A lot of podcasts are niche propositions, and it doesn’t get much more niche than Pistol Shrimps Radio.
My cousin, attempting to explain it to me, said: “Imagine Mystery Science Theater 3000 but for women’s recreational basketball.” That’s not far off as a logline — but like most good programs, once you take the plunge you discover a much deeper appeal.
The premise: Two comedians with next to no knowledge about basketball, Mark McConville and Matt Gourley, call the games of L.A. women’s municipal basketball team the Pistol Shrimps. The team, comprised mostly of comedians and actors (Parks and Rec's Aubrey Plaza was once a member), was recently immortalized in the Morgan Spurlock–produced documentary The Pistol Shrimps, which debuted on the NBCUniversal streaming service Seeso last week. (The team also was the subject of a recent LA Weekly feature.)
McConville, 38, and Gourley, 43, met in 2002 at the improv theater ComedySportz and quickly developed an easygoing, absurdist rapport. They did improv at Disneyland together and during breaks cooked up the idea for their first podcast, Superego , a sketch-improv concept with Paul F. Tompkins and Jeremy Carter, which debuted in 2006.
Last spring, around the time they started feeling burned out by the laborious production that went into Superego, Gourley was attending every Pistol Shrimps game with his fiancée (and Shrimps baller), actress Amanda Lund.
“I’m not much of a sports fan, but I absolutely wanted to support her and her friends,” Gourley says. “But at the same time, I’m like, ‘Aw, it’s sports — what can we do?’ And then I thought, I should call the play-by-play, because I have no idea how to do that.”
Gourley enlisted McConville, who has one foot in the sports world as an admitted fan and one-time hockey player.
Sitting courtside behind a folding table (adorned with a framed photo of Mark Knopfler), they adopt the stylings of sportscasters — bouncing between plays called with middling knowledge, making up sponsors, promotional giveaways and referee names, and generally rambling like two best friends who crack each other up with nonsense and non sequiturs.
They send up the tropes of AM radio play-by-play sportscasting with humor and precision.
“It’s this weird language people have,” Gourley says. “It’s kind of like — not to disparage — but fundamentalist Christians when they pray. Both of them have the same cadence, and I thought, I can speak that language.”
“I think people who watch sports wished that people could be a little more honest,” McConville says. “When we say, ‘That call was horseshit’ — that’s what dads say. But sportscasters never say that. We’re kind of, in a way ...”
“... Dad-casting,” Gourley offers.
Each hour (the length of one game) is densely packed with an increasingly elaborate network of pseudo-commentary, inside jokes, recurring gags, spontaneous singing and Gourley and McConville trying to suppress laughter while trying to maintain their blowhard courtside demeanor.
“It’s this exercise in: Can the two of us keep the proverbial ball in the air for an hour, without stopping?” McConville says.
“It’s become our sport, in a way,” Gourley says.
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The podcast isn’t a blockbuster in terms of download numbers, which average 20,000 per episode cycle (compared with, say, Comedy Bang! Bang!’s 200,000). But the format and the hosts’ infectious chemistry have fostered a fervent fan base, many of whom mail the duo gifts.
McConville thinks the fervor may come out of “non-sports people” who grew up with a sports-loving parent and always hearing gameplay in the background, responding to this wisecracking cocktail of nostalgia and game-ignorant commentary.
Gourley says that of his many podcasts, Pistol Shrimps Radio is the most candid. That helps cultivate the intimacy unique to podcasts, so listeners feel as if they know the hosts — and are in on the joke.
“It’s the most unchecked version of ourselves,” Gourley says. “I’m just realizing that,” he laughs. “That’s sad.”