Action Boyz, live for the very first time! Credit: Gabriela Szczepaniec

Sometime next month, Action Boyz podcast subscribers will listen to comedians Jon Gabrus, Ben Rodgers, and Ryan Stanger give a warmly received, nearly three-hour play-by-play breakdown of the 1985 Chuck Norris cop flick Code of Silence to a packed Chicago ballroom. And when they hear those three improvisers and friends perform a tsunami of inspired riffs, impressions, and inside jokes, in all likelihood, those subscribers will be listening alone.

That is, of course, how podcasts normally work. Solitary and social at the same time, they’re a sort of kryptonite to loneliness, a form of entertainment tailor-made for commutes, workouts, errands, zone-out tasks—all of the times when it’s nice to be alone, but not alone alone. To the uninitiated, everything about paying for and even traveling great distances to a live podcast recording might seem counterintuitive. After all, it’s an event where audiences cannot fold laundry or cook dinner or roll joints, an event from which cleanly edited, mostly real-time verbatim audio will be available online for cheap or even for free in just a few days or weeks.

But podcast recordings somehow just work as an art form in a way that is different from the improv, stand-up, and radio shows that precede and inspire them. And there’s a strong case to be made for them being one of the more noteworthy new artistic mediums to crop up in the last generation. If that sounds hyperbolic, consider, for example, Chicago Improv Productions’ annual Chicago Podcast Festival.

On a recent Saturday night at Lakeview’s Chicago Theater Works, a young man in a Japanese Terminator T-shirt walks up and down the aisles handing out green plastic Saint Patrick’s Day hats, a sight-gag reference to a previous Action Boyz episode commenting on The Fugitive. “This was a $90 joke,” he says, holding up the hats he brought with him from Portland to celebrate and take part in the show’s first live episode. He took up listening to the show to fill the extra time on his hands proceeding a breakup earlier in the year—and it’s a recurring theme in shows’ mailbag segments. Podcasts have a strange capacity to make emotional funks and tedium bearable in ways that other audio mediums can’t.

Over at the bar, someone has left out a cardboard box of red buttons with the words “janitor” and “kisses for Stanger” emblazoned on them, nods to recurring jokes about the show’s listenership (“Who is cleaning all the middle schools?!” jokes Gabrus at the top of the show) and fan solidarity with the lovingly razzed cohost.

And in the lobby, where Podcast: The Ride fans are doing a meet and greet, two young women—one in a homemade “Jason for [Disneyland] Mayor” shirt—sell me on the entertainment value of the show’s 19-part miniseries exploring Universal Studios Hollywood’s oft-mocked CityWalk shopping complex. “The CityWalk Saga came out while I was in the middle of a move, driving back from one place to the next, cleaning out everything,” one of the women says. “[It] kept me sane.”

Listeners are, as hosts can attest, extremely committed. Bingeing on television is an indulgence; bingeing on podcasts is the default. “Listeners tend to be pretty savvy,” says Podcast: The Ride cohost Jason Sheridan. “It’s like dominoes. Once you start listening to a couple podcasts, it’s very easy to just start subscribing to a bunch of others.” And data backs that up. In a Westwood One Podcast Network & Audio Insights study released over the summer, “power listeners,” who listen to more than five hours a week, make up the bulk of weekly listeners. And that’s to say nothing of the heaviest consumers, who can casually blow through a full work day plus commutes each way, earbuds in.

“They’re completionists,” Gabrus says. “People keep adding to their pull list like at a comic shop. If these people are doing it passively, they can fill six to ten hours a day of listening.” It’s that passive aspect that presents a unique challenge for some shows and a special creative boon for others when they take it out of the studio and put it in onstage. “People are going to start to realize, ‘Oh yeah, I drive while I listen to these,'” Rodgers jokes.

For Matt Besser, a founding member of the Upright Citizens Brigade who now hosts Improv4humans, putting his ASSSCAT-inspired podcast in front of a live audience—like the one at the Apollo in Lincoln Park the night before—is something of a homecoming and return to form for the show. (ASSSCAT is the UCB’s signature improv show, in which an audience suggestion inspires a story, which is then the basis for long-form improv.) The more complicated challenge for Besser came when he first launched the series, which took a comedy club performance format into a studio with microphones.

“You don’t need an audience,” Besser says. “I didn’t miss that so much, or I got used to that right away. It was more that ‘theater of the mind’ that was a tool to hone. I’d say it took like a year.” The breakthrough came when Besser fell back on the format he had created with Del Close in Chicago decades before called “the Movie.” Instead of relying on body work and dialogue to establish action and settings, “the Movie” encourages performers to get poetic and introduce absurdist and impossible imagery by cutting into scenes with script-style stage directions.

“And I guess when we reverse engineer it to go back to the stage, it’s funny, because I’m basically just doing ASSSCAT in chairs,” Besser says. “But yet, I am still doing that ‘Movie’ format that I told you about when we’re sitting in those chairs that I wouldn’t necessarily do in ASSSCAT.”

Seeking out those types of shows that take on new qualities when they’re in front of an audience is an important part of the festival curation process, says CPF coproducer Kelly Opalko. “It’s difficult to translate podcasts with lots of postproduction to the stage. For example, [some shows] have so much editing, and the story is conveyed through the background music and sound effects.”

It can also present an interesting catch-22 for performers that encourages them to step out of their studio-based comfort zone. “The one trap that I think a lot of shows get caught in [for] their live shows is they try to do it exactly the same as in their normal shows,” says Please Make This cohost Spencer D. Blair. A regular episode with cohosts Laura Petro and Hobert Thompson involves conceptualizing and writing a spec screenplay to be performed by guest actors; for live shows, they condense about an hour’s worth of script pitching to about 20 minutes. “We were talking afterwards about how utterly exhausted we were.”

<i>Please Make This</i> cohosts Hobert Thompson, Laura Petro, and Spencer D. Blair
Please Make This cohosts Hobert Thompson, Laura Petro, and Spencer D. BlairCredit: Elias Rios

The added pressure of serving two audiences at once, each with a different optimal sense of pacing, forces hosts to get creative. “We try to have a little something special for the people who came out,” Sheridan says, “be it visuals or little videos or sight gags, something like that.” I don’t think I’ll ever forget the burn-down-the-roof excitement in the room following what is maybe the silliest commitment to a bit I’ve seen onstage. At the end of the Podcast: The Ride show, after the hosts announced a last-minute special guest flown in from LA, comedian and Doughboys cohost Nick Wiger hops onstage to “review” the parking complex at Woodfield Mall. “It’s good,” he says, to the sort of rapturous celebration normally reserved for World Series wins—then walks away.

It’s a joke with a reception that gets at the weird of what makes podcasts so satisfying and special. And to experience that in a crowd of like-minded fans is just something you can’t download.   v