Three men and their baby – the unstoppable rise of Distant Pod
I remember exactly the first time I saw Mike Bubbins.
It was hard to forget.
He was stood outside the gates of the primary school, which our kids attended.
He cut quite the ‘unassuming’ figure.
Dressed in a bucket hat, Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts, he resembled gonzo bon viveur Hunter S Thompson – if the notorious wordsmith had played rugby for Pontypool in the ‘70s that is.
It’s also worth noting that this was in January, when the rest of the parents dropping off their children were wrapped up in attire far more fitting of a winter’s day where the thermostat had barely nudged above freezing.
It’s safe to say he’s been leaving a sizeable impression ever since.
When I heard that Bubbs was to be part of the team launching a podcast about ‘sport’ called the Socially Distant Sports Bar, with fellow comic Elis James and sports presenter Steffan Garrero, it wasn’t so much an idea that was right up my street, but one that had moved into the spare room and was joining me for a beer when the wife and kids had gone to bed.
Professional desert boots wearer Elis James, 40, an authority on all things Welsh and football, and a man as likely to be able to name all Gorky’s Zygotic Mynci’s b-sides as he is to break down in tears at the sight of an Adidas Wales football shirt from 1986, is no stranger to podcasts.
Thanks to his radio partnership with fellow comic John Robins, the pair picked up a dedicated audience on Radio X and now with a weekly show on BBC Radio Five Live, he’s someone who has so many podcasts on the go it’s hard to keep up.
Closer to home his Welsh football podcast Elis James’ Feast Of Football has only emboldened his Wales international footballing credentials.
Rugby fan Mike, 49, a former Elvis impersonator and PE Teacher (not at the same time obviously) is no stranger to sports bars, having built his own bar in his garden. He is also a man who appears to have lived several lives, if his highfalutin Distantpod anecdotes are any measure.
Judging by the iridescent wallpaper in his living room, the Cortina in his garage and his collection of Sweeney DVDs, most of those lives were most definitely in the 1970s.
Luckily, Mike and Elis also happen to be two of Wales’ finest comics – hugely knowledgeable sports fans both and the reason why the Socially Distant Sports Bar has quickly become something of a phenomenon, a must-listen for those who love sport, history and hilarity.
Let us however, not underplay the importance of former BBC Wales sports presenter turned university lecturer, Steffan Garrero, who had the idea of launching a podcast at the start of lockdown last year.
Acting as producer, editor and amiable ringleader vainly attempting to keep his two charges in check, the mix is perfect, the chemistry undeniable and the results – well, spectacular.
The Socially Distant Sports Bar podcast, or Distant Pod, as it has thankfully come to be known, quickly established itself as one of the UK’s most popular pods within months of launching – no mean feat in such a crowded marketplace.
Now, 78 shows in, the podcast has taken on a life of its own, thanks to a large and fiercely loyal audience most of whom happily and keenly contribute to the Distant Pod patreon, which allows the podcast to expand its horizons, while keeping Mike in cowboy boots and Elis in Harrington jackets.
Last weekend saw the very first Distant Pod live shows at the Hackney Empire as part of a UK tour which will see the trio visit all points in England, Scotland, Ireland and, of course, Wales.
This evening Mike, Elis and Steff will take to the stage in the elegant surroundings of The New Theatre in Cardiff, which – if the other shows they have so far played are any measure – will be a riotous assembly of audience interaction, tall tales, record sales at the bar and a nod to the many characters who have filled our ears so wonderfully during lockdown.
For seasoned performers Mike and Elis, it’s a welcome return to the stage. For Steff it’s something altogether more terrifying.
However, according to Elis he’s settled into his role well.
“At Hackney, Steff was quite quiet for the first half hour and then when he got a big laugh, he was like Ken Dodd, you couldn’t stop him.”
To tell this story of the inexorable rise of this podcast we have to revisit its origins.
While most of us faced the onset of quarantine vowing to fulfil creative pursuits, writing a novel or, more plausibly, the opening paragraph of the first chapter, others contented themselves with more straightforward achievements – gardening, clearing out the attic, decoding bizarre quarantine dreams or being on first-name terms with the Deliveroo driver.
Thankfully, the podcast holy trinity of Bubbins, James and Garrero, spent the intervening months of the coronavirus crisis mining comedy gold. These particularly adept prospectors, holed up in their Socially Distant Sports Bar, providing a weekly dose of pure escapism from the uncertainty of the world.
The pod became a constant beacon of unrelenting light, levity and laughter during lockdown and why it has come to mean so much to so many. Although it must be said – it should also carry a health warning, given the many reports of listeners falling off their bikes or having to stop when out running because they’re laughing so hard.
