Dan Cummins’ podcast brings new fans into the dungeon
When Dan Cummins was getting his start in stand-up comedy at Spokane open mics, the blueprint for success was fairly clear.
Get on the road. Try to get noticed by “The Tonight Show” and Comedy Central. Look for gigs on TV to build name recognition.
So he did that. He toured a lot, playing clubs and college campuses across the country. He did “The Tonight Show” twice, first with Conan O’Brien in 2009 and again in 2012 with Jay Leno. He got his own half hour on “Comedy Central Presents” in 2008. The hour-long “Crazy With a Capital F,” which he filmed at the Bing Crosby Theater in Spokane, hit Comedy Central a year later. He was a semifinalist on NBC’s “Last Comic Standing” in 2008.
He left the Spokane area in 2010 and moved to Los Angeles to work in television, appearing on the VH1 series “I Love the 2000s,” producing the reality show “Porter Ridge” and writing for and “The Playboy TV Morning Show.”
Still, with all that exposure, he couldn’t help but notice something when he would take his stand-up act out into the world.
“I thought once you got ‘The Tonight Show,’ and an hour special, that was it,” Cummins said. “Then I went to this club … Dr. Grins in Grand Rapids, and no one cared. No increase in sales at all. … It didn’t change anything and ticket sales were stagnant for years. ”
Then came the “Timesuck.”
Welcome to the Suck Dungeon
At the east end of Sherman Avenue in Coeur d’Alene, just before the city’s downtown drag runs underneath Interstate 90, there’s a clean, neat building that looks like it could have been a house. Instead, it’s an office building that is home to Cummins’ Suck Dungeon.
The Suck Dungeon is where Cummins; his wife, Lynze; and audio producer Joe Paisley produce their independent podcast, “Timesuck.” Each week, Cummins takes listeners into a deep dive on a topic, some real, some not so real, all with a comedic twist.
You know how when you’re Googling around and one interesting fact leads you to another and another and soon you’ve spent 90 minutes down an internet rabbit hole? That’s “Timesuck.”
“I actually liked school. I liked to study, I liked research papers. I like to learn about new things,” he said. “And my procrastination exercise is when I was supposed to be writing a treatment or supposed to be doing something else, I would get lost in these weird wormholes on the web.
“I thought, what if that was a podcast? I bet there are other people who are curious too. What if every week I explore some idea and then share it with you.”
He’ll debunk, as in a recent episode, the fabled “Russian sleep experiment,” in which scientists supposedly subjected men to a sleep deprivation experiment that, when coupled with some psychoactive drugs, resulted in a gruesome outcome for the test subjects. Other episodes are based on real events and people – the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the Green River Killer, the genius of Albert Einstein. Subjects typically cover serial killers, history, conspiracy theories or the paranormal, although Cummins has dived into subjects such as immigration and gun control.
He tried to interest the big podcast networks in his idea but couldn’t pull it off. He did land a deal with CBS’s podcast network, Play It Networks. They gave him a “a podcast studio in a box” – all the basic equipment one would need to record and post a podcast.
There was one problem: Cummins and CBS couldn’t agree on a direction for the project.
“That was a low point to get fired from a podcast. I didn’t even know that could happen,” Cummins said. “When they fired me, I went on Amazon and I just bought everything that was in their box. I hired a buddy who is a graphic designer to do a basic website. And I’m like, ‘I’m just going to do it myself.’ ”
The move has paid off. He launched the podcast in September 2016 and moved into a new office space in Coeur d’Alene about a year ago. Episodes of “Timesuck” are downloaded nearly 1 million times a month. New episodes of Cummins’ podcast are downloaded an average of 120,000 times in the first 30 to 60 days. He puts the podcast’s total listenership at 200,000 a week. This past week, it clocked in a No. 22 on Stitcher’s chart of comedy podcasts.
These episodes are downloaded for free through vendors such as iTunes or Stitcher. A dedicated group of fans – roughly 3,500 of them – pay $5 a month and get access to a second, subscribers-only podcast. They also get to vote on the topics Cummins discusses on the show.
“Then fans I have from the podcast are 100 times more obsessed than any stand-up fan I ever had,” Cummins said.
That shows through in the decor of the Suck Dungeon. The white, bright space is covered with gifts created by the podcast listeners, dubbed “space lizards.” There’s the custom-made Dan Cummins action figure, the hand decorated “Timesuck” Vans sneakers and ceramic figurines with Cummins’ likeness. There are drawings galore. Cummins is amazed at the community that has formed around what he calls the “cult of the curious.”
“It’s been really interesting,” he said. “It started as something people liked. Then once it got going, it doesn’t feel entirely like my project any more. It feels like a community project that I’m the voice of. But it’s a weird thing. I’ve never done anything like it artistically before, where it’s been shaped so much by fans. Which is part of why I think they like it. Then there’s the community, and they help each other, like on Facebook, sharing GoFundMe campaigns, they’re forming weird splinter groups like this Dungeons and Dragons group in Houston who are all Timesuckers. It’s been nuts.”
Back in Idaho
Cummins was raised in Riggins, a small Idaho town of about 400 people 225 miles south of Coeur d’Alene that’s nestled in the valley where the Salmon and the Little Salmon rivers meet. He used to say, “Picture a little four-lane bowling alley, one-screen theater town. I would have killed to live in that town. I grew up an hour from that town.”
In 1995, he moved to Spokane to attend Gonzaga University, eventually earning a degree in psychology. It was then that he first discovered stand-up comedy when his then wife talked him into going on stage at a local open mic in 2000. As he told The Spokesman-Review in 2007, “I had a couple of drinks to get some liquid courage and I tried out five minutes of sub-par material. And I was hooked.”
He built his career from his home in Millwood, but left town for L.A. in 2010, after his first marriage ended. He moved to Coeur d’Alene a couple years ago to be closer to his school-age children.
No one is more surprised than Cummins about the success of “Timesuck.”
“First six months, I was constantly telling my wife, ‘What is happening?’ ” he said. “But part of it is the timing. Society is so polarized right now, that it’s refreshing to find a safe place where there can be dark jokes and a bunch of silliness, but it’s not going to be ‘liberals are stupid’ or ‘conservatives are stupid.’ ”
He has big plans for the podcast because, quite simply, it’s working. “Timesuck” has proven to be the thing that gets people in the seats. He wrapping up his latest tour, “The 2018 Flat Earth Tour,” in the coming days with a three-night stand at the Spokane Comedy Club.
“This has made my stand-up so much better,” Cummins said. “At the Spokane shows, I’m doing an hour of new material. And I feel like it’s a lot smarter. I still like all my old stuff. I close with old bits, so it’s not like I don’t like it. But if you’re spending weeks and weeks doing deep dives on one topic, it’s bound to affect how you see the world.”
And he knows when he gets on stage in Spokane, or anywhere for that matter, some of the “space lizards” from the “Timesuck” world will be there, too.
“I’ve had by far the most people show up to my live shows, by a lot,” he said. “The biggest audience I’ve ever had, where we’re doing some theaters now on the road instead of clubs. It’s been crazy.”