Improv podcasts are revitalizing the world of audio comedy

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By Kate Joseph
Staff Writer

Podcast “WOMP It Up!” with Marissa Wompler provides audiences with a fun, humorous outlet.

Podcast “WOMP It Up!” with Marissa Wompler provides audiences with a fun, humorous outlet.

Marissa Wompler is Marina Del Ray (MDR) Public Library’s 17-year-old intern and has a passion for radio. Every other week she broadcasts live along with her teacher and co-host Miss Charlotte Listler to dish about the haps on campus, give love advice to listeners, and talk to influential figures like health teacher Mr. Joe Bongo.

Marissa is simply a quirky, DiGiorno-loving young woman, but there’s much more to her and her guests than meets the ear.

Upright Citizens Brigade-trained comedians and best friends Jessica St. Clair and Lennon Parham are behind the voices of Wompler and Listler in their improvisational comedy podcast “WOMP It Up!” In each episode, the duo further explores their characters, introduces new friends from the MDR high school community—also voiced by well-known comedians like Jason Mantzoukas and Andy Daly—and keeps listeners laughing with their unpredictable antics.

“WOMP It Up!” debuted in April on the Earwolf podcast network, home of several improv comedy podcasts, most notably its flagship show “Comedy Bang! Bang!” (CBB).

The weekly podcast, originally titled Comedy Death-Ray Radio when it premiered on the actual radio’s Indie 103.1 in 2009, is hosted by writer/comedian/Earwolf co-founder Scott Aukerman, who is joined each episode by a lineup of comedians and actors, many of whom create their own characters or impersonate well-known personalities. The show’s past guest list is an impressive roster, boasting comedy favorites such as Amy Poehler, Jon Hamm, Seth Rogen, and Aziz Ansari.

“We stopped talking about comedy — which a lot of podcasts do and are really good at — but started to actually do comedy,” Aukerman told Splitsider in 2011. “That’s when I started enjoying the show more and when I think the audience started enjoying the show more.”

Over the last six years, CBB has gained a considerable following, resulting in a television show on International Film Channel, a U.S. tour, and, at one point, a weekly live show at the Upright Citizens Brigade theatre in Los Angeles.

Typically, an episode of the brilliantly goofy podcast runs about 90 minutes and incorporates just about anything that could be construed as audible humor; interviews with guests—both real people and improvised characters —games, discussions, and occasional rap battles.

“It’s exciting and you don’t know what’s going to happen,” said Jeff Ullrich, co-founder of Earwolf, in an interview with Splitsider. “But you trust that Scott is bringing on people that you are going to want to hear them play with each other. It’s like you are listening in on a workshop for people who don’t need to be at a workshop because they’re already the best in the world at what they do.”

The ingenious advantage of audio-only improv is that the possibilities for storytelling are limitless. Guest performers are not restricted by the pressure of a live audience, the boundaries of a stage, or the distraction of baring dissimilar physical attributes of their character, like Wompler, who is supposedly shaped like “an upside-down blueberry muffin,” unlike St. Clair and her slimmer figure. Absurd and satirical characters like these are the uproarious touchstone of “Bang! Bang!,” which is precisely why the show works without fault.

A frequent CBB guest, Lauren Lapkus, who began her improv career as a teenager, often appears as recurring characters like Traci Reardon, a teenage girl who can’t pronounce her Rs, and Todd, Aukerman’s flippant middle-school-aged nephew.

Last November, Lapkus kicked off her own improv podcast, “With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus,” in which she assumes the guest role of each episode as an improvised character and her actual guest takes on hosting responsibilities.

One week the show could play out as a community radio show with Paul F. Tompkins, the next as a call-in show about dogs with Nick Kroll’s Dr. Doug. The format is slightly more structured than Aukerman’s hurricane of hilarity, but “Special Guest” still holds its own as a silly and smart mishmash.

“My host is the one who gets to decide what’s going to happen or what the show is,” Lapkus told Splitsider earlier this year. “They decide my character as well. I really don’t know anything going in, but that’s how I like it.”

“Bang! Bang!” may have provided Lapkus with a spotlight in the comedy podcast world, but she’s certainly not the only one. In fact, St. Clair’s Wompler originated on Aukerman’s show back in 2010 and has returned to “Bang! Bang!” several times, often bringing friends and teachers, like Parham’s Listler, with her.

“As a fan, there is something really exciting to know that there is a 10 percent chance that I am about to hear the origin of a character that could be in a TV show in three years or in a movie in five years. It’s the groundbreaking place where things happen,” said Ullrich.

These three programs certainly do not reside in a limited corner of iTunes’ vast podcast library. The Earwolf network alone also carries “improv4humans” with Matt Besser and “Ronna & Beverly” with Jessica Chaffin and Jamie Denbo, both running well into triple digit episodes.

More podcasts of the sort are plentiful. Between shows like “The Backline” with Rob Norman and Adam Cawley; “Superego” with Matt Gourley, Jeremy Carter, Mark McConville and Paul F. Tompkins; “Improv Nerd” with Jimmy Carrane; and more, there are thousands of hours of audio improv available now, with dozens more being added each week.

Improv podcasts are flourishing, but so are podcasts in general. Thanks to the immense popularity of shows like “This American Life” and “Serial,” more people than ever are tuning in to iTunes and Sound Cloud to get their entertainment fix.

Nonetheless, these niche shows stand out against the masses. CBB and its allies separate themselves from more traditional comedy podcasts, like “WTF with Marc Maron” and “The Adam Carolla Show,” by going so far out there they are becoming a different breed altogether.

Improv podcasts give comedians the ability to flaunt their quick wits and acting expertise in an informal setting where they can be heard around the globe. It’s an amusing exercise in comedy for both the performer and the listener and oftentimes even more entertaining than the scripted humor we’re used to.

“I try to not have stuff planned,” said Aukerman. “So it could be a little dangerous, and because the human mind could not probably plan something that weird.”