Through the Beef and Dairy Prism – An Interview with Beef And Dairy Network creator Benjamin Partridge
It began, as these things do, with a beef tenderness webinar.
Comedian Benjamin Partridge’s brilliantly surreal and hilarious podcast, the Beef and Dairy Network, is not an easy one to explain to the uninitiated. It is, as the host proudly announces at the beginning of each episode, “the number one podcast for those involved, or just interested, in the production of beef animals and dairy herds”. While the show is indeed about all things beef and dairy, a typical episode might explore a dance craze called the beef hop, follow the exploits of a malicious slaughterhouse owner / cult leader, or hear from the Bovine Poet Laureate.
After five and half years and 77 episodes, the show is as weird, fun, and original as ever and I was delighted to chat to its creator to get a behind-the-scenes look at the show, to get the story behind the beef.
Partridge joined me for an online chat from his home in Cardiff and we began by discussing the origins of the show, which brings us back to that beef tenderness webinar. While working for BBC Radio as a comedy writer, one of his radio producer colleagues received an email that was clearly not meant for her:
“And she was like, I just got this email for a ‘beef tenderness webinar’. And I just found those three words very, very funny on their own. And then if you listen to the first episode of the Beef and Dairy Network, I think I use it, I think I just read it out verbatim. For a section, I just do an advert for a beef tenderness webinar. I just read out the email she got because I just found it so funny”.
Around the same time as this, Partridge was chatting to a friend who had been unwillingly signed up to a daily email for the “Pork Network”. The friend didn’t unsubscribe because he found it so bizarre. “And he would forward it to me sometimes just because it was so absurd to read, you know, the way that there’s just a weird use of language around it. And it’s just all very… it’s hard to explain, isn’t it? It’s kind of what the podcast is”.
This was all in the run up to 2015, when the podcast would eventually launch. It was a time when podcasts were finally beginning to hit the mainstream, most notably with the breakout success of Serial in 2014. Partridge was a podcast fan from very early on but had found that while there were plenty of comedy podcasts out there, they were mostly chat style shows, with very little in the way of the sketch radio comedy he had worked in. The success of Welcome to Night Vale in particular proved that there was a space for a type of surreal show, set in its own fictional world, in which scripting and careful post-production were essential.
“Welcome To Night Vale is less obviously comedy-forward than Beef and Dairy. Beef and Dairy is very daft and Welcome to Night Vale is more kind of creepy and atmospheric.
“But just listening to someone doing a kind of fictional radio station as a podcast. I mean, it seems so obvious now, but it opened my mind to going, oh, podcasts aren’t just people chatting. Like a real moment of, oh, of course you can. You can make a fictional universe on this platform, which is such an obvious thing now”.
And so, in July 2015, the Beef and Dairy Network launched. Not long after, BBC Radio 4 approached Partridge wondering would he pitch something similar to the station. He put together a compilation of clips but in the end the commissioner realised that they didn’t really want something like Beef and Dairy, they would much rather just put out the show itself. Partridge was delighted to get the show out to a wider audience and then, when BBC Sounds was launched a few years later in 2018, the show was picked up as one of several British independent podcasts pushed out with the launch.
Meanwhile, as regular listeners will be aware, the show had become a part of the Maximum Fun Network, a large independent network of comedy and culture shows founded by American radio and podcast host and entrepreneur Jesse Thorn. The move came about as a result of a few lucky connections – a producer friend who moved from the BBC to Maximum Fun, and comedian Josie Long mentioning the show to Thorn after an interview on his show Bullseye – and it was a huge boost for the podcast. “It was just so lucky. Because kind of almost overnight my audience jumped by like thousands. It’s a big network and you just kind of you pick up a certain number of people from it, just because people who listen to stuff on the network, will check out the new things”.
The move to Max Fun also meant that suddenly the majority of Beef and Dairy listeners were American (Partridge reckons around 60% or more), which brought a different angle to things. For one, there are the accents: “one of the things I quite like is because I know that the audience is in America, I really like getting different British accents on the podcast because most Americans haven’t really heard them. I’m Welsh but I don’t really have a Welsh accent myself, but there’s a lot of Welsh guests and Welsh characters in it. And it’s funny how, I don’t think Americans really recognize it as an accent, so I think some of them are just like, what on earth is this!?”
So Welsh accents aside, how does a typical episode come together? I was intrigued by the process: how much is planned and how much is improvised and left to chance? What’s the post-production like? How does Partridge approach guests and keep everything consistent within the ever-expanding Beef and Dairy world?
As might be expected, Partridge’s background in radio comedy influences how the show is produced and put together: “I did do a bit of work, sort of serious radio making, [BBC] Radio Four kind of documentary-ish stuff. And so my kind of thinking was if you were doing a serious interview for a serious radio program, you’d think about what you want to get out of the interview, or how you want it to go. And then you’d write a list of questions that you kind of have in front of you for the interview. So basically, it’s kind of doing that. I was imagining a character and then going, if I was going to go and interview them for serious radio program, how would I structure the interview? And what would I have in front of me?”
The final result, as any regular listener will attest, is a show that sounds and feels like an immaculately produced documentary. The decision to play things completely straight plays into this as well. Neither Partridge, nor any of his guests, ever break character and there is never so much as a faint background chuckle to bring the listener out the of experience. Of course, this final documentary quality all comes down to Partridge’s editing process. While he has lots of respect for those comedy shows that can record and put out a show with just a light edit, that’s definitely not his process: “if you played the uncut recordings, it would just be horrifying!”, he happily admits. “The key to it is that we record loads and I edit down. I really edit down, like we’ll record for 90 minutes, and I’ll use 20”.
