This past weekend, while residents of the Bay Area enjoyed a number of definitely-not-boring folk music acts at the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, I took a trip to L.A. to see the L.A. Podcast Festival. The trip was kind of a disaster, but maybe you can benefit from some of the lessons I learned along the way.
Although podcasting is an exciting new medium, and podcasts have provided me with countless hours of diversion in the past few years, I often find myself having to explain to people what they are. Podcasts are radio-like programs that vary in length and can be downloaded or streamed from the internet or the iTunes online store and played on the computer or any device with digital audio-playing capabilities. At a podcast festival, people perform their podcasts live. I bought a ticket to Saturday’s events, which included the following: Welcome to Night Vale, a fake radio program from a mysterious town a la Twin Peaks, in which many of the announcements are basically surreal poetry; The Fogelnest Files, in which comedian Jake Fogelnest watches YouTube clips with celebrity guests; and Doug Loves Movies, where comedian Doug Benson hosts other comedians and plays cinematic trivia games with them. Except I got a flat tire right outside Magic Mountain. Which leads us to the first lesson:
Lesson 1. Take trips to L.A. seriously, and be prepared.
I may know what a podcast is, but something I don’t know is whether or not I have a spare tire in my car. Turns out I do have one, but I don’t have a functioning jack to use to put the spare tire on with. Before you embark on a six-or-seven-hour journey, make sure you have AAA, and make sure you know a thing or two about your own car so as to avoid potential embarrassment in case of emergency. Maybe plan on getting in super-early if you need to be somewhere at a certain time. If you don’t have AAA, there’s still good news, in the form of a second lesson:
Lesson 2: Those call boxes on the side of the road are legit.
Once my front left tire started making godawful noises of protest—this was just around when the Night Vale performance was starting—I managed to pull over right next to an emergency phone, which immediately put me through to a human being, who dispatched a tow truck to take my car to a nearby Wal-Mart Auto Care Center, and a very unimpressed-looking state trooper to follow with my friends. All of this was free, because of the taxes we pay, and you can take advantage of it if you need to. The beleaguered guys at Wal-Mart were backed up with cars to service before closing, and we ended up waiting around for the duration of Night Vale and The Fogelnest Files. My friend Ceri tweeted at Jake Fogelnest, and Fogelnest gave a great reply, but nothing could save us. We were all set to get a new tire, and then I locked the key in the car.
Lesson 3: How to break into a car.
The garage guys let us use a device called a slim jim, which is this. We had about thirty minutes before the mechanics would have to stop taking new customers and leave us stranded in the parking lot. The mechanic didn’t want to risk damaging my car, and Ceri and I were hopeless at jimmying the lock with the slim jim. I looked up locksmiths in the area on my phone and scrambled around inside Wal-Mart trying to find an employee who knew the address of the store. Just as I was about to call a different person to rescue us, this time for a bunch of money, a fellow customer demonstrated to us that you want to slide the slim jim between the window and the door directly under the lock on the passenger’s side, not the driver’s side, then jiggle the slim jim until you manage to push the lock up.
We got to the Sheraton Delfina in Santa Monica, which looks like if The Shining took place in the future, in time for half of Doug Loves Movies. The crowd was predominantly white, and more male than female, with a few fedoras and pork-pie hats and a lot of hoodies and cargo shorts and blazer/t-shirt combos. A woman wore a t-shirt that said, “KEEP CALM AND GOTHAM’S RECKONING.” A man wore a t-shirt with the phrase “Han shot first” and the URL for a comedy and film website. As comedian Rich Voss would later put it, “This is the whitest audience I’ve ever seen. This makes a Star Trek convention look hip.” A guy in the lobby took a picture of his friend holding up a sign for “r/Comedy,” the Reddit comedy section.
The Doug Loves Movies guests were David Huntsberger, Jimmy Pardo, DC Pierson, and Nick Thune, and the performance was typical of many episodes: guests riffed at length in between turns of a complicated game. When Benson laughs, his head recoils like a baby’s and he closes his eyes and grins, pushing his chin into his neck.
Lesson 4. The Night Vale creators are interesting to talk to.
My friend Sarah introduced me to the creators of Welcome to Night Vale, who let me ask them a few questions. I asked if Night Vale, which is literary and mysterious, was out of place at the comedy-dominated festival. Writer Joseph Fink said most of Night Vale’s fans don’t listen to other podcasts, and many comedy podcast fans don’t listen to Night Vale. The show has exploded in popularity lately, though, mainly due to Twitter and Tumblr. Voice actor Cecil Baldwin told me that at their recent performance at The Booksmith in the Haight, “People were tearing at my clothes. A guy on Haight Street asked, ‘Are they giving away free weed in there?’” Baldwin, who is tall, thin, bald, and looks to be in his thirties, said he never thought he would hear his name and Justin Bieber’s in the same sentence until that night.
A weird thing about the Podcast Festival is that it's a celebration of a specific type of technology, rather than of a specific genre—hence Night Vale’s outsider status at the Fest. Baldwin’s spirits were high, though: “It’s the spirit of wild west technology. It’s really inspiring.”
Fink showed Baldwin a photo he’d taken earlier. “I like everything about that photo except for my face,” Baldwin said. “It looks like I’m pinching a loaf.”
Lesson 5. Podcasting has not changed comedy that much.
After Doug Loves Movies, a series of comedians involved in podcasting performed. I had never heard of the first few, but they all killed with the crowd I’ve described above by doing jokes about Mike Tyson and anal bleaching, for instance. Baron Vaughan joked about being scared of other black people. Kumail Nanjiani redeemed the previous comics by telling weirdly touching stories about his parents and going to the zoo—stories with lots of comic beats in them, but lots of pathos as well. Marc Maron, a comedian I admire a great deal, did a set which created a similar tone—he told a great story about interviewing eccentric comedy legends Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner. Dana Gould performed last, and told rape jokes and jokes about Muslim terrorists going to Hell for 9/11. The rape jokes didn’t even make sense, and were preceded by what I interpreted as a sincere, jokeless defense of rape jokes in general, which got scattered applause.
If you like thoughtful, unique comedians like Marc Maron and Kumail Nanjiani, you can probably have a good time at the Podcast Festival. If you like the other kind of jokes I’ve described, you will most likely have a fantastic time. I realize I didn’t get to see a lot of the events at the Podcast Festival, and therefore can’t give an accurate description of its overall tone or demographic makeup. I just wish I’d gotten to see more comedians be genuinely surprising and innovative in terms of subject matter and delivery. If the new technology being celebrated at the festival is giving way to exciting new comedy, it was underrepresented Saturday night.
The comedy world has experienced a boost in popularity because of podcasts, but many of those podcasts consist of serious interviews with comedians. Sometimes accounts of comedians’ lives and stories from the road are just more interesting than a technically flawless set of conventional jokes. Usually, in fact. If someone did a fascinating series of interviews with Bill Watterson and Gary Larson, you might become more interested in the art of Sunday comic strips, but you still wouldn’t read Zits, because Zits is awful. Still, I think it's worth it to watch lots of comedy in order to see great comedy, and that it's worth looking into interesting new technological formats for art. It's definitely worth scouring the internet for things like Welcome to Night Vale. And it's probably worth it to go on trips with your friends, even when everything goes wrong.