Gareth Reynolds and Jake Johnson went from acquaintances to friends at a dive bar in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles.
As they celebrated after performing in an improv show, Johnson, an actor best known for his role in the sitcom “New Girl,” turned to Reynolds, a comedian and a host of the comedy-history podcast “The Dollop,” and for no particular reason asked: “What do you think? Should we pour these beers on our own heads?”
Without missing a beat, Reynolds held his beer over his head, and Johnson did the same. Then, Johnson said, “we smiled at each other, and doused ourselves with beer.”
It cemented their friendship. “Gareth and I both deeply believe in the bit,” Johnson said.
So it made sense that when Johnson and Reynolds, who wrote for “Arrested Development,” began to work together on an advice podcast, it was not in-depth interviews, bantering or even earnest counsel that appealed to them.
“Other people are doing that better,” Johnson said.
Instead, their twice-weekly show, “We’re Here to Help,” offers callers the kind of advice they might get from good friends at a bar or on a hike — if those friends were professional improv comedians deeply committed to finding a solution.
Sometimes, the advice is to pull a prank or lean into a silly situation, and sometimes it’s more straightforward. As with “The Dollop,” Reynolds said the show was quick and “off the cuff,” not sticking with one structure or topic for too long.
The hosts wanted to highlight the absurd situations people face day to day. “I think random people are funnier than anybody else,” Johnson said. Reading over the problems listeners write in about, he said, “I can’t believe, via the emails, what is happening in human beings’ lives.”
The hosts never choose topics meant more for a therapist’s office, and they make sure to ask callers what they think of the guidance on offer, trying not to assume their answer is the right one.
“One of the things about the podcast world that doesn’t attract me is everybody’s really smart and really sincere,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s teaching you what you should do at 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., and how to live your best life, and how you should put your pants on, and how you should brush your teeth: You’ve been doing it wrong.”
Reynolds interjected: “You should put your pants on, Jake,” at which point Johnson lifted a knee to show that, in fact, he was not wearing pants. (He was wearing shorts.)
Their aim was to produce, without the involvement of a studio, a lighthearted and freewheeling show that helped listeners. The show debuted in August and “exploded out of the gate,” Johnson said. “We’re Here to Help,” which has been downloaded 1.7 million times, has been ranked among the Top 5 podcasts on Spotify and was the second most popular comedy podcast among U.S. listeners on Apple.
Listeners call in about quirky conundrums, like what to do when your 10-month-old’s day care imposes a uniform requirement with khakis (answer: dress him up like a Target employee with a tiny wallet), or whether it was a mistake to have bought your boss tickets to an ostrich ranch for his birthday (verdict: yes; don’t do that again).
The show’s producer, Kevin Bartelt, helps the hosts weed through the submissions to find ones with the right tone.
“We like the calls where there’s not real peril, but it is important,” Reynolds said.
Friends and actors, including Zooey Deschanel and other members of the “New Girl” cast, sometimes join in.
For a few calls, Johnson and Reynolds invited this somewhat nervous reporter to listen and chime in on situations including: what to do when your husband stretches naked each morning (maybe give him a robe as a gift, the hosts said), and how to confront a co-worker in a veterinarian’s office about her “plumber’s crack” (perhaps a new set of scrubs).
With many episodes, it’s anyone’s guess what will happen.
For instance, there was the time an American man pretended to be Johnson in Edinburgh.
In September, Johnson got an Instagram message from a fan thanking him for the advice he had given her in Edinburgh. Johnson was confused; he had not been to Edinburgh recently. And then she sent a selfie of her with a man who shared some of Johnson’s features.
It turned out that the man had impersonated Johnson over the course of a night of drinking with the woman and some of her friends, sharing recollections from the set of “New Girl” and even some advice for their love lives.
Johnson’s “immediate instinct was, we should have this guy on,” Reynolds said.
The hosts tracked down Johnson’s doppelgänger — a poetry-writing extrovert whom they dubbed “Fake Jake” — through an erectile-dysfunction drugmaker owned by a friend who was with him that night in Edinburgh, and asked him to come on the show to explain himself. He played along, and even read some of his poetry. (The friend’s drug company is now a “We’re Here to Help” advertiser.)
“In what world is this real life?” Johnson said, laughing. “To me, there’s nothing funnier. It feels like this is a bit, on a bit, on a bit.”
Just because the show is lighthearted doesn’t mean the hosts don’t get invested. Since the podcast started, they’ve followed up with some callers several times to see how the advice is playing out, comparing themselves to embarrassing parents.
“Fifty percent of our calls, we’ll be like, ‘Let us know how it goes! Either way!’” Reynolds said. “They’re kind of like, ‘Maybe I’ll call back. I don’t know, it’s getting a little weird, guys.’”