Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Girl on Guy


Vital stats:
Format: one-on-one conversation, usually with guys, sometimes about “guy stuff”
Episode duration: 1-2h
Frequency: once or twice per week

What do I know about Aisha Tyler? Not a whole hell of a lot, though I do know she’s spent decades as a comedian, which, through the prism of my own special brand of comedy fandom, means I’ve heard a lot of her on the radio and on podcasts. She became a favorite Loveline guest of mine by coming to the show with interesting things to say, unlike almost everyone else in that rogue’s gallery of, as Adam Carolla remembers it, “drunken rockers, stupid actresses — a who’s-who of retards.” The age of podcasting has dropped the means of audio-entertainment production straight into the hands of most of the cut-above Loveline regulars, and their shows usually reveal, as Tyler’s does, that they can do more than I thought.

I would say that Tyler’s podcast, Girl on Guy [RSS] [iTunes], reveals that she can host, but it seems the world already knows that. From what I can gather from what she says about her career, she seems to have done time in the hosting trenches already, working the sort of television gigs where she had to add comedic or intellectual value to segments of clips of, er, questionable value themselves. I could be wrong, though; she could have easily gotten experience with richer host-y projects than that, since she drives her podcast not just as a presenter, but as a conversationalist.

How to distinguish genuine conversationalists from garden-variety clip-plumpers and list-goer-downers? The latter, for one, won’t sit down with their guests and get in-depth for an hour, for an hour and a half, for nearly two hours. Which topics make up the meat of these heartily meaty conversations? The show’s branding, from its logo image of a suited Tyler smoking a cigar to its description as “a rant about stuff guys love: video games, action movies, comic books, fast machines, sex, small batch spirits, bar fights, and blowing sh*t up,” suggests a certain specificity. And to an extent, Girl on Guy does function as a forum for Tyler to discuss her less-girlish pursuits — brewing beer, watching expensive classic cars race each other, inheriting her dad’s Kawasaki Ninja, fearing reproduction, playing Fallout 3 — with a suite of highly dudeish dudes. This concept appeals to me in the same sense that I enjoy eating, say, Chinese food at restaurants that cater to Lebanese customers, but her mission hasn’t taken long to broaden (as it were).

When fellow comedians and entertainment-industry people like Chris Hardwick [MP3] or the non-guy Jackie Kashian [MP3] come on, for instance, the talk takes frequent turns toward exactly what it’s like to hone one’s on-stage persona, or exactly what it’s like to get buffeted around by the windy whims of the film-and-television executive class. Yet Tyler seems motivated mainly by curiosity to hear how exactly her guests got to where they are in life; when she talks with Adam Carolla [MP3], she drills down into the specific means by which a dirt-poor, semi-illiterate young carpenter from the Valley goes about capitalizing on his sense of observational humor. By the same token, when she brings wounded Army Corporal Jeremy Kuehl on the show [MP3], she wants to know about every step of what he went through in wartime.

Tyler gets ahead of other long-form interview shows by, consciously or unconsciously, asking only questions whose answers she actually wants to hear. (As 101 a skill as that might seem, it turns out to be surprisingly rare in this game.) This might come as a by-product of inviting only people she knows she can get pumped about interviewing, whether because of friendship, because of pre-existing creative or social connections, because of let’s-compare-notes experience in career and/or craft, or because of pure fandom. As an example that hits a few of these points at onc, I recommend Tyler’s conversation with Questlove [MP3] — or “?uestlove,” whichever’s cooler. For well over 90 minutes, Tyler engages Quest/?uest with an established rapport, a working knowledge of the scenes they both run in, and a hell-of-a-lot-better-than-working knowledge of his music. I know almost nothing about the Roots upon pressing play on the interview, but I think listening somehow allowed Tyler to transmit her enthusiasm right over to me. I think I’ll go listen to it again now.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Auteurcast


Vital stats:
Format: conversation about auteurs, one movie at a time
Episode duration: 30m-1h30m
Frequency: three or four per week

Does this count as Podthinker bribery? First, these couple of guys go and make a podcast. Hey, I listen to those! Then they go so far as to make it a film podcast, and boy, do I love nothing more than sitting down to a fine film. But wait! Then they decide to talk not about film in general, but about film directors — and not just any old journeyman directors, but auteurs. Know, by way of background, that I possess a consciousness so consumed with thoughts about auteurhood that when TheAuteurs.com changed their name to MUBI, I stopped going.

