Freshly popped!

We discuss comedy, college and Zac Efron’s restraining order with the “Pop My Culture” podcast

WRITTEN BY: Janelle Vreeland
Image Source: Pop My Culture
Freshly popped!

Life is good for Cole Stratton and Vanessa Ragland. A year and a half ago the duo launched the “Pop My Culture” podcast, a biweekly show featuring an array of guests from all walks of showbiz. Now, over 40 episodes and guests later, they have been deemed one of the best comedy podcasts of the moment by Rolling Stone – second only to the “Pod F. Tompkast” which is hosted by friend, and past guest, comedian Paul F. Tompkins.

The podcast itself is informal and fun, featuring entertaining guests like “Reno 911” star Thomas Lennon and comedy team Garfunkel and Oates. Listeners also have the convenience of downloading/streaming episodes from the official site or by subscribing via iTunes. The pop culture based discussions, unexpected and funny questions and hilarious banter between guests and hosts make it easy to see why the “Pop My Culture” podcast has gained such a following.

You both have a number of acting credits in addition to your improv appearances. Did you study theater in college?

Cole: Sort of. I went to San Francisco State as a film major, but the program was super impacted. In a nutshell, it was just a bunch of giant lecture hall classes, like watching “Stagecoach” and writing essays about it. Most of my friends were in the theater department, which, for the most part, shared a building with my major, so I took a few electives there and did a bunch of shows. As freshmen, my roommate Jeremiah and I were cast in “Into the Woods,” which didn’t happen very often, so I was accepted into that group. I grew up doing musical theater (my whole family did) so the theater is very much in my bones.

Vanessa: Yes ma’am! I went to Virginia Tech—a school not known for theater. The program there is great though, and small enough to mimic the feel of a tiny liberal arts school, even in the midst of a huge Hokie-Land campus. My best friend and I formed our own theater company in my junior year and took advantage of great technical resources and performance spaces to put on our own new works (less traditional shows than our school was interested in doing). That do-it-myself experience was the most valuable thing I got from college.

You both have backgrounds in improv and sketch comedy, so what got you started doing the podcast?

Cole: I co-founded SF Sketchfest, the San Francisco Comedy Festival, and we had hosted bunches of live versions of podcasts (“Never Not Funny,” “Doug Loves Movies,” “Comedy Death Ray Radio,” etc) and I had noticed their increasing popularity and serious audience love. I’ve always been obsessed with movies, music and TV – I worked at record and indie video stores for a decade, and I thought it would be fun to do a podcast that was super broad in its subject base with a serious mixed bag of guests. I also thought it would be great to have a female co-host since so many of the podcasts out there are dude fests and the energy would be fun. Vanessa and I have been doing improv together for four years or so, and we have always clicked despite our very different styles, so I knew that we’d have some cool chemistry on the podcast. We very quickly shaped the thing together and it’s been a blast!

Vanessa: I was so excited when Cole talked to me about doing a podcast – we had so much fun figuring out what it would be and melding our sensibilities into the little baby that is “Pop My Culture.” I had already been hosting a poker podcast and doing a lot of video-blogs, so I knew that the medium was something fun, not too technically difficult, and rewarding. I LOVE the entertainment world, always have, and our podcast is a great excuse to talk to some of our favorite people ever.

The podcast has been around for a year now and you’ve already had shows with some of the best that TV has to offer – Danny Pudi from “Community,” Oscar Nunez from “The Office,” Casey Wilson from “SNL,” Paul F. Tompkins, and several cast members from “Mystery Science Theater 3000” to name a few. Have you been surprised by the celebs who are eager and honored to be on the podcast?

Cole: The support from our guests has been amazing—and the feedback as well. They’ve all been very vocal about having a lot of fun doing it. We try our best to put them at ease—it’s a fun, fluffy, silly time and we’re not here to challenge them or bring up stuff they don’t want to talk about. I have connections to a lot of them through my festival, so it was easy to contact them and ask them a favor, and they’ve all been so great about it. I’m honored to call them my friends. And Vanessa has been able to wrangle some great people through her connections in town and through her management.

