Interview: Holding Court Podcast

by Joshua Goldfond

The Holding Court Podcast is a popular basketball and comedy program written and performed by Philadelphia-based comedians Aaron Hertzog and Gregg Gethard. Each episode of the show’s hour-long format is a mix of sports commentary, comedy bits, and anecdotal humor. Its charm and appeal come not just from the chemistry between the two hosts- with Herzog often the straight man and Gethard the comedic foil- but also in its general accessibility to even the most casual fans of the NBA.

Discussion of the sport’s technical elements is usually eschewed in favor of the NBA storylines, teams and personalities which have proven compelling to so many in recent years. There have been 46 episodes produced since the podcast’s premiere in 2010. It has since gathered a following among several noted NBA blogs, as well as comedian Tom Scharpling, producer of the popular radio show, “The Best Show on WFMU”.

Hertzog (27) is Pennsylvania native and Temple University graduate who is quite active in the city’s stand-up comedy scene. He is also the founder of the “Friendship” movement, which encourages the city’s comedy community to join together for charity events. Gethard, (34) (whose brother Chris is interviewed elsewhere on this site) is a writer and comedian from West Orange, NJ,  who has lived in Philadelphia since graduating from La Salle University. He is also the former host of “Bedtime Stories”, a former weekly stage show which catered to the city’s comedy scene.

Gregg Gethard spoke to me in mid-May of 2012, in the midst of the NBA playoffs.

Tell me a little but about how you and Aaron first started working together. When did you launch the podcast, and how did it evolve into the current format? What made you choose to mix basketball and comedy? 

The show was originally three of us — me, Aaron and our friend Dave. It was pretty much Dave’s idea for us to do a NBA podcast. The three of us are all big basketball fans and we decided to do one. We started two NBA seasons ago. Anyways, we stopped doing it after four or five episodes because of time constraints. I was starting to commute from Philly to NYC for my job and Dave was starting grad school. 

Aaron still wanted to do the podcast and I really, really, really missed doing it, too. We tried to restart it with Dave but he was just way too busy. So Aaron figured out how to upload a podcast and it became what it is now. 

Our first ones with Dave were VERY NBA heavy. But I have a tendency to stray off topic. Dave was very good with reigning me in. But once he left, it became what it is now. I think it works better now. Aaron and I love basketball. But we’re not going to break down plays. We’re not NBA experts. There are also a lot of really great podcasts for hardcore NBA junkies. But what we can do is be funny however we want to be funny. Basketball’s just kind of the one thread linking episode to episode.

Basketball itself lends itself to comedy. NBA fans have a ridiculous attachment to certain players. People do root for their local teams but the more hardcore fans appreciate teams that they don’t live near and players from all over the map. I think the personal connection is due to the fact that NBA players don’t wear hats or helmets. You see these guys facial reactions and emotions. Comedy is all about personal connections to an audience, too.

I like to describe it as “20% NBA talk, 80% of us just being silly.” You don’t need to like basketball to like the podcast — in fact, we have a few people who have reached out to us who don’t know a thing about basketball and like it. It helps if you do, though. Of course, this works against us — if you like basketball you might get chased off about me talking about being accosted at the gym by a man who kept on calling himself “daddy” in the hot tub. Or if you like us rambling, you’ll get chased off when we talk about Dirk Nowitzki.

How long do the episodes generally take to develop? Is there any sort of production team involved, or is it just you and Aaron? What kind of equipment is used?

The episodes take pretty much no time to develop. I’ll show up at Aaron’s. We’ll decide what we want to talk about. We’ll each have a few notes about what we want to talk about. Aaron hits record and off we go. We really just brainstorm for 5-10 minutes.

We do have “special guest” episodes where we have a guest who is doing a bit. These take a bit more time. I usually come up with the idea, but all I do is come up with the premise for a character. For instance, we did one where we interviewed the Home Depot manager who interviewed Boston Celtic Delonte West for a job. It turned out he was also a strident Tea Party member.

For that, we asked our friend Jim Grammond to help out. Jim’s a comic in Philly and incredibly smart. He flushed out a ton of the details — added in the Tea Party stuff, in fact. Jim’s our most frequent “guest” since he can really talk knowledgeably about any topic. We also have had Becca Trabin on a few times — she lives with Aaron and does improv and is very, very quick with her thought process. We’ve also had our friend Pete Keumple — who is more or less the third host, actually. My friend Mac from Boston also recently joined us as “Dikembe Double”.

For the character bits, we do write down a few notes before the show. We do try and have a narrative to each one, but they’re all the same. I play the straight man (which is awesome — I’m NEVER the straight man!). Our guest will be antagonistic to me but will try and convince Aaron of the merits of his cause. Aaron will fall spell and will become brainwashed by our guest. Sometimes, we’ll think of an idea during the recording and we’ll jot down a note to take it to a new direction or for a funny line Aaron or myself think of.

