Maximum Fun: An Ode

I’ve been a fan of the Maximum Fun network since 2011 and a donor since not long after that. I always get a bit reflective and nostalgic during the annual membership drive, when all my favorite hosts encourage their audiences to keep the listener-supported network afloat (and thriving, really). This particular year, I’ve been thinking about the moments that, to me, best exemplify why I listen to each show. Some came to me right away; others took some doing, because it can be hard to sort through a catalog of hundreds of bits you probably ruined by weeping (in laughter, naturally) over. I don’t think this is a complete list — Stop Podcasting Yourself alone could have a list of 25 moments — but it should give you an idea of why the network is so important to me, and why I won’t stop listening.

(I’m leaving out my favorite The Adventure Zone moment because it’s too spoiler-heavy.)

The Flop House: There was a time when I listened to a few episodes of the Flop House every day just to catch up on Dan McCoy, Stuart Wellington, and Elliott Kalan watching bad movies and talking about them. I’ve been a fan for nearly a couple years now thanks to a dear friend of mine, who tipped me off to the show’s greatness among film podcasts. The Original Peaches are able to make even the dullest source material funny, so when they’re covering something like The Oogieloves in the Big Balloon Adventure or Fateful Findings, it’s no wonder that they’ll have me in tears by episode’s end. Also, thanks to the personal nature of talking about something you love and the letters from listeners segment during each show, the hosts reveal parts of themselves that give them a certain relatability and charm. One such moment happened during episode 139, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. (Odd pull, I know, especially since it wasn’t a new movie at the time, but hey, I’m a loose cannon.) After discussing each movie, it’s customary for the hosts to provide their final judgments, whether the movie was a good bad movie, a bad bad movie, or a movie they kind of liked. In the case of Clones, all three have a difficult time saying it’s bad. After all, it’s part of the Star Wars franchise. And particularly endearing is Dan’s complete inability to do so. He sounds tormented as he struggles to explain why he can never label something Star Wars-adjacent as bad. It’s a great reminder of how much these boys truly love what they love, and how sometimes, comedy intersects with sincerity.

International Waters: A pop culture quiz show that pits Brits against Americans, IW is always funny, and it’s at its best when the individual contestants’ humor styles are a bit varied. It’s fun to hear comedians catch each other off guard, and all the best episodes have a healthy dose of that. There have been a number of standout moments for me, but I couldn’t settle on one, cheated, and picked an entire episode: number 44, “Discourse Is Dead.” My reasoning is simple: Jemaine Clement is in the mix, and host Dave Holmes’ affection for him throws the game in his favor, but no one seems to mind, given how likable the guy is. It’s always nice to hear from a Conchord, and this is no exception.

Jordan Jesse Go!: This is an easy one. Anytime Jordan Morris makes a joke that’s somehow both impossibly clever and incredibly dumb, Jesse Thorn’s reaction is the same: absolutely flabbergasted, reluctantly delighted, and unable to say anything positive or affirming. Their friendship is why the show is worth binge-listening every now and then, and I’ll just include the full text of my favorite joke here to illustrate the beauty of their partnership:

Jordan: “The lively man behind Twister should’ve helmed Foxcatcher. John DuPont needed a bon vivant like Jan DeBont.”

Jesse: [indistinct profane murmuring]

My Brother, My Brother and Me: What’s there to say about MBMBaM that hasn’t already been said? The McElroys have become ubiquitous in various corners of the Internet thanks to their staggering number of podcasts (plus Justin and Griffin’s involvement with the Vox Media video game site Polygon). Heck, they even have their own Seeso show. This does nothing to diminish my love for them, though. MBMBaM was the second Max Fun podcast I picked up, and as with the Flop House, I stormed through the back catalog as quickly as possible; this was much easier in 2012 than it would be now. At the time, I was working at the Meijer corporate offices in Grand Rapids, and it was fairly normal for me to listen to podcasts at my desk. So much of my job was essentially data entry; the brothers were ideal company during those long afternoons. A few months into 2012, the e-commerce pocket of Meijer got reorganized, and my position was eliminated. I found out when I was at my desk, idly clicking around Facebook between assignments, and had to pause episode 62, My Beautiful Twisted Pretzel Fantasy, to hear my boss tell me I would no longer be needed. As soon as he walked away, I started crying — till, that is, middlest brother Travis uttered the episode’s title and I couldn’t help laughing. I vaguetweeted about the rough moment the brothers had just pulled me through, and their official account informed me, “WE GOT YOUR BACK, C-AD!” Again with the sincerity. I can’t get enough of that stuff.

