Entries in earwolf challenge (17)

Sunday
Sep182011

Splitsider Top 5 Comedy Podcasts: September 15

     

Jesse Fox and Joe Berkowitz offered up another batch of favorite comedy episodes this past week for Splitsider, including a star-studded Comedy Bang! Bang! and some slightly-off-the-beaten-path shows. The Top 5:

The Champs #5 - featuring Craig Robinson
Comedy Bang! Bang! #122 - featuring Zach Galifianakis, Paul F. Tompkins, Yo Lo Tengo
The Earwolf Challenge "The Final Challenge"
How Was Your Week? #27 - featuring David Rakoff
You Had To Be There #33 - featuring Stuckey and Murray

The not-quite-Top-5 episodes receiving honorable mentions: How Did This Get Made? #18 - featuring Danielle Schneider, The Mustache Rangers #212 and WTF with Marc Maron #209 - featuring Charlie Day and Glenn Howerton.

Check-out the full Splitiser recaps here.

Sunday
Sep182011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 10: The Final Challenge

Deep breath, Challengeers. The long and winding podcast road has led us to Week 10 at long last. We have arrivedPlease, indulge me for a bit as I briefly reflect on the past nine weeks in as self-absorbed a manner as possible.

First, I’ll venture to say that I have probably spent more time listening to The Earwolf Challenge since it began than anyone not employed by Earwolf. Typically, I listen to each episode at least twice, sometimes three times, in putting these recaps together. I’d estimate that I’ve spent six to eight hours a week neck-deep in this podcast.

The first time through’s just for enjoyment: I’m usually driving or out running errands with my son or something errand-ly. And not really in a position to write anything down. It gets me familiar enough to listen more closely on the next listen and get a deeper sense of what’s going on. The third and fourth time -- sometimes there’s a fourth time -- is when I’m actually sitting down to type this thing out, so there’s a lot of pausing and rewinding. Especially if someone’s on a roll and I’m doing a lot of quoting, like with Besser during Sketch Week.

Not having it around is going to leave a sizable hole in my week. It’s become so central to my schedule that I can hardly believe this is only its tenth week of existence. Sometimes I don’t get to Comedy Bang-Bang until, like, Friday. That’s commitment, people.

And when I think back on the podcasts we’ve left behind -- The Complete Guide to Everything, Television Zombies, Ham Radio, et al. -- it seems unthinkable that as recently as late July, I was listening to Beginnings get the boot while riding the trolley down to the San Diego Convention Center for Comic-Con. Two weeks later, on a flight to Indianapolis, I was furiously scribbling notes about the mercurial meaning of the phrase “recurring sketch” in the hopes of giving myself a fightin’ chance of somehow getting a recap out during GenCon. And then two weeks ago, with much less significant demands on my time, I didn’t get one out at all. Life, she is strange.

I’m still gutted that Left Handed Radio got the axe last week, but no more so than I would’ve been if it’d been Totally Laime or The Little Dum Dum Club instead. The Final 3 are a field of strong, proven competitors who can all be proud of their performance on the show. Kudos.

Anyway. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the competition, as well as the chance to put it under a microscope in these recaps. Yes, I know they’re not funny, but I’m leaving the comedy to the professionals.

Speaking of which, enough of my navel-gazing. Let’s get into it!

The Challenge

No coaching session this week! What’s left to say, really? Especially this week, when the challenge -- in the fine tradition of Top Chef and Project Runway and etc. -- is just “Give us a full episode of whatever you want to do.” (Called it!) Our guest judges, joining us Wednesday, are Earwolf founders Jeff Ullrich and Scott Aukerman. (Called that too! But who else could it be, really?)

In the meantime, we’re treated to a full episode from each of our two finalists.

Totally Laime. Elizabeth and Andy bring out the big guns in the form of Charlie Day of the FX series It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, where he’s a standout in an already outstanding ensemble cast. I only recently discovered Sunny, somehow, and immediately understood why I’d been hearing so much about it. So the timing’s pretty good for me. I guess Andy really is psychic.

True to Totally Laime’s mission statement, the three do indeed address some pretty unimportant questions. Or... sort of. It’s much more conversational than that, really. If anyone gets the ball rolling, it’s Charlie himself, who relates a brief anecdote about a woman -- apparently a neighbor of Elizabeth and Andy’s -- whom he’s been avoiding for years without any conscious effort. That leads into talk of face blindness and distinguishing fans from friends (something that must be especially problematic for Charlie, since he and his Sunny character share the same name), and then we’re off. It’s basically a 30-minute conversation with no particular agenda or direction.

It’s my first time listening to Totally Laime after weeks of hearing it critiqued bit by bit, and it’s a little like following the development of The Lord of the Rings online for years before seeing it in theaters. (Which I did, obviously.) Andy’s more active than I would’ve expected, more of a full partner or co-host than a mere sidekick. We hear a bit about his upbringing in Idaho, which sounds like it could’ve been a subplot cut from an early draft of Napoleon Dynamite, the moon tattoo on his ass, and his dual fear of death-as-the-end and death-as-an-eternal-afterlife.

“You guys aren’t going to win too many comedy podcasts talking about dying,” Charlie says, but you get the idea. Soon after, he delivers what may be the line of the episode when he says that “Life’s too short to be religious.” (It’s either that or when Elizabeth’s use of the word “trim” prompts him to ask, “...Is that pussy?”) .

Most of the other details of the episode, though, just sort of... float by. Charlie’s genial and everything, but I don’t feel like they uncover anything especially mind-blowing about him, and he doesn’t come off as the finishing-move guest I’d hoped he’d be. Indeed, Elizabeth and Andy talk a lot more about themselves (and each other) than anything else. Sometimes it almost feels like they’re guests on Charlie’s podcast, with him throwing in commentary on their conversation.

Overall, I have to admit that I don’t find it especially compelling. I drift a lot, and have to backtrack and re-listen several times to make sure I’ve gotten it all. It’s not funny enough to make me laugh, nor is it interesting enough to consistently hold my attention. I did perk up at the return of “Lame or Totally?” in the final few minutes of the episode, but by the it feels like too little, too late.

The Little Dum Dum Club. Tommy and Karl get the same conversational “coaching session,” but it’s really just touching base before listening to their submission. They seem to still be peeved about last week’s whole Galifianakis fake-out.

Back in Week 1, I’d admitted a bias in favor of The Little Dum Dum Club because I’d heard their episodes featuring Marc Maron and Paul F. Tompkins. So, it’s with some trepidation I say this: Dum Dum’s submission is by far the more entertaining of the two. Totally Laime does indeed have more heart, but Dum Dum has four funny comedians hanging out and telling stories for half an hour.

In other words, it’s a familiar set-up. It lacks structure, but its sheer momentum easily carries it the entire time. Right from the get-go, in fact, there’s a real sense of energy that’s lacking in Totally Laime’s leisurely chat with Charlie Day.

Earlier in the competition, one of the guest judges -- Jesse Thorn, I believe -- said that the problem with most “talk show” podcasts is that they operate on the expectation that a conversation alone is going to be interesting for the listener almost by default. What they don’t understand is that someone needs to drive that conversation forward and make it engaging instead of just hoping it’ll end up that way on its own.

Tommy and Karl definitely get that. The discussion never lags or slows. It just moves on to the next story. Within a short span of time, they and their two guests Luke McGregor and Nick Cody bounce from Tommy’s anecdote/riff about protesters outside a high-end chocolate shop, Luke’s disdain for their theme music and an email sent to the guys from Nick’s mother. None of this feels rushed. Everything gets its due.

Speaking of the guests, Luke and Nick, though likely unknown by most of the North American listening audience -- an inherent problem with Dum Dum’s location -- acquit themselves well. Luke comes off as a sort of nebbishy Australian. The closing story Karl buying him a lap dance and his subsequent awkwardness (especially the nipple-and-nose bit) was priceless. Nick, of course, was previously featured in Dum Dum’s submission for the Using the Guest challenge back in Week 5, and has some funny material about a cruise-ship gig.

