was once axed from appearing on “The Tonight Show” after such a performance—and a single mediocre audition for “S.N.L.” could freeze a career on the verge of stardom.
Podcasting, like other means of digital distribution, has flattened the old order, circumventing the traditional gatekeepers of the entertainment industry. Comics are no longer quite as vulnerable to the whims of fickle bookers, the politics of clubs and theatres, or the snap judgments of Lorne Michaels and his army of scouts. From the comfort of their own homes, hosts can hone their comedic voices, cultivate far-flung and devoted audiences, and carve out, for future employers, a proven track record of competency and popularity as performers.
When Nikki Glaser and Sara Schaefer began their podcast “You Had To Be There” in early 2011, recording in Schaefer’s Brooklyn living room with little more than a laptop, audio mixers, and some microphones, the two women had been working comics for close to a decade. At the time, Schaefer was experiencing some misgivings about her attempts to manipulate her act into something more palatable for television. Although she had been a fixture in the New York comedy scene for several years—notably, as the head blogger at “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon”—she found herself unable to land a breakthrough spot on TV or at festivals. She recalled, “I was struggling with that process—turning my longer bits into shorter, punchier ones for that elusive TV set.”
The weekly rhythm of “You Had To Be There” provided Schaefer with a regular platform to refine her skills. “Our podcast allowed us time to tell all of our stories without the pressure of ‘Is this a structured joke?’ ” she said. Most episodes of “You Had To Be There” center around a spontaneous and unfiltered conversation between the co-hosts and a guest comedian on anything from their personal lives to the latest pop-culture phenomenon. “We learned how to interview as a duo,” added Schaefer, “how to listen and let someone else shine and be funny, and how to take our natural chemistry and translate that into something for TV.” In the summer of 2012, the pair were offered a gig hosting a late-night MTV talk show, “Nikki & Sara Live,” where the two comedians now deftly handle the pressure of performing every week in front of a live studio audience, and skillfully exchange off-the-cuff quips with Hollywood celebrities and pop-music icons.
To read the piece in full, click here.