Righting the Outlaw Wrongs in Brooklyn: Notes on The Thrilling Adventure Hour's first out-of-L.A. show
I finally saw Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark this
weekend, but that was just to kill an evening in New York City in
advance of the event that had precipitated the trip from DC: The very
first East Coast performance of The Thrilling Adventure Hour.
I'm glad you asked! The Thrilling Adventure Hour is a podcast that my pal Glen Weldon turned me onto early last year. It lost no time shooting to the top of my list of favorite things. Recorded at the Los Angeles nightclub Largo at the Coronet the first weekend of each month, TAHis a collection of hilarious serial narratives that affectionately parody the pre-television radio dramas I discovered when I lived in LA and was spending too many of my precious few hours of life in my car.
The best of them are the two that bookend the monthly live show.
Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars is basically The Lone Ranger set on the Red Planet, only with more musical numbers, like its marvelous theme song. It stars Marc Evan Jackson as Sparks and Mark Gagliardi as "his faithful Martian companion, Croach the Tracker," whose fidelity to strict codes of Martian honor often has him "under onus" to the Earth-man he works for, who means well but is sometimes a bit of a jerk.
There's a rotating feature in the middle, plus some funny fake commercials for fake sponsors Workjuice Coffee and Patriot Brand Cigarettes.
The closing feature is Beyond Belief, starring Paget Brewster and Paul F. Tompkins as Sadie and Frank Doyle, a high-functioning, alcoholic 1930s society couple who help people with their supernatural troubles. Especially if those supernatural troubles stand in the way of the Doyles' next drink.
Which of the two regular features is my favorite is usually a matter of which one I've listened to the most recently. (Each serial is released as a separate podcast, usually not more than 30 minutes in length. The live show runs about 90 minutes.) They're both brilliantly funny, featuring sublime vocal work from the actors and written, as are all of the features and everything else on the show (including, with Andy Paley, the songs), by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker. They make their living writing TV shows together. TAH is the project they -- and their impressive company of in-demand actors, comics and musicians -- do for love.
Sadly, TAH didn't start up until right around the time I moved to DC from LA in late 2005, or I'd have been a regular at the show from the moment I found out about it.
Lately, they've started to post the podcasts fairly soon after their recording, but there's still usually a lag of a few months. With new episodes happening in L.A. each month, I wondered if we in the East Coast audience would find ourselves a few installments behind.
As soon as the show began on Sunday night, I recognized the Sparks installment, "Do the Fight Thing," as a rerun. The show was all reruns: The Beyond Belief installment, "Vampire Weekend" was originally recorded on Aug. 6, 2011, the same day as that particular Sparks episode was first heard. (On the recording, emcee Hal Lublin announces its title as "Vampire Law.") The middle feature, Down in Moonshie Hollar -- about a millionaire who forsakes his fortune to live, unconvincingly, as a hobo -- was an episode called "The Lottery." I couldn't find a recording date for that one, but the release date on my podcast file is March 27, 2011.
It was a little disappointing not to hear new chapters, but I was surprised how little it bothered me. I do tend to listen to favorite episodes of the podcast more than once, but having spent several hundred bucks to put myself in Brooklyn for the occasion, the quick realization I'd heard all these jokes before might've steamed me. It didn't. Acker and Blacker had chosen three of their strongest individual episodes to reprise. The writing is so sharp, and the performers so uniformly goddamn delightful, that I was laughing too hard to feel hoodwinked. (I do think they should've let us know in advance that this show would be different from the regular LA residency, which, again, features new material each month.)
I download TAH directly from the iTunes Store, but if you get them from the Nerdist website, Blacker sometimes writes liner notes. His comments accompanying "Do the Fight Thing" and "Vampire Weekend" make it easy to understand why he and his partner chose these episodes for their out-of-town showcase.
His entry for the former begins:
I love a bottle episode. To me, a bottle episode serves as the best way to show off the strength of your characters and the relationships the writers and actors have built over the course of the series to that point. It could be argued that every episode of Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars is a bottle episode (Marc Evan Jackson argued it with me just last night), but there’s something really satisfying about putting all of these complex characters who are in the midst of various emotional journeys into a inescapable place and forcing them to deal with one another.
I agree with all of that. Blacker goes on to comment on some of the casting of that performance from last year. The lineup we saw do the show in Brooklyn Sunday night had a few changes: The principals were all there, but Jon Hodgman replaced Nathan Fillion as Cactoid Jim, and Brewster stood in for Linda Cardellini as "Western-sector novelist Rebecca Rose Rushmore." Instead of Josh Malina as the barkeep, we had... well, I didn't catch his name, but he's probably someone at least semi-famous. UPDATE: Mr. Acker just Tweeted me (!) to identify the barkeep as Jackson Publick of The Venture Bros.
See, I don't watch that much TV. A lot of what I do see is years or decades old. (I just finished the second season of Breaking Bad,and I've been revisiting a bunch of X-Files episodes from the 90s concurrently with that.) Actors like Brewster or Fillion or Busy Phillips -- so great as Sparks's on-again, off-again sweetheart The Red Plains Rider -- are household names to many, but I was introduced to them through this podcast. (Even though Firefly,with Fillion, seems like something I would almost certainly enjoy. I'll get around to it.)
"Vampire Weekend" had some cast changes, too, with Phillips taking on the role of Sadie's vampire friend Donna, originally played by Janet Varney. And Hodgman and Scott Adsit (from 30 Rock and probably lots of other things) stepped into roles originally played by Kids in the Hall veterans Bruce McCullock and Dave Foley.
To sum up: I laughed, I laughed 'til I cried, it was better than Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark...
...which is to damn something truly extraordinary and wonderful, which has brought me no small sum of joy since I discovered it, with faint praise.
Spider-Man, by the way, is not that bad. Well, the music, by some people in whom I have a vested, decades-long interest, is pretty bad. If you find that problematic in a musical.