Monday, February 10, 2014

The Podcast's the Thing Wherein I'll Catch a Laugh ... (Part 2)

In my last post, I wrote about a podcast that I have been enjoying over the past year, which is recorded from a live monthly show called The Thrilling Adventure. Short recap: The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a humorous staged reading done in the style of old-time radio programs, complete with music and campy sound effects. The show always begins with the segment "Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars" and ends with the segment "Beyond Belief." The middle show varies from month to month, although it is usually one of the segments listed below.

The Adventures of Captain Laserbeam

After "Beyond Belief," this is my favorite segment from The Thrilling Adventure Hour. "Captain Laserbeam" is a goofy superhero story featuring a campy Superman/Ironman-type protagonist who is helped out by a bunch of teenagers known as the Adventurekateers. As with "Beyond Belief," the stories of "Captain Laserbeam" as not serialized in the way that "Sparks Nevada" is; nonetheless, there is some development over the years in terms of character arcs, and I think it would be wiser to start listening to this segment from the beginning rather than trying to catch on now. Captain Laserbeam gets himself in all kinds of jams involving the various villains that plague his hometown of Apex City. He ranks this villains in order and like any good superhero, his villains are all ridiculously named and themed characters of their own. My particular favorite has been the Die-brarian (along with his henchman, Papercut), as his presence is a golden opportunity for a ton of bookish-based jokes. (I should have mentioned this in my earlier post: The Thrilling Adventure Hour isn't funny just because of situational comedies or witty repartee; it's also rife with tons of intellectual/nerdy jokes.)

Like with most of the other segments on The Thrilling Adventure Hour, part of the comedy comes from establishing regular catchphrases, but then "Captain Laserbeam" takes it a step further by eventually messing with the now-familiar phrases. Unlike most of the other segments, there isn't really a duo central to "Captain Laserbeam." Captain Laserbeam is more or less on his own, with an occasional bit of information supplied by the ever-rotating cast of Adventurekateers. That means there isn't the same tension of two opposites like Sparks and Croach in "Sparks Nevada" or a symbiotic working relationship like that of Frank and Sadie in "Beyond Belief." Still, Captain Laserbeam's short adventures usually do just fine with him more or less on his own.

Over time, however, the writers ingeniously introduced a new character as a great foil to Captain Laserbeam. The ever upbeat and optimistic Captain Laserbeam found an unlikely alliance with the darker, more pessimistic vigilante known as Phillip Fathom, the deep-sea detective. In one of the behind-the-scenes interviews released on the podcast, Hal Lublin (the voice behind Phillip Fathom, as well as a variety of other characters on The Thrilling Adventure Hour) discussed his process in coming up with an appropriate sound for the deep-sea detective: Lublin noted that the writers were clearly riffing on The Batman character with Phillip Fathom, causing Lublin to contemplate which Batman portrayer he should seek to imitate. Would it be Adam West? Michael Keaton? George Clooney? No, Lublin decided Phillip Fathom should be voiced like Christian Bale as Batman. Nothing is more hilarious than hearing Phillip Fathom on stage shouting something like "My parents were murdered at sea!" in that deep, gravelly voice. In fact, one of my absolute favorite episodes of "Captain Laserbeam" is the one in which Fathom is introduced; hearing him shout "I'M NOT A GOSSIP!" cracks me up every time I hear it. I would love to hear more from Phillip Fathom in the further (and I suspect we will), and I think a spin-off of "Captain Laserbeam" with Phillip Fathom's solo adventures would be a great addition to the current rotation of segments.

One of the compelling things about Captain Laserbeam is that his mythology is not completely fixed yet, and the audience is slowly learning things about his alter ego and history, including his relationship with fellow superhero Dream Girl. Between this and the possibly of exploring Phillip Fathom's background further, there is plenty of fodder for new "Captain Laserbeam" episodes in the future.

Tales from the Black Lagoon

"Tales from the Black Lagoon" is the one anomaly in The Thrilling Adventure Hour cannon. Unlike all the other segments, it is not read live in front of an audience and it's got a much darker vibe. It's certainly still funny, but in a far less obvious way than the other segments. "Tales from the Black Lagoon" plays like a 1940s film noir with the characters all pulled from the Golden Age studio lot, although of course all with some new twist for comedic effect. We've got a cannibalistic Cary Grant, a dope-dealing Shirley Temple, an opium-using Jimmy Stewart, and so forth. This segment challenges the vocal actors in a different way than all the others - it's not just a matter of creating a new tone or accent, it's taking on a well-known personality and voice. The smooth jazzy music, the narrative structure, and the storylines all fit the noir mystery tropes; in sum, this is a great comedy version of old detective stories and very fitting with the idea of an old-time radio program. Unfortunately, this segment hasn't been on the podcast in recent years; the muted comedy may have been less popular than some of the other segments, although the likelier explanation is that the technical aspects of this one made it more difficult to execute.

Jefferson Reid, Ace American / Amelia Earhart, Fearless Flyer

These two segments are similar enough for me to feel okay with wrapping them up together. Like "Tales from the Black Lagoon," the "Jefferson Reid" segment hasn't been on in several years. In this case, it's likely because the usual actor behind Jefferson Reid was Nathan Fillion who has since been tapped to play Cactoid Jim when he's available for a show. "Jefferson Reid" and "Amelia Earhart" are both set in an alternate reality World War II, with Jefferson Reid acting as a sort of super solider and Amelia Earhart a time-traveling pilot (who did not actually disappear without trace over the Bermuda Triangle, rather hiding herself so that she could take part in clandestine operations to stop Nazi victories before they happen). These two segments are my least favorite on the show; the stories seem to be the same thing over and over again, and there's only so many times I can hear Jefferson Reid, Amelia Earhart, or one of their compatriots talk about "dirty Krauts" before I get tired of it. Basically, unlike the other segments in The Thrilling Adventure Hour, these two programs seem unoriginal. Also, despite having two female leads, "Amelia Earhart" tends to annoy me by suggesting that the two women are lesbians. Because of course two women trying to be patriotic during a world war have to be homosexual. Otherwise, they'd be home tending to their Victory gardens and adjusting their cake recipes to account for sugar rations.

