Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The Podiwan Review 21 - The Joe Rogan Experience - revisit

I'm always willing to admit when I'm wrong... and if that ever happens I'll be the first one to say so.  The reason I'll say that I wasn't wrong at the time I  reviewed Joe Rogan's podcastthe first time is that I think he agreed with me.  At that time, early in his podcast run, he hadn't settled on a format, the sound quality wasn't good and the technical glitches were a real problem.  In a recent podcast, Joe said that in looking back on those early podcasts, many, if not all of them were unlistenable.

But, and this is the thing... that was then.  This is now.

I should probably also say as soon as possible that I'm completely aware that Joe Rogan doesn't give two lumpy shits about my opinion of his podcast.  He's not going to lose any sleep if I didn't like something and he's not going to starch his boxers if I do.

Anyway, a couple of weeks ago I was looking at the traffic for this blog and a good 30% of it is generated by people using the search terms "Joe Rogen" and "Comedy Podcast".  Though there seem to be damn few people willing to leave a public message on the site (open to all without qualification and I will not censor any reasonable comment, pro or con) quite a few were willing to find me (a simple feat via twitter) and send direct messages to me about what a horrible judge of podcasts I am, what a horrible human I am and the many many ways in which I should die. 

OK, so maybe I could look at it again.

 I was lucky enough to be driving long distances both to and from something twice in the same week and had several hours to fill.  I filled the entire time with the Joe Rogan Experience (and one episode of Jordan Jesse, GO!)  If the only podcasts of Joe's I ever listen to were the first 10-15 shows... then I'm right and so is Joe.  They are not great.  There are moments of brightness highlighted by long stretches of stoned banality and conspiracy mumbo jumbo; no guests and not much of interest. They are unlistenable.
But that's not all there is.

As of this writing, there are 114 episodes.  With the exception of a two week break taken recently when Joe was shooting a movie in New York, Joe Rogan and Brian Redban have recorded (and streamed live) at least once a week, sometimes twice a week and occasionally thrice a week since beginning the podcast.  They have dedicated a great deal of time, energy and equipment to doing this regularly and better.  They show a level of dedication that, at the very least, deserves a second look. (just writing regular reviews of other people's stuff is beyond my level of dedication.)

There have been changes to the show.  The most notable of which is the addition of guests.  I cherry picked through the last 50 or so shows available on iTunes and listened to Joe and Bryan with Doug Benson, Dave Foley, Brian Posehn, Andy Dick, Bill Burr and Jim Norton.  First off, that's a pretty good line up.  Even if you were just going to do short form interviews with a bit of comedy thrown in, that's a list of names that'll turn your head.  Second, Rogan isn't doing short form interviews.  He's taking advantage of a primary advantage to the podcast platform;  there is no limit on time and no censor of content.  Go as long as you want and say whatever the hell you want.  Also, the best part of long form interviews (or what has come about recently with the podcast medium, ultra long form interviews) is that if you talk to somebody long enough, sooner or later you start to hear from the real person in the interview rather than the prepared, repeated and manicured bits that they say on Letterman and Leno.

When Joe drops into interviewer mode it isn't Conan smooth, but it gets the job done and he's way better at it than he was before.  That said, I was impressed on a number of fronts with the conversations he had with the list of guests shown above. 

First, Joe doesn't suck up to anybody or overly agree.  He's willing to say he disagrees with a guest but he doesn't do it in an argumentative way. It's a discussion.  Both guest and host are equal participants with equal rights to an opinion.  And that was never more clear than when Jim Norton started spouting FOX News republican talking point rhetoric and Joe clearly disagreed but allowed Norton to have his say without a big wrestling match. Second, Joe has a reasonably broad understanding of the human condition.  He gets that we are only a few generations removed from the jungle and a lot of what we think and feel is instinctive response to fear, joy, happiness, hunger, loneliness, procreative drive and so on.  And all of that history relates to our current experience.  We can be as modern as we want, but we're still animals. 

Rogan relates to his guests as a friend.  He seems genuinely affable and people on the show appear to feel the friendly vibe and respond in kind.  The friendship between Joe and Dave Foley was a warm and endearing kind of thing that I didn't expect.  (And if anybody could use a friend now, it is Dave Foley.)