Rose Buddies: So this one is really recent, and I’ve (surprise) laugh-wept over Rose Buddies, Griffin and Rachel McElroy’s dating show-themed podcast, many times in its relatively short run. The most recent example (in episode 62, “After the Final Thigh Rub”) was perhaps the most intense, though, as I cried laughing while I heard the bit, then cried laughing again while recounting the bit to Scott. Every once in a while, Griffin takes off on a tangent that Rachel’s not sure will land, but she supports him regardless. (Griffin and Rachel’s romance forever warms my heart.) This bit was fairly far removed from the show’s typical content, concerning commercial breaks and faulty subtitles, but it was so perfectly Griffin and Rachel that I still haven’t really gotten over it. In sum: the cohosts watch everything wtih subtitles, the subtitles for a commercial by the Truth campaign went awry, and it thus appeared as though a mother was shouting “BACCO! TOBACCO! BAC!” at her son after he said something sweet to her. This YouTube clip made by a fellow fan illustrates what that would’ve looked like. I love the Rose Buddies combo of irreverance and genuine sentimentality, and here, both those things shine through beautifully.

Stop Podcasting Yourself: SPY is my favorite podcast and has been since the first time I heard it. It’s basically auditory comfort food: just a couple of Canadian comedians talking about what they’ve been up to, often with a guest, and recounting things they and their listeners have overheard lately. Simple formula, yes, and an endlessly familiar one if you know anything about podcasts — but it works, because the guys are friends and they’re effortlessly funny and charming, and it’s a treat to hear every week. There are many, many moments that help define the show’s appeal for me (every Paul F. Tompkins episode has one!), but there’s one bit I return to again and again. It has everything: a humorous list, Dave and Graham poking fun at their past selves, a guest who’s totally game, and oddly sly commentary on the absurdity of TV today. Go ahead and listen to this list of fake reality shows here, and I think you’ll get why I fell in love with this wonderfully silly show in the first place.

WHY, HELLO THERE!

I’ve been writing a great deal lately, but it hasn’t been here. A while ago — a long while ago, literally years now — a friend of mine encouraged me to pitch an essay to The Toast. A few swings, misses, drafts, and valuable bits of editorial guidance (first from Scott, then from Mallory) later, I was able to call myself a freelancer again. That was spring of 2014. Since then, I’ve been pitching to my favorite blogs when an idea I think is worth pursuing comes to mind. About half the time, the idea comes to fruition, and I get to see my work on a site I love. In sum, it’s really nice to write creatively about pop culture in a more Serious and Professional way. (Actually, let’s emphasize “Professional” over “Serious” in this context, given that my last published piece was titled “28 of the Other 45 Ways to Leave Your Lover.”)

I also — and I 1,000% blame The Adventure Zone for this — started a D&D group, and I wrote a campaign that’s still in progress. TAZ is a podcast on which the McElroy brothers and their father play Dungeons & Dragons, and it’s terrific; aside from Rose Buddies, the Griffin and Rachel McElroy-hosted show about a reality dating franchise I myself do not watch, it’s my current favorite McElroy production. Griffin is, as it turns out, a great storyteller, and I worry sometimes that my narrative borrows from his. But hey, I’m not making a podcast out of it (I can’t even do character voices most of the time!), and imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, especially when the imitation doesn’t reach any further than a midsize booth at Peculier Pub on Bleecker.

Alright, better finish this episode of Catfish and eat a slice of cake.

Supply & De-Hand: A Story About Bucky Barnes Buying Post-it Tabs and a Moleskine in Bucharest

(This story was inspired by Jen Udden, who had the idea and tweeted about it.)

