March 6, 2013

It's Okay To Give a Sh*t About Your Podcast/Web Series

Donny Rodriguez
You can't swing a schtick in this town without hitting someone who has a podcast or web series.  With so much digital content from Chicago's brightest and imaginative comic brains, why are most podcasts/web series clunky, boring if you aren't familiar with the talent, and not very original?  This piece isn't a direct attack on anyones online companion pieces, but rather, this is an assault on creative and production apathy that seems to infect most pitch-perfect comedy practitioners who treat the CPU medium as a secondary art form.  It's okay to give a sh*t about your podcast and web series.

The road most traveled in podcasting formats is of the “comic/improviser/funny-person who's comedic voice is still green interviewing another jester, without rhyme or reason in an hour of loud riffing, with twitter-grade observations and pop culture lamenting” variety.  Commonplace for personality driven talk shows/news web series is the “Tim & Eric”, awkward 80's homage which boasts low-quality, low-set design on purpose.  Zach Galifinakis can do “between two ferns” better than any of us, so why even attempt a similar show?  No jokesmith in the business of telling or perform jokes would ever be ok with doing the same type of japes as the masses, so why are most ok with doing it on computer screens and in headphones?  It's because most don't fully respect the craft, and I too was guilty of this a year and a half ago.

You may be asking a question that I ask myself daily, “who the sh*t does this unknown hack think he is?” I, along with my three-man sketch comedy/filmmaking group Wood Sugars, wrote, produced, edited and released over 100 videos from 2011-2012.   

Wood Sugars
Within those 100 pieces, most of them featured Chicago stand-up comedians and frequent collaborates with Wood Sugars such as Ever Mainard and Martin Marrow, and dozens of talented sketch/improv performers from well-respected corporate-structured laugh institution's like I.O., and The Second City.  

In September 2007 Wood Sugars came to be after my brother, Eliaz Rodriguez and I (then musicians) helped founding Sugars' member Jon McCarthy with his Columbia College TV music video class project.  We made a now-unwatchable music video, and were hooked into comedy crafting.  We decided to take our talents, or lack there of, to the podcast earphone waves, which at the time was whatever the Wild Wild West was before people started calling it the Wild Wild West.  My brother, was a big fan of Kevin Smith's filmmaking fan-boy centric podcast “Smodcast”, where the famed director and his long-time producing partner Scott Moser ostensibly banter, re-live, and retrieve professional and life experiences in a entertaining way.   At the time, it didn't occur to any Wood Sugars that “nobody f*cking knows us or gives a shit about what we have to say”, but that didn't inhibit our desire to create and make each other giggle.  We drunkenly told stories of getting cheated on, I played my guitar while we improvised songs, and obnoxiously laughed instead of entertaining.  

It wasn't until two years later when ditched our “let's muse about non-sense until the marco-brews run out podcast hour” type show, and launched our Inside The Barrel sketch-comedy variety show podcast.  Joining Wood Sugars was Actor/author Jeff Phillips, and our audio engineer/producer John Piotrowski who is employed by a radio station in this city.  The format we chose was one where we could mix episodic theater-of-the-mind series, fake commercials, one-off sketches parodies of TV shows and radio segments, all anchored by short interviews of local comedy personalities with songs from respected bands in Chicago.  

From recording the segments to uploading the finished product, each episode took 29 hours total time, not including writing and planning of the episodes that took an additional 3 hours depending on how excuse-filled I was that week.  The ITB podcast, was released weekly at first, then monthly and didn't garner much of the following that we excepted for all the work we put in.  We were dejected, even though Time Out Magazine named ITB and another podcast we created with Ever Mainard, Dates With Ever as two of the top five Chicago based podcasts to check out in April 2011.  

Perpetual ADD moved us on from podcasting, to a web series based off of our podcast Dates With EverDates With Ever TV, was an interview style talk show about comedy and dating where we asked creative Chicagoans the easy questions and/or we had comedians doing characters.  

