When Marissa Melnyk was in school for video broadcasting at Ryerson University, she noticed her classes were split into two groups. There were those who wanted to be in front of the camera—that was the much larger group—and there were those who wanted to stay behind the camera. Melnyk was firmly planted in the latter group. “I like learning how things are made,” says Melnyk. “Whether it’s figuring out how a magician did a trick or understanding what lens works best, I’m always interested in what’s going on behind-the-scenes.” The podcasting world is not much different; it’s full of creators who dream of being the voice of the show but consider the technical aspects of audio tedious or unimportant. Once Melnyk transitioned to audio, she quickly found her niche serving as the tech-savvy complement to boisterous comedian hosts of several Headgum shows, earning the nickname Super Producer Marissa among the cast of All Fantasy Everything.
The best comedy podcasts feel completely unscripted yet totally polished, like a freewheeling hilarious conversation between friends who are never without a perfectly timed joke or an absurd tangent they manage to seamlessly weave back into the main conversation. The mark of success is whether that conversation has the illusion of flowing naturally, or if its creation is evident through choppy audio splices and awkward pacing. It’s the difference between half-hearted editing and Melnyk’s precise hand, without which her most well-known shows (All Fantasy Everything, Why Won’t You Date Me?, Punch Up the Jam) run the risk of turning into the cacophony of performers jockeying for control of the mic.
This thoughtfulness is surely part of what earned her the title of Super Producer, but her generosity—both towards her hosts and producers—further seals the deal. “I was largely self-taught,” says Melnyk. “When I first got started with audio, I did hours and hours of research. I’d look up all the shows I admired to see what equipment they were using, and knowing how valuable that information was for me back then, I’m always happy to share.”
Pitches and Vetting Hosts
Katie Levine, who was with The Nerdist when they met, was Melnyk’s first introduction to what a podcast producer does. “I’d hear them reference her or call over to her off the mics, and I began to understand she’s not only the backbone of the show, but she also adds to the lore of the show,” says Melnyk. She was interning at CollegeHumor at the time and assisting Jake and Amir with producing their video podcast back when it was recorded out of their homes. “CollegeHumor was the thing I grew up on and it was what drove my sense of comedy, so it was such a huge deal for me to get that internship.” When she realized she was more drawn to audio than video, she ended up finding a post on Reddit from Levine, who graciously outlined the full details of The Nerdist’s tech setup, which Melnyk followed as a template while making her switch to podcasting.
Melnyk landed at Headgum as a producer, and was part of the team evaluating pitches, which helped refine her eye for potential. She recommends always including a pitch deck and a pilot episode which, she says, “there’s really no excuse for not recording, because it’s so easy to record a podcast these days.” But she also warns to come to terms with the fact that “the first five or 10 episodes of your podcast are going to be trash, they just are. You have to put in the hours and get the awkwardness out of the way and find your flow in the show. You want to make sure what you’re pitching to a network is the best possible show it can be.”
“I see my role as giving them the space to do what they do best, and then polishing it up and packaging it for the internet, so they don’t have to worry about anything besides being funny.”
When pitching a comedy podcast, it’s also crucial to be honest about the question of whether the person is a great comedian or a great comedy podcast host. A comedian who meticulously writes their material before a standup set could very well not be as skilled at speaking off the cuff while in a conversation. It’s also evident when the host is signing onto a podcast out of perceived obligation rather than genuine enthusiasm. “If the hosts aren’t stoked about what they’re doing it’s going to affect the show. That’s why I allow them to make all the creative decisions,” says Melnyk. “I see my role as giving them the space to do what they do best, and then polishing it up and packaging it for the internet, so they don’t have to worry about anything besides being funny.”
Putting this much trust in her hosts means that Melnyk takes the vetting process very seriously. “Signing onto a show is really like dating; you’re committing yourself to seeing this person every single week,” she says. “You have to make sure that you like each other and work well with each other because there’s theoretically—and ideally—no end to the arrangement.”
Melynk also says that in comedy podcasts, good hosts aren’t just good at being funny spontaneously. “Doing comedy podcasts, especially over Zoom, feels like a jump rope where two people are swinging the rope and you’re trying to find the right moment to jump in,” she says. “Ian Karmel, from All Fantasy Everything, is a great example of what it takes to be a good host. He makes his guests feel comfortable with the dynamic of the show and well-prepared and welcome. It can be really intimidating to try and jump into a conversation between three good friends who have their inside jokes. The host has to make sure their guests are given a platform to speak.”
