I’ll start by explaining my goals for this weekly podcast review column I've gotten myself into.
First, I want to look at podcasts with a wide lens, examining form, narrative, overall themes, etc. For this reason, I’ll be reviewing more than just a single episode every week but the podcast as a whole. Some podcasts have backlogs that’d take months to get through so I’ll only be listening to as many episodes as possible before writing my review. If it takes more than a week of listening to get a good sense of your podcast then, uh, yikes.
Second, I’ll be reviewing a mix of well-known and lesser known podcasts meant to appeal to a wide audience. What this means is that I’m gonna avoid niche podcasts and everything else is fair game. I considered limiting it to just comedy podcasts but that’d cut out a lot of great journalism and storytelling podcasts that I want to talk about. Basically, I don’t want to listen to Cody and Pete’s Stock Tips Show that they put together for the bros in the Wall Street Journal comment sections. The podcast needs to have mass appeal.
Third and finally, I want to expose people to some dope ass podcasts. It’s been an increasingly popular medium in the last decade but an often overlooked one, especially from a criticism standpoint. I’m gonna tell you which podcasts I like and which I don’t like, and everyone is going to go out and listen to them afterward and appreciate them. And because I’m clearly one of the most standout, influential voices of my generation, it’s gonna work exactly like I just said. The Podcast Hero - that’s me. No big deal.
Alright, now that we got through that slog of boring formality, let’s get to the good stuff. This week’s podcast in question is “Hello from the Magic Tavern” and it kicks some serious ass.
The premise of “Hello from the Magic Tavern” is that the host, Chicago improviser and schlub Arnie Niekamp, falls through a magical portal behind a Burger King into the Narnia-on-cocaine land of Foon. He finds a nearby tavern, the Vermillion Minotaur, and befriends Chunt, a pansexual shapeshifter, and Usidore, a wizard*. Together they start a podcast using the equipment Arnie just happened to have in his backpack when he fell through the portal and they upload it with the weak wi-fi signal still coming from Burger King. Every week they have different Foon-ian guests on the show who range from a verbally abusive flower to Melchior, keeper of the Doom Horn.
Now, at its core, “Hello from the Magic Tavern” is the same as a lot of other comedy podcasts: a bunch of comedians dicking around. Scrape away all the fantasy elements and it’s just three guys hanging out in a bar with their friends. And this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, I’d still probably listen to that show. The three main actors: Arnie Niekamp, Adal Rifai, and Matt Young are all accomplished improvisers, quick witted and hilarious. I was lucky enough to see Adal Rifai perform with his improv group “Whirled News Tonight” on a trip to Chicago in July and it was the highlight of my week. If you ever get the chance, go see any of these guys perform live.
But then, add back in the demented fantasy world and it’s like an improviser’s playground in which Niekamp, Rifai, and Young go wild. “Hello from the Magic Tavern” is at its best when Chunt, Usidore, and Arnie riff on the ridiculous fantasy aspects of Foon. There are Hunger Ghosts, which are just hungry ghosts. There are species that have multiple butt holes. There’s Chunt’s ability to shape shift but only by having sex with whatever animal or species he wants to turn into. There’s Make Out point, which is a haunted house that you take dates to and if you both make it out alive then you’re meant to be together. If none of those things sound funny to you, which they should, it’s only because you’re reading my unfunny words and not listening to the masters at work. Seriously, give the first few episodes a listen but do it in a private place unless you want weird looks from people who think you’re crazy for laughing so hard.
With all that being said, it’s not the actors’ comedic acumen that make “Hello from the Magic Tavern” wonderful; they’re not alone in that. Other podcasts are just as funny and have comedians just as sharp and quick witted. No, it’s the one small thing this podcast did differently that makes it one of my favorites: they made it fiction.
