Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
This has been a very strange, rollercoaster month or so for fans of Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements’ feverishly adored cult podcast Hollywood Handbook. The Earwolf bad boys have been talking how bad, exhausted, worn out, and comedically threadbare they find their podcast even more than usual as of late.
To that end, they vowed to end the podcast after its 200th episode. Of course, it’s foolish to take anything Hayes and Sean say face value. They operate under so many layers of irony that it’s difficult to tell whether they’re being sincere, if ever. True, Tom Scharpling of The Best Show, who figures so prominently in Hollywood Handbook’s mythology that he’s practically a third host, also alluded to the end of Hollywood Handbook on his own show but for longtime fans of both podcasts that really just meant that if, in fact, the death/end of Hollywood Handbook is an elaborate joke, then he’s also in on it, as you would expect him to be.
Hollywood Handbook went so far as to have posters made up commemorating their podcast’s death featuring a headstone with the podcast’s name on it and the years of its seemingly too brief but glorious existence. That, friends, is what you call really committing to a bit. Because if Hollywood Handbook doesn’t end in 2017, then that poster is a goddamn liar and Hollywood Handbook is nothing if not committed to bold, brash, unadorned honesty.
So I was surprised, if not exactly shocked, to discover that the week after its ostensible final episode, Hollywood Handbook released two episodes, one a hilarious sex-themed live episode with a bone-dry Kumail Nanjiani (no crude pun intended) that was previously available on Stitcher Premium, and the other with Maria Blasucci and The Complete Woman’s Amanda Lund. For an ostensibly dead podcast, Hollywood Handbook seems awfully active, but one Hollywood Handbook-related project does, indeed, seem to have run its course in the form of Hollywood Masterclass, a Stitcher Premium original that finds Sean Clements going solo in a mini-series where he adopts the role of an eccentric acting guru counseling a baffled and grumpy student Ben Rodgers.
Instead of changing the tone or aesthetic of Hollywood Handbook, Sean’s solo mini-series instead narrows its focus to concentrate on a particularly ridiculous, fertile element of show business narcissism, in this case the craft of acting. Hollywood Handbook doesn’t really have a straight man but in Hollywood Masterclass Rodgers deftly plays the role. He’s the listener surrogate gamely struggling to make sense of his teacher’s frequently nonsensical and often flat-out destructive and offensive advice. The dynamic at play here is an old, familiar one: the bogus guru and the disgruntled would-be protege. Think Anger Management the film or TV show, only, you know, funny.
The mini-series finds Clements dragging Rodgers through six more or less hour-long classes with pompous titles like, “The Role of the Artist,” “Mastering the Monologue,” and “Acting Without a Net.” Rodgers begins the mini-series in a state of low-level aggravation, and grows more and more enraged as Clements leads him further and further astray.
In “Mastering the Monologue,” for example, Clements gives his pupil a monologue from Hall Pass to read that gets funnier and funnier with repetition as it moves farther and farther away from its original context as a crowd-pleasing, writerly speech from a mostly forgotten Farrelly Brothers comedy and into the realm of anti-comedy. Hollywood Masterclass gets bigger and more laughs just out of the earnest ways Rodgers pronounces the part of the Hall Pass monologue about how the genius of the Hall Pass idea is that it would empower unhappy married men to “get some strange” than many comedy podcasts do cumulatively over the course of their entire run.
Hollywood Masterclass is a beautiful showcase for the prickly comic genius of Clements, and a more low-key one for the superior straight man stylings of Rodgers, but Clements brings in ringers like Hayes Davenport and Paul Scheer as guest lecturers to further confuse and frustrate Rodgers with staggeringly unhelpful advice about money and head shots and improvisation. The ridiculousness of actors and acting as an art form is not the freshest or most novel topic for satire, but just as Hollywood Handbook manages to scathingly and consistently lampoon show business without falling into many of the traps of show business-centered comedy, Hollywood Masterclass attacks acting from unexpected, new, and most importantly, very funny angles.
As the past few weeks have proven, it’s hard to know exactly where Hollywood Handbook and the partnership of Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements is headed in the future, but their past is full of some of the biggest and most consistent laughs in all of podcasting, as a duo and separately, in addition to famously also being nice, smart, fun, funny and cool.
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.