Published on June 23rd, 2009 | by Sharilyn Johnson5
How I Spent My Summer Vacation: MaxFunCon 2009
Contrary to popular belief, I do have friends. And one of those friends, writer / improvisor / fellow Torontonian and comedy-savvy woman (yes, there’s more than one of us) Catherine McCormick, recently travelled to the breezy mountains of California for MaxFunCon, an event that scores so many cool points that it makes my treks to Just For Laughs and Del Close Marathon look like Jonas Brothers concerts.
Without further ado, I hand things over to my first-ever guest blogger to tell us what we missed out on. I’ll just be over in the corner seething with jealousy.
Last week comedy and podcast nerds came together for one amazing weekend. MaxFunCon is the brainchild of podcasting/public radio superstar Jesse Thorn. It featured live comedy and music performances, workshops and the chance to rub elbows with comedians and internet luminaries alike. Around 150 very lucky nerds were in attendance – and I was one of them.
After a visit to LA, my friend Joe and I headed into the mountains to the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Conference center. The ride was lovely until the last half hour, which featured steep inclines, hairpin turns and blinding fog. With Joe’s steady hand at the wheel, we managed to make it up in one piece, despite the sadistically twisting road. I joked throughout the weekend that everyone loved MaxFunCon so much mainly from the lingering euphoria at having survived the drive. True enough, Jesse mentioned at one point that within a half hour of arrival people were saying it was the “best con ever”, which became the event’s tagline.
We sadly missed the keynote address by John Hodgman, including his passing around a bottle of Malort, later described as tasting of “morning breath and vomit”. Though we missed dinner, thankfully our dear friend G.J. managed to score us some boxed leftovers. I downed a mug of wine to steady my drive-wracked nerves and we quickly unpacked before the first show.
Friday night featured Jordan Morris performing some of his rarely-seen stand-up bits, including “world’s smallest trophy”, a crowd favorite. Chris Hardwick’s set was also well-received and a good lead-in to his stellar performance the next evening in his music/comedy duo Hard ‘n’ Phirm. Comedy troupe Kasper Hauser performing some classic pieces, including “Spicy Pony Head”. Last was a musical set by Jonathan Coulton, whose fan club was in attendance, ready to chime in with harmonizing backing vocals from their front-row seats.Following the show, the group climbed to the kitchy “Frontier Village.” I suffered from what Jesse would later call “walk complaining” – I asked loudly whether we were going to die as he kindly illuminated the steep, spooky path with a flashlight. But tired legs were quickly cured by a cozy campfire, ‘smores and beer. As everyone got friendly, fellow Metafilter members and I tried to decide if the covered wagon was a suitable location for one of MaxFunCon’s rumored “secret sex parties.” At some point the excitement (and beer) caught up with me, and around midnight I headed back our charming little “condolet” (cabin).
Exhausted, I briefly considered skipping breakfast and my first workshop the next morning, but was luckily still on “east coast time,” as I incessantly reminded everyone. I woke with plenty of time to catch the 8:00am breakfast and cheerily headed off to my first session, “Working Creatively in a Group” with Kasper Hauser. A combination of creativity seminar and improv class, they provided insights on how to better execute shared creative endeavors. At the end of the session the group generated some pretty great sketch ideas, which were presented in turns.
Next Merlin Mann gave a talk entitled, “Doing Creative Work”, loaded with internet references and nerd humor, perfectly suiting the audience. A charming speaker, Mann seems like a genuinely sweet person (with an adorable daughter). Many people left this presentation saying they were ready to start (or finish) writing their novel. After lunch, Charlie Todd from Improv Everywhere showed clips and spoke about dealing with media attention and corporate copycats. For my second workshop I took Improv with Jordan Morris, a consummate pro who ran the group through scenework and closed with a freewheeling jam.
“Monsters of Podcasting”, live episodes of Jordan, Jesse, Go! and You Look Nice Today taped in the late afternoon. I love both podcasts and was eager to watch them in person. I was also lucky to get the very special opportunity to participate in JJGo’s popular “Judge John Hodgman” segment, where Hodgman settles listeners’ disputes. Jesse had sent out a call to MaxFunCon attendees to send potential cases. I sent in ours and Jesse responded tentatively that it “sounded great” – but it wasn’t confirmed. The first segment featured guest Martin Starr, who I positively adore. I tried to focus on watching the show while wondering if would be called up for the Hodgman bit.When we were called to the stage, I took a deep breath and joined Jesse, Jordon and his honor Judge Hodgman onstage. I introduced the argument and submitted to questioning from the Judge and my “lawyer” Jordan, then Joe presented his side. While many have asked, I’m happy to say it was not preplanned and that it’s an actual, ridiculous, argument of ours. All three guys are hilarious and and it was fantastic to see them riff off of each other in person. Joe and I even got a few laughs ourselves. You can hear the full episode here. After the taping, Judge Hodgman came over to discuss the argument a bit more with me. He also very sweetly agreed to a photo, and fortunately Darryl, an amazing photographer, was on hand after having taken a picture of his daughter with Hodgman. At one point Jesse’s father, Lee Thorn, came over and joined the conversation. It was a blast, if somewhat surreal.
Saturday night we hiked up to the Amphitheatre as fog romantically rolled in, with half the audience wrapped up in blankets. Before long MC Jimmy Pardo had us howling with laughter with jokes about the spooky mountain atmosphere and the crowd itself. Tig Notaro had a truly blistering set, a mix of new and old material. She remarked on the spotlight with an outrageously funny improvised bit in which she addressed the trees alongside the stage – “how about you guys? you having a good time?” After several callbacks to the trees, everyone was positively weeping with laughter, myself included. Someone suggested it was the thin air or maybe the wine, but as far as I know it is just a testament to the many gifts of Tig Notaro. The last performer of the evening was Maria Bamford, whose voices and character work blow me away. She gave such a seemingly effortless performance despite the cold night air and heavy, billowing fog. After an early exit, she returned for an encore of sorts, to much fanfare from the still-pumped audience. The energy was high as we trundled down the hill to the closing party.
At the party, I enjoyed a last few chats with my new friends and tried to soak in the atmosphere of the crowded, energetic room. At one point I realized I was jammed into a little comedian powwow featuring Jimmy Pardo, Tig Notaro and others. I smiled, semi-awkwardly extracted myself and headed downstairs. On the first floor, Hodgman, Coulton and the You Look Nice Today guys sat near the fireplace with a small, rapt crowd hanging on every word.
Checking out in the morning sadly caused me to miss the first quarter of Never Not Funny Live. Pardo’s expressions and on-stage antics with cohost Matt Belknap and regular guest Pat Francis finally motivated me to pony up for the podcast’s premium edition.
I can confidently say that everyone left MaxFunCon with something special – and I don’t mean the swag bags (which were awesome, of course). On the flight home I sighed contentedly and realized that MaxFunCon brought out a giddy joy and creative high I hadn’t felt in a long time. Judging from the reviews of everyone from You Look Nice Today’s Adam Lisagor to Metafilter creator Matt Haughey, I’m not the only one. May the countdown for MaxFunCon 2010 begin!
Thank you to Catherine – aka @torontoronto on Twitter – for rendering me a lovely shade of green.