#411: The Podcast

December 12th, 2014

There is a type of story you can’t help tell without sounding old.

It’s the type that starts in a comedy club with a curtain over the door so the comic doesn’t get a blast of light in the face every time someone has to go to the bathroom.

It’s the type of story that starts with wait staff filing and shuffling people into seats, taking drink orders, bringing up napkins and plates of fries for table to split, gliding around with pitchers and smiles as others file more hungry, thirsty faces in.

It’s the type of story where a man you’ve only seen on TV comes up wearing cloth reindeer antlers, casually shakes your hand and says, “Hi, I’m Greg” before moving on to do the same at the next table.

But none of this is the part that makes you sound old. That comes when you say something silly like “Huh. A live podcast.”

Old man.

Podcasts, for that small subset of people who read a tri-weekly lit blog but might not know much about iTunes (Hi, Mom!), are downloadable radio shows people make available for free online. From guys goofing with a recorder in basements to national obsessions like Serial, podcasts are radio without the economic pressures that turned a vibrant medium into wacky morning zoo crew DJs hitting play on pre-approved autotuned pop hits.

Explaining podcasts like they’re something no one has heard of also makes you feel old.

The Greg who shook your hand is older than you are. It’s Greg Proops, 55, former star of both the American and British versions of 1990s improv comedy show “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” He’s a mid-career standup, versed in a style of comedy that peaked with the third most-popular TV show Drew Carey ever fronted.

The room filled. Proops wandered the club, chatting with and getting gifts from the fans who packed the place for the live taping of “The Smartest Man in the World,” the podcast.

Drinks came. Plates clattered. The lights dimmed.

Music played and Proops came on stage, dancing to the crowd’s deafening cheer. The show, this show by a man you had only seen riffing on suggestions shouted by pastel-clad 1990s audiences, was astounding.

Sitting behind a tiny, black-draped desk in the middle of a wide, empty stage and never taking off the reindeer antlers, Proops stunned. He improvised lovingly for an hour on the audience gifts, then thundered on Ferguson and the CIA torture reports. He quoted the sacred texts of a half-dozen religions in the same two-hour set where he made a little cardboard cutout of a kitten talk — and it worked.

More personal than a stand-up set, more timely than spoken word, less FCC-ed than radio, this was Mort Sahl at the hungry i. This was an improvised Spalding Gray.

This was one of a rising tide of performers cut loose from 22-minute formats and sponsor-approved wackiness. This was a performer freed.

Most of the people who will laugh at that weren’t in the club with the clinking glasses and curtained door. They’re on trains or listening to car radios. They’re sitting at work with earbuds in or walking down the street trying not to be harassed.

That moment of freedom in a Chicago comedy club lives online now. And, barring magnets in a server room or the entire planet giving up the Internet as a fad, that moment will live forever.

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