Pod-Canon is an ongoing tribute to the greatest individual comedy-related podcast episodes of all time.
The Dead Authors Podcast ended its run a few years back with a 50th chapter on L. Frank Baum, the man who gave us The Wizard of Oz, at the very tail end of 2015. But immediately before that episode ended the podcast’s life on an auspicious note, The Dead Authors Podcast returned to its ramshackle, endearing beginning with the first episode of the podcast that was ever recorded, a previously lost episode that went unheard for years.
But first, the eternally genial Paul F. Tompkins offers a lot of fascinating context and backstory for the podcast. It represents his aesthetic so purely and brilliantly that it’s still surprising that the concept did not originate with him. But if Tompkins did not come up with the basic idea of what would become The Dead Authors Podcast, he played a huge role in molding and shaping it into the delightful satirical institution it would become.
Tompkins initially saw The Dead Authors Podcast as more of a confrontational endeavor, where improvisers would come on in the guise of a previously living scribe of some note and mix it up. It didn’t quite work out that way. With the exception of the improvisers playing Kurt Vonnegut (Seth Morris) and Erma Bombeck (Brian Huskey), the guests didn’t mix it up the way Tompkins envisioned, but that’s probably because Morris and Huskey had a long history together and Vonnegut and Bombeck are natural enemies, in the wild, in literature and, by extension, on a podcast. You’d imagine it’d be intimidating improvising as a famous author, that it’d require a base of literary knowledge not all, or most, or even many, comedians possess. But Tompkins makes it easy on his guests by assuming they know relatively little about the authors they’re playing and continually feeding his guests information about themselves via his questions and his banter, and then essentially having them respond in the moment to his sly, artful prompts.
It also helped that Tompkins wasn’t too much of a stickler, or even a stickler at all, about having the satirical versions of late literary titans be accurate or realistic. You could even say it didn’t particularly matter to him at all. In one of my favorite moments in Dead Author Podcast history, you can audibly hear how disappointed Ben Schwartz’s Roald Dahl is to discover that he’s famously anti-Semitic. For Tompkins, verisimilitude meant nothing and being funny meant everything. This led to delightful portrayals of figures like Benjamin Franklin (Scott Aukerman) and Sun Tzu (Fred Armisen) as, respectively, a cocky bro asshole and Tony Robbins-like inspirational speaker.
In the first episode ever recorded, guests Eddie Pepitone and Jen Kirkman benefit from getting to play larger-than-life icons whose personas and personalities are so big and infamous that even people who don’t know how to read know that Henry Miller embodies vulgarity while Sylvia Plath epitomizes despair. From the very beginning, a goofy, absurdist strain of time-travel comedy has thrived on the podcast, as dour figures from our distant and not-so-distant past are reimagined as unlikely visitors to the Los Angeles of today. Kirkman’s Plath, for example, gushes about being able to go on the Jaws ride on the Universal unnoticed because “I’m a niche celebrity” and also being genuinely surprised by Jaws threatening the ride because, having died in 1963, she understandably hasn’t seen the movie Jaws.
Weird, rambling tangents were similarly a fixture from the beginning, like Plath positing her autobiographical poetry being an enormous influence on the alternative comedy scene of today. If that sounds like an observation that would come from a contemporary comedian rather than a dead poet, well, the luminaries on The Dead Authors Podcast tend to represent a The Fly-like fusion of famous author and the famous comedian playing them.
That’s unsurprisingly true of the episode’s second guest as well, whom the perpetually apoplectic funnyman plays as the ultimate Eddie Pepitone type. As a comedian, Pepitone has elevated yelling to an art form. Inhabiting the horny, gross skin of Miller, the guttural poet of American literature calls for him to crank up the volume to punishing levels. This episode finds Miller raging impotently against a strange new world full of things like Twitter and the Grove, the shopping complex Los Angelenos find infinitely fascinating and that no one outside LA could possibly be expected to give a fuck about, and trying to both cheer Plath up and hip her to the true, raw nature of reality.
Part of the fascination of listening to the very beginning of The Dead Authors Podcast lies in seeing how it deviates from subsequent episodes, where the kinks had been worked out and the format and tone stabilized. The two-guest format in particular gives the episode a freewheeling, messy quality, and Tompkins was still clearly refining his H.G Wells character.
Now that The Dead Authors Podcast has itself been dead for a few years, there’s no better time to revisit this exquisitely silly stroll through literary history.
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.