Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Don't Crush that Dwarf

When I was a kid, comedy albums were all the rage. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin - - all the top  stand-up comedians put out platinum-level blockbuster records that millions of teenagers bought at Sam Goody's and Tower Records stores.

Improv and stand-up routines are clever and entertaining forms of comedy. I've been to comedy clubs and laughed at really witty, observational humor. The folks who can practice these crafts are great at what they do, and I don't think I'd be able to compete in their arena. Stand-up doesn't lend itself well to repeated listening, though. Once you've heard a routine, I don't think it's possible to recapture the same enjoyment level as when you first heard the jokes.

This is not true of my favorite form of comedy album: the scripted "radio show" style, or the immersive worlds pioneered by The Firesign Theater. The four actors of  Firesign (Phil Proctor, Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, and David Ossman) created entire audio cities set in the past and future, where familiar characters bounded on stage, only to rebound again in later albums. The audio canvases deployed by The Firesign Theater were as seemingly real as watching "Lost" or "Star Trek," with buried background sounds noticed only on third or tenth replayings. The characters remain popular with many folks of my age and temperament: who doesn't cackle along with Rocky Rococo, as he taunts Nick Danger, Third Eye? Doesn't everyone follow the word "brough-ha-ha" with "ha ha ha?"

Although Firesign Theater (minus the late Peter Bergman, who passed away earlier this year) continues to produce new shows and recordings, I've missed the days of great radio show-style comedies. Garrison Keillor is a good storyteller, but his shows are mostly monologues, and miss a certain depth present in Firesign Theater tales.

Last month, I discovered a podcast show that I can't believe has evaded my notice for many years: The Thrilling Adventure Hour, hosted by and written by the team of Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. TAH is a cornucopia of well-written comedy sketches framed in the style of an old-time radio show. The cast is an amazing collection of current TV actors and pop culture icons, including such greats as Linda Cardinelli from Freaks & Geeks and Firefly's Nathan Fillion.

Although it's billed as an "Adventure Hour," the stage show is broken into half-hour "episodes" of varied storylines. Each episode tracks with longer story arcs for their groups of characters. They're all comedies, but in different genres. Here's a quick list of some of them:

Captain Laserbeam: A superhero show featuring the title character (voiced by John DiMaggio, Bender of Futurama fame), the protector of Apex City. With his enthusiastic gang of young Adventurekateers, Captain Laserbeam turns "wrong into right."

Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flyer: Whatever happened to Amelia Earhart? In 1938, she faked her disappearance at sea to serve the American Victory Commission as their one-woman, top secret Air Force. Autumn Reeser, who plays the plucky female submarine scientist Kylie on ABC's The Last Resort is the voice of Amelia.

The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock: Want a steampunk-era comedy? Sit back and enjoy the adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock, the chief of Her Royal Majesty Queen Victoria's Chrono Patrol. The Colonel makes sure History happens in the correct order. Craig Cackowski (Officer Cackowski on NBC's Community) is the title character.

Beyond Belief: A little bit of Topper, a whole lot of Nick & Nora Adams from The Thin Man series, it's the story of upper-crust couple Frank and Sadie Doyle, two love-besotted, and generally pickled ghostbusters living in a tony apartment atop the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan. The opening lines: "Who cares what Evil lurks in the hearts of men? Unless Evil is carrying the martini tray, darling!" sets the mood for cocktails and ghosts to follow.

Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars: The centerpiece of the entire TAH franchise, Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars is a cross between Firefly, Gunsmoke, The Lone Ranger, and How I Met Your Mother. As he repeatedly points out during every episode, Marshall Nevada (voiced by comedian Marc Evan Jackson) is from Earth, but he "rights the outlaw wrongs on Mars." His faithful (and blue) Martian companion is the onus-obsessed Croach the Tracker (voiced by Drunk History's Mark Gagliardi), a being who doesn't understand human emotions and is quite reluctant to let anyone see his feet. Croach's tribe was saved by Sparks Nevada,  and therefore he must remain a faithful companion for the Marshall in order for Croach to repay his tribe's onus.

The Marshall's friends are many: The Red Plains Rider, an Earth girl raised by Martians, who has a wandering crush on both Croach and Nevada; a saloonkeeper (voiced by Josh Malina of The West Wing) whose only goal is life is to have "no trouble" in his saloon; a rancher/deputy named Cactoid Jim (voiced by Nathan Fillion) whose legendary exploits are immortalized in song as they're occurring. There's also a building that's fallen in love with Croach, but it's a bit difficult to explain all the details about that romance in a few paragraphs.

The shows are miles deep in references, callbacks, and subtleties. Even the routines of each series play out differently each show. For example, Captain Laserbeam usually asks his Adventurekateers whether or not a previous villain has returned: "Is the Ancient Magician... up to his old tricks? Is Kid Kidnapper kidnapping kids for his devilish playgroup?" The gags are obvious, but their cleverness is refreshing.

Best thing about the show is that the podcasts are freely downloadable. There's almost 50 hours of episodes online, and they are consistently hilarious. Check them out at The's podcast home page.