The purpose of this blog post is to provide some insight into the advent of comedy podcasts for anyone interested in exploring them. To enjoy or appreciate a medium requires an understanding of its roots, and it strikes me that not many people know much about comedy podcasting beyond “Adam Carolla says dumb things sometimes.”
From the wikipedia entry on podcasts:
As discussed by Richard Berry, podcasting is both a converged medium bringing together audio, the web and portable media player, and a disruptive technology that has caused some in the radio business to reconsider some established practices and preconceptions about audiences, consumption, production and distribution. This idea of disruptiveness is largely because no one person owns the technology; it is free to listen and create content, which departs from the traditional model of ‘gate-kept’ media and production tools. It is very much a horizontal media form: producers are consumers and consumers become producers and engage in conversations with each other.
With such an eclectic array of content ready to be produced at little cost by virtually anybody who wants to, the concept of having one’s own “radio show” is today a reality. Of course, starting out on the internet and without the benefit of a traditional radio station’s accumulated audience makes it a tough task to build a following, but the internet has proven that if you have the drive to do something unique (and you stick with it), the right people will find you eventually. Blaine Capatch summed it up on the most recent episode of Sklarbro Country:
Well [nowadays] if you like comedy, it’s like “well, I like stand-up, so I’m gonna watch stand-up,” “well, I like FunnyOrDie, I’m gonna go on FunnyOrDie and watch small sketches,” “well, I like weird- I like these YouTube things,” or “I like 5 Second Films,” people can just go to what they like and immerse themselves in it instead of going to club and being like, “well, who do we have tonight?”
Podcasting has informed audio programming in much the same way that the alternative comedy movement of the late 80′s defibrillated stand-up’s cocaine-dusted corpse and gave rise to people like Blaine Capatch, David Cross, Patton Oswalt, and countless others. Oswalt defines alternative comedy as “comedy where the audience has no pre-set expectations about the crowd, and vice versa. In comedy clubs, there tends to be a certain vibe—alternative comedy explores different types of material.” This ideology is embraced by comedy podcasts, which, in much the same way that those trailblazing young comics openly eschewed “hack” comedy in favor of the experimental, have established a format in defiance of traditional radio and the limitations imposed by station managers, advertisers, or even a finicky audience.
Podcasting is now an inextricable component of the comedy world. Almost every comedian has one, and many of them extend beyond comedy, or approach common topics from a humorous angle. Sports, music, TV, movies, video games, science, cryptozoology; there is probably a comedy podcast designed around your niche.
It wasn’t until Ray introduced me to Jordan, Jesse, Go! that I took notice of podcasting and its potential for funny. For the same reasons that people seek out “indie” movies, music, or video games (innovation, creative freedom, experimentation, and (duh) independence), I eagerly latched on and filled my podcast feed to the brim with them. Given the freedom, it turns out that most people don’t want to listen to morning radio crammed into an RSS feed, instead finding satisfaction and inspiration from original shows that are guided by the epiphanic principle “play to the audience you want, not the audience you have.”
So! I’ve compiled a list of (my) 12 Essential Comedy Podcasts. Sure, I ranked ‘em, but it’s kind of irrelevant because a host’s style might not gel with you, or a show’s format might throw you for a loop; I’ve noticed that some people are instantly turned off by comedians doing bits “in character” (in which case I recommend reading up on the history of actual radio). I’ve tried to summarize the appeal of the shows as best I can, but in most cases it’s recommended that you sit down and really listen to an episode or two (please do not just listen to 10 or 15 minutes and quit) before you decide. You don’t write off an entire album after just one song, so please give these shows a fair shake before moving on.
There are many, many comedy podcasts. These are just the ones that resonate most with me.
12. Comedy Bang! Bang! (formerly Comedy Death Ray)
Earwolf’s flagship show, and definitely the most “alt comedy” of the bunch, CBB is home to dozens of different comics and comic styles, from straight monologues to character bits to improv games. The show is hosted by Mr. Show veteran Scott Aukerman and usually features several guests per week, many of them appearing in character (with notable performances by Paul F. Tompkins and James Adomian).
Al Recommends: Any of the annual “Best of” episodes.
Another show in the Earwolf stable of podcasts, HDTGM is a straightforward look at absurd or ill-conceived movies (both indie and Hollywood) and what went into making them. Hosted by Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas. Proper episodes drop bi-weekly; during the off week, Paul releases a mini-episode announcing the target of the next episode, giving listeners time to watch the movie before the episode comes out.
Al Recommends: The two most recent episodes (40 – “Judge Dredd” and 41 – “Spiderman 3″) are an excellent look at how the show works at its best.
Yet another Earwolf show, though this one isn’t strictly comedy. Comedians Tig Notaro, Kyle Dunnigan, and David Huntsberger examine one avenue of science, philosophy, or the humanities each week with the aid of a guest, usually a professional in the field of the topic. The show offers a good introduction to complex topics like genetics, human energy, self-esteem, the concept of honor, music, love, greed, fear, and immortality.
Al Recommends: Episode 28 – Creativity (w/Paul F. Tompkins) or episode 56 – Twins (w/Randy & Jason Sklar).
A live comedy show written and performed to support 826LA.org, a non-profit organization created to support kids aged 6-18 in developing creative and expository writing skills. The show is hosted by H. G. Wells (Paul F. Tompkins) and features one or two famous and deceased authors transported to the present day. Guests (in character) include Andy Richter, Maya Rudolph, and Scott Aukerman.
