How Conan O'Brien co-host Matt Gourley broke through the podcast clutter

Matt Gourley, producer and co-host of the podcast "Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend," in his home studio in Pasadena.
Matt Gourley, producer and co-host of the podcast "Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend," photographed at his home studio in Pasadena. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Conan O’Brien loves to pick on Matt Gourley, the producer and co-host of his podcast “Conan O’Brien Needs a Friend.”

They have a big brother-kid brother dynamic — O’Brien recently turned 60, Gourley 50 — and their playful roasting has become as much a part of the show’s charm as the interviews with celebrity guests. On a recent episode, the famous host joked that Gourley's ego has been inflated by the show’s success and he's driving around L.A. in a fancy car with the vanity plate “PODKING.”

Gourley doesn’t actually have that plate, of course — but he’s earned the title. “Conan O'Brien Needs a Friend,” which recently marked its fifth birthday, may be the highest-profile gig he’s had, but it’s simply the latest in a long line of improv, interview and pop culture podcasts that Gourley has created or enhanced for the past 17 years.

“Superego,” “James Bonding,” “I Was There Too,” “Mallwalkin’” — these are but a sampling of the Gourley podcast universe, to say nothing of his sundry appearances on shows like “Comedy Bang! Bang!” He is a king among improv jesters, the master of non sequiturs and spoonerisms — that thing where you flip letters in a pair of words — of extra-silly voices and deep-cut references to Billy Joel lyrics and obscure “Star Wars” lore.

“Matt can really tap into this weird idiocy that is very enlightened,” says Mark McConville, who co-hosted the podcast “Pistol Shrimps Radio” where these two sports-ignorant friends called women’s rec league basketball games but mostly just cracked each other up with inane wordplay and inside jokes. “He’s an absurdity terminator.”

Matt Gourley leans on his standing desk with oversize screen, microphone and wall lined with photos.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

O’Brien had no idea about any of this pedigree when Adam Sachs, former president of the O'Brien-centered Team Coco media company, set him up on a meeting with Gourley at the outset of the “Conan” podcast. O’Brien remembers entering the office and seeing “this well-coiffed young man who looks like a guy who refused to leave the Boy Scouts when he aged out.”

“But then it started to dawn on me,” O’Brien says, “because so many people would come in the door and they would know me, and then they’d see Matt and go, ‘Oh, Matt! What’s going on? The last time we were together was when we were taping "Glib Glabble Glub Glub,"’ you know. It seems like he’s done thousands of different podcasts.”

Gourley is a prolific shapeshifter, and he has as many talents and interests as he does characters — which include “Alien” creature designer H.R. Giger, P.A.I.G.E. the podcast AI and country music legend Mutt Taylor. When he’s not hosting or producing his dozens of shows, Gourley often is perfecting an original Cold War cocktail, designing his Pasadena home like a movie set, writing songs for his folksy band, Townland, or illustrating a fictional theme park stunt show.

“I’m better at some than others,” Gourley says, “and some I’m only faking.”

His omnivorous creative appetite started in a fittingly absurd place: a Universal Studios cowboy stunt show he saw as a child. Gourley went back to his home in Whittier and tried to re-create the show in his backyard, which “was a huge fiasco, because we didn’t rehearse anything,” he says, “so we were all just jumping into sandboxes and mattresses and stuff. But there was this stuntman named Bob Rochelle at Universal that was like the comic relief, and I just remember seeing him and going like: You can do that? You can just make people laugh for a living?”

Gourley's life since has been one big theme park — from designing his own exploding blood packs (squibs) in eighth grade to drawing his own cel animation projects every summer during high school. He began doing improv his freshman year, and he designed sets at Cal State Long Beach when he wasn’t acting in plays.

He worked at Disneyland for a decade after college — doing improv and performing in stage shows — and he met his wife, comedian Amanda Lund, as a fellow character at Universal Studios. Lund played a “classy British lady with a tea cup and a fancy hat,” she says, and Gourley played a bad-boy rocker. “So that’s the stupid, stupid job that we met doing,” says Lund, who in the group’s “getting to know you” exercise stood up and said something silly. Gourley took one look at her and whispered to his friend: “Uh-oh.”

Later that day, the two were on an escalator to the parking lot when they spotted a middle-aged couple going up the other escalator — wearing matching bowling shirts with images from the Benicio Del Toro movie “Wolfman.” Lund turned to Gourley and said, “That’s gonna be us in 50 years.”

Read more: Bob Iger was brought back to fix Disney. No one said it would be easy

The podcasters — Lund hosts several shows herself and co-founded the Earios podcast network — have been together ever since and have a 2-year-old daughter named Glenne.

