Earlier last year, President Barack Obama went on comedian Marc Maron’s eponymous podcast, “WTF with Marc Maron”. The now infamous episode—Episode 613—nearly cemented the podcast’s reputation as a legitimate broadcasting medium after the President’s appearance. After all, if the President of the United States deigned to appear on a podcast recorded in the garage of a Los Angeles-based comedian, surely it must really be a thing beyond recorded obtuse banter for iPod owners.
Podcasts have flourished since the days of the early aughts; seemingly everyone has their own these days with themes that run the gamut from music to murder mysteries. The alternative medium has been particularly fruitful for comedians, a safe space that allows for harvesting witty, free-flowing conversation and uncensored expression unfettered from traditional advertisers and time restraints.
The return to authentic expression and unbridled discussion of ideas and feelings without any intervention of corporate entities is exactly what initially drew me towards podcasts and, specifically, comedy podcasts. I regularly listen to podcasts now because I’m enamored to the world where uncomfortable subject matter are never considered taboo, where profanity is not scorned and where people are allowed to have one-on-one conversations without looming corporate threats of pulling ads due to public outrage (though that landscape is quickly evolving as corporations are eager to capitalize on growing podcast audiences). Comedians and their guests are free to exude their wit without parameters, all while culling a fiercely loyal audience through the weekly frequency of podcasts.
Podcasts have invaded every part of my life—I listen at work, during showers and while I’m traveling. I love getting engrossed in the intimate conversations of others—laughing heartily at the humorous moments and sympathizing in the tender, soul-baring confessional ones. Though I listen to several popular NPR podcasts (“Invisibilia”, “Serial”, “All Songs Considered”, “The Splendid Table”), I tend to gravitate towards raunchier, grittier independent comedy podcasts that penetrate the veneer of traditional media broadcasting and reveal the more authentic side of ourselves as humans.
If I had to compile a list, here is Part One of the top comedy podcasts that have brought me the most joy and provoked the most reflection and contemplation over the past several years:
“WTF with Marc Maron”, Marc Maron
Marc Maron may be the comedy podfather of all podcasters. Though he is a funny stand-up comic, truthfully after seeing his comedy live, I think he is an even better and more adept interviewer. The highs and lows that I’ve been through emotionally with Maron’s introspective monologues at the beginning of each WTF podcast and the subsequent piercing interviews with celebrity guests are beyond description. He’s plunged me to such emotional depths with his haranguing over the years that I probably should have paid him as a shrink, though I’ve paid him back through attending live shows and buying “merch”.
The interviews with fellow comics Louis C.K. and UNC alumnus Wyatt Cenac are two stand-out podcasts from his catalogue of over 500 episodes. His ornery nature may be a turn-off to some, but Maron’s interviews with some of the entertainment industry’s biggest names and their informality allow celebrity guests to relax, engage and reveal bits of their past beyond the usual trite press junket banter. Maron rarely veers back into the political lane from his “Air America” days, but when he does, he goes big. After all, he did interview the President of the United States (and will make sure you don’t forget it).
“The Joe Rogan Experience”, Joe Rogan
Joe Rogan loves weed, Onnit supplements and fanny packs. You’ll learn these three facts about the stand-up comic and actor, and former host of “Fear Factor” very quickly from listening to “The Joe Rogan Experience”. These days, the current UFC commentator spends hours in his dedicated podcasting studio engaging in three-hour long conversations with a motley crew of guests that include luminaries from the comedy, journalism and scientific worlds.
Rogan’s success with his weekly podcast and its worldwide popularity has engendered a fervent fan base that seems to stem from his innate ability to engage meaningfully with each guest. Rogan is often guided by his curiosity and is armed with a vast range of knowledge that spans from global warming to the history of the Boston comedy scene, bolstering his abilities as an adroit conversationalist.
No matter the guest, whether the inane sidekick Brian “Redban” or an esteemed scientist like Dr. Carl Hart , Rogan is aptly able to steer the conversation with interesting topics and questions, mining his background as a stand-up comic to sprinkle bits of humor throughout podcasts that often explore what mainstream media culture dismisses—drugs (especially psychedelics), conspiracy theories, and the supernatural.
Rogan detractors may point to his unrelenting criticism of SJW’s (social justice warriors) and his repetitiveness (Rogan belabors the fact that his friend and fellow stand-up comic Joey Diaz is the best in the biz to a dizzyingly degree) as reasons to condemn the podcast, but his willingness to delve head first into counterculture and taboo subject matters is the exact reason why “JRE” remains compelling.
“Monday Morning Podcast”, Bill Burr
Every Monday morning, stand-up comic Bill Burr gets on the mic to rant and occasionally rave–all by himself on the “Monday Morning Podcast“. It’s an enviable skill to make the rants funny week after week, to perorate about his daily run-ins where he tries to keep his temper and paranoia in check, but Burr, a comic at the top of his game right now, makes it work all without booking virtually any guests.
On a typical show, Burr, a Boston native, ruminates about Boston sports teams, his struggles to stave off weight gain in his 40’s and his drinking episodes. He intersperses his rants with questions from listeners, often times about relationships, and does his best to dole out paternalistic advice, sometimes with the help of his lovely wife Nia. What Burr does best with his charming Bostonian accent (“lay-deez!”) is that he gives listeners a peek into his daily inner monologue, one that’s devoid of pretense and so much so, that he often skewers sponsored live reads for subscription companies like MeUndies at his own financial peril (his infamous Shari’s Berries ad read is a must-listen on YouTube). His affability and humility has led to him gleaning a loyal fan base that has closely followed his skyrocketing comedy career. Burr recently played two venerated venues in the United States–Carnegie Hall and Madison Square Garden—and has landed several acting roles including the new animated Netflix series, “F is for Family”.
Burr often lampoons his own masquerading persona as an acrid Boston tough guy, but fans that listen bi-weekly know that deep-down inside, the stand-up is a card-carrying softie. After all, Burr is the same guy that drives an old Prius and releases pie crust instructional videos onto the internet. The best thing about “Monday Morning Podcast” is that Burr doesn’t just talk about comedy and the inner workings of show business that so many other comics tend to bludgeon to discussion death on their podcasts, he simply makes what he says on the “Monday Morning Podcast” actually funny.