|Art: Tony (Twitter @vorratony)|
With pandemic overturning routine, my listening habits have changed. Working at home, I started putting on a podcast in the background. Now furloughed, it continues to keep me company, but I don’t have to pause it to answer the phone – what is safe for work changes with where you’re working.
The “CheapShow” podcast [link], has been made by and starring Paul Gannon and Eli Silverman, respectively a radio producer and a club DJ / actor, since it began in 2015, stand-up comedian Ash Frith also appearing occasionally. Taken at face value, it is the celebratory mix of trash culture and body horror that pushes taste for the perfect laugh. Once the offended have stopped listening, the “economy comedy podcast” becomes a fun exploration of the charity shops, bargain bins, flea markets and car boot sales of Great Britain, bringing you intriguing, nostalgic and detestable items that fell through the cracks of popular culture – one man’s trash is literally another man’s treasure.
Once you have listened as much as I have – “CheapShow” is approaching two hundred episodes, at 60-90 minutes each, sometimes longer – it becomes a melange of banter, surreal world building, improvised sketches with characters created from out of nowhere, and a slamming together of language that would make Ludwig Wittgenstein think again, all supported by a strong fanbase helping to feed the show back into the culture through their own tie-in merchandise. “CheapShow” is “a chive-filled yoghurt poultice of destiny” like no other, having “blown the goose” years ago on being your standard podcast fare.
In episode 16, from early 2016, in reply to a remark about eating a scab for research purposes, Eli delineated himself and Paul as characters: “I’m meant to be the disgusting little troll, and you’re meant to be the hapless twat.” This was back when “CheapShow” had more items per episode, and the two former stand-up comedians had not yet delved into the wider pool of scatological humour, even if the very first episode involved asking a guest to choose if they could live without their penis or their tongue. By episode 49 the following year, Paul expressed concerns that the show had become reductive through “the curse of nonsense,” after a sketch involving Hula Hoops, but he followed this by imagining a field of death involving zombie scarecrows and dogs, trained to eat chip fat, would attack Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris – a heated discussion over noodles, and a vinyl single about sex change chickens, also formed part of the same episode. Your average “CheapShow” episode should feel like its hosts are continually engaging in telling the “Aristocrats” joke, without either of them admitting they are keeping this going until they remember the punchline.
While “CheapShow” has its “economy comedy” concept, its execution answers a key question when creating new media: what it is an excuse for? The podcast Ricky Gervais did for “The Guardian” put his and Stephen Merchant’s names first, but was an excuse to introduce the funnier Karl Pilkington; “Cheers” is a sitcom set in a bar, but is an excuse to present one-act plays centred on character development, and “Leigh Spence is Dancing with the Gatekeepers” is a series of articles and videos about various subjects, but is an excuse for me to dive into something interesting and write about it. The concept of “CheapShow” is an excuse to spin a conversation into flights of fancy madness, but the concept still directs the podcast. In a time when anyone you’ve ever heard of has a podcast, you need more than your name in the title for anyone to truly care.
I came across “CheapShow” via the work of Stuart Ashen [whose YouTube channel I discussed here: link], and “Barshens,” the comedy show made with the cook Barry Lewis, on which Paul and Eli worked as producer and co-star respectively. “Barshens” is a great example of making “timeless” content on through comedy quizzes and games, and the only YouTube channel I have seen formally end, instead of just petering out. “CheapShow” segments that also appeared on “Barshens” included “The Price of Shite,” guessing the price of items bought in charity shops, and “Off Brand Brand Off,” a blind taste-test of own-brand or knock-off food items versus the originals, while the frequent playing of board games benefitted from the existence of “Gannon’s Golden Games.”