I really started to suspect premeditation upon finding out the identities of the fellows behind all this: Rudie Obias, formerly of The Criterioncast, and West Anthony, currently of Radio Conelrad. I’ve enjoyed both those shows! If someone’s going to pick up the mantle dropped by the long-defunct Watching the Directors (reviewed by my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill here), it might as well be Obias and Anthony. For the last four months, they’ve fired up Skype (one’s in New York, the other in L.A.) and talked their way, sometimes with a guest, picture-by-picture through the filmographies of Quentin Tarantino, Christopher Nolan, Sergio Leone, BBS Productions, Tim Robbins, and Cameron Crowe on The Auteurcast [RSS] [iTunes]

Permit me to point out a few unusual qualities of their method. Rather than recording one episode per director, they record one episode per film, moving in chronological order through the director’s career. Obias and Anthony’s journey to the center of Tarantino takes them twenty days and seven episodes; their inquest on Robbins takes them eleven days and four episodes. Obsessive cinephiles should feel a slight tingle, realizing as they do that Tarantino has made only six movies and Robbins as has made only three. Those extra ones represent another of The Auteurcast’s formal innovations: a whole-career recap episode that comes to whatever conclusions can be come to, distilling the thoughts thrown out during the preceding discussions of individual films.

Seems like a can’t-lose combination of concept and procedure for execution, so imagine my surprise when I saw all the harsh, low-star reviews peppering the podcast’s iTunes page: “This is not a good show,” “I’m not sure if I’ll keep listening,” “so disappointing,” “not much here.” Had these reviewers hit the nail on the head, we could call it a day here and now, but the other reviews shoot right over to the five-star end: “each episode is full of insight and relevant movie talk,” “invaluable and highly comprehensive,” “the possibilities are endless,” “download!” Clearly, Obias and Anthony know something about the occult art of generating controversy.

But are either the lovers or the haters right? The Auteurcast remains too new to validate any judgments so extreme, but I hear a great deal of promise in the show. Obias introduces each discussion by rattling off a loose list of questions related to the film or filmmaker at hand (e.g., “Can a movie like Jerry Maguire exist in these cynical times?”), and more directly addressing these and questions like them could help the show steer around the mire of free-floating film-yammer than most movie podcasts cheerfully plunge straight into. Some of Obias and Anthony’s conversations, especially the early ones, lack a focus on driving questions of directions of investigation — they run the risk, in other words, of playing tennis without a net.

And while I rarely recommend this, I get the sense that a more rigid time limit — half an hour per film discussion, say, even if the oeuvre recaps stay unlimited — could improve the show even more by adding a shot of urgency, a feeling that most podcasts, film or otherwise, sorely lack. Without it, even the most stimulating conversations about the most stimulating films ultimately just sort of peter out — like this review.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Get Up on This


Vital stats:
Format: conversation based on advance and belated notice of cool cultural stuff
Episode duration: 1h30m-2h
Frequency: weekly

Don’t people consume media — whether that media be podcasts, television shows, status-update feeds, those Japanese half-book-half-magazines, or what have you — mainly out of a desire for word of cool stuff? What thought haunts young and youngish first-worlders more than the suspicion that that they might be missing out on cool stuff right now, even as they mess around with slightly less cool stuff than they could be? And so we have the primary shaping force of Get Up on This [RSS] [iTunes], a podcast about recognizing cool stuff before it becomes popular, then circling back and savoring the cool stuff you’ve overlooked.

So while the show delivers no small amount of freeform chat — and with episodes that often approach two hours, how could you avoid it? — it maintains that driving force of awareness: preferably advance awareness, but belated awareness works too. Cool stuff so far gotten up on in the show includes Spotify, humblebragging (I can’t believe I didn’t know there was a word for that), Attack the Block, Asterios Polyp, Instagram, Das Racist, Martin Scorsese’s documentary on Fran Lebowitz, Chinatown, Chick-fil-A, and the Jay-Z/Kanye West collaboration Watch the Throne.

You’ve probably heard of that last one already, maybe because Jay-Z and Kanye West seem to have already “gotten popular” — or they define what modern popularity is, or something — but even more likely because you’ve heard that Maximum Fun’s own Jesse Thorn spent two full hours of Get Up on This considering Watch the Throne in a track-by-track breakdown featuring both song clips and mini-interviews with people actually involved in the making of the album. Hearing such an elaborate, enthusiastic, and (in the best way) serious-minded production made me wonder if something important wasn’t going on in this podcast. Had I been, dare I say it, missing out?