Another thing I found improved in the show was the lessening of the conspiracy theory stuff.  So much so that during the show with Brian Poshen, Joe put the brakes on something that Redban was talking about concerning a supposed nuclear disaster in southern California in the late 50s or early 60s.  Without actual evidence or reliable reportage, Joe wouldn't let Redban go with "I heard that..." sorta story telling.  Rogan still subscribes (to some degree) to schools of thought that I might consider wacky or improbable and border on black ship conspiracy bunk, but he doesn't push it on the show as much anymore.  Everybody believes something and if the conversation turns that way, he's still able to dial it up but the show now seems focused on informing the listener about the guest more so than about Rogan's background beliefs.

Overall, I enjoyed listening to Rogan and Redban speak with these people. The show has grown up and I think they really have something.  Rogan dominates the inquiry, but Redban gets a question in once in a while. And there were times when during the Poshen interview that it seemed like Poshen was interviewing Rogan, but that's really only the sign of a flexible show and host.  For the time being, Rogan has made it back onto my weekly listen list.  I'm re subscribed on iTunes and when I have choices in abundance of listening materials, Joe is closer to the top than to the middle and that's better than the bottom or not at all.

My rating scale Is this podcast entertaining? - Yes
Am I likely to listen to the next podcast? – Yes, it is no on my weekly list.Do I recommend this podcast to friends? – Not yet but I will

Monday, May 23, 2011

The Podiwan Review 20 - Titus Podcast

Christopher Titus, the stand up, TV SitCom star and now podcaster is not, for the record and contrary to what another reviewer says, a second rate Louis Black. I've seen Titus' stand up. I watched his TV show and I've now listened to each of the 12 TitusPodcasts released and he is not trying to be Louis Black. Are they both "angry" comics? Yeah, but Titus is way more genial about it and besides, angry comics account for about 25% of all stand-ups. The rest of the break down is 25% neurotics, 40% quirky observationalists and 10% comic geniuses. I don't think either Louis Black or Chris Titus are comic geniuses but they are funny and Black doesn't do a podcast. Titus does. I review podcasts. So, that's all I'm going to say about Louis Black.

That being said, Titus isn't pushing the boundaries of podcasting with his show. He's new to the podcasting game and he's doing the most common type. It's a standard sit and talk, but he's got a big part of it right; the chemistry.  The people on the show are friends and have an easy trust with each other that comes out in conversation. One of the holes that many comics who are doing podcast step into is the “trying to be funny all the time” hole. The good news for Titus' listeners is that he's not trying to be funny all the time. Certainly, his default position is trying to be funny. He's a comic. It's a reflex and a defense mechanism. But he also seems to genuinly want to discuss actual topics and to express thoughtful opinions. He dissembles occasionally by saying he doesn't think he's the shiniest penny in the bag (and true enough, he's not) but he's not a moron either. He seems more "everyman" than superman. I'm ok with that, especially in long form podcast format where superman can become something of a bore.

As to format, the show is an hour plus and is Titus, his girlfriend ( I think) Bombshell Rae and another friend, Stuntman Tommy. They sit around and talk. Pretty simple. Nothing produced. Mostly nothing planned except the topic. The audio isn't great but they're working on it and making improvements as they go. The show opens with Titus doing the Armageddon Update which is a prepared rant style commentary of current headlines. That's followed by the table talk and that goes about an hour.

Another reviewer said of Titus and the crew that they were uninformed and stupid. I don't think that's exactly accurate though Titus laughingly agreed with the assessment. No, I think there are a lot of things I take for granted as common knowledge that weren't a part of Christopher's world experience. I think there probably isn't much about a Chevy big block that he doesn't know and he absolutely knows how to craft 90 minutes of stand up. I'm quite certain that he's an intelligent person which mostly serves to highlight the occaisional missing piece of common knowlege. He’s inquisitive and discerning when he has the background info but there are times when the info he has is incorrect. Logically, anything that follows from the incorrect starting point will be skewed a bit. Stuntman Tommy; well, he doesn't talk enough for anybody to make a guess and Bombshell just sounds like she's young enough that things I lived through are only historical references that she could find on Wikipedia but otherwise probably wouldn't come upon. I think all three of them want to know and understand and plug into the world of factoids and relevant bytes but, as I've mentioned to people in my own business, you can't specialize in everything. You have to pick your thing. Titus' thing is being funny while exposing his heart and his hurt. His frustration in leaders and citizens is your frustration and he gives it a voice. His friends are like your friends and it's nice to listen in on them while they talk.

