Pop Culture Rules: These Things Matter Podcast Goes Viral

John Cusack, Leonardo DiCaprio, Quentin Tarantino, pinball, The Smiths, Blink-182, South Park, Caddyshack, the impending zombie apocalypse and Pee-wee Herman -- these things matter.
"I think everybody, on some level, has something about pop culture they love," says Kevin O'Brien, the Woody-Allen-obsessed co-founder of These Things Matter, a local podcast entertaining pop preoccupations every Tuesday.

"Pop culture is culture," O'Brien continues, citing college classes, minors and entire degrees surrounding the subject. The 28-year-old stand-up comic was part of the TV Generation, he says, before referencing The Cable Guy to explain the role television has played in his life. (Remember the scene at the end of the movie when Jim Carrey falls into a satellite?)

These Things Matter co-founder Taylor Gonda, event coordinator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver and former part of the ensemble with the now-shuttered Paragon Theatre, turned 13 in the early '90s, and was equally infatuated with all things pop.

"If I liked a band," Gonda explains, "it wasn't going to be a casual thing. I had to know everything about them -- maybe because I didn't have many friends."

Monty Python was Gonda's biggest infatuation. "It helped me to understand that you could be really smart, but also really funny" -- that's the deeper meaning she found in the quirky British sketches. And, no, Gonda and O'Brien haven't done a Holy Grail podcast yet.
The year 2015 might usher in new developments, including more web content from O'Brien and possibly a monthly DJ night.
"Nobody would be able to get a word in," Gonda says, adding, "To a certain extent we're just a couple of blowhards. We have our opinions, and we like to share them with the world."

For O'Brien, the podcast is "an extension of what I've been doing all along, which is annoying friends at parties with pop culture." Sure, pop culture "is frivolous and, for a lot of people, it seems unimportant," he says. But then again, you might be surprised by the deeper truths and primordial realities pop culture dialogue occasionally unlocks.

The duo began recording their podcast about three years ago, in April 2012. "I'd wanted to do a podcast for a while, but not a comedy one because every comedian has a terrible podcast," explains O'Brien. He'd met Gonda two years earlier at The Narrators, a monthly storytelling show now at Buntport Theater; a friendship was forged when the duo found common ground discussing John Cusack over coffee.

When Gonda and O'Brien decided to team up, O'Brien proposed a contemporary, current events podcast. "But," he says, "Taylor is more about nostalgic Gen X and '70s culture. She ended up selling me pretty easily on that."

Gonda, too, decided each episode would herald a new pop topic chosen by the week's guest. "Initially, we had topic ideas and would try to find guests who fit, but that didn't fully work," O'Brien explains. Today, guests are required to bring the topic, and they've talked about everything from urban legends to BB guns. The latter was one of O'Brien's all-time favorite episodes: "Mark Sanders was writing a book on the topic and had done all of this research, and I just shut up for once," he says.

The show, says Gonda, "is about talking to people who are obsessed in the way we are obsessed."

Revealing obsessions

"What really matters is what you like, not what you are like."

This line from 
High Fidelity summarizes the show's mission. From there, anything goes: books, movies, music, video games, toys or ideas like burlesque. "The only thing I've put the kibosh on is sports," says Gonda, conceding, "If somebody could find a way to talk about sports pop-culturally, we might do that."

Complete and unbridled obsession is vital to the show because that's what teases out why, exactly, these things matter. "It is kind of silly. There are so many more important things happening in the world," admits Gonda. "But one of my favorite things is how people reveal stuff about themselves when they talk about their obsessions."

Today, guests are required to bring the topic, and they've talked about everything from urban legends to BB guns.Local comedy producer Andy Juett, for example, discussed the movie Caddyshack. "That episode's an hour and a half, and I don't even know if the movie is that long," Gonda says. The movie "defined the way Andy wanted to live his life." The Pee-wee Herman episode was another smash. The Denver Post's John Wenzel, says Gonda, "is truly obsessed."

Gonda and O'Brien do the show off the cuff -- it's less rote, says O'Brien, than a mapped-out performance. There is one rule, though: "Before every show, we tell guests that Kevin talks a lot, and they should feel free to interrupt them," Gonda explains.

At least half of These Things Matter's guests are locals, many comedians, who head to Gonda's apartment-slash-recording-studio. That's not to say the duo won't conduct interviews via Skype or telephone. "We did a phoner with Tom Scharpling of The Best Show," O'Brien recalls fondly.

Unlike most guests, These Things Matter listeners are far and wide, tuning in from Korea, the Philippines and France, as well as Los Angeles, New York, Nebraska (O'Brien's home state) and, of course, Denver.

With 138 episodes under their belts as of January 2015, the duo's learned a lot. Most importantly, consistency matters. "If you don't give people a reason to listen to you, you can get lost in the shuffle of the Internet," O'Brien says.

Patience matters, too. "When you start something on your own on the Internet, the stats show a few Facebook friends and family members are listening to it." O'Brien continues. "The hope is that you can grab a little from each audience member."

Over time, the number of downloads has increased, and These Things Matter was named Westword's 2014 Best Podcast. "I doubt we are even close to the highest downloaded podcast in town, but we do all right," adds O'Brien.

"It's just a thing that we do," Gonda says. These Things Matter doesn't currently generate revenue, but it was recently added to Sexpot Comedy, the multi-platform media enterprise founded in 2012 by Juett and restaurateur/cannabis tycoon Kayvan Khalatbari, whose shop, Sexy Pizza, has been sponsoring the show since 2013. "That helped with financing," says O'Brien, explaining, "We aren't paying out of pocket anymore."

The year 2015 might usher in new developments, including more web content from O'Brien and possibly a monthly DJ night. The most ambitious goal, though, is landing more big-name guests like Scharpling. After all, as O'Brien's email signature, a nod to Harold and Maude, astutely proclaims, "Everyone has a right to make an ass out of themselves."

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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