Features editor Rachel O’Neill sits down with stand-up comedian and podcaster Alison Spittle, to talk about the growing popularity of podcasts, and what’s it’s like to be a women in comedy.
Alison Spittle has been lighting up the comedy scene in Ireland for a while now. She just finished touring her show ‘Alison Spittle Discovers Hawaii’ in January and just last week finished filming her new sitcom ‘Nowhere Fast’ for RTÉ. She is also the host of ‘The Alison Spittle Show’, a podcast on the Headstuff network which was recently named one of the best independent Irish podcasts by the Irish Independent. I sat down with Alison to find out more about the podcast and get her views on where she sees the genre going in the next few years.
We start by discussing the recognition from the Irish Independent and how it makes her so happy given her roots within radio itself. ‘I always loved radio and I suppose podcasts are a different version of radio. I feel a connection with people who listen to it because it makes me really happy’. In her opinion, podcasts share some similarities with radio, ‘There’s no automatic feedback or anything like that so you just kind of throw a podcast out into the ether and hope that people will listen to it’. When asked if that makes her nervous, she’s honest and says ‘I’m really happy people like it but sometimes I get nervous about the podcast. Sometimes I feel like some interviews were shit and it’s like – do I put it up?’
Being an avid listener to the podcast myself, I have a good knowledge of what makes Alison’s podcast so popular. There’s a range of guests from Louise O’Neill, author of ‘Asking For It’ to Shona Murray, foreign affairs correspondent for Newstalk, to George Hook and Mattress Mick. The difference in disciplines and laidback interview style makes for easy listening that is both fun and engaging. The range of guests is something that’s important to Alison as she explains ‘half the people I ask to be on the podcast I ask because sometimes you don’t get to have a proper conversation with people, especially when you’re so busy. It’s nice to have to have the excuse of having a podcast to ask someone what were they like in secondary school or something really over personal like that’. The personal aspect of the podcast is something that is quite unique. Towards the end of 2016, Alison interviewed fellow comedian Davey Reilly, whose show at the Dublin Fringe Festival was about his body dysmorphia. While this topic is considered a hard one to talk about both Spittle and Reilly managed to inject some humour into the conversation making it so you felt like you were learning something while laughing at the same time.
This is a line that is hard to toe at times she explains, ‘sometimes I think I’m trying to interview some people that I’ve known stories about that’ll be really interesting, and I’ll try talk to them about that but then you don’t know what people want to talk about’. For example she explains that ‘One of my guests I knew was homeless for a while and I was like, oh we’ll talk about that, but I didn’t want to go – oh tell me about the time you were homeless. We ended up not talking about it and just having a conversation and I kind of felt guilty that I was trying to extrapolate that story from him when it might not be something that he wants people to know’.
‘There’s no automatic feedback or anything like that so you just kind of throw a podcast out into the ether and hope that people will listen to it’
When I ask her who is the person she’d most like to interview there is no hesitation in her answer, Samantha Mumba. ‘I really want to interview her but I don’t know how to get in contact with her. I’ve tried tweeting her and I’ve 41 mutual friends with her on Facebook but I’m not sure it’s the real Samantha Mumba’. When I ask why, Alison explains ‘she’s a childhood hero of mine and I want to know what it was like when she tried to break America’. She also highlights her nostalgia for early noughties pop music and the reality of what that was like for those bands, ‘I think S Club and all of those people that were in bands that were manufactured were treated very, very poorly and none of them have a lot of money for how many records they sold and how long they worked. You’re never going to work as hard as S Club 7 did and they didn’t get financially rewarded for that. I think there should be a tribunal in the Hague’ she quips.
