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Reissue: Can I Play With Madness – The Worst Idea of All Time Podcast

‘Reissue’ is an occasional column which will bring back a print feature from the vaults. Today: Duncan Greive looks at the origins of Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery’s cult podcast hit Worst Idea of All Time ahead of a live record for the Comedy Festival. Photography by Reagen Butler. Originally published in April’s 1972 magazine, sponsored by Barkers. 

“Shall we eat one of those biscuits?” asks Guy Montgomery. “Before I entirely write off my night.” The biscuits are palm-sized chocolate chip cookies, made with love and cannabis. It’s nearly two on a viciously hot Tuesday afternoon in late January, and we’re sat in the cramped lounge of a Grey Lynn flat, where Montgomery’s friend Tim Batt lives along with five others. “It’s like the movie,” says Montgomery. “The quicker you’re in, the quicker you’re out.”

The movie is an Adam Sandler film called Grown Ups 2, and Mont wants to get high, watch the movie, then get un-high and go to work. The window to accomplish that is small, and closing fast. Work for Montgomery is stand up comedy, and later tonight he’ll do a short set at a downtown bar, Tyler St Garage. He’s really, really good, with huge energy and charisma, and has the Billy T James Award – given to the country’s best new comedic talent – to prove it.

Batt’s a great comic too, and twice nominated for the Billy T himself. He’s slender and fidgety, dressed in a t-shirt and jeans with a scrappy ginger beard. Montgomery’s tall, well over six feet, with a bristling moustache of the kind that used to be mandatory for television cops. The pair are in their mid-late twenties, an age where most of their peers are through the period where getting baked and watching a movie’s the thing to do on any given afternoon.

Watching the film is not just killing time for Montgomery and Batt, though. It’s work. Excruciatingly hard work. The kind they’d do anything to avoid, that they can only perform when buzzed off of weed, booze and whatever else is around. Because this isn’t their first rodeo. In fact, when I sit and watch them watching Grown Ups 2, it’s the 47th time they’ve seen the film in the past year.

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T‌he critics were not kind to Grown Ups 2 upon its release. “Lazy and stupid,” said the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “Pap, plain and simple,” said the New York Times. “What happens in Grown Ups 2?” asked the Telegraph. “Almost absolutely nothing.” The plot, such as it is, involves Adam Sandler playing Lenny Feder, a producer who made millions in Hollywood before returning to his picturesque Connecticut hometown to sort of wander around aimlessly. He and his buddies spend a day milling about and getting up to a bit of mischief, before… No, that’s it. That’s the entire film.

That makes it a particularly empty vessel to consume even once, let alone the 52 times Batt and Montgomery have now. It was not for nothing, though. After each and every viewing, the pair recorded a podcast during which they discussed the experience. They named it The Worst Idea of All Time.

Initially they talked about the film: its finer points, of which there are few, and its flaws, which are essentially infinite. Quickly though, probably even more quickly than they imagined, the podcast became something else: a ramshackle conversation about art, commerce, friendship, creativity and a thousand more things besides, all through the prism of this ridiculous movie.

Summer turned to autumn and winter. Montgomery traveled to great cultural capitals like Edinburgh and Copenhagen and Barcelona. Batt produced and hosted radio for Hauraki, wrote for Jono and Ben, made some ads and started a pub quiz. Life continued apace, but wherever they were and whatever they were doing, they kept going back to the poisoned well of Grown Ups 2 and The Worst Idea of All Time.

It was meant to last as long as they could stand it, but that seemed too easy – it allowed either of them to blink and end it overnight. They settled on a year instead.

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T‌hat tastes like a cookie,” says Batt. “Which is good. They usually don’t.” Montgomery looks a little downcast. “That could be good, or bad,” he says. “Maybe we didn’t put enough weed in it.”

Watching all this is Ollie Sealy, the former channel manager of youth station TVNZ U. Once Montgomery and Batt would do weird stuff like this on television, on U’s cruddy set in the lobby at TVNZ. The channel functioned as an incubator for this kind of young, weird talent. Thanks to presenters like Rose Matafeo, Tim Lambourne and Connor Nestor, it had an uncommon potency. In 2013 it really felt like a lot of the funniest and most idiosyncratic people on television were mucking around at the channel. Then TVNZ shut it down.

