How Will Arnett Turned Podcasting Into a Serious Business

By Christopher Metler

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Known for his role as Gob Bluth in perennial fan favourite Arrested Development, these days Canadian actor Will Arnett is perhaps better recognized for his work as a podcast personality.

Since 2020, Arnett has co-captained SmartLess alongside fellow actors Jason Bateman and Sean Hayes, a comedy interview podcast that connects and unites people from all walks of life to learn about shared experiences. A welcome surprise? In each episode, one of the hosts reveals his mystery guest to the other two.

“We just set it all up remotely, and it was very DIY.” And by do-it-yourself, Arnett means they actually did it themselves. Almost literally. “There is no team, really. We have the guys—our producer and our engineers. But it’s us. If there’s any heavy lifting to do, whether it’s business stuff or whatever, we all do it. The three of us.”

What started as a pandemic hobby quickly turned into a big business for the trio, and it’s a smart move on their part. Edison Research estimates that the current podcast boom is tapping more than 13 million Canadians, who listened to a podcast at some point in 2020, with one out of three doing so every month. A 2021 report by Statista claims that there are about 120 million active podcast listeners in the States, with that number expected to surpass 160 million in 2023. 

Numbers like those are also bolstering the war on talent as major podcast platforms quickly move in on securing exclusive distribution deals with shows, particularly celebrity-hosted shows. Early in 2020, Spotify famously secured licensing rights to Joe Rogan’s podcast for over $100 million (according to The Wall Street Journal), quickly following suit with additional exclusives with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry (reportedly a $25 million deal) and Higher Ground (the production company founded by former US president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama, respectively.) 

Earlier this year, SmartLess signed with Creative Artists Agency. One month later, Amazon acquired the podcast for somewhere in the neighbourhood of $80 million, making it available on Amazon Music and Wondery+ a week before other platforms. Discovery+ further ordered a pair of documentary-style specials chronicling an upcoming six-city North American tour.

How did funnyman Will Arnett turn podcasting into such a serious business? To be honest, he still doesn’t really know a lot—about it, or podcasting itself. Which is funny, Arnett says, because the three of them are now so firmly entrenched in it. 

“We started really having no idea, and just wanting to get together and hang out during the pandemic,” he confesses. “We talked about it, like, a week before the lockdown started.”

They began recording. People listened. It was no more complicated than that. According to Arnett, the three were just as surprised as anybody that people cared and wanted to tune in.

There’s the obvious reason audiences instantly gravitated towards SmartLess: star power. Beyond Arnett, Bateman, and Hayes themselves, the podcast packs it in with some of their famous friends: Conan O’Brien, George Clooney, Gwyneth Paltrow, LeBron James, Paul McCartney, Ryan Reynolds, and Tom Hanks, to name a few. Marquee names aside, there’s depth and subject matter expertise, too. The likes of American veep Kamala Harris, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, and voting rights activist Stacey Abrams, to list a few.

Then there’s the genuinely improvised and authentic conversation, often inviting newfound knowledge, and usually filled with laughs.

“I think one of the things that maybe people respond to is we’re very much ourselves on the show. We never prepare. We never, ever talk beforehand about what we’re doing. We’ve never said, Hey, I should say this. Or you should say that. Not once. Only when we decided to announce dates for the shows, the live shows. That was it.”

Every other time? They hit the ground running the moment they all connect, their engineer hits the record button, and that’s it. They’re talking for the first time. “That’s what’s fun,” Arnett points out. “It’s very off-the-cuff and we get to laugh, and the listener gets to kind of hang with us, and just hear how we bust each other’s balls all the time and fuck around.”

So, thoughtful dialogue? Organic hilarity? Is that the real secret to the success of SmartLess?

“This is how we talk a lot of times when it’s just us. This is what we do,” Arnett affirms. “I just get to laugh and hang out with my friends all the time—and family. The only difference is we don’t have the kids in the booth with us. Usually, we’re all just hanging with our kids and all together.”

As for all that talk earlier about this being serious business, supposedly?

“It doesn’t feel like a job yet.”