Aside from hosting a successful podcast, Alison is also a successful stand-up comedian who has been on Republic of Telly, Cutting Edge with Brendan O’Connor and had a successful show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last September. It’s not easy being a female comedian and Alison is honest about that. In her interview on her podcast with fellow comedian Joanne McNally, she starts off by saying how she didn’t initially like McNally when she first came on the scene. I ask why that was. ‘When I first started doing comedy, you always get compliments off people like – you’re the best female comedian on this night, or I don’t like female comedians but you’re really good, so you’re always being complimented as a woman and as a comedian’. When Joanne came into it because she was doing really well, really quickly and I just thought ‘well I’m f**ked, and I was just very jealous of her’. She admits that while she calls herself a feminist, her beliefs was tested by McNally’s arrival. ‘As much as you like to go, I’m a feminist, I have a lot of toxic misogyny still that I’m trying to get rid of and Joanne was a wakeup call for me because she’s such a nice person and she is talented and that kind of cured me’.
Toxic misogyny is one of things that women struggle a lot with in modern times and it can manifest itself in odd ways. ‘I’d told people before – you know it’s great, being a female comedian. I’m just trying to be good for me and good as a person, and then when Joanne came along, it was actually testing my actual belief of do I? So yeah, I failed and I learnt from it’. Alison explains to me how it’s hard for female comedians, especially in Ireland since the scene is pretty small, ‘I kind of saw it as if there’s only one space on a panel show or on a night but that’s not true. That’s just me oversimplifying stuff and as well as that, I’m trying to encourage more women to do it just to get rid of that the belief that there’s so few of us. I’m trying to encourage more women to do it, just so that when they do, they don’t have that weird environment that I came up in’.
Alison’s stand up is currently on hold while she films her new sitcom ‘Nowhere Fast’. It’s based on Angela, a young woman who returns to the Midlands after a bad career in the media in Dublin. It’s set to come out sometime in the autumn and she’s very excited about it. Once filming is complete, she will write a new show for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that will premiere at the Cat Laughs Festival in Kilkenny in June this year.
As well as comedy shows, the Cat Laughs Festival will also play host to a live episode of the very successful Second Captains podcast. The recent success of Second Captains who launched their World Service back in February where people pay €5 a month to access daily podcasts marks a shift in the genre. Alison sees this is a good thing, ‘it’s kind of exciting that podcasts are just a really pure form of communication like I answer to nobody, Second Captains answers to nobody, the only people you answer to are your listeners’. She says her experience in the radio industry shaped her view of it. ‘When I studied radio and I wanted to do radio, I was working as an intern for years and I didn’t see a viable way of me getting onto the radio and having my own show.’ She says that the death of radio stations like Phantom FM is sad and shows that radio isn’t adapting to the modern world quite like TV is.
‘It makes me sad that stations like Phantom were thrown onto the heap because of the JNLRs which are a system of finding out how many people listen to your stations by interviewing 1000 people and asking them what they listened to that day. I don’t think it’s a viable system and it’s sad that radio stations got closed down meaning there’s no niche stuff in Irish media anymore. It’s so sad. People are just going to go on the internet now to find what they want because main broadcasters can’t really offer it’. It seems that podcasts can slip into this niche and take up where the main broadcasters have left off.
As a final question, I ask Alison one of her favourite questions that she asks on her own podcast: what did you write for your Leaving Cert English essay? ‘I based it on Clonmacnoise. I wrote about this boy who grew up with a single mother and they live near a monastery. This one monk would hold his shoulders and call him son and would you believe it, the monk turned out to be his father! The Brits were coming, although it might have been Vikings, it didn’t have to be historically correct, it’s probably why I got a D. I drew a map and everything. It wasn’t needed but I felt really helped the story’.
That is Alison Spittle in a nutshell, unashamedly and infectiously funny. She is going from strength to strength in her comedic career and she is hopeful that ‘Nowhere Fast’ will help propel her into primetime television. She is hopeful that broadcasters will see the success of podcasts and figure that there is another way to reach audiences. Second Captains who initially left Newstalk following a dispute over the length of their show amongst other things have shown in the last few months that podcasts are a totally viable and profitable method of entertainment. As Alison says herself ‘it is probably the least amount of effort that I put into a project, but I get back the most from it.’ Hear, hear to that.
Alison’s podcast comes out every second Wednesday and is available on iTunes and Stitcher and also on the Headstuff website.
Rachel O’Neill Features Editor