Has podcasting jumped the shark?

Why Brian Butterfield's single-episode show might be a postmodern masterpiece

Podcasting and comedy go together like a custard pie containing a brick and the face of a sad clown; there's no shortage of shows where two comedian pals discuss dating, or parenting, or food, or whatever else they might be interested in. It's so common, in fact, that this trend is close to becoming a running joke itself.

Plenty of comedians have expanded the media footprints of their created characters into podcasts too; Alan Partridge’s From the Oasthouse podcast is now on its third season, as is The Kurupt FM Podkast, and James Acaster has recently announced that his scripted comedy podcast Springleaf will be coming to Acast's Creator Network later this year.

Last week, however, I stumbled on the first example I’ve ever seen of a single-joke podcast. I'll explain what I mean by that in a moment, but the podcast in question is The Brian Butterfield Pod-Pod-Podcast.

For those not familiar with Brian Butterfield, he’s a creation of comedian Peter Serafinowicz, first appearing on his eponymous 2007 sketch show. The show only ran for a single seven-episode season, but over the past several years, I’ve noticed Butterfield popping up online in an increasing number of memes - an intriguing bellwether of wider awareness.

I’m not quite sure where the sudden surge of interest in Butterfield has come from; it appears to be one of those occasions where the ineffable will of the internet rescues a character or clip from relative obscurity. Personally, I prefer Serafinowicz’ delightfully unhinged ‘kitchen gun’ sketch, but Butterfield’s bumbling antics have evidently proved popular enough to earn the character his own live tour, ranging from the stages of London to the glittering lights of Exeter.

At time of writing, The Brian Butterfield Pod-Pod-Podcast in its entirety consists of one 44-second “microsode”, which the episode description explains is all that was left of a full episode after Butterfield spilt gravy on his computer (again). The actual audio is a disjointed mish-mash of comments from Butterfield and guest Rob Delaney, utterly devoid of context and edited together with the character’s signature ham-fistedness. 

My first thought was that this was some kind of bizarre trailer, until I noticed that it was published in 2020. It's possible that this was simply an aborted lockdown project, released to gauge interest in a full podcast and abandoned due to lack of interest - just one of the countless podcasts enthusiastically started and then quickly abandoned. I suspect, however, that it's actually a complete standalone work; a piece of digital performance art emphasising the technical ineptitude and motivational bankruptcy of Serafinowicz' character.

If so, it's the first instance I've seen of a podcast created solely as a bit - where the very existence of the podcast itself is the central joke, rather than being a vehicle for them. This almost post-deconstructionist approach to podcasting speaks to a medium that has reached a milestone in its maturity. 

On one level, it's ubiquitous enough that Butterfield's clumsy attempt to copy the common 'business guru podcast' format can be an instantly recognisable punchline, but it's also reached a level of sophistication where artists are using the form to push boundaries and innovate. Like a modern-day Duchamp, Serafinowicz upends the urinal of audio content, using it to hold a mirror up to our own self-importance.

Of course, it could simply be a project that was left on the back burner indefinitely - in which case I'll probably look like a bit of a pretentious arsehead. Thankfully, if Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ taught us anything, it's that all art is subjective - and as long as you can use some long words to justify your opinions about a piece of art, they can be as stupid as you like.

[Author's note: someone on Twitter pointed me in the direction of a full episode of Butterfield's podcast, from which the above 'minisode' is taken, and for which it acts as a trailer. The full episode is available via Podchaser but, bizarrely, not via the show's RSS feed. I'm a little disappointed that the podcast is merely a short-lived experiment, rather than a masterwork of satirical podcasting, but the podcast itself is still an entertaining metacommentary on the popularity of the medium.]