As far as production values — we have the absolute lowest production values. Aaron has two microphones and a mixer. He plugs it into his laptop and records with Garage Band or something along those lines. Then he uploads it. We do know the production quality sucks but we don’t really have the money or time to upgrade our equipment. I think, though, the low-grade nature of what we’re doing is a huge part of its charm. We have a following because of what we’re doing and aren’t fooling people by having all kinds of bells-and-whistles.

What have been some ways that you’ve tried to spread the word about the show? Has it mainly been by word of mouth?

When we started, the only people who knew about us were the three other people in the Philly comedy community who also liked basketball. We slowly expanded via social networking — Twitter, Facebook, etc. So word of mouth helped at first.

The BIG leap, though, was because the great Tom Scharpling was a fan of the podcast. Tom’s the host of The Best Show on WFMU, which is my favorite comedy thing in the world. He also was a writer/producer for Monk and has worked on a bunch of other projects. He’s also written and directed music videos for Ted Leo, Titus Andronicus and Real Estate. He’s also a gigantic NBA fan. Dave sent him a link to a few episodes and he got in touch with us and said he liked them. He also pushed them on his show and on Twitter. And then, seemingly at random, he started talking about me on his show and recruited me to become his new “protege”. Since then, I’ve become a regular caller to his show and am known as the show’s “villain” more or less. I was also lucky enough to be a live guest in the studio a few months ago.

A lot of comedy fans and NBA fans found us that way. And word of mouth has spread from a bunch of prominent NBA bloggers, too.

Essentially, we got a really huge break with someone who has a huge fanbase plugging us. He really didn’t have to do that. It’s almost completely ridiculous that someone I’m a huge fan of discovered our podcast and liked it enough to push it. We pretty much owe 99.9% of our listenership to him, probably.

In a recent episode you expressed your opinion that the present-day NBA is just as compelling as it was back during its heyday in the late 80s/early 90s, when it was populated by legendary players like Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson. Can you elaborate on that?

There are SO many great players and plot twists in the NBA right now. The league doesn’t have MJ, Larry and Magic to carry its flagship. But it has LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Kevin Durant, Kobe, the big three on the Celtics, Derrick Rose, etc. Seriously — there is no bigger narrative right now in sports than if LBJ can finally win the big one. When you add on that he’s such a divisive figure, it just makes the story even better.

Back in the 80s and 90s, there were only a handful of teams that mattered. You knew that, in the end, it was going to be either the Celtics, Lakers, Pistons or Bulls (or Houston when MJ was playing baseball). There were a few pretenders like Portland and Phoenix and Seattle and Utah. But, when it came down to it, there were a handful of teams that could win.

Now? It’s so unpredictable. There’s Miami. There’s Boston. There’s Chicago (when healthy). Orlando almost stole a title a few years ago. In the west, Dallas had a terrific run to get Dirk Nowitzki his title and also recreated his legacy. There’s Kobe trying to make one last stand. There are the OKC Thunder, who are America’s team and have the talent to become a dynasty if they figure out how to get it all together. There’s even a team like Memphis who are as good as anyone when they’re hot. Or the Clippers who are the ultimate “they have great highlights but are they actually for real?” team. And then San Antonio’s also trying to grab one last title in their amazingly consistent run.

The NBA has a dearth of young talent. There aren’t ANY knuckleheads amongst them. LeBron’s the most hatable of everyone in basketball but that’s because he’s a prima donna and not because he’s fired a gun at a stripper.

The NBA is just fantastic right now, even though the lockout is causing guys to tear ACLs left and right.

 

Even the most casual basketball fan is aware of the big personalities in the league right now (LeBron, Kobe, Durant, etc), but who were some of the lesser-known players and teams that you found interesting this season? I recall a recently episode where you discussed your love of the 2011-12 Memphis Grizzlies squad, which you seemed to regard as a band of entertaining misfits. 

Even though they just got bounced, I love the Memphis Grizzlies. They’re a team of cast-offs and guys known for having insane tempers who have come together, using the slogan “Grit and Grind” as their mantra. They just play tough defense, get rebounds and do nothing flashy. Their best player is Zach Randolph, who has punched out a bunch of teammates on teams past. They have Marc Gasol, who everyone ripped as second banana to his brother but is now really good. They had on the court at one point this playoff series Hamad Haddadi — the first Iranian born player in the NBA — and Gilbert Arena, best known for being a lovable wildcard who ruined his legacy by bringing guns into a locker room and jokingly challenging a teammate to a duel.

Kevin Love has become one of the most remarkable guys in the league. He has one of the weirdest games of all-time. The guy’s just a beast of a rebounder but is also one of the premier three point shooters in the league. And he’s done this while having a knee condition. Minnesota became everyone’s favorite non-playoff team this year because of him and Ricky Rubio, their young point guard sensation from Spain.

