Killing the Frog, Part 1: Invasion of the Podcasts
Analyzing humour is like dissecting a frog. Few people are interested and the frog dies of it.
– E. B. White
Let’s go ahead and get a few things out of the way. Both of your humble editors at Projector perform stand-up comedy on occasion, broadcast jokes via twitter, and frequently rely on comedy podcasts to make it through the eight-hour work day. We also get much of our news and internet browsing from comedy-friendly sources like Split-Sider, The Huffington Post (which recently added a comedy section), and The A.V. Club. So we’re guilty, or at least implicit accessories to the crimes being discussed. Kind of like when the cast of Seinfeld went to prison for videotaping a mugging and not doing anything about it. Princess Diana Law, meet your worst enemy: The Internet.
So let’s jump right in. My main point of concern is the rising hysteria over comedy podcasts, and specifically whether they are advancing or hindering the form of comedy. Several months ago, The A.V. Club writer Steve Heisler published an essay titled “Are We Nearing Comedy Podcast Overload?”, just as the site’s weekly Podmass feature had begun to branch out beyond its regular coverage of the usual big name shows to uncover more new and interesting territory. But part of the problem is that many of those very same “big name” podcasters ( Paul F. Thompkins, Pete Holmes, Julie Klausner, John Hodgeman, etc) so frequently show up as guests not only on eachother’s shows, but often seem to invade every nook and cranny of the podcast arena, creating a sense of incestual homogeny not all that different from the mainstream comedy circuit.
In the wake of Heisler’s essay (and the firestorm of Internet-commentor responses that ensued), A.V. Club editors Kyle Ryan and Nathan Rabin posted their own counter-point pieces, in defense (and praise) of the podcasting medium. I’m not going to pick apart each piece word for word, so let’s just leave it at they all present valid points about the merits and flaws of the medium, its usefulness to the modern comedian, and its continued growth in popularity. My problem, rather, is that all of these essays place too much focus on the already-famous stars (like Marc Maron) responsible for the rise of this era of comedy podcasts. (Though surprisingly none of them focus on Ricky Gervais’s role as an originator of the form… perhaps because he is a terrible human being?) And in doing so, they neglect to discuss my biggest peeve with the medium.
Like Maron’s WTF, many comedy podcasts mainly offer an Inside the Actor’s Studio-style interview discussion of the comedian’s craft, journey, and process. But when so many of these shows deal in the same pool of guests, and bear a similar brand of host narcissism, the result can be extremely redundant and boring, turning many first-timers off to repeat-listening or deeper exploration of the podcast-iverse. More importantly, by placing the focus on showbiz-gab and treating their career paths with such seriousness, podcast comedians often forget to be funny. At best, some add elements of old time radio productions (ala Thrilling Adventure Hour, a meta-Prairie Home Companion for the Mr. Show-worshipping children of NPR parents) or a few scant dick jokes and celebrity impersonations.
Does this mean we here at Projector are down on the podcasting medium? Hardly. We just tend to think our like-minded bloggers, journalists, readers, and listeners are paying an undue amount of attention to the same bunch of egotistic wind-bags. If you’re looking for another article discussing the merits of Chris Hardwick’s Nerdist podcasting media empire, or about Scott Aukerman and the EarWolf gang turning their hit podcast Comedy Bang-Bang series into a hit IFC television series, well look elsewhere! Or just click the sidebar ads on The AV Club, Videogum, or just about any site out there. (Besides, we prefer Adult Swim’s bizarre the Eric Andre Show and Gary Shandling’s classic The Larry Sanders Show for meta-satire of the late-night talk show format.)
So if you’re tired of the usual hobnobbing and navelgazing, here are a few of our suggestions and favorite podcasts. But be warned: These contain actual humor, the kind that causes laughing fits that may result in strange looks from your co-workers, or even the loss of your job. Seriously…
A recent addition to Jesse Thorn (Bullseye, formerly known as the Sound of Young America)’s Maximum Fun podcast network, Brothers Justin, Travis, and Griffin McElroy recently announced on their 100th episode that they nearly named their podcast “Blossom.” Thankfully, the brothers went with a different choice of 90’s television nostalgia in branding their show. So what is this a podcast about? Well, as oldest brother Justin announces at the opening of every episode, My Brother, My Brother and Me is an “advice-cast for the modern era” featuring three real-life brothers, who cut up and “goof” like only family can. They take questions via e-mail and Twitter, but when short on submissions they turn to the horrifying depths of Yahoo!Answers forums for their queries. As a result, more often than Loveline-style advice, their answers usually diverge into discussion of tiny Scott Bakulas, Pam Anderson/Garfield human hybrids, how to pimp-out your pet scorpions, writing messages on your dog, or naming your “warrior cats”– and a heavy ammount of uproarious (and infectious) laughter. Give their sampler a listen below…
Built around the premise that minorities are underrepresented in the podcasting world, The Champs sets about to correct that injustice one week at a time. Of course, it’s hosted by three white dudes—comedian Moshe Kasher, Chappelle Show co-creator Neal Brennan, and DJ Douggpound of Tim And Eric fame. It shouldn’t come as any surprise to those familiar with Kasher’s hyperactive persona and background (documented in his recently published autobiography Kasher in the Rye: The True Tale of a White Boy from Oakland Who Became a Drug Addict, Criminal, Mental Patient, and Then Turned 16) that he tends to dominate the flow of conversation with assertions of “hood-pass” cred. Meanwhile, DJ Douggpound’s reliance on SFX “drops” may turn off many first-time listeners, or remind some of morning shock-jock radio. But the real hook to why the show works is fascinating and hilarious guest interviews with black comedians like Brennan’s fellow Chappelle-alums Charlie Murphy, Donnel Rawlings, and ?uestlove, as well as the likes of Keegan Michael Key, Jordan Peele, JB Smoove, the legendary Robert Townshed, and even athletes Blake Griffin and Jose Canseco. “Fux” with them, as Moshe Kasher so often invites (or begs) listeners over all the air-horns and DJ drops.
Sklarbro Country is the podcast-child of identical twins Randy and Jason Sklar, aka The Sklar Brothers. You might recognize them from VH1’s “I Love the …” talking-head programming, their ESPN show Cheap Seats and “The Bracket” segments on SportsCenter, or their new gig hosting the United Stats of America on The History Channel. Each week, visitors to Sklarbro Country are welcomed by the brothers’ signature comedic take on the worlds of sports and pop culture, balancing their rapid-fire comedic timing (which could be likened to auctioneers who finish eachother’s sentences doing morning shock-talk radio) with transitions and backing music by upbeat, under-the-radar indie rock acts, and lastly, interviews with Earwolf regulars like Jon Hamm (Mad Men) and the stars of television comedy like Fred Armisen (Portlandia, SNL). Somewhere between the sports talk, music, and interviews, Sklarbro Country fits in appearances from fellow podcasters and stand-ups like Paul F. Tompkins and Nick Kroll impersonating celebrities or playing recurring characters (like Andy Daly does on Comedy Bang-Bang). Of these, Dan Van Kirk’s spot-on Mark Whalberg, James Adomian’s conspiracy theorist Jesse Ventura, and Jason Nash’s emasculated Bruce Jenner have become must-hear staples.
So if like us, you enjoy comedy by brothers and for “brothers” (FBBB? I am so sorry…), give these a podcasts a spin or a download, and feel free to leave some recommendations of your own favorite podcasts in the comments section below. Also be on the lookout for Part 2 of this series, where we’ll address the rise and role of Twitter in modern comedy. Until then, just keep blindly Poking, Pinning, Liking, and Following everything that tickles your fancy.