Vanessa: I’d say that you can usually count on anyone who is willing to be a guest being a pretty great person. It takes time and it doesn't make you any money—so you have to do it to have fun, or why do it at all? We’ve had such luck to talk to some of the sweetest sweeties in the world. It’s amazing, when we finish recording the episode and the guest leaves – even the ones we are most star struck by – every time, Cole and I look at each other and grin – ANOTHER nice person!

One of your first guests was fellow podcaster Chris Hardwick (“Web Soup,” “The Nerdist” podcast, Hard ‘n Phirm) and that episode is also one of my favorites. Has he asked you to return the favor and appear on his podcast?

Cole: Not as of yet—but he’s opened a really cool performance space in Hollywood called The Nerdist Theater (it’s in the back of Meltdown Comics on Sunset), and he’s offered us a chance to do a live podcast there sometime, which I think we’ll do. And I’m pitching him and his crew coming on ours first, and then maybe we can do the ol’ switcharoo like we did with “The Long Shot.”

Who is someone you’ve dreamed of having on the podcast but haven’t been able to get yet?

Cole: We have a long, long, long list of potential guests – we keep a Google doc rolling and add to it whenever we have ideas. There are a few in the pipeline that we hope will pan out, but I don’t want to jinx them by putting their names in print, however I WILL list some folks we’d love to have that we haven’t approached yet. Joss Whedon, Nathan Fillion, Molly Ringwald and Brian Henson come to mind. We are also going to make the guest base even broader and invite musicians; stunt people and reality TV show stars into the mix.

Vanessa: Our wish list is really long, but if we’re in super dreaming-mode, I’ll say: Parker Posey, Ben Foster…*cough* andZacEfronandtheOlsentwins *cough*

There is a donation button on your site where fans can contribute and help keep the podcast up and running. How important have fan contributions been to the podcast?

Cole: Super important. We have hosting fees, equipment purchases and occasional sound engineer costs when Vanessa’s super awesome hubby, John, isn’t available. We work really hard on it and it takes a lot of time, so having those donations helps us not go too deep into pocket. The great comments and fiscal support from our fan base has been incredible—and the realization that we have listeners all over the world is pretty mind blowing! We get donations from Sweden, Australia, etc. It’s crazy.

Vanessa: Ditto! I also get a huge, soppy crush on anyone who donates.

You recently got a shout-out in Rolling Stone magazine as one of the best podcasts of the moment. In fact, you were number two! Has the mention gained you more followers and listeners?

Cole: For sure. We were suddenly super high on the iTunes comedy podcast charts, where we had only danced around previously. More importantly than that, the validation from a major respected media outlet like Rolling Stone gives us a lot of cred when we’re cold approaching potential guests that we didn’t have a relationship with previously. It’ll also be helpful as we look towards attaching sponsors to the podcast. If we could start scratching out a bit of a living from it, we could put even more time and energy into it and make it an even better, slicker show.

Also, has the Rolling Stone shout-out finally put Vanessa on Zac Efron’s radar?

Cole: I think he filed the restraining order yesterday.

Vanessa: That’s ridiculous, Cole. It wasn’t a “restraining order.” I prefer to think of it as a “polite request for a larger radius of personal space.”

You’re both part of the improv comedy team BRUCE. Tell me a little bit about the team and the shows you’ve done.

Cole: It’s a house team at the Westside Comedy Theater in Santa Monica. We do shows twice a month there and occasionally at other venues throughout L.A. We’ve been involved at that space for a long time, previously appearing on a team called Ladies and Gentlemen. It’s a lot of fun — it’s long form, instead of the game-based short form style of improv, which allows for some great character work.

Who are your biggest comedic influences?

Cole: Albert Brooks, Alan Arkin, “SNL,” The Kids in the Hall, The State, “Mr. Show,” countless others. Ryan Stiles made me want to do improv when I was a teen. And Greg Proops was the one who urged me to move to L.A. and try hacking it as an improviser there.

Vanessa: Carol Burnett, Katharine Hepburn, Goldie Hawn, “Mr. Show,” Christopher Guest, Parker Posey, the movie “Tip Toes.”

