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.

Nathan Fillion, Vampires, and Coming Around on Pop Culture

It took me a really long time (apparently over two months, whoops!) to think of something I wanted to write about. A number of ideas floated through my head—current podcast power rankings, my growing obsession with Thrilling Adventure Hour, that time Scott and I watched Twister because he jokingly suggested it and I jumped at the chance—but none of them stuck till this morning, and that’s all Nathan Fillion’s fault.

Up until recently, I never fully understood Nathan Fillion’s appeal. Fully embraced by geek culture for his Whedon pedigree and a bit of a heartthrob even outside those circles due to his charming “Aw, shucks, I guess I am awesome” act on Castle, he’s an undeniably likable guy. But his personality has always struck me as outsized, and that has a tendency to leak into his onscreen personae; I have an especially hard time with this on Firefly, and I realize that’s blasphemy, but it’s not my favorite Whedon property and it never has been. Malcolm Reynolds is a decent character, a big damn hero, even, but he’s no Buffy. So, before I became an avid Thrilling Adventure Hour listener, my view of Fillion was charitable at best. I liked him in Buffy, I liked him in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, and I could take him or leave him in any other case. But then, I heard him play Cactoid Jim.

Thrilling Adventure Hour—a new-time podcast told in the style of old-time radio, as the introduction informs us—features regular segments ranging from staples “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars,” a space western, and “Beyond Belief,” an ongoing tale of an alcohol-loving married couple who happens to see ghosts, to “The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock” and “Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flyer,” time-traveling yarns with plenty of puns and humor picking apart the very concept of shifting through time. A few months’ worth of episodes into the podcast, a new character is added to the “Sparks Nevada” cast: Cactoid Jim, an almost absurdly Good Guy played by Fillion. And no one could do it better than he does. He’s an ideal counterpoint to Marc Evan Jackson’s Sparks and a surprisingly dynamic love interest for Busy Phillips’ Red Plains Rider, with a knack for oratory greatness and helping his fellow man. Or robot. Or alien. Once I got into this role of his, I remembered how much Fillion added to Buffy when he was added to the cast in season seven. As Caleb, an inarguably insane preacher working with the Big Bad First Evil, Fillion was one of the show’s most memorable villains by far—compelling from the start, and deeper as the season progressed. And I’ve always loved Fillion in Dr. Horrible, if only because he seems like he’s playing a parody of himself, a self-important but entirely harmless hunk. So I’ve come around completely on Nathan Fillion, and that got me wondering if there are any other circumstances in which I’ve done the same

The most obvious is my recent turnaround on Joshua Malina, who I’d previously only seen in The West Wing. I don’t care for Malina’s West Wing character at all; the less said about that, the better, because I may start weeping over the loss of Sam Seaborn again. But once I heard an episode or two of Thrilling Adventure Hour featuring Malina as the barkeep at Sparks Nevada’s favorite saloon, I grew to really like the guy. It reminded me of the time he was on Jordan Jesse Go!, an occasionally terrific podcast, and how endearing he’d been there. And then he started singing, and I needed no more convincing that Joshua Malina was A-OK.

Of course, these things can go the opposite way. The first time I ever remember this happening was nearly ten years ago now. I was a fairly insufferable teenager, a fan of pseudo-intellectual literature and the films of Wes Anderson (which I probably called “films,” ew). One of my favorite authors was (ugh, this hurts) Chuck Palahniuk, the man behind the debatably well-done Fight Club and the kind of awful Lullaby, Invisible Monsters, and, now, many other pulpy novels chockfull of the kind of hedonism that is not in any way appealing. Nymphomania! Rampant drug abuse! Esoteric references to Radiohead! At some point, this got to be too much for even 17-year-old Christy, so I gave up on the guy and haven’t touched a Palahniuk book since. (Also, I wrote an editorial for my school newspaper lambasting his body of work. Please do me a favor and never, ever find this.)

TV is a harder medium to pin down in terms of varying tastes from season to season. That’s because the nature of a show is to evolve, and sometimes, if you’re particularly attached to the way a show was going, that can feel more like devolution. I’m not sure if that’s what happened with The Vampire Diaries, but I know I haven’t seen 75% of last season, and before that, I was a staunch defender of the show. Sure, it went down the love triangle road too often, a character dying meant essentially nothing, and the montages set to weepy postmodern love songs were cringe-inducing, but it also had a lot of heart, a great cast of characters, and, on occasion, surprisingly strong writing. That might all still be true, but I wouldn’t know, because I just got over it. Let me know if I should return to the show, because at one point, I really did love it.

