Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
Earwolf’s political talk spoof Hard Nation has emerged as one of the most consistently funny and inspired podcasts around. Hard Nation debuted in the oppressive heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, when it seemed like national politics could not get crazier or sink any lower. How adorably naive of us to imagine that we had seen the worst and we wouldn’t be hitting new nadirs pretty every month, if not every week. Trump’s election ensured that the madness, division, and acrimony that characterized the presidential campaign wouldn’t be going away anytime soon. The surreal nature of our political landscape has proven a godsend to Hard Nation even as the podcast has evolved in fascinatingly non-political directions.
The yin-yang dynamic between perpetually apoplectic and mortified lefty progressive Pete Hard and right-wing buffoon Mark Hard has always been the podcast’s core. The characters began as broad caricatures, funny but fairly one-dimensional. Pete’s prickly, misanthropic progressive clearly represented the podcast’s leftist politics while Mark was a big buffoon who represents pure, all-American ignorance.
Things have changed a lot since then, primarily with Mark. Mark’s evolution has been a wonder to behold. He began the podcast as a very funny but fairly limited satirical take on the Rush Limbaugh school of bloviating loudmouths, but he’s grown more multi-dimensional and sympathetic with time. At this point Mark is almost like a character from a Christopher Guest film: a boundlessly enthusiastic would-be comedy performer devoid of self-awareness and self-consciousness, who has no idea how ridiculous he comes off to everybody, but particularly his eternally irritated brother. He’s a fool and a clown but there’s a sweetness and a childlike innocence to the character that renders him unexpectedly sympathetic.
Mark hopped onboard the Trump train, but like a fair number of conservatives, he eventually became disillusioned. It’s been fascinating listening to him try to be “woke” without actually changing, learning, or evolving in any way. Politics will always be the essence of Hard Nation, but it’s been building out its fictional universe in ambitious ways by, for example, having these half-brothers’ fathers gay-marry each other late in life .
It’s a testament to how far Hard Nation has deviated from its roots that the interview in the standout episode “Mario and Cappy Have an Existential Crisis” has almost nothing to do with politics or politicians. Hard Nation generally has comedians playing real-life political figures like Trump, Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush and the like. The guests in “Mario and Cappy Have an Existential Crisis” however, not only aren’t real-life politicians – they’re not even real people. The podcast takes advantage of the much buzzed-about new video game blockbuster Super Mario Odyssey to have a substantive conversation with Italian plumber-turned-video-game-icon Mario and his buddy Cappy, a sentient hat who talks in the gravelly, working-class accent of a tough living Queens bouncer.
In this revisionist retelling, the familiar world of Super Mario Brothers, Donkey Kong, and their various spin-offs and sequels becomes a bizarre, haunted surrealistic realm of ghosts, monsters, and spirits, perpetual death followed by continual re-birth. It’s a heavy trip, man, involving mushrooms of the hallucinogenic mind and body-altering variety.
Jessica McKenna gives Mario an ebullient personality, helium-high voice, and irrepressible enthusiasm despite the constant drama and death that defines his life. Mario and his raspy sidekick Cappy reject the idea that they’re the stars of a “game.” Instead, Cappy defiantly insists that Super Mario Odyssey is actually “a visual retelling of some shit we went through.” This isn’t a game for children, this is some docudrama, reality-based truth.
We learn that death works differently in Mario world. Death is not the end, only a matter of a ten second long regeneration process and you can apparently buy lives with coins. Mario is a very cheerful chap. He mostly says, “It’s a me, Mario!” but his cheerfulness can’t mask regular bouts of self-doubt and existential despair. He’s thrown into a tizzy, for example, by the mere suggestion that his girlfriend Princess Peach might be choosing to marry enemy Bowser rather than doing it against her will. From there, Mario finds himself plunged deep into a confusing, looking-glass world of doubt and despair. He begins to question his very existence, leading Pete to observe, “Mario has discovered philosophy and it’s a nightmare.” Cappy explains that Mario has died countless times, in a variety of unusual and horrifying ways, and that each time he comes back, he’s changed, and not in a good way. It’s like Live, Die, Repeat/Edge of Tomorrow or Pet Sematary, only even more of an existential shit show.
Early on, Mike and Pete concede that when they were told their guests would be a fictional video game archetype and a sentient cap, they thought it was a joke. It is, indeed, an idea so goofy and out there that the episode easily could have been a trainwreck, or unlistenable. Instead, it’s a goddamn delight from start to finish. Where else are you going to hear Mario comparing his relationship with Bowser to General Ulysses Grant’s bond with Robert E. Lee?
The world of Super Mario is insane and perilous, confusing and dispiriting. In that respect, it’s like our own political world but with more angrily hurled turtle shells and bullets with butterfly wings.
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.