Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Mustache Rangers

Posted by Maximum Fun on 24th January 2010

Since the medium of podcasting has opened up wide new channels for both improvisational comedy and old time serial radio drama, it’s only natural that the two would cross. While some old time radio podcasts make attempts to be funny — typically landing square in the realm of what, around here, we call “dad humor” — and some comedy podcasts bust out the occasional adventure serial parody, The Mustache Rangers [iTunes] [RSS] combines full-time improv comedy with full-time rough-and-tumble OTR pastiche.

This is a rich vein indeed for twentysomethings equipped with microphones and audio filters, the perfect setup in which to lampoon such barbarically outmoded concepts as “truth,” “America” and “unironic advertising.” The show follows the exploits of the titular Rangers, a pair of facially-follicled space explorers who drift to and fro, stumbling their way into adventures. Actually, more often, they stumble their way into discussions about adventures, discussions about discussions of adventures, psychotherapy sessions about discussions about discussions of adventures and other vortices of unproductive chatter. Sometimes the onboard computer gets involved. Sometimes a communiqué drifts in from the far reaches of known space (or cellphone here on 21st-century Earth), which renders our protagonists, Commander Major Alastair Q. Bastidious and First Lieutenant Rutuger G. Phooneybaum, even more confused and ineffectual.

Not that they don’t produce a lot of the bluster needed to compensate. Bravado, of course, is what sustained the well-groomed, red-white-and-blue intergalactic radio heroes of old — bravado and little else. While the Rangers’ creators understand this — a reasonably decent grounding in OTR comes across — something abstract but important would seem to be missing. There’s a hesitancy, an unsureness of verbal footing, to Bastidious and Phooneybaum’s lines; it’s as if they’re only ever 75% sure what to say or do next, and brother, that was never a problem for Captain Midnight. But of course, these two aren’t really space heroes from 1950 — they’re deadpan podcasters.

This reveals a yawning but hopefully not unbridgeable gulf between the form The Mustache Rangers satirizes and the form it actually takes. What makes those old adventure serials so distinctive — and, to modern ears, so amusing — is their iron confidence, their driving, unstoppable sense of purpose. By its very nature, this sensibility is difficult to transpose into, if not absolutely unsuited to, the unscripted, unpredictable world of improv. Some liken the art of making up comedy as one goes to a dance: you’ve got to decisively give, decisively take and say out of your partners’ way. The worst improv feels like heinously uncoordinated dancers violently writhing in a ball of tangled limbs. This show is not like that, but a lot of toes do get scuffed.

Make no mistake, the sheer mismatch between no-nonsense midcentury American broadcasting and the “uhh”-riddled, bloopers-at-the-end podcasting of 2010 can be funny in itself, though maybe not for 139 episodes and counting. But hey, read that last sentence again — 139 episodes. They’ve been at it since the dawn of ’07. Whatever quibbles your Podthinker might make with their not quite having their rhythms worked out, these guys are definitely in for the long haul. Whatever isn’t polished now will get polished in time, and certain shining moments — one thinks specifically of the speech-impeded ship computer’s performance, especially when demanding of the Rangers, “Keep saying things that I am!” — indicate real laugh potential. And Captain Midnight’s show ran for eleven years, so hey.

Vital stats:
Format: improv OTR pastiche
Duration: 9m-15m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]