I also love Rajan Rondo on the Celtics. He’s an amazing point guard who can do literally anything but shoot the ball with any consistency. He also has such a sour demeanor that is somehow entertaining. I also am a huge fan of Andre Iguadola on the Sixers. He gets ripped constantly in Philly by people who have no idea what they’re talking about. He’s one of the best defenders in basketball who can play four positions. I love James Harden, the sixth man on the Thunder who just flies around the court. Kenneth Faried on the Denver Nuggets also has won my heart — he just loves playing professional basketball and it shows. DeMarcus Cousins on the Kings could also not be more intriguing — he has the talent to become a Hall-of-Famer but loses his mind constantly.

I also have to profess to loving the Knicks this past season. Not one team has ever had a season like they did. They sucked to start the season. They became a global phenomenon with the awesome Linsanity run. (And I think Jeremy Lin is going to be a very good player.) They then struggled and got their coach fired. Then Carmelo got hot and they went on a huge run to end the season. And then Amare punched some glass. Seriously — what a surreal season!

What would you say are some of the show’s leading comedic influences? Do you and Aaron have a similar comedic sentiment?

Aaron and I do think the same things are hilarious. He’s more a fan of current stand-up like Louis CK and those guys than I am. I think the best stand-ups we have now are awesome, but I just can’t keep up with what everyone’s doing.

As far as my influences for the show — I have been a radio nerd for as long as I can remember. The Best Show is an obvious answer. So is Howard Stern. The reason why those shows work is because Tom and Howard both put their personalities on the airwaves and it lets people in. I started doing comedy in order to tell the ridiculous stories that come up routinely in my life (an attribute I share with my brother) but then started performing more character stuff. The podcast lets me just be myself on the air. I’m not afraid to say anything about myself in public and I think people appreciate that. 

Sports radio is also a huge influence on me, too. I listen to a ton of sports radio. The guys I like the most — Francesa, Mike Missanelli here in Philly — are so personally invested with what they’re talking about. They’re passionate and it shows. I think I have that on the podcast, albeit not necessarilly about sports. 

Your podcast have been vocal advocates of the Philly comedy scene. Are there any comedians or groups in the city that you would recommend?

There is SO much good comedy in Philly! Our best known export is Doogie Horner who had a fleeting moment with fame courtesy of his brilliant performances on America’s Got Talent. Chip Chantry’s consistently hilarious. A local sketch group called The Feeko Brothers should really have an Adult Swim show by now. Brendan Kennedy’s stream-of-conscious stand-up is as good as anyone in the world’s when he’s clicking on all cylinders. Another great sketch group are Secret Pants, who more-or-less have defined what Philly comedy is and can be. And another group is Camp Woods, which has become a collective more than a sketch comedy group.

As great as Philly comedy is, I think we can do more. A few Philly comics have made the move to NYC or LA. And more are on the way, if rumors are to be believed. But I definitely think we could do more in hopes to reach a national audience. A few of us have made videos which have gone viral (Secret Pants, in particular) but that’s catching lightning-in-a-bottle. We can do more to present ourselves to the entire country, I think. We managed to capture a national audience — hell, I was even interviewed on an Australian podcast and we also have a regular listener from New Zealand. It’s possible now to reach a large audience anywhere in the world, but we have to organize and analyze the best ways to do that.

We do have a great comedy scene in Philly. From where it started (when there was almost no alternative comedy in Philly) to where it is now (there’s arguably too much comedy) has been remarkable to be a part of and to watch develop. But we have a challenge now in figuring out what the next evolutionary step is, especially for those of us who stick around and don’t move to greener pastures.

Do you two have any plans use the show to bridge into other projects? Or are you simply trying to grow the show as it is?

We’ve been lucky enough to get involved with some other projects because of the show. There’s a guy named Jon Solomon who has been involved with Princeton’s awesome community radio station (WPRB) for years. He has a 24-hour Christmas music marathon every year which I’ve been a fan of for a really long time. He asked us to take part this year with a story about Christmas and we did. I’ve also written for a few basketball blogs — most notably the amazing Negative Dunkalectics website which I think is the best basketball website in the world and their football spin-off Thus Spiked.

We’re very happy with how the show is currently constructed. The lack of planning really works in our favor. I like things that are free-flowing. I love This American Life but sometimes it’s just sooooooo forced. That part I hate. It doesn’t sound natural. Ours may not sound polished at all but it’s 100% natural and happens as is.

We also really want to do a live show at some point. We don’t know what or how this will look like but it’s something we definitely want to do.

As far as growing the show — we definitely want to do more of the character stuff. That has gone really well, we think. I also have a scripted show that I think is one of the best things I’ve ever written (which sounds really hypocritical from the previous paragraph). I just need to edit it before we record it. We also really keep meaning to write more for our website but finding the time is just too hard.

 

Episodes of The Holding Court Podcast can be found on its website: http://theholdingcourtpodcast.com/, and it can be followed on twitter @holdingcourtpod.

Aaron Hertzog’s website can be found here

It is also available for download on iTunes.