John Hodgman, of Maximum Fun’s Judge John Hodgman, was driving in Acadia National Park one day when he came across two young hitchhikers—a young couple that had simply hiked a little too far from where they had left their car. While Hodgman agrees that it is generally inadvisable to pick up hitchhikers, even he couldn’t have predicted what happened next.
“Oh!” the couple said as they hopped in the car. “We were just listening to you.”
Perhaps this incident shouldn’t be so surprising. “There is a big overlap between people who listen to podcasts and people who visit America’s amazing national parks,” admits Hodgman. But the story still speaks to what happens when a fairly niche form of entertainment becomes overwhelmingly popular in its given circle without sacrificing its own intimacy; a car ride shared between podcast host and listener is actually per the usual.
This has become truer as the podcast “network” has become a staple of the comedy scene in recent years. Marc Maron may have broken open the floodgates regarding comedy podcasting’s popularity by working Yojimbo-style from his garage, but what has made the comedy podcast the phenomenon among fans that it is is a personalized version of basic cross-promotion. If you love You Made It Weird, Nerdist has cultivated a shared understanding amongst its shows that will then lend some of that credibility to help out, say, Cashing In With T.J. Miller. If you’re a diehard Comedy Bang Bang fan, odds are high that at some point you took a chance on Professor Blastoff, even if you weren’t familiar with anyone involved, simply based on the strength of Earwolf itself.
This is an age old practice, but has never been particularly consistent or worked particularly well for, say, NBC (here’s looking at you, Joey). There is simply less attentiveness and passion in the larger broadcast fanbase, and certainly less risk-taking in the curation of programming by network executives. TV is a big business. There’s lots of money at stake. Podcasting is not.
But podcasts, particularly comedy podcasts, have arguably become more drug-like even than television, though without the sedative side effects. It’s certainly more personal and beguiling than any TV show I’ve ever watched. Adam Conover, of Adam Ruins Everything, notes that “people who listen to podcasts almost want to replace their brain with someone else’s. You’re trying to shut off your own thoughts, and have someone else’s thoughts instead.” We will do anything for more of that feeling our favorite podcast provides.
Lest that sound sinister or corporate, allow us to introduce Jesse Thorn. Not only is he the man who, coincidentally, helped Maron set up those now famous garage mics, and Hodgman’s bailiff on Judge John Hodgman, but he happens to run the Maximum Fun podcast network, as well as its flagship shows, Bullseye and Jordan, Jesse, Go! And he has deeper ambitions as to what a comedy podcasting network can do.
As opposed to other podcast networks, Maximum Fun came into the world not in spite of radio, but out of it. Thorn began The Sound of Young America—the show that would late become Bullseye—through college radio at UC Santa Cruz, co-hosting with Jordan Morris (of Jordan, Jesse, Go!) and Gene O’Neill (not named after the playwright, but he was named after his father, who was in C.H.U.D). Thorn eventually continued the show as a podcast by himself, focusing on the interview segments and changing the name. “People were really confused by the name The Sound of Young America,” says Thorn. Eventually, it found a home on NPR, though Thorn continues to release episodes through Maximum Fun as well. What’s the difference?
“On radio you’re trying to build a coherent stream,” says Thorn. “A continuing flow of news, information and entertainment, where each thing makes sense with all the others. In podcasting you’re trying to dig deeper into a smaller group of people and incite their passion.” There are, of course, shows that accomplish both (Thorn cites This American Life, a program that is equally popular on radio and as a podcast). But passion is at the heart of Maximum Fun, an energy reflected in its name—Thorn wants to create a space where “inclusivity, enthusiasm, joy and laughter” can exist in a “context of non-lameness.” Biologically, says Thorn, “we are more likely to bond with others over what we don’t like than what we do like… It’s much more difficult to bring that kind of passion in a positive direction, but I think it’s entirely possible.”
Thorn’s own passion for other shows has been a key factor in the growth of the network. A unique element of Maximum Fun is that it gives opportunities to up and coming podcasts, inviting them to join the network. It’s an unusual strategy—on other networks a new show is more likely to crop up around an established comedian’s availability and interest, as opposed to being picked up from obscurity on the strength of one person’s belief in what they are about. But it makes a huge difference in Maximum Fun’s lineup, not to mention the lives of its creators.