Now Sealy is a strategist for an ad agency and production house called Augusto. They make video for giant global brands like Adidas and AIG. But Sealy hasn’t forgotten his young misfits, and started filming Batt and Montgomery’s ridiculous endeavour a couple of months back, just to see where it ended up.

At the time it seemed like an indulgence for both him and Augusto. Worst Idea was getting weekly downloads in the high hundreds or low thousands, and while the project had a devoted following and had been glowingly reviewed by the Herald, even calling it a cult would have been a stretch by most standards.

Then Vice came calling. “Vice was huge,” says Batt. “Vice runs the internet.” For a large section of young people, it does just that. The site grew out of a free magazine to become one of the most valuable media companies in the world, and is one of the 250 most-visited sites on the internet.

Vice conducted an interview with the duo, which ran on January 4th under the headline ‘Meet the Two Guys Who Are Doomed to Watch ‘Grown Ups 2’ For Eternity’. It wasn’t exactly true, but did accurately reflect how the pair must have felt at the time. As with most things Vice publishes, it went large, and took them from their cosy cult into a wider audience. Not a mainstream one – Joe Public would find the idea idiotic – but definitely global.

And pretty big. Their downloads to that point had been hovering around 50,000 across the nine months they’d been ploughing away. Today they’re past a million, and the show became so successful that they were invited to host a live recording of the final viewing at Cinefamily, a prestigious movie theatre in LA. The trip was crowdfunded by fans, and their time in LA was one long bender of podcasting, performing and partying.

It was a just reward for their pains, and proof that Worst Idea had become a strange little phenomenon, and comfortably New Zealand’s most successful podcast. Globally, anyway. Some local radio stations have cut up and banged out the highlights from their shows and gained a bigger local audience. But they’re trading off their brand equity in another medium. Montgomery and Batt and are trading off the utter lunacy of their idea, and the oddly compelling audio it has produced.

It’s a perfectly postmodern response facilitated by a thoroughly modern medium. Podcasting has been around since the early ‘00s, driven by the rise of the iPod, from which it derives its name. It involves downloading or streaming a talk-driven audio file on a phone or mp3 player. For a full decade, podcasting existed as a kind of giant cottage industry. Every media organisation of any scale got involved, pumping out content, much of it terrible, some of it terrific. But for some reason the idea refused to scale in any truly profound way. It remained a stubbornly niche pursuit, something that the vast majority of smartphone owners were vaguely aware they could do but resolutely did not bother with.

Then Serial happened. It was an unlikely source for a hit: a longform investigation of an obscure murder case by a reporter for This American Life, a Chicago radio show which had transitioned to the podcast medium. But Serial, which featured extensive interviews with Adnan Syed, imprisoned for killing Hae Min Lee in 2000, took off like a rocket. Its 12 episodes have been collectively downloaded more than 68m times, and became an obsession which seeped through workplaces and groups of friends. It spawned thousands of outlandish theories about what really happened on a bitterly cold night in Baltimore 16 years ago, mostly from people who had no business theorising.

But it was a hit! A big, shiny hit for a medium which had been waiting for one. Serial had millions of people all around the world entering the podcasting world for the first time. And some of them ended up encountering The Worst Idea of All Time.

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T‌he Worst Idea of All Time. It’s a brilliant title – at once accurate and hopelessly overwrought. It uses a piece of dull internet hyperbole (“this is the best burrito all time!”) associated with small, manifestly false claims, but attaches it to a concept with such scale and psychological complexity it resists being dismissed out of hand.

On balance, it’s likely there have been worse ideas: trepanning, slavery, most wars. But few have been entered into so wilfully, with the authors so acutely aware of the futility and idiocy of the journey upon which they were about to embark. Listening back to the first episode is a glimpse back into a more innocent time for the pair. They were still dazzled by the movie’s star power: Sandler, David Spade, Chris Rock as core cast, with cameos from Steve Buscemi, Taylor Lautner, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shaquille O’Neill and dozens more.