Not that an informed/informative hip-hop conversation shouldn’t come as a surprise on this show. Across from Jesse sat host Jensen Karp, a Los Angeles pop-cultural gallerist who originally came up from Calabasas to become Hot Karl, a satirical rapper with a bad record-label experience. No surprise either that Karp’s previous podcast Hype Men dealt entirely in hip-hop talk — or so I’ve heard, since I failed to get up on it. But I like hearing him use his connections to interesting people outside hip-hop and, even more so, people you didn’t realize would be interesting. One particularly striking example comes right in the very first episode [MP3], in which Karp sits down with Mike Shinoda, a founder of Linkin Park. However you’re imagining him, you’re probably wrong.

But if it makes the most evaluative sense to talk about what Get Up on This has led me to personally get up on, we need to talk about D.C. Pierson. While his two appearances on JJGO! certainly rose to the ranks of my recent favorites, his time with Karp [MP3] pushed me over the fandom edge. Hearing him on a show like this — which admittedly does much the same thing as a standard Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys/Girls Bullshitting About Culture, but with enough direction and purpose to rise to a higher league — I realized that he combines the two qualities essential for attaining (at least with me) and maintaining fame through podcast appearances: having the personality of the fellow I’ve always wanted to hang out with, while actually being good at stuff, like comedy-doing, novel-writing, and one-man-showing.

But I’ve gotten up on one D.C. Pierson project above all others: his First 100 Days of L.A., a blog which documents exactly that. I don’t know if it’s because I just moved to L.A. myself or because I just like the casually dry refinement of Pierson’s writing style, but damn, I can’t stop reading it. This alone repays all the fast-forwarding through the five-minute blocks of ads that, as with every SModcast network program, precede each Get Up on This. I mean, five minutes? What the.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The New Yorker Out Loud


Vital stats:
Format: New Yorker contributors and the web editor in conversation
Episode duration: ~15m
Frequency: weekly

I can’t quite get my mind around the idea of the New Yorker entering podcasting. Yes, this after I Podthought about their fiction podcast two years ago, but still — it’s the New Yorker, for cryin’ out loud! (Wait until I find out about all that stuff they’ve cranked out for the iPad.) While the fiction show bears the mark of an “old media” outfit’s “new media” venture by taking much of its material directly from the magazine’s back pages — but doing it well, I might add — another of their podcasts, Out Loud [RSS] [iTunes], delivers all original talk. Rest assured, in other words, that The New Yorker Out Loud offers something much more interesting than literally that.

This podcast does indeed feature New Yorker people talking out loud about New Yorker pieces, but with a very clear element of added value: they give you the background, the extras, the stuff that didn’t make it into the text itself. Each week, a host, usually web editor Blake Eskin, takes aside one contributor from the current issue and spends fifteen-ish minutes asking about what they’ve written. While a form that short cuts off the possibility of in-depth conversation and while I remain unsure whether you do best to listen to these episodes before reading the relevant article, after reading the relevant article, while reading the relevant article, or instead of reading the relevant article, I find myself consuming them like potato chips.

Part of this mild addictiveness surely springs from the sheer variety of topics. If you find yourself unengaged with shoplifting [MP3], video games [MP3], or Super Sam Fuld [MP3], just wait fifteen minutes (or less!) and you’ll hear about Harvard’s bells [MP3], say, or medical marijuana [MP3], or the slaughter of songbirds in Europe [MP3]. Sometimes you’ll hear from well-known luminaries who only occasionally show up in the magazine discussing these subjects: your Nicholson Bakers, your Gahan Wilsons (drawing, of course, counts as contribution) your John Adamses. Most of the time, you’ll hear from the hardworking cultural journalists who regularly fill its pages, like Joan Acocella, Alex Ross, James Wood, and David Denby.

But where, oh where, is Anthony Lane? I long for the day that the fadeout of The New Yorker Out Loud’s Gary-Numan-with-a-cellphone-near-an-unshielded-speaker theme music gives way to the plummy accent of not only the Anglosphere’s funniest living film critic but this podcast’s most glaring absence. We’ve heard him on Bookworm and Charlie Rose; we know he makes for a good interview. I can’t give you a precise episode count, but at some point, producing a New Yorker-related podcast without including Anthony Lane verges on perversity.

