Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Republicans have seemingly never had a weaker field of Presidential candidates than the motley crew of oddballs, nutcases, loonies, and no-hopers who lined up in a desperate bid to win the White House back from the Democrats. Conversely, comedians and comedy writers have seemingly never had a richer or deeper field of hilariously incompetent, fatally flawed politicians to mock.
Low-energy Jeb Bush’s presidency proved unexpectedly comic as well as unexpectedly tragic even before he exhaustedly stuck a foot into his mouth and dismissed a school massacre as “stuff happens” and implored a crowd rightly narcotized into an almost unconscious state by his codeine-like presence to “please clap” over his rhetoric, which is less likely to whip crowds into a frenzy than lull them gently to sleep.
Ben Carson came out of nowhere with a fascinating persona that combines the authoritative, comforting presence of The Simpsons’ Dr. Hibbert with the psyche and thought process of Ralph Wiggum, although Wiggum probably has a surer grasp on most of the major issues than Carson does.
And of course there’s Donald Trump, who is such a fascinatingly awful exercise in self-parody that he’s almost beyond satire. As a presidential candidate, he seems to belong in a dystopian, deeply cynical satirical novel about the ugly underbelly of the American spirit rather than real life. His candidacy still feels in many ways like a joke, but the possibility of his election renders that joke tough to laugh at.
And then there’s Ted Cruz, a viscerally disturbing individual who sort of looks like a space alien wearing a human head mask that is disintegrating slowly. Cruz has emerged as unlikely figure of fun during the campaign due to his idealogical rigidity and extremity but also due to the uniquely repulsive nature of his appearance.
Simply put, Ted Cruz looks like the bogeyman’s much less aesthetically pleasing brother, the kind who gets locked in a cellar throughout his youth to spare the public the horror of having to gaze upon his monstrous visage. He’s the stuff of nightmares, a man cursed to perpetually seem to be cosplaying Grandpa Munster no matter what he’s wearing or dying.
The presidential election, particularly on the Republican side, is a raging political garbage fire we can’t look away from so it’s not surprising that Earwolf has decided to capitalize on the public’s morbid fascination with all things Presidential with a podcast riffing on the sad squad of pretenders angling for the Presidency.
Hard Nation parodies the overblown rhetoric of political talk radio through the perpetually battling Hard brothers, one of whom is an over-the-top caricature of an arch-conservative and the other of whom is a tree-hugging liberal. The podcast launched not too long ago and found its footing quickly.
An episode with Daniel Van Kirk as an oddly likable, cat-like Jeb Bush is a highlight, but I’m particularly fond of the episode where Paul F. Tompkins, in his official capacity as the Mayor of Podcasting, slipped inside the clammy skin of Ted Cruz, who briefly threatened to become the Republican nominee despite everyone in the world hating him, particularly his own family.
Cruz falls right into Tompkins’ wheelhouse of arrogant, angrily deluded Southern gentleman. He nails Cruz’s vocal tics and mannerisms, his oily, self-aggrandizing, debate-team aggressiveness and deification of Jesus and Ronald Reagan.
Tompkins transforms Cruz into an otherworldly figure who’s half perpetually apoplectic far right wing culture warrior and half Lovecraftian ghoul of infinite ugliness. The podcast really plays up the weirdly alien nature of Cruz’s presence by making him a literal alien, a disgusting, viscerally disturbing creature whose hideous tentacles keep bursting out of their flaps.
Tompkins’ Cruz is such a weird, unconvincing simulacrum of a human being that over the course of the podcast he is caught repeatedly Googling information on how those weird and complicated “human beings” behave. Yet Cruz’s extra-terrestrial nature comes out as assiduously as he tries to conceal it. And though Cruz insists that he’s a citizen of planet earth, it becomes pretty apparent that he probably comes from a planet where people look and talk and act just like him and consequently we should nuke this planet out of existence, both for our own sake and the sake of the universe.
Tompkins is hilariously heartless when playing up Cruz’s physical hideousness. He has a particularly brilliant riff where he agitates against a media that depicts his daughter as not just being visibly reluctant to hug him in that famously failed photo op, but also so deeply, and deservedly ashamed to be his daughter that she’s seeking DNA proof that they’re not related and seeking to change her name legally, something she alas cannot do without parental consent.
Tompkins’ Cruz concedes that, sure he may appear to be a “monster man” and a “creature from nightmares” but that shouldn’t matter because as of January 2017, Barack Obama will no longer be President of the United States, a simple statement of fact Cruz nevertheless repeats over and over again as if it means something profound.
It might seem cruel to harp so much on someone’s physical appearance, and the Ted Cruz episode gets big, big laughs out of some exquisitely nasty comedy, but it’s hard to feel sorry for Cruz when he is, if anything, even uglier on the inside than he is on the outside. He is a bully and a coward and while I take some comfort in knowing that Cruz’s time in the spotlight is largely over, it does seem just a little unfortunate that Tompkins probably won’t be getting a whole lot more use out of an impersonation that he absolutely nails on a hilarious, dense (it fits an awful lot of comedy into just over thirty five minutes) episode that finds huge laughs in the grim tragicomedy that is our current political quagmire.
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.