Before iTunes properly introduced the populace to the term “podcast,” Keith Malley and Chemda were broadcasting their thoughts into the ether—and with no help from traditional radio. Since then, their podcast Keith and the Girl, which airs live every day and then uploaded to iTunes, gained a massive following of more than 50,000 subscribers and over one million monthly downloads. Their fans are drawn to Keith and Chemda’s deeply personal approach to broadcasting, not to mention a long list of guests that include the likes of Doug Stanhope, Marc Maron, Christian Finnegan and countless others.
To be clear, Keith and Chemda are among a handful of original innovators of the podcasting business model, not only because they were uploading their shows years before hundreds (if not thousands) of other comedy types were doing it, but also because early on, they offered their dedicated fans merchandise, premium service packages and introduced “donate” buttons—all so they could make a living as professional podcasters.
Days before they were set to celebrate their eighth anniversary of Keith and the Girl on March 7 at Beauty Bar in Brooklyn, I sat down with the duo at an undisclosed studio in Queens, NY, surrounded by fan photos, KATG T-shirts (one of which appears draped over the actual Stanley Cup in a photo), KATG books and Keith’s stand-up comedy DVDs. We talked about how comedy podcasting has gained so much traction, why they treat their fans like the “brilliant” and “sexy” people they are and so much more!
So this is no one’s apartment now?
Chemda: No. We used to be a couple. We used to live together. At the start of when we lived together, we had a roommate. The roommate moved out about six months into our relationship. Once he left is around the time that we were hearing about podcasting, so his room turned into our studio. Eventually we were realizing we were just getting up and going into this other room so we moved [the podcast] into the bigger room as we started having merchandise, as we started having interns, as we started having more and more guests and things like that. It seemed a lot smarter to put it in the bigger room.
What made you guys choose, what was then, such an obscure medium?
Keith: Her brother and at the same time my brother told us about RSS feeds– how things automatically come to people’s computers, whether they’re news or whether they’re audio. It was a whole new thing. I started thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll do something for the comedy that I’m writing.’
C: Keith wrote a lot. He had an unofficial blog and he updated like a maniac. His stories were amazing and hilarious and very autobiographical. My first idea was, ‘Even if you just read your stories, it would be so fun. Not only are they funny on paper, they’re even funnier in Keith’s voice.’ And even now, after he’s put out his autobiography (The Great American Novel), people say that they read it in his voice and that makes it that much better.
K: So then I started looking up podcasts and started listening to the most popular ones on. They were god-awful. I thought it would be fun to do a show. Chemda said, ‘That’s a good idea. You try that.’ Personally, when I listen to shows, they have to have more than one person. Otherwise, I think people ramble. They need somebody to set them straight when they’re being crazy. I was saying the other day that I think Rush Limbaugh does a show by himself because he says ridiculous things that you can’t take seriously.
C: It is nice to sometimes have an opposing view or sometimes just look across at someone and say, ‘Do I sound crazy right now?’ There are a lot of times when we look at each other in the middle of our stories and we know that look. The other person just goes, ‘Yea, you’re cool.’ Nobody will even notice. None of the guests will even notice. But at some point Keith might look at me and I’ll look back like, ‘Yea, yea. This is great.’ It’s almost silent in the room all of a sudden because you have this podium and you’re on this tangent and it’s fantastic until you start thinking, ‘Oh my god. I’m still talking!’
K: And then sometimes you know the story and you left out an important piece of information and the other person is there to go, ‘What the fuck are you talking about?’ So I said [back in 2005], “We have a couple laughs. We have fun. How about you be my co-host?” She came up with the name of the show because she wanted to be a little anonymous.
C: That went right out the window!
K: It worked out! It started gaining traction right away. Maybe a year later we started making money from it, but we weren’t living off of it.
C: Six months in, it was our listeners’ idea to have a T-shirt. It was also the listeners’ idea to have a donate button. They said, ‘We can’t give you money.’ We were like, ‘Oh…you want to give us money?’ So we put in a donate button and our first T-shirt. So like Keith said, we were making money but you also have to shell out money for T-shirts and the bandwidth started going up. We weren’t living off it yet.
What would be an example of a day of work, now that it’s your job?
K: I go through newspapers, news, and put together whatever interesting thing happened to me last night. It takes a couple hours. That’s pre-show. Chemda’s working on April 15th Week, or also called Keith and The Girl Week.
