Easy on the Ears
BY OPHIRA EISENBERG | Ten years ago when my friend told me that I should listen to his podcast, I have to admit I was pretty skeptical about the entire medium. I remember saying, “So let me get this straight — you plugged a microphone into your computer and talked about what was on your mind for an hour? And you’ve put that out in the world for people to download and enjoy?”
I just couldn’t wrap my head around why anyone would be interested in listening to an uncurated, self-produced, un-regulated, zero-budget Internet “radio show.” Was podcasting the new blogging for people too lazy to write? Would it become the most narcissistic Internet endeavor yet? And, yes, this is coming from me — someone who has written a memoir.
Thankfully, I was wrong on many counts. Sure, there are plenty of podcasts out there that are exactly as I described. But what I didn’t understand then (and I am incredibly grateful for now), is that the advent of podcasts basically revitalized audio entertainment on every level. It helped stand-up comedy tremendously, even made people’s careers. It brought back the longform interview format, made room for the buddy banter show and definitely popularized storytelling.
Storytelling is a perfect marriage to the podcast world
As a genre, storytelling is a perfect marriage to the podcast world. At its core, it’s a one-to-one relationship. Many people are already subscribers to the popular Moth podcast — and if you want to feel good about humanity, go to iTunes and read the reviews. It’s hosted by the dry and very funny Dan Kennedy — and if you haven’t read his latest novel, “American Spirit,” now you know what to do over the holidays. The Moth stories are culled from live Slams and Mainstages across the country and the world (look for the Melbourne Writer’s Festival show), all of which are recorded beautifully and make you feel like you are right in that room.
Known for stories that will break your heart and make you laugh out loud, I listen to this podcast occasionally while going through my day. But it’s so affecting, I’ll find myself paralyzed in the middle of a CVS, completely entranced in someone’s tale, unable to make it to the cashier until it’s over.
Kevin Allison’s “RISK” is another storytelling podcast that has millions of listeners throughout the country (I know firsthand, from meeting some of them after a show in Portland). Kevin’s been in the comedy and podcast world for many years and draws from a great pool of talent, so you’ll hear stories from a lot of well-known comedians. Many of the stories are recorded live at his monthly shows, but he also produces some in the studio. The over-arching theme, as the title indicates, is that these stories are almost too risky to tell — a theme that Kevin lives up to with his own material, setting the bar pretty high for the others.
I mentioned Ben Lillie’s “Story Collider” show in my last column, and I should point out here that his podcast is gaining prominence (recently hitting a million downloads). “Story Collider” features stories about the science of our lives — and if you haven’t added it to your listening schedule, do it now.
Many other storytelling events in the city offer podcast versions of their live show, allowing you to follow the show when you can’t be there in person, take them with you on vacation and, of course, allow those not fortunate enough to live here a taste of what we can go out and witness in person almost any day of the week. Some of the shows are given the classic podcast treatment with intros, extras and behind the scenes commentary, while others simply rebroadcast the live event.
I’ll never forget slow dancing with Brad Moore to “Stairway to Heaven” at our seventh grade school dance — and Dana Rossi, host of “Soundtrack Series,” has built a show around such musical memories. Dana herself connects much of her life to different songs, and the “Soundtrack Series” was an experiment to see if others do the same. After a few sold-out shows, it seemed like a crime to NOT podcast people pouring out their hearts about the music that mattered to them so deeply, and nothing sounds more like a perfect audio experience to me than a show that combines music and storytelling. Plus, it draws some amazing influential people, including Ken Caillat — a Grammy-winning producer, who tells the story of making of Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors.”
“Soundtrack Series” shows happen monthly, at The Gallery at Le Poisson Rouge (158 Bleecker Street). The next show, on November 21 at 7pm, is “The Hip Hop Edition” — guest curated and co-hosted by Dan Charnas, author of “The Big Payback: The History of the Business of Hip Hop.” Visit soundtrackseries.com.
“Ask Me Stories” is a comedy storytelling variety series run by two excellent storytellers in their own right — David Crabb and Cammi Climaco. You might recognize David Crabb as frequent Moth Slam host, and Cammi is a gifted visual artist whose work has been featured in galleries throughout the world. Together, they make a somewhat unlikely but very funny duo, who bounce off of each other effortlessly. They created “Ask Me Stories” for all the right reasons — because they just loved storytelling and were excited about the form. The podcast came soon after, once they figured out that David knew how to sound edit and Cammi knew how to code. Beyond booking a solid lineup each show, David and Cammi go out of their way to create a party. Unforgettable moments happen pretty much every show, like at their “Happy Birthday George Michael” show — when, and after a night of stories that all referenced George Michael, everyone in the audience was given a kazoo and they all closed the show by playing “Faith” together. I’m not saying “Faith” was meant for the kazoo, but wouldn’t you have loved to be there? Listen to the podcast and relive that magic (kazoo not included).