The Cross-Time Adventures of Colonel Tick-Tock / The Algonquin Four

"Colonel Tick-Tock" is one of the weaker segments on the show, although it's definitely grown on me over numerous episodes. Colonel Tick-Tock is a member of the Queen's Royal Chrono Patrol, meaning that his job is to police the timeline and time travel at a moment's notice if something goes wrong (i.e., a dinosaur shows up in the modern day). "Colonel Tick-Tock" is notable for its clever use of language/wordplay around time and time travel, and sometimes for coming up with some rather ridiculous historical mash-ups. For some reason, Colonel Tick-Tock is rather effeminate and hinted at being gay, even though he is married to a woman. Another odd thing is that the Queen of England is voiced by a male actor, although that ends up being rather funny (think Jon Stewart's impression of Queen Elizabeth II).

"Colonel Tick-Tock" has earned its own spin-off in "The Algonquin Four," although as I far as I can recall, they have had only one or perhaps two solo episodes. The Algonquin Four consists of a quadruple of historical figures who have been given superhero qualities via a cosmic event: Harry Houdini has an elastic body, Woodrow Wilson can make things invisible, Robert Benchley "has dominion over flames," and Dorothy Parker is more or less the female version of The Incredible Hulk (She literally shouts "Dorothy Parker smash!!" at a moment's notice. In the behind-the-scenes interviews, Annie Savage who voices Dorothy Parker notes that the writers' helpful description of how to play this character was simply "dumber.") The four characters find themselves having to battle various enemies at times. "The Algonquin Four" is not one of my favorite segments either, but it's entertaining enough as an occasional episode.

Down in Moonshine Holler

"Moonshine Holler" is the "fairy tale" of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, but also is the most realistic (if you can actually call it that) out of the selection of segments. "Moonshine Holler" is about a rich man who met a woman at a party and found out she was the "Hobo Princess" when she left behind a fingerless glove. He immediately gave us his riches, changed his name to "Banjo Bindlestuff," and began traipsing the Depression Era-landscape in search of the "hobo paradise" named Moonshine Holler, where he hopes to be reunited with the woman he loves. On the road, Banjo finds a mentor in fellow homeless wanderer Gummy, and they navigate the world of hard luck together.

As with "Sparks Nevada" and "Beyond Belief," we have a comedy that works well because of the two leads and how they play off of each other. One of my favorite running jokes is when Gummy tells Banjo to do something like say hello or thank you, noting "It's the hobo way!!" and Banjo sighs, pointing out that it's actually "the regular people way also." Gummy (who is unbelievably voiced by Hal Lublin, the force behind Phillip Fathom) is a fan of shivving people and eating pie, although not necessarily in that order. In fact, Gummy's favorite exclamation is "Apple pie!," which somehow never fails to make me laugh.

"Moonshine Holler" also works by having a number of situational comedies arise. Most episodes follow a standard format in which Banjo and Gummy come across someone(s) who Banjo hopes either is the Hobo Princess or has information about her. Instead, this person(s) has a problem of their own, which Banjo could solve but only if he reveals his true identity as a millionaire. In the nick of time and with Gummy's encouragement, Banjo thinks up a solution that will solve the current crisis without blowing his cover. Despite being rather formulaic like this, I always find the story in "Moonshine Holler" to be hilarious. The combination of the new and interesting characters, the absurdity of yet another situation, and the funny jokes always leave each episode feeling fresh. This segment feels the most like it could have an end date though, as there is clearly a conclusion coming at some point when Banjo at last finds the Hobo Princess. Still, it's been some time since there was a "Moonshine Holler" episode released on the podcast, so I feel like there's potential for plenty more adventures in store for Banjo and Gummy.

I do have to note on "Moonshine Holler" that this is the segment that most walks the dangerous border between comedy and insult. Personally, I find it very funny because it's all meant in good, ridiculous humor and obviously no one out there currently (or during the Depression) is giving up millions to chase after a Cinderella-like character to a place that may or may not exist. Still, homelessness is a real problem and using these old stereotypes of jumping trains, making stone soup, and warming oneself by trashcan fires is not a flattering (or accurate) portrayal. I try to take it in stride and just go with the humorous aspects, but I could definitely see how some might find this offensive. It's not going to be everyone's cup of tea.

Jumbo the Elephant Saves ... [insert appropriate holiday here]

"Jumbo" is a rather sporadic segment that only appears around certain holidays. In fact, the writers have noted that it's unlikely we'll hear from Jumbo again, although there are still other holidays that could use a little elephantine cheer. Jumbo is a jazz band-playing elephant of Cuban descent living in Miami. Yes, he's an elephant from Cuba, because that makes geographical sense. However, it does mean that he pronounces his name as "Yumbo," which absolutely kills me for no good reason. It's just hilarious every time I hear it. Jumbo's main function is to tell holiday stories and talk about how he manages, against all odds, to make holidays run smoothly. There isn't too much to say about Jumbo, being as he's only been featured on two episodes, but they were very funny episodes, and I hope that he might appear for another holiday special in the future.

That covers all of the recurring segments featured on The Thrilling Adventure Hour, minus a couple of cross-over podcast episodes, which I will cover in part 3 of this (never-ending?) blog post. Stay tuned, solid citizens*!

* Don't get that reference? I suggest you crack in to those "Captain Laserbeam" episodes right away! :)

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