There’s a certain class of Term that, once people learn it, once it enters the Discourse, is repeated ad nauseam. The word “gaslighting” is a good example of this—it began as a way to describe a tactic that abusers use to manipulate their victims, and now is frivolously applied throughout the liberal political discourse to mean… lying? Misrepresentation?
One of these terms is “parasocial relationship,” which has been in use for a while but seems to have been popularized amongst the media class by this NYT piece. For those unfamiliar: it refers to the one-sided relationship created by, for example, listening to many episodes of a conversational podcast. Some psychos even develop a parasocial relationship with Michael Barbaro. When I see the term used by people on Twitter, I feel a flare of annoyance or disdain, and I’d never really been able to figure out why, until I realized: it’s because we learned it from the same place. I learned the term from the NYT article, just like all these people. I know they read the same thing as me. If I’m in a conversation with someone and we end up talking school segregation and it turns out we both recently listened to Nice White Parents and we’re just repeating shibboleths we learned there without acknowledging where they came from, I’ll get that same feeling of discomfort or annoyance. I guess we all want to feel like we, ourselves, collect information, synthesize it, and produce individual and unique analysis, and it’s a bit jarring to realize everyone around you is doing the same thing with the same input and coming to the same conclusions, all of which are completely predictable.
This is all well and good but sort of only vaguely connected to what I really wanted to talk about, which is the long-running Earwolf podcast Comedy Bang Bang and what it means to me. I’ll preface this tribute with the acknowledgement that I no longer listen regularly and haven’t for about a year, but upon reflection I’ve concluded that this podcast has influenced me more than any other media. That’s pretty embarrassing—the correct answer to that question should be like… Citizen Kane or Moonlight or Crime and Punishment or The Namesake or something.
For those of you who’ve never listened, Comedy Bang Bang (formerly Comedy Death Ray) was started in 2009 by writer and comedian Scott Aukerman. It was originally an internet radio show on Indie 103.1, and eventually grew into a podcast with a cult following. Scott spun it off into a media company, and the podcast network Earwolf was born. Each episode is pretty simple: Scott usually interviews a (real) celebrity guest until one or more comedians barge into the show as improvised characters and do their own interviews. Sometimes, they play games. The whole thing is goofy and loose and can go off the rails (Scott would say “like a retired train”) quickly.
This very enjoyable Vulture article features some familiar faces talking about the show. Here’s one specific example of the kind of goofball humor I love so much about the early stuff.
The very first episode of Comedy Bang! Bang! was with me and Rob Huebel. Now, every couple of years when we are both on the show again, Scott prints out the conversation that we had on that very first episode for us to read as a script. Only a few people have really noticed it, but every time Rob and I are on the podcast, about four times now, we have the exact same conversation that we had that first day. Word for word. It’s a perfect insight into the mind of Scott Aukerman, who said, “I had an idea to take this totally casual conversation you had two years ago and transcribe it down to the pauses and the ums.” In my showbiz career, it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever done and I’m just really, really proud of it.
Tom Lennon and I have the now-bizarre privilege of being the very first guests on Comedy Bang! Bang! I say “bizarre” because now we are trapped in this fucking time loop where every few years, Scott has us come on and reenact (from a transcript) our original unscripted interview banter. So if you listen to us on the show, you will hear me talking about Human Giant and I Love You, Man like it’s still current and Tom explaining how Reno 911 should never be called Reno Nine-Eleven. I’m sure it’s confusing to people, but isn’t that what good comedy is for? To confuse and frustrate people and make them wonder why the fuck these idiots are having the same conversation every time they come on the show?
Just to be clear, there are some issues with the show: Scott got rich off of it while not paying guests, it drew heavily from the LA UCB crowd, who were all people who could afford multiple $450 improv classes, and there are some earlier episodes that aged terribly. The show was mostly straight white guys until 2015, and the company that bought Earwolf, Stitcher, has been passed around from massive media conglomerate to media conglomerate and has some pretty anti-consumer practices. But just pretend none of that matters for the rest of this post.
I first discovered the show in 2013, years after I started regularly listening to science podcasts, while working in a lab as a summer job after high school. Frustrated with a lack of context for the running jokes, I found my way to the beginning of the catalog and started listening from Episode 1 onwards. For the next 6 years, the show was my constant companion. I remember the first time I caught up on all the back episodes, which took me about a year of continuous listening, and got to listen to an episode the day it came out. In 2014, I dragged some friends from home to see a live show at NYU, and was amazed at the size of the crowd—I’d never met another fan before. That show was supposed to feature Paul F. Tompkins and Adam Scott, but Adam had to cancel last minute. Paul F. Tompkins was the only guest, and ended up playing four different characters at once. The energy (I’m fully aware this is stupid) was electric, and the crowd ate it up. He was on fire. To make things better, there was a problem with the recording, and the episode was lost to the ages, giving the whole night an almost mythical status.
Over the years, the show’s influence remained a constant in my life. I began adopting inside jokes into my lexicon, stupid things like saying “It’s been” in a weird way (like the Barenaked Ladies) or always saying “My wife” in an exaggerated Borat accent. I forced friends (and my dad) to listen with me in the car and stared at them the whole time to see if they were laughing, a behavior that deserves the death penalty. I became a pretty frequent commenter on the Earwolf subreddit. I joined a Slack full of other fans in 2015 and got really into that community for a few months. I paid for a subscription to the back catalog and special episodes. I managed to convert a few friends. When they announced a tour in 2016, I bought two tickets for consecutive nights at the Gramercy Theater, and ended up getting my merch t-shirt signed by Scott, Paul, Lauren Lapkus, Mike Hanford, and Bobby Moynihan.
