Faced with straitened budgets and tough new on-air guidelines, British comedians are increasingly turning to DIY podcasts.
A smile costs nothing
"Don't you think we should stop doing these now?" groans a weary Richard Herring, as the clock ticks down on his 91st podcast. "I thought by now we'd have our own radio show. I thought we'd do this for about three months -" The British stand-up and former television regular has been recording a free hour-long show every week for almost two years, alongside the writer, broadcaster and on-air straight-man Andrew Collins. His suggestion may sound perfectly reasonable, then, given that the duo has now done the equivalent of four full days' podcasting together, but don't be fooled: Herring is actually a bit of a revolutionary when it comes to these audio gifts. He recently started an ambitious new one and was forced to pass up proper paid work in the process.
British broadcast comedy is going through something of a crisis at the moment and many of its brightest talents are now basking in the freedom of the DIY internet approach. Herring, for example, booked a theatre in London's Leicester Square for several months, hired two comedy actors as sidekicks, and spent each weekend writing topical material, hoping that enough paying customers would show up to keep it all afloat. The resulting podcast, As It Occurs to Me, follows the template of a typical radio sketch show, but unedited and with added profanity.
"I'd been frustrated by the level of interference and censorship on the radio," explains Herring, who had been eager to do a show based on his daily, diary-style blog. "I think, as things get technically easier to do, that more people will make their own shows rather than go through the hassles of convincing execs to commission them, and [having to endure] producers cutting out the wrong stuff." The lack of editing here is all budget-related, but "accidentally, that might be the genius of it," he suggests. "You get to hear everything, even the things that don't work, which somehow makes it more real and funnier when it is funny."
The project was a relative success, with healthy attendances and the podcast entered the iTunes chart at No2. On the downside, Herring did lose a job on a new TV series due to As It Occurs to Me, albeit one he had taken to help fund the free show. "I have to be careful to get the balance right," he says. "As long as I get some paid work it all works out fine." His show with Collins is more traditional. However, it is proving influential and it continues to evolve. Herring had been a regular guest on Collins' old radio show. When it was axed they began the simplest of podcasts instead: recorded straight on to a laptop, then released over the internet, unedited. To keep things interesting they have now taken it into several novel new areas, including numerous live shows - which bring in some useful cash - one slightly disastrous Twitter-cast, and an episode recorded while driving, with the laptop on Collins' knees. The latter idea has provedmore successful elsewhere.
Robert Llewellyn is blessed with a ready-made worldwide fan base thanks to his role as Kryten, the erudite android in the sci-fi sitcom Red Dwarf. After numerous web-based projects he now presents a video podcast - or "vodcast" - called CarPool, which involves the host interviewing guests while giving them a lift in his camera-laden hybrid. It's a regular chat show, but chauffeur-driven rather than sofa-driven.
"One of the things that appealed to me was the potential international audience -I know people from all over the world watch the show," explains Llewellyn, of his route into vodcasts. "You could never do that with the traditional broadcasting model. The net is such an exciting place to broadcast from - the reaction is so immediate, the contact with the viewers is far more one-to-one and I love that. It's also something that you, quite literally, can do on your own, no meetings, no compromise."
Writer-performers such as Herring and Llewellyn invariably struggle with the machinations of the broadcast-comedy process, but this relationship between artist and medium has taken a sinister twist over the past 12 months. The media furore following an overly lewd radio show by Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross led to Ross leaving the BBC and strict new guidelines being imposed at the broadcasting company, which produces much of the UK's comedy output. "dgy" humour continues to make unwanted headlines. Hence, the fan-focused, less restrictive world of podcasting is attracting a varied array of performers.
The comedy agent Mike Leigh knows more than most about this subject. He recently founded a sports podcast company - Playback Media - and managed to persuade the hugely popular actor-comedian Alan Davies to host one, free of charge. It is all about his beloved Arsenal FC, but Davies' fan base is so large that the show is being downloaded by numerous non-Arsenal fans too. Meanwhile Leigh co-hosts The Spurs Show with the impressionist Phil Cornwell, best known for a cult sitcom called Stella Street, which has a few unlikely fans now.
"You'll have people abroad who've never heard of someone like Phil Cornwell," says Leigh, of the podcast effect. "But we've got young fans saying, 'I finally went on Amazon and bought Stella Street, which you happened to mention once.' It does give certain people a resurgence again." Sponsorship is Leigh's proposed route to profitability, although Playback did once trial a paid-for show which "worked well," he says, "but we felt a bit dirty doing it." When Ricky Gervais launched a paid-for podcast back in the mid-Noughties, he seemed to be opening up a new revenue stream for established comics, but most podcasts remain free, albeit often as promotional tools for more traditional media.
The newspaper-backed podcast The Bugle is an intriguingly transatlantic affair hosted by the London-based political comic Andy Zaltzman and his old stand-up partner John Oliver, who is now the resident Brit at the US TV phenomenon The Daily Show. Reaching 100 weekly episodes is quite a feat for the displaced duo, and a testament to the joys of being left to your own devices. Although being paid also helps.
"It's the thing I've enjoyed most in comedy," announces Zaltzman, who also enjoys regular commissions from the BBC. "Generally in radio you get a finite series and try to make every word count, whereas with this we can just let ideas have a bit of space, that you wouldn't necessarily have in stand-up either." Zaltzman is actually a member of podcasting's first family, "just like the Kennedys", as his sister, Helen, is also a notable exponent. She and her fellow newcomer Olly Mann began a quasi-consumer show called Answer Me This! in 2007, which now receives a million downloads a year, and they have just become the first dedicated podcasters to be given their own radio spin-off, a one-off special on the BBC station 5Live.
The hosts have also started charging for early editions of Answer Me This!, "as a way of making sure we could cover our costs in the future," says Mann. So are they making a decent living from podcasting? "In three years we've each probably made about £300 out of the show," he laughs. "You don't do a podcast for money." Herring would heartily agree, but did also genuinely hope that Collins and he might be offered a regular radio slot. "Maybe," he suggests, "the rudeness puts people off."
Their show certainly isn't for the easily offended, and actually goes by the purposefully misspelled title, Collings and Herrin, in order to distance the off-air duo from their podcast personas. Herring - or Herrin - has been horribly rude about everyone from the Queen to Collins' mum over the years, if usually with tongue firmly in cheek. His colleague is more reserved but does regret one joint attack, which has subsequently become a YouTube favourite. The target was their rival podcaster George Lamb, then a controversial DJ at 6Music, the BBC station that had dispensed with Collins' services. Enjoyably embittered, the duo swearily dismissed Lamb's talents, only for Collins to bump into him shortly afterwards.
"I think it created an atmosphere that was unnecessary," says the contrite broadcaster. "But hey, if you put a podcast out in the public domain, you have to live by what's in it." Oddly enough, Lamb recently left 6Music and was temporarily replaced by, yes, Andrew Collins, who is again getting regular work at the station. He has even presented a couple of shows with Herring, so the rudeness may not be so off-putting after all. "We're professional enough to be able to turn the controversial stuff on and off," concludes Collins.
Let's hope so, or the BBC really will be under fire. You should hear their running gag about the tortoise -