I like the podcast for what it is. It is simply three friends talking. One is a verteran stand up and the other two are normal civilians with standard funny input once in a while. There's no political correctness or agenda and by their own reckoning they stumble into more jokes than they plan. Good. That's more real. It's more accessible and frankly, it's the kind of thing I like to have buzzing in my head while I'm trying to do my actual work or walking the dog at midnight.

If for no other reason, I have to give a positive review to Titus for this line, stated while discussing a possible Palin run for President; he said, “You don't give the stupidest cheerleader the Uzi.”

That's just about the best frame with the fewest words that I've seen on the subject of Mrs Palin.

Recently the trio was discussing what they would or wouldn't do to improve production values. If I could offer any advice, it would be this: Don't produce pre recorded bumpers, intros and outros. That's radio. That's for polished teams of broadcasters and big budget "shows". That's not what TitusPodcast is. Titus podcast, I think, is best as a free form conversation with some jotted bullet points that you try to hit as the hour goes by. Be who you are. Don't try to be like 80 other podcasts that I cannot find the stomach to listen to even enough to review them.

My rating scale
Is this podcast entertaining? - Yes. Pleasant but not challenging
Am I likely to listen to the next podcast? – Yes, it is on my weekly listen to list.
Do I recommend this podcast to friends? – Yes

Friday, February 25, 2011

The Podiwan Review 19 - Judge John Hodgeman

John Hodgeman plays the elitist know it all with such easy and pleasing charm that it ain't hard to see why people think that he is just that way. From the republican manner in which he dresses (conservative grey suits and thin ties, short hair and black frame glasses) he could, at least visually, fit in on nearly any show on FOX. The genial condescension with which he addresses a crowd or a person is like that of a loving father towards a moronic child. He is never mean spirited per se' but nearly every comment is backhanded in some way. You'll be familiar with that aspect of Hodgeman if you've seen his eponymous segment "You're Welcome with John Hodgeman" on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. His bit on the Daily Show is to fix our worldly problems with easy and logic solutions. It doesn't matter that the solutions are ridiculous. His confidence in the solution is really all that matters.

For his Podcast "Judge John Hodgeman" confidence is again the key as Hodgeman oversees a 20 to 30 minute program wherein two litigants bring their argument to Hodgeman's court. The cases are frivolous, likely chosen by email and based on silliness and the litigants are sworn in to accept the result, no matter how poorly founded or nonsensical. Taking the role of courtroom announcer and bailiff is Jesse Thorn of the Jordan, Jesse, Go! podcast from the Maximum Fun podcast network that also hosts Hodgeman's show. The Judge John Hodgeman podcast grew directly from a bit that was done on Jordan, Jesse, GO! several times last year.

Though there is never a laugh out loud moment on any of the shows so far (and I've listened to all of them to date) every show is amusing, even pleasant. Judge Hodgeman listens to the complainants one at a time, asks probing questions. His questions usually try to pry more funny than truth out of the answerer but by the end the truth is pretty clear and the judge retires to chambers to consider his decision.
While the Judge is "in chambers" bailiff Jesse Thorn has a chance to speak with the litigants briefly. No further truths are revealed but sometimes a motivation can be sussed in a "So, what do you really want to happen here" sort of moment. When Hodgeman returns he hands down his decision and befitting the silliness of the argument being settled, the judge's decision usually includes some form of penance or act of contrition or even a recurring payment of goods or services. There is also the occasional court ordered hug.

All in all, it's a good gimmick; a familiar gimmick. I enjoy the show probably more because I like Hodgeman, but I also like the formula of exposition/investigation/resolution in a tight time frame and the fact that it is all kept light hearted and friendly. There are no heated debates, no rancor, no venom, no illiterates yelling incoherently at morons about "he my baby daddy" and the like. I'm surprised that no other podcaster did this sooner given that you can't turn on a TV in the afternoon in America without finding a litigant show of some kind on every third channel.

This show, Judge John Hodgeman, is on my weekly rotation of shows that I wait eagerly for. So far there are less than a dozen shows available, but I'm hopeful that Hodgeman, Thorn and the Maximum Fun Podcast Network will continue to produce the show for a long time.

