Comedy podcasts are at a strange and wonderful crossroads. The medium is still insular, incestuous, and humble enough to feel—to borrow the name of the comedy-geek website of podcasting magnate and Never Not Funny co-host Matt Belknap—like a special thing that still belongs to a relatively small, tight-knight group of die-hards. Yet the medium is nevertheless exploding in thrilling and unpredictable ways. IFC recently aired the première of Comedy Bang! Bang!, the TV adaptation of Scott Aukerman’s podcast and the flagship show of the Earwolf podcast network. IFC will also be airing a show inspired by Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, while BBC America has run specials based on Chris Hardwick’s The Nerdist.
These are all promising developments. The première of Comedy Bang! Bang! in particular does a fantastic job of retaining the anarchic, absurdist spirit of the podcast while implementing the conceptual weirdness and anti-comedy of Mr. Show and Between Two Ferns, both shows on which Aukerman has worked. Big things are happening for the emerging elite of the podcasting world, but it would be a shame if podcasts became merely a way of landing a TV deal or increasing attendance at live shows. They’re too valuable on their own terms to become simply means to an end.
Podcasting has a creative and emotional value that goes far beyond its questionable commercial prospects. Above all, the comedy podcasting world offers comedians nearly unlimited freedom to invent a medium in their own image. At this early stage in the game, a comedy podcast can be anything: confrontational avant-garde theater (Gelmania), coffee talk with your best girlfriend (How Was Your Week?), goofy improvisational playpen (The Todd Glass Show), or carefully scripted contemporary vaudeville (The Dana Gould Hour or The Pod F. Tompkast).
Podcasting represents part of a growing movement in comedy to take power away from the gatekeepers of culture and put it back in the hands of its creators, whether that means Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, and Jim Gaffigan selling their specials online directly to fans or funny people raising money on Kickstarter (the classiest and most socially acceptable way to beg strangers for money). Comedy podcasts are not completely untainted by the dirty, corrupting hands of commerce. Many have sponsors, but even that can feed into the ingratiatingly homemade sense of intimacy the medium engenders. There’s something weirdly humanizing about listening to professional entertainers try to find clever and original ways to shill for sex toys and audiobooks and questionable legal services
Like a lot of people, my gateway drug into comedy podcasting was WTF With Marc Maron, and just as legend holds that everyone who came to The Sex Pistols or Velvet Underground or Big Star’s sparsely attended early performances immediately went out and started a band, seemingly every comedian who listened to Maron’s first hundred episodes went out and started their own podcast. What made Maron’s podcast so initially mesmerizing was the sense that Maron wasn’t doing it because he wanted to resurrect his career, increase attendance at shows, or make money, especially since there appeared to be no real way to monetize podcasting. Instead it felt like Maron was podcasting to survive, that he was talking to the colorful figures who populated his tumultuous past and uncertain present in a life-saving effort to understand himself, his place in the universe, and the strange, disaster-strewn path his life had taken.
By being so open about his own darkness on WTF, Maron has created a space where it’s okay for guests to bear their psychological scars. He’s talked about the jealousy, resentment, rage, insecurity, and narcissism that fuels him in a way that makes listeners feel less alone and fucked up. Maron isn’t just willing to let his conversations get uncomfortable; he thrives on resentment, tension, and bad vibes. Maron has emerged as the product of a very definite time, place, and cultural milieu, but there’s also something strangely universal about his anger and frustration.
Maron inhabited the Wild West of podcasting with no predetermined expectations. That allowed him to create episodes like a heartbreaking installment chronicling Todd Hanson of The Onion’s brutal, ultimately cathartic battle with suicidal depression. Other comedy podcasts have followed suit. The Mental Illness Happy Hour recently devoted two unflinching episodes to host Paul Gilmartin talking with a psychiatrist about whether or not his mother’s treatment of him constituted sexual abuse. The result is almost unbearably intimate, like eavesdropping on someone else’s most agonizing therapy session, but these episodes highlight just how wonderfully malleable and open the field is at this point. It also highlights the trust podcasters have in their audience to handle episodes and subjects that are anything but conventionally entertaining or comic.
In a previous For Our Consideration, my colleague Steve Heisler called for a moratorium on new comedy podcasts, arguing that they degrade the value of live performances and special guests. While I agree that the comedy podcasting world is awfully incestuous, I don’t think that’s inherently a bad thing. Sometimes a podcast guest can open up a whole new world of entertainment. I became enamored of the bellicose comedian Eddie Pepitone, for example, through his appearances on WTF With Marc Maron. That led me to Pepitone’s appearances on The Todd Glass Show, which I also came to love, and finally to Pepitone’s own podcast The Long Shot, where the “Bitter Buddha” shares a panel with host Sean Conroy and co-panelists Amber Kenny and Jamie Flam.
Flam represents what makes the comedy podcasting world so fascinating, and the deep humanity that often drives it. Everyone on The Long Shot plays a clear role. Host Conroy is the stern taskmaster, Kenny is a sentient burst of sunshine, and Pepitone is a professional kvetcher. This leaves Flam in the role of the podcast’s punching bag, a meek, underachieving soul whose stories have a way of going nowhere and taking their time to do so. Flam is also the mastermind of a self-improvement program called The Immaculata that does not seem to be doing much for him.
Flam is never particularly funny, but there’s something incredibly poignant and ingratiating about him. Within the context of The Long Shot, the Immaculata becomes a tragicomic metaphor for humanity’s inherently doomed impulse toward self-improvement. Because I have spent dozens of hours listening to Flam talk about his problems and the home he shares with his grandmother, I’m weirdly invested in his life and his career. I root for him. I want him and the Immaculata to succeed. That’s true of most of the podcasters and guests I follow. I recognize their messy humanity.
Some of that messiness and humanity will be lost if podcasts become ever more streamlined and commercial. Heisler argues, “There will soon be a point when we know too much about comedians to retain any of the magic that initially attracted us to the art form,” but I would argue the opposite is true. Seeing the Sklar Brothers, Pete Holmes, or Jimmy Pardo perform live means more to me precisely because I spend so many hours every week rummaging through their minds, psyches, and pasts on their respective podcasts. In my case, familiarity breeds affection rather than contempt. (Besides, comedians who wish to preserve their sense of mystery can simply opt out of the podcast game, as both hosts and guests.)
Three years ago, comedy podcasts meant nothing to me. Today I cannot imagine my life without them. They’re not just entertaining but therapeutic, serving as a constant reminder of our shared humanity and drowning out the angry howls of self-loathing inside my head with amusing banter and friendly voices. They aren’t just entertaining; they also keep me and, I would imagine, other fragile, introverted souls reasonably sane.
If anything, we need more comedy podcasts that take advantage of the freedom and intimacy of the medium. Podcasters of the world should experiment, try new things, take chances, and luxuriate in not having to worry about squeamish executives or weak-willed advertisers or a network that will cancel you if you don’t bring in coveted demographics. They should embrace the elements of podcasting that makes it unique from every other artform, even complementary mediums like stand-up, radio, talk shows, and sketch comedy. Go long. Go short. Create a podcast unlike any other. Innovate in a field where the cost of entry is tantalizingly low. Appreciate that you’re entering an exciting field at a singular time. Do not be discouraged if money does not come quickly. It won’t. It’ll probably never come. If you love what you do—a quality shared by just about every great podcast—then doing it will be its own reward.