It’s 11pm on a Friday, and there’s a palpable buzz in the air in the sold-out Bell House, a performance space in Brooklyn. Three middle-aged dudes take the stage to thunderous applause, chanting, and a standing ovation. “Holy shit, there’s a lot of people here,” says Bryan Johnson, one third of Tell 'Em Steve-Dave!, when he walks out.
No, it’s not the reunion show for a beloved rock group—this is a live taping of the weekly podcast featuring Johnson, Walt Flanagan, and Brian Quinn (also of the Impractical Jokers TV show) as part of the annual NYC PodFest. And, as it turns out, this is the group’s first live show in five years.
The show has a simple premise: three longtime friends tell some stories, make some shameless jabs at each other, and just simply shoot the shit. But that familiarity, combined with some wit and pop culture wisdom, is what has brought them thousands of listeners (and live events like this one) that make Johnson, Flanagan, Quinn, and their guests feel like superstars.
"Their friendship seems so genuine. It reminds me of my friendships," says showgoer Nick Crist, clad in Tell ‘Em Steve-Dave! apparel, on why he’s a regular listener. "It reminds me of the bullshit that we talk about at home. I miss those friendships, because I don’t have those friendships as easily accessible as I used to just because you get older, you have work, and all of that kind of stuff. It’s refreshing to listen to people that are longtime friends."
A festival based on love of stories and culture
Jeremy Wein founded NYC PodFest as an extension of his love of podcasts in 2013. This year’s 21 selections depict the diverse assortment of popular shows: from a podcast dissecting why a critically disliked film is actually so bad (The Flop House) and one featuring a famous standup comedian interviewing old Hollywood talent (Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast) to sex, feminist, and Broadway-themed shows.
"What’s really cool about podcasting is that, except for a few handful of things, almost anyone can start one and do one. It can be about literally anything. Any niche topic," said Wein. "It’s almost like new-school guerrilla radio in a sense. There’s not really gatekeepers. It’s way easier to start a podcast as opposed to, like, 'I’m going to go create a TV series on Fox.'"
A legendary standup comedian turned podcaster
Gottfried probably isn’t someone you’d expect to have a podcast. "It just seemed like one of those things," he said. "I started doing it, and, to my shock, it became successful and I got a lot of listeners."
Called Gilbert Gottfried’s Amazing Colossal Podcast, the show features interviews with older Hollywood talent like Artie Lange and Roger Corman. "There’s a lot of people over the years that I’ve wanted to talk to, but I wouldn’t just call them," said Gottfried. "I wouldn’t find out their number and call them. That would just be kind of weird and creepy. But now I have a podcast, I can actually sit and have a discussion with them."
While Gottfried’s been working as an entertainer for decades, he noted that being an interviewer is a different sort of beast. "I like the idea of being able to just be the guest and say, 'Gee, this interviewer’s an idiot,'" he said. "Now I realize that I’m the idiot on the other side of the mic."
Nostalgia reigns supreme
With storytelling often comes an air of nostalgia. On Friday night, Kevin Allison’s Risk! podcast hosted a show featuring stories from The State, a ’90s comedy troupe which developed an MTV sketch comedy show—some of those cast members were cast in Wet Hot American Summer (including Janeane Garofalo, who spoke, and Michael Showalter).
At a sold-out show on Sunday evening, Gottfried reminisced with guest Dick Cavett about the talk show host’s early days working on The Tonight Show, his time on the short-lived Jerry Lewis Show (a "catastrophe," he said), and working with legends like Groucho Marx.
Mouth Time with Reductress showed that nostalgia can also have its quirky side. On the satirical show, two young magazine editors, Quenn and Div, looked back on their past: Segments of the show included "Things that give us literal chills" and the ’90s (including a bit about how Anne Geddes only photographs babies while they’re laying on fruits and vegetables).
One particularly poignant show was the live debut of Think Again—A Big Think Podcast, which featured a one-woman show from Tony-winning playwright Sarah Jones. In response to questions about economics and globalization, the actress gave spot on responses from the point-of-view (and voice) of a grandmother figure, a rapper, an over-the-top feminist, and a Native American. Notably, the podcast typically doesn’t have such a theatrical slant to it.
A do-it-yourself ethos
PodFest, which drew nearly 1,600 attendees this year, hosted the bulk of its programming at Cake Shop, a grungy basement rock club located in New York City’s Lower East Side.
"I like the idea of that CBGB punk feel—to come to Cake Shop and go into the basement and see Gilbert Gottfried and Dick Cavett," said Wein. "There’s graffiti on the walls and band stickers and stuff. You’re seeing these conversations where you really wouldn’t expect to see them. I really like that we kind of have that DIY indie punk aesthetic to our festival."
In that spirit, PodFest NYC hosts big names and lesser-known talent through an open-submission process. And even the more niche podcasts foster dedicated listeners.
"It’s just that quality of being a part of their lives," said Stephanie Ellis, a mother of two from near New Paltz, New York on why she listens to comedy talk show Keith and the Girl every day."“I just appreciate their perspective on things—sometimes, I’ll agree with Chemda, sometimes I’ll agree with Keith. You feel like you know them."