My rating scale
Is this podcast entertaining? - yes, pleasantly so
Am I likely to listen to the next podcast? – yes, every week without fail
Do I recommend this podcast to friends? – big yes

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Podiwan Review 18 - The Smartest Man in the World

A year ago, all I knew of Greg Proops was what I'd seen on re-runs of the BritCom improv show "Who's Line is it Anyway" and the barely retooled American version that ran over here for a few seasons.  I'd also seen a couple of short, taped tidbits of stand up on basic cable showcases.  He seemed a lively improvisational entertainer and he had an easy time pulling deep references out of thin air at a lightning pace.  Then last year I started listening to podcasts.  A lot of them. 

I'd begun reviewing comedy podcasts and you'd be surprised how many you have to listen to in order to
A) Find one that fits the comedy, length and format profile,
B) find one that is good enough, bad enough or just plan released enough that it is worth doing, and
C) make an informed comment that goes beyond I liked this or I didn't like that. 
Anyway, Proops popped up on the radar quite a lot.  Apparently, he's a respected guy within the stand up community.  Since I listen to these people a great deal and feel like I've come to know them, their respect of him carries weight with me. (I realize they don't know me, don't want to know me and are basically contemptuous of reviews and critiques.)   Occasionally somebody would mention Proops and speak well of him.  Then I started finding podcasts with him as a featured guest or one of several appearing onstage, etc.  It was clear from early on that he is considerably funnier and more culturally plugged in than censored network television could ever show.  His comedy monologue is subversive from time to time, left leaning most of the time and graduate level cultural studies all of the time.  It is probably a challenge that most networks don't feel the average viewer is up to.  Also, though he can, he doesn't usually work clean.  He isn't dropping F bombs all the time but he's not shy about it either though he is more opften likely to say "kittens".  GP is acutely aware of funny at a skilled master practitioner's level and isn't going to ruin a good bit with the wrong words; dirty or otherwise. 
So anyway, he's funny.  Lotsa funny.  All kinds of funny.  Yeah, he seems a little affected, fastidious, aloof and above it all.  Add horn-rimmed glasses, "interesting" hair, a nasally, slightly effeminate Noel Coward tone and Buddy Holly suits with Beatles boots.  It's a kind of retro metro feel.  For a long while I just figured he was gay.  I assume he gets that a lot.
But really, get past that. He's not gay and it matters not the least.  I mention it only because it is part of the definition of features and bearing,... how one is received, perceived. whatever.  I couldn't freekin care less who he loves or how often but I'm describing him and that's part of the description.

Moving on,  A couple of months ago, Greg Proops began recording a weekly (though it wasn't exactly weekly at first) monologue in front of paying guests and then posting it on iTunes as "The Smartest Man in the World" or the Proopcast from Bar Lubich in West Hollywood. Greg displays an intellectualism with which lesser comics might alienate the audience but he is able to create a suave and sophisticated jocularity.  Even when it seems like he might have lost the crowd momentarily as they parse the previous parcel, he pushes onward, sometimes slogging, chest deep in a swamp of names, dates and other significata until magically, he ends up some place meaningful (and occasionally funny) as though he had intended it all along. 

I'm convinced that most times he's just relying on his innate ability to string words together rather than any type of actual planning.  When he arrives at some philosophical point or a punchline (or both), he may be as surprised as anybody else.  I'm pretty sure that the joke has just expressed itself to him mere fractions of a second ahead of when he's going to reveal it to us.

On a recent show, when discussing a new book available about Cleopatra, Proops, in a 3 or 4 minute stretch made historical and literary references that jumped between centuries, drew cultural significance about people then and now, built laughs out of thin air, and intelligently reviewed a book currently topping the NYT-BSL.  When the crowd got lost in the middle, he brought them back.  When they decided they might not think of it as funnily as he did, he nicely badgered them into getting back on the boat with him and explained how the rest of the ride would go.  To the audience's credit, after they came back in, they stuck with him until the end.

The Smartest Man in the World Podcast with Greg Proops is not for everybody.  You have to listen.  You have to follow and you have to be able to connect cultural references from more than just your own culture.  On the plus side, he is a likable guy who seems honest and reasonable in his mostly left oriented politics.  He is also just about as smart as he says he is (though not really the smartest man in the world) and thoroughly engaging.  I listen to his show in rapt attention as I try to follow his "through line" like one of those visual acuity tests you have to take to work for the phone company.

My rating scale

Is this podcast entertaining? - very much so, even if a little challenging
Am I likely to listen to the next podcast? – guaranteed yes
Do I recommend this podcast to friends? – Quite a lot and without reservation