“Ask Me Stories” is monthly, at the Axis Theatre (1 Sheridan Square). The next show is December 9 — a holiday-themed show for which they’ll be covering the stage with fake snow. You won’t be able to hear that on the podcast, but I’m sure the holiday cheer will resound.
David Martin is one of the most creative people I have had the joy of performing with. He also hosts the long-running monthly storytelling show at UCB, “Nights of Our Lives.” Seven years ago, the original impetus was to have a place for improvisers at the UCB to try their hands at storytelling, and the show quickly grew to encompass stand-ups, writers and, of course, storytellers.
Each installment of “Nights” revolves around a theme, with four storytellers and David as the host, who presents a monologue up top. An absurd and inspired take on the theme, it’s always completely originally and very funny — the kind of funny that makes you think, “I don’t know how this guy’s brain works, but I love it.” The performers follow, each telling a true story that fits the theme. The “Nights of Our Lives” podcast is hosted on Breakthru Radio (Breakthruradio.com), which re-broadcasts the show in its entirety.
Scanning the “Nights” podcast library, you’ll recognize many names — but be on the lookout for Curtis Gwinn, to hear him close out the show after drinking an entire bottle of red wine, or “Nights” staple Adam Wade, regaling the crowd with his tale of food sickness and crapping between two PATH train cars. Seasoned UCB stars John Flynn and Anthony Atamanuik are regulars on the Los Angeles chapter of the show, but spare yourself the JetBlue fare. They can be enjoyed here in New York between your ears.
The “Nights of Our Lives” live show happens monthly at the UCB Theatre (307 West 26th Street). The November 20 show’s theme is “Failure.” On Dec 18, the theme is TBA (but it will definitely be something high-risk and holiday related).
If you’re wondering if the average storyteller has a face made for podcasting, think again and navigate to “Geeking Out.” It’s not only a comedy storytelling show, but also a web series. The show brings together a collection of writers, comedians, storytellers and actors for a night of shameless nerding out over the bands they love, the celebrities they obsess over and the video games that gave them thumb spasms. Think nostalgia meets storytelling. Most of the stories also involve a visual component, be it a PowerPoint presentation, sketch, or relevant costuming — whatever they need to properly represent their super fandom.
Kerri Doherty started Geeking Out as an outlet for her own obsessions (“The Golden Girls” being one of them), and wanted to create an environment where her fellow comedy/storytelling friends and could get up onstage and talk about their guilty pleasures. Soon after, she created the “Geeking Out” web series, which included the live show, plus awkward celebrity interviews, pop culture news, sketches and vlogs. As you can imagine, a show of this nature is filled with great moments. One of Kerri’s favorite was convincing Matthew Gubler from CBS’s “Criminal Minds” to dance with her Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You” while dressed in prom attire.
“Geeking Out” is monthly, 8:30pm, at Union Hall (702 Union Street, Brooklyn). The next show, on December 3, features Jason Zimbler (actor, “Clarissa Explains it All”), Steve Heisler (writer for The AV Club and Vulture), Mara Herron (comedian, seen on VH1 and Comedy Central), and The Vigilante (an improvised Comedy Band that’s performed at The Brooklyn Comedy Festival).
In 2009, Happy Ending Lounge in the Lower East Side put a call out to find a new monthly show and Sarah Brown, the creator of Cringe, recommended Blaise Allysen Kearsley. At the time, Blaise was working on a personal essay about how she learned about sex — so she pitched “How I Learned” and produced her first show less than three weeks later. On every show, Blaise and the performers muse about How They Learned…something (like to find happiness, lie, cheat, steal or conquer failure). I have been to this show many times, and each time it was a packed, standing room only crowd that would be lit on fire as the show progressed.
There are a couple of important things to note about Blaise’s series. One is that storytellers are permitted to read, if that’s how your material is served best — which means it also draws a lot of brilliant writers. Second, it is currently in search of a new home. Sadly, after producing there for five years, this former Broome Street massage parlor turned lounge, music venue and performance space, closed it’s doors. Let’s hope its next incarnation isn’t a Chase Bank (but I wouldn’t make that bet). However, Blaise’s show will be back. It’s too good to go — and in the meantime, thanks to technology, you can enjoy the podcast. The “How I Learned” series is monthly. Venue TBA.
As I was doing my research and inquiring to a few of my other favorite storytelling shows as to whether they podcast, a couple of the producers replied with a sigh, “No. I never did that. I probably should have. Do you think it’s too late to start?”
Clearly, I know nothing when it comes to digital trends — but I can say with confidence that I’m so glad these people decided to plug a microphone into their laptop and press record.
And yes, I know it doesn’t really work like that.
Ophira Eisenberg is a standup, storyteller and host of NPR and WNYC’s trivia comedy show, “Ask Me Another.” Live tapings take place at The Bell House almost every week (amatickets.org). It is also available as a podcast on iTunes, Stitcher and TUNE-IN. She is the author of “Screw Everyone: Sleeping My Way to Monogamy” (Seal Press).