Podcasting for Laughs
Perhaps the jury is still out, but in the sheer number of them available, one can assume that comedy podcasts represent another pivotal moment in the history of American comedy.
So I’m a comedy nerd. I admit it. What does that mean? To me it means that I am generally more interested in the latest comedians and the history of comedy than most people. It began when I was I kid in the '80s, watching television with my parents. This particular era is referred to as “The Comedy Boom.” Between sitcoms, HBO comedy specials, and watching Johnny Carson when I was supposed to be in bed, I was able to catch just a glimpse at a landmark moment in the evolution of American comedy. In retrospect, it seems as if there was a guy standing in front of a brick wall telling jokes every night. Years later, I would occasionally see a few of those guys starring in a sitcom. A few of them hosted late night television shows.
This era has been critiqued as transformational, particularly as it relates to television, and the broadening of the type of characters, images, and perspectives that are available in American popular culture today. But today’s comedian doesn’t just make us laugh on stage or in front of the brick wall. Today’s working comedian is also likely to be heard via podcast.
Perhaps the jury is still out, but in sheer number of podcasts available, one can assume this is another pivotal moment in the history of American comedy. Today’s roster of comedians who host podcasts runs the gambit in style, delivery, age, demographic, popularity, and personality. But everyone isn’t just doing skits and parodies, or testing out their material for the stage. Some comedians are using the platform of their podcast as a means of indulging their own personality and subsequently gaining an audience in a direct and deliberate way. So much so that they progressively represent a diversity of perspectives that other forms of entertainment do not.
Here are some of the known, and lesser known podcasts where the cheap suit, smoky bar, and tidy punch lines are left behind:
Although it is one of the most popular comedy podcasts today, the conversations and interviews on Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist podcast lead itself not to some broad comedic bit on newspaper headlines. Rather, the conversations progress in a nerdy way about comedy, Hollywood, nerdy-ness and stereotypically nerdy topics. This all provides a number of meta-narratives that often times just happen to be funny. Hardwick and the gang interview everyone from Hollywood types to lesser-known figures who have their own nerdy story to tell. The overarching message of The Nerdist podcast: if have a concentrated passion of any kind, go get a pair of glasses and a pocket-protector, because you’re a nerd.
Jordan, Jesse, Go! has a similar, but more free-wheeling, stream-of-consciousness nature. Host Jesse Thorn and co-host Jordan Morris usually, and seemingly intentionally, botch the beginning of the show and then introduce the guest. While the guest is sort-of interviewed throughout the show, ultimately a number of conversations emerge in a group effort of light-hearted comedic banter that often expose more dimensions of the hosts and guest than could ever be provided on a stage.
Next to Adam Corolla, Marc Maron, host of the WTF podcast, may be the most popular comedy podcasting personality today. There have been plenty of critiques of his particular brand of comedy and the show; most which deconstruct Marc’s neuroses (although no more than Marc does), his narratives, and his famous guests. Thus far, his more notable guests have been Carlos Mencia (2 parts), Gallagher, who left mid-interview, Chris Rock, Conan O’Brien, and most recently comedian Todd Glass, who came out of the closet on the show.
But while the prevailing theme has been humor, WTF has provided insight into other areas of the comedic mind, and therefore all minds, besides the creative process or the hardships of the entertainment business. In his interviews, Maron gets to the core of family struggles, abuse, addiction, and relationships to the point where it isn’t a joke anymore but often still funny, if not insightful.
And now a look at some newer podcasts:
On the Girl on Guy podcast, actress, writer, producer, and comedian Aisha Tyler has a format that is similar to The Nerdist, WTF, and Jordan, Jesse, Go! podcasts; she conducts interviews and engages in a somewhat guided conversation. Guests have included Bill Burr (also a comedian and podcaster), ?uestlove of the Roots, and Andy Richter. What makes Tyler’s approach unique is that she makes it clear, almost every episode, who she is, who she isn’t and what she likes. These stated definitions of her character then guide her process as an interviewer. She begins every show with a brief monologue, followed by a colorful interview. Toward the end of the interview, the guest is asked to tell a story of “self-inflicted wounds.” This requirement of this story is usually to tell of a particular moment when the guest has been intoxicated; preferably on alcohol. Ending the podcast, Tyler gives a sarcastic mea-culpa for any discrepancies, real or otherwise, made during the interview. She makes it clear that her identity is defined by, but not limited to: a love of booze, nerdy-ness, awkward Blackness, comedy, and most of all, stuff that guys like.
The Minivan Men podcast will sometimes have guests but the show centers most around its three hosts, Al Madrigal, Chris Spencer, and Maz Jobrani. Each member of this trio is married with children and each week’s podcast speaks to their daily challenges as parents and husbands. While the hosts obviously have a light-hearted comedic tone to the podcast, what comes through is that the challenges of relationships and parenthood aren’t specific to your profession. Through personal stories and comedic hypotheticals, the hosts try to wade through solutions to everyday family and relationship challenges. They do so while keeping the funny in there and reminding us that, oddly enough, despite Hollywood’s efforts, people are still human beings.
W. Kamau Bell, a comedian based out of San Francisco, makes his living providing insightful comedic commentary on race, politics and pop culture. So of course, the name of his podcast, co-hosted with rock veteran Vernon Reid of Living Colour, would be named The Field Negro’s Guide to Arts and Culture. On this podcast, two self-proclaimed “Field Negroes” wax eloquent on the latest in race, politics, entertainment, and culture. While much of the commentary tackles topics discussed elsewhere, the combination of the two hosts allow for the kind of candid dialogue not often heard in public discourse, particularly on race.
The variety of formats, topics and personalities in these comedy podcasts provide access to unique cultural commentary that would perhaps be overlooked and unheard. These podcasts are enabling an evolution of comedy that leaves behind the plastic formula of the rolled-sleeve comedian with the brick wall behind him. Some of today’s comedians are using their podcasts to help us realize that while nearly everything can be fodder for comedic gold, a comedian’s primary job is to anesthetize the audience with laughter, while imparting new thoughts and broadening perspectives. The re-definitions that these podcasts provide for the listener include but are not limited to: what it is to be a nerd, Black, female, a father, or just plain insecure. These comedians are giving us free reflections for all to hear, ponder, share, and usually, laugh.