Jeff knows instinctively that Papetarie would be a different environment from what he’d had at Trader Joe’s back home. No one gets that psyched for office supplies, not the way they do for cookie butter or bacon-flavored popcorn or the Peppermint Joe Joes that are only available during the holiday season. And certainly people won’t be as susceptible to his charms at the register; they’ll probably just nod rather than engaging in conversation as he rings up their orders, and his conversational Romanian isn’t great anyway. In short, he thinks as he packs everything he owns into three giant suitcases and eats the last black and white cookie he’ll have for sometime, it’s not going to be as fun. But it’s in Bucharest, and Cara’s in Bucharest, and that’s what really matters.

*

Mere weeks later, Jeff begins to realize that he may not have been right about everything. Sure, Papetarie is quieter than Trader Joe’s, and he’s still not sure how he feels about the Romanian pop music that plays on the store’s speakers all day, but his coworkers are pleasant enough and the clientele is more … placating, he supposes, than he’d expected. They don’t always take the conversational bait, but they’ll return his “Ce mai faci?” with a “Bine, mulţumesc. Şi dumneavoastră?” and that’s good enough for him. Plus, Cara’s a much better cook than she was in college, and her grandparents are just about the kindest people Jeff’s ever met. Bunică—because that’s what Jeff calls her, it was her idea—is already brainstorming ideas for the wedding next year, and Andrei teaches Jeff a new card game nearly every time they visit. Overall, it’s a much quieter life than he and Cara were leading in Brooklyn. But in a way, he’s happier. He misses Trader Joe’s. But he doesn’t miss it that much.

That’s what he tells himself when an especially sullen-looking man walks into Papetarie one day, face mostly obscured by a baseball cap, sunglasses, and greasy-looking hair. It’s not bright enough outside for sunglasses, but apparently the guy doesn’t want anyone to look too closely at his face. Jeff decides to focus instead on the woman buying a rainbow pack of Sharpies.

Acestea sunt frumos,” he says, and the woman smiles.

Pentru fiica mea,” she says.

Cati ani?”

Nouă.

Ea îi va iubi.” Jeff hands her a receipt and the Sharpies, which she slips into a tote bag, smiling and grinning and wishing him a good afternoon as she goes. The sullen guy is examining a display of Moleskines, flipping through the pages of the ones that aren’t shrink-wrapped and eventually settling on a fairly standard style—not what Jeff would’ve picked, but functional enough, and sized such that it’ll fit in the backpack the guy has slung over one shoulder. He moves toward the notes and tabs endcap next, frowning at the neon Post-its and, with his shoulders a bit more slumped than they already were, reaches for the sticky tabs in primary colors. Jeff tries to act naturally as the guy approaches the register.

Bună ziua,” says Jeff, and the guy smirks—not unkindly, but it’s definitely not a full-on smile.

“Your Romanian isn’t bad,” he says. “But you should work on your pronunciation.”

It’s not the nicest thing to say, but Jeff’s so relieved to hear someone speak English that he says an emphatic “Thank you. My fiancée insists we at least try to speak Romanian at home, and it helps, but—it’s just really hard to get a new language down when you’re already in your late twenties, you know?”

The guy shrugs one shoulder. “Not really.” He doesn’t elaborate. “Your fiancée make you move here?”

“Didn’t make me, I wanted to,” says Jeff. Normally, he might not answer such an invasive question from a customer, but it’s asked in English and the guy seems harmless enough, despite having had one hand in his pocket throughout their entire interaction. “I miss Brooklyn sometimes, but—”

“Brooklyn, huh? No shit. I grew up there.” The smirk inches ever closer to a smile. “Don’t know if it’s much like how I remember it, though.”

“It’s always changing,” Jeff says. “Gentrification and all. But I loved it. Went to school there, met Cara, found out Cara wanted to move to Romania to be with her grandparents for at least a year or so, and got used to the idea. It’s nice here. Quiet.”

“You said it.” The guy looks at Jeff’s hand hovering above the scanner.

“Oh. Right. Yeah. You probably want this stuff, huh?”

“That’s the general idea,” says the guy. “Wish you had grey or black tabs. I kinda don’t like the colored ones.”

“Post-it doesn’t really make neutrally colored products,” Jeff says. “I could look into it, see about a special order if you want.”