“Don’t let all of these names confuse you – this movie is a steaming hot pile of shit from dot one,” says Montgomery enthusiastically, and soon Batt gets to the point which will be both the making and undoing of the pair. “One of the central things you want to see in a film, right, is it’s supposed to start somewhere, and end in a similar place – except they’ve gone through a lot and your central characters have learned something along the way,” he says. “I have no concept of what anyone has learned in this film.”

Six months later they released an episode under the name ‘Prawn Salad’. It might be the strangest of the bunch, a journey into a psychosis created by prolonged exposure to one of the most functionless objects humanity has ever created. “We had hash muffins, and ate too much and got the giggles. I wish we had a mic on during the movie because we would’ve got some pretty crazy shit there,” says Batt. “It would’ve been just us trying to grab hold of disparate ideas and just giggling for like half an hour.”

Their voices sound chemically altered on ‘Prawn Salad’, like they’ve been inhaling helium and then pitched back down. A friend snores loudly in the background, and the conversation has the demented quality that comes in the hours just before dawn, when all your synapses are misfiring at once. Batt has it together somewhat, but Montgomery is just gone. At one point Batt tries to imagine what their sleeping friend Nick is dreaming about, and suggests that he’s glad they’re in the real world and not in Nick’s dream.

This absolutely destroys Montgomery. “You’re talking about some concepts I do not understand, brah,” he yells breathlessly, before dissolving into a fit of unhinged laughter. What elevates it from just being a pair of wasted goons talking nonsense is the sense of the journey – that they’ve been driven to this precise point by the film. It’s both hilarious and vaguely harrowing.

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T‌he show works because of the personalities and the way they mesh. Both very different, but perfectly in tune. Batt is the son of two lifelong educators, and spent some time in Christchurch, before moving to Wellington for his teens. He went to Onslow College: a uniform-free, co-ed school in Johnsonville that he describes as “liberal arts”. An elder brother was friends with a comic, and after seeing the likes of Steve Wrigley and Ben Hurley he thought, “I can do that”.

Then he mostly didn’t, for years. Instead he left school to work at the IRD. “I was 19 years old and facilitating meetings between Crown Legal and Special Audit – they deal with drug dealers and illegal earnings,” he says. But it wasn’t often that glamourous, and he moved to Sydney with a friend at 20. Batt started working at a call centre for Telstra, which ended abruptly. “Holy shit, I’m going to wake up one day and be 40 and still working in a call centre,” he thought, improbably, and enrolled at radio school that day.

He graduated and lucked into jobs with two of the old gods of New Zealand radio, Kevin Black and Iain Stables, just as the wind was turning against them. Black was made redundant from Solid Gold after the GFC, while Stables was hired and fired from Hauraki’s drive slot before he said a single awful word on air.

His replacement was Matt Heath, the creator of cult TV comedy Back of the Y. Batt got to watch as Hauraki became a station populated by some very subversive broadcasters, including Jeremy Wells and Leigh Hart, whose worldviews more closely resembled to his own. After two years he jacked it all in to do comedy full time. It was a bold move, but one that soon paid off. Within a few months he was pushing record on the first episode of Worst idea.

Montgomery’s lead a more single-minded path. For him, it’s always been comedy. He grew up in Christchurch and went to Christ’s College, a private Anglican school. He loved it. “I was in a house called Corfe house. We had a really strong, cool year. One of my best friends, that I knew since I was a child, he was in my house. Five of us wound up forming this insanely tight bond. And we completely fucked the culture of the house and the school up. It was classic private schoolboy shit.”

That’s where he started getting into pranks and comedy and learned about the thrill of having a crowd’s eyes on him. After school he drifted for a few years, studying in Wellington, then moving to Auckland and living in some terrible flats. He knew he wanted to do comedy, but wasn’t sure how. Then he went to a show on Karangahape Rd, with Rose Matafeo and Matthew Crawley. He plucked up the courage to ask if he could play support. Crawley listened to his jokes, approved, and let him have his first 15 minutes.

He was away. But after a year or so gigging around Auckland, he realised the city’s scene would never provide the density of shows he needed to really hone his craft. Before long he was on a plane to Toronto: the perfect town for a young comic with big ambitions and nothing but time. He worked at a café by day and played everywhere he could by night. “It was like putting your career on fast forward,” he says. Within months he felt like he’d figured out what his comedy was, and loved the city and the energy of its scene.