Or am I simply lobbying for a personal preference? Would I feel the same delight at hearing Anthony Lane on an episode as I did when I buzzed through the archives and selectively downloaded conversations about Haruki Murakami [MP3], Abbas Kiarostami [MP3], and poutine [MP3]? I consider the New Yorker one of mankind’s most effective tools against this awful cherry-picking tendency, a generalist publication of such quality as to achieve near-total subject independence. If that sounds like a high-flown description, let me bring it down to Earth with a question. This is what the New Yorker — and indeed, The New Yorker Out Loud — sternly asks at its very best: “You mean you’re only interested in what you’re interested in? Lame-o.”

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Far Out

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Vital stats:
Format: two guys, rotating guests, funny lists, and an odd recurring Michael Jackson impression
Episode duration: ~30m
Frequency: twice a week

Once, for reasons I can’t quite explain, I wrote up a bunch of similar podcasts more or less in a row. I have a hard time remembering much about them except their broadest shared quality: being TTWGBACs. For those new to Podthoughts, this ugly set of letters stands for Two Twentysomething/Thirtysomething White Guys/Girls Bullshitting About Culture (“White” broadly defined), the dominant podcast genre of our time. Why I would listen to so many? Let me assure you that you can have an engaging artistic experience with TTWGBACs if you approach them as you would sonnets: expect almost no formal variations, but revel in the tiny ones you do hear.

While I’d rather not actually read old Podthoughts — the temptation delve into irrelevantly late revision pulls strong — I distinctly recall enjoying Low Budget FM more than its stylistic compatriots. Maybe I had more fun because the show introduced the word “chaunch”; maybe I had more fun because the resulting column attracted seven (count ‘em!) comments. Either way, when I got wind that Perry has something new going in the podcasting world, I felt compelled to check it out.

But wait. Didn’t Perry, back on Low Budget FM, say something about how his wife gives him an allowance? Does writing about this man’s podcasts constitute endorsement of that practice, which weirds me out to no end? Even if I’m not misremembering this, though, it might not matter. Could such a public admission identify him as not only just open enough but just unusual enough to consistently generate good podcast talk? Only by listening to Far Out [RSS] [iTunes] could I know for sure.

The seasoned TTWGBAC enthusiast won’t get any surprises right away. They’ll hear a pair of conversationally comic hosts — former “KECC Radio Club President” Buck Perez takes the seat next to Perry’s — and they’ll hear a guest. But they’ll come to find that the guest situation makes one of Far Out’s several departures from its genre’s established way of doing things. Each episode of the program brings on not a new guest but one of a rotating cast of regulars, almost semi-hosts themselves. Sometimes one of them will say something and their last word will simultaneously echo and fade out like they’re talking through a midcentury Jamaican sound system. I still don’t know how they do that, but I can’t stop loving it.

Other sonic niceties include surreally decontextualized snippets inserted at the very top of the show; clips from “bad” bands that the hosts nonetheless love; and swear-intensive movie lines bizarrely dubbed over by network television. That last one comes from one of the many games invented and played on the show. Other regular conversational engines include lists found on the internet (“Top Ten Worst Office Workers” [MP3], “How to Show Up Goth Without Looking Like a Poser” [MP3]), opening listener mail, marveling at a Russian news story, (often) discussing a recent embarrassment or, I don’t know, a read-aloud from Perry’s high school diary.

But, weirdly, one choice above all others gives Far Out a different feel than other podcasts in its class: new episodes go up twice a week instead of the usual once, and each one runs about half an hour instead of the usual hour or two. Now, I love long-form shows and I love podcasting for its fostering of long-form shows, but this show’s position between short and long gives it something I can’t pin down. Perhaps semi-brevity and frequency really are the souls of wit. Shakespeare wrote that, right? Can’t argue with someone that good at sonnets.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Fora and Fauna


Here are some of the most interesting conversations currently going on in our forums. The ones that make us do the pygmy goat happy dance:

Thoughts on where to find great music by female rappers (with input from our resident expert, Jesse);

Discussion of the the funniest non-comedy podcasts (led by Podthoughts author Colin Marshall);

Lively ongoing exchange about the show Community; and

Folks are still sharing their favorite moments from the recent JJGo! episode "Cool Papa Bell with Rob Huebel". Including lots of great suggestions for the official MaxFun hand signal.

