Like most aspects of the modern comedy world, improv and podcasts are two of the easiest things for a funny person to try out, but often are the hardest things to do well. To really shine in one or the other, it takes a strong point of view and a hell of a lot of stamina. Mostly the latter. You gotta stick with it and keep working at it if you have any hope of getting good and gaining an audience.
That's, in part, why I can't judge Julian Loves Music too harshly. The fledgling spinoff of the ever-popular Doug Loves Movies debuted its first episode in February and has yet to crack the Top 200 list of comedy podcasts on iTunes. And, while there were a healthy number of people in the Siren Theater to see a live taping of the podcast, it wasn't the packed house that it would be later for the Theme Park improv troupe.
But it's also clearly a podcast that is still finding its feet and its voice. The good news is that it's well on its way thanks to the charm and guile of host Julian McCullough and his wise choice of guests. McCullough has a lot of charisma up there, even when he's introducing a trivia game where the panel had to guess whether a particular artist killed himself/herself or not. He was especially great in the non-game moments, like telling the story of how his parents met in Portland and wondering in which building he might have been conceived.
McCullough's picks for the panel—visiting stand-ups Sara Schaefer, Eddie Pepitone, and Morgan Murphy, along with local hero Hutch Harris of the Thermals—proved brilliant as well. All four had a comfortable rapport with one another, and were willing to reveal their most embarrassing musical loves (I encourage everyone to give Hutch some grief for admitting to crying while listening to Bush's "Glycerine").
What rough patches there were during the hour-long taping were a little obvious. McCullough seemed vaguely annoyed when his guests guessed correctly whether a band name he gave was real or fake (yes, kids, Cerebral Ballzy is legit) and stumbled a bit trying to engage with Harris with his rookie question about how the Thermals got their moniker. Though that did lead to this great exchange:
McCullough: "Is that a stupid question?"
Again, it's early days yet for Julian Loves Music and even with those little hiccups, I was plenty engaged and will happily check out other episodes of the podcast. In fact, that's the same response that I had to local improv troupe the Liberators. Though I've never seen this quartet of performers before, it was pretty obvious that they were having trouble really settling into a steady rhythm onstage tonight. Whether that was due to the egregious temperatures outside (Nicholas Kessler looked to be suffering the most) or the notion of warming the crowd up for the egregiously talented Theme Park improv group, they floundered a bit. Like JLM, though, I'm intrigued enough by the Liberators' collective willingness to look ridiculous—like Kessler's outrageous portrayal of a crazed cow—and their intelligence that I'm definitely going to be checking them out again very soon.
Putting those locals up against the folks in Theme Park was also a little unfair. Cole Stratton's improv group has one of the deepest benches in the business, as proven tonight by the performances of John Michael Higgins, Janet Varney, Oscar Nuñez, and Jessica Makinson. Building off the foundation laid by guest monologist James Urbaniak, this quintet played the longform game perfectly with plenty of sharp callbacks and a delightfully circular logic to it all.
Describing the best moments of an improv show is almost like trying to describe a fireworks display. But watching these five act out the meeting of a high school "Old Timey" club that devolved into a manic Charleston contest and a murder, and watching Higgins evoke his work as attorney Wayne Jarvis on Arrested Development as he portrayed a father wound so tight he described his every movement ("Stepping forward... stepping forward...") provided the kind of delights that the Starlight Parade going on nearby really couldn't compete with.