Though the success of This American Life’s first spinoff, Serial, dominated the headlines in 2014, it would be a shame to rewrite podcasting history entirely; before there was Sarah Koenig and the great mystery of Adnan Syed, there were hundreds of individuals, sitting behind USB microphones or talking into ISDN lines or webcams, recording their own podcasts. Serial may have been podcasting’s first breakout, but it was far from the first podcast that changed a life. For some of the medium’s biggest evangelists, podcasting has offered a kind of career redemption or reinvention.
Before he was interviewing everyone from Wil Wheaton to John Hamm on The Nerdist podcast, Chris Hardwick was an actor and standup comedian whose mostly notable credits included a stint as a radio DJ in Los Angeles and as the host of MTV’s Singled Out. However, since 2010, Hardwick has been hard at work on The Nerdist, which has been spun off into a television show and a program for the BBC.
“The first half of my career, the first two-thirds of my career, weren’t really spent on pursuing things that I was passionate about,” he told NPR in a 2014 interview. “It was more just surviving and getting jobs. And then at a certain point I was like, ‘Oh, wait — maybe I should just work on things that make me happy.’ ”
Hardwick isn’t the only comedian who has found a new career path in podcasting. Marc Maron, host of WTF with Marc Maron, worked as a standup comedian in the 80s and 90s, coming up alongside the likes of Louis CK and Sarah Silverman. Always considered a “comedian’s comedian,” his work was appreciated by follow comics, but didn’t launch him into the spotlight in quite the same way as many of his peers. But Maron, who had also worked as a radio host, says he ended up finding his stride when he decided to take a chance on podcasting.
“At the time, I didn’t know what else to do,” Maron said in an interview with Believer, “I had nothing going on, and I was working with a guy who’s a genius radio-producer, and I said, ‘Let’s try this.'”
WTF, which is mainly a conversation between comedians often about comedy, is funny, but it’s also deeply poignant; interviews with Louis CK and the late Robin Williams are often touted as some of the best episodes, largely due to Maron’s own experience as a comedian and his willingness to be extremely vulnerable.
Podcasting has also been a way for actors and comedians to explore their interests. Aisha Tyler, who has had roles on some of TV’s biggest shows, was a well-known face before she started Girl On Guy with Aisha Tyler. However, the podcast, which launched at the No. 4 comedy podcast and currently hovers around the No. 2 spot most weeks, helped her reach a broader audience and examine topics ranging from art to failure and sacrifice. Since the launch of the show, she’s landed permanent hosting jobs (including taking Drew Carey’s seat as the host of Whose Line Is It Anyway?). But most of all, podcasting has helped her stay busy.
“I’m a more effective person if I am in constant fear that I may not get everything done,” she told the Xfinity blog. “I’m anxious at rest for sure.”
For Kevin Allison, launching a story-telling podcast was the secret to finding personal satisfaction, as well as the career he’d been searching for. After his MTV sketch show, The State, was cancelled in 1995, Allison says he was a little lost. He bounced around from job to job, always chasing success, but, he says, he was unable to find it. He tried writing one-man shows which were largely fictional, but the best response he ever drew was from telling his own stories.
“I was doing a solo show out West, playing characters as usual,” reads Allison’s explanation for the origins of the RISK! podcast. “Afterward, Michael Ian Black [also of The State] said, ‘I kept hoping you’d drop the act and tell some of your own stories.’ I said, ‘Yikes, that just seems so risky…’ But even as I said it, I could feel in my gut that that kind of risk could lead to the best stuff.”
The next week, Allison began telling his own stories, and the RISK! live show and podcast were born.
“When I was 39 and I started RISK!, I finally realized that I had been avoiding what I’m best at for way too long. I had been focused so much on the survival jobs, because I am one of those creative people who does not have a real, natural knack for managing money and building a strong foundation organizationally and all that sort of thing,” he explains. “A part of me, I guess, is grateful for that because so much starving time after The State, so much of my years in the belly of the whale…It’s tumultuous when you’re unsure where your career is going and you’re a starving artist and so you end up doing a lot of things that end up being good stories.”