By the end, it’s fairly open and shut: The Little Dum Dum Club is the clear winner in my eyes. However, if you’re Earwolf, would you rather produce a show whose hosts live locally in Los Angeles, or one that’s recorded on the other side of the world? And would you rather have a show that routinely features known quantities like Charlie Day, or one that interviews comedians largely unknown to most of your potential subscribers?

It’s a nice bit of suspense heading into the Judgment episode, which is...two hours long.

Click to read more ...

Sunday
Sep112011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 9: Time Crunch

Apologies again, loyal readers (or reader), for short-changing you last week.

I don’t want to backtrack too much, but did anyone else raise an eyebrow at not one but two mentions of a second season of The Earwolf Challenge? I’ll admit, the first thing that comes to mind is The Apprentice, which...yeah. But The Challenge has at least two things going for it: a likable host and likable competitors. Ten weeks of competitions means Earwolf surely learned some valuable lessons. I look forward to see how the show grows into a second season.

With only three competitors remaining going into Week 9, I can say I’m genuinely dreading the departure of any one of them. Taking a look at my embarrassingly bad predictions from Week 1, I see we’re left with one of my picks for the Final 3 (Left Handed Radio), one of my picks to go home within the first few challenges (The Little Dum Dum Club) and Totally Laime, who I clearly felt would meet an ignominious and unremarkable end somewhere en route. My classic two-thirds wrong guarantee in action. Nailed it.

Episode 9.1: Coaching Sessions

This week on Internet Screw-Job, the challenge is not lose your shit. Actually, I heartily approve of the screw-you twist, which Producer Frank attributes to Earwolf co-founder Scott Aukerman. It’s the kind of thing we’ve come to expect from reality competitions. I just wish it hadn’t come so late in the Challenge run. Even the best challenges of weeks past look pale and wan in comparison. So much “here, go do a thing” chaff, compared to this week’s pointing-and-laughing wheat.

My tortured metaphors aside, the twist is quality entertainment and relevant to the podcast medium. The competitors are told they’ll have an hour to interview Zach Galifianakis, when in fact there is no such interview scheduled. When it comes time for the phone call, they’re sent an email breaking the bad news. Mockingly, one would hope. Then they’re given 30 minutes to come up with something else.

This turns the coaching session into one big farce, as Matt Besser has to just bluff his way through with a straight face. Most of LHR’s session is in fact dedicated to talking about how to approach the interview (plus one brief Old Dirty Bastard anecdote), which is obviously a waste of time for Besser, the producers and the rest of us. But Besser wises up for Totally Laime and Dum Dum, delving into their process instead. It saves what would otherwise be an entire episode of marking-time. Besser’s feigned outrage that playing a game counts as an interview and his over-the-top insults in between Skype calls are funny, but c’mon. I like a good anti-Australian remark as much as the next guy, but they do not in and of themselves a good podcast make.

Episode 9.2: The Challenge

Walking the Room’s Dave Anthony and A Special Thing impresario and Never Not Funny co-host Matt Bellknap join Besser as our guest judges. Another highly qualified pair, to be sure, but, after last week’s Doug Benson and Harris Wittles rapport, it feels like a bit of a step down. I’ll try to push on.

(Seriously, where’s Randy Sklar? Is there tension in Sklarbro Country that only one twin was asked on the show? Surely the last two guest judges will be Aukerman and Jeff Ullrich, right?)

Matt BelknapDave AnthonyThe competitors are, on the whole, understandably pissed about the bait-and-switch. “Bait-and-switch” is probably an understatement, really. The two gab-fests were definitely excited about getting to interview a big star like Zach, and even though LHR didn’t really know what to do with their interview time, it was still going to be Zach Galifianakis.

LDDC is the only one of the three to put that energy -- that angry, angry energy -- into their submission. Ah…comedy: “the angry art.” Definitely working here. For a bit. As the judges point out, they do lose the thread after a couple minutes. Cutting it down to just three minutes would’ve improved it immensely. Even so, it produces the biggest laughs of the episode.

LHR’s entry is soundly panned by the judges, but it makes me laugh. Look, I know Borat’s a tired reference, and I know the sketch is flawed. It makes fun of how outdated the reference is but also tries to indulge in it. The overall result is pretty uneven. Unevenness aside, props to them for dealing with the situation and moving on like the professionals they are. And with editing and sound effects. Impressive. Plus, they managed to find a funny “show me the money” reference, which were previously thought extinct.

Conversely, I really cannot get into Elizabeth and Andy’s impromptu conversation with one another. The judges, on the other hand, love it. Compelling, engaging, etc. When Andy asks, “Can I pretend I’m [Zach]?” I’m pretty disappointed Elizabeth shoots him down. It could’ve been hilarious to invent a series of outright lies to Elizabeth’s prepared questions. Conversely, I find I don’t really care about their stories of awkward young lust. Like Dum Dum’s submission, it spends a lot of time meandering. But without the same level of energy and humor to kick things off. In fact, when the clip’s over, I’m positive Anthony, Belknap and Besser are going to slam it. But no! The opposite occurs! Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not a judge.

Despite the surprise response to Totally Laime’s submssion, the judges offer up a quality discussion about how putting Elizabeth and Andy’s marriage front and center could give the show the hook it needs. This seems like it’d implicitly promote Andy from Psychic to Host. Something at least one past judge discouraged. But, hey...that was weeks ago.

Episode 9.3: The Judgment

For the first time, a judgment episode fills me with a genuine sense of dread. I don’t want any of these podcasts to have to “lose.”

LHR is still pissed. “I guess we just didn’t find it funny you guys lied to us,” says Unnamed LHR Troupe Member #3. Their tale of furious diligence both sheds some light and makes their submission that much more extraordinary. I may be giving them too much credit here, especially since their sketch, which admittedly got a laugh or two out of me, was pretty sub par overall. But they offer up a solid defense and really seem to have it together, both technically and creatively. Earwolf could do worse.

“Isn’t the goal to make you laugh, at the end of the day?” Anthony muses after they hang up on LHR. Hmm. I’ll come back to that later.

Tommy and Karl aren’t quite as, uh, magnanimous as their Brooklyn competitors. They aren’t quite their usual affable selves. When asked if they kept a full five minutes on purpose when three may have been better, Karl seethes, “I was just five minutes’ worth of angry, that’s all.” Well, maybe he doesn’t seethe, per se, but it’s certainly the least-pleasant we’ve heard them over the past nine weeks. Then Anthony finishes it off with some good-ol’ American bullying, and they hang up.

Then Anthony adds, “I will say this: those two guys made me laugh the most.” Isn’t that the goal, at the end of the day? Perhaps not.

After some podcast-related chit-chat, it’s time for The Challenge’s most dramatic rose ceremony yet. LHR is cut loose, and they are calm and reserved in defeat. “Well, you blew it!” shouts Unnamed LHR Troupe Member #2. I can’t help but feel he’s right.

But really, having to let any of these three go feels like “blowing it,” in a way. The silver lining is the exposure received, plus the weeks of discussing the ins and outs of sketch comedy with Besser. Anna delivers one last quality barb: “Fuck it, Nerdist approached us with a million dollars!”

Now it’s on to Week 10. Excitement! What challenge does the last week of the competition hold? If it’s anything like your Top Chefs or your Project Runways, it’ll be something standard. Giving the remaining two podcasts near-total creative freedom. So, let’s hope it isn’t that.

In the meantime, I’ll tide myself over with the latest episode of LHR. Shine on, you crazy diamonds.

Thursday
Sep082011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 8: Using a Famous Guest

My apologies, Earwolf Challengers -- my schedule finally caught up with me last week and made posting a recap all but impossible. It had to happen eventually. Well, maybe it didn’t have to, but...it did.

However, I couldn’t let it go completely, because this was probably my favorite week of The Earwolf Challenge so far. What makes it so good?

