Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
There is a melancholy magic to the way podcasts capture for posterity the voices and ineffable charisma of performers who will never speak again. Podcast archives can be a bittersweet place where dead voices gather but they can also function as memorials, tributes to performers we loved and lost, whether the late, lamented souls in question are Harris Wittels on You Made It Weird, “Rowdy” Roddy Piper on Sklarbro Country, or Patrice O’Neal on WTF.
The funny, sad, unique, and quietly heartbreaking Fugitive Waves episode “Taylor Negron: Portrait Of An Artist As An Answering Machine” works beautifully as a memorial to Taylor Negron, actor, storyteller, comedian, character actor and all around character. In fact, the bulk of the episode was recorded for a series called “Lost And Found” in the late 1990s, and was revised and released in 2015 following Negron’s death after a long battle with cancer.
But Negron was an extraordinary, extraordinarily unique human being and in “Portrait Of An Artist As An Answering Machine,” he receives an abstract portrait/memorial every bit as eccentric, fascinating, and wickedly human as Negron himself. The idea, as the title conveys, is to look at the progression of Negron’s life through the answering machine messages he compulsively hoarded.
You would imagine that a man as charismatic and unusual as Negron would have a fascinating circle of friends and professional colleagues, and this podcast suggests you’d definitely be right. The episode is fascinating in part due to the complete absence of context beyond “these are all things people said into Taylor Negron’s answering machine.”
Though some of the callers identify themselves by name, most just launch into their respective spiels. Some of the callers are actors wanting to run lines by Negron before a big audition. Others are flighty, hyper-verbal women whose messages constitute tiny little standup sets conceived and recorded exclusively for Negron’s benefit, or their own, given the very California narcissist nature of many of the callers and messages.
There’s a woman who speaks of online dating as both a holy crusade and as a job she feels both entitled and obligated to put in the kinds of hours she would put in for the kind of job that is not single-mindedly devoted to finding a husband. Throughout the gauntlet of calls, various themes emerge, like professional ambition and romantic loneliness and desperation.
The episode isn’t just a meditation on Negron’s life as filtered through his phone messages. It’s also a meditation on the nature of answering machine messages themselves. There’s something inherently poignant about even the most mundane answering machine message, since at the very least there is a missed connection between the caller and the owner of the answering machine and oftentimes a plea of some sort, even if it’s just to be called back.
The episode is fascinating as well in how it manipulates and reflects the passing of time. It would be tempting to say that the podcast was recorded in two chunks, in the part that ran on the radio in 1999 and in the expanded version that was podcast following Negron’s death. But it’s more accurate, and more compelling that the podcast was actually recorded over an extended period of time in numerous increments, with many of its most valuable contributors (that would be the anonymous callers filling Negron’s answering machine with so much accidental poetry, drama, and comedy) never even cognizant that they were adding to the trippy tapestry that is “Taylor Negron: Portrait Of An Artist As An Answering Machine”
Onscreen, Negron was typecast in flashy but minor roles as pizza delivery men and henchmen and effete oddballs of hard-to-pin-down-ethnicity but this episode suggests that beyond music and comedy and acting, Negron’s true art form was his life, and in that, he created a masterpiece, albeit of the cult variety. This podcast is the antithesis of a WTF-style career retrospective interview yet is just as revealing all the same.
Negron’s voice paradoxically comes in loud and clear through his absence. We can’t help but day-dream and fantasize about the nature of all of these calls and these callers, and their relationship to Negron. Who are these people? What were their lives like? Where are they now? Are they happy? Content? Dead?
So perhaps it’s not surprising that Negron, who is heard early in the podcast during an appearance on The Moth discussing the “California Gothic” nature of his life, returns at the end of the episode in a message found on his phone after his death where, in response to receiving an Amber alert (oh, the myriad fuckeries of modern life!), he talk-sang an improvised, stream of consciousness ramble about a girl named Amber who had gotten lost. It’s silly and goofy but ultimately sad. Like the rest of the episode, it offers a fascinating glimpse into a beautiful mind and the world that ended when his life did.
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.