C: I mostly book the guests. I answer a lot of emails. I mostly do a lot of the, I guess you would call it the ‘producer end’ sort of things. I put together any live events that we have. We have an annual event that we do called Keith and The Girl Week. He’s calling it April 15th Week because initially it was his birthday, April 15th, when he was turning 30, I was saying, ‘Hey, if you’re going to do stand-up, let’s record it. Let’s invite a bunch of people.’ This is before our podcast. So April 15th when he turned 30 was his first DVD/CD taping. Ever since then, every year on April 15th, [he records a new hour DVD.] Our listeners started getting used to it and they started coming in from out of town knowing that that’s a day we for sure had something going on. We figured that if people were coming in from out of town, let’s give them some other events. We just kept adding things, so this year we have five events and four after parties for KATG Week.
K: Then we put the show up and we have a VIP program, which is actually a lot of work. That’s where we make the bulk of our money. You can get every show that we ever did, and spin-off shows: I have one, Chemda has one, Danny behind you [KATG has an awesome intern/budding stand-up comedian, Danny Hatch] has one–
C: My girlfriend Lauren has one; Keith’s best man at his wedding has one.
K: So just all these little things–
C: Oh! And KATG TV!
K: Yup. Keith and The Girl TV, videos that we do here and again.
You guys started this podcast around the time our culture was shifting to a share-based society. You had MySpace and Facebook was starting up. And you guys were going on air broadcasting your personal lives to a bunch of strangers!
C: That’s why we initially called it Keith and The GIRL, because Keith would write the stories about his real life and he would get so personal and talk about his brother, like how he first masturbated. He would talk about his ex-girlfriends with their first and last names, talk about how she had ‘flapjack banana tits’…I thought, ‘If you’re going to write about me, stop using my name.’ But I learned that it was actually so much fun and so stress relieving. We all go through this. Some guy is going to think I have flapjack banana tits and who gives a shit? There’s some very private moments and now that we’re dating someone else we have to keep it even more in mind because that person is not there going, ‘That’s not how it went.’ At least when we’d talk about each other when we were dating, I could go, ‘You know what? You’re fucking lying right now! You’re really being a jerk.’ We’ve had on-air fights, but we get to defend ourselves. So sometimes when he talks about his own relationship, I usually try to defend his girlfriend.
You guys were some of the initial pioneers of comedy podcasts. What would you say are some major differences between podcasting then and now?
K: Personally, regarding our show, I’m getting more and more comfortable that our opinion is valid. There’s less wondering, ‘Is it okay that we said this?’
C: I think we don’t get as nervous when the mics go on. But it remains the same. It remains opinionated, very pop culture-y. It’s very personal to us. I think what changed is that we learned a lot more about business. We learned a lot more about how to get guests and using social media and what a fucking bitch that is. We learned how to make money because we found ourselves needing to. We didn’t know that this would be the moneymaker. We didn’t know that we would be doing this for a living. We thought that we would start it and that it would just sort of help us with the other things we were doing in our lives. It became so much of a full-time job that we had to make money on it. So we had to learn how to do that.
So it was out of necessity.
C: Yeah, because it was taking up all of our time. We were working as party clowns and we did kids’ parties for a living. But we had to phase it out more and more. We couldn’t have the time to do it because we would be working on the podcast every moment of every day.
K: It was a big risk because we had to quit our jobs before we were getting the money for doing the podcast.
C: Yeah, we just understood that it was time and that we don’t have time to make money any other way so it just had to happen.
K: We’re pleased with how it’s gone, yeah
You recognize your own stardom, right? Did that come as a shock when it hit you?
C: It surprises us.
K: It surprises us, yeah. We keep an eye on everything.
C: I’ve seen a few things. Like, if I walk into a comedy room, I’ve seen people say that I’m in the room. I’ll always second-guess it, like, ‘Nah, they’re talking about someone else. Everyone’s named ‘The Girl’. Whatever.’
K: Or a bigger name comic who you wouldn’t think would care as much would perform and not know one of us was in the room and then get off stage and see us and say, ‘Today was a different day, a bad day, and I’m not usually like this.’
C: You’re like, ‘Oh my god. They care what I think!’
It just shows how big podcasting is getting! I’ve been reading reports by companies like Edison Research and Blubrry.com. They say that 29 percent of Americans have listened to a podcast. Five years ago, it was less than half of that.
C: I’ll tell you what happened. When I used to say, ‘podcast’ people would look at me like I was crazy. You know what I think started that change? The devices with iTunes started to include the category ‘Podcasts.’ iTunes made it easy because the word was right there and most people had that kind of device. So it became, ‘Oh, I recognize that word.’
K: If somebody’s listening to the radio, you’re only listening to it in the background. But when you’re listening to a podcast, you downloaded that podcast and you’re paying more attention. Yeah, I can’t say I’m surprised that podcasts caught on.