If you, like me, enjoy grown men making each other laugh while riffing on a range of improbable sporting scenarios, such as Mike Tyson taking on the hardest men in the Gurnos or what American street fighter Kimbo Slice would sound like if he was from the Swansea valley or how everyone in Wales knows each other, then you would have immediately fallen in love with the irreverent, improvised nature of the podcast.
The first episode premiered in March 2020 and with a distinct, stripped-back acoustic version of Grandstand (performed by a mystery guitarist who was latter unmasked as the Manics’ James Dean Bradfield), as its theme tune, it quickly found a captive audience, in every sense, given that most of us were confined to the barracks of our own homes for more than three months.
Steff’s idea of a podcast for sports fans who were missing sport during lockdown captured the essence of what it’s like to be a real fan in the pub with your mates – without lapsing into dry weighty analysis.
He described The Socially Distant Sports Bar as “Three friends sitting in a ‘pub’ telling each other about YouTube clips of sport they’ve watched, but who frequently get sidetracked by laughing.”
“I’ve always wanted to be involved in a project which really gets across what it’s like to talk about sport as a real fan,” he told me when I interviewed the trio for the Western Mail magazine last year.
“I’d finished at the BBC back in December to join Cardiff Met University as a senior lecturer in sport media. They were keen for me to stay within the industry while I teach and I was looking for a fun side project.
“When lockdown happened I texted Mike and Elis to see whether they wanted to try out a few ideas and it spiralled into this. We only spoke about the idea between ourselves about six days before we recorded the first episode – it was that fast.”
It also took off much quicker than Stef ever imagined.
“It’s really hit a sweet spot with people,” he said. “We knew that if we launched the idea really quickly, rather than waiting for someone to commission it, we could build a big audience during lockdown.
“There was a captive audience there, but speed was the key. I really think that if we’d waited for two or three weeks we’d have missed the boat because that’s when everyone started to publish their Covid19 lockdown-related podcasts.”
Each week, the trio meet in their virtual pub to discuss classic sports docs, clips and books, but they invariably get distracted – a lot – and wind up talking about Bobby Davro, Lionel Blair and Bruce Lee.
Elvis vs The Beatles
It transpired Steff has known Elis and Mike for several years. The trio are good mates.
“I think I first met Elis after the Cyprus v Wales (Euro 2016 qualifying) match, but I don’t think he’ll remember that, he had his top off asleep in a bar,” he laughed.
“I met Mike on the side of a rugby pitch when our boys started playing as five-year-olds. We’d see each other on the school run, our kids are at the same school, and we’d always planned on working together, but this was the first time we managed to make it work.”
One of the key features of the podcast is the kinetic chemistry between Elis and Mike, who first met while starting out as comics in Cardiff more than a decade ago. Steff had no hesitation in bringing them together, knowing they would work well in tandem.
“They’ve known each other for years and they had always talked about each other,” he said. “There’s a clear affection there – a big brother, little brother relationship which I thought could work well.”
As for the comics themselves, who have appeared alongside each other on TV in the sitcom Josh and, more latterly, as part of BBC Wales’ comedy series Tourist Trap, they are polar opposites and that in essence is their appeal.
“Elis and I are so unalike,” said Mike. “He’s football, I’m rugby. He’s the Beatles, I’m Elvis. I’m a lover and a fighter, he’s neither. There are very few things we agree on. We are basically like Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon in The Odd Couple. Incidentally, Elis says my references are hopelessly outdated, I say they’re not.
“I’ve known Elis for probably 12/13 years,” he added. “We met on the south Wales comedy scene. First time I met him I remember thinking he was odd, but he did make me laugh a lot. That’s basically remained a constant. Before he sold out and moved to England we did see quite a lot of each other. Not like that… although we have both seen each other in our underwear.”
Elis heartily agreed with his podcast partner’s forensic summation, before proffering his own take.
“We’re rugby v football, East v West, Elvis v the Beatles, lifting very heavy weights and taking supplements v riding your bike to work and the occasional bit of five-a-side,” he said.
“Stand-up usually attracts thin, socially-awkward outcasts, not muscular ex-rugby players who will sing an Elvis song in public at the drop of a hat as part of a personal mission to educate the public.
“Mike is one of the funniest people I have ever met. He has also managed to fit the experiences of about 10 people into one life. His autobiography will be longer than the Bible and also provide a doctrine to live your life by.
“I wouldn’t dress like Mike for all the tea in China, but we’re very good mates.”
While they both readily admitted they are polar opposites, the respect and affection they have for each other is clearly evident.
I interviewed everyone separately for the Western Mail piece and both Elis and Mike told the same story about how they drove up to Edinburgh together, to underline how well they got on.
“I once drove Elis and I to the Edinburgh Festival,” recalled Mike. “When we finally arrived we realised we had talked non-stop nonsense for eight hours.”