Can this situation of love-to-ambivalence or vice versa happen to the same thing twice? This year, I found out that yes, it certainly can. I so disliked the How I Met Your Mother finale that I literally couldn’t watch it in syndication for months on end. But I just picked back up with it, and guess what? The episodes that were endlessly charming and sharply written and, often, truly resonant still are! I don’t find myself picking apart interactions between Ted and Robin, looking for hints at what was to come. Instead, I’m just laughing and saying out loud to Scott, “This is a really great episode.” So maybe I’ll come back to The Vampire Diaries, and maybe I’ll decide to dislike Joshua Malina again. (Just kidding about the latter. Probably. Probably kidding about that.) In the meantime, I will marvel at my own shifting opinions, and I will write that marveling down, just like all good blahggers should.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Podcasts

I wasn’t sold on podcasts immediately. There was a time when the only ones I listened to or watched were This American Life, which requires no explanation, and Yogamazing, which requires four words: yoga instructional video podcast. But at some point early in 2011, some friends of mine told me about the Maximum Fun network, which featured (and still does feature, to that end) pop culture and comedy podcasts hosted and run by a genuinely talented, relentlessly clever group of people. I gave Stop Podcasting Yourself a try, and it was all uphill from there.

Now, I have a roster of podcasts I listen to regularly: the aforementioned Stop Podcasting Yourself, a delightfully meandering show co-hosted by Canadian comedians Graham Clark and Dave Shumka; My Brother, My Brother, and Me, a fake advice program from the three brothers McElroy; NPR’s enlightening, ever-humorous Pop Culture Happy Hour; WYNC’s beautiful marriage of science and culture Radiolab; and How Did This Get Made, a sendup of wonderfully terrible movies co-hosted by Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas. This American Life and Yogamazing still linger, but they’ve been replaced by something entirely different.

Podcasts are unlike any other medium. They take active listening to a new level, making you feel as though you’re part of the conversation even if you never so much as @-tweet the hosts. It’s a much more communal, homegrown feel than something like a television show, even one that attempts to interact with its audience ala American Idol and other competition shows. Turning on an episode of Stop Podcasting Yourself is, for me, like running into a friend while I’m waiting for a drink at the Stag’s Head. I don’t have to know anything more about the encounter to already know that it’s going to be fun, and it’s going to be funny, and I’m not going to want to listen to anyone else for a while.

I think the shows I listed deserve a listen, all of them for particular reasons. So here’s what you should listen to, depending on what you care about.

If you like slice-of-life stories and Hulk Hogan, then give Stop Podcasting Yourself a try. My favorite episodes tend to be those with Paul F. Tompkins or Jon Dore and guestless episodes, which are a rare treat.

If you laugh at jokes many people would consider inappropriate or immature and enjoy the occasional reference to contemporary Christian music or movies shown exclusively on Starz! in 1998, check out My Brother, My Brother, and Me. My favorite episodes include This Is Our Rumours, Peepum’s Nastygum, and Lovegoose.

If you think pop culture deserves intelligent discussion and you’re comfortable having the occasional reference go over your head, then Pop Culture Happy Hour is for you. (I wrote a post at one point about how much I enjoy Linda Holmes’ analysis–I could write three more for Trey Graham, Glen Weldon, and Stephen Thompson.) Because it’s a timely show, I can’t really pick a favorite, but their awards show coverage is always delightful. Especially good was last year’s Tonys discussion.

If you want to hear from a pair of people who truly love radio and want to use it to its fullest, then Radiolab and its wonderful hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, are for you. My favorite episode, hands down, is Lost & Found; also good are Space and the entire series of meditations on death.

If you like bad movies, and you like making fun of them even more, and you can’t stop using the word “literally,” I advise you to check out How Did This Get Made. I have so much affection for this show that I spelled “Mantzoukas” correctly the first time. Particularly hilarious are their takes on The Last Airbender, Sleepaway Camp, and The Green Lantern. They’re also great with live episodes, namely Birdemic and Road House.

I haven’t been writing a lot lately–at least, not like this. But I have been listening. And you probably should be, too.