Matt Gourley says he might have been the first analog podcaster, which makes perfect sense if you’ve ever heard Conan O’Brien roasting him for his love of vintage items—like, say, his beloved phone that was once owned by Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Gourley went from being an actor who hated auditions to a podcasting polymath. He created Superego, a popular improv sketch comedy podcast, and has worked on projects like James Bonding, dedicated to all things 007, Pistol Shrimps Radio, which is play-by-play audio of a recreational women’s basketball team (yes, you read that right), and The Andy Daly Podcast Pilot Project with noted improviser and actor Andy Daly. Today, Gourley is the producer of the top-rated Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.
He entered the world of podcasting early, with no grand illusions about building a big audience or making a lot of money. Instead, he jumped into podcasting with enthusiasm because he felt he had nothing to lose. It’s an attitude that has served him well throughout his career.
Improvising a career
Gourley grew up in southern California, the son of an artist mother and businessman father. He gravitated heavily towards his mother’s artistic interests and pursued improv comedy and acting after college. Fresh-faced and ready to be a capital A Actor, he soon learned he hated the never-ending process of getting work, of constantly “driving across town and waiting for long auditions.”
After a long grind with many forgettable TV commercial roles, he landed one that you might recognize. This big ‘get’ had to do with both podcasting—which we’ll get to—and with the lack of inhibition that comes from not being desperate for a job.
The director of the Volkswagen commercials had listened to Gourley’s Superego podcast and asked him to read. Over it and unmotivated, Gourley “went in there with nothing to lose and of course that’s when you do your best work — when you’re uninhibited.” He did some “weird stuff and the director had to convince Volkswagen that this would be OK,” Gourley adds. Landing such a big spot was an ironic career turn for a guy who wanted to give up on the auditioning process altogether.
Superego, Gourley’s first podcast and the one that got him his most high-profile acting job, is perhaps the best Matt Gourley lesson in the benefits of uninhibited experimentation.
In 2005, Gourley and his friend Jeremy Carter created a short film series called Ultraforce for the festival Channel 101. The films were popular, but the production costs were too expensive to be sustainable. That’s when Gourley had the idea for the Superego podcast, which would be a much cheaper way of producing comedy sketches.
“[Jeremy] was game and we did it and nobody listened for a long time and seemingly overnight it sort of struck and hit,” Gourley says.
The big break came when comedian Paul F. Tompkins became a fan of the show and helped promote it. (Tompkins made guest appearances on the podcast starting in 2010 and became a full-time cast member in 2014.) When the show suddenly became popular, Gourley and his fellow actors realized that the silly things they were doing when they didn’t know they had an audience were actually the things that made them stand out. In fact, the entire conceit of the show—that a team of doctors was performing psychological case studies on patients— was silly.
Because podcasting was still in its infancy and Gourley and his collaborators had no idea that the show would take off the way it did, they used whatever equipment they had available. They recorded it onto a Roland 8 track before uploading it to a computer.
“When I had to edit it I had to put it into my computer using an analog cable,” Gourley says. “So we must be the only podcast that at one point was analog and not digital. I don’t know if that’s ever been done so I’ll take the claim for that.”
That fits right in with the persona Gourley has on Conan O’Brien’s podcast, a job he got through his work as a consultant for the podcast network Earwolf. This time, however, Gourley went into that gig with the exact opposite mindset he had for his other podcast ventures. Instead of thinking no one would listen and that he could be uninhibited, he knew working with the comedy legend would bring a whole new set of challenges.
It was a departure for Gourley to work behind the scenes on a show instead of being a key performer. “I was brought on to help develop it and create ideas,” he says. “I’ve never been told how long they had the idea that I would be the producer, but my suspicion is that they didn’t tell me up front because they didn’t want to scare me away because I tend to get overloaded.” But before he knew it, he was on board as a producer. This time, instead of the pressure-free environment of the early days of SupereEgo, he was being thrown in the pressure-filled cauldron with an iconic and immensely popular comedian.
Gourley was relieved to have a steady gig that wouldn’t require him to constantly be performing. He would have been happy to oversee the production and edit each episode, but Conan and his co-host/executive assistant Sona Movsesian soon began bringing Gourley on as a co-host.