Besser rants. Our host dedicates several minutes at the top of Monday’s show to explaining the difference between constructive criticism and asshole criticism. And it’s not exactly, um, calm and level-headed, which is what makes it so compelling. Besser’s forthrightness and raw honesty starts the week off with a bang.

I’ll admit, this great opening isn’t unmitigated. Besser and Producer Frank pose the question: “how can we make sure everyone gets the same wisdom from Besser every week during the coaching sessions?”…and then immediately dismiss it as unsolvable. How about the solution of adding a little off-air prep time with Besser? Prepping some “wisdom” for the contestants ahead of time? Too much to ask?

Interesting challenge. This may be the first week with a challenge that actually feels like something you’d see in an actual reality-show competition. The playing field is leveled; everyone has the same resources to work with and the same standards to meet. Plus, it’s specific. It’s not just “hey, go find a guest and do something with them,” or even “give us some original material.” It’s “here’s Nick Thune for an hour; come back with five minutes of material.”

Meet the Producer. Spending a little time with Producer Frank does a lot to counteract the impression I’ve gotten in previous weeks that Matt Besser sometimes barely tolerates his producers. It’s nice to see evidence of his interest in Frank.

Harrs Wittels *Photo by Megan BerruGuest Judges. Maybe it’s because I’m still riding high on Harris Wittels’ absurdly hilarious turn on last week’s Comedy Bang! Bang! (I listened to his episode with Adam Scott and Chelsea Peretti twice in a row), but something about him just being on the show really brings it up a notch for me. Of course, Wittels is more of a podcast regular than a podcast expert but it seems appropriate for this particular challenge. Besides, joining him is Doug Benson of Doug Loves Movies, who qualifies as something of an authority. Between the two of them, they contributed a good mix of humor and insight.

Doug BensonReal tension. It’s getting down to the wire now, with only four competitors still in the running (as of Week 8, anyway). Everyone turns in a competent submission, even if some are more competent than others. By Wednesday, it really feels like it could be curtains for either Totally Laime or The Bob and Dan Cast. In the past, the week’s last-place finisher has been pretty easy to pick out. This week it really seemed like it could go either way.

I happen to think it went the right way, incidentally. Both Totally Laime and Bob and Dan revealed that they’d lost sight of the goal of the challenge and possibly the contest as a whole. Elizabeth and Andy make the mistake of thinking “knowing your audience” means “play to the judges.” Worse, though, Bob and Dan refer to themselves as a couple “nobodies on the Internet,” revealing pretty conclusively that they’re just not ready for what Earwolf’s offering. I like those guys, but they need a hook.

A good lesson. Just about every week’s challenge is rife with subtext, but everyone seemed to miss this one. For example, when the judges tell Left Handed Radio their submission is so Nick Thune-centric that it didn’t give a good impression of who the hosts are, they answer back with “But the challenge was ‘Using the Guest’!” Yes, but it’s not “Using the Guest to Showcase the Guest.” It’s really “Using the Guest to Make Your Podcast Compelling.” It’s a fine line, maybe, but an important one. And, certainly a contributing factor to Bob and Dan’s downfall.

Now that we’re down to the final three, I’m psyched to find out how it’s all going to wrap up. All three of the remaining competitors have been the front runner at some point (that The Little Dum Dum Club has never been in the Bottom 3 is really pretty remarkable). I can really see any one of them coming out the winner.

Before we get to that, though, I’ll have to get to it and give Bob and Dan a proper listen. That’s right -- I’m literally going to hear them later. On to Week 9!

Sunday
Aug282011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 7: Original Content

On advice of counsel, I’ve steered clear of any online discussion of The Earwolf Challenge, especially on the Earwolf forums. The intent, of course, is to keep these write-ups untainted by public opinion.

However, every now and then I can’t help but encounter someone on the Internet who has an opinion about this podcast and how things are going. This week, it was former guest judge Paul F. Tompkins on Who Charted?, who had this to say about the Challenge:

“That show is very exciting because they almost have it narrowed down to a winner, and they almost have the rules to their own show figured out. It’s a race to see which happens first: Will someone win before they figure out what the show is?”

Which, really, kinda nails it. On the one hand, the show’s easygoing tone feels comfortable and conversational, without the enforced seriousness or melodrama of its reality TV influences. On the other hand, that same tone gives the impression that Earwolf didn’t have a clear vision of what the Challenge was going to be, or even what it is right now.

Speaking of things getting nailed online, you know who does read the Earwolf forums? Matt Besser, that’s who. He and his co-host/producers, Frank and Peter, spend about five minutes addressing concerns and issues raised in The Challenge forum, mostly by politely shooting them down. And with good reason: why people expect The Challenge to hold itself to the same rigorous standards as, say, Project Runway is beyond me.

Before we get into the actual challenge, though, it’s time for “This Week in Passive Aggression” with Matt Besser and Producer Pete:

Peter:  You’re the boss.
Besser:  I’m not the boss. Let’s make that perfectly clear. Otherwise, I’d have a coffee today.
Peter:  [defeated grunt]
Besser:  Yeah. Exactly.

It’s that kind of warm camaraderie that keeps me coming back week after week. Also, I promised I would. So, there’s that, too.

Episode 7.1: Coaching Sessions

Hey, it’s Concept and Content! Yes, the time has come to start recycling challenges from the days of yore. The only real differences between Weeks 3 and 7 are that the clips can be longer (three and a half minutes - longer than most episodes of Affirmation Nation!), the content has to be original (instead of pulled from a show’s archives) and there are only five competitors left instead of 9. Yeah, it’s a pretty vague theme for a challenge (again), but this is the sort of thing I don’t mind seeing in the latter half of the show. It’s like on Top Chef near the end of the season, when they start to let the chefs do whatever.

Matt BesserHowever, for a show that already has, as has been pointed out, a problem defining itself from week to week, a challenge this broad is potentially problematic. In an attempt to give things a little focus during the coaching sessions, Besser adopts the persona of a big-time podcasting executive asking for pitches from the Final Five. Some contestants respond to this better than others.

Totally Laime stays “on message” by repeating their slogan like a mantra. It almost feels like they’re trying to ward away evil spirits. Yes, we get it: important people, unimportant questions. It’s a good angle, but angle alone isn’t going to (or shouldn’t) win this thing. Elizabeth and Andy have only been in the Bottom 3 once. Their output has still been rather uneven from week to week. But Besser likes their plan of doing a full show and picking out three minutes as their submission, so he gives them basically no feedback and moves on.

The F Plus doesn’t exactly display the same confidence or clarity of vision. When asked for their pitch, they crack wise about Steve Gutenburg (for some reason or other). Then follow it up with several seconds of awkward silence. Eventually they get around to something about the Internet being a mirror for mankind’s “basest and weirdest impulses.” Fair enough. However, that soon leads to an anecdote about an online community for hyper-sexualized treatment of Pokemon and the revelation that “a worrying amount” of the show is just covering sexual fetishes. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it is indicative of a greater problem. It’s Week 7 and Besser still isn’t sure what their show’s about. So, business as usual.

Unsurprisingly, the perennially affable hosts of The Little Dum Dum Club don’t have what you might call a “plan” for the week’s challenge. Much like in The Princess Bride where Inigo Montoya and Westley reveal neither is left-handed, Tommy and Karl don’t mind the whole “original” content thing because they’ve been doing original material every week. “We’re not spooked,” asserts Karl. “We’re fine.” What can Besser say to that? This: “Not a good pitch, but it’s true what they said.” Thanks to their intangible, unpitchable rapport, they’re the only show left to avoid the Bottom 3. The new frontrunners? 

Speaking of frontrunners and being left handed – last paragraph call back! - Left Handed Radio is belatedly crowned the winner of Sketch Week. I guess we’re declaring winners now? Good. In describing what sets them apart from all those other sketch podcasts out there, they cite That Mitchell and Webb Sound as an influence, which is almost enough to make me forget their diss on Superego back in Week 1. Yes, I’m still holding that grudge! And I’m not the only one: apparently they’re “getting smeared on the forums.” The forums I don’t read. Smeared! Besser doesn’t have much to say to them, because what can he really say to anyone when the challenge is as broad as “Three-and-a-half minutes of material?”