Yeah, I get it, I know. “Hello from the Magic Tavern” isn’t the first fictional podcast and there have been plenty of fictional radio shows. Most notably, the broadcast of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” sent listeners into a frenzy when they thought aliens were actually attacking. So I guess, in some sense, it’s good that radio and podcasts haven’t delved into fictional storytelling too much as it sometimes causes people to kill their children in an attempt to save them from the tiny green men (This is an urban legend, but I choose to believe it’s true). Child death aside, I think the question remains, why hasn’t radio or podcasting produced classic works of fiction? You don’t hear from your drinking buddies about any great radio epics that you absolutely need to listen to, bro. There aren’t 400-level English electives being taught on the American broadcasting canon. And “Hello from the Magic Tavern” is standing here, tapping its foot obstinately, going “Yeah, why the hell not? You’re really gonna let a little child death get in the way of this?**”
And just to be clear, I’m not claiming that “Hello from the Magic Tavern” is a classic. It has plenty of problems that hold it back: over-reliance on guest improvisers which sometimes leads to boring episodes; inside jokes that need to die (roaring orcs); characters that don’t really develop in meaningful ways; intriguing narratives they refuse to move forward. For awhile, I was annoyed with “Hello from the Magic Tavern” because I wanted it to be so much more than it was. I wanted Usidore to go on his quest to defeat the Dark Lord. I wanted Chunt to fight for his life when he got cursed by a magic coin instead of deus ex machina saving him. I wanted Arnie to deal with his wife and child being stuck on Earth. Basically, I wanted “Hello from the Magic Tavern” to be what it was parodying.
But, here’s the thing, “Hello from the Magic Tavern” is a parody of a genre working in a medium where that genre doesn’t really exist yet. It’s “Spaceballs” without “Star Wars.” It’s “The Tick” without superheroes. Basically, it's way ahead of its time. And it's finding success anyway. Looking back, I wasn’t annoyed because “Hello from the Magic Tavern” didn’t have the complexities of character and narrative strength that I wanted in a podcast; I was annoyed because no podcast does.***
So for me, “Hello from the Magic Tavern” is a great podcast not just because of how funny it is but because it makes me excited for what’s to come. It’s a perfect mold for the first great fictional podcast. It shows that it can be done and that it can be done well. All you need is a great cast, good writing (optional, you can also just improvise everything), and an interesting world to work in. So, who’s gonna make the first podcast chronicling life in 4589 CE? When are we going to get an expanded podcast Marvel universe? How about a podcast of a post-apocalyptic survivor’s audio diary****? Bring it on, guys. Usidore and Chunt have shown the way. All you gotta do is follow.
Anyway, since this is a review, I’m gonna give the podcast a ranking on a scale because that seems to be something reviewers do. So on the Official Blowhard-o-meter [Headass → Weak AF → Meh → Dope → Hella Dope → Lit] I rate “Hello from the Magic” Hella Dope. Good work.
Check out "Hello from the Magic Tavern" HERE or find it on iTunes.
If you have any podcasts you think I should review, hit me up on twitter @ZJShearer
“3 - Flower”
“13 - Boys’ Night”
“15 - Transdimensional Deliveryman”
“22 - Sarah”
“23 - Soul Walker”
“32 - Offices & Bosses”
“58 - Keeper of the Doom Horn”
“59 - Dr. Ward”
“60 - Confidential Courier”
“64 - Jamillious the Mauve”
*of the 12th Realm of Ephysiyies, Master of Light and Shadow, Manipulator of Magical Delights, Devourer of Chaos, Champion of the Great Halls of Terr'akkas; the elves know him as Fi’ang Yalok; the dwarves know him as Zoenen Hoogstandjes; he is also known in the Northeast as Gaismunēnas Meistar; and there are other secret name we do not know.
**This is a joke that you’ll get when you listen to the podcast
***Yes, I know “Welcome to Night Vale,” “The Black Tapes,” and a handful of others exist, please don’t yell at me. The truth is nobody has really made a great audio drama yet and there really aren’t that many to begin with. The genre has a ton of room to grow in this medium.
****Actually, I’m gonna make this one and if any of you mofos steal my idea, there’s gonna be hell to pay.