2010: Andrew Beckerman
As I sat down to compile the best comedy albums of the year, I thought about what I really listened in 2010 and realized that this year, I got most of my comedy from podcasts. While less polished than a stand-up or sketch album, podcasts are continual. Finish one, and there’s another waiting for you. It’s like a hydra that you listen to and every time you listen to it, you can hear more hydras. And that’s the essence of comedy – becoming a commodity or brand that constantly delivers The New. Anyway, the point is, I listened to a ton of comedy podcasts this year, and not a ton of comedy albums. While many of these podcasts have been around for a while, a few of them (WTF, CDR) really came into their own in 2010. The rest were just awesome anyway. So, in no particular order…
I had kind of written off Matt McCarthy years ago. His act at that time was silly, but not really in a good way. It felt disposable. But in the years since, he’s figured out how to temper that silliness with an insane intensity that gives it teeth. His performance style has evolved; McCarthy is genuinely interesting and fun to watch on stage — or to listen to on stage. His jokes are funnier — he’s more skilled now — but more so than being a good joke writer, he’s become an incredible performer.
Myq Kaplan loves puns and wordplay and sometimes loses himself in a dense mess of double meanings. There’s nothing wrong with this, except that this kind of humor is a tough sell live. Audiences like to be spoon-fed, sure, but it is also the nature of the medium. If a laugh is delayed, if an audience is trying to put together a joke while the stand-up has moved on, the rhythm gets thrown off. It’s Kaplan’s delivery and ability to craft jokes around the puns, though, that gets past this barrier and allows his act to be something more than a novelty.
Man, Hannibal Buress has a lot of fun on stage. There’s a lot live comedy can do — social satire, political commentary, just simple jokes — but one thing that people want to see are comedians enjoying themselves. Even if the comedian is knee-deep in an existential morass, there needs to be some kind of glee. Buress is amazing at telling jokes, but it’s really his joy that makes his humor exciting. Even with his low-key stage persona, that mirth shines through. There’s also a great amount of skill to his act that goes beyond the visceral; Buress has an ability to call out his own joke construction, but instead of making an easy meta-joke, he makes the tangent a joke of its own.
The joy in listening to Comedy Death-Ray Radio is in the way Scott Aukerman’s intentionally-awkward comedic persona shifts from genuine to fake at a moment’s notice, one moment asking a serious question, the next asking a stand-up how much he makes in a year. One moment participating fully in an improvised piece, the next derailing the scene by asking the performer to repeat some incidental detail she said 10 minutes earlier. It’s this weird line he treads that allows actual comedians and comedic characters to interact in such an odd way. Part riff-session, part-interview podcast and of course, at the end of each show, the best part: comedians plug their shows and projects. Also, one of the few podcasts that can make me laugh out loud on the subway.
Marc Maron is a gargantuan narcissist. While sometimes wearying, it is this defining feature that makes him an incredible interviewer. Maron has spent the last two decades in intense self-examination on an existential level, and this investigation has made him unflaggingly honest. This honesty not only appeals to his fans, but it opens up his interviewees to be truthful in a way they may not usually do so. It helps as well that Maron is charismatic, self-deprecating and above all, willing to undercut his entire line of thinking with a well-timed line saying, “Ah, maybe I’m full of shit.” But above all, it is the feeling that you are listening to a genuine human without the barriers and filters that turn most people into calculated politicians.
While Maron opens up his interviewees through unadulterated honesty, Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray and Matt Mira open up their interviewees by creating a relaxed and enjoyable atmosphere. Probably due to Hardwick’s and Ray’s performing experience, Nerdist is one of the few conversation podcasts where the hosts feel completely like they are themselves, and while being themselves, are still extremely funny. It’s something that perhaps only comes with years and years of stage time: the ability to perform and be personable at the same time; to be funny and oneself without putting on a character, yet to be, undoubtedly, on.
John Oliver and Andy Saltzman host this satirical news show, which, if you know Oliver’s stand-up and work on The Daily Show, balances quite well on the line between silly and sarcastically outraged. To be fair, there is no line between those two things; there is no rule that says comedy can’t be both. However, often the silly is too absurd for morality to gain a purchase and often outrage is too rage-y or the sarcasm to sarcasmic for the silliness to work. But like all the other podcasts and albums mentioned, Oliver and Saltzman are able to strike a balance in such a way that neither overpowers the other.
Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy and Stuart Wellington host this podcast where they watch a bad movie and then talk about it. The ostensible topic of the show has never interested me. As a neurotic who fears death, I have a hard time watching bad things when I know the creeping fingers of the grim reaper are poised ever so delicately on my anus, just waiting to jam into me. There are too many Criterion collection films I’ve never seen to watch Big Money Rustlas. (Though let’s be honest, my time is taken up by reading comics and watching Delocated … fun, but not exactly Bergman.) What makes The Flophouse amazing, though, even for someone as paranoid as I, is the natural chemistry between Kalan, McCoy and Wellington, with each episode basically turning quickly into a riff session that leads into absurdity. Fewer things are as joyful as funny people just joking around with each other.
An improved sketch podcast, Superego is easily the funniest one I’ve heard. Made up of Improv Olympic vets, each episode is framed as a collection of psychological case studies. While each scene certainly has a premise that grounds it — a trophy shop, a sentient GPS, FDR’s fireside chats — this premise is merely there to give the actors a loose structure in which to suggest insane things and then follow the logic of those insane things out, building insanity upon insanity. What delights me the most though is how much fun the Superego guys have following the logic of their weirdness out, even breaking character to laugh at something particularly silly. The fact that these guys can take improv, which is rarely funny when not in the moment, and make it hilarious on repeated listens, shows how skilled they are.
One of the things that always bothers me about storytelling shows or podcasts is the need to moralize or to find a Deep Meaning, whether a story warrants it or not. But under the lead of State-member Kevin Allison, Risk! never falls into pretentiousness. If there’s a lesson or some kind of meaning, it’s organic and natural to the story. If not, it’s just a funny story. By mixing people who practice storytelling as an art with comedians, Allison has created something funny and meaningful without making it pompous.
By Andrew Beckerman