But a phone call from his friend Tim Lambourne brought him home a year later. Sealy was offering the pair a late night slot on TVNZ U, with which they could do whatever they liked, five nights a week. It was an extraordinary opportunity, the kind which comes along roughly once in every 7-10 lifetimes. So he took it. U Late became a testing ground for all kinds of strange comedy concepts from the young comics who’d coalesced around one another in Auckland. But of all the segments, the weirdest and most wonderful was the Loo Review.

“I came in on a Monday for 15 minutes and reviewed toilets,” says Batt. It was the pair’s first major interaction. It started strange – Montgomery whispered that he’d hate Batt’s character just before they went on air – and swiftly got stranger. “It turned into this character piece where my life was falling apart. My first appearance was in a full suit. And then the next week I’d lost the jacket. Then I starting looking more disheveled, until I was homeless and came up in a potato sack.” From that chance meeting came the creative partnership that would birth Worst Idea.

I ‌met up with Montgomery and Batt again in ‌early March at a café on K rd. They’d just returned from America, and looked a little rough. Montgomery had been at the New Zealand versus Australia cricket game at Eden Park on the weekend, and he and a friend had started the ‘You’re worse than England’ chant. His voice was now shot to hell. Batt was reading over a massive poem he’d free-written in a frenzy for a performance in Wanaka. I ask them what went on in LA that had them so exhausted.

The trip was a blur of work and play, highlighted by a spectacular journey in an RV, made all the more special thanks to a meeting with a Hollywood producer, who also happened to be a fan of the podcast. He asked about their plans for the 51st episode. “What would be really cool is if we could get some mushrooms and go out to Joshua tree,” replied Montgomery. “You want mushrooms? How much? I’ve got some back at the office,” the producer replied. “Just come on down.”

“So we go back to his office. He just pulls out like this tackle bag,” says Montgomery. “A gym bag,” corrects Batt. “It’s a blue and yellow gym bag. And he opens it up and it’s just like ‘whoosh’. There’s the mushrooms and some MDMA and, anything you can think of.”

It was a good day, and a better trip. They met a number of influential people who wanted to discuss their work with them. They played the famed Comedy Store, LA’s standup mecca. Rena Owen asked to have her photograph taken with them. And they met up with Earwolf: one of the most important podcasting networks in the US, and discussed future projects.

Figuring out what they might be is a big focus for the pair now. When we shot them in late March for the magazine cover, they stayed on after we left to record some experimental audio in an attempt to find a new project which might attract a new, bigger audience.

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These guys might seem to be out of their mind half the time, and maybe they are. But they’re also hustling and creating with a rare drive. The Worst Idea started as two guys in a room, and ended up spawning events on different continents and generating contacts you could spend a decade accumulating. It is, by almost any measure, a spectacular success.

But there is one piece of the puzzle that remains elusive. Aside from the crowdfunded trip to the US, they’ve barely made a cent from the show. The audience is too dispersed, and the content probably too gross, to appeal to more than a handful of brave and likely global brands. At least so far. Batt in particular is working hard to figure out the ‘monetising’ part, and has plans to set up a company which will unite and sell the fledgling New Zealand podcast community to advertisers.

But money or no money, they’re not stopping anytime soon. At the last US event, a screening of the original Grown Ups – which neither had seen – they announced, to a thunderous applause, that they would be returning for a second season, with a brand new movie.

So it came to be that they assembled in Batt’s lounge, at 9am on a crisp morning in March, for their first watch. The excitement of a new film was tempered by the weight of what was to come. As it started to play, Batt said “all of what we’re seeing, we’re gonna see another 51 times.” Montgomery didn’t respond. The title screen came up on the film that will drive them mad again for the next year. It read: Sex and the City 2.


 

The Worst Idea of All Time is Available on iTunes and all other podcasting apps.

There’s a live recording of The Worst Idea of All Time this Sunday at the Montecristo from 4.30pm. Click here for tickets. Batt and Montgomery are both playing long runs at Montecristo – Batt tickets here, Montgomery tickets here.

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