Back in the beginning, Bob and Dan said they wanted to be the competition’s underdogs, and by God, they sure are. Like The Little Dum Dum Club, The Bob and Dan Cast doesn’t have a good pitch and seems to get by on the rapport of its hosts. They never have a plan, but, as Besser says, they “deliver every time.” But he goes on to point out that without an angle, there’s no way for Earwolf to market them. They’re not famous enough to have a built-in audience. And not unique enough to have a hook. 

This seems to be the first time the whole concept of marketability has been brought up. Week 7. Arguably one of the most important features of any podcast on Earwolf. All but ignored until now. Just saying.

Episode 7.2: The Challenge

This week’s guest judges...don’t inspire a lot of confidence, truth be told. We had such a strong start with Jimmy Pardo and Jason Sklar. Now we have Jordan Morris and Kulap Vilaysack. Morris immediately displays his podcasting bona fides by joking about a puddle of ejaculate he’s left in the corner. Charming. But I’m still putting more stock in his opinion than in Vilaysack’s.

Kulap VilaysackJordan MorrisLook, I have nothing against Vilaysack. She seems nice. I like her on Children’s Hospital, partially just because I can identify her. But I question why she’s judging The Challenge. Her podcasting tenure is equal to Howard Kremer, judge from a couple weeks ago. True. Yet, she doesn’t take primary hosting duties on Who Charted? I mean, I had my doubts about Kremer, but as a professional comedian, I at least trusted he’d be able to offer an authentic critical comedian’s perspective. By contrast, Vilaysack’s role on Who Charted?, apart from “keeping the charts,” seems to center around enthusing about dance music no one else likes and being familiar with comic-book movies. So...I’m skeptical.

As it turns out, Morris’s the big disappointment when it comes to critiquing LHR’s submission. Besser thinks it’s really strong (he’s right), but Morris utterly misses the point of their first sketch, incorrectly theorizing that it would’ve been funnier without “having every other word be ‘bark’ and ‘woof.’” That is, in fact, what makes it funny - that we, as humans, clearly aren’t the target demo for the commercial. Those “barks” and “woofs” somehow have meaning to dogs. That’s the joke

Worse, both Morris and Vilaysack apparently didn’t realize it was a sketch show. “Didn’t they say that in the first sentence?” Besser asks, as bewildered as I am. “Did they?” Vilaysack asks. “Shoot. Did not hear that for whatever reason.” Morris thinks the announcer said “it’s a sketch pod--” before a sound effect cut him off (and no one contradicts him, except for me shouting at my iPod). The actual line was “Today’s sketch comedy - today!” Guys, come on. There’s no way you can be this confused. You’re the judges. I’m just some guy on the Internet. Why am I paying more attention to this than you are?

It’s frustrating, that’s all. I’ll move on.

Totally Laime’s clip contains the phrase “asking the most important people the least important questions” twice in three and a half minutes, and closes with a brief discussion about The Challenge itself. Stay on message! The clip lives up to their mantra, I guess, but it also doesn’t seem to really go anywhere. The judges wish it had. Me too! Weirdly, Andy comes off as the host and Elizabeth as the sidekick. Plus, the sound quality’s worse than usual, which doesn’t help. The whole thing feels like the cracks are starting to show.

The Little Dum Dum Club manages to seamlessly integrate the setup of its clip with the clip itself, which right off the bat makes it feel much more natural than Totally Laime’s submission. In terms of content, it’s pretty similar, but the conversation feels much livelier and more organic. True, it’s largely about some local Australian stuff with which most of us have no direct experience, but it’s nothing so obscure as to be inaccessible. The judges don’t have a bad thing to say, other than Vilaysack’s confusion over whether Karl’s a host or the guest and which somehow leads her to bring up Ricky Gervais’ podcasting sidekick, Karl Pilkington. In other words, this is yet another week of maddeningly inexplicable competence from Tommy and Karl’s apparently hook-free podcast. 

Ordinarily, I’m quick to call out the judges for being too easily confused over the most minor of missteps in a competitor’s submission. As seen in the previous paragraph. That said, The F Plus’ submission is a frickin’ mess. I’m never so lost that I can’t understand what they’re doing, but then again I’ve been listening to these guys on this show for the past seven weeks. Needless to say, Morris and Vilaysack understandably have no idea what’s going on. It’s not even the trusty confusing format excuse. Or that their clip isn’t especially funny. The mess is they could present any three and a half minutes they wanted, and they chose this clip. If nothing else, it’s a case of Bad Song Choice.

And no, “commentate” isn’t a real word. Come on.

In the Frickin’ Mess category, though, The Bob and Dan Cast really gives The F Plus a run for its money. Bob and Dan’s riffing in their submission can fairly be called “aggressive” - they ping-pong between topics, from backpacks to Cuba Gooding Jr. and back. There’s an unfortunate whiff of desperation about it. Vilaysack compliments the professionalism of their clip, but can’t identify anything else she really likes about it. Besser compares it to the set-up for a Harold, which is fair but not especially favorable. 

Episode 7.3: The Judgment

Despite their frustrating confusion, the judges give top honors to LHR, although Besser has The Little Dum Dum Club neck-and-neck with them. Interesting! Feeling kinda stupid that I’d predicted they’d be among the first to go, but I’m glad I was wrong.

Thanks to subtraction, the Bottom 3 equals The F Plus, Totally Laime and The Bob and Dan Cast. The latter two feel pretty safe. Totally Laime has too good a track record to go out now, and the worst the judges can say about The Bob and Dan Cast seems to be that they didn’t follow through on the promise of their opening credits. Piddling stuff, really.

The F Plus, on the other hand, has had a bumpy road since Week 1. Their difficulty in articulating just what the heck their show’s about week after week, capped by an especially weak submission, make them the odds-on favorite to get the boot. Bunny, Lemon, Bread, the Skipper, Gilligan, Zeppo, Gummo, Curly Joe, et al. sound genuinely surprised their clip confused anyone. None of their listeners have ever complained about their format. It’s safe to say the fourteen-man F Plus band must’ve listened to their clip before they sent it in. There’s just a fundamental disconnect.

They do manage to call out Besser for apparently contradicting himself during the competition - initially saying they should break up their readings with commentary, then criticizing them for doing just that this week. True, but it’s a pretty weak point of contention. There’s a middle ground, guys.

It’s The F Plus that bites it, of course. But even after the bad news is dropped, there’s still, like six and a half minutes left in the episode. What gives? In an unprecedented show of respect, or possibly just a failure to control the show, The F Plus gets a few minutes of riffing and general grab-assery before being shown the door.

I’ll be honest, The F Plus has always sounded like a hard show to listen to for an outsider. But you know what? Tradition is tradition. So, off I go to listen to an episode. If it doesn’t have a worrying amount of weird fetish material, I’m going to feel pretty ripped-off.

Sunday
Aug212011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 6: Sketches

“See how I’m trying to jazz this up now?” Yes, it’s clear the sheer repetition of the show’s intro each and every episode is getting to Matt Besser. Again I ask: why can’t this be pre-recorded? Give the man a break! This is hard enough for him as it is!

This week’s Earwolf Challenge shows what it takes to get Besser truly excited for his hosting duties. That’s right…it’s sketches, aka Matt Besser’s wheelhouse. Right away, it’s clear there won’t be any waffling or “I dunno, guys” from our host this week. He has several reasons why sketch comedy is important! Organized in list form! Clearly, this will be a week of strong opinions and even stronger passions. 

Well...from Besser, anyway. He’s definitely more talkative this week, as opposed to his usual monosyllabic self. Every episode has its share of Besser quotables, which I’ll be quoting liberally. Like this great exchange with poor Frank, who continues to be relatively unsuccessful at engaging in Besser banter:

Producer Frank: I’m also interested to see which of the non-sketch shows take this into more of a meta direction, y’know, doing a sketch possibly as themselves...

