Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: WTF

Posted by Maximum Fun on 30th May 2010

Vital stats:
Format: monologues and conversational (yet “serious”) interviews
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: every 2-4 days
Archive available on iTunes: all

I know pathetically little about standup comedy, but podcasting has given me the priceless gift of being able to fake it. Anyone who listens to a lot of podcasts — especially those orbiting the vast podcasting universe’s Maximum Fun cluster — knows that, as guests, comics pop up more frequently than anything else. Or at least a subset of comics do; I often write here about inadvertently coming to know intimately a certain dozen Los Angeles comedians, despite having never seen their acts.

Marc Maron is one such comedian. Though I only became aware of him via his delightful appearances on Jordan, Jesse, Go!, Adam Carolla and so on, it turns out that he’s got quite a storied past: he’s made specials and albums and killed on the talk shows and hosted Comedy Central’s now-whispered-about Short Attention Span Theater and run a bunch of his very own “real” radio shows. But while those definitely had their oddities that set them apart from the mainstream, his podcast WTF (link to the handheld version, since the regular site’s irritatingly Flash’d-up, if that’s not a tautology) [RSS] [iTunes] may well be the most form-breaking of them all, and for a personality like Maron’s, that’s exactly as it should be.

The most aggressively, feverishly podcast-touring comedians will oftentimes get the itch to start their own podcast. The lazy way to scratch it is just to stage a weekly recorded hangout with a rotating handful of one’s best buddies — or least-hostile mortal enemies, as I understand the social mechanics of comicdom — and hope for the best. Nothing led me to expect, before researching the guy, that Maron would do any different. But his episode list came scattered with pleasant surprises. Underbelly-of-entertainment-society memoirist and novelist Jerry Stahl? [MP3] Cultural critic James Wolcott and satirical fictionalist Sam Lipsyte? [MP3] Clearly, Maron’s drummer is even more blessedly different than I’d thought.

That’s not to say that WTF — referred to in-show, incidentally, in full — isn’t both a comedian’s show and a comedians’ show. Most of Maron’s guests are other comedians. The difference here is that his interviews go deeper and get more revealing — psychologically speaking, not so much dishing-dirt-ologically speaking — than in other comedians-with-comedians programs. At a certain point, they’re not exactly interviews; Maron does tend to steer more on the conversational side of broadcasting’s road, which is always welcome. But neither do he and his visitors just horse around, trying to crack- and one-up each other.

Almost everything I’ve learned about the comedy game I’ve had to glean from what slips through the cracks of the usual neurotic/manic/real/pretend/who knows verbal and gestural farrago that bubbles up when its practitioners get together on podcasts. But Maron actually gets real, man, with his colleagues about their craft, their profession — their way of life, for better for worse. One of his more incisive, in-depth, upfront examinations of comedy itself comes in the form of two much-discussed recent episodes about the comedy nerd-reviled Carlos Mencia: one an interview with the man himself [MP3], and one a series of conversations with those who know him [MP3].

Listening to those, I went through a few stages. First, “What’s the big deal about Carlos Mencia, anyway?” Maron, harboring the same sentiment, produced the episode to find out himself. Then, “Hey, this Carlos Mencia isn’t such a bad guy!” But wait: “Something’s not quite right about him.” Then, “Could Carlos Mencia be a bad guy after all? Does he see how others perceive him? Can he? What does is mean to be a ‘bad guy’ in the comedy sphere, anyway? Can the comedy sphere perceive itself with any clarity? Should it?” Never have I given quite so much thought to a field I’d never considered participating in as professional or spectator. (Besides its obvious “get” value, Maron’s hour with Robin Williams [MP3] proved, for me, equally insightful.)

This represents an abiding quality of WTF — I guess “complexity” is a good enough word for it. Maron’s interested in the most gritty, gristly, vertiginous, confusing elements of human existence, and no matter if it’s in his show’s dialogues or monologues, he can rarely stay away from probing them for long. Like anyone for whom “bleakness” has become a sensibility, he does tend toward the mistake of generalizing from his own life’s darkest, most chaotic times, and I fear he’s never more than a twitch away from launching into one of those berzerk fugues about how the world’s problems all stem from public ignorance of Noam Chomsky. But that’s a smallish concern, since his podcast remains as rich and black as (I assume) the brand of coffee that sponsors it.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your school dance? colinjmarshall at gmail.]