Vanessa, tell me about SmallDreams.

Vanessa: SmallDreams is a video site/production company I co-founded and worked on for a few years with my dear friend, the very talented Sean Barrett, and my husband, John Irwin. We made short comedy content for the Web. This was another amazing do-it-yourself experience. We wrote, shot and edited everything together, and we learned so much. It has helped me do what I’m doing now; writing features, pilots, and getting work as a comic and an actor. I am such a proponent of taking action in your life. With technology so accessible it has become a possibility to create beautifully shot, professional looking work without breaking the bank. No one is giving you opportunities? Make them for yourself! I sound like a horrible motivational speaker in a polyester pantsuit, but I don’t care! I mean it, carpe friggin’ diem, ya’ll!

Cole, you and Janet Varney have created hilarious commentary tracks for movies like “The Lost Boys” and “Dirty Dancing” through RiffTrax. (RiffTrax is a company headed by “Mystery Science Theater 3000” alumni Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett that provides downloadable humorous commentaries for well-known, big-budget movies.) What has the response been like for your releases?

Cole: It’s been great. I can’t resist looking at message boards, and when our first title (“Dirty Dancing”) was announced, the initial reaction was quite crappy — Who are these guys? NO THANK YOU, I won’t pay for riffers who weren’t on the original Satellite of Love, etc. Then the track dropped and, slowly, but surely, people started saying great things and urging people to give it a shot. We’ve worked steadily ever since, riffing primarily ‘80s flicks like “Footloose,” “Jaws III,” “Poltergeist,” “The Lost Boys,” etc.  It’s been so much fun, and I’m humbled to be working alongside friends like Mike, Kevin, Bill and the awesome crew at RiffTrax central.

Cole, for 10 years, you and Janet have directed the San Francisco Sketchfest. For those who don’t know, it’s a comedy festival that has featured some of the biggest and funniest folks in comedy. The line-up from this year included folks like Ryan Stiles (“Whose Line is it Anyway?”), Thomas Lennon (“Reno 911”), Will Forte (“SNL”) and Adam Savage (“Mythbusters”) in addition to you, Vanessa and Janet. Are there any favorite moments from the festival or sketches that stand out for either of you?

Cole: The festival has been a surreal experience as a whole. We started it because we were in a sketch group called Totally False People and we didn’t have a place to perform regularly. We’re comedy nerds and we just started blowing it up from there. Just the fact that I’ve been able to meet and, in a lot of cases, be friends with a lot of my comedic idols is mind-boggling. James L. Brooks, Danny DeVito, The Kids in the Hall, The State, Dana Carvey, Robert Smigel, Paul Reubens, Neil Patrick Harris, David Cross, Bob Odenkirk, all the “MST3K” guys, it’s been nuts. I had dinner with Gene Wilder. GENE WILDER! What do you say to Gene Wilder? In my case, something about rent control in San Francisco.

In honor of Vanessa’s sometimes off-kilter questions, here’s one for you both. If you were a Muppet, which Muppet would you be and why?

Cole: Easy. Fozzie Bear. I was obsessed with “The Muppet Show” when I was a kid and used to call it the Fozzie Show. I should have listed him in my comedic influences. The idea of a struggling comic bear is ingenious. Oh, and Pepe the Prawn is pretty awesome as well.

Vanessa: Unfortunately, this is also easy for me. Miss Piggy. Actually, I am pretty sure I am Miss Piggy. When I was little I had and loved the book “Miss Piggy’s Guide to Life” and always wanted to cover my face in chocolate mousse just like her.  She’s spunky, delusional, emotional and likes to kick things. So, [she’s] me! And I found my Kermie.

Any other big plans you’d like to share with the readers?

Cole: Much like the style of the podcast, we don’t really know what’s going to happen! We are super stoked to keep making episodes and expand the guest list. And who knows, we may take it on the road.

Vanessa: Lots. Pop My Couture fashion line, Pop My Vulture taxidermy, Pop My Nurture maternity classes and Pop My Sutures post-surgery recovery center. Cole, I hadn’t told you about these ideas, but they’re pretty good…right?

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