‘Runaway Brains’ with Ken Jennings and Weird Al Is a Demented Satirical Novel in Podcast Form
The podcast service Howl launched not too long ago with the entire Earwolf and WTF back catalog, an abundance of comedy albums, and some ambitious mini-series dedicated to experimenting with the podcasting form. The idea is to reel audiences in with wildly popular podcasts like Comedy Bang Bang, How Did This Get Made? and WTF, and then to get listeners to take a chance on something a little more specialized, like a Dan Telfer standup album or the anarchic, science-fiction comedy miniseries Runaway Brains.
Runaway Brains has a ridiculously star-studded cast headlined by Jeopardy champion turned professional smart guy Ken Jennings (playing a much sillier version of himself), new Comedy Bang Bang band-leader “Weird Al” Yankovic as supercomputer Watson, and a supporting cast that includes Lauren Lapkus, real-life smart person Mayim Bialik, Adam Pally, Michael Ian Black, David Koechner, Phil Hendrie and, perhaps most excitingly, (that is if you’re obsessed with the podcast The Flop House as I am) new Mystery Science Theater 3000 head writer Elliott Kalan narrating the proceedings in the stylized cadences of a 1940s newsreel announcer.
Yet even with all of that talent, Runaway Brains is still a tough sell because it is wantonly, flagrantly satirical. History has taught us that satire is, almost by definition, not popular. It’s something that people need to be forced to experience, because it’s good and important and culturally trenchant, when, truth be told, they’d probably just rather watch their goddamned Jeff Dunham specials on repeat.
The miniseries begins with Jennings and Watson competing on Jeopardy before a mysterious figure invades the broadcast searching for important information contained somewhere deep within Watson. This leads Jennings and his anthropomorphized, talking computer sidekick to embark on a kaleidoscopic journey through a wild world of gay lizard people, the deep web, and an evil Genius Bar that is just like the regular old Genius Bar where Apple products are lovingly brought back to life, only, ironically, with far fewer goatees.
Runaway Brains is the brainchild of comedy writer Rob Kutner, who writes for Conan for a living and dreams up insanely ambitious science-fiction, comic-book, time-traveling craziness for passion projects like the terrific musical comedy concept album 2776 and the Kickstarter-funded comic-book Shrinkage in his spare time.
Like 2776, Runaway Brains feels like a wild and outrageous, free-swinging satirical novel — the kind that a select group of weirdoes worship and the rest of the world aggressively ignores — in audio form. It’s a throwback to the days when Fireside Theater would create shaggy sonic stoner comedies using only sound and their all-too-vivid imaginations.
Kutner’s comedy is characterized by a singular combination of silly, stupid, and ridiculously smart. Hell, sometimes the miniseries is silly, smart, and impressively stupid all at the same time. It’s a podcast that doesn’t delineate between highbrow gags and lowbrow tomfoolery, that delights in words and ideas and free-associative silliness.
Runaway Brains’ silly-smart wordplay is at its most dazzlingly inventive during an earworm of a theme song sung by Steven Page of Barenaked Ladies which contains the lyrics, “”One’s pathetic/One’s electromagnetic/Now they’re both/Peripatetic/On the run for what their heads contain/Runaway Brains!” You rarely hear the word “peripatetic” used in music and the surprise here, I suppose, is that Runaway Brains stars “Weird Al” Yankovic and yet he is not the one using “peripatetic” as you would imagine, but rather another titan of the funny music world.
Kutner takes advantage of being in a purely audio format to engage in the kind of immense world-building that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars to actually show onscreen. But in the world of podcasts, the only limits are the limits of the imagination and, if anything, Runaway Brains might actually be too creative in its incredibly dense take on the craziness of contemporary life, particularly as it relates to the internet.
In true serial form, the plot is so dense and so crazy, and travels down so many weird back alleys and side streets, that I could easily devote two-thousand words to just summarizing it and still only capture about half of it. The plot really doesn’t matter. It primarily just serves to get Jennings and Watson from one crazy, preposterous-seeming corner of the universe to another.
Runaway Brains is so nerdy it might actually be too nerdy for many nerds. It’s so unrelentingly geeky that even a nerd as big as Chris Hardwick would probably feel duty-bound to shove the entire cast and crew into a locker and angrily purloin their milk money. And with his striking good looks, confidence, and extraordinary success in every facet of his life and career, Hardwick pretty much epitomizes the adorable haplessness of the contemporary nerd.
Runaway Brains greatest strength is Watson. Yankovic and Kutner make the character at once a sly and clever satire of our culture’s tendency to anthropomorphize robots and computers, to transform them from cold, unfeeling technological beings of pure logic to cuddly little love bugs who just want a hug (or, in Watson’s case, to experience the emotion known by humans as “love” with a GPS he finds cyber-bewitching) and an endearing and oddly lovable character in its own right. Yankovic paradoxically makes Watson the most human character in the entire mini-series.
As in the literature of Arthur Conan Doyle, Watson proves a perfect sidekick and companion. Jennings isn’t just extraordinarily game for everything Kutner throws at him, but he also has impressive comic timing and great chemistry with Yankovic’s Watson. It’s tempting to imagine Watson and Jennings taking their shtick to the big screen in a Runaway Brains cinematic extravaganza but if that were ever to happen, they’d probably need to pare down the plot just a little bit.