Learning through Humor and Podcasting: An Interview with Melanie Vare

By Laura Kemmerer

What the Internet lacks in general focus, it more than makes up for in opportunities for niche markets and creations to grow out of the woodwork. Whether looking to cater to sports fans or cat lovers, there is an audience for almost anything one can think of. One of the many ways to reach those audiences is through the changing face of radio merged with the Internet—the podcast.

Nvate Podcast by Melanie Vare That Time of the Month comedy show

Credit: Melanie Vare

What Melanie Vare, comedian and writer, originally set out to accomplish with her show, “That Time of the Month,” has changed with the types of media. I had a chance to sit down and speak with Vare about what it’s like to run a podcast based on women and the stories they have to tell.

LCK: What originally inspired you to create a podcast that was more catered toward women?

Vare: It was based off of the live show, and I started the live show in Los Angeles. I was in a female storytelling group in LA, and we could never get it going. Like no one wanted to put in the effort really, but it was such a fun collaboration.

I had done standup comedy for 12 years, but there was always something unfulfilling about it for me. I didn’t feel a connection with the other performers or the community. I had some friends in that world, but when I became involved with female storytelling it was such a different experience.

We had so much fun. We’d get together to talk about the show because we had put it on together. I felt like I was growing as a person and through performing, which was very different for me than standup.

I used to do a web show where we used to talk about how messed up we are and talk about all of our issues, the more we realized that all human beings deal with the same stuff. I think it makes women in a separate category, where we all deal with the same stuff and the same thoughts. So I wanted to focus on just the woman thing, so I needed to keep the show going.

I wound up getting laid off from the corporate job I had, so I acted like, “Does anyone want to work on this with me?” Everybody wanted to, but no one wanted to do anything. Everyone was too busy with their jobs, which I got, but I could never do it before that because I was too busy. So I just took it on and thought about it for awhile and realized I only wanted to do the show once a month. With my background in standup comedy, I just thought that was an interesting way to try a female storytelling show, and I wanted it to have a funny focus. I think humor really disarms people and it gives people more to think about from that aspect.

So I started that, and it did really well from the start. A lot of people came out, and in LA it’s really hard to get people to come out to your show because everybody’s always putting something on. And I was shocked because every time it was a packed house.

It was mostly lighthearted storytelling; nothing all that serious. It was mostly about internal struggles that women face. Some stories were more serious.

The show was popular in LA, but ever since I moved to Nashville I put an ad out on Craigslist just asking for submissions and editing. I got just a few responses at first, but they were great—really funny.

“That Time of the Month,” in my mind, is about being really honest, telling a story with a sense of humor, but also having some self-awareness. I want people to learn through humor, through the stories.

I started really getting into podcasts; I listened to, “This American Life,” and others. I loved them. I would leave them playing when I did stuff around the house, and it was great for multitasking. I’m such a multitasker that TV is kind of hard to watch. But podcasts are very easy to listen to while you do other things. I liked that idea as far as wanting to do the “That Time of the Month” podcast, and I saw what we were doing in LA and also in Nashville.

We had people driving from Kentucky to see the show, and Pennsylvania. Some people were really interested in what we were doing. We had people come up to us after the show and say, “I totally related to that story,” [or,] “My experience is this,” while we were talking about a story. I wanted something that would appeal to everyone, and I thought it would be interesting to get a group together with a couple of other girls and a guy to get his perspective on things and discuss in depth some of the issues that were mentioned on the show.

The conversations felt like girls talk how we really talk, not looking back, and just being honest about insecurities. One of the things that really held me back was assuming everyone had their stuff together, and that everything is fine, but now I find that’s not true at all. Other people have big issues also.Some of us wanted a place where women could come listen to honesty.

There’s another podcast I listen to called, “Fixing Joe,” where he talks about his anxiety and how it’s affected his family. I just love people who are honest about the stuff that they’re going through.

LCK: How has your background in comedy influenced the way you cover material and tell stories on the show?

Vare: It’s interesting because it definitely encompasses how I write. Well, one thing I was always really aware of with comedy was you can only go so long without getting a laugh. So when I’m writing the first draft of a story, I try not to judge it at all. I just let it spill out. Funny stuff comes when you’re not even trying—just when you’re being super honest. Saying those thoughts that you don’t really want to say because you think people will judge you, I feel like that’s the funny stuff. So a lot of times it doesn’t even have to be written, if you’re just honest it’ll come out.

Sometimes I pray and meditate, just so that I’m honest. Then I go back to revisit the story with a highlighter or on my computer and I highlight all of the funny parts—the parts that I think are laugh out loud, jokey stuff. And I make sure there’s enough highlights throughout. If I see a big chunk where there are no highlights, I assume sometimes you don’t need a joke all the time. Maybe you’re getting your point across, but a lot of times I can add in even more specific details. I feel like specific details make things funny a lot of the time where there’s just a general description.

LCK: Are there or have there ever been any topics on the show that you consider taboo or that you aren’t comfortable covering?

Vare: I’ll talk about how I had hemorrhoids, how I got kidnapped, and got my boobs fondled, and stuff like that. But when people talking about being really vulnerable and opening up to others and sex, like talking about it in that really bald kind of way. One of my friends, she talked all about dressing up for her guy, wearing all these little costumes, and how he was into this kinky stuff. I’m not like a prude or anything, and I’m comfortable in my own skin. But when people are really open and say stuff like, “Oh my family walks around naked,” that kind of freaks me out. So I finally got to introduce certain performers or certain stories and I thought, “Maybe we won’t feature this story,” but when I thought about it I realized it’s just because I’m uncomfortable.