The first episode of “CheapShow” I heard was episode 140, featuring Ashen as a guest, but I was not prepared for the onslaught: the feature-film length allows for all avenues to be explored, from arguing over how to start a show, followed by a sojourn (or tranche) into the DJ Mike Read, and Paul telling Eli to “wait my hurry,” the latest in a long line of non-sequiturs that left the two “treading on thin water,” to use an earlier one. This was followed by tasting dill pickle-flavoured crisps, a smell-based board game, and a cursed story tape from a listener’s grandfather, known only as “Derek,” bringing the house down with the attempted revelation that a child was Irish – I matched the wall of laughter that followed that as yes, we all heard that. If something makes you laugh until you cry, you keep hold of it.
What I came to like the most was the hosts’ use of language, and their eye for the obscure and ephemeral. Sure, everyone likes noodles and “Ghostbusters,” but without “CheapShow,” I wouldn’t know about the Winkie badge, comedian Roy Jay (“Spook!”), Wendy Carlos’s demented version of “What’s New Pussycat,” the life of John Meggot, and the comedian Mike Reid’s bizarre song “Freezing Cold in 89 Twoso,” which took an Italian song of gibberish made to sound like English... and sang it in English. The “Silverman’s Platter” feature, drawing upon Eli’s collection of random vinyl, has been an education, filling in gaps in my knowledge, to the extent that I may have to start seeking out some of the songs they have played, especially as they may never appear on CD or to stream online.
But the language... I rarely swear, and only do so here where needed, but I don’t routinely try to bend language, creating new words from sounds, or bashing words together. Creating its own words to use alongside the established language is something I’ve seen work only in “CheapShow” and “Red Dwarf.” I have used some of Paul’s accidental uses of words here, but this is added to Eli’s use of sounds, like the sibilance of scribbles, scrubbles, scruffage, scrummage, spoff, spooge and spunk, and teaching Paul how to use the phrase “spoff my josh off” – this later became used in a mash-up of Rick Astley songs. Upon Eli’s commenting on his odd choice of words, Paul said “helipad.”
Then there is the language that creates life. In the most recent episode at the time of writing (number 176, “Zoltan Sucks”), Eli said, “we don’t have a character called Regina, do we? There should be a character, and she should be called Regina Fatata.” This was dismissed by Paul as “the same collection of stupid sounds that come out of your mouth.” Like Inch Man and Storytime Granddad, the character was ill-advised this time around, but characters created on the spur of a choice of words, and driven by the attitude captured with those words, plays to Paul & Eli’s strengths in improvisation – characters like Squishy Jim, Madam Ladyplops, Bobby Bollocks, Richard Brandoff, Uncle Grumbly, Leaky Ken, Precum John, Teen Yeti and in-show knock-off Adolescent Sasquatch, not to mention Paul’s shadow, Jimmy Biscuits. My observation is that the less a character says their name to assert their existence, the longer they last.
“CheapShow” displays confidence in letting characters, sketches and situations be created and played out during the show, with Paul & Eli periodically “step out of the podcast” to make sure their heads are together, things other productions would edit out in an attempt to sound more professional, or to remove what they hadn’t attended. This has added to the enjoyment of listening back through the mountain of previous episodes, recognising the moments when long-running features like “Silverman’s Platter” and “The Sauce Report” either found their names, or arose without warning, meanwhile witnessing how the show's animosity towards Noel Edmonds, something that doesn't need explanation, came from his legally distinguishable quiz show sitcom hybrid "Cheap Cheap Cheap."
“CheapShow” has also branched out from user-generated content, through the corporeal “Tales from the Shop Floor,” to sending items into the show, and into officially unofficial merchandise – “The Unofficial CheapShow Magazine” [link] has had nine issues so far, and T-shirts and stickers have been created out of various moments from the show [link] – slips of the tongue have become T-shirts to the extent that “That’s a T-shirt” has itself become a T-shirt.
These are things that you expect far larger TV and radio shows to have, but I can’t think of any unofficial fan-created items that are endorsed and promoted as effectively official work – it must have happened to something from “The Simpsons,” as there has been enough of it.
For me, “CheapShow” is the “Goon Show” of podcasts: the content may be cheap, but when distinctiveness and originality is free, it’s worth a try – satisfaction will soonly come.