Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Superego

Posted by Maximum Fun on 28th March 2010

Vital stats:
Format: improvised, disturbed character-based sketch comedy
Duration: ~20m
Frequency: monthly
Archive available on iTunes: only the most recent season, but you can buy for the previous one

I suspect I shouldn’t bury this in the middle of the text: Superego [RSS] [iTunes] is, without a doubt, the funniest character-based sketch comedy podcast I’ve ever heard. Despite whatever objections I might later raise or room for improvement I might later identify, nothing else in the subgenre gets within striking distance. As a weathered podcast reviewer, I have undergone the intensive training required to rarely crack a smile, but this show made me laugh. Out loud. Several times.

The podcast’s creators, billed as “Drs. Jeremy Carter, PhD and Matt Gourley, PyT” (I can assure you that that gets less amusing each time), approach the eternal dilemma of the sketch show — how and how much to unify so many chunks of thematically distinct and more or less content-disconnected material? — in an unusual way. They bill each sketch as a “profile in self-obsession,” which is to say, a case study of a particular stripe of solipsistic-y psychological disorder. “Borderline Personality Disorder,” for instance, might be presented in the form of a beleaguered love-doctor soft-rock radio host, a priest working the confessional who’s probably not a technically a priest or a dysfunctional hearing test. “Schizotypal Personality Disorder” might be exemplified by an aggressive, manly housewife, a pack of teen ne’er-do-wells dicking around in the basement with a ouija board while their parents try to make babies or a faith healer who can never quite pull off the hucksterism as intended. “Narcissistic Personalty Disorder” is, of course, represented by the dissolute national broadcasts of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Most if not all of Superego‘s comedy arises from the mismatch between the assumptions and worldviews of its central, recurring, disturbed characters and the anonymous, substantially more coherent supporting cast with whom they collide. Woe betide the slightly-too-old trick-or-treaters who turn up at the home of the aforementioned androgynous shut-in, the customer who gets inadvertently locked inside the timed doors of the pathetic sociopathic shopkeep’s engraving joint, or the desperate 911 callers connected with (a personal favorite) the girl who responds to their pleas for help with recitals of what sound like selections from her Women’s Studies 101 papers. And then demands applause.

You’d be right, at this point, to assume that this setup could really go either way. Basing projects on wacky characters and society’s failure to understand them has put an untimely end to the careers of many a promising Saturday Night Live alum. But somehow the dubiously-credentialed Carter and Gourley, along with a pair of “Resident Specialists” and a handful of guest stars Southern California comedy people will probably know, usually pull it off. They do this first by putting what sounds like even more energy into the editing than into the (energetic) performances. Though the segments run about two or three minutes, they’re clearly cut together from much longer recording sessions. Many of the splices are conspicuous and some don’t even try to mask the improvising performers’ cracking themselves up, but you know what? It works.

Why this works must have something to do with the show’s absurdist tone, which often shades into the surrealist. The closest stylistic analogue would have to be the public-access grotesqueries of Tim & Eric; Superego keeps an equally straight face, at least most of the time, as its players utter ever more bizarre non sequiturs to the frustrated normals attempting to communicate with them. If Tim & Eric rate an eight on the tenscale of surrealism, this show clocks in at about six. But I’d like to see it bumped up to seven. The less sane moments, such as “Wilford Brimley” announcing a series of increasingly hostile and nonsensical PSAs about diabetes (“die-a-beat-us”), happen to be the best.

It must be said, though, that whatever the advantages of this super-short form, it can grow a bit maddening to listen to after a while. When you’re hit with a total character- and subject-change every couple minutes — especially if you listen for, say, three hours in a row — you can’t help but feel like you’re contributing to the decline of Western culture. How soluble this problem is remains open to question, since distillation via the virtual razor blade down to only the most hilarious of the hilarious improvised moments is where much of the show’s strength lies. I continue to erupt in laughter, yet, as the podcast grows more and more successful, I fear this model being followed too closely and too widely. How much of our precious time are Superego‘s imitators, and there will be many, going to waste?

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts? Got any suggestions as to how to take Podthoughts to the next level, no matter how wild? Send it all, without hesitation, to Podthinker Colin Marshall at colinjmarshall at gmail.]