Eight things you need to start your own (funny) podcast

Elsa Waithe is a comedian, activist, and all-around wildchild. Her comedy is a mix of light-hearted but critical jabs at homosexuality and race but mainly herself and weed. She can been seen as a regular performer (and producer) at the Cinder Block Festival and in her feature on an episode of the This American Life podcast. She is also an instructor and incredible supporter of GOLD Comedy!


My partner and I launched our podcast, 2 Spicy, as a response to Heather’s being laid off, and my constantly getting 30-day bans from Facebook. We wanted do a joint project that highlighted news and activism and amplified voices on the left in an effort to push those in the middle further leftward. That’s all we had when we started: an idea, and time. We had no equipment,  experience, or money. But we did have lots of FRIENDS—and tons of questions. Our first step was to reach out to our network and ask them EVERYTHING.

So now, I’m here to tell you what we learned—by asking and by doing—so that you, too, can start your own podcast. Here are the top things you need.

A topic and a take.

The idea of the podcast was to discuss some of the things that would get me banned from Facebook. We both had really strong ideas and opinions on the world and wanted a way to communicate them other than social media. We’d always been told by the folks around us that they really valued our opinions. In deciding your brand/topic, look toward your interests and hobbies. Surely there’s nothing new under the sun, so don’t be discouraged if there’s already a podcast that deals with your chosen topics. No one can talk about it in the way you do. Humor keeps your listener engaged, it doesn’t need to be goofy or campy to be funny. It just has to be interesting, and the more complex and niche, the better. You want to talk about sports? Then talk about something specific, like worst football fumbles. Politics? Maybe funny speech flubs. Try recurring segments. Have listeners write in. Humor can spring from your personality, your rapport with your co-host or anywhere.

A good partner.

As a creative couple we’ve always wanted to do a project that combined our talents. Mine, speaking and humor. Heather’s, thoughtful analysis. We were told before we started the podcast that we wouldn’t make a good podcast because we “agree too much”. We posit that good podcast partners need not agree on every topic nor do they need to argue all the time. It’s more about good on-air chemistry and banter.

Equipment: free and crowdfunded/donated.

It is entirely possible to start a podcast with zero dollars. We reached out to our community about helping us record and someone with podcasting experience volunteered to bring his equipment to our apartment. After releasing a couple of episodes and receiving positive feedback, we knew we wanted to be able to record more often without having to wait for someone to come from the other side of Brooklyn. We found out what basic equipment we needed and made an Amazon wishlist, totaling a little over $400. The basic equipment needed was a Zoom recording device, 2 microphones with mic stands and an SD card.  Within a few weeks all items were either purchased for us or donated to us..

Research and prep.

Our podcast focuses on current news and trends so our research involves following the news, watching trending topics on social media, and whatever fun/interesting/scary articles we come across during the week. We compile 6 to 8 topics, the points we’d like to discuss about said topics and try to order them in a way that will flow on-air. There’s no scripts, just a pre-planned outline. We like to be able to flow as the convo grows organically.

A platform.

Of course the main platform is iTunes. But not everyone is jazzed about Apple products so we are also on BuzzSprout and Stitcher. We don’t use it, but there’s also SoundCloud. These are places where it is free to host your podcast but there are also services where you’d pay. We’ve heard good things about BlogTalkRadio and PodBean. And, of course, there’s always the chance that you’ll be picked up by a larger podcast “stable” like Maximum Fun or American Public Media.

Promotion.

We promo the podcast across the three major social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. The drawback to Facebook is that you’ll need to spend a little money to promote your posts due to their algorithms. We’ve also started making clips of the more interesting sections of each weeks episode and releasing them as video teaser clips which are then released on Instagram and YouTube. We have a Patreon that we direct our listeners to so that they can support the show and get exclusive goodies. And we are always developing tie-in merch—like our 2 Spicy Habanero Sauce. Tune in to our podcast while you put it on…everything!


Read Elsa’s bio.

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Don’t get mad, get funny (also, get mad): How to write political jokes

When I first started standup comedy, I never meant for my title to become “Elsa Waithe, Comedian and Activist.” I didn’t set out to do political jokes or political comedy. I just wanted to get on stage and talk about the things that made me mad and the things I found weird. Come to find out that a lot of the things that made me mad were the government and social justice issues.