Besser: Interesting. I will not personally like it. Boo, meta. Too easy.

My reality-show instincts tell me that this means we’ll be hearing a lot of meta-talk. Of course, this being a game show, I’m hoping my instincts are wrong.

Episode 6.1: Coaching Sessions

With only six contestants left, it’ll be a bit easier to take a closer look at each one. Too bad most of them don’t seem to have much to say. However, this episode is a huge step forward in terms of editing. Instead of starting every call with an obligatory exchange of pleasantries, we cut right to the chase (and cut out a couple minutes, I’m sure). It’s a subtle change, but a powerful one. Yea to Producer Frank and Earwolf for figuring out that one.

The Bob and Dan Cast and The Little Dum Dum Club have a lot in common. They’re both hosted by a just viciously, aggressively affable pair of buddies, which is great. They’re also fairly hook-less, comfortable chat shows. Which is kinda hell when it comes to coaching sessions. “Bob and Dan don’t ever seem to have a plan,” Besser laments, apart from “a couple ideas kicking around.” Yet, that’s their charm, according to Frank and Besser. Tommy and Karl are thinking of entering the Meta-Humor Forbidden Zone. “Be careful,” Besser warns cryptically. Then wonders, “is that gonna count as a sketch?” For a moment, I flash back to the Great Recurring Segment Debate of 2011, but thankfully he doesn’t go farther down that road. Likable guys and both shows are doing way better in The Earwolf Challenge than I’d ever imagined they would. I can’t imagine their sketches won’t be at least an easy listening experience.

Matt Besser *Photo by Rebecca RotenbergIn stark contrast stands The F Plus, which is frequently not-so-easy to listen to, thanks to the audio quality problems that plague them on a weekly basis. “Okay, and there’s 18 people in this group?” Besser drily inquires. A fair question, seeing as how we only ever seem to hear from, like, six of them. When they suggest something about a tired-sounding meta-sketch about a crappy improv group called the Mixed Nuts, it’s like they’re trying to get Besser’s goat. In response, he invokes the name of Brett Hamil, and asks them a familiar question: “Who the fuck are you to make fun of improvisers?” Wisely, they drop that line of inquiry, and head toward something that’s both relevant to their show and sounds like it has potential.

However, I’m assessing a penalty to The F Plus for saying that The Kids in the Hall didn’t end their sketches. They always did. Do your research.

“I dunno,” Besser gripes in between Skype calls. “I see me gettin’ pissed off tomorrow.” That would be great. Let’s have that.

By the time the next call rolls around, though, he’s got his mojo back. “Let’s call some real sketch comedians,” he enthuses. Left Handed Radio promises a new sketch, if not more than one. Besser’s definitely in his element here, and sounds comfortable advising them to just be funny, more or less. As much as I favored LHR in the first week, they’ve usually failed to live up to my expectations since then. As if in answer to my concerns, Besser promises to be extra-hard on them. I am satisfied.

Totally Laime is the first show to flat-out admit they never do sketches. “You guys are the frontrunners!” Besser reminds them. He really sounds like a gives a shit now. “Is this going to be the one to put you in the Bottom 3?” He advises them to steal material from a British sketch show, then slips into a UCB anecdote. So, there’s basically no coaching for Elizabeth and Andy, other than Elizabeth trying to confirm whatever they do should make sense in the context of their show. Then it comes out the wording for the week’s challenge sort of encourages the contestants to be meta and post-modern, and everyone seems to forget for a bit that Totally Laime is still on the line.

The Fort may be a sketch-oriented podcast, but it sounds like, after last week’s dud, Besser’s looking for them to step it up. “Maron wasn’t a fan of your guys’ last sketch. He said he saw it coming a mile away.” And what about you, Besser? “I saw it coming, like, a hundred yards away.” I can’t believe these guys sound disappointed or even surprised to hear this, considering how lame it was. Wow, I’m really holding that against them here. That might not be fair, but - oh, and we’re done with them already.

Besser wraps it up on a high note. “I have a lot of fear about the meta-sketches,” he says, then goes off on a little rant about post-modern sketches. “Just seen it too much! TOO MUCH!” I’m crossing my fingers for six post-modern sketches on Tuesday.

Episode 6.2: The Challenge

This week both of our guest judges, Seth Morris and Tig Notaro, are Earwolf podcast hosts, which feels a little chintzy. Like asking the Project Runway designers to make clothes for Nina Garcia. Do we have to pull from the in-house staff this soon? We’re only halfway through this thing!

Tig Notaro *Photo by Melanie Parker-LeviSeth Morris *Photo by Conor MichaelStill, I have every confidence Seth Morris will give decent critiques and have substantive things to say. Notaro, on the other hand...right away she makes it clear that she’s a little too cool for this school, making a bit out of everything and refusing to give a straight goddamn answer. But surprise! Without warning, she whips herself into shape and starts talking about comedy as if she were a comedian herself. That was a close one. A wise-ass Tig-as-judge for the whole episode would’ve been maddening.

Hey, when’s Randy Sklar going to judge this thing? I’ve been waiting for that other shoe to drop since Week 2.

As for the submissions, they are solid. Easily the best crop of submissions on a Day 2, thus far. They’re not all great, but we don’t have any real stinkers either. We’re down to six contestants, which means everyone oughtta be doing pretty well by this point. It also helps that this week’s challenge is the clearest in a while. It’s all about just being funny, and everyone seems to have a pretty good handle on how to do that.

By the way, what is it with judges on this show, not to mention Besser, getting “lost” in bits all the time? It’s not that confusing, people. Yeah, Totally Laime’s submission was awkwardly presented, but it’s pretty clear what it was supposed to be. C’mon, guys!

The F Plus treads on some familiar territory - their Yahoo! Answers bit is awfully close to Bob and Dan’s recurring segment from a couple weeks ago. But that doesn’t mean they don’t handle it well. Certainly it’s right in their wheelhouse in terms of subject matter, and the audio quality is great. Morris seems to completely miss the point by suggesting they should’ve come up with fictional snappy answers to these real-life stupid questions. The whole point is these anonymous answers from the Internet are funny because they’re real.

I laughed out loud at The Bob and Dan Cast’s cowardly Parker Brothers commercial. Agreed their delivery compromised some of the punchlines, but it’s a smart, funny concept (to paraphrase Morris) that’s performed reasonably well. Sorry to keep hitting this, but compare this to The Fort’s Medusa sketch from last week, which gave the listener zero credit for being able to get the joke. Bob and Dan ask me to meet them halfway, and it’s a way better sketch for it. Kudos.

Totally Laime approaches their submission logically, and the sketch grows organically from an actual interview, but the stilted performance completely ruins it. Even so, it has its moments. I love it when someone in a sketch gets so wrapped up in the minutiae of what they’re talking about that they seem to lose track of what’s going on. Like when Elizabeth’s character brags that she sucks like a Hoover, then corrects herself. She’s more like a Dyson. But it’s obvious we have indeed found Elizabeth and Andy’s kryptonite, and if anyone’s going to be in the Bottom 3, it’ll be them, cute voice notwithstanding.

Left Handed Radio needs to hit it out of the park this week. All things considered, it’s at least an inside-the-park homer. The Batman sketch treads on some very, very familiar territory, but manages to find an angle thanks to some great performances. “It’s the, um... Batmobile” is delivered with the right blend of discretion and mild embarrassment to make it a laugh-out-loud moment for me. The PA sketch, by contrast, is not at all about subtlety, but Doug’s misunderstanding of the situation just gets funnier and funnier as it goes. The final offstage “Doug!” and his annoyed “What?” reply is a great finish, and they don’t let the characters overstay their welcome. This is the Left Handed Radio I’ve been waiting for since Week 1. Yea, you.

Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of The Fort, who turn in kind of a mess of a sketch. Besser’s right - between the confused detective, the cracks at the wife’s expense and the vague sense of noir, the whole thing’s seriously uneven. And it ends on a major downer, what with the reveal that Brenda’s always been faithful. Right up until the private eye raped her. That squicky plot point and the barrage of F-bombs feel extremely unearned. It’s a disappointment coming from a part-time sketch podcast, but The Fort’s been toeing the line for weeks now. Of the week’s submissions, this is easily my least favorite.

Tommy and Karl of The Little Dum Dum Club make good on their threat to go meta, but damn them if they don’t make it work. Naturally, this is achieved through sheer likability and an easy rapport between the hosts. I love how Tommy just takes Karl’s dig about being 24 (instead of the child he sounds like) completely in stride and focuses on this ridiculous podcast agent who’s wandered into their studio. It’s not hilarious, but it’s proficient enough.

LHR is the judges’ favorite (and mine) going into Wednesday. The Fort and Totally Laime are in the bottom half, for sure, but who’s going to join them? I can’t really pick one. Whoever it is, they’re not going home (in the reality-show sense, anyway). And Totally Laime has too solid a track record to get knocked out now. So...it’s going to be The Fort, right?

Episode 6.3: The Judgment

Yeah, it’s The Fort.

That The Bob and Dan Cast is in the Bottom 3 is a sign of how strong the field is this week, because they really don’t belong there. Totally Laime does, but the problems with their submission have more to do with them being strangers to sketches than anything else. Elizabeth thought the best way for them to sound more naturalistic was to rush through their script, so... there you go.

Speaking of being wrong about things, now that we’re halfway through The Earwolf Challenge, how are my predictions from Week 1 faring? Not too good, as it turns out. I’d predicted our final three would be The F Plus, Left Handed Radio, and Ham Radio. While two of those are still around, at this point it looks like LHR is the only one of the three that has a shot at this thing. My guess at who’d be eliminated first: The Bob and Dan Cast, Television Zombies and The Little Dum Dum Club. Again, not exactly batting a thousand. TV Zombies lasted much longer than I’d expected. And I’m happy to see that Bob and Dan and Tommy and Karl (directed by Paul Mazursky) are still around and going strong. It just goes to show you: I have no idea what I’m talking about.

On that note of self-reflection, I’m off to give The Fort a farewell listen.  See you next week for the Final Five!

Friday
Aug122011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 5: Using the Guest

Hail and well-met, Earwolf Challenge-istas! First, let me apologize for the lateness of last week’s post. I was in Indianapolis for GenCon, which, if you don’t know what it is…don’t worry about it. And two weeks before that it was Comic-Con. The week in between... I’m not sure I have an excuse for that one. But as soon as I come up with an excuse for this week’s tardiness I’ll get right on it. Just realized you don’t care about any of that. Let’s get to it.

Compared to last week’s Earwolf Challenge “Recurring Segment” confusion, this week’s challenge, “Using the Guest,” has to be easier for the contestants, the judges and listeners to tackle. Right? Well, “Using the Guest” looks great on paper, but ultimately the judges have to make an awkward distinction between “good guest usage” and just plain “good.” In the end, that feels pretty unsatisfying.

Episode 5.1: Coaching Sessions

There’s a weird thing going on with this week’s Coaching Session. While talking to the seven remaining competitors, Besser frequently says something along the lines of “Hey, I’m not going to tell you guys what to do.” This would be fine if it weren’t for the fact that most of those same competitors answer the question of what they’re going to do with a nebulous “I dunno, we’ll see what happens.”

In all fairness, some do seem to have more of a plan than others. Although, those plans don’t sound like they’re about to set the Challenge on fire. The F Plus is going to invite Lou Fernandez of the Lou Reads podcast to, from the sounds of it, do exactly what The F Plus guys do. Only...as a guest. Well, okay. The Fort and Left Handed Radio write sketches for their guests, so it’s business as usual for them. The Bob and Dan Cast, The Little Dum Dum Club and Totally Laime are diving into their archives or chatting up a guest for two and a half minutes, like they always do.

Was anyone else constantly picturing a sitcom called Two and a Half Minutes during this week’s episodes? Just me? Okay, moving on…

Only Television Zombies really go out on a limb, by using a voiceover artist in what sounds like a sketch-like capacity. Besser is intrigued! Me, too. I still question what a non-comedy podcast hosted by people who find Falling Skies superior to The Walking Dead is doing in The Earwolf Challenge. But, I’m always willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. The producers picked them for a reason, even if I can’t always see it.

Episode 5.2: The Challenge

Right off the top of this episode, I’m reminded of the “Theme Music and Intro” challenge from Week 2. Besser even starts out by muttering, “Let’s see how fast I can read this.” In other words, Besser’s getting tired of reciting the same four sentences at the start of every episode. Does this mean that the show’s intro is flawed? Very possibly! Why Besser’s been tasked with actually repeating this paragraph three times a week instead of relying on a recording is anyone’s guess. C’mon, give the guy a break.

Howard KremerMarc Maron *Photo by Mandee JohnsonThis week’s guest judges: the closest thing we have to a podcasting legend, the WTF? host Marc Maron, and...Howard Kremer. Like most people reading this, I have enormous respect for Maron and WTF? and have enjoyed watching his podcast-fueled career skyrocket over the past year or two. As a guest judge, he’s easily on par with the likes of Jimmy Pardo or Jesse Thorn.

Kremer, on the other hand, is another story. I gave Who Charted? a chance, but stopped regularly listening some time ago. Dropping in only recently for Bob Odenkirk. In short, I discovered I’m not on board. Something about Kremer just misses the mark with me. Needless to say, my expectations for the Kremer judging were low. But I’m happy to say Judge Kremer is a pleasant surprise. Sure, he’s confused at times. But so is Maron. If I’m not holding that against one of them, I can’t hold it against the other. Both guest judges offer up valuable feedback and insight on a mostly dire crop of entries from the competitors.

The Fort’s sketch epitomizes the inherent problem of the challenge. As a comedic work, it’s lazy, predictable and rather poorly performed. Maron has it right: once you hear the word “Medusa,” the rest is all downhill. The basic premise - “Girl met on Internet turns out to be Medusa!” - is weak, sure, but what’s worse is the way it insults its audience by spelling everything out instead of giving them credit to know simple things like what happens when Medusa’s gaze meets yours.

But because the challenge is “Using the Guest” and not “Producing Quality Programming,” the judges are forced to admit that Matt Braunger makes for a good straight man. The Fort gets a pass. The F Plus, The Bob and Dan Cast and TV Zombies are even worse off, pairing as they do questionable guest-utilization with unfunny material. This is especially disappointing where TV Zombies is concerned. Obviously, the Zombies’ segment was the only interesting pitch the day before. Yet, a Rich Little-esque presentation of their voice-acting guest hamstrings the whole bit from the get-go.

Left Handed Radio excursion into Twilight Zone-style weirdness is a success, despite a weak ending. The Little Dum Dum Club and Totally Laime continue to impress with their easygoing charm. I’ll agree with Besser, though. Given the chance to take any two-and-a-half-minute clip from their archives, it’s curious Elizabeth and Andy actually considered this clip their best “use” of a guest. Those sound effects didn’t help, either.

Episode 5.3: The Judgement

For this show it’s not usually a surprise who’s in the Bottom 3 any given week. This week it’s even less of one: The Bob and Dan Cast, The F Plus and Television Zombies all face the music.

It’s a pretty easy decision. At least in the first two, you can always spot the guest. In the Zombies’ segment, the very identity of the guest is in doubt the entire time, not least of which because they had him doing a couple different voices. At least, that distinction seems to be the saving grace for The F Plus. The Bob and Dan Cast are given a little credit for not being an interview/guest-having show all that often, which is something, I guess.

Again, Maron and Kremer have some great advice for the competitors, despite a brief Lee impersonation from Kremer that threatens to destroy the unsteady peace I’ve mentally established with him. (Would it be funnier if I knew Lee? I can only assume so.)

