Funny, Fearless, and Unafraid to Fail: Finding Creative Inspiration in Comedy Podcasts
Rebecca Ackermann on Learning to Write to a Soundtrack of Riffing Comedians
I always thought comedian Victor Borge looked exactly like my grandfather—but my grandfather was never funny. Both men were European Jews born at the turn of the century with history written on their faces and old countries on their tongues. My grandfather, a solemn man who believed in hard work and a quiet house, disapproved of most things.
Victor Borge made me laugh out loud at eleven years old while my parents were at work. From our worn VHS tape, Borge began his performance staring at the TV audience—at me, I was sure—with a book in hand and a promise to read this significant volume of literature aloud. But Borge’s unique comedic trick was to pronounce the punctuation along with the words: a series of zips and whizzes and pops that burst from this old man’s mouth. I was a shy kid who liked to draw and write in private.
I spent hours in my head dreaming up weighty stories, but was too nervous to read aloud from a textbook in class—an origin story familiar to so many who grow up to call ourselves writers. And here was this Holocaust survivor in a suit on stage, making raspberries with his mouth for the world to laugh at. Maybe, I thought alone on my couch, being funny in public was brave.
I wanted to make something new like this man who resembled my grandfather. Performing continued to terrify me, but I started letting humor into my scribblings, making comics for friends at school and adding jokes to my stories. Then in my twenties after early tastes of rejection and a stint at art school where I was too timid to make friends, I looked down the barrel of a life of lonely contemplation and decided to leave Borge’s raspberries behind. I traded in art for a serious job that demanded serious hours and came with readymade colleagues—another common tale that makes the world go round.
As a child, that VHS tape showed me that humor offered a creative spark and a sense of kinship. As an adult, comedy podcasts helped me find my way back to the creative world. Before I grew the confidence to seek out other writers and artists—before I even could call myself those words again—I found community second-hand by listening to comedians supporting each other at full volume during my long commutes to and from work.
My favorite shows then and now extend a backstage pass to the boundaryless conversations of the comedians’ greenroom: a peek into how creative people talk to other creative people when they’re not afraid of looking silly—even when taking on the most serious subjects. They offer each other punchlines, congratulations and cutting takedowns with the understanding that they’re all in this together: an upside-down life that honors outlandish hypotheticals and ignores the stink of the expected. These explosions of extroverted acceptance remind me again and again of the joy of making without fear.
Creative work can be a lonely and serious process. We spend hours silently debating the weight of a word, a lifetime worrying about the place our images deserve in the world. Performers then get to try things out, bounce ideas off an audience or watch them sink like a lead balloon. Many of us choose writing because we’re introverted by nature, and find a comfortable outlet for our rambling minds on a blank page. The silence in solitude “can be fertilizing, it can bathe the imagination,” the poet Adrienne Rich offered in her essay collection Arts of the Possible. Hemingway went as far as to claim that “writing, at its best, is a lonely life.”Even the most solitary artists sometimes need a safe room of peers for our strangest ideas and fiercest imaginings, a place to say “What if?” and “Does anyone else’s brain work in this wild way?”
But even the most solitary artists sometimes need a safe room of peers for our strangest ideas and fiercest imaginings, a place to say “What if?” and “Does anyone else’s brain work in this wild way?” A trusted and open community can be hard to find, though. In a 1984 interview with The Paris Review, writer James Baldwin remarked that he’d never seen a real community of writers and added “I don’t think any writer ever has.” There’s some comfort in knowing that even a literary legend couldn’t find a consistent group to lean on. Luckily, my comedy podcasts are always there for me now.
The first show I got into was You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes. The premise is that comedian Pete Holmes is very awkward while interviewing celebrities and other comedians he admires; the show lives up to its name. Holmes’ guests tease him mercilessly—for talking too much, for being religious, for being divorced, for being tall—and Holmes loves it. He pokes back too, and it only seems to bring them closer. Listening on the bus or in my car after a long day of meetings was brutal, uncomfortable, and inspiring. After Homes’s episodes, I would scribble my own ideas in a Google doc on my phone, unhatched phrases that sometimes even I couldn’t coax into meaning five minutes later. But the point was, it had been years since I was that girl watching Victor Borge spit out a comma, and I finally was writing again.