But once I started, I noticed something. After a show, people would come up to me and tell me how funny I was, but more importantly, that they never thought of a particular issue in the way I presented it. Way before trans bathroom bans were part of the national conversation, I used to joke about how difficult it was for me to simply pee in peace. Many people would tell me that they never imagined the public restroom was such a challenge. I soon came to realize that what I was doing was political comedy—or really, turning my comedy into activism. In fact, comedy and activism—or politics and jokes—are BEST FRIENDS because laughing at people is an easy and effective way to strip away their power.

When most people hear the word “activism,” they think protests, rallies, and marches—but activism can be defined as any activity that promotes or directs social, political, economic or environmental change designed to improve society.

So can that happen on a comedy stage? Of course it can!

The purpose of comedy is to make people laugh. The purpose of mixing comedy and activism is to get people to laugh and then … think! I like to think that a good joke about absurd differences between groups (white and Black, men and women, gay and straight and other) not only makes us laugh but makes us think about why those differences even exist in the first place. I like to say that blending comedy and activism is a good way to “add lube” to the socio/political conversation.

Political comedy and comedy activism are as old as time, past Shakespeare and all the way back to the ancient Greeks. We’ve all done it. The teacher is mean? You and your pals take the edge off his cruelty by mocking his weird voice. Jon Stewart and The Daily Show have spent decades holding up a mirror to American politics so we can truly see its ridiculous nature. Sam Bee, a Daily Show alum, hosts her own show, Full Frontal, which is a master class on comedy and activism. She introduces and informs her audience on the issues of the day, lets her stance be known, and then skewers idiot politicians and public figures.

A good joke about social ills can be an illuminating and galvanizing moment. It was an open Hollywood secret that Bill Cosby was a sexual predator, but it wasn’t until Hannibal Buress made a joke about it that over 50 women came forward to accuse Cosby. This was ultimately Cosby’s undoing. We often laugh at things that are, in some way, rooted in a painful truth; the laughter is the shovel that gets under the roots and brings that truth into the light.

So now, let’s learn how to write a political joke.

  1. Decide what grinds your gears.

You need not be a political tactician to write a political joke. You just have to be annoyed at something. Ever find yourself ranting angrily about a new bit of red tape? Or maybe upset with a seemingly incompetent Orange Gargoyle businessman turned “politician”? This is all fertile joke soil. Start with the very unfunny feeling that something makes you mad/sad/fearful of (fill in the blank politician/law).

  1. Take aim—at the right target.

A good political joke “punches up.” That means you want to go after the big guy with the power, not the small-fry. So if you’re writing a joke about homelessness, your target isn’t the homeless person, but rather the oppressive policies that cause homelessness. A good way to check if your are “punching up” is to ask yourself if you were part of the group/topic you’re joking about, would you feel supported by the joke, or would it leave you feeling even more powerless? And if your intent is to make someone feel bad, are you making the right person feel bad?

  1. Write it backwards.

Used judiciously, sarcasm is an awesome tool in the political writer’s toolbox. Good sarcasm can expose truth and ridiculousness. Think of how Stephen Colbert throws himself, without ironic detachment, into a character who’s a huge fan of the right wing. Maybe you write about how much you love Trump’s Twitter account because it make you feel smarter. Maybe you totally dig the new Nazi uniform of white polo shirts and khakis. Take that thing you hate; try to put yourself in the truth of loving it; see what happens.

  1. Make it personal.

Think you can do a better job than the idiots in Congress? Tell the audience how. Who would you ban instead of Muslims? Where do you think a wall should be built? Let the audience in on not just the fact of your outrage, but where it comes from, and where it can take you. Remember, you are one of many comics joking about the unjokeable in this weird world we find ourselves in. What’ll make you stand out is your unique take.

  1. Don’t expect a revolution.

Making a difference or changing a mind is a hard thing to gauge. So don’t go out on stage expecting to whip everyone into a frenzy, march out of the club, and storm the White House. Sometimes audiences will love your critiques, and other times your material will fall flat. Either way, stick with it. We often shy away from social and political issues because they are difficult to discuss but a good joke lowers defenses and offers a side door into challenging topics.You never know who’s listening.


