Issue 175,  published September 4, 2018

How My Dad Wrote a Porno landed a HBO deal

The fact that the hit British comedy podcast My Dad Wrote a Porno is to become a live HBO comedy special, as announced last week, feels like a landmark moment in UK podcasting. It isn’t the first podcast-to-TV transition for a homegrown show — the QI spin off podcast No Such Thing As a Fish became a topical BBC panel show called No Such Thing As The News in 2016 — but the involvement of a US cable network is a novelty.

I spoke to Jamie Morton, co-creator and host of My Dad Wrote A Porno (it’s his father’s erotic novels they read and discuss on the show), on the phone last week to find out more about how the HBO deal came about. He was just back in the UK after a couple of days in Dublin, the latest stop on a podcast live tour that has been going on since February and which, in Morton’s words, has been “a bit of a long slog” at times. “We just feel so lucky,” he said, responding to the announcement of the live special. “HBO is such an amazing brand, and their pedigree in comedy specials is kind of unrivalled, really, so for them to get on the porn bandwagon has been pretty amazing.” His co-host Alice Levine expressed a similar sense of baffled excitement when posting about the deal on Instagram: “Can’t believe the home of Sopranos, The Wire, Girls, The Jinx, Sex and the City, Flight of the Conchords etc etc…is now the home of @mydadwrotea !!!,” she wrote.

The idea of the live special grew completely out of the podcast’s live show, Morton confirmed. “We felt that because the live shows go down so well and we’ve been touring it sort of everywhere, it would be a great thing to film in some capacity, and then HBO were interested,” he said. Reps from the premium cable network came to see a My Dad Wrote a Porno live show in New York earlier this year, in the spring. “They just kind of loved the show, and loved our relationship. . . I think seeing the show in situ, seeing how we reacted to the audience, how the audience reacted to us — because that’s the crazy thing about our show, people come dressed up as the characters in my dad’s books, they’re so invested in it and it is a real kind of cult thing.”

“I think that can be quite arresting for broadcasters, to see that there’s that level of investment in a show that on paper you wouldn’t think would have that kind of reach,” Morton added. “So I think they were impressed with that, and it went from there.” While the show’s fanbase is mostly situated within the UK, it has racked up an impressive following on the other side of the Atlantic, where audiences enjoy the contrast between the hosts’ supposedly stiff upper lips and the lewd content of their show. “I think they kind of look at us as the Ron, Harry and Hermione of pornography,” Morton said. “They just love the idea of these kind of really prudish British voices talking about terrible sex.” (For those keeping tabs, the podcast, which started in September 2015, surpassed 100 million downloads this past February. Its current average episode listenership remains unclear.)

Morton explained that he and his co-hosts, Levine and James Cooper, didn’t have much direct involvement in the dealmaking with HBO, which was handled by their UK management, Insanity, and their US representatives, the Gersh Agency. (“My dad’s been loving that,” Morton said. “He’s like: ‘I’m just going to call my agent in LA.’ Bless him.”)

As for the actual style and content of the special, Morton explained that they were at “very early stages of the creative chat.” The British director Hamish Hamilton, who has directed Super Bowl halftime shows, Academy Award ceremonies and the televised broadcast of the London 2012 Olympics opening ceremony, will be behind the camera, and Morton says the aim is to “do some new stuff with it, and make it a bit more special for TV.” During the live stage shows, the trio read out a “lost chapter” that was cut from the actual novel prior to its release, and sometimes direct spontaneous reenactments of key scenes.

A previous attempt to translate the hit podcast onto the small screen two years ago didn’t quite work, “It’s really hard to recreate that kind of intimacy and magic of a podcast on screen,” Morton said. The pilot they made didn’t feel tonally true to the original show, he explained, and they felt that it wasn’t right. “It was more of a studio set up, and it was a straight reversioning of the podcast, it was so early on.” The difference this time, he said, is to focus on recreating the energy of the live shows on screen, rather than the process of recording the podcast itself.

Despite the deal with HBO, though, they have no plans to abandon audio entirely. “We’ve always had the mindset that we’re so proud of being a podcast, and that really does come first for us,” he said. “We love the show that we’ve made and we love the audience that we’ve managed to build. And so anything that we do outside of that really has to exist on its own terms.”

This might not be the last Porno spin-off we see — Morton hinted at more to come, saying that “we are having conversations now about other things in America actually, about other incarnations of the show”, but insisting that their desire to “do right by Belinda” (the heroine of his father’s erotic fiction) would govern whether or not they went ahead with any other adaptations.

As for what this deal means for podcasting in the UK more widely, Morton hopes that Porno’s success with bring more British shows to the attention of US executives. “I’m really excited about where it’s going,” he said. “You know, I just want the next really big thing to hit and take everyone with it. For the next really big hit — a British Serial? — to come from the UK would just be incredible, for everyone.”