Making a Podcast Sitcom

Actor Felix Trench shares his experience making award-winning podcast sitcom, Wooden Overcoats.

By Felix Trench

In podcasting, today, you do not have to win a film festival or a Fringe First to have a hope of introducing this make-your-own-work work to new audiences.

There is a sitcom called Wooden Overcoats. It has run for three eight-episode seasons. It has been praised in The Guardian, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The New York Times, The Irish Times, The Hindu, TIME, WIRED and FORBES. It is multi-award winning, professionally made, and completely independent.

And it’s a podcast.

The show began as an idea for a make-your-own-work short film. Make-your-own-work is a philosophy actors hear often, particularly when we are looking for ways to open new doors. In our industry, a chaotic one which demands both stoicism outside the casting room and vulnerability within it, make-your-own-work promises control.

I hashed out the basics of the short over coffee with another actor-writer who was to appear in it alongside me. A period piece, we thought, a slapstick about rival funeral directors. We talked about what period it could be set in and I thought I might have a lead on costumes. But we weren’t filmmakers nor did we know how to find any. The idea slipped away.

Twenty years earlier, I had a Walkman and a collection of tapes: audiobooks and BBC comedy recordings. I listened to them on repeat as a teenager. I lived in a British family outside the UK; Radio 4 was intermittently available on longwave, and ITV and Channel 4 were treasures to be watched during visits to grandparents. My tape collection was a solid link to a world I was connected to but didn’t always get.

Which is why, after I became an actor in London and learned about make-your-own-work, I thought as much about making audio drama and comedy as I did new plays and short films. Six months after our coffee, I brought the idea up again with a spin: what if it was a podcast?

I had been pitching radio drama to the channels that you usually pitch to but that never worked. I was an unknown. I could work with a script and turn up on time but I had little else to offer. A podcast was different. Rather than waiting for an established company to make our work, we would do it ourselves.

And that is the point that we stumbled into some luck.

I lived with a playwright. He’s very good. Also, he and I were neighbours with two recent graduates of a radio production course. They are also very good. All three of them liked the idea and came on board to help make it. The playwright would act as head writer, the producers would produce and direct. Between the five of us, we had a project we were all excited about. The playwright shaped it his own way: reworking the setting, adding characters, humanising it all. The producers brought ambition to the recording and detail to the edit.

We recorded it in a music studio in South London. Dedicated audio drama studios were too pricey. Our producers worked magic to make this one suitable to our needs. It took four days to record eight episodes.

Today, we have learned to allow ourselves a bit longer in the studio and not record the whole thing back-to-back. Our voices and nerves are calmer. But we still try to work on an episode per half-day plus some extra time for pick-ups.

Accidentally, we had stumbled on a variation of make-your-own-work: make-your(pl.)-own-work. By pluralising the ‘your’, there is less splitting of attention, less need to learn a whole new skillset. You can focus more on your own expertise. The show we made could only be made by that combination of people bringing their own opinions and creativity to the mix.

In the post-Serial months of 2015, podcasts were defined by content, not form. A podcast was for true stories told live. A podcast is documentary journalism. A podcast is conversation. Everyone spoke about ‘real’ while we plugged away at imaginary.

Many countries had left radio drama behind. In the UK, it was available on tap. Fiction podcasting was niche. The space uncrowded. We took what we knew about radio comedy, applied that to this new distribution channel and looked curiously for any results.

One other thing that a podcast is: a podcast is global.

In podcasting, today, you do not have to win a film festival or a Fringe First to have a hope of introducing this make-your-own-work work to new audiences. That’s changing as awards and press grow in importance; the market is more crowded and has better PR budgets than it did five years ago. 

Gatekeepers rise and fall as the industry tries to crack how to make profit reliable. But the act of having your show added to a browsable list by Apple, Spotify and the rest remains an option to anyone with an internet connection.

It doesn’t have to be a full cast show like Wooden Overcoats. I also make a single-voice show with only one other person, a producer, which is a comedy about the EU called Quid Pro Euro. And I know others who make single-voice shows from their homes too. While that model limits the ambit of the content, it makes up for it by offering flexibility.

We’re soon going to bring Wooden Overcoats to a finish. Last year, we successfully fundraised our final season online. In the half-decade since we began working on the show, we have seen audio drama podcasts proliferate all over the world (in addition to the handful that came before us).

Shows are being made by small groups of creatives as well as new networks with the money for star casting. Much of that is happening in the US. In the UK, we’ve seen both podcast-only forays from the BBC and comedies and dramas from artists making their own work: for instance, the Victorian comedy Victoriocity which is made in Oxford, the various Glasgow-made shows from Tin Can Audio, or the epic space opera The Orphans which is made in London.

If you are interested in learning more about the audio drama podcasting world, search the hashtag #audiodramasunday on Twitter and subscribe to the podcast Radio Drama Revival, which champions a different show each episode.

Felix Trench is an actor and improviser from Brussels. He has worked extensively - particularly in comedy - on stage and screen, and in audio drama for the UK and US. Felix is one of the creators and lead performers of the podcast sitcom Wooden Overcoats. He can be found on Twitter @felixtrench