Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
I’m 40, and for folks of my generation and the generations that followed, there is seemingly no experience so transcendent, joyful, terrible, excruciating, transcendent or overpowering that it cannot be instantly tagged with a corresponding article from The Onion or episode of The Simpsons that seems to comment on it to a brilliant and uncanny degree.
For podcast obsessives like me, this is true of beloved, long-running favorites like The Best Show and Comedy Bang Bang, as well. These favorites have been on the air for so long and have filled iPods with so many hundreds of hours of entertainment and pop culture commentary that there’s seemingly no human experience or touchstone that they haven’t touched on.
So when I read that Meryl Streep, a classy broad and a pretty good actress, had used the soapbox afforded her by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association to condemn the rhetoric and ideas of The Apprentice Executive Producer and turncoat former Saturday Night Live host Donald Trump (do the feelings of the Bobby Moynihans of the world mean nothing to you, you fucking monster?) my mind immediately went to the classic The Best Show segment, “The Auteur.”
It will be interesting to see how Scharpling & Wurster and The Best Show (which recently switched over to a Patreon-funded model, for those interested in contributing) tackle Trump in the years ahead, if they tackle him at all, in that in many ways Trump is a quintessential Wurster character. He’s a crazed narcissist, quick to anger and filled with incoherent, unmerited rage, a man who has no idea how ridiculous he is, or how massive the gulf is between how he sees himself and how the world sees him/how he actually is.
Then again, Scharpling & Wurster tend to shy away from being overtly political in favor of attacking politics from weird and inspired angles, as they do on “The Auteur.” The piece begins with Jon Wurster calling in to defend George Clooney using the stage of an awards show to wax pretentious and self-aggrandizing about the important work Hollywood does.
His spiel begins on a relatively mild and convincing note, with caller “Trent from LA” running through Hollywood’s proud history of intermittently making movies that actually try to be good and important and socially meaningful as well as profitable. Trent argues that despite its reputation as a pit of debauchery, Hollywood has actually been at the “forefront of promoting social change and exposing injustice.”
The shift begins when the caller identifies himself as both a member of the Academy (the folks who give out the Oscars) and the prolific auteur behind what he delusionally and hilariously sees as socially conscious message movies in the honorable Stanley Kramer tradition but that Tom, and by extension the rest of the world, see as abominations whose pretensions to social commentary actually make them way more offensive and unforgivable.
The sordid nature of Trent’s productions can be discerned by their wonderfully, horribly evocative titles, which Wurster rattles off in a perfect deadpan while managing the super-human feat of not giggling uproariously while droning the names of the films Strauss wrote, produced, and directed, including, Face Peelers 1 through 4 and 6, Entrails 2: The Gouging, Dr. Sleaze, Nurse Sleaze, The Hacksawist, You’re Soaking In Her, Blood Puddles, The Ooze 3: Coach Fannel’s Revenge, Splattered Dreams, Kidney Thieves, It’s Raining Membranes, Art School Arsonist, It Eats!, Pukeadelphia, Cub Scout Serial Killer, Boy Scout Serial Killer, Webelos Serial Killer, Girl Scout Serial Killer and of course, Gut Bomb 2003.
Trent L. Strauss defends his genre as “extreme cinema” as opposed to hot garbage but he doesn’t help his case by arguing that he broke new ground and shattered barriers by making the title character of Dr. Sleaze African-American, in bold defiance of convention wisdom, which dictated that sadistic serial killer doctors had to be white. So while Doctor Giggles was in…sane, as his tagline unforgettably maintained, the people who created him were in…tolerant by making him just another creepy, lumbering white dude instead of a soul brother, and I’m not just writing that as a covert way of promoting my screenplay Dr. Bliggles, for “Black Dr. Giggles.”
Trent then moves on to The Hacksawist, which similarly broke ground, theoretically, by featuring a stereotypically gay serial killer. Everything about the Hacksawist amplifies its offensiveness, from his job as a street hustler to the awful visions of his mother that torment him. The Hacksawist is “out in the streets in his tight satin shorts” before he finally snaps and starts sawing off “legs and faces.”
Trent defends the grotesquely stereotypical and offensive depiction of homosexuality as a realistic depiction of what he refers to as the “lady boys on the streets,” which suggests, not surprisingly, that the bigotry and offensiveness of his movies comes from a very personal, if not terribly flattering place.
But all of these exercises in extreme cinema are but a warm up to what Trent brags is “my Citizen Kane” called The Toolbelt Killer. Pitched as “Phantom Of The Opera meets Norma Rae” but with “way more impalings and beheadings,” it’s the blood-saturated tale of a reviled child of privilege who has a terrible accident while working at Lowe’s that renders him a disfigured ghoul swearing revenge on everyone who has mocked him.
Half of the joy in the podcast lies in the palpable pleasure Wurster-as-Strauss takes in laying out the sleaziest, most lurid scenario imaginable for his “socially conscious” slasher movies. He’s so incredibly vivid and specific in his storytelling that I could all but see the outsized clamshell VHS box for The Toolbelt Killer, illustrated, ideally, with a scantily clad, terrified woman being pursued by the titular maniac. Wurster and Scharpling’s words bring the Toolbelt Killer to disgusting, stomach-churning life as the deplorable villain is reborn as mass-murdering maniac “Beltie” and tussles with a woman who realizes that she must either kill him, or become his “belt bride.”
Trent L. Strauss cuts an unmistakably Trumpian figure. He is a child of absurd wealth and privilege who seems to labor under the delusion that being born rich and spoiled is a terrible disadvantage rather than pure luck. Despite his protestations to being a humanitarian, he’s clearly just a misanthropic sleaze out to get as much as he can out of a gullible and easily duped public.
“The Auteur” illustrates both The Best Show’s ability to remain eternal relevant as as well as its mastery in brilliantly mocking Donald Trump types years before President Trump became a horrifying reality.
Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.