Fancy being entertained, enlightened or offended, but not willing to pay for the privilege? Then you need the Do The Right Thing podcast in your life.
I think of myself as a bit of a connoisseur of comedy podcasts, primarily because I'm cheap. I like to experiment and try new things, and find it much easier deleting something I don't like if I haven't dropped any hard-earned cash to check it out. And I've deleted quite a few subscriptions in my time, I can tell you.
However, one podcast that hasn't been moved to Trash is Do The Right Thing, a brilliant panel show hosted by Danielle Ward with team captains Margaret Cabourn-Smith and Michael Legge.
The show won a Sony Award for Best Internet Programme in 2012. The judges said, "This was one of the finest comedy panel show entrants. There were many laugh-out-loud moments and this was a true joy to listen to. The format and themes were intelligent too -- making for a really engaging listen" ("The Winners 2012", The Radio Academy Awards). They weren't lying.
Do The Right Thing was created by Ben Walker (known as Producer Ben) of Fuzz Productions and host Danielle Ward. Ward, the winner of Time Out's Best Newcomer in 2006, received the BBC Radio Comedy Writers Bursary the same year (one of only five women to ever do so). She has written for The News Quiz and The Now Show, as well as television shows Not Going Out and Mongrels. Ward also devised the BBC Radio 4 show Dilemma (hosted by Sue Perkins) and co-presented an Absolute Radio show with Dave Gorman. She's a bass player, a writer of musicals, and a stand-up, who has appeared on Mock the Week and Charlie Brooker's Newswipe.
Ward has a lovely voice -- soft and almost child-like, which makes her occasional foul-mouthed outbursts both beautiful and vulgar. While she's a great panel member (she's always solid on The News Quiz), she's an even better host: she keeps the others as well as the audience in check (she once stopped the show's opening to shout at someone whose mobile went off). She sets each round in motion and keeps it going with clever and sometimes just weird follow-up questions that are always funny and always pushing the comedy forward.
Team captain Margaret Cabourn-Smith is a writer and actor. She's had roles on a number of British television shows (including Miranda, The IT Crowd and Disney's Evermoor). If you've ever heard a comedy show on BBC Radio 4, trust me, you've probably heard her; she's all over the place, including Newsjack and John Finnemore's Souvenir Programme. She was also chosen as one of the top 50 Funniest Female Tweeters in the UK by Huffington Post.
Cabourn-Smith says, "I think the main thing about my sense of humor is I look for comedy in everything -- in every little detail of my day-to-day life. This can lead to dark stuff and self-deprecating humor but I really love the little anecdotes and banal things" (Anna Ross, "Margaret Cabourn-Smith", Culturalite). This description is perfectly illustrated on the podcast. On a question about dealing with being dumped, when Ward says "Margaret, you must have had your heart broken, look at you," Cabourn-Smith explains that in her experience, you just need to "lie on the floor and then eventually someone will come and lie next to you." She manages to mock herself in a way that's almost sweet so that we relate to her, while still being happy to laugh at her, as well.
Her opposing team captain is Michael Legge. He's an angry comedian (in fact, according to Ward, he's as "angry as a suicide note written in capitals on your wrist with a compass" though I think her description of him as "an abandoned Michael Sheen impression" works better). You'll hear a lot of shouting and swearing out of him, but he's the best kind of angry comedian: the clever and thoughtful kind (much like Robin Ince, with whom Legge does a different podcast). He's a popular and well-respected stand-up who's compered and performed around the world. He's also an avid blogger (to benefit Comic Relief, he blogged for 25 hours straight); he writes about music, veganism (yes, he is one, and happily plays with all the stereotypes), his dog Jerk, and things about which he is angry, miserable, or happy (including Morrissey, who seems to cause all three reactions).
Legge's comedy blends surrealism and cultural criticism with a little plain old silly thrown into the mix. He's also a good storyteller; on the show he occasionally wanders down memory lane (his recollection of a conversation with his former agent about his hosting the UK's version of The Daily Show is hilarious). And despite his angry outbursts at the others (he once shouted "Shut up, Margaret, you're the least popular person on this podcast!"), he actually comes off as a genuinely likeable guy. It's clear he is good friends with Ward and Cabourn-Smith, as well as most of the other guests.
Round one of each episode is called The Importance of Being Right. Using various "how to" websites, Ward introduces a narrative involving each of the teams which leads them to some kind of quandary, and they've got to decide what is the right thing to do. Imagined scenarios have included being stuck in quicksand, breaking bad news, surviving a shark attack, and unblocking a toilet. However, Ward personalises the stories, so the beginnings rarely hint at how they'll end. For example, to Cabourn-Smith and guest Jeremy Limb, she offers:
You've just escaped from a live dramatisation of Fifty Shades of Grey. It wasn't anywhere near as sexy as you'd imagined and everyone spoke like they were insane. On the way home, you both need a bit of cheering up, so you call into a Paint-Your-Own-Mug place -- you love those places. However, the owner has left the lid off her tarantula tank and, before long, you've got a hairy beast poking its way up your leg. According to the Worst Case Scenario Handbook, what is the best way to deal with a tarantula on your leg?