Great hosts also remember that there is, in fact, an audience who wants to feel included. Leave it up to a producer to recognize that a podcast episode might benefit from an introduction. “I realized that sometimes the hosts would get carried away making jokes and we’d be 45 minutes, an hour into the episode without saying the name of the podcast, let alone getting to the actual draft,” says Melnyk. “Now it’s something I notice in comedy podcasts all the time. Have a funny opener and establish the tone of the show, yes, but we have to make sure that the show, the concept, and all of the hosts are introduced right at the top. Even if you’re 300 episodes into your podcast, it’s always going to be someone’s first episode.”
The camaraderie her hosts have that could so easily slip into a half-hour prelude is what pulled Melnyk begrudgingly from behind the mic. Her giggles caught on mic became part of the fabric of the show—a joke getting “a Marissa laugh” was a point of pride. Listeners wanted to know more. Who was this Super Producer Marissa? So, with the hosts’ encouragement, Melnyk started to make occasional on-episode appearances. “I’m super shy and have terrible performance anxiety, so I only talk when absolutely necessary,” she says. “I’d much rather stay off mic.”
While Melnyk has come into her role as the show’s chorus more and more, it’s still that technical, behind-the-scenes stuff that makes her productions stand out. With podcasts transitioning from being recorded in a studio to home offices, it’s impressive that the audio quality of her shows hasn’t dropped. Understanding that she’d need to guide hosts and guests through the recording process remotely while they likely wouldn’t be the most technically literate, Melnyk focused on streamlining production and finding the best, most adaptable gear.
“The number one mistake that I’ve seen since the pandemic started is everyone’s been getting the Blue Yeti microphone because they think it’s the most popular and most iconic-looking USB mic, but they don’t even read the instructions,” Melnyk says. “It looks like the type of microphone where you’re supposed to speak into it from the top, but really you’re supposed to speak into it from the side. There are so many screenshots I see on Twitter where podcasters are blatantly using this microphone incorrectly.” Instead, she recommends getting the ATR 2100X, which is both cheaper and better at rejecting the inevitable ambient noise of recording at home, so it’s much more suited for the average apartment. She shouts out Podcastage as a reliable resource on YouTube for tech reviews and guides, but also insists that, with a bit of research and fiddling with settings, it’s even possible to get professional-sounding audio from speaking directly into your phone.
Melnyk generally champions accessible tools for audio production, which open the door for more producers who are just getting started or are working independently. She has her regular hosts download Audio Hijack for recording, but encourages guests to simply use QuickTime. Then, she suggests editing on Audition. While Pro Tools may be the industry standard, Audition is less expensive and easier to learn for anyone who’s already familiar with the Adobe Suite. “I love problem-solving audio issues like this,” says Melnyk. “Really anyone is capable of creating good audio quality, even at home.”
In the Feed
A clean recording can only take a podcast episode so far, though, and Melnyk’s final step of Super Producing is editing that raw conversation into an entertaining, consumable, polished episode. Like a photo retoucher, she prides herself on making everyone sound like the best version of themselves. For an interview-based show like Why Won’t You Date Me? that largely has to do with cutting out extraneous “um’s” and stammering as a guest finds their way to their point. “It feels very uncomfortable, but it’s better to just pause completely than trying to fill that space,” she says. “It’s so much easier to cut out dead air than it is to cut someone trying to figure out what they’re going to say next.” Melnyk can entirely shape the pacing of the show and present the guests as their brightest selves with the audience being none the wiser of awkward pauses.
For a more conversational show like All Fantasy Everything the main challenge is contending with the hosts all talking over each other as they try to get their jokes in, a situation where the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity. “Now that we’re all self-recording from our own separate computers, we all have isolated tracks, so I have way more flexibility to edit in post [production],” says Melnyk. “When you have four comedians who are all super funny and super sharp and they’re always throwing out comments to build upon the joke you end up with a big jumbled mess where you can’t hear anyone. Now, I can just solo each track and find the funniest joke that was said at that moment and then cut everything else out.”
While she does appreciate the tighter edits, Melnyk misses the energy of recording together in the same studio. Her editing software can’t quite replicate the experience of being in the room with the comedians she admires. Some shows have cautiously returned to recording in studios, but Melnyk still produces from afar. She needed to move home to Canada during the pandemic, and transitioned to freelancing. She still produces All Fantasy Everything and Why Won’t You Date Me? and is deciding which new projects—and how many—to take on.
“At my peak at Headgum, I was working on four shows a week plus assisting on other shows every other week,” Melnyk says. “It felt like I was treading water. Now that I’m only working on two shows, I have more time to focus on improving myself to make my podcasting faster and better.” This can only mean one thing. Soon, the podcasting world will be introduced to Mega Producer Marissa.