“I had more apprehensions when I started to become a part of the show because I didn’t want to overstep my bounds and I didn’t want to ever feel like I was trying to insert myself, but it just happened organically,” Gourley says. “There’s always a lot of sibling rivalry among the three of us. As the low man on the totem pole, I’m constantly trying to figure out if what I’m doing is appropriate.”
That sibling-like rivalry is one of the drivers of the show’s popularity. Read the comment section on any post about episodes of the show and there will often be more talk about the banter sessions between Conan, Gourley, and Movsesian than about the guest, even if the guest is Tom Hanks or Neil Young. This summer, they put out episodes that involved just the three of them with no guests.
Gourley grew up a fan of Johnny Carson and David Letterman and watched plenty of Conan before he ever met him to do the podcast. But Conan’s comedic style is often a take-no-prisoners attack, which Gourley has tried to get used to as the show progresses into its third season.
“I still don’t feel comfortable! There was plenty of banter in the first season but I think he started coming so hard that there was a point where I decided to say what I feel,” Gourley says.
Of course, the pandemic has made recording podcasts significantly more difficult—especially for Gourley who had to remotely teach Conan, an admitted Luddite, how to set up his microphone. “It was a long 45 minutes getting him to understand how to make his voice go in and stay in a computer,” Gourley says.
It was a far cry from the Roland 8 track that Gourley started out with, but maybe Conan would have been more comfortable using that.
Advice for new podcasters
When Gourley started out in podcasting, it was not yet a world where huge corporations own podcast networks with large marketing arms that promote podcasts with celebrity hosts. You know, like Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.
So what would Gourley tell someone who has an idea for a podcast that they want to start from their bedroom?
“Not to sound too cheesy, but if you’re going to do a podcast, it’s not the most lucrative career for 95 percent of people. You should be doing it because you want to do it and you’re going to enjoy it,”Gourley says. “And make sure you have not only something that you want to talk about or present but also have a unique way to do it with your voice. Ultimately, the concept is what brings people in, but the way the host delivers that concept is going to be what keeps them.”
Gourley also stresses the importance of practicing before you put anything out into the world.
“Be ready to try out three or so episodes and then just burn them. Don’t even put them out. You’re going to discover things that you didn’t even know in doing it,” Gourley says. “So you might as well make episode four your episode one and that way you’ve already developed even more of a flow that will even get better as you go along.” From an equipment perspective, Gourley says everything starts with a quality microphone. He swears by his Sennheiser supercardioid mic. (Released in the mid-aughts, it’s a modern high-tech marvel compared to Gourley’s usual tastes).
“Everyone thinks you have to have these Rush Limbaugh-looking microphones that look fantastic. What I use looks like a regular handheld microphone, but it’s perfect for something like Superego where you don’t want others’ words to bleed into yours,” Gourley says. “A good microphone to me is the key because a lot of microphones are marketed as podcast microphones that are not good.”
A parting shot
Conan famously does not listen to Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend and we can safely assume he will never read this piece. So Gourley was given free rein to take a shot at Conan without fear of repercussions.
“For every Eisenhower’s phone that he makes fun of me for having, he’s got like two Teddy Roosevelt buffalo guns or something, so he better watch his step and come correct,” Gourley says.
Ok, so he doesn’t always do his best work when there’s nothing on the line.
Maybe Gourley doesn’t have a future career as an insult comic, but his podcasting career seems safe for a long time. For a guy who gets ragged on for a love of old things, Gourley was dead on in his identification of podcasts as the medium of the future.
“It just made sense to me. When I was young I loved doing improv comedy on a cassette recorder with my friends and I loved listening to drive-time radio in the morning. I thought ‘well this is naturally where the technology is heading,‘“Gourley says. “It just felt like a fun sandbox and that’s all I needed.”
Editor’s note: This is a bit of Timber cross pollination. This episode has Nick Kroll who is featured heavily in our story by Celeste Kaufman about Lina Misitzis who produced his podcast Oh Hello: The P’dcast.