Podcasts are in tune with the democratized spirit of Internet media; anyone with a microphone and a computer can offer their listeners unlimited hours of recordings, usually for free. Limited only by their imaginations, podcasters have a freedom of expression unrestricted by commerce, censorship or geography. Several great podcasts have blossomed in Denver's flourishing arts community; here to celebrate them is Podcast Profiles, a series documenting the efforts of local podcasters and spotlighting the peculiar personalities behind them.
Whiskey & Cigarettes is a podcast about podcasts, and much funnier than that glib description would suggest. Hosted by the local brain trust behind the Comics Against Civility comedy game show -- Jake Becker, Zac Maas and Jake Browne -- the podcast has evolved over the years. What began as an unfocused, booze-soaked marathon of podcast clips and quips has sharpened into a more purposeful format boasting funnier episodes and attracting some high-profile guests. In advance of the Comics Against Civility round with Browne and Maas at Spruce Tap House at 7 p.m. Saturday, January 24, we caught up with the Whiskey & Cigarettes crew to discuss how the show has changed and their favorite guests.
Westword: So you guys are closing in on 100 episodes. When did you start recording the podcast?
Zac Maas: December 16?
Jake Browne: Bullshit. Wrong. Becker probably has the right answer, he was the biggest fan of our show.
Jake Becker: It was December 9 of 2013. I actually wasn't on that episode. The first episode I was on was right after the new year.
Browne: I just want the record to show that he is aggressively scratching himself throughout that entire statement.
Becker: It's itchy.
So, Becker, you started out as fan?
Becker: Yeah, and then they had me on as a guest like two weeks in a row and the figured out that I was going to keep showing up and that it would be easier to make me a co-host.
Maas: I feel like when we started the show the whole idea behind it was that Jake [Browne] was really into podcasts and I had never even listened to one. I'd barely even heard of podcasts. I didn't know what the fuck they were and he was always trying to talk to me about them and I didn't care. So his idea was like, "Let's start this show where I can show you podcasts because I love them and you hardly know what they are," and then we'd talk about them with guests. I remember in those early episodes you spent so much time cutting together like twenty different clips.
Browne: Listen! How am I gonna get you guys on board if I don't give a fuck?
Maas: So, yeah, he's cutting all these clips and working his ass off and I would just get blackout drunk, especially in the first few episodes.
Browne: On that note: don't listen to the first few episodes!
Maas: So once Becker came on, I think Jake [Browne] was just happy that he had somebody who cared about the shit he was talking about: "We're gonna keep having him back because he actually gives a shit."
Browne: He's my pod-buddy!
I believe they're called pod-pals.
Becker: Well, I still lived in Colorado Springs when we started doing to podcast. Plenty of good podcast-listening time down in the Springs.
Becker: It is. It's primo podcast land because there's nothing else to do. So I'd listen when I was driving up to Denver and I'd listen to them at work. I was a machinist, so I'd listen for about forty hours a week. And so then I'd talk about podcasts all the time. And Jake Browne and I were the only other podcasts nerds either of us knew.
Browne: We also listened to a lot of the same stuff. That's the thing about the podcast community, it's not like television where everybody has their own shows they listen to.
Maas: [Laughs] Yeah, they all listen to their favorite TV shows. I love to listen to the TV!
Browne: Shut the fuck up.
Maas: Keep talking from behind that fortress of empty PBR cans, Jake, you're nailing it.
Becker: Okay, but especially like two or three years ago, there weren't that many big podcasts. There was WTF and Smodcast.
Browne: We also listened to a lot of Comedy Bang Bang! and Doug Loves Movies.
Becker: Nerdist and Earwolf had just come out, so we'd chat about what we thought of their new shows.
Browne: And Denver had a few different podcasts. But it wasn't anywhere near where it is right now.
There's a bunch of podcasts now, but there still really aren't many high-profile podcasters. At this point, you guys are like the older brothers of the local podcasting scene. So, Zac, did you eventually get more into podcasts as the show went along?
Maas: So, I had to. It eventually came to a point where Jake [Browne] started to gradually decide that all the work he was doing each week needed to be split amongst the three of us a bit more fairly. I don't think I started pulling clips until like the twentieth, thirtieth episode.
Becker: I remember the first time you said you enjoyed listening to a podcast. It was Welcome to Nightvale.
Maas: Nightvale is pretty cool. What happened was that I just started to find some things that I actually liked, like Radiolab and The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.
Keep reading for more on Whiskey & Cigarettes. Browne: This is coming from a total contrarian, by the way.
