AUSTIN – You can call it a panel discussion, but anytime you hand four comedians microphones, it’s really a comedy club you’ve entered. That was the case Tuesday afternoon when Fred Armisen, Marc Maron, Scott Auckerman and Chris Gethard gathered to discuss transitioning alternative comedy to TV.
“I’m an alternative comedian that IFC is trying to figure out how to transition to TV, so I’m very much looking forward to hearing the advice of our panelists,” Gethard, the defacto interviewer, said by way of getting things started. The other three (Portlandia, Comedy Bang! Bang! and Maron) each have shows on the network.
Alternative comedy at this point is more a sensability than anything. Maron said the term began to describe comedians who worked outside the club circuit in alternative spaces – places where they could stretch the boudaries of convention a little more. Now, when you hear “alternative comedy,” you’re really describing anything with a certain level of quirk. And it doesn’t have to necessarily fall outside the main stream – plenty of what Saturday Night Live does these days qualifies.
So how did these guys get here? Aukerman and Maron mostly have very successful podcasts to thank. The beauty of the podcast, Auckerman said, is that, “Hundreds of thousands of people want to hear you, just not all at the same time.” And now that many people have DVRs and subscribe to services like Netflix and Hulu, they can also watch your show whenever they get around to it. But don’t get a podcast as a stepping stone to a TV show, they all said. (Easy for them to say.)
Maron said he knows the tricky transition to television well. He auditioned back in 1995 for Saturday Night Live and didn’t really connect well with Lorne Michaels (Armisen theorized that since he never really heard back from the show, maybe they’re still considering him.) And he pitched plenty of pilots to networks before IFC picked up Maron, which debuts this spring.
In the past, when other networks passed, Maron said he would just wait out his time on the bench.
“Then you hope your life becomes more interesting or worse so you can pitch it again two years later,” he said. “No, I’m not that guy anymore – I’m much sadder!”
After about a half hour, the floor was open to questions. And a useful lesson was learned: Be careful when you approach a table of live comedians. The first person who approached the mic asked about how the comedians’ humor translates internationally. Armisen explained that he was recently in Sweden and happy to see that there didn’t seem to be any cultural gap in understanding Portlandia. The woman seemed satisfied with that response and began to head back to her chair as Maron was about to add his two cents.
“Stand up! Get back at that microphone – we’re still answering your question!” Armisen shouted with mock rage. “What kind of a person asks a question and just walks away?”
After that, each audience member with a question politely asked if they could be seated once they received their answer.