Podcasts are in tune with the democratized spirit of the Internet; anyone with a microphone and a computer can offer 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.
The Revisionists, a podcast created by upstart Denver comedians Brian Flynn and Zach Powers, features the hosts and their guest (typically a Denver-based comedian) recounting famous chapters of history, such as the Salem witch trials and George Washington at Valley Forge, riffing merrily on the absurdity of the past. What makes this podcast stand out from other historical shows with a similarly comedic bent is that once the official version of record is told, the trio launches into a wildly speculative yarn about the events in question, reinventing history from hilarious whole cloth. Westword recently caught up with Flynn and Powers to discuss how The Revisionists rose from the ashes of a failed podcast and which eras of history are the funniest.
Westword: For our uninitiated readers, how does The Revisionists podcast work?
Brian Flynn: On each episode, we bring in a guest and discuss a person or event from history. One host presents the true story and another host comes up with an alternate history. Whichever story wins becomes our accepted version of history, so whatever crazypants thing someone makes up about Cleopatra can go on to change the whole story after that.
Zach Powers: To expand a little on Brian’s answer, part of the idea is that the mythology becomes more interwoven as we progress. So, Caligula is canonically a Loki-esque figure who found a time machine, and now he can pop into Rasputin’s story. But because the fake stories are True with a capital T after they are voted in, if we decide that Ben Franklin is an android powered by syphilis one week, the next week while doing Thomas Jefferson, even the person presenting the real story has to say “Jefferson went to France with Ben Franklin, who was, of course, a syphilis robot.”
Give me a quick rundown of your origin story: Did The Revisionists rise from the ashes of your Rooster & Moon showcase?
Flynn: Zach and I used to host another podcast with our friend Pat Medaugh called The First World Privilege Hour. After that ended, I knew it was something I wanted to get back into once I had a unique idea for a show. Once I started refining the idea for The Revisionists, I approached Zach with it. We've known each other since high school, and it's hard for me to think about starting something like this without having his voice involved.
Powers: First World Privilege Hour was something I pushed to do basically at the same time we started hosting the comedy showcase at Rooster & Moon. All three of us had never done standup prior to that, and I felt that creating a kind of creative kinship would help us traverse those waters a little more easily than doing it alone. Brian and I have worked together on a few creative endeavors together since then.
What eras of history are the funniest?
Powers: There’s the cliche “tragedy + time = comedy” aspect to it. It’s also true that a lot of the humor comes from the fact that these people just had zero real understanding of how anything worked. So the Salem witch trials are horrendous events, but also they made cakes out of urine and had dogs eat them to determine people’s guilt. There’s a dark absurdity in a judge seeing that and saying, “Yeah, this is really compelling evidence.”
Flynn: We also got a surprising amount of laughs from talking about ancient Rome. I think we laugh at different eras of history for different reasons. The ancients and the people of medieval times feel distant and sort of absurd — especially because a lot of the records we used for research blend so much myth with reality. When we laugh at people closer to our own time, we're more familiar with the consequences of their lives and decisions. It comes with more irony, I feel.
Were you inspired by any other podcasts? Any under-the-radar recommendations?
Powers: The McElroy brothers’ various shows are all great. My Dad Wrote a Porno is another good one. One of the host’s fathers wrote this strange erotica novella, and the hosts read and critique it. Sophomore Lit is an insightful show where books that are commonly assigned in high school are revisited by adults years later. Talkin’ ‘Bout Turtle is nominally a recap of Entourage episodes that very gradually grows into this ridiculous meta-narrative with less and less to do with Entourage.
Flynn: The Flop House is my favorite. It's a bad-movie podcast hosted by the former head writer for The Daily Show, a current TDS writer and another equally funny dude. I'm also a big fan of Lore, and really want to recommend Loose Canon, which is a podcast building a canon of film based on personal tastes and affections more than critical or commercial success.
Which episodes would you consider highlights to recommend to new listeners? Any particularly memorable guests?
Flynn: If it's not conflict-of-interesty, the episode with you (#11: The Fall of Rome) is one of my favorites. Julius Caesar, Wu Zetian, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. We've been lucky to have so many super-willing, energetic guests. Jose MaCall, though, has been on twice with, like, a day's notice and killed it both times.
Powers: I think Hannibal and Rasputin were also really solid. All the guests have been delightful, and I always kind of hope the guests take the fake history just so I can see what they come up (though I love writing those myself). Off the top of my head, Jordan Doll and Janae Burris were great, and Sammi Campbell is the only non-comedian we’ve had, and she was totally game.
Are there freedoms you have as podcasters that weren't available to you as standups?
Flynn: Definitely. The format of the show lets me talk about a lot of the stuff that just wouldn't work in a standup bit. I love doing standup, but being able to play off another person gives me so much energy and anxiety. It's great.
Powers: Yeah, we definitely have the ability to work off other people and dive into every little nugget of conversation. Brian and I have known each other so long that riffing with each other is very comfortable for me. Some of my favorite things in the show are when we ramble for five minutes on one weird angle that isn’t even related to the main topic of the show, just because someone had an odd turn of phrase, bouncing off each other.
What events and historical figures do you have coming up? What are you most excited to cover?
Powers: We have a few more episodes on the American Revolution because we had to get that Hamilton run-off while the getting was good, and after that we’ve discussed moving away from Western history for a while and onto stuff we, and our listeners, may not know about. But nothing is set in stone.
Flynn: In a couple of days, we're sitting down to record an episode of one of my two favorite figures from all of history, the Marquis de Lafayette, and I have been looking forward to this one from the start. I also like finding the people I don't know much about. Wu Zetian was a great episode (largely because Janae Burris was amazing), in part because I got to learn all this amazing stuff that was always there but I never knew. I like kicking over those rocks.
Do you have any plans to expand the show or experiment with live showcases?
Flynn: No concrete plans as of yet. I think doing some special live episodes would be really fun. I miss running a live show, so that may be a project. If we found the right venue and the right crowd, hell, yes. I also like the idea of getting a bunch of podcasts together for a very large live project, but that would take some doing.
Powers: Nothing specific, but if we have the kind of appeal to pull that off, I’d be interested, for sure.
Zach, you're involved with another podcast, right? What's that one about?
Powers: It’s called Stage of Fools, which I co-host with Shannon Campe, and it's edited by Darren Husted of A Talking ‘Cast!?!. It’s an episode-by-episode recap of The Royals, an E!-scripted show, which is loosely based in an almost unreadable YA book which is in turn loosely based on Hamlet. It's a show where the characters say things like “FML” without a hint of irony — so you see what we’re working with. It’s somewhere between a standard TV-recap show and a classic bad-movie podcast. If it sounds like your kind of thing, it’s on iTunes, Facebook and Twitter at @StageofFoolsPod. Brian’s even been on an episode, if that's how you want to ease into it.
What's your recording schedule like? Is it a challenge to maintain regular recording appointments?
Flynn: We usually record every two weeks, then I edit the podcast and release that on Saturday. It hasn't really been an issue, because I'm trying to be very on top of scheduling. I really care about this show, so I have plenty of energy and patience for handling that.
Powers: I think recording once every two weeks is key to keeping us sane, and probably good for new listeners, as well. Forty-five minutes once every couple of weeks is a lot easier to slide into than a ninety-minute weekly behemoth of a show. Plus, I worry if we turned up in our listeners' feed every week, we’d seem kind of desperate.