Dave Shumka and Graham Clark noticed that people were reaching out to their show, Stop Podcasting Yourself, after about fifteen episodes or so. But still, when Maximum Fun listeners began to get onboard with Clark and Shumka after they posted a few episodes on the Max Fun forum, it prompted Thorn to reach out and offer them a spot on the network, broadening their audience even more beyond their Vancouver home base. “We were also able to tell acts from America that had never heard of us that we were affiliated with this network,” says Clark. “It gave us a bit of an air of ‘it’s not just two weirdos in a basement,” even though it was two weirdos in a basement.” Shumka agrees, pointing out that “if someone was coming to town we could lure them into our basement.”
The McElroy brothers had a similar experience with their show, My Brother, My Brother and Me, which they initially began recording as a way to stay in touch with each other. “One of our listeners recommended the show on a forum,” says Justin McElroy, who co-hosts the show with his brothers Travis and Griffin. “Jesse Thorn and his wife Theresa listened to the show and asked us to come aboard.” Thorn confirms this; he and his wife were on a road trip themselves when they first checked out an episode. Today, members of the McElroy family are responsible for over eight shows on Maximum Fun, covering everything from etiquette and medical history to Dungeons and Dragons and The Bachelor. And their flagship show, My Brother, My Brother and Me,
Nnekay FitzClarke and James Arthur started their podcast Minority Korner out of love for the Maximum Fun show Throwing Shade, hoping to introduce an intersectional element to the discussion of gay and feminist issues that show had helped start in the comedy podcasting community. FitzClarke reached out to Thorn, who had been her freshman RA, because why not? He picked it up, and FitzClarke says “it’s been incredible ever since. Our downloads quadrupled once we signed onto Maximum Fun.”
“For the folks who are in our networks, it’s about more than a commercial transaction,” says Thorn. “We want people in our network who we feel share our values, and want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and bigger than their show.” And those values, refreshingly, fly in the face of much of what the internet stands for on the whole these days. Thorn looks for hosts who are “decent, open-minded, and humane” (Thorn himself is associated with and helped define the “New Sincerity” philosophy, a cultural movement that breaks from irony and functions as a social response to cynicism). If something feels shitty or grosses him out, it’s probably not going to be a great fit.
This is even true—especially true, perhaps—of the Maximum Fun shows that have gone on to achieve success in more visible mediums. Throwing Shade, which began as a podcast in 2011 and joined Maximum Fun in 2012, now has its own TV Land show, and continues to unpack pop culture and politics through a feminist and gay lens in that format. “Political correctness,” says co-host Erin Gibson, “is just ‘not-being-an-asshole.’ We really adopt the mentality of ‘punch up, not down.’” Co-host Brian Safi recalls a conversation with Thorn on this topic back when the show was first picked up by Max Fun. “I remember him saying, ‘It just feels so palatable coming from two people who are so affected by the world. That will make this an easy pill for people to swallow.’” Adam Ruins Everything approached Maximum Fun to do a podcast during its hiatus from TruTV, and found the podcast format—which allows Conover to interview the show’s guest experts at length—an ideal place to continue to combat misinformation and misconceptions. True, as a journalist, Thorn does not make his show overtly political, but still sees the core tenants of Maximum Fun as being reflective of its shows’ active spirits.
Since the network runs on the curiosity and enthusiasm of all involved, Thorn has tried to create opportunities for fans to engage with Maximum Fun’s shows in a way that goes beyond the odd live recording every once in a while (though they certainly do that too). “We’re coming up on ten years of doing an event called MaxFunCon,” says Thorn. “It’s a combination of a summer camp and a writer’s retreat and a comedy festival.” Occurring in both California and the Poconos, MaxFunCon has created an all-inclusive experience that may not be cheap but has been transformative for Maximum Fun’s audience. Just this past weekend, Maximum Fun hosted a smaller festival in Chicago, Very Very Fun Day, designed to “bring people together in the same way, and give people a grand experience, but that cost less than $100.” This initiative matches Maximum Fun’s protocol as well as its ideology; each episode of Bullseye begins with a fan calling in to take care of the Ira Glass opening business themselves.
At the end of the day, however, what Maximum Fun provides is the experience of spending an hour with an old friend, heightened beyond the normal purviews other podcasts operate within, if only because the network’s interconnectedness forms a secure web one can sit back and relax in without feeling like you’re being sold something.
“This must be a very strange day for you,” said Hodgman to the couple, back in Acadia. “Yeah,” they replied. “It’s weird.”
“Yeah,” agreed Hodgman, before adding: “What’s even weirder is traditionally… the hitchhikers are the murderers.” He says he then refused to speak to them for the rest of the ride, and they were never seen again. That’s okay. Most serious podcast fans would agree; it’s a pretty good way to go.
Graham Techler is a New York-based writer and actor. Follow him at @grahamtechler.