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