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Travel Tales


Vital stats:
Format: interviews with an angle (the angle of travel)
Episode duration: ~1h
Frequency: weekly

Did you ever have that moment where you stopped, looked around, and realized that literally all your friends have traveled more than you? Across ages, nationalities and SES categories, my friends share something in common: they have stories about Bulgaria, Japan, Italy, the Philippines, France, Kenya, Finland, Chile, Morocco, Belgium, China, Great Britain, Singapore and other, lesser-known countries that it's too demoralizing even to name. I have stories of precisely dick. That line actually comes from "Trav’lin Man", a blog post I wrote in order to lamenting just how much lost traveling time I now have to make up.

Mike Siegel, coincidentally enough, references the very same song on his podcast Travel Tales [RSS] [iTunes], but he’s so far into travel that he uses it as his theme song. You might know Siegel from his appearances on the old Southern California Comedian Podcast Circuit, though I get the sense than he hasn’t played the podcast guest role quite as often as some of his colleagues. That, and he didn’t have a podcast himself until this past June, so he stuck it out as semi-outsider in podcasting for quite a while. But if waiting to fully join the fray allowed Siegel the opportunity to think carefully over his show’s concept, then I deem it time well spent. Rather than launching yet another podcast of freeform comedic yammering, he’s opted for a far richer genre I call the “interview with an angle” (IWA).

I know, off the top of my head, two sterling exemplars of the IWA. On one, The Mental Illness Happy Hour, Paul Gilmartin interviews friends and colleagues about their psychological health but winds up touching on a whole range of subjects through that context. On the other, the very show under review today, Mike Siegel interviews friends and colleagues about where they’ve traveled and where they’d like to travel but winds up touching on a whole range of subjects through that context. Sure, he and his guests go on the occasional digression and they comment on plenty of issues not directly related to travel, but Siegel’s focus on that particular (if broad) topic keeps the conversations driven and focused.

The show also scores many a point by having a guest roster made up of more than just other comedians. Though we podcast-listeners know that comics talking to comics have produced much pure conversational joy, I always feel a slightly richer interaction between two people who don’t come from exactly the same professional sphere. So while Siegel does indeed elicit seriously entertaining (and useful and informative!) travel tales from the likes of Jackie Kashian [MP3], Graham Ellwood [MP3], and the freakishly well-traveled Dwayne Perkins [MP3], he does just as well with guests whose careers don’t revolve around stand-up: writers, producers, filmmakers. He’s even got Battleship Pretension host Tyler Smith talking about Mexico, Colombia, American road trips, and how to travel despite having a distaste for most foods.

The whole “if you like x, listen to y” thing being the last place I want to go (as it were) with Podthoughts, I hesitate to say that, if you’re interested in the world, you’re interested in Travel Tales. But you probably are. Don’t sweat it if you haven’t heard of a particular episode’s guest; that never really matters on well-crafted interview programs anyway. They all come with fascinating memories and observations about Japanese baseball, Spanish gay bars, Indian meditation retreats, the fear of talking to Ice Cube on a flight, the fear of being three women alone in Riyadh, and Holocaust museums. I don’t know about you, but I need all the motivating stories I can get.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: K-Town Tonight

Vital stats:
Format: freeform conversation among Koreatown people, plus Korean pop music news
Episode duration: ~1h
Frequency: twice a week

After the years of Podthinking, I thought I’d tried every method of finding new podcasts: word of mouth, browsing of the iTunes store, and, uh... further browsing of the iTunes store. But only last week did I discover a new podcast geographically. See, I’ve just moved to Los Angeles. Specifically, I’ve just moved to Koreatown, my favorite neighborhood here, a 2.7-square mile region of the central city filled with many Koreans and almost as many Oaxacans. Hence all its delicious food, which I should really wait to get an income first before gorging myself on, but hey.

When my non-culinary explorations of Koreatown kept taking me past the Radio Korea building, I couldn’t fight the intrigue. I’m into radio, obviously, and I wouldn’t have moved to Koreatown if I wasn’t into Korea. Tuning into the station at home to hone my Korean-language listening skills, I soon realized that it airs an English program too, and, what’s more, one all about Koreatown. When I found out that K-Town Tonight [RSS] [iTunes] also comes as a podcast, I knew I had a Podthinker’s mandate to investigate.