As you might imagine with such an idiosyncratic show, Partridge edits it all himself, a hugely time-consuming process. He notes that that final sound and feel of the show “is kind of born out of the fact that I’m not the world’s best improviser. Like, I’m fine, but I’m not the best. So, it’s kind of like, what can I do? And I don’t know, if I was a better improviser, potentially I would never have ended up editing so heavily. And then I wouldn’t have ended up thinking about how to structure the show in the best way. Like, if I was just really great at it. I would just put that out”. While you may disagree about Partridge’s modest assessment of his improv skills, it’s certainly true that the post-production brings the show to an entirely different level. That might be in those episodes that closely follow a documentary format (Ep 42: “The Ballad of Parsnip Flendercroft” is a particular standout); it might be in a bizarre medley of people saying “rich beef sausages” laid over slightly sinister music that should be far too long but just isn’t (Ep 5); or it might be the increasingly lengthy “beef call” song.
At the centre of the podcast, however, is the improvisation. Guests are drawn from a rotating group of comedian friends and collaborators as well as a whole host of other special guests. Sticking to the “serious documentary” format, Partridge will send questions to the guests the day before. “And then it really varies – some people just don’t look at it, because they want to be free-wheeling, and that’s kind of their vibe. Some people are a bit more like, I want to sit down and think about this, because that’s how they’re more comfortable. For most people it’s kind of like a happy medium where they’ll basically have a read through it, so they know what’s meant to happen, but they also want to be kind of off the cuff a bit”. As the years have gone by, a number of wonderful regular characters have emerged, including the sadistic slaughterhouse owner / cult leader Eli Roberts (voiced by Mike Bubbins), the discredited bovine arse vet Bob Trescothick (Mike Wozniak), or the horrendously disfigured Bovine Poet Laureate Michael Banyan (Henry Paker). The brilliant scene in episode 44, in which the poet recounts his escape from the Bovine Farmer’s Union in Spain, is a personal all-time favourite.
Many of the guests are in single, self-contained episodes, although Partridge admits it can be hard to keep track of the Beef and Dairy world. “A lot of the time I’m having to say, okay, can we do that bit again but you can’t say this because, you know, you’ve mentioned Kelly Clarkson. Well, unfortunately, in this the world she has been kidnapped and imprisoned by Eli Roberts. It’s getting harder and harder to remember actually, with every ball that’s in the air!”
The world building may get a little complicated, but it does allow for unlimited variation on its central theme. As Partridge notes, “I had this realization that I could basically do an episode about everything. And I could just send it through the beef and dairy prism, or whatever. I think it was when I did an episode about a musical, it was called Greece: The Musical. And when I finished the episode I realised, basically, all the jokes in this are observational jokes about musicals, and then I realised, well, you know, if I could do an episode about musicals, I can do an episode about anything”.
That “beef and dairy prism” nicely sums up how, as a fan of the show, you begin to see the world around you. Follow the show’s Twitter account and you’ll see fans posting images of things that remind them of, or look like something from, the Beef and Dairy world. Everyone is looking through the beef and dairy prism.
So, if your podcast can be about anything, how do you challenge yourself and keep it fresh and original? “I was thinking about this the other day because when I first started off, because very few people were listening, I would do quite weird bits and I was just doing it because I fancied it. I didn’t really think about it.
“I think it’s in episode five where I do the first “Rich Beef Sausages” thing. And that was a turning point, I think, for the podcast. That really made me laugh as an idea, and then the fact that people liked it I was like, ‘oh great, if people go for that, I can do whatever I want!’
“Whereas these days I have realised that now there is a listenership, and I can see what they think, they’ll tweet me and stuff. I have started kind of thinking, oh, will people go for this? And I need to lose that.
“I really want to do an episode that half the people hate, but I’m too scared! I don’t even know what it would be. I just think I would love to just do something really silly. That most people would email me and be like, what are you doing!?”
I chatted to Partridge before November’s episode (Ep 77: Marianne Angler). I am confident half of the audience did not email him to complain, but it’s certainly one of the most remarkable episodes to date, with an eighteen-minute long experimental, beef-related recording made to send into space. It’s a triumph of in-world call backs and humour, surreal Beef and Dairy weirdness, and top-class production.
So where to next for Beef and Dairy? For one thing Partridge is firm on the release schedule: it will always be a monthly show and he enjoys the challenge of a monthly turnaround with little long-term planning: “I think there’s something about the clock starting and me going right, shit, what am I doing this month? That means I have to be creative and come up with something and think of who I’m going to get”.
There are potential offshoots too (surely that printed magazine has to make it to print some time!?), most notably a potential TV format: “I’ve sort of been involved with TV production companies who’ve been interested and it just hasn’t quite sort of happened. But I’m hopeful, you know, I’d love to do something”. There’s also his other comedy podcast with Beef and Dairy regulars Mike Wozniak and Henry Paker, Three Bean Salad, which started earlier this year.
Ultimately, though, Partridge is incredibly grateful to have turned something that began as a fun project into a major part of his career: “it’s literally the dream scenario, which is that I started out making something as a passion project and now, you know, I make enough money that I can cover my time to make it”. The many, many fans of the show will be hoping Partridge continues living that beef-fuelled dream for quite some time to come.
If you’re a Beef & Dairy fan, check out the improv comedy audiodrama: The Bootsy Boys Blackbird. The Bootsy Boys got tired of waiting for Michael Flatley to release his modern day masterpiece, action spy thriller, ‘Blackbird’, so they wrote their own version
Alternatively, you’ll love the improv comedy phone-in show, Phoning It In. Each week, host Dave Coffey fields a collection of calls from a bunch of cranks, oddballs and weirdos. This weekly podcast features some of Ireland’s best comedians and improvisers who have (literally) no idea what they’re getting themselves into – until their host introduces them on air.