Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Wiretap"

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Can it really be this simple? Can one truly crank out top-tier radio comedy — hell, authentic Theater of the Mind — with only a recording studio and a telehybrid? Hosting CBC's Wiretap [iTunes] [XML], Jonathan Goldstein would seem to have proven that one can. At long last, podcast listeners such as your Podthinker can now download his shows and listen to them over and over and over again, oftentimes at one-third speed, in order to dissect, document and replicate exactly how he does it.

Perhaps some background. For years, your Podthinker heard about this program. Oh, Wiretap. You've got to hear Wiretap. Wiretap's so funny. Wiretap. Wiretap. Wiretap. The sell always came fast, hard and convincing — until, that is, it was revealed that the show wasn't available as a podcast. You mean you have to "tune in" at a "certain time" in order to receive the "radio waves" when the CBC chooses to "broacast" them? Yeah. Not likely. Sketchy unofficial podcast feeds would pop up every now and again, but, like a sugar-rushed kid at the Whack-a-Mole machine, the CBC would mallet them down as quickly as they rose. The CBC, you see is a big media organization, and as such is deeply, brow-furrowingly concerned about what has been "cleared for download," which is not a phrase found in the usual renegade new-media podcaster's lexicon. Though the segments missing from the final product indicate that they're still squarely concerned about this sort of thing, they have now, at long last, made Wiretap available as a legit, iTunes-subscribable podcast.

But with this podcast, your Podthinker has finally heard what all those fans go on and on and on about. Simply put, this show is damn funny, not that one would expect it from the Spartan-seeming setup. Though one-guy-on-the-phone-a-lot format feels as if it sprung straight from haste, necessity, impulse or some combination thereof, the years have honed the host and his fellow cast members' facility with it to a fine edge. "Irwin" [MP3], a representative recent segment, has Goldstein ring up his old grad school buddy of the same name. Irwin, played with the razor-sharp yet pathetically incompetent passive-aggressiveness that only David Rakoff can deliver, turns out to have left the broadcasting business for the ice cream truck business. But he doesn't have any cones. ("Presently I am... between cones.") Or bowls. ("Oh, we were never a bowl operation.") And he lives in his truck. And his young customers hate him.

"It's really interesting to me," Irwin fake-muses as children shout in the background. "I don't recall you being so judgmental."

"No, I'm not," insists Goldstein, desperately trying to explain himself. "I mean, you hear about a person who's living in an ice cream truck, and..."

Irwin cuts him off: "No, what you're hearing about is an entrepreneur. I can drive wherever I like, I eat all the ice cream I want, I've got that music which — you know, it's a cheerful melody. I'm a hero to boys and girls in the neighborhood..."

"I want my money back!" a girl interjects.

"I've been in talks with the Ben and Jerry folks," Irwin continues. "You might know them. They're only in ice cream too, Jonathan. You should feel sorry for them too."

"Ben and Jerry, the ice cream manufacturers?" Goldstein asks, surprised.

"Not that Ben and Jerry. It's not... entirely clear who has the rights to the name."

This exchange displays the sort of thing Wiretap is best at satirizing, which is hard to describe with precision but which might best be approximated with the phrase "that distinctly embarrassing combination of laziness and evasiveness." As a popular correspondent on This American Life, Goldstein has, your Podthinker would wager, seen a lot of this. Surrounded by a regular cast of shiftless pretenders and delusional hucksters of every variety, Goldstein the character — who might not be all that different from the Goldstein the fellow — just tries his best to make sense of all the nonsense, which never quite works out as one supposes he'd like. From his frustration comes our hilarity. Now, the show has other material too, and it's solid, but man, those phone conversations. They just don't come any funnier, or any more indicting of humanity's squirreliness.

Vital stats:
Format: telephone conversations of the comedic variety
Duration: ~30m; less when the CBC gets its boxers in a twist about "clearance"
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last six, so far

[Questions, comments, ideas, suggestions or threats for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]