Once they've all suggested solutions, Producer Ben reads the actual advice from the source cited, and points are awarded to those whose answers come closest. To be honest, the points are usually inconsistently or unfairly awarded; however, each team captain does seem to quite enjoy triumphing over the other in that immature but completely relatable way most of us do when we're proven to be better at something than our friends.
Round two is called Agony. It begins with Legge and Cabourn-Smith reading out actual letters written to Agony Aunts, and the teams guess what advice was given. Then audience members offer their own problems, so the panel can give guidance. Audience member dilemmas range from "How do I get the guy I fancy to grow a beard?" to "I'm moving to Russia and I'm afraid." When one heavily pregnant woman asks how to encourage her baby to be born, the answers range from helpful to slightly less helpful: curry, sex, bad tea, butter, a Caesarian, watching Top Gear upside down, and "going out to a really horrific panel podcast in which the most horrible images you've ever heard will stay with you forever" (that one, courtesy of Cabourn-Smith).
Ask the Expert makes up round three. The panel welcomes a guest who is an expert in their field (a flower buyer, a charity fundraiser, a professional Santa Claus, etc). The panel has a few minutes to ask questions to get to know the expert as a person. Sometimes the questions have to do with the area of expertise, other times less so. To a guy who designs and installs gadgets in the homes of the super-rich, Emma Kennedy asks "Can you self-fellate?" (Answer: "I've tried but I think I need more practice."); Rich Fulcher asks, "Have you ever at any time in your life solved a crime?" (Answer: "I'm hoping to solve this one."), and Cabourn-Smith asks, "How did you learn to kiss?" (Answer: "It was your mum."). Legge, a friend of the expert, asks, "In 1997 at the Twelve Bar Club, when you said you loved me, did you mean it?" (the yes answer received a round of applause). Then Ward describes possible situations and the teams have to decide how the expert would handle them, based on their now thorough understanding of the person's background and moral standards.
The episodes end with the Do The Wrong Thing round, wherein Ward presents one sentence dilemmas and the points go to the team that offers the most wrong answer. Unsurprisingly, this round can get a bit raunchy: "If you and only you rub Cliff Richard's cock, gold comes out of his ears. What's the wrong thing to do?". Or disturbing: The wrongest thing to do to a young person whose parents just got divorced is to tell them "It's their fault, they can never remedy it, and the best thing they can do is disappear," Josie Long suggests. Or just plain odd: You're about to die, what's the wrong thing to do? "Start a vintage wine cellar?" offers Cabourn-Smith.
Of course, as with most panel shows, the actual goal of the premise is to kick start the comedy. Do The Right Thing does this well -- often the funniest parts of the show have absolutely nothing to do with the questions that have been asked. Further, the show can be quite informative in spite of itself. Needless to say, the 'correct' answers in the first round should be taken with a grain of salt: it's probably never wise to do something just because it's been "vomited up by Google with a sawdust solution provided by experts in the field of What the Fuck" (how Ward describes the web). However, the Ask the Experts round does give some interesting insight into its subjects (I now know more about simultaneous translation and preventative policing than I ever thought I would). Clever and funny -- always a good combination.
Obviously, some guests are better than others; people's comedic tastes will vary. But because the regulars are so strong, there's not a single weak episode. Most of the best comedians gigging today have appeared on Do the Right Thing: John Finnemore, Bridget Christie, Jason Manford, Susan Calman, and Andy Zaltzman were hilarious. Simon Evans and Sara Pascoe were both quite thoughtful in their responses to audience's problems, and Justin Edwards, who took over Legge's team captaincy for one episode, was especially funny. Tony Law was funnier on Do The Right Thing than anywhere else I've heard him.
One of the reasons the show works so well -- even if you're not familiar with or a fan of the guests -- is the sense of camaraderie: it's clear that genuine friendships exist, such that it really feels like we're just sitting in on conversations between a group of funny people who like and are comfortable with each other. They riff easily, they remember shared experiences, and they often just simply take the piss.
There are currently four series of the Do The Right Thing podcast available at The British Comedy Guide or via an iTunes subscription. More shows were recorded in the autumn of 2014 and, according to Producer Ben, should be ready to enjoy in early 2015. It's definitely worth a listen, considering all you need to invest is time.
(Note: it was terribly tempting to end this article with a catchy "do the right thing and subscribe to Do the Right Thing" line. But all I could hear in my head was Bridget Christie berating Jon Holmes for a bad joke with the phrase, "No -- that's just not good enough," and I just couldn't risk a similar criticism.)