Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
As recounted in the previous two entries in Pod-Canon, the saga of Mother 13 and its frontman Corey Harris began with Harris (Jon Wurster) mistakingly calling into The Best Show under the impression it was a morning zoo show and attempting to wow host Tom Scharpling with his band’s sure-fire path to super-stardom via a million dispiriting dates on corporate radio-sponsored festivals with names like the “Huggies Fall Into Freshness Tour.”
The bit could have ended there and still been a definitive, if not, the definitive satire of corporate rock opportunism and the anonymous pretty boys ground up in the gears of its cynical star-making machinery. But Scharpling & Wurster couldn’t quit while they were ahead, so a few years later they returned to the saga of Corey Harris and his desperate, pathological need for stardom and the bottomless validation it promises and sometimes even delivers.
The first Mother 13 bit derives much of its genius from verisimilitude; Scharpling & Wurster only needed to exaggerate the cynical soullessness of the corporate alternative rock world ever so slightly to make it surreal and pathetic. With the second bit, however, the duo traded in the pitch-perfect, relatively realistic comedy of the original for something crazier and more outrageous.
When Scharpling caught back up with Harris several years after the original call, his rock star dreams had crashed and burned and Mother 13 had been dropped by their label, a downturn he blamed on manager Rupert “pulling a choke job” and their publicist really dropping the ball. In a voice full of opportunistic faux-regret, Harris says his disillusioning experiences with the star-making machine have left him with a desire to really focus on what’s important: the music.
To that end, Harris and Mother 13 have gotten back together with Rupert (who, by his own account, is extremely important, even essential to the functioning of Mother 13) and the good people of Summit Cola and hatched a new, even more desperate scheme to get the music of this awful, awful caricature of a pathetic modern rock band in the earholes of the masses. Mother 13 is going to be the first band to climb Mount Everest, and they’re going to do so to promote Summit Cola with the help of special guests Clarence Clemons (of the E Street Band), Travis Barker (from Blink 182), Art from Everclear, Buddy Guy, the entire Polyphonic Spree and Dane Cook’s younger brother, who is also a comedian.
In “The First Band on Mt. Everest (Part 1)”, Harris cockily recalled a training regiment for climbing Everest that seemed to consist exclusively of drinking a couple of beers before hitting a climbing wall in town to simulate the altitude changes of climbing Everest. So there really was only one way this saga could end, and it wasn’t with Harris recounting his successful performance on Mount Everest and basking in his consequent super-stardom.
Sure enough, “The First Band on Mt. Everest (Part 2)” begins with Harris in a hospital bed a half a world away, having astonishingly survived a nightmarish ordeal that suggests Into Thin Air by way of Alive by way of the Warped Tour. As Harris, Wurster recounts his waking nightmare in a ragged voice trembling with sadness and horror. It’s one of the greatest acting jobs of Wurster’s career as a radio and podcast performer, if only because it must have taken such an incredible amount of willpower to never break character and devolve into hysterics while recounting, for example, that Buddy Guy’s failing old body was placed inside what they described as a “Blues Igloo” that was actually more of an icy grave as things devolved from terrible to unbelievably nightmarish.
No, the fact that Wurster can keep it all together while recounting a surrealistic nightmare involving members of Everclear, Blink 182, and the E Street Band perishing in hilariously morbid ways is impressive enough; that he creates a vivid cinematic world of danger, death, and deadly self-delusion just through his performance is even more remarkable. This isn’t just comedy; it’s world building, as all of the pieces it so deliberately sets into place go flamboyantly to hell.
To prepare for the big climb, Harris spends a wasted evening doing rails with Travis Barker and a pair of waitresses they picked up at a bar called The Drunken Yak. Things go predictably awry from there. The tension among the guest performers are present from the very beginning with Art from Everclear (who, in a nod to reality, everyone instantly dislikes) being dressed down by Buddy Guy, who tells him to “shut his cracker pie-hole.”
It doesn’t take long for the corpses to begin to pile up and for civilization to devolve into a Lord Of The Flies-style desperate struggle for survival at any costs that includes Clarence “The Big Man” Clemons (who, in a fit of “Snow Madness”, confuses a member of the doomed hiking party for his nemesis Pete Seeger) resorting to cannibalism early on, despite the preponderance of complimentary power bars still available.
One after another, the members of this hilariously ill-considered endeavor begin dying horrible, dramatic deaths that run the gamut from being hurled down Everest to an instant death by the drummer for Blink 182 to the thirty-eight members of Polyphonic Spree (give or take a few) dying as they lived: as a group, specifically a group tethered to each other physically so that they all die around the same time and in the same brutally painful way.
How dark is “Mother 13…The First Band on Mt. Everest (Part 2)?” For an extended stint, Wurster, as Corey Harris, simply weeps into the phone, overcome with sadness and grief at the overwhelming trauma he’s just endured. “Mother 13…The First Band on Mt. Everest (Part 2)” picks up a kind of tragicomic momentum as it proceeds, so that the more horrifying the scenario becomes, the more hilarious it gets.
Scharpling’s role in these calls is generally to needle and poke and prod and provoke but in deference to the fictional tragedy being recounted, he is uncharacteristically restrained and respectful, although that does not of course keep Harris from ending the call by insulting Scharpling’s character.
The saga of Mother 13 followed a crazy, unexpected path from the knowing inside-music satire of the original bit to the cinematic bloodbath of the second Everest call but at each interval Scharpling & Wurster found the exact right tone for what is easily one of the most impressive, and certainly one of the funniest and most memorable, multi-part extravaganzas in podcasting history.
Dark comedy doesn’t get much darker, and conceptual comedy doesn’t get much more conceptual, than in this master class in how to create, develop, and then destroy a rich, vibrant, and tragicomic world using only perfectly chosen and delivered words.
Photo by Bob Witlox.
Nathan Rabin is the former head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, including Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and, most recently, You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.