Read Elsa’s bio here.

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How to write a 5-minute comedy set

My first time on a comedy stage, I just got on stage and started talking.

THIS IS NOT RECOMMENDED.

I jumped from one topic to the next and back again like a kindergartener on a sugar high. One joke led into the next with no rhyme or reason. I was so all over the place that I forgot to do a bunch of the jokes I actually had written. (Ever listen to someone start to tell a long-winded story and realize 60 seconds in you’re not interested? That’s what minutes feels like to the audience if you aren’t prepared.)

I did get some laughs THANK YOOOUUU, but inside my head? Mostly screaming.

That’s how I learned the importance of preparation—and specifically, of writing not just a random string of jokes, but an actual SET, with a beginning, middle, and end. In other words, an outline. Think of your set outline as the track list of your favorite album.

THIS IS RECOMMENDED.

Here’s how.

First, here’s why you need a five-minute set

The five-minute set is the comedian’s bread and butter. Most open mics offer no more than five minutes on stage. Five minutes is also pretty much the maximum time a booker or producer will spend watching your tape. So your goal is to develop a “tight five” —five minutes of solid go-to jokes that show who you are and reliably get laughs. While five minutes might seem like a long-ass time, if you follow my outline process, it should fall together easily.

As you progress, you can blend several five minute sets together and before you know it, you’ll have a 20 minute set! Impressive.

Next, some vocab.

SET: Your collection of jokes, with a beginning/middle/end. It’s everything you plan to say onstage. People who don’t do comedy often call this a “skit.” NO.

BIT: An individual joke or small cluster of jokes/tags on the same topic.

CHUNK: Several BITS that all revolve around the same larger topic.

So, a SET contains CHUNKS, and CHUNKS contain BITS.

Or, JOKES make up BITS and BITS make up CHUNKS and CHUNKS make a SET.

Got it?

Now you’re ready to outline!

Ready, set, fill in the blanks!

  1. OPENER: Start with something that really introduces you personally, especially if there is something visual about you that stands out, e.g. unusual hair color, super bushy eyebrows, a parrot on your shoulder, etc. Acknowledge it right off the bat and the audience will forget about it and pay attention to YOU.
  2. CHUNK 1: Topic 1. Good for this to be something personal, too. Let them get to know you!
    1. BIT (funny)
    2. BIT (funnier)
    3. BIT (funniest)
  3. CHUNK 2: Topic 2: No need to segue between chunks. You can just start a new topic.
    1. BIT (funny)
    2. BIT (funnier)
    3. BIT (funniest)
  4. CHUNK 3: Topic 3: Can be related to an earlier topic…or not!
    1. BIT (funny)
    2. BIT (funnier)
    3. BIT (funniest)
  5. CLOSER: Could really be BIT IV D, but a callback, or just a killer joke you know ALWAYS works.

Tips for making it WORK.

The outline is not RIGID. You do you. That said:

  • Two to three CHUNKS is ideal for a five-minute set. More than three can be too packed and overwhelming; fewer can get boring.
  • Try to make the BITS in your CHUNKS build from funny (where you lay out the general direction of the joke) to funniest. This also means you’re working to wring as much funny as possible about any given idea.
  • Each CHUNK should be 90 seconds to two minutes long.
  • Save your most interesting/involved or, sorry vegans, really MEATY CHUNK for the end.
  • Bonus: using this outline will help you memorize the order of your jokes, because they will make internal sense to you. as well.
  • Take your outline with you to open mics. Even if you don’t get a full five minutes of stage time, you can pull out one CHUNK and practice that.
  • Once you get used to doing your set one way, rearrange it. See what new GOLD comes of just mixing things up.

Practice makes funnier—no such thing as “perfect” in comedy!—so play around until it works. Then play some more. THEN tweet at @GOLDcmdy to let us know what we can learn from you!


ELSA WAITHE (founding instructor) is a standup comedian from Norfolk, VA now living in Brooklyn, NY. Her comedy is a mix of lighthearted jabs but critical jabs at attitudes and issues around homosexuality and race—and herself. She’s been featured on This American Life, hosted the monthly comedy show “Affirmative Laughter” at The Experiment Comedy Gallery, and performs all over New York. @elsajustelsa


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