LOS ANGELES — Paul Lieberstein, a writer and actor for "The Office," had a wacky idea for a story about a bored spaceship captain who goes on comedic tangents while traveling the galaxy. But Lieberstein didn't think the concept would work in a conventional TV episode format.
So he decided to create a fictionalized podcast instead. "Middlespace: The Rebels Attack, and Then the Other Side Attacks As Well" debuting this week on Audible, the audiobook and podcast company owned by Amazon.
"There's an impatience in film and television now," Lieberstein said. "There's just a lot that has to happen and a lot of story needs to be told ... I didn't have a story to tell, I had some characters to just kind of play around with. [In] the podcast/Audible world — people are more willing to accept a different way to go."
The series will be among six new scripted comedy podcasts that Audible will roll out in the coming months, as the Newark, N.J., company looks to expand its entertainment offerings and appeal to more consumers.
"Audible is where the audience is at and if the audience is craving comedy, we're going to deliver what they need and we're partnering with some of the most exciting people in the space," said Zola Mashariki, head of Audible Studios.
Launched in 1995 as an audiobooks company, Audible has been expanding into other forms of storytelling in recent years.
After e-commerce giant Amazon bought the company for $300 million in 2008, Audible ventured into original scripted podcasts, launching its first scripted original comedy "Stinker Lets Loose!" in 2018; it already has 31 scripted comedy podcasts. Many are told through 20- to 30-minute episodes.
Scripted podcasts allow Audible to invest in stories that could be repurposed for other areas of Amazon, such as Amazon Prime Video. For example, "Evil Eye," which began as a podcast on Audible in 2019, was later adapted into a horror movie that was released on Amazon Prime Video last year.
Like other entertainment companies, Amazon has been expanding its footprint in the podcast space. Last year, Amazon Music acquired West Hollywood-based Wondery.
By adding podcasts, Audible can appeal to talent and their potentially large social media followings.
"They've got the ... base of people who are already on a commute, they like the audio format," said Ray Wang, a principal analyst at Palo Alto-based Constellation Research. "They want to expand on it."
Audible says it has millions of listeners but did not disclose specific figures. Users can access the exclusive new podcasts through an Audible subscription, which starts at $7.95 a month.
Audible's podcasts span many content categories, primarily comedy, romantic comedy, sci-fi, thriller, mystery and well-being, the company said. Past scripted comedy podcasts include the recently released "Hot White Heist" featuring an all-gay cast; and "Eat S*** Kenny Daniels," which was released last year and stars Alicia Silverstone.
The six new scripted comedy podcasts coming to Audible through April are "Middlespace"; "Christmas Delivery," about a grumpy courier who goes on a Christmas Carol-esque journey; "Self Center," featuring a 40-year-old woman whose weekend retreat goes awry; "Lem Can Help," which centers on a man with a popular advice show portrayed by Fred Armisen; "Summer in Argyle," created by "Breaking Bad" and "Better Call Saul" actor Bob Odenkirk and his son Nate Odenkirk about a town in Ohio that is shaken after an athlete dies; and "Blood Weed," which deals with a young cannabis business entrepreneur voiced by "The Sixth Sense" actor Haley Joel Osment.
Audible is releasing most of these new podcasts through partnerships with New York-based comedy production company Above Average or its parent company, Broadway Video Enterprises, founded by "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels. Conan O'Brien's digital media company, Team Coco, worked with Audible on "Self Center."
An Audible executive declined to disclose the budgets of is podcasts. A person familiar with the company said the budgets can be in the high six figures, depending on the cast.
"This was a great way to expand the pipeline of stories that we could get out there in the world," said Britta von Schoeler, president of Broadway Video Enterprises. "I think the goal is ultimately doing these audio narrative series and using that as a proof of concept, so hopefully we can develop them into another format, whether it's television or stage or film."
Although their company is in a different part of the Amazon ecosystem, Audible executives say they have found ways to collaborate with Amazon Studios, which releases original series and films.
"Our main focus is always just creating great audio ... but certainly, we think about how content can be expansive and how it can create worlds and so we are frequently working back and forth on different projects with either Amazon Studios or other groups," said Rachel Ghiazza, Audible's executive vice president and head of U.S. content.
In the past, comedy podcasts began in an interview format or as improv, putting funny people together in a room. Now, listeners are looking for high-quality productions with high-pedigree producers in unscripted or scripted comedy podcasts, said Adam Sachs, chief operating officer for Team Coco.
"There are so many podcasts that now the audiences expect more," Sachs said. "We're seeing that audiences are expecting more experimentation with format, more demand for more increased premium quality content."