Podcasting has, to my mind, become one of the great non-local forms; I still almost can’t believe how much fun it is to regularly listen to radio/audio entertainment from every country in the world. But if you’ve never felt the weird thrill of listening to a podcast that makes frequent mention of places mere yards from your home, do seek one out. K-Town Tonight co-hosts Mike and Elli keep their show firmly rooted in Koreatown not just by discussing their lives here but by bringing on guests who all have some connection to the neighborhood: locally based comics and rappers, a movie producer who knows a lot about what you do at all these Korean spas, an L.A. club promoter.

Yeah, I felt a little dirty typing “club promoter,” the same type of dirty I feel when I typing “SEO consultant.” I’ve had the luck not to run into any SEO consultants in Koreatown, but the fact remains that a great many people do seem to approach this place as little more than 2.7 square miles in which to get their drank on. K-Town Tonight tends to veer back to this sensibility over and over again too, perhaps not without reason, but I get the sense that Mike and Elli don’t quite have their hearts in talking about this particular brand of hedonism 100 percent of the time. They do seem to enjoy their respective roles, Mike playing the occasional buffoon with stories about passing out after drinking home alone or turning out to be too fat to play a policeman in a music video and Elli playing the okay-let’s-get-back-to-the-point faux-naïf, but they do their best radio in the moments they step away from the broad and/or base.

One of these moments comes when a second guest doesn’t show up, so they improvise a discussion about the validity of plastic surgery in beauty contests. Others come when they get into the quirker ways that Korean culture operates when transplanted into Los Angeles, or, even better, when they explore the sort of cross-culturality and hybridization that drew me to Koreatown in the first place. You hear this when they talk about the differences between Koreatown and actual Korea, the viability of Korean phở joints,and the variegated origins of guests like the Korean rapper born in Argentina but in the States by way of Mexico or the half-Korean-half-black guw with the half-Korean-half-white girlfriend. There’s something to be said for gorging oneself on barbecue, singing at a noraebang, getting tremendously sloshed, and falling asleep in a booth somewhere, but each episode of K-Town Tonight comes closer to taking full advantage of the much more interesting conversational material Koreatown provides.

(Elli talks a lot about Korean pop music, too, if you’re into that.)

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Road Stories

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Vital stats:
Format: a bunch of comedians talk about their careers (and lives)
Episode duration: 15m-1h15m
Frequency: erratic

Getting familiar with and laughing at the jokes of all sorts of comedians on all sorts of comedy podcasts, I've grown curious about the nauture of their, y'know, actual careers. Podcasting's great and all — nay, the greatest form of media in our time — but it doesn't tend to pay the bills. So what do all these funny folks who host the podcasts and/or loop around the podcast guest circuit actually do?

Turns out that most of them do just what you'd expect them to do: straight-up stand-up comedy. Even though the late-eighties stand-up bubble burst long ago and most podcasting comedians seem to take a lot of roles on movies and television shows (that sometimes see the light of day and sometimes don't), comedians still seem to earn their bread and butter by getting in front of the old brick wall (actual brick or no), taking to people, and — if the stars align — making those people laugh. I learned a little more about that bursting stand-up bubble and all those supplementary media appearances from Road Stories [RSS] [iTunes], but oh, how much more it's taught me about the comedian's life.

Specifically, it's taught me that the comedian's life often just totally sucks. Don't take that the wrong way; I admire the craft of comedy more every day, and most comedians I hear on podcasts seem like dedicated, hardworking, freakishly intelligent — or, at the very least, freakishly fascinating — people. But man, the crap they deal with. I cringe even now at the memory of some of the road stories told on Road Stories: performing at county fairs under the beating afternoon sun, consignment to anonymous midwestern hotel rooms for weeks at a time, dealing with hecklers as the audience slowly tilts over the tipping point to the hecklers' side, the bitter spite of colleagues, crowds who can't grasp the existence of more than one comedic sensibility, grabby swarms of fans-who-aren't-really-fans. I remember once working alongside a smooth jazz radio announcer and former comedian. One day, I asked him about his old career telling jokes. He set his cigar down, fell into a thousand-yard stare, and muttered only, "The road'll kill ya."

Yet for all the grimy, car-crash appeal hosts Murray Valeriano and Joe Wilson draw out of their podcasting-favorite guests like Jackie Kashian, Chris Hardwick, Graham Ellwood, Chris Fairbanks, Maria Bamford (who offers a particularly trenchant criticism of the women's events she works [MP3]), and Matt Braunger, an even more enduring appeal lies at the show's core. At their best, the panels confront one of the ultimate questions: "What makes it good?" In this case, "it" could mean "comic's performance," but it could also mean "audience," "venue," "tour," "midwestern hotel room," or even "heckler." And the discussion spends as much or more time on the all-important "What makes it bad?" (Not always happy people, these comics. Don't know if you knew that.)

