Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed Serial. A friend of mine who I consider to be smarter than me simply by virtue of the fact that she has a real, mentally taxing, somewhat altruistic, non-media, non-make-shit-up-as-you-go-along job with actual office hours put me on to the celebrated podcast a few weeks ago, and I breezed right through it. I was intrigued by the premise. I was impressed by the reporting and the production value. But I didn’t love it. More importantly, perhaps, I was not at all let down by the fact that the show came to no satisfying conclusions regarding the guilt or innocence of Adnan Syed. Maybe I’ve watched enough TruTV to know that true crime stories are rarely ever fulfilling. Or maybe I just didn’t care that much. Everybody else seemed to care, though, so what does that say about my intellectual curiosity?
The same friend put me on to StartUp and Reply All, both smart, informative broadcasts that, like Serial, somehow originated with the bright, inquisitive minds behind This American Life. Here’s the thing, though: I don’t listen to This American Life. I’ve never heard a single episode. I don’t listen to many TEDTalks or Fresh Air or anything on NPR, for that matter. I’m aware of podcasting as both an existing format and a newly invigorated phenomenon. I have plenty of friends and colleagues who either host or guest on podcasts frequently – though I don’t usually catch their appearances. I’d even count myself a fan of professional interviewers Pete Holmes and, to a lesser degree, Marc Maron. But for some reason, despite all the respectable pithy stuff out there, I find myself drawn to the most ephemeral, the most unapologetically insubstantial podcasts of any note.
I was pretty bummed out when I saw Sara Benincasa’s Q&A with Michael Ian Black go up on this very site last week because – though I don’t do New Year’s resolutions – securing an interview with Black was one of my stated goals for 2015. I have no idea where he currently is in regards to his career as a “an actor, producer, director, screenwriter, author, and stand-up comedian.” All I know is that Black is half the brains behind two of my favorite, seemingly mindless, purely auditory k-holes.
For those unfamiliar, Mike and Tom Eat Snacks (or MATES) is a podcast currently under the Nerdist umbrella in which Michael Ian Black and actor Tom Cavanagh select a snack that, typically, can be found in any supermarket – one per episode – eat it, and rate it on a scale of one to ten. The show is almost four years old. Mike and his good friend Tom have run the gamut from string cheese to Devil Dogs to peanut butter cups to saltines. There are 91 episodes of this. If you’re thinking this seems a fairly thin premise on which to base nearly a hundred 30- to 45-minute episodes, I believe that even Mike and Tom themselves might agree with that assessment. And, so, MATES has developed from some sort of unsolicited consumer recommendation show to an incubator for strange and often strained comic riffs that continue from episode to episode. There’s the bit about whether MATES viewers can actually be viewers since they can’t actually see their hosts. There are the Stormtroopers-Hitting-The-Ground sound effects. There’s the running gag about respect for women… it’s all “you had to be there” kind of stuff. And, even if you are there, it can still be a little tedious. Cavanagh, in particular at times, comes off desperate for laughs at a middle school level. But, still, I can’t get enough.
Once I became aware that the podcast cosmos has its own celebrity matrix, I googled Michael Ian Black and found that, yes, he has another podcast – this one, even more frail in its premise than MATES. During Topics, Black and his former The State co-star Michael Showalter confront humanity’s most confounding issues – the existence of God, the nature of love, what is art – with a slow drip of droning, knowingly pretentious double-talk in half-hour stints. Despite the suggestion of its title, the central conceit of Topic is way more finite than even appraising snack food. Topics is about two comedians pretending to be very serious while still trying to be funny – at least to each other. It’s like Colbert without a target as vast as right-wing conservatism or a contest to see who can be the least straight straight man. The show is on it’s 56th episode; most recently Michael and Michael tackle the controversial subject of “Santa.”
That said, last year at this time, the website Splitsider named Topics “Best Weak-Premised Podcast Not To Exhaust its Premise.” The year before that, it was Mike and Tom Eat Snacks. These are not programs devoted to telling an intricate story, parsing world events, or even analyzing a complex idea. These are not shows intended to enlighten or improve anyone’s powers of perception. Nevertheless, both Topics and MATES are successfully about exploring a process. On shows like Pete Holmes’ You Made It Weird or Marc Maron’s WTF that primarily feature interviews with comedians, the guests will often talk very seriously about developing material, about finding a joke. With Topics and MATES, you can actually listen to that discovery process happening. Certainly, these are not riffs you will ever hear as fully fleshed-out bits on stage or on a TV show, but you get to hear how seasoned comics’ minds work in a microcosm of mikes and an empty room.
Within this context, at least, funny ideas get pushed and stretched and reiterated until they are either serviceable or abandoned. Considering what I do for a living, I like to think that experience can be as valuable as watching a feat of dogged investigative reporting… sometimes. If there is any meaningful aspect of comparison between Serial and Mike and Tom Eat Snacks – and, really, there probably isn’t – it’s the difference in fulfillment between following a whodunnit and seeing how it’s done.