I’ve listened to hours, days (probably months, if I’m honest) of comedy podcasts since discovering You Made It Weird. I listen when I’m too tired to be creative, or too sad, or too scattered. I listen when I can’t figure out why an essay isn’t speaking back to me, or why it’s screaming so loud it hurts. I listen when my novel draft is snagged on a plot point that won’t budge, or when my story is racing forward at a dangerous speed. I listen when the tenth rewrite is still wrong and my inbox is filling up with rejections.
Each time I listen to comedians laughing at each other’s unrehearsed jokes, I let that joy wash over me, rinsing off my inhibitions with a scrub of try-anything humiliation. Failing is funny, and getting it right can be funny too. Even trying is funny, and that is part of what makes a creative life fun. During my years listening to Pete Holmes, I learned how to write fiction.
Next was Poog with Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak, a comedic experiment in public vanity that was the soundtrack to revisions on my second unpublished novel manuscript. Poog features two brilliant comedians who happen to be obsessed with wellness, an Achilles heel that they embrace with puns about proper hydration. They admit to spending tons of money on products that don’t work and discuss how they prepare for their successful shows (like Berlant’s recent Kate, and Novak’s 2019 Get on Your Knees) with baroque routines that include EMDR, The Kardashians and sound baths. On Poog, these genius creative minds don’t just let me in on how they craft an award-winning joke; they show me how they also struggle with the challenge of having a body and a brain at the same time. They may sometimes hate themselves but they always love each other, and their rawness has helped me love my shame a little more too.They may sometimes hate themselves but they always love each other, and their rawness has helped me love my shame a little more too.
My current favorite is Mike Birbiglia’s Working It Out, a show birthed in the stillness of the pandemic as an avenue for the comedian and his guests to workshop their unfinished bits on air. I found it a year later, after I’d lost a commute and gained my third novel idea. On Working It Out, the jokes are sometimes terrible (like many of my early outlines) but the comedians tell them anyway in the hopes that another comedian can help them find a way to the funny. Birbiglia is relentlessly kind to his guests, but they are not always the same back to him. They tell him when a punchline is flat or when he should consider a different angle on the entire subject. And Birbiglia thanks them, because that’s what the job is: to try, and fail, and do better, with the help of people who know exactly what you mean even when you don’t make any sense. I listened to Working It Out an hour after my first piece of fiction was published.
Birbiglia recently had his wife on the podcast, a woman with two published books of poetry who only recently “came out” as a poet by the name of J. Hope Stein. The episode annoyed me at first, made me itchy. Birbiglia is obviously gaga for his girl and the couple have a beautiful, knowing rapport—true love can irritate an audience, but that wasn’t my issue. Stein, a too-recently secret artist (she said she literally hid her poems around the house) wasn’t free like his other guests. She spoke like she was chewing on her words before letting them out, more careful and nervous than any guest I’d heard on the podcasts I’d binged in the past. I wanted to yell at her to spit it out! Try anything! Be funny! Be brave!
Poor J. Hope Stein; I was blaming her for the writerly reflection of myself she couldn’t help but offer me. She sounded like me when asked to describe my style. She paused as I do before expressing opinions that may offend. “I’m in a dark, lonely tunnel most of the time,” Stein said, explaining the conditions that form her work. She’s not doing it wrong—what I want to convey is that no one is—but she wasn’t offering me the vicarious relief that’s now a critical part of my own creative process. I live in that tunnel too and I need a comedic detonation from time to time to find my way back to fresh air.
Before entering comedy, Victor Borge was a classically trained musician, a celebrated composer who was playing a concert when Nazi forces occupied his native Denmark. I am sure that Borge was devastatingly familiar with the dark tunnel of one’s own thoughts. Yet he knew that next to failure and fears, the funny grows too. “Humor is something that thrives between man’s aspirations and his limitations,” he said. To be funny out loud with others is a brave expression of uncertainty in a world that favors clean stories of success.
Now I’m lucky enough to have a few generous artist friends, a nascent writing group and a crit partner to call my own. But I’m not giving up my podcasts anytime soon. If silly mouth noises were good enough for the great Victor Borge, I’m going to keep queueing up the comedy for this new novel that doesn’t make much sense, but knows what it wants to be when it grows up.