Becker: He thought it was so stupid when we started.
Browne: Doesn't believe in God, doesn't trust the government. He's the ultimate skeptic about everything. But I got him to get into podcasts, and for me that's when I knew our podcast worked.
Maas: And once we started getting better guests than like Jake Becker every week, it became easier to do the show.
Browne: Well, that was the strategy. If we put him on the show, we'll never have to book him again.
Maas: Yeah, once it grew into more than "Jake hanging out with his pod-buddy." Also, the shows used to be so fucking long, some of them went like three or four hours.
Browne: There was literally an episode where we almost killed Jim Hicox because his blood sugar was so low.
Maas: Yeah, during those really long episodes, especially towards the end, I'd just be miserable.
Becker: Which is totally noticeable on the audio.
Other than knowing now to keep it tighter, what are some other things you guys have learned as you've recorded more?
Maas: We've learned how to keep the conversation going. How to jump in and focus. Now, it's to a point where we really don't even need to edit that much.
Becker: We've developed a lot of non-verbal cues. It's crazy how much better the three of us are at hosting together than we were when we started.
Maas: Just keeping the flow of a conversation gong helps, but also knowing when to cut someone off and go into a clip. A lot of times, you'll get into a rant where you realize, "We can talk about this for twenty minutes, but it is really worth it, or should we just move on?" Knowing when to do that helps. I just took over booking for the show.
Browne: Thank god.
Maas: About two months ago. We did miss about three weeks, but other than that I've been doing all right. That's been a learning process too. Social media's been a thing that I've jest been getting into over the past couple years. Comedy has kind of forced me to be on social media even though I'm not really a fan of it. When I first started booking I had to ask Jake [Browne] how to do certain things on Twitter. I didn't know how to send someone something without everyone seeing it. I think I have about sixty or something tweets. That's my version of being really active.
You guys have booked some pretty high-profile guests. How does that process work, and then what's it like to work through the discomfort of meeting a near-stranger that you nevertheless respect, and then bringing them back to your house to talk about podcasts?
Browne: Zac's the best about that, if you don't mind me. Eighty percent of podcasts is just booking people. Because you rely on yourself to be in the moment whenever you're doing it, and Zac has taken that on. I also feel like if you listen to these recent episodes, Zac is the best he's ever been and Jake is the best he's ever been. We're clicking as a podcast. So now, it's like, what's the apex, you know?
Becker: Being comfortable around guests is probably the hardest for me because out of everybody, I'm probably the biggest comedy nerd.
Maas: Becker is the only one who gets geeky about shit, usually.
While we're on the topic, do you have any favorite guests or favorite episodes that you'd recommend to the uninitiated listener?
Becker: My favorite episode that we did, I don't know if it's necessarily the greatest one to start with or listen to first, but personally, I love having Greg Proops on the show. That was delightful for me. I adore Greg Proops.
Browne: Can I set this up a little bit before you get into it? We had to go down to Comedy Works as like a last-minute thing. We had to take all the equipment with us, all the gear you see in front of you that we use, and then we had to find outlets and power strips to all this shit set up in the tiny green room downtown, and then we had like a tight thirty minutes to get an interview with him. Okay, now you know why you like that one so much.
Becker: Well, it opened with Zac -- back when he was still on crutches -- hitting his head violently against a shelving unit in the Comedy Works green room. So any awkwardness that could have existed between us and Proops was immediately gone because everyone was so concerned about this poor crippled guy. I think the first thing he says in the episode is, "Jesus, are you okay?" We just had to start the show immediately, and it ended up rolling along nicely. He could tell what I comedy nerd I was. He couldn't have been cooler. It was cool to meet someone that I've looked up to since I was kid. These guys let me go outside and smoke a joint with him and talk to him after the instead of cleaning up like I should have.
Browne: We didn't "let" you do anything; you just did that shit.
Maas: I was just really high on painkillers that day. I liked the Robert Kelly episode because he comes in and just shits on my house for the first half hour and it's so fucking funny.
Becker: He was scared. He was one of the bigger names that we've had at Zac's house instead of meeting him at the club or something.
Maas: That used to be really fun, too. We originally recorded at my house, which, as you know, is a total shit hole. So we could judge how cool they were based on how they would react to my house.
Becker: Bobby thought we were going to kill him. He was whispering under his breath to himself, like, "I'm going to fucking die."
Any other memorable high-profile interview mishaps?
Becker: Well, doing a dab in front of the Sklar Brothers did not put them at ease.
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Follow Byron Graham on twitter @ByronFG for more mildly amusing sequences of words.