If Dave Anthony were a history teacher, his class would surely be popular at any American high school or university. Once parents heard the types of stories he told his students, however, he probably wouldn’t be able to keep his job. Thankfully, his history lessons are taught on the podcast The Dollop — and anyone can take his class.
In short, The Dollop consists of Anthony reading articles about screwed-up moments in history to his friend Gareth Reynolds, a stand-up comedian and talented impressionist who never knows in advance what the story is about, but he always has plenty of opinions. What usually ensues is a tornado of Irish accents, butchered names and a ton of jokes. It’s essentially a show consisting of two really funny people (sometimes three) having a good time with history while simultaneously enlightening listeners. (Disclosure: An article I wrote about the Hanford nuclear site in Washington state was once used in an episode of The Dollop.)
I spoke to Anthony the week before he went back to work writing and acting in the television show Maron, and he had plenty to say about podcasting — he started the Los Angeles Podcast Festival — as well as his own personal history.
You grew up in the Bay Area?
Yeah, I grew up in Fairfax. I lived there until I was 20 and then I moved to San Francisco for a few years. That’s where I started doing standup in 1989; quite a while ago. I started at a place called Holy City Zoo in the Richmond District, which is now gone.
The Holy City Zoo is famous for the people who got their start there: Robin Williams, Dana Carvey, Margaret Cho. When you were there, did it feel like you were involved with something great?
We knew that we had a lot of great comedians compared to other cities and we knew it was pretty supportive. We pushed each other to do unique and creative things, and you’d go to other cities and you wouldn’t see that.
People always talk about San Francisco but when you’re in it, you don’t realize these people are going to go on and become really famous. That was always surprising; all of a sudden, Margaret Cho was famous and we were like, “Wait, what just happened?” Looking back on it, it was pretty awesome, but at the time we were really just having fun and being in it.
How did you get into podcasting? Was Walking the Room your first podcast?
Yeah, it was. I was at the end of my standup career because before podcasting came along, if you were a standup, you had to wait to be given access to show business. The studios or whoever had to give you a show or put you on something. I felt like so many doors had been closed that I just wasn’t getting any chances, so I was pretty much done with standup. But I still wanted to be creative, because I get a little irritable when I’m not being creative.
During the dot-com boom, I had done an internet radio show, which is funny because no one could really listen to it back then. I did it with Greg Behrendt, and I thought we could do just what we did back then, but in a podcast.
It took off really fast. We were surprised by how fast it took off. All of a sudden we had this small but real loyal following. That went on for four years.
How did The Dollop start?
I was putting together a one-man show to do at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, and a one-man show is a completely different animal than stand up. In preparation, I decided I would force myself to start talking out loud about certain subjects; I was going to talk about Mike Tyson, Ted Nugent and other subjects. I started exploring these subjects and recorded four or five of these podcasts on my own.
It felt really weird to me; I admire people like Greg Proops and Bill Burr, who can just talk for an hour, but for me it just felt strange. I stopped doing it, and figured I’d start a more history-oriented podcast where I’d write out about 20 articles, invite different comedians over, read them the story and see how they reacted. The first guy I had on was Gareth and he was so funny, I said “Well, this is the show.” And the fans that listened to it went crazy, so I just stuck with it.
What makes for a good episode of The Dollop?
The number-one thing is that it has to be a topic that caters to “funny” (for the most part — we can do a subject like the one about Ferguson, which I think still turned out funny). I look for subjects that have crazy twists, or there can just be an ordinary story that has offshoots of weird stuff that just keeps happening. But for the most part it’s just about finding a story that I read and I’ll know there are parts where Gareth can go off and improv. I’ll read stories and get three-quarters of the way through and realize that “this can’t be one” or sometimes I’ll read half a page and I’ll know instantly that it will work. I don’t think there’s one tangible characteristic that you can grab onto, but in the end it has to lend itself to being really funny.
And it can’t be too dark. Sexual assault, child molestation — there’s nothing funny about that. Serial killers I don’t think are particularly funny. And then there’s a lot of periods in our history where we just slaughtered people — American Indians, African Americans in the 1920s — and once you start talking about it, you just feel gross.
I’m so glad you did the Ferguson episode. It was well-informed enough that you could use it to teach people about the situation, and it was so easily digestible because you found a way to make it funny. But at that same time, it was an episode where I found myself screaming at my stereo.
[Laughs] When I read stuff, I always step back and look at the broader picture, so it was easy for me to bring that to a subject like Ferguson. What happened there was far from an isolated incident; it was born out of history of racial issues and the violence of our culture. With a story like that, to look at it as just being Ferguson is so myopic and doesn’t help anything.
When writing these articles, how much goes into setting up jokes for Gareth?
I’ll gather all these sources, take what portions work for the story and mash them together in my own story. Then I’ll read it and ask myself, “Is this enough for him to make it funny?” And if it needs more, I’ll delve deeper and look for little weird bits — there’s always weird moments in these stories and you can find them all over the place. With each turn a story takes, if you just investigate that turn, it sort of lends itself to improv, and a lot of time that’s an Irish voice or a Scottish accent or some sort of crazy circumstance that he can run with.
I have to wonder how often you’re like, “Yes, an Irish person!”
[Laughs] All the time!
If Gareth couldn’t do the podcast any more, would you end The Dollop?
Yeah, I can’t imagine doing it with anyone else. It would just be really weird. I might do something in the same formula with someone else, but I can’t imagine doing the same thing without him.
Has Gareth had it with the long-running joke of calling him Gary? Does he want it to stop?
Yeah, that’s where it is right now. He totally wants it to stop. [Laughing]
But it’s never going to end — people love it too much. Audiences in Australia chant it when you introduce him!
I know! It’s never going away. [laughs]