This post is a letter of qualified recommendation for a very funny, smart, and frequently profane set of conversations that happen on the WTF podcast. I was not a podcast-kind-of-guy until I heard this show, hosted by the comedian Marc Maron. Twice a week, he posts interviews (recorded in his garage) with his friends and colleagues in the comedy world, including (so far) Robin Williams, Margaret Cho, Conan O'Brien, Sue Costello, Ben Stiller, Janeane Garofalo, Louis CK, Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Andy Dick, Garry Shandling, Adam Carolla, and a ton of others.
As of today, there are 177 episodes, roughly an hour each, and I've listened to about 25 of those in the past month. Why have I abandoned my ears to these interviews in almost every spare moment of walking, driving, and sock-drawer rearranging? For whatever reason, it is refreshing and even occasionally inspiring to hear two very smart and very funny people talk for an hour about comedy -- both the shop-talk and the non-shop-talk. The shop talk includes lots of disquisitions about where comedy comes from in the comic's life, what comedy clubs are like, what the skills of joke-telling involve, what is the difference (if any) between appropriate and inappropriate jokes, or between funny and unfunny jokes, about how to improvise during standup, about the difference between standup and improv, about hecklers, failing on stage, backstage antics, warmup routines, the development of new material, and more.
The non-shop-talk includes comics' relationships, family histories, relationships, hobbies, relationships, drug backgrounds, relationships, career decisions, and relationships.
The conversations are spontaneous, usually friendly but sometimes barbed or tense, and always (for me, anyway) fall somewhere on the humor spectrum between "amusing" and "laughing-uncontrollably." And, as in the Robin Williams episode, they can be subtle, deeply personal, and even illuminating. But I am also a person who likes insight through laughter, and who constantly finds things funny and who has had to learn to laugh "on the inside" in most professional (and many social) situations. One of the things I love most about my 5-year old daughter is that she often now laughs spontaneously at absurd moments, having detected already how much of everyday life is seemingly ironic, orthogonal, and randomly associated, and in her own way seems to understand how delightful and freeing is this recognition. As Karl Rahner argued, I hope someday she will see this perspective as divine, saving and healing in its own way.
But this podcast is not for everyone (and definitely not for 5-year olds). The conversation is frequently profane, obscene, and politically incorrect, with a fair amount of joking about, in descending order of frequency: sexuality, gender, ethnicity. But most of the conversation is about the ins and outs of the lives of comics, and what is funniest often comes from improvised riffs on the personal experiences of the interviewees.
And then there is Marc Maron, the host of "WTF," who in his late-40s is some sort of sage of comedy, with not only a synoptic view of the contemporary comedy scene, but with a respect for the history of comedy and an ability to try to get inside lots of different kinds of humor, however critical he might be of it. He is also in recovery, and a very public sharer of his continuing emotional struggles, all of which are usually brought out to engaging and lighthearted effect. In more than one of the interviews, he will declare to his guest, "You seem so normal, without issues! That can't be true, can it?" But he does not say this too often, because many of the funniest people, at least on his podcast, found their humor as a way to escape or work through deep wounds and personal disasters. A few of the comics marvel aloud about the disproportionate number of Catholics and Jews in comedy. (There is probably a theological research project in there somewhere.)
I have written before about humor and theology in blog posts, focused on the theologian Karl Rahner and his theology of humor (part one and part two). It occurs to me that I should probably write something about a theology of what Rahner calls "spicy" jokes, which are frequent enough on "WTF." I will think about that and put up some reflections before long. For now, if you have a wide berth for humor and enjoy the art and mystery of comedy of multiple stripes, check out "WTF."
Dobbs Ferry, New York