Former ‘Simpsons’ showrunner Bill Oakley says he’s “delighted and surprised” to see fans breaking down 25-year-old episodes
“Seinfeld.” “Friends.” “The Sopranos.” “The Simpsons.” “The Office.” Name a hit show from the ’90s and ’00s, and you can find an active podcast covering it. And chances are, you can probably find several.
What’s behind the push to revisit shows that experienced their glory days at the same time as the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations? Nostalgia.
“The real power of nostalgia is that watching old shows is like time travel,” said Jon Gabrus, who co-hosts “Raised by TV,” a podcast that revisits old shows, alongside fellow comedian Lauren Lapkus.
Podcasts, Gabrus and other hosts believe, offer a special way for fans to re-engage with their favorite shows. There’s a sonic connection that adds a level of intimacy — something similar to talking to your friends about the show when you were a kid at school.
“Podcasts allows you to hear the joke in the cadence it was in on the show,” said Allie Goertz, co-host of “Everything’s Coming Up Simpsons.” “You can read it, and hear it in your head, and you can laugh. But there’s something different about replaying a scene [or] hearing it through the mouth of another fan. It feels like a shared experience.”
Of course, there’s a functional aspect to audio as well. Bob Mackey, co-host of “Talking Simpsons,” said podcasts are ideal because fans can consume them anywhere.
“You can bring a podcast with you in the shower, when you’re doing yard work, when you’re washing the dishes, when you’re at your job,” Mackey said. “I think, as someone that’s worked a lot of boring jobs, the key to podcasts’ success is that people are very bored.”
Gabrus compared hosting and listening to podcasts about old shows to being a lapsed Catholic; someone that, despite not practicing their faith for years, can still instantly recite the Lord’s Prayer when they’re pulled back to church for a wedding or funeral. It’s the same thing for shows like “The SImpsons,” he said, where fans can rattle off countless lines from the show’s mid-90s heyday.
That familiarity provides a momentary escape for listeners and hosts, Gabrus said.
“Our society is a little nuts [today],” Gabrus said, laughing. “It’s now like, ‘Remember when you were a kid watching “Saved By the Bell” and that was the only drama in your life?’ Watching ‘Saved by the Bell’ was such a huge part of my childhood, so when I watch it now, I’m transported to that time.”
So far, it has worked for him and Lapkus, with their podcast racking up more than 3 million downloads since it debuted nearly two years ago. Other podcasters also have found success by revisiting their favorite shows.
Vik Singh, host of “Poda Bing,” a podcast covering “The Sopranos,” said the iconic HBO series still resonates with fans, 12 years after cutting to black, because it taps into “everlasting themes” like family, crime, and issues at the office.
“Tony [Soprano] is running a business. It’s an office drama, and he’s managing people and egos,” Singh said. “That, I think, is as relevant today as it was 20 years ago, as it was 10 years ago, as it will be when my son is old enough to watch the show. It’s a window into the world.”
It’s a good time to host a podcast dedicated to the fictional New Jersey crime family, with “The Sopranos” having celebrated its 20th anniversary earlier this year. Singh said “Poda Bing” pulls in “six figure” downloads per month.
And like many other shows, “The Sopranos” has found a new generation of fans thanks to streaming. Hulu famously scored the complete “Seinfeld” catalog several years ago. “Friends” has been a Netflix staple since it debuted on the service in 2015. Same for “The Office.” That’s why WarnerMedia and NBCU have been so anxious to pull the shows from Netflix and add them to their upcoming streaming services.
That ubiquity has made these shows a part of the cultural fabric, according to “Best of Friends” co-host Erin Mallory Long.
“It’s like talking about the Beatles,” Mallory Long said about “Friends.” “It’s something everyone has either seen and either loved or hated, or is at least familiar with. It’s one of those pop cultural touchstones that is universal, that everyone has some relationship with in some form or another. You at least know, ‘We were on a break.'”
Both Mackey and Goertz said what makes “The Simpsons” a great show to do a podcast on isn’t it’s huge archive of episodes — although that doesn’t hurt — but because its jokes are so rich. It essentially allows them to nerd-out and breakdown jokes that maybe didn’t hit when they first watched the show two decades ago.
Goertz said this has been especially gratifying for her because she’s been able to have former showrunners Josh Weinstein and Bill Oakley come on the podcast to help analyze old episodes.
And Oakley — the man behind the internet’s favorite “Simpsons” scene — has enjoyed the rise of podcasts dedicated to classic shows as much as any diehard fan. He said the medium has now opened writers up to feedback they couldn’t find, outside of obscure message boards, decades ago.
“The exciting part is interacting with people who saw it and liked it. Because when we were on, the internet didn’t really exist in its current form. And newspapers would review your show once a year, if you were lucky,” Oakley said. “You were just broadcasting these episodes into a void and you never got any feedback. All these years later, it’s exciting to see that people like them so much and really exciting to interact with people who saw them or perceived them in a different way because they were a lot younger.”
There’s also another reason Oakley has enjoyed the cottage industry of “Simpsons” podcasts.
“I don’t recall any time in the past, prior to this podcast revolution, where anybody really cared about talking to TV writers at length, about anything,” Oakley said, laughing. “So, it’s fun for the TV writer and for the audience. I’m delighted and surprised the audience has interest in it.”
On a more contemplative note, several hosts touched on how watching their favorite shows today allows them to not only breakdown jokes or scenes, but also examine how certain aspects look through a 2019 prism.
“The negative side of watching these old shows is being a little more aware of what is problematic. You’re like ‘Yikes,'” Gabrus said. “Watching ‘Friends,’ it’s like six white, wealthy friends, [and] none of their peers are minorities. Everything is about how Joey and Chandler might be gay. Gay panic was such a punchline from the ’80s and ’90s. It’s crazy to revisit.”
And from a business standpoint, retrospective pods has been a great financial move for some hosts.
Mackey, for instance, lives off “Talking Simpsons” by splitting nearly $13,000 in monthly Patreon donations with his co-host. Goertz said her podcast helped her get her last job as an editor at Mad, and has helped prepare her for her current job writing on “This Functional Family,” an upcoming animated series from comedian Jo Koy.
“I really can’t thank ‘The Simpsons’ enough,” Goertz added.
Still, the financial incentives seem to be secondary for these creators. Mallory Long, whose podcast has pulled in more than 4 million downloads since 2015, said it’s primarily about connecting with fans.
“We were never setting out to make money off of it,” she said. “We were like, ‘This’ll be a fun thing.’ Now, we feel as devoted to our listeners as they are to us, and we have a good time doing it. We really just do this for fun.”
Omar Sanchez contributed to this story.