While I’m not glad to see Television Zombies go, it seemed clear from the first episode they didn’t quite fit with what the competition was about. Still, credit for hanging in this long. I know getting knocked out now won’t stop them from doing their thing.

So live long and prosper, fellow geeks. I salute you with a farewell listen to your latest episode.

Sunday
Aug072011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 4: Recurring Segments

Hey, who loves semantics? Who doesn’t, right? This week’s Earwolf Challenge sure does.

Blame the show’s murkiest premise yet. The judges and producers’ inability in each Challenge episode to really nail down what a “recurring segment” means betrays a challenge that probably sounded good on paper. But we get awkward instead of “good.”

Along with some fun awkwardness, The Challenge produced two classic Matt Besser moments. (Hmm...that might be a recurring segment right there!) The first was his attempt to express enthusiasm by intoning, “Oh my gosh, it’s getting exciting.” Besser clearly has a ton of fun doing the show intro in classic game-show-host mode, but for whatever reason his energy just immediately drops off the minute the show proper actually begins. Maybe he’s pacing himself. It’s a marathon, I guess, not a race.

Matt Besser *Photo by Liezl EstiponaThe other hilarious moment comes early on when Besser offers up a format shift to Producer Frank Cappello:

BESSER:  Could we start out with one contestant and add every week add a contestant, until at the end there’s ten contestants?

CAPPELLO:  I think you just completely broke the mold, Matt. I think you’ve got a one million dollar idea right now.

BESSER:  Okay.

CAPPELLO: I think we oughtta lock this audio recording down right now before anyone finds out.

BESSER:  Okay.

Besser’s initial semi-lucid weed dream juxtaposed with his remorseless, lead-balloon “Okays” are comedy gold. And we haven’t even gotten to the coaching session yet!

Episode 4.1: Coaching Sessions

Right off the bat, we define what seems to be the “platonic ideal” of a recurring segment: the Leonard Maltin game on Doug Loves Movies. WTF with Marc Maron? doesn’t have a recurring segment, and it’s widely regarded as one of the best comedy-oriented podcasts around.  So just how necessary is a recurring segment in a successful podcast? The answer is probably “not that necessary.” But The Challenge is going to make the competitors come up with some anyway.

This is edging oh-so-closely into busywork territory. However, much like the previous two weeks, the stated challenge isn’t the actual challenge. This “refillable” task is actually an examination of how well the competitors know their own shows and their listeners. Can they invent (or find within their archives) two minutes of material that both fits with the rest of their show and can serve as an effective variation on a theme?

This is a worthwhile investigation to undertake. Unfortunately, it’s constantly undermined by Besser & Co.’s growing uncertainty about what a recurring segment really is. By the end of the episode, it all feels very fuzzy. 

In the meantime, the competitors run their ideas by Besser. The only real standouts here are The Little Dum Dum Club, for Karl’s List of Small-Town Weirdos, which sounds very promising, and Totally Laime’s Oprah Game. This game actually sounds partially, if not totally lame. Besser’s not a fan of “the shit that fails on purpose,” but the description itself is funny. It does seem like its unworkableness (not a word) could be played up in a different way to make it work, as is hinted at by Elizabeth’s meek “Thoughts?” prompt. Something like Between Two Ferns. But that might be prohibitively difficult in a pure-audio medium.

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s Ham Radio. Poor Brett Hamil. I feel for the guy. He’s definitely doing something different and personal, but Ham Radio’s wheels-within-wheels aesthetic is obviously not doing it for Besser. Those Podcast Consultant characters of his were problematic enough back in Week 2 -- why would he want to bring them back? Although, his entry that week didn’t land him in the Bottom 3, making it his most successful one yet. Going into Tuesday, I have a bad feeling about Ham Radio.

Episode 4.2: The Challenge

The streak of impressive guest judges continues. If you listened to the last episode of Superego, one of them is no surprise. Pray silence, please, for Superego’s Matt Gourley. He’s listened to the first three episodes, which means he must’ve heard Left-Handed Radio’s minor dig against Superego last week. Will this factor into his judgment of them? The suspense is killing me!

Paul Scheer *Photo by Morgan KeulerMatt GourleyJoining him is Paul Scheer of How Did This Get Made? I’m digging NTSF:SD:SUV, and Scheer seems like a genuinely nice guy. If you heard his life story on WTF?, you know that it’s probably a miracle he isn’t a total bastard. But frankly, his HDTGM? is a fairly uneven show with a consistently unsuccessful recurring segment: the bi-weekly listener “game.” This “game” involves the audience with coming up with new catchphrases, poems, sequel pitches and so forth for the next episode’s stinker of a film. These are, almost without exception, painfully unfunny. And sure enough, Scheer’s advice on several of the entries is to get the audience involved more. It’s still unclear why he thinks this segment is working.

Before we get into it, take note: the Leonard Maltin Game is now not a recurring segment on Doug Loves Movies. Justification: it happens every week, so it’s part of the show’s format, not a mere “segment.” Also, it’s too long.

So, for those playing along at home, a recurring segment is now being defined as one that happens regularly, but not too often and doesn’t last too long. A recurring character does not count as a recurring segment, nor does something as broad as “news” or “an interview.” Oh, and it can’t be exactly the same every time - it has to be flexible enough to change things up, but not so broad that it isn’t focused. And it needs an intro. Got all that?

It’s pretty clear going in, Besser and the producers each had their own assumptions about what makes a recurring segment. Through the course of the week’s challenge they’ve had to do quite a bit of unpacking to make sense of it all. Ultimately, this is a good thing. But in the short term, it doesn’t exactly make for a compelling podcast. Part of the problem here might be we just don’t have an established vocabulary yet to talk accurately about a medium as young as podcasting. This language issue will no doubt improve in time, but until then...yeah.

And now the judging! First up is Left-Handed Radio, with one of the show’s characters answering listener voicemail. Lucky for Matt Gourley, it’s not very good. So, it sounds perfectly reasonable when he’s reluctant to lavish praise on it. Neither Scheer nor Besser go for it, either. It’s a funny idea, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired. Other likely candidates for the dreaded Bottom 3 include The F Plus, The Fort and Ham Radio: F Plus because it sounds too much like the rest of the show (again with the confusion about the show’s format), the The Fort segment because both the premise and the audio quality are murky and Ham Radio’s segment because it’s well-done but almost completely devoid of humor. I’m especially disappointed by Ham Radio - I kept expecting the movie trailer to take a left turn somewhere, but it played its ridiculous-but-not-that-ridiculous premise relatively straight up until the very end, with “Rated NC-17.”

At the top: Totally Laime, Television Zombies and The Little Dum Dum Club, all of which I’ve doubted could win this thing. Totally Laime’s “Laime or Totally?” game is a real winner, from its easy-to-grasp concept to its breezy pacing. It’s everything a good recurring segment should be (assuming we still know what that means). Scheer’s idea to use the game as a jumping-off point for further discussion with their guest is great. Though a bit confusing at first, TV Zombies’ entry combines the fun of a trivia contest with the thrill of hearing nerds shout out the names of relatively obscure TV actors. And yet it works! But it’s The Little Dum-Dum Club, though, with Karl’s list of Maryborough weirdos, that really stands out. Bonus points: the two Aussies set up the bit with some context, giving the judges (and us) an idea of what their show is like and how this segment would fit in. Smart. Maybe they’re not the underdogs I pegged them for a while back.

This, of course, leaves out The Bob and Dan Cast, which is really growing on me. This week they’re in the middle of the pack. Like Left-Handed Radio, they have a solid premise: answering weird questions on Yahoo! But something’s not quite clicking. The funniest part of the segment, actually, is the hosts going into exacting detail about the minutiae of a cake’s dimensions. They should totally keep it up, and call it “BAD Answers to Yahoo! Questions.”

