This story doesn’t begin with a live recording of a podcast like it should. Instead, it begins in a 1993 Toyota pickup truck, attempting to climb its way through the Sierra Mountains. What should have been a four-hour drive from Reno to San Francisco turned in to an eight-hour snowy trek through the mountains. It was only by some small miracle that my partner and I arrived just as the show was beginning.
Behind The Bastards is a comedy/history podcast produced by iHeart media. According to its website “Behind the Bastards dives in past the Cliffs Notes of the worst humans in history and exposes the bizarre realities of their lives. Listeners will learn about the young adult novels that helped Hitler form his monstrous ideology, the founder of Blackwater’s insane quest to build his own Air Force, the bizarre lives of the sons and daughters of dictators and Saddam Hussein’s side career as a trashy romance novelist.”
The podcast is typically split up into two episodes which air weekly on Tuesday and Thursday. It is hosted by journalist and author Robert Evans who is joined in the sidecar by a stand-up comedian. This results in an entertaining show which combines strange history and comedy.
On January 26th, Behind The Bastards hosted it’s second ever live show at the 19th annual SF Sketchfest, a comedy festival based in the greater San Francisco area. In this episode, Evans is joined by David X. Cohen, who wrote for The Simpsons, Beavis and Butthead, served as the head writer and executive producer of Futurama and helped produce Disenchantment.
The focus of this episode was Robert Brown, creator, editor and publisher of the Soldier of Fortune magazine. The episode focused on Brown’s work creating the magazine, and the controversies surrounding it. The episode is wonderfully in-depth and sheds light, not only on how awful Brown was but the crimes the magazine effectively endorsed through its classified ads section.
Evans’ work putting together all of the information contained within the episode should be commended. It’s a comprehensive piece of work, with every claim backed by reputable sources. Cohen adds some much-needed lightness to the episode and is consistently hilarious throughout. Both keep up their pace for roughly an hour and a half, putting together a wonderful show. The show ended with a light-hearted game of Bagel Tennis, which is featured below, and encouraged the audience to participate in Machete-Bagel Skeet.
There’s a lot to be said about watching a person responding to such a horrible thing not only with comedy but repeatedly, twice a week for the past TWO YEARS. Behind The Bastards releases episodes consistently, which requires a large amount of dedication from its host. The amount of research that goes into each episode is staggering, and Evans has repeatedly stated that it’s draining on his mental state. And yet, he meets this with comedy.
This dedication to a task brings to mind the play Waiting For Godot by Samuel Beckett. If you don’t know, Waiting For Godot is a short two-act play that details two men complaining about how their legs hurt and swapping bowler hats. It makes light of the tragedy of their two lives. It’s widely considered the defining play of the absurdist theater.
Perhaps Evans would be frustrated at being called an absurdist. Beckett despised being called an Existentialist and seemed to be frustrated at being pigeonholed into any genre. In the episode of the This! podcast he guested on, Evans described himself as a “Cheerful Nihilist”, and on he has repeatedly claimed that the purpose of the creation of Behind The Bastards was not merely to inform his audience, but to bring them to the conclusion that it is not people who are inherently evil, but power. He also suggests that society can be changed, and we are not condemned to endure the bastards of history forever.
This philosophy fits well into Absurdism, which suggests that the world is inherently absurd as it exists, but that absurdity can and should be challenged. Within this view, Behind The Bastards is not only a comedy podcast that deals in history, or vice-versa, but a form of Absurdist performance art. The idea of repeatedly facing the awful facts of the world not just to entertain, but to encourage others to change these things fits neatly into the Absurdist canon.
Evans’ dedication to the telling of these awful histories mirrors the mission of the Absurdist philosophy through theater. It is to hope for an end, but given all context surrounding both, hopes do not seem to have any chance of coming to fruition without audience intervention. Waiting For Godot pleads with its audience, begging that they don’t waste their lives on monotony. Behind The Bastards does something similar, asking its audience to recognize the traits which create the bastards the podcast focuses on, and do their best learn from history’s mistakes. Both force the audience to plunge into the Absurd headfirst, and come out recognizing the ability of comedy to help people face the evil in the world earnestly.
A note: To SF Sketchfest, thank you for providing me with tickets for the event. To the readers, thank you all for standing by and watching while I crawled up my own ass while writing this article. Hopefully, I’ll be able to find my way back out.