In these conversations, I find the participants' occupations almost irrelevant; I'd listen to a table of firemen talk about what makes a good or bad kitten retrieval, a good or bad farmhouse-burning exercise, or a good or bad pole slide just as readily as I listen to a table of comics talk about what makes a good or bad joke, a good or bad set, or a good or bad hellish morning radio appearance. Maybe you can chalk this up to the fact that I spend to many hours a week thinking and writing about what makes a good or bad podcast. The practice has generated dispiritingly few solid conclusions, but I can say this: any podcast that goes deep into the workings of an unusual pursuit may well be a good podcast. Even more so if the podcasters can make a few good cracks about having to fly to Poughkeepsie so often.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Memory Palace


Vital stats:
Format: stories of Old Timey Americana with music
Episode duration: 1m-15m
Frequency: erratic

Almost every episode of The Memory Palace [RSS] [iTunes] will send you to straight to Wikipedia, not because they drop pallets full of unexplained references but because they cover subjects you kind of already know about, topics you feel so sure you’ve heard, read, or seen something about before. Hey, a young man raised to be a genius who wound up obsessed with streetcar systems [MP3] — haven’t I seen an article about him? Wait, an elderly woman P.T. Barnum hired to act like she’d been young George Washington’s nanny before planted newspaper stories suspecting her of being a robot [MP3] — didn’t I read a comic book about that?

This podcast, you see, covers people, places, things, and events of great importance to the burgeoning field of Old Timey Americana Studies. One actual description calls it a show of “short, surprising stories of the past, sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes hysterical, always super-great,” but I prefer mine. Listen to The Memory Palace for an hour or two and you get stories about Waldorf-Astoria Halley’s Comet viewing parties, Ben Franklin, Navy-officer impostors, elephant shows, Egdar Allen Poe as a tool of voter fraud, heists, the Chicago World’s Fair, spiritualist hucksters, the CIA spy cats, James K. Polk, and even the Sony Walkman. I haven’t gone all the way back in the archive, but I feel reasonably safe insisting that it has an episode about flagpole sitting.

What is it about Old Timey Americana, anyway? All the best non-Walkman-related stories in United States history seem to have happened between about 1870 and 1935. As Jordan and Jesse speculated on one JJGO!, that era saw the explosion of an unprecedented science-’n-progress fervor, but also a willingness to believe just about anything, no matter how fantastical — a time, in other words, of a lot of mechanical Turks and rejuvenation serums (“sera”?). Radio documentarian Nate DiMeo must understand this, since he’s staked out the territory so aggressively on The Memory Palace. But he doesn’t produce aggressively, or at least not with an aggressive sound. He’s turned out one of the most subdued-feeling shows I can remember listening to — and I mean that in a good way.

I’ll call his format, one more aesthetically of the public radio realm than the podcast realm, “stories with music”: DiMeo tells a story of Old Timey Americana, then cuts it together with atmospheric music. He connects his stories and his music more distantly, abstractly, or maybe “metaphorically” than you’d hear on a show like, say, This American Life, and I like that he does it that way; it keeps the music from hitting too emotionally on the nose, and it must help him resist the temptation to use recorded sounds and in too “documentary” a fashion. Besides, the classic Public Radio Ambient Barrio Noises have little relevance to his project; and I don’t know whose library, if anyone’s, holds the classic Public Radio Ambient Columbian Exposition Noises.

But if we’re making This American Life comparisons, I should point out the relevant one: cadence. DiMeo does indeed speak like a TAL correspondent. I don’t know if the style has a name, but it involves talking as if sentences often don’t end with periods. But he doesn’t leave off periods in exactly the same way. So, while Ira Glass says,
It’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass
DiMeo says,
This is The Memory Palace. I’m nate DiMeo
World of difference!

If, like me, you get a kick out of this kind of public radio craft minutia, do read DiMeo’s article on making The Memory Palace at Transom.org. Among other astounding revelations such as the reason why so many public radio programs are so skittish, choppy, and/or nonexistent, he admits that, despite working crazy hard and achieving what counts as wild success in the podcast world, he’s only earned a few hundred dollars from at this (by rattling the cup and shilling for Audible and such). I am going to walk into the sea now.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]
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