Episode 4.3: The Judgment

Is this a reality show or a game show? By all means, let’s equivocate over some more terminology! We didn’t get enough yesterday. Besser & Co. anticipate my request by talking yet further about how to define a recurring segment. “Weekend Update” - no. Amy Poehler and Seth Myers’ “Really?” bit on “Weekend Update” - yes. Besser muses this ongoing debate is “interesting semantics.” He’s half-right.

The judges come in with their official Top 3: Totally Laime, The Little Dum-Dum Club and The Bob and Dan Cast, with an honorable mention for TV Zombies. Left-Handed Radio is spared Bottom 3 fate on the strength of their entry’s concept and potential. Gourley suggests a “McLaughlin Group”-style roundtable discussion with three of the show’s characters, which is a great idea.

That leaves Ham Radio, The F Plus and The Fort to duke it out. Actually, turns out to we don’t get to hear much duking. It’s no big surprise when Ham Radio bites the dust. Brett’s been on the ropes for three weeks in a row. It had to catch up with him eventually.

Look, Ham Radio isn’t doing anything wrong. The amount of time and energy Brett puts into each and every episode is impressive, and, like last week’s guest judge Jesse Thorn said, what Ham Radio produces is clearly “a thing.” He should definitely keep it up. Gourley compares Brett’s work with early Superego episodes, sending him off with some kind words. Brett is gracious in defeat. I’ll bet he’s a nice guy. So, I celebrate you, Ham Radio, with a listen to your last episode.

Monday
Aug012011

Earwolf Weekly Update: August 1

Earwolf is 1-years old today. A comedy-filled year of downloading and streaming an insane amount of quality shows. Looking forward to many more from the Earwolf gang. Via their weekly newsletter, Earwolf announced another round of great episodes. Highlights include: Todd Glass on Comedy Bang! Bang!, Week #4 of The Earwolf Challenge, The Apple Sisters learning self-defense and the Professor Blastoff crew finally talking robots.

Check-out the full newsletter here.

Sunday
Jul312011

The Earwolf Challenge Recap - Week 3: Concept & Content

Greetings, Challenge-keteers! One down, nine to go. The theme of this second contestant-eliminating challenge: content. Initially, host Matt Besser is skeptical of a challenge so broad, comparing it to a “song” challenge on American Idol, but then he boils it -- and possibly most of The Earwolf Challenge -- down to its quintessence:

“You gotta be more than just your best guest.”

This aphorism will come to have more and more significance as the week progresses, culminating in some actual reality-show-style drama! Or as close as we’re likely to get with the Challenge. As the Sklars say, “Let’s get into it.”

Episode 3.1: Coaching Sessions

This episode is pretty uneventful, by and large. I’m getting a sense we can probably expect this every Monday going forward. There’s a lot of the contestants basically asking Besser, “What should we do with our 2 minutes?” and Besser more or less giving them the ol’ Ben Kenobi: “You must do what you feel is right, of course.” No surprises here.

The challenge itself -- a 2-minute chunk showcasing your podcast -- pretty clearly favors some formats over others. For example, Totally Laime will surely have no problem delivering by carving out two minutes from a past interview. And Left Handed Radio can offer up a two-minute sketch. But it’s a lot harder to encapsulate, say, the oft-meandering Complete Guide to Everything with a mere 2-minute sample or for a show as varied in content as The F Plus to find 2 minutes that gives the listener a true idea of what they do. However, that, as the saying goes, is life.

When presented with the question of what makes their podcast stand out from all the rest, most of the contestants sound like they’re at a loss. In a way, this just pretty much a continuation of the previous week’s challenge, which also tasked the contestants with summing up their shows briefly and succinctly. The pitches run the gamut from Totally Laime’s catchy “Asking the most important people the least-important questions” to The Little Dum Dum Club’s offer to provide surrogate idiots in the form of Tommy and Karl.

Television Zombies clearly loses some points with Besser (and me) when they insist, every man-jack of them, that Falling Skies is better than The Walking Dead. Likewise, when Besser asks Left Handed Radio for another example of a sketch-oriented podcast, they offer up Superego. They then suggest they’re funnier because “we’re longer so we have more jokes.” Left Handed Radio’s one of my picks to win this thing, but that rationale doesn’t really hold.

Episode 3.2: The Challenge

Paul F. TompkinsJesse ThornPreviously, I offered up the first two guest judges, Jason Sklar and Jimmy Pardo, set a high standard for future guest-judge casting. Who else could follow them but Jesse Thorn and Paul F. Tompkins? Jesse’s a godfather of podcasting. Specifically, he’s the godfather with the Pillsbury Dough-Boy laugh and commedia dell’arte training and Founder of Maximum Fun. Thorn’s brought us quality programming such as Jordan, Jesse Go! and Judge John Hodgman, and was among the first wave of podcasters starting way back in 2004. Tompkins may not have the same level of podcast experience or ubiquity, but he does appear on an awful lot of podcasts (including on two of the contestant shows). Over the past year, his Pod F. Tompkast has become required monthly listening for comedy nerds. Plus, it was voted Rolling Stone’s "Podcast of the Moment" that one time.

Thorn and Tompkins are full of great, practical advice for the contestants, breaking it down to the podcasting nuts and bolts. They drop science about mic placement, tape syncing, Garage Band’s default settings and more. It’s becoming increasingly clear: no matter who wins this reality show, it’ll serve as a master class in podcasting when it’s all over. Especially since, as Tompkins insightfully points out, in the absence of a way to reliably monetize podcasting, The Earwolf Challenge contestants can only be judged by art, as opposed to marketability. It’s So You Think You Can Dance, not American Idol…if that helps.

My favorite entries more or less align with the judges. So, that’s convenient. Totally Laime continues to defy my early classification of it as just another sitting-around-and-talking podcast. I mean, it may still be that, but Totally Laime’s submission is an engaging 2 minutes with Paul Rust. Underdogs, The Little Dum-Dum Club and The Bob and Dan Cast, charm the pants off the judges, Aussie-style and Seattle-style, respectively. Left Handed Radio’s 2 minutes of sketch is indeed funny, especially “Salad Horse,” but I wish the “Cash Taxi” bit had ended right after the car crash instead of going through the motions with the whole question-answering thing. It just keeps going without progressing or getting any funnier. Longer does not necessarily equal better. Your words have come back to haunt you, Left Handed Radio! I also laughed at the performance on The F Plus’ clip, but agree the recording quality is a pretty big problem.

In fact, the judges have a lot to say about the necessity of decent audio quality. But in terms of material they reserve their harshest comments for Ham Radio. Brett’s 2 minutes take a shot at hack comedians, and the judges do not like that at all. Besser contends making fun of hack comics is itself hack. At the end of the episode, it doesn’t look good for Ham Radio.

Episode 3.3: The Judgement

Sure enough, come Wednesday Ham Radio’s in the bottom three, along with The Complete Guide to Everything and Television Zombies. It’s good to hear Tompkins admit he’d be hard-pressed to find 2 minutes from his own show that would truly give a good idea of what you might hear in a typical episode. Again, The Challenge definitely favors some formats over others. And that’s pretty much how The Complete Guide to Everything bites the dust.

Before the elimination happens, there’s that aforementioned drama! During the critique, Besser labels Ham Radio’s clip a “bad song choice” and tells Brett “You have no right” to mock other comics.” Brett defends himself, in part, by saying he doesn’t have the luxury of “falling back” on a guest. This doesn’t sit well with the judges. So much so, that in the middle of the eliminations, the judges make time for a second round of criticism. This time it’s not so much about his submission, but his willingness and ability to work with others. Besser doesn’t like the amount of “push back” he was feeling from Brett, and both Thorn and Tompkins point out the only thing a famous guest does is get people listening. It doesn’t automatically make the show good. You gotta be better than your best guest.

Meanwhile, Tim and Tom from The Complete Guide To Everything wait patiently to be told to clean up their workstation and go home. I’ll be listening to your take on Bigfoot, guys.