“He has a more interesting backstory than Muhammad Ali,” said Elis of his pod partner. “I drove to Edinburgh with him once. He told anecdotes for nine hours, each one was something I’d dine out on forever. We only listened to one song during the entire journey – Dolly Parton’s Nine To Five as we pulled into Tebay Services.”
The combination of interesting stories, informed observations, outrageous daftness and earthy humour is underpinned by the pair’s natural warmth – there’s nothing contrived and that transmits itself easily to the ever-growing band of listeners who quickly spread the word. It’s obvious that fans of the podcast absolutely love it.
Within three months of launching the podcast had spawned Twitter fan accounts and artwork by fans to illustrate the stories Elis, Mike and Steff discussed in each episode.
“The listeners have been amazing,” said Mike. “I’ve never had a response like it. We get sent lovely emails, great comments, gifts, books, fan art, people just seem to love it. And so far it’s all been by word of mouth, friends telling friends about it.
“It’s a cliche, but I think it’s because there’s something for everyone. That’s big part of it. Also, and I think this is absolutely crucial, you can’t fool people. They’re not daft. We’re not three randoms put together by a production company to have semi-scripted ‘banter’. We are three mates who get together once a week to do something which we honestly enjoy doing as much as anybody listening.”
The podcast is recorded on a Sunday evening – and it sounds as much fun to record as it is to listen to. Although thoughts and prayers are with Steff’s herculean editing task.
“We spend a lot of time on a Sunday night laughing,” said Mike. “The three of us work well together. If Steff wasn’t there, I don’t think the recording sessions would ever end. Elis and I love nothing better than to spin off on tangents. We both love films and history and books and impressions and showing off.
“Nothing is scripted. The whole point is it’s mates sat around a table or leaning on the bar of a (virtual) pub, having a laugh with each other. There’s quite a bit of editing for Steff to do on a Monday, but I was very clear from the outset that I was only interested in doing the fun bit, so that really is his problem.”
For Elis, the recording leaves him lagging on a Monday morning.
“I can never sleep afterwards because it feels like I’ve done a gig,” he said. “If my daughter asks me why I’m tired on a Monday, I’ve got to be honest and say, ‘Dad was talking about boxing with his funny friends’.
“It’s the closest I’ve come to a night out in months. I don’t drink very much any more because I have very young children, but when I’m drinking lager and listening to Mike argue that Bruce Lee ‘was actually rubbish’, I feel like a teenager and I’ve just discovered drinking in pubs.
“People say it’s like being in a pub with friends, which I think is quite an evocative thing to try to capture during lockdown.
“I love podcasts because it’s such a natural medium that allows you to be yourself. We record for about three hours and Steff turns it into something that makes our listeners laugh as they’re out walking the dog.”
For Steff, it’s a free ringside seat at a quality comedy gig – with a lot of editing afterwards.
“I let them disappear off into their heads and start riffing, I just sit back and let them go,” he said. “They egg each other on. Comedians like to make other comedians laugh and when they start going you can see both their brains starting to whirr and they both try to think of the funniest thing they can.
“It’s not competitive, just two guys bouncing off one another to make each other, and me, laugh. It’s like free entertainment for me.
“I think a lot of sports radio, TV and podcasts are too serious – you can have real belly laughs, but also talk about the political climate in the 1980s without it being jarring.”
While much of the podcast sees Elis and Mike riffing on a myriad subjects, there’s actually quite a bit of work that goes into each episode.
“I’ve spent a lifetime playing, coaching, reading about and watching sport, so that informs a lot of it,” said Mike, the former PE teacher who traded education for the entertainment industry.
“I’ve been doing stand-up for 12 years, so I can lean on that a lot too. But for each episode we watch half a dozen clips, a sports documentary and read a book.
“Something which has evolved, and which is great, is that listeners are now suggesting things we can watch and read and some of them have been absolute pearlers.”
“I have a long list of potential clips and think quite carefully about the clips I’ll choose,” added Elis. “I’ll make notes on my choices and try to watch the documentary twice. And I love every single second of it.
“I get to watch videos of Maradona doing his pre-match warm-up or Steve Robinson winning a world title belt under the guise of work.”
I asked Elis and Mike for the reasons behind the podcast’s success and they both told me it’s because it appears to work on different levels for listeners.
“It’s a comedy sports podcast for people who can take or leave sport,” said Mike. “If you do like sport, there will be an awful lot of sports stuff and some great tips about sports docs, clips and books. If you’re not really into sport, there will be three blokes having a lot more fun than they should be having alone in their bedrooms on a Sunday night.
“It’s as much about sport as the listener wants it to be, essentially,” he added. “One thing I’ve been really happy about is the great response we’ve had from across the spectrum – younger, older, male, female, sporty, non-sporty, Welsh, non-Welsh.”
“We’re three obsessive sports fans who start talking about sport, but are more interested in making you laugh,” said Elis. “I don’t actually think you need to like sport to enjoy it, we’re far more focused on the human side of what makes the people in the clips tick.