After we popped our web series cherry, we kept pumping out gobs of wise-crack goo.  Some of the highlights in our binge series creating was: Friends OR Benefits a speed dating scene where we had improvisers and stand ups play off-beat characters featuring Lisa Laureta and CLLAW Down which featured the Chicago League of Lady Arm Wrestlers and myself as a spanish wrestling announcer; Diary Entries  with Mike Lebovitz and Tiffany Puterbaugh; And finally Bullshittin, a weekly satirical Chicago Bulls show co-produced with word-playa Jeremy Solomon 

Initially not only were our views and some downloads low, but so was our morale.  We went on digital content hiatus, started focusing on our own careers as self-published authors, freelance writers, motion graphics artist, and videographers.  At the time we made nothing off while spending thousands our empire of web pieces, but all that work we put in has literally paid off in steady work from MSN Postbox, HAHAJK!, and various corporate video production gigs.  We did this all by being self-taught and so can you.

So if I haven't dissuaded you from the painstaking and hard work battle it is to create high quality podcast or web series, here are steps that will help you produce your own online content.  

Respect the craft.
In Junior Stopka's aggressively funny and articulate ode to Open Mics forgotten soldiers What Ever Happened to that dude? Stopka mentions how sketch comedy hot shots or improvisers who've done well in the more giving environments that is iO and Second City, will do Open Mics in character and after 30 seconds of contrived jokes, they would bomb and retreat with horror in their shellshocked faces.  Why did these cocky performers not do well in an arena that is in comedy but a completely different medium? Because they didn't respect the craft, and that's what's going on in podcasting and web series creating now.  Just because one can dominate any type of comedy room doesn't mean it translates to the intimate setting that is podcasts or the brief work escape that web series provides.  Everyone who creates their own  podcast/web series is funny, you may not like their brand of chuckles but I assure you, someone thinks they're funny.  So if you have 802,984 podcasts/WS how does one stick out? By giving their show an identity that is to be enhanced by the brain of the principal host/creator but not solely dependent on.  

Develop your idea as much as you can and be prepared to change directions instantly.
Alright, you're going to throw your hat into the p'cast/WS download-stream octagon, time to get into fighting shape.  The way to build a show that's going to build over time, is to front load your time and effort, set the foundation of your product, that way, you can adapt the show to unforeseen circumstances easier than if you never really knew what your show is going to be in the first place.  The approach of “I'll figure out the show as I go along” is no approach.  That's why you have to ask yourself hard questions of “does my show convey who I am as a performer?”, “does this format/show angle already exist, if so, can mine actually stand out?”.    Record a couple of episodes, save them on your laptop, and do this with intent of never releasing them.  Listen and then take notes to improve upon. Would you want your first improv set recorded and promoted online?  How about the first couple of times you open mic'd?  Does that need to have a facebook page dedicated to it like all p'cast/websites do?  Just get a couple under your belt where you can mess up and no one's the wiser.  First impressions is what can give life to or kill a p'cast/WS, don't treat it trivially.  Continually brainstorm and take your time in finding the right format for you.

Not only are podcasts and web series free to enjoy, they're free to make*.
That cheap desktop microphone you used to record an acoustic version of a Puddle of Mudd song to give to your ex-girlfriend in college who was cheating on you, can be the same mic you record your show with.  Your few generations behind iPhone can be your recording studio or hi-def camera.  Microphones, and a laptop, that's it. But here's the catch, your show will have to overcome poor audio and video, and that was easier back when you sang “She Hates Me” on to a CD for that harlot.  Everyone's eyes and ears have been fed higher-quality audio and visual material year after year for the last 10 years, so it's become easier for even the technical neophyte to decipher between dissonant tracks and smooth sounding sounds.  If you can't afford to cut any funds from your well-whiskey budget to buy pro tools, then start networking.  Ask your social media cohorts if they know anyone who'll let them borrow recording devices. Be friends with comedy-nerds who are taking TV or radio classes at Columbia College, DePaul or Northwestern and see if they can rent out the schools equipment for a project with both of you involved.  It's what my group did for a while.  If those rich kids think your legitimately funny, they'll want to be a part of the next-big-YouTube-show.  

