Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Road Stories

Posted by Maximum Fun on 5th September 2011

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.]