More and more people are starting to make money by podcasting. Advertisers are spending more money than ever on podcast ads.
C: They’re starting to catch on. An audience will listen to your ad on a podcast more than they will listen to an ad on the radio.
They know that when you, or Marc Maron, or Dan Savage, or Pete Holmes plug Audible or AdamAndEve.com it’s a lot more personalized. It’s not like when Elvis Duran from Z100 hams it up when hawking a product.
C: Well when you’re listening to Elvis Duran, that’s the 20th commercial in the hour. That’s no exaggeration. We have one, maybe two ads. We try to keep it to a minimum. We know why people are tuning in. We also feel like we have the right to have advertisements. In order for this to go and to keep going, we have to make money. So we will have two ads, but two ads is a lot.
Do you ever hear anything from advertisers about the show’s content?
C: They understand that in their [live read] we might say, ‘We fucking love this shit! We love it so much, we’re gonna fuck it!’ They’ll say, ‘Right on! Can you just make sure to say what it says in the bold at the end of the message?’ They know who they’re advertising with. They’ll just want to make sure there are some talking points that you have to hit, so if we hit that, they’re off our backs. Most of the time they’re like, ‘Great job.’ Because we’re doing well with the ads, the agency will add on stuff. Our listeners advertise with us, also, because they know that when they hear an ad, they hear the call to action so we’ve sold to our listeners, as well, selling our listeners’ products, promoting their own podcasts, promoting their bands.
Keith, do comics get mildly resentful that you put out a new hour every year, despite not doing stand-up during the year? [Keith has recorded a live stand-up DVD/CD every year since starting the podcast.]
C: Not mildly!
K: They start with, ‘So you think you’re a stand-up comic?’ I say, ‘I know where this is going, so, no.’ They assume I said, ‘Yes,’ then start attacking. I get why because they think they had to work harder to get people to come to their shows. But they don’t count the hard work that I put in here every day. These are my open mics! But I don’t care. We had to quit our jobs to make KATG work. I’d say we paid some dues.
I know there is no ‘typical’ KATG fan, but how would you describe your fan base?
K: Brilliant. Sexy. They ‘get it’. They get the jokes. They get the humor. They get that it’s not so serious.
C: They get the humanity in it, as well. They get the pace. They really know what they’re listening to.
Did you ever think people were going to be get tattoos of you?
K: Now we’re at 124 tattoos and three brandings.
It’s the new bench marker for success! It’s not about how many late-night spots you’ve done. It’s not about how much you make in a weekend. How many tattooed fans do you have?!
C: There’s one fan that had us sign something then went to the tattoo shop and had it tattooed on. But not only that, they had my girlfriend’s name on them as well! So he’s got three of our names on his bicep. It’s fantastic. I freak out about it. I love it.
K: Everyone is just as exciting as the first one we found out about.
You have the eight-year anniversary hang out on March 7 at Beauty Bar in Brooklyn?
C: Yup! We’re also having a special show that day. Normally we just have a guest on but this time we’re taking a handful of favorites, both to the listeners and to us. Right now I know Myq Kaplan already agreed, Christian Finnegan. We’re going to be rotating, sort of a mini-marathon. Maybe 15-20 minutes of each guest that our audience really likes. Eight years, man; we just want to make it a special show. But we’ll just be hanging out with them at the bar.
There’s nothing better than stars who love their fans.
C: It’s insane to not love your fans. It’s the dumbest thing. It’s stupid to call them names.
K: I think that it’s most shows that they call their fans names.
C: It’s almost like making fun of how much you like us. That’s just the shittiest thing you can feel as a fan.
K: I think it’s because the host of the show wants to be elevated and wants to make sure that he’s being looked up to by lowering the status of their fans.
C: There’s a certain sense of feeling uncomfortable when someone puts you on a pedestal. But you have to go with it. You have to thank your fans. No matter how much publicity we get, I still think our fans push us forward more than that. Your word of mouth when your friend tells you that this thing is funny or that this thing works, it’s better than some random person telling you that this thing is funny or that this thing works. You don’t listen to commercials more than you listen to your buddy.
K: If you are higher up than your fans, how are they going to relate to anything you’re talking about?
C: Keith met his fiancé at a live show.
K: I will marry my fans!
Tune in to the special KATG anniversary show March 7 at 2 pm ET. You can still purchase tickets to KATG Week in April. The show airs live Monday through Friday on keithandthegirl.com or can be downloaded after on iTunes. After our interview, Keith and Chemda invited me to stick around as a guest on the show; listen here.