“Cliff Young, the 61-year-old sheep farmer who won the 1983 Sydney to Melbourne ultramarathon, is a good example. He’d developed his superhuman stamina by rounding up sheep on foot, because his family couldn’t afford horses during the 1930s depression. You don’t get people like Cliff being discussed on Sky Sports very often.”
One of the undoubted joys of the podcast is its educational quality – an unorthodox classroom where you’ll be introduced to a wonderful world of characters like Cliff, most of whom you may well have never heard of before.
Key among them is Distantpod totem Kimbo Slice, the notorious US street fighter who died in 2016, and something of a recurring subject on the podcast.
“I had no idea that Mike had also been down the Kimbo Slice YouTube rabbit holes I went down in the mid-2000s,” laughed Elis. “To the uninitiated, Kimbo Slice was an unlicensed, unregulated boxer who used to fight people in his back garden, next to his rotary washing line and barbecue.
“He was an American, but when we riff about his life he is from Ammanford for some reason. He was a frankly terrifying bloke, but when you imagine him doing his shopping in Fforestfach big Tesco he’s very funny.”
The joy is that the trio are learning and being enlightened to the outer margins of ‘sport’ as much as we are.
“It’s very rare that Mike and Steff choose clips, books or documentaries that I am already aware of,” said Elis. “I had no idea Mike was such a fan of gymnastics, I had no idea Steff’s knowledge base covers every sport since the dawn of time. As a sports fan, it’s heaven.”
“I had no idea that there is an annual football match in Florence that is, to all intents and purposes, a medieval gang war,” added Mike. “And that the prop man who made the stocks in which Bobby Davro nearly died was a berk, with a thin grasp of physics.”
For Steff, his most startling discovery in the three months the podcast has been up and running is how Mike has lived the life he has in just 49 years.
“It’s remarkable,” laughed the broadcaster, a keen cyclist who won multiple awards for his documentary about Tour de France winner ‘Geraint Thomas – Super G: How Geraint Won The Yellow Jersey’.
“Elis thinks he’s led some sort of Quantum Leap-style existence. Whatever the subject matter or clip, Mike has a story to relate.
“I also loved it when we looked at a documentary which Elis chose called Home & Away, about Liverpool and Everton playing each other in the 1980s. We had this in-depth look at the socio-political climate on Merseryside during that period in between all of the laughter.”
Doctor Z, Specsavers and the camping stove incident, Wimbledon and a copy of Razzle, meeting Johnny Marr and getting off with Iain Dowie, every Distant Pod will have their favourite yarn. Those are a few of mine.
What has grown out of lockdown, and taken on a life of its own is a podcast that has spawned its own impressive line in merch, the latest of which is a beautiful collaboration between the pod and football shirt manufacturers Admiral, that had men of a certain age weeping sweet tears of joy.
The pod already sponsors the shirts of Cardiff Schools U15 Rugby and Cardiff Met Women’s Football team, but this was the first time they had produced their own shirts.
The replica shirts which are based on the classic Wales and Crystal Palace kits of the 1970s were unsurprisingly snapped up in hours.
A spokesperson for Admiral posted on Twitter: “At Admiral HQ we are often sat debating, discussing, and deliberating the best kits or the most iconic sporting moment. Unfortunately, whilst all working separately in our respective homes the sporting badinage dissipated.
“Luckily for us the @distantpod became an extended part of the Admiral team discussing in much greater depth many of the topics that made our makeshift desks feel a bit more normal.
“Back in April when we heard the guys mention their fondness for the Admiral brand for at least the second maybe the third time, we knew we had to get in touch. From here a collaborative design process started to take shape.
“Admiral Sportswear @admiral1914 With a mix of @elisjames shirt obsession, @MikeBubbins love of the 70s and @SteffGarrero ability to steer the ship, a home and away kit were born. A totally new club crest initially sketched out in crayon was brought to life by the Admiral team.”
If there is an element of dreams come true for both the shirt manufacturer, then you can imagine how made up Mike, Elis and Steff were, revelling in this boy’s own wish fulfilment.
It’s the same sense of disbelief which has accompanied them throughout their journey thus far. From the podcast’s early days, their patreon success, their first live shows – and the announcement last week that they would be playing a date at Cardiff’s Motorpoint Arena next February.
“It’s like being in a dream,” said Elis. “Like it’s happening to someone else.”
He can be reassured this is indeed very much real.
And many people’s listening habits are far better off because of it.
The Socially Distant Sports Bar is available through Spotify, Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts.
You can book tickets for the Distant Pod live tour including the date at Cardiff Motrorpoint Arena on February 11, 2022 HERE
Buy Distant Pod merch HERE
Follow @distantpod on Twitter
Buy tickets for Mike Bubbins’ Throwback UK tour HERE