Living a life where the deadlines never die.
Be prepared and give your show a weeks worth of attention.  If you have a co-host, or co-segment writer, remind them of deadlines, this will keep you and them in check.  You can't be “whatever, that's fine” about your show or else you'll only get whatever results.  You cannot miss your scheduled post date.  This kills a podcast.  If someone starts looking forward to hearing your voice weekly and you miss a date, you've let them down, and they may download something that will take your place.  This creation of self imposed deadlines tricks yourself into developing a more professional attitude which is what, people who pay money to performers, appreciate.

Promoting someone else's work is the best self-promotion you can do.  
Go on others podcast and they'll promote your show for a week.  Have others on your show where you promote the hell out of them on your creative and unique show, they'll promote you and anytime podcasts or your name comes up.  Besides the typical guest, you can get others involved into your machine.  Have a hungry graphic designer do your album cover art.  Ask local musicians do your transitional and intro music.  Know someone with a cool voice?  Have them record a two-sentence intro at the top of your show, including this weeks guest name and website.  Can't write press releases? Post an ad on Craigslist, offer $10 and bam, someone will always be broke enough to help out.  Get as many bodies involved in your exploits and you'll have that man more spreading your good word.

Call yourself a Podcaster or Web Series Creator.... in public.
If someone asks you who you are or what you do, the first thing you should say is you are an improviser, sketch player, or comic, whatever the case may be, and everything else after that should be talking about your podcast or series.  Legitimize your hard work yourself, don't wait for facebook to.

Finally, Don't forget to never quit.
How do you get to the digital content equivalent of Carnegie Hall? Patience, Patience, Patience.
Podcasting and Web Series are a labor of love that is unfruitful for almost everyone.  You don't get drink tickets for performing, there's no featuring at Zanies with a live podcast and getting $75, and you are never going to hook up audience member right after you had a great gig.  There is not many fringe benefits to internet comedy, other than commentors destroying your work.  Just because you have to create and maintain an “online presence” doesn't necessarily mean it's a underproduced podcast/WS.  You must love it and ignore all assholes like me.  Don't pull the plug on a show of yours unless it makes you miserable, and if that's the case, don't quit, being miserable means your so close to achieving your goals.

Examples of who in the Chicago comedy scene that are all-in on treating “secondary projects” as their primary concern.  These are just a few examples of people killing it, if you know other podcasts/WS doing innovative and undeniably funny work, list them in the comments section.

Peaches and Hotsauce - Chicago digital network entrepreneur Pat O'Rourke got into the Chicago comedy scene, first as an improviser, but wanted something more creatively other than suggestions from the audience.  I met Pat when I was a guest on his Somebody & Me podcast.  We talked shop for an hour after rolling, and felt the same way about what it takes to have a successful podcast.  The man, out of pocket has funded an entire network that features various web series and podcasts weekly.  Peaches & Hot sauce is a network you should know.

Naked Sports Live - stand up professionals Joe Kilgallon and Megan Gailey bring a topic and segment rich sports podcast/web streaming show live every Monday and Wednesday.  Here's a great example of infotainment where the wit and stream of consciousness from the host ensure a funny show.  However this show has structure which is why it flows and keeps the audiences interest.  

Anything Marty DeRosa does - DeRosa by being honest about himself and true to his passions created the podcast Wrestling With Depression and the web series Creative Has Nothing For You.  Being an astute and funny mother-f*cker helps him kill on stage but it's not all DeRosa relies on in his podcasting and web series endeavors.  His shows have themes, direction, and purpose which is imperative in captivating an audience who's inundated with disheveled quips.

Cinema Jaw - A Chicago movie podcast hosted by Matt Kubinski and Ryan Jagiello.  The two funny hosts who are non-comedy performers bring in filmmaking guest weekly.  The show is chock full of piquant reviews, previews, trivia, and interviews.  Journalism integrity alert, in full disclosure my brother recently was hired by this show to be it's audio engineer and producer.

In closing, like when you became a stand-up, improviser, of sketch comedy writer/performer, you realized you have to be fully dedicated to the craft.   Do the same in the podcast/WS medium.  I download new podcasts and watch new web series weekly but only subscribe to the one's who have subscribed to their product and said it was ok to give a sh*t about their work.

Contributing Writer
Donny Rodriguez
https://twitter.com/DonnyRad