Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
When Womp It Up, dynamic comedy duo Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham’s fan-favorite Comedy Bang Band spin-off, went on an indefinite hiatus in February of last year, fans like myself wondered if it would ever return. On Comedy Bang Bang and then their own podcast, St. Clair and Parham got an awful lot of comedy and drama out of the surprisingly rich, deep characters of Marissa Wompler (St. Clair), an irrepressible perpetual high schooler who never lets her tragic life and even sadder physique get her down and her enigmatic mentor/teacher figure Charlotte Listler (Parham) but there still seemed to be more juice left in these crazily complementary weirdos.
Thankfully, the beloved podcast returned last month with a terrific comeback episode featuring the red-hot Paul Scheer (who can be seen on the big screen in The Disaster Artist) as Mr. Casey Steers, an oily, overly ingratiating teacher with an unfortunate predilection for sexually pursuing students and underage girls that makes him the subject of lascivious schoolyard gossip. St. Clair’s Grimace-shaped teenage outcast begins the podcast by welcoming listeners back and admitting that at this point she doesn’t really know how old she is, just that she continually finds herself in high school, either due to continually failing her classes (a very real possibility) or due to some weird cosmic glitch that keeps her from aging naturally, or at all.
It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of acknowledging that, like comic strip and cartoon characters, podcast oddballs tend not to age. St. Clair and Parham get older but their ingenious, tragicomic creations remain perpetually the same age. There’s something weirdly perfect about that. I don’t know that I could cope with a middle-aged Marissa Wompler. It might just be too sad. It would be interesting to listen to an episode of With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus, another beloved Comedy Bang Bang spin-off that took a long break but returned, with a middle-aged or older Traci Reardon, just as an experiment, but it would also feel like a violation of the character. Just like Marissa Wompler, Traci Reardon needs to be in high school for her character to make any sense at all.
As a fan of both characters, I can happily attest that even as high school students, Reardon and Wompler barely make sense. That’s part of what makes them great. Remove them from the drama, comedy, desperation, and self-consciousness of high school and they become unpalatable if not unbearable.
Womp It Up! seems weirdly suited to satirize this current moment in American culture and American politics. Inappropriate relationships between weird adults with no sense of boundaries or propriety and glorified children overjoyed that anyone is willing to pay attention to them are at the core of Womp It Up! and its central dynamics. If I had to choose one adjective to describe Marissa and Charlotte’s relationship it would be “warm” followed by “inappropriate.”
Even in the platonic case of Marissa and her hilariously deluded mentor, there’s something more than a little creepy about a relationship that transgresses so many necessary boundaries and rules. Steers has a lot more on his mind than platonic relationships between students and staff. His illicit relationship with one of his former students is the stuff of school legend, but his flirtatious banter makes it doubtful this unfortunate lady was an isolated case.
Like the best episodes of Womp It Up, this captures how a high school can be a universe unto itself, a hermetic ecosystem populated by teenagers overflowing with hormones and urges and desires and teachers with secrets and urges and mistakes and desires of their own. In Womp It Up, high school is part melodrama, part sitcom, part dark comedy, and part tragedy.
Scheer creates in Mr. Casey Steers not a caricature but rather a full-fledged human being whose unfortunate proclivities, particularly where underage girls is concerned, is all too real, especially at this particular moment in time. Whether discussing his need to really get inside the head of the teenaged girl protagonist he’s writing about in his young adult novel Coming Into Seventeen or gushing about the cast of Stranger Things, Scheer’s lecherous teacher oozes sleaze. He’s yet another creep eager to misuse his power in the service of his forbidden sexual needs, only instead of stalking malls for teenage girls like a certain Alabama politician, he uses his workplace as his harem.
The never-ending stream of sexual assault and harassment scandals is utterly dispiriting, but this standout return episode mines very big, very uncomfortable laughs out of some very dark, very timely subject matter.
Nathan Rabin is a father, the author of 5 books, a columnist and the proprietor, owner, Editor-in-Chief and sole writer for Nathan Rabin’s Happy Place, which can be found at nathanrabin.com.