Comedy Transformed From Concision To Communion

It seems Shakespeare’s old bon mot about brevity and the soul of wit is going through a process of inversion.The comedy podcast, a new medium (at least compared to stand-up comedy) has helped bloom a new kind of intimacy between performer and consumer. Tight stage bits are less alluring and appear staid compared to the extended (and imagined) community of the 90-minute podcast.The old t-shirt slogan “it’s not a wrong note, it’s jazz,” is apt, because the comedic podcast is a form of improv, largely dependent on tone and manner, not always masterful articulation. The medium has become the lusterless lodestar of the comedic world whose quotidian, semi-precious brilliance defines instead of detracts from it. Appeal stems from glamorous and unglamorous moments alike, a mic’d up life compared to a polished confession from on high. Tightly (or even loosely) scripted routines have collapsed into a preference for entertainers picking through their cluttered intellects, and allowing their thoughts to ricochet around a room without regard for time or import. It sounds lazy and unwieldy, but it seems to create a more honest product. Tolerance for stand-up has waned in favor of regular, improvisational concerts hosted by very funny men and women.   

I like to use Marc Maron and the emergence of his WTF podcast as an example. An unwitting pioneer of the medium, Maron started WTF as a remedial career choice. He was a stalled comedian with moderate success and a bleak horizon, so he started interviewing people in his garage — mostly his funny, more successful friends — and publishing their conversations. Soon, Maron’s free-wheeling monologues, colored by his acerbic tone and sensitivity, about politics, culture and the state of his personal life, allowed a listener unrestricted access to his kooky mind and sometimes, through brutal communion, the minds of other celebrities. Piped into morning commutes across the nation, Maron earned himself a cult of fervent listeners.

A different structural example is Chris D’Elia, a relatively successful comedian, arguably funnier on his podcast, Congratulations with Chris D’Elia, than as a standup. On Congratulations, D’Elia becomes a cultural critic who embeds himself in the newest inanity, pedantically unleashing his thoughts on Kodak Black, Robert De Niro in Copland and various pointless ephemera. The visual element of Congratulations (there is a YouTube channel with clips from every episode called “Clips for the Babies”), allows D’Elia’s bug-eyed astonishment and kinetic instincts to appear in all their physical glory. Done with a dash of self-awareness, -effacement and -amusement, D’Elia comes across as lightly-calculated wingnut who never takes himself too seriously.

Although both Maron and D’Elia can convert you at first listen, they thrive as developing photographs. The longer the exposure, the sharper they come into view. Notable others, too, like Joe Rogan, Bill Burr, Tom Segura and Christina P., effortlessly convey themselves as tonal phenomena. The strange lightning of organic thought and, in Maron’s case, compelling conversational momentum, as opposed to the concision of a routine, forms a longer-lasting auditory communion. Speech, once it becomes an almost immutable tone wrapped around a new set of words, registers as intimately funny instead of obliquely well-wrought. As we adapt to the podcaster’s cadence, we achieve (or perceive) a more complex relationship with their mind. They become themselves (funny people), instead of just comedians, and they seem less like paid entertainment than long-term friends.

It’s no secret that great stand-ups are able to establish this quasi-kinship in the first few minutes, but the podcast seems to have either taken this skill and forced its evolution, or demanded a more genuine connection. For the same reasons we find our friends funny — their humor, twined with disparate personality traits — audiences cathect to the comedy podcast. Levity is shaded by implicit seriousness, a secret history that complicates the joke and the person. This knowledge is a kind of interpolation, and that the person allows it, trusts you with it, generates respect. The move from professional to person (or, as is probably partly the case, the persuasive illusion of such a move) becomes paramount to success. Either way, Maron and D’Elia are another reminder that it never hurts when performers include themselves among the painfully human. Flaubert said, “We must not touch our idols; the gilt sticks to our fingers.” He’s right, but maybe in this case it’s not such a bad thing.