“She hasn’t spoonerized quite yet,” says Lund, “but I could see it happening by, like, 26 months.”

Their other recent co-production is “Keys to the Kingdom,” a docuseries podcast filled with funny stories told by former theme park employees.

Disneyland was basically the birthplace of “Superego,” Gourley’s first podcasting venture in 2006. When they weren’t doing G-rated improv for park guests, he and his friends Jeremy Carter and McConville were laughing in the break room. “Inevitably,” says McConville, “because it’s a bunch of comedians, people are doing bits, people are doing characters and voices. It’s like backstage at 'The Muppet Show.'”

Gourley parlayed their chemistry into an audio sketch show loosely based around the concept of psychological case studies — taped on a primitive digital music recorder and transferred to a computer with an analog cable. He says, “I always joke that it’s like the first and only analog podcast.”

He edited the show himself, as well as handling the graphics and web design and distribution. No one seemed to be listening until one day Paul F. Tompkins outed himself as a fan and signal-boosted “Superego” to his large online following. Tompkins later joined the cast, and the show developed a passionate cult fan base. Guests included comedians Patton Oswalt and Rob Delaney.

“I was always childishly excited to get asked,” says Delaney, “because it was such high-octane fun. It was like smoking crack compared to smoking a weak joint that a lot of other things that are supposed to be comedy wind up being. ... If I had to fight in some sort of comedy war and Gourley was the captain of my unit, I would feel big relief and know that even if a grenade blew my head off, I would be laughing as it happened.”

Gourley has appeared onscreen — notably in the premiere episode of “Drunk History,” tipsily retelling the story of Watergate — and he was the spokesman for a Volkswagen campaign for years. (The director was a “Superego” fan.) But he dislikes auditioning, and he found in podcasting the ideal platform for his talents as a concept designer and world builder, his one-man cast of voices, his harebrained fancies — and his penchant for being a homebody.

He realized, doing “Superego,” that he was intimidated by performing in a world that was “legit,” Gourley admits, “so just starting something with three close friends, and none of us had anything to lose or anything to gain, really, and just being yourself comedically, to the point of going so absurd because not only are you not worried that people are listening, you know nobody’s listening — so there’s nothing wrong with just doing what you would do to make each other laugh. ... Then we got a listenership, and by that time it was too late.”

Podcasting helped him find his voice, he says, “which, in a way, it’s kind of a lack of a voice. It’s just a stream of consciousness.”

A seated, smiling man in glasses wearing a brown jacket over a blue shirt.
Matt Gourley. (Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

He was hired as a consultant at Earwolf, the company home of “Comedy Bang! Bang!,” and helped develop several shows, accruing enough of a reputation as “the podcast guy” for Sachs to recruit him to help develop O’Brien’s new show. At first Gourley’s fans were confused — maybe even disappointed — that he’d taken such a comparatively straitlaced “corporate” job, and in the first year or so his voice was seldom heard on the blockbuster podcast.

More vocal was Sona Movsesian, O’Brien’s sort-of assistant who punctuates her boss’ comments with one of the best belly laughs in the world. Initially O’Brien thought of Gourley “mostly as this person who edited the podcast, he’s there to direct us, tell us what to do,” he says.

“And I would say pretty quickly his personality started to come out," adds O'Brien. "And that was a nice surprise, because he developed as this third persona that’s very strong and very distinct.”

Slowly, Gourley introduced his cockamamie mind and razor-sharp wit, learning how to joust with O’Brien and feeling freer to crack up the parade of famous guests. When Questlove and Jeff Goldblum each appeared on the show this year, they announced themselves as devoted listeners and big fans of O’Brien’s new second banana.

Movsesian remembers how giddy her boss was when he realized Gourley could go toe to toe with him on obscure 1970s television and American history trivia, and Gourley draws O’Brien’s fake ire just as often as he puts him in stitches.

“I often attack Matt on the podcast for having qualities that I have,” O’Brien says. “I’ll go after him for being ‘this effete knower of arcane knowledge, who knows little tidbits that no one would care about.’ ... If we had a therapist there just watching, they would say, ‘You attack Matt because he represents a part of yourself that is rearing its head.’”

In the end, Matt Gourley was the friend O’Brien needed all along.

Read more: His L.A.-based podcast company faced a crossroads. Now Jesse Thorn's employees are owners

Sign up for L.A. Goes Out, a weekly newsletter about exploring and experiencing Los Angeles from the L.A. Times.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.