Al Recommends: All of it, it’s all brilliant. But if I had to pick: Episode 5 – Carl Sagan (Matt Gourley), Appendix B – Friedrich Nietzcshe (James Adomian) & H. P. Lovecraft (Paul Scheer), and episode 8 – Aesop (Mark McConville).
Todd Glass is a special kind of comedian; genuine, vulnerable, and always committed. His show is an exploration of comedy (he does a lot of experimentation with bits, especially with sound effects and music) and whatever social or cultural issues are on his mind. The show premiered before Todd publicly came out on the Marc Maron show, but the tone went unchanged – the show has always been a celebration of goofiness and joking around with friends in a comfortable atmosphere (and a lot of fake anger and yelling, which I’m known to love more than anything).
Al Recommends: Though the episodes are unnumbered, there was a “Best of” released on 6/22/12, which serves as a good introduction to Todd’s style of comedy.
A “podcuddle” (so named for the closet in which they record) hosted by Dave Anthony and Greg Behrendt. Don’t be put off by the dudebro demeanor; the show is, at its core, an honest and interesting (if sometimes crass) look at life for a couple of comedian friends in their 40′s. Stories about dysfunctional neighbors and public encounters usually end in any combination of amusement, shame, and horror.
Al Recommends: Episode 100, a live show with guests Patton Oswalt and Karen Kilgariff, is a great example of their style and a great example of the energy that a live podcast recording can generate.
Paul F. Tompkins has his hand in about a hundred different things, and his podcast is a nice sampler of it all. Character pieces (wherein Paul performs all of the characters in a conversation), recordings from his periodic live shows, phone calls from comedian friend Jen Kirkman, or even just bits from stand-up that he’s trying out. Each episode is bookended with improvised monologues by Tompkins, with musician Eban Schletter playing piano in the background, often adjusting the tone of the song to match the tone of Paul’s voice. This is a magical show.
Al Recommends: Episode 7′s Google Voice Transcript of the Star Wars cantina scene consistently reduces me to a chuckling magma.
The fourth and final Earwolf show on my list, and maybe a surprising one. Twin brothers Randy and Jason Sklar review the week in sports along with a comedian guest, an interview with a character (usually performed by impressionists James Adomian, Chris Cox, or Dan Van Kirk), and sometimes a musical guest. I am not a sports fan, so the show’s ranking on this list should be a good indication of how funny the brothers are, even to someone like me.
Al Recommends: Any episode with Patton Oswalt, and episode 99 is great for MST3K fans (guests Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett – and you know I’m not a Bill Corbett fan).
Superego is the most unique of the bunch. It’s typically a half hour show divided up into several small skits, most of which are completely improvised by a small group of people and then tightly edited to appear as if they had been scripted, which results in scenes that jump from gag to gag to gag with lightning speed. Superego taps into the absurdity of in-the-moment improv while simultaneously exploiting the ability to meticulously edit it at all down afterwards into a very compact, concentrated performance. The guest actors are consistently hilarious, especially Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, John Hodgman, and Andy Daly.
Al Recommends: Episode 3:8 is a “Best of” for the first half of season 3. Oswalt’s role as General Zod’s legal counsel is a masterwork.
The one that got me into the medium. Long-time buddies Jesse Thorn and Jordan Morris invite a guest from the world of entertainment each week to trade stories about work, life as a parent, momentous occasions, moments of shame, and more. Jordan and Jesse’s friendship in general gives me a positive vibe; Jesse is a fashion blogger with some strong ideas about how men should dress; Jordan is a laid back guy who wears a lot of free t-shirts he got from Hollywood press junkets. But they’re friends, and the only thing they want to do is make each other laugh.
Al Recommends: There are currently 232 episodes, and I wouldn’t even know where to start, so I’ll throw out some good guests: Chris Fairbanks, Moshe Kasher, and Nick Adams are always great.
The pinnacle of the “two white guys sitting around talking to each other” format. Best friends Graham Clark and Dave Shumka (very much in the style of J.J.Go – they’re part of the Maximum Fun family, in fact) invite a comedian friend on every week for a free-form discussion of current developments. Popular segments include Overheards, Celebrity Birthdays, and Hulk Hogan News. But the real draw for me is (once again) the rapport between the hosts; riffs become extrapolated to the point of absurdity as one or both hosts are reduced to cackles.
Al Recommends: Similar to J.J.Go, this is a show where almost every episode offers something great, but there are two guests who manages to bring it consistently, and they are Charlie Demers (episodes 29, 74, 115, 156, 189, 211, and 222) and, of course, Paul F. Tompkins (episodes 82, 140, 171, 194, and 205).
The only pay show I listen to (there is a free version, consisting of the first 20 minutes of each 90 minute episode), and maybe an acquired taste. Jimmy Pardo is a fascinating blend of caricature and reality, and will switch from one to the other and back again in an instant. Pardo is a quick wit and a grandmaster of deadpan, all wrapped up in the persona of someone’s cocky uncle, straddling the line between geniality and hair-trigger frustration. He will frequently explode at his tech guys over nothing (there’s that fake anger again!) before complimenting their hair or clothes the next minute. He works with comedic juxtaposition like a furious artisan.
Al Recommends: NNF costs $19.99 for one season, which is 26 episodes. Jesse Thorn is a subscriber and describes it as “Twenty bucks in exchange for six months of solid laughs, you can’t beat that.” But if you’re hesitant to buy, don’t just sample the 20 minute episodes! It seems that Jimmy releases about one full episode per season for free, including ep 610 (w/guest Marc Maron), 721 (Jon Hamm), 811 (Conan O’Brien), 914 (Ty Burrell), and 1016 (Tom Arnold).