The guy waves his hand dismissively. “Nah, don’t worry about it. They’ll do.” He pulls a wallet out of his back pocket. “How much?”

“Oh, that’ll be 84 leu,” says Jeff. The guy turns his wallet upside down and shakes it. Several 10 leu notes and a photo that looks to be cut out of a newspaper fall out. Jeff can’t help peering at the photo, a black and white image of Captain America. The guy snatches up the photo and crumples it in his fist, then immediately looks regretful.

“He’s in the newspaper a lot,” Jeff says. “You could probably find another picture.”

“He’s not usually smiling,” says the guy.

“Should I ask?”

The guy lets out a deep sigh. “Only if you buy me a drink.”

*

Bucky—because that’s what he wants to be called, and it’s how history knows him, so Jeff goes along with it—stays with Jeff and Cara for a couple weeks. At first, Cara has some concerns about hosting a killing machine, but she’s read Thought Reform and the Psychology of Totalism so she kind of gets the whole brainwashing thing. Plus, it’s Captain America’s best friend, and she’s always had a thing for Captain America, no matter how much she tries to deny it, and Andrei and Bunică love Bucky, who’s pretty damn charismatic, especially after he’s showered. Personally, Jeff thinks Bucky’s penitent about the whole thing, penitent and hurting and not quite ready to see his friend again. When the Sokovia Accords pop up in the news and Bucky’s picture’s in the paper—and Jeff and Cara and her grandparents know he didn’t do it, because a long game of Macao, a couple huge meals, and a good long rest had taken up all of their schedules the day of the murder—it’s time for their new friend to go, and it’s harder than Jeff expected to say goodbye. Bucky’s just started smiling again. To see that taken away—well, it hurts. But Bucky insists on leaving.

“You need to make us plum dumplings one more time,” Cara says after Bucky straps on his pack, and he rolls his eyes.

“Stevie’s gonna be looking for me already, Cara,” says Bucky.

“Please? They’re even better than Bunică’s.”

He sighs heavily. “Fine. But then I’m gone.” Before he goes to his favorite fruit stand for the plums, though, Bucky hugs Cara, then gestures at Jeff, who’s been chopping vegetables in the kitchen throughout the whole exchange. Jeff puts down his knife and walks over to Bucky, who hugs him tightly.

“Thanks for the Post-its and the notebook,” says Bucky.

“Next time I’ll give you a discount,” Jeff says. It’s then that he knows he’ll likely never see Bucky again, unless it’s on TV. Hopefully it’ll be good news. Hopefully he’ll get back to his Stevie. For now, though, he lets go and he smiles, and for once, he gets a full-on grin back.

The People You Meet at Hamilton

I don’t really have much to add to the discourse regarding Hamilton. It’s every bit as brilliant as you’ve heard, and if you have or haven’t seen it, do you really need to read another review? So instead of that, I’m going to tell you about the people sitting next to and behind Scott and me during our performance, and why those neighbors made it that much better.

The first people whose conversation I overheard were two men about my age seated behind us. If I saw these guys on the street and paid them any mind, I’d categorize them as bros, probably Business Bros with their clean-cut appearances and charming, practiced cadences of speech. But that (somewhat unfair) impression fell away when they started talking before the show. The careful cadence was gone as they went over how long they’d been waiting to see it and which cast members they were most psyched for. It got even better as the show progressed; they’d giggle moments before a favorite song or character appeared. As soon as Samuel Seabury (Thayne Jasperson) showed up, they began anticipating King George’s (Jonathan Groff) arrival, and they were not disappointed, laughing gleefully through his entire song. And his next song. And the one after that. Emotional outbursts aren’t something I see a lot of when it comes to high finance guys in Manhattan, and it was so refreshing to know we all loved this same thing so much. They were just a bit more expressive than I was (although my tears during Act II were the stuff of legend).

