It’s one of the slyest gags in the hit Disney+ whodunnit series Only Murders in the Building that podcasting has become a refuge for downwardly mobile celebrities, directionless hipsters and obsessive amateur sleuths.
Revolving around a podcast begun by a trio of true-crime fanatics investigating the mysterious death of their neighbour, Only Murders in the Building casts Steve Martin as an ageing actor, Martin Short as struggling Broadway director and Selena Gomez as an eye-rolling millennial.
Yet in dramatising the creation of their characters’ titular podcast, it showcases a more positive pop culture trend: the rise of the podcaster protagonist.
A New Legitimacy
Where once TV and film drew inspiration from detectives, journalists and writers, now podcasters have become legitimate characters in their own right.
Just last year, Oscar-winner Joaquin Phoenix played an NPR-style podcast host in arthouse hit C’Mon, C’Mon.
Ghostbusters: Afterlife added a podcast-obsessed kid to the mix of its next-generation teen cast.
And 2018’s mega-successful Halloween reboot featured a pair of soon-to-be-murdered true-crime podcasters making a show about the events depicted in the original film – an entertainingly grizzly way of bringing modern audiences up to speed on the 40-year legacy of Michael Myers.
Steve Martin’s arc in Only Murders in the Building even comments on this shift. His character begins the show as an actor vaguely famous for having once played a TV detective. By the end of season one, he’s gained a rabid new fanbase as a podcast host.
A Cultural Shift
As podcasts have become an integral part of our daily lives this cultural shift makes sense.
Indie filmmaker and podcasting pioneer Kevin Smith was among the first to recognise the format’s narrative potential at a time when podcasting still felt like a fringe occupation.
Smith’s 2014 horror-comedy Tusk (which he conceived on — yep — his own podcast) revolved around an obnoxious podcast host who comes a cropper while investigating a strange story for his clickbait-y show.
But if Tusk and the aforementioned Halloween suggest it doesn’t really pay to be a podcaster in a horror movie, their relatively new prominence in fiction shows creators are at least moving away from using reporters and true-crime writers as go-to Basil Expositions – a development illustrated by Ghostbusters: Afterlife, which used its intrepid pint-sized podcaster to fulfil this very function. And his name? ’Podcast’ of course.
A Shared Sense of Intimacy
But fictional podcasters aren’t just there to make a screenwriter’s job easier.
Maron saw stand-up comedian Marc Maron build a reality-blurring sitcom around his own raw, confessional, interview-based podcast WTF. He also later demonstrated his podcast’s pop culture currency by cameoing as himself on The Simpsons in a surprisingly poignant episode in which he interviews Krusty the Clown for a WTF-like show.
C’Mon, C’Mon, meanwhile, used the unscripted responses of the real teenagers interviewed for the documentary series Joaquin Phoenix’s character is producing to underscore the complex emotions his character is processing as he’s forced to parent his estranged nephew.
Podcasting thrives on a shared sense of intimacy. It’s only natural film and TV should want to capitalise on this to hook audiences.
The Influence of Serial
That’s part of the reason Only Murders in the Building has become such a hit.
It riffs on the boom in the sort of quasi-intimate, true-crime podcasts that have been in vogue since Serial became a phenomenon in 2014.
It’s a reference that Tina Fey’s casting in the show makes explicit. She plays Cinda Canning, a Sarah Koenig soundalike host of the hit Serial-style podcast that inspires the characters to create their own show.
Fey’s performance also affectionately parodies what’s become known as ‘the podcast voice’, a specific way of talking that Koenig popularised with Serial.
Conversational, questioning and fond of dramatic pauses, this now ubiquitous style was developed by Koenig’s mentor, Ira Glass, as a way of engaging listeners on NPR’s long-running radio show and podcast This American Life. Glass, incidentally, was one of the inspirations for Joaquin Phoenix’s character in C’Mon, C’Mon.
Appetite for Deconstruction
But Only Murders in the Building further embraces this appetite for deconstruction in the writing of the show itself.
It both mimics the shaggy dog plotting found in the glut of post-Serial podcasts and uses the freedom the format offers to play around with the narrative conventions of a traditional TV whodunnit.
Early in season one, for instance, it introduces a sly meta twist by jumping forward in time and having Fey’s character reveal that her next show will investigate the true story behind the Only Murders in the Building podcast Martin and Co’s characters are making.
It took Marvel multiple movies to educate audiences on superhero lore before they could really subvert the comic-book movie format. Only Murders in the Building performs an equivalent feat for podcasts in less than a season.
Heroes of Their Own Stories
That reflects the rapid pop culture penetration of podcasting in recent years.
It also bodes well not just for the self-aware storytelling Only Murders in the Building’s creators have already promised for its forthcoming second season, but for the types of movie and TV characters that might follow in its wake.
At a time when more and more TV shows based on podcasts are hitting streaming platforms, Only Murders in the Building has identified something valuable: the creative potential of making podcasters the heroes of their own stories.
Season 1 of Only Murders in the Building is streaming on Disney+ now. Season 2 debuts on June 28.