The ‘High and Mighty’/’Hollywood Handbook’/Joe Wengert Trilogy Is Three Episodes of Sublime Post-Modern Silliness

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Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport’s Hollywood Handbook has been in a fascinatingly meta, intricate and multi-layered groove as of late. Earwolf’s obsessively loved show-business satire has devoted episode after episode to giddily deconstructing the elements of podcasting, comedy, and show business while at the same time building out the podcast’s universe and the hosts’ hyper-competitive relationship.

Some of the show’s ideas are too big for a single episode, or even for a single podcast or a single podcasting network, as evidenced by a fascinating three-podcast suite that began, improbably but perfectly enough, not only on another podcast on another network, but on another comic plane altogether.

On Hollywood Handbook, Hayes and Sean are Jedi masters of sarcasm. But when Hayes Davenport appeared on Comedy Bang Bang favorite Jon Gabrus’ High and Mighty podcast to discuss the cozily nostalgic subject of newspaper comics it was as his charming and urbane self and not as the heightened, fictionalized version found on Hollywood Handbook.

Because this is Gabrus and Davenport, the conversation is funny. Yet it also provides a fascinating glimpse into Davenport’s actual life and history, including his time at the Harvard Lampoon. In this instance, a name doubles as destiny: how could a dude with a big brain named Hayes Davenport not matriculate at Harvard and lend his wit to its legendary humor publication?

Newspaper comics is a perfect podcast theme. It’s something that utterly obsessed me as a child (to the point where I would send fan mail to people like the dudes who drew Luanne and Curtis) but also something I have not thought about in forever. That’s a combination custom-designed for podcast/online heat.

I have no idea how many times Hayes’ episode of High and Mighty was downloaded. It really does not matter, even if the second entry in this trilogy, this time at Hollywood Handbook, is rooted in the idea that it was so popular that it filled Sean with rage and jealousy and made him feel like Gabrus was trying to drive a wedge in their relationship so he can steal Hayes from him and they can record explosively popular newspaper comics-themed podcasts to their hearts’ content.

In his self-appointed role as Hayes’ “britches-tailor” (someone who adjust the britches of phonies who’ve gotten too big for them), Sean decides that the key to the earlier podcast’s viral popularity lie in the public’s unending fascination with newspaper comics and, to a lesser extent, the lovable slob persona of Jon Gabrus. To this end, he recruits comedian and writer Joe Wengert, who podcast audiences know best as his Comedy Bang Bang role as a duck deeply offended by the widespread perception that he’s a duck, to talk newspaper comics in an episode he intends to keep secret from Hayes until he’s succeeded in his britches-adjustment.

Since Sean seems convinced that Gabrus’ personality helped make the earlier podcast a hit, he’s continually trying to get a clearly uncomfortable and a little confused Wengert to behave like an outsized caricature of Gabrus. If that sounds insanely convoluted, it is — but that works in its advantage. Hollywood Handbook never has to choose between being dazzlingly, insanely meta and self-referential and being laugh-out-loud funny. As brainy and meta as Hollywood Handbook gets, it never goes longer than a minute or so with a genuine laugh.  

In the third entry in the ongoing saga that is the great High And MightyJoe Wengert/Hollywood Handbook hullabaloo, Jon Gabrus returns to Earwolf upon learning that the Joe Wengert episode of Hollywood Handbook had succeeded to such an extent that Wengert went insane and, under the influence of a mysterious substance known as Gabrisone, turns into the Wendigabrus, a beast that’s part Joe Wengert, part Jon Gabrus (mostly Gabrus, really), and part Incredible Hulk.

Hayes serves as an on-the-scene reporter hunting down the elusive Wendigabrus as it rampages and berserks its way through the world. This horrifying monster shits and masturbates and then tweets and talks about shitting and masturbating, pausing from the destruction and mayhem only long enough to accept low-paying, low-integrity gigs as a talking head on third-tier basic cable filler and re-negotiate a surprisingly solid deal with podcast network HeadGum.

Sean, meanwhile, continues to try to sabotage his partner and mine the endless, bottomless vein that is newspaper comics by continuing to drill Gabrus about his opinion about comics like Gasoline Alley to Non Sequitur to hilariously unproductive results. Outside the studios and deep in the shit, Hayes chases after the wily yet savage Wendigabrus, sounding as breathless yet determined as the on-the-scene reporter in Orson Welles’ War Of The Worlds broadcast. The Wendigabrus is at once a wildly exaggerated version of Jon Gabrus and a belching, flatulent mythological creature along the lines of a Bigfoot or Dan Fogler (or, I suppose, the cult Canadian monster Wendigo, subject of the cult Canadian monster movie of the same name).

It’s a spectacularly silly, very inside conceit that is sustained longer and more brilliantly than seems possible, thanks to the offbeat chemistry between the participants and Gabrus’ fearless self-parody. In the end, this episode ends up providing a glimpse into the real-life, non-ironic relationships between Sean and Hayes and Hayes and Sean and Sean and Jon Gabrus, albeit in a much different way, and from a much different angle than the High And Mighty podcast that began all this inspired silliness. Where the High And Mighty episode that began this trilogy had an unexpected warmth, the third entry has some of the sometimes bracing darkness, honesty, and prickliness that gives Hollywood Handbook its edge. Hollywood Handbook’s satire regularly implicates itself and its audience. That’s the best, and riskiest, and rarest kind, because it risks pissing off a target audience that’s also, not coincidentally, its satirical target.

As a show that operates on multiple levels of irony and Brechtian detachment, Hollywood Handbook may be a quintessential acquired taste, but since Hayes and Sean are doing some of the most consistently hilarious, inspired and casually adventurous comedy around, not just in podcasting, it’s a taste worth acquiring.

Nathan Rabin is the author of five books, including Weird Al: The Book (with Al Yankovic) and the recently released Ebook “Short Read”, 7 Days In Ohio: Trump, The Gathering of The Juggalos And The Summer Everything Went Insane.

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