As delighted as I was by the dudes, though, the woman sitting next to Scott was just as great, if not better. About 70 years old, she’d bought tickets for her grown children, and when her daughter was unable to make it, she attended in her place. The woman’s first comment to us was how much she loved that, in the back of the program, there was a list of the songs that inspired Lin-Manuel Miranda while writing the show. She referred to him as “Lin,” the way my friends and I do when we discuss him, as though he’s someone we’ve met at a party, not a MacArthur recipient, a Tony winner, and the co-star of hundreds of celebrity selfies. She cited the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ten Crack Commandments” as the inspiration for “Ten Duel Commandments” — a reference that wasn’t even listed in the program — and even called the rapper “Biggie.” And she recommended we watch the video of Lin’s wedding reception, in which he and his friends performed a song for Vanessa, “Lin’s wife.” This, my friends, was a 70-year-old fangirl. And she’d hit her knee in time with the catchiest songs, and she was up before we were for the standing ovation, and she was every bit as thrilled to be part of it as we were.

I’ve never felt kinship with an audience the way I did with my fellow Hamilton attendees. I know it sounds over the top, but at Hamilton, you really feel like you’re a part of something huge. This is a cultural touchstone, a show that illuminates American history and redefines what musical theater can be, and to see it in its original run is unforgettable. The dudes knew it. The lady knew it. Everyone — the girl behind me who shouted “Showtime!” when Laurens (Anthony Ramos), Lafayette (Daveed Diggs), and Hercules Mulligan (Okierete Onaodowan) did and had her mother shush her; the couple beside me who pulled out tissues during “It’s Quiet Uptown”; the myriad men and women who whooped over Lafayette’s staggeringly fast rap in “Guns and Ships” — knew it. And that’s something I haven’t really felt before at a show. I’ll try to see it again, sure, but this one experience was so valuable, so memorable, that even if I never get that sense over a live performance again, this will have been enough.

I Get You, Man: Reforming My Opinion on Star Wars

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A few weeks ago, Scott and I sat down and watched Star Wars, which I understand is often referred to as A New Hope, but that’s a much worse title, so we’re sticking with the original. Neither of us are Star Wars People. I love a good space opera or sci-fi yarn — I’ve been particularly enamored with my second playthrough of the Mass Effect series lately — but the Star Wars series wasn’t a part of my upbringing, and I never really got around to truly appreciating it. It didn’t help that the prequels were my main exposure to the franchise. So when everyone started talking about the JJ Abrams-helmed return to a galaxy far, far away, I didn’t feel much more than cautious optimism. If nothing else, I figured, it would make a lot of people very happy to see the legacy trio onscreen again, to revisit a world populated by countless alien races and adorable droids and plucky heroes and fearsome villains. Maybe I’d see it in the theater. Maybe not.

Over time, unsurprisingly, my cautious optimism evolved into genuine excitement. By the time the movie had been out for a week, it felt as though everyone I know had seen it, and they’d uniformly enjoyed it. Any indifference I had toward seeing it faded away, and yesterday, I bit the bullet along with Scott and some of our closest friends.

Relative strangers to the franchise have nothing to worry about when it comes to informed viewing. This isn’t a reboot, but it is a new story, one that’s fairly straightforward and captivating from the start. The seamless combination of old characters and new, the airtight script, and the galaxy-hopping story arc provide an easy entry into the mythology, and there’s something for everyone to latch onto, be it the most adorable droid the world’s ever seen, the soaring John Williams score, or the first time you see the Force in action. What — or who, more accurately — I latched onto was Finn (John Boyega). In a sea of well-crafted characters (and OK, I have a soft spot for Oscar Isaac like every other person on the Internet, and Poe was as good a charming rogue as they come), the reformed stormtrooper who rejects his finely honed, totally impersonal moral compass for the sake of a group of rebels he’s never met, was the one I rooted for, the one who made me smile or cry or both every time he showed up onscreen. (I cried a lot, actually. Usually over lightsabers, which doesn’t even make sense. I contain multitudes.)

Am I a Star Wars Person now? No, not really. I’m not going to defend the prequels or read EU novels. (I would also list “buy memorabilia” there but I already ordered my Finn Funko Pop Vinyl, so there goes that.) But as Scott put it after the movie, I get it now. I get why people love this franchise, why it was an important part of their childhood, why their affection will never fade away. I’m not one of you, but I get you, man, and I will gladly eat popcorn with you again at Rogue One.