I was curious, why did you decide to create a podcast, versus keeping the stories to book form?

One of the things I noticed when putting together the book was that there were a few stories, after they were written and when I had people read them, and they thought different ones were funnier than others. I had always thought other ones were funnier than others. I realized that these true stories come from a real place, so sometimes when I get the submissions, I realize I’ve never met these people before. So I’m imagining them saying it one way, but then they come out on stage and some people are real shy, but others are just these amazing presenters. So just hearing it live and hearing the laughter makes us and makes me feel like we’re all in on this story together, it’s more of an individual interpretation. It’s more of a community thing on the podcast with recorded stories.

What challenges have you faced that are more unique to creating a podcast versus other forms of media, such as the book that you mentioned before?

It’s hard to be a creative type and then a sound engineer and then a content creator. Figuring out the technical stuff for the podcast, it sounds really easy, but then you decide to use “GarageBand” and the sound sounds horrible. And we actually recorded two more episodes the other night, and we borrowed Emily Sandberg—her husband is a music producer—and I didn’t want to ask him for any favors, but I asked him if we could use his sound studio. So he let us, and it sounded better. The technical stuff is always a pain in the butt. It can be a real deterrent for me.

Back to something you were talking about earlier. What originally gave you the idea to have a man’s input on a show catered toward women?

It makes sense now, but when I was in LA I didn’t have any guys on the show. A guy in the audience, a friend of mine actually, said, “Why don’t you have an honorary male spot each time?” I thought that would be so fun. So I thought about it, and I realized there have been a lot of women’s type things that have done that. There were a lot of great guys I knew, so my first guy idea started to take place.

When I moved to Nashville I put out an ad for guy submissions. I didn’t get one guy submission. I got a lot of women ones. I even posted this flier at a popular coffeehouse in Nashville. Nothing. I get this email from this one guy, Chris Pilny, and he was like the dream come true. He used to work at Victoria’s Secret, he had all these diary entries of his time there, which he sent to me, and they weren’t written in a story form, but they were still hilarious.

Chris is a very good writer. So loved Chris, everybody loved him, he was the star of the second show. The first show I couldn’t get a guy. He was such a star, and he really wanted to get more involved in storytelling. He’s written a lot of stuff, but he had never really written in the personal essay form, but I think he really liked that style.

So he wanted to get more involved, and I needed some help because at first I was getting a lot of submissions from people who had never written like this before and so a lot of editing was needed. And now that the show has gone on, the submitters know what they need to do because they’ve come and seen the show, so we’re not editing as much. Chris was there helping me edit the stories a lot. He just got really involved, so I started talking about the podcast.

Nvate Podcast by Melanie Vare That Time of the Month comedy show

Chris Pilny, to the left of Melanie Vare, and men who read their submissions aloud at a show Credit: “That Time of the Month” Facebook page.

I think originally it was maybe just going to be me and him, and then I didn’t feel like that was what the show really was. So we wanted it to be more like a guy eavesdropping on a women’s conversation, and the dynamic that Chris presented was that he was the only guy at Victoria’s Secret hearing these women talking about their sex lives and what a shock that was to him.

First I asked Emily, and then she wasn’t free when we needed to tape because she’s a mother and she had a new job, she’s got stuff going on with that. But then I thought, “Shit, we got to do this or I’ll never start.” I was like, “My friend, Pam, would be amazing.” She’s a nurse practitioner, like a head nurse at a hospital, and she’s so fun to chat with. She’s very articulate. I thought she would add a little bit of something. She was just supposed to be on for a couple of episodes, but then everyone loved her, so I said well, the more the merrier. Three women and a guy was more of what I had in mind.

How do you decide what is going to be discussed for an episode? How do you structure them and what qualifies a story to be chosen for the next episode?

The stories we accept, the submitters have a choice whether or not they want to film because some of these stories are really personal, about family members or whatever. I put it on our YouTube page, and then I go back and review all of the stories. I have this log, like an Excel sheet, of all the stories, and I have in mind which of the stories I really like that are the essence of, “That Time of the Month.” They’re funny, they’re true, and they deal with some kind of issue. I also look at what stories we have left because we need to keep doing shows, and we keep getting stories, and then I just sort of sit with it and see what stories we have.

I think of what issues I’ve faced or that a lot of women deal with, that it’s not just friendships. So I sit down and shape it around that. I can make the topics more specific. Once I have the stories and theme, I think of my own life and what problems I had or experiences or funny little anecdotes. I send an email to the editors with links to the YouTube. We’re supposed to watch the videos before the next time we meet. And then we think about this topic and how their stories relate with them, so they’re supposed to think about it ahead of time. I wanted it to feel pretty natural; it’s definitely not scripted or anything. It’s pretty loose.

Do you have any final words of wisdom for anyone who would want to create their own targeted podcast?

I’ve had to do a lot of soul searching to figure out what it was I wanted to add to the podcasting world, to the creative community. So I created a mission statement, and I read that before working on anything toward the show or the podcast. I try to remember that so I stay focused—staying focused to what is essential to the podcast and actually making it and putting it on iTunes is all that’s necessary at the beginning. If you just create quality work, the audience will appear sooner or later.

To listen to, “That Time of the Month,” visit the podcast’s iTunes page.

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