In 2017, I flew to New York from Michigan for one day (on Spirit) just to see the one live show they did that year at BAM. Just last year, I went to two live shows—one in New Haven, two hours away by train. I even co-hosted my own podcast in college that was loosely based on the format.
All of this is terribly embarrassing because these are basically just normal people. But to me, they were better than rock stars. I’ve listened to 600+ episodes of the show, which comes out to (charitably) around 800 hours. I’ve spent more time with Scott Aukerman than I have with some of my closest friends. When walking around Ann Arbor, where I went to college, I’d associate hyper-specific locations, like a street corner, with the episode or joke I was listening to when walking past it, and vice versa—listening to an old episode immediately calls to mind exactly what I was looking at when first listening. I even put together an insane spreadsheet of my favorite episodes in 2017 to help introduce some of my friends to the show.
So why did I resonate with the show so much? I certainly don’t feel the same way about it anymore. I think there’s one main reason. It showed me that there was a version of being an adult that doesn’t suck.
Being an adult, broadly, is dumb. Most people spend most of their time doing stuff they don’t really want to do just to stay alive. If you’re super lucky, you get to find a job that lets you hit the part of your brain that feels good, but even that comes with restrictions and responsibility. Time moves more quickly than ever, your memories of childhood start to disappear, your imagination feels bleak and gray, you realize there’s nothing, really, other than your own willpower, keeping you from irreparably destroying your life. You become aware of every system’s immeasurable complexity and you spend a lot of time trying to suss out how you feel about things because your own feelings aren’t totally clear to you anymore.
Almost every adult I’d ever spent time around growing up took their responsibilities pretty seriously, as middle-class immigrant strivers are wont to do. Snippets of adult conversation were mostly about money, a topic I found infinitely disinteresting, or politics, which I found interesting but didn’t really understand. Everything was orderly and generally done for a reason, especially once I aged into young adulthood. I was a disaffected young man, ripe for the radicalizing.
In 2020, young men find a community on right-wing Youtube channels that do the same thing that this dumb, jokey podcast did to me—make them feel like they belong, like they understand. The flash of recognition I would feel when Scott referenced a tiny inside joke 30 episodes after its inception, the sheer ebullience I got from hearing Paul F. Tompkins burst into laughter, the pure elation I felt when Jason Mantzoukas jumped on word mispronunciations… I was radicalized—radicalized by the ideology of goofiness. I was enthralled by the idea that a potential future existed where I could just sit around and laugh about nothing for hours with my best friends. Where the point was how pointless and mirthful it all was. It’s easy to deride this show or improv or even “jokes” for being corny and uncool and saccharine and annoying, but for years, it brought me inconceivable amounts of happiness. Scott and his friends were there for me when I felt like I had no friends, when the world felt sad and overwhelming and unstable. They, like 30 Rock and Arrested Development and The Simpsons, taught me about huge swaths of culture and recent history, things I never would have learned in school or on my own. I owe the way I think now, the pathways my brain travels, to the show.
I decided to write about this show this week because I recently revisited two of my favorite episodes—the 2016 Holiday Spectacular and the 8th Anniversary Special, both of which are indelibly stamped onto my brain. The 2016 episode is especially strange to hear now, as the guests continually make reference to the recent election and all the cultural stuff around the beginning of Trumpism. The highlight in these episodes for me is a bizarre and high-concept bit by comedians Drew Tarver, Ryan Gaul, and Jeremy Rowley. The premise is that a Nissan car dealer is holding a contest to win a free car, and the only two contestants keep tying in various competitions year after year. In the holiday episode, the competition is a “naughty or nice” contest—each contestant has to say the nicest and the worst thing they’ve done that year. Drew Tarver’s character, Mrs. Keith Jones, mentions that she raised 15 million dollars for the victims of 9/11, which is quickly revealed by the other guests to mean that, instead of going to the families of victims, it goes straight to the victims; Keith buried $15 million in cash at Ground Zero. The first time I heard this, I almost crashed the car I was driving from laughing too hard. When I listened to it recently for the first time in 2 years, I found myself saying all the best punchlines out loud in unison and giggling to myself afterwards.
Over the years, the magic wore off a bit and I stopped listening—I was able to identify patterns in the way Scott talked and the normal shtick that characters would do (with notable exceptions) to the point where my brain was filling in responses before they happened. Nothing’s less funny than something predictable, in the same way that the term “parasocial relationship,” which perfectly describes how I feel about this show, produces a twinge of annoyance in my head.
But I don’t really care if the podcast is outdated or uncool, if the humor isn’t really suited for 2020, if it’s not ironic enough or it’s too center-liberal or it’s too establishment. I wrote this incoherent tribute because I was lucky enough to really love a piece of media for a long time, and I wanted to share some of the warmth and joy I feel when I toss an old episode on and go for a bike ride and let the wind carry my laughter away behind me.
Hey, this was nice. I feel the same way about Hollywood Handbook these days, though definitely not to the same extent. The point about remembering a specific location where you first heard a joke on a podcast is a real one. That shit is wild. I remember listening to this segment, in which Gino (Jon Gabrus) explains what CoinStar-ing is, while walking near the Mighty Good Coffee on Main Street. I also cannot get into the elevator of my office building without thinking of this unbelievable, real ad from Hollywood Handbook.