The week of September 13, 2015

How the growing Austin comedy scene is turning to podcasts

By Audra Schroeder

“So they’re romance novels but they’re not erotica by any means?”

“Yeah, they’re chaste Christian romance.”

“They’re like what your sex fantasies are when you’re 8 years old.”

“If you’re a boring 8-year-old.”

On a Sunday afternoon in Austin, Texas, Katie Stone and Ella Gale are talking about Amish erotica for the Naughty Bitcast podcast, a weekly “riffing session” between the two comedians about love, relationships, and sex. The conversation about the surprising abundance of Amish “‘romance” novels somehow leads to Stone Googling “rigor mortis Jesus porn.” She immediately regrets the decision.

If you’re a standup comic feeling particularly masochistic, you could do open mic nights seven nights a week in Austin. As the city has become a destination for performers, including comedians, the scene here has grown. “I have a strong, somewhat unfounded opinion that Austin is the best place in the world to do standup,” Gale says. “I think probably places like Denver or Portland could compete, but in terms of access to stage time, it’s pretty abundant in Austin.”

And with a growing comedy scene has come a growth in podcasts, which offer another, different stage for comics to hone their craft. Naughty Bits, for example, began as a live show last year, and, Gale says, partly in response to what she and Stone were hearing at open mics, like casual jokes about rape and drugging women. “I think I came up with the idea because I heard so much terrible comedy,” she says. “It was like really sex-negative, and I thought, ‘Ugh, I want to give these people advice.’ So we started the show based on that concept.”

Dustin Svehlak owns an Austin production company specializing in standup comedy recording. He says the growing number of podcasts are a boon to performers, helping them inexpensively promote their live shows, build an audience, and stay fresh in listeners’ minds. “Having so many podcasts here in Austin benefits the scene because they act as supplemental material for virtually every comic in town,” he says. And podcasts can cross-promote, like when the Svehlak-produced Almost Related featured Austin comics Mac Blake and Bryan Gutmann. ”We capture these slice-of-life moments from comics debuting recorded material for the first time and play a track from the record,” Svehlak says.

Blake also co-hosted a radio program turned podcast called The Mascot Wedding Show, which recently finished an eight-year run. He and co-host David Jara had crafted something of a template for other comics to follow, interspersing easy conversations with recurring characters and produced call-in sketches. (They adapted the model from a show they revere, Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s The Best Show.)

“I have a strong, somewhat unfounded opinion that Austin is the best place in the world to do standup.”

“I think the reason the podcasts are thriving is because they seem to have moved beyond that first-level doomed thinking of ‘let’s just record a conversation,’” Blake says. “As someone who did one of those, it’s hard to bring in new listeners unless you have celebrity draws. A lot of the newer crop of podcasts in Austin are focused on a certain subject, or are premise-based, which is helpful in standing out in such a vast sea of choices.”

For Blake, moving from radio to a podcast had several benefits, including being able to better craft the show the way he wanted. “Also, cussin’ like there’s no tomorrow,” he says. But he does worry that his work’s now harder to find. “No one clicks on a random podcast,” he says, “whereas we’d get people surfing that radio dial, who might stumble upon us talking about Dolph Lundgren for 30 minutes and become our new best friends.”

Making new friends—that sense of intimacy is common to both standup comedy and podcasts. Listeners want to get to know their hosts. StoryFellers, a podcast started in 2013 by Pat Dean and Lane Krarup, is a good example of that. Every week, they interview a comedian who tells a story. Some are funny or embarrassing; others go a little deeper.  

“The best stories to me are the ones where there is a little danger involved,” Krarup says. “You’re listening to the story and even though you know better, you’re really not sure how it’s going to turn out. Those kinds of stories are like the prequel movies of storytelling. You know they’re gonna make it out alive, but you’re still so wrapped up in the story you can’t be so sure.”

One of StoryFellersrecent episodes featured an interview with beloved Austin comedian Montgomery Wayne Seitz just before his passing in late August. He spoke about the 2008 car accident that left his wife “minimally conscious,” the struggle to help her get rehabilitated while raising a family, and the guilt surrounding his feelings about their marriage. It’s one of those moments that slaps you awake.

There’s as yet no single, centralized source—another way for a creative community to build camaraderie.

Dean explains they posted that episode online seven hours before Seitz was found dead.

“I wasn’t sure if we should keep it up, to be honest,” he says. “I quoted something he said on that episode at his memorial at [Cap City Comedy Club]. He said his goal wasn’t to make a living doing comedy, it was just to perform a lot. He did comedy every night of the week, so I told him in a sense, he was living his dream. His reply was, ‘I’m awake.’  

“I laughed, because in typical Monty fashion, I didn’t understand what he was talking about, but I felt like I should. After he died, it took on a new meaning. Every time I do a gig now that I think is lame, or if a show doesn’t go well, I’m going to remember that I’m awake.”

Several comedians see an opportunity for an official network of Austin comedy podcasts, modeled after the Nerdist or Earwolf networks. Right now, Last Gas Comedy, Austin Improv, and Tasty Podcasts all house comedy podcasts, but there’s as yet no single, centralized source. It’d be another way for a creative community to build camaraderie. That the scene is already close-knit helps. “Once you’ve been doing standup in Austin for a few months, you pretty much have met all the other comics in town,” Dean says, “so it’s easy to get good guests.”

For most comedians, there’s not much money or fame in podcasting. But it can help them develop a following, and it’s currency for bookers or promoters. Cheap to produce, they can also give performers a valuable space to practice and experiment. “I feel like at this point I still regard it as training,” Gale says. “Like running laps.” Says Stone: “As a comedian you learn that being an amateur is extremely important. You kind of get over being embarrassed by anything crappy you create.”

Ultimately, the growth in Austin comedy podcasts is a predictable part of Austin’s developing comedy scene, more generally. And while there’s camaraderie—everyone knows everyone—there’s also inherent competition that pushes performers to be their best. “Austin comedy is thriving because when you’re surrounded by comics who are constantly working on being funny, you have to step your game up to be noticed,” Dean says. “You’re constantly in competition with people who are really putting the work in. It’s almost like being backed into a corner. If you don’t try your best, no one is going to care.”

Illustration by Max Fleishman