James Pietragallo and Jimmie Whisman’s CRIME IN SPORTS Podcast and Why Comedians Can Do Almost Anything
A lot of athletes make mistakes. Big mistakes. Plaxico Burress went into a strip club with a gun in his sweatpants for some reason. Steve Howe did nearly all of the cocaine. Darryl Strawberry did the rest of it. James Pietragallo and Jimmie Whisman tell the stories of wayward athletes on their Crime in Sports podcast.
The formula is deceptively simple: Mr. Pietragallo spends the week researching an athlete and his or her misdeeds. Then he and Mr. Whisman get together and banter for two hours as the story unfolds. I listen to a great many podcasts, but Crime in Sports is something special for a number of reasons, all of which prove my thesis that comedians often make for the best storytellers.
As a once and future comedian, I’ve always felt very strongly about the power of comedy and have always admired the way comedians are able to excel where “serious” writers often fail. But what makes Crime in Sports so great and what should writers of all kinds steal from two comedians who crack wise about serious subjects?
Comedians, by their very nature, have the audience principle in mind. Mr. Whisman and Mr. Pietragallo regularly get up in front of audiences of strangers and must find some way to make those people laugh. (I’m sure the clubs’ two drink minimums help.) If they aren’t funny, if they don’t hold the audience’s attention…they know. They don’t receive rejections in the mail like writers do, but they feel the crushing emptiness of the bombing: a feeling that tugs at you before, during, and after. It’s a funny feeling that way. I have actually seen some writers say that they don’t want to make more readers, don’t want to appeal to a wide audience. I don’t understand this attitude. Sure, we limit our audiences to some extent. A comedy podcast that is dedicated to crime in sports is never going to be a hit with people who have no interest in comedy, crime, or sports. Most people, however, like at least one of those things.
In addition to thanking specific audience members on the podcast (especially ones who donate to their Patreon), Mr. Pietragallo offers a very low bar to entry. That is to say that he does not insist that a listener know a lot about sports or the legal system. He does all the research so the listener can have all of the fun.
While I suppose you could make the argument that old-time comedians such as Henny Youngman don’t employ much narrative in their comedy routines, that’s not the case anymore. When they put together a routine, comedians must build a set that:
- Follows a dramatic arc, with exposition, rising action, a climax, falling action, a denoument…everything.
- Features periodic highs to elicit laughs while allowing lulls and low points so there is some variation in emotion
- Fits the time period the comedian knows that he or she will be onstage. (Five minutes means five minutes!)
- Feels unique to the comedian and expresses his or her personality and viewpoint (and doesn’t resemble a George Carlin routine from 1972 that the comedian listened to a thousand times)
These requirements and more seem familiar, don’t they? They should…these are the basic elements of storytelling! You have to meet audience expectations while doing something interesting enough to keep their attention while hewing to the requirements of the genre…
Mr. Pietragallo and Mr. Whisman are also very smart in terms of how they build the show. Like improv comedians, they establish a loose structure that allows them to tell their story without a literal script. To be sure, Mr. Pietragallo has all of the details in front of him on a stack of index cards that he had to purchase–“Crime in Sports on Patreon“–but he has the storytelling/comic skill to tell Mr. Whisman the story based around bones. In loose terms, Mr. Pietrogallo begins with telling the audience the athlete’s full name and birthdate. Then his or her early history. Then we learn about the athlete’s activities in, well, crime and sports. Along the way, we hear from a character or two, including “the Shawarma Man.” If I listened correctly, the characters grew organically out of the podcast episodes because comedians are great at batting ideas back and forth and honing them according to the laughter each character receives. Then Mr. Pietrogallo humorously lists people who share the athlete’s name before finishing the story and giving shoutouts to audience members.
While writers must actually commit their thoughts to paper, this kind of imagination and ability to improvise is very important for prose people. What are stories but a series of generic milestones that we adorn with specifics? Isn’t a room full of comedians just a supercharged version of a writing workshop?
I guess what I’m saying is that we should all do two things: apply the principles that comedians use to our writing. And we should listen to Crime in Sports on the Podcast One app or Podbean or however you consume your podcasts.
p.s. Mr. Pietrogallo and Mr. Whisman also have a podcast called Small Town Murder that is worth your time.