Just for Fun

Lake Arrowhead, California

Left: Maximum Fun founder and podcaster Jesse Thorn. Right: A superhero battle. (Except where noted, all photos: Kenneth Lecky)

FOR YEARS NOW I’ve heard about MaxFunCon, a mythical mountain retreat for comedy creators and lovers in Lake Arrowhead, California. Instead of a “fan con” where people migrate to some loathsome locale to froth and idolize with like-minded genuflectors, MFC, organized by the Maximum Fun network of podcasts founded by NPR host Jesse Thorn, encourages attendees to actually do what they love, offering classes and workshops in subjects ranging from animation to improvisation. For those of us who in fact enjoy a bit of adulating, there are also lectures and performances by some of the greatest talents in the worlds of comedy and public radio. Through it all, Thorn strives to foster a tight-knit community of people who “create things and support each other creating things.” It might sound overly idealistic, but it actually works.

To get to the “Con,” I embarked on a three hour, eighty-mile adventure from East LA, the final stretch of which had me palpitating on a winding, unpaved highway along the northwest face of the San Bernardino Mountains. There, plopped elegantly amid the overwhelming conglomeration of trees and birds and other things signifying nature, is the UCLA convention center that hosts MaxFunCon, although to call it a convention center will probably give you the wrong impression. It was a very nice convention center. A convention center that Patagonia might use as a backdrop when shooting an ad for a line of state-of-the-art expedition apparel, if you can imagine such a place.

I arrived around 5 PM on a Friday to find some two hundred twenty- to fifty-somethings well into their cocktails and beers on a large limestone patio. After checking in and receiving my VIP pack of essentials, including comedy albums, a merit badge, and a bottle of MaxFun branded lubricant, I made my way to a cozy, wood-paneled lodge, where the group was officially welcomed to the Con by Thorn. “If it’s your first time here you’ll learn about some strange, secret rituals. But in the meantime just know that you are among friends.” We also met Thorn’s “great friend and personal hero,” the beloved author and Daily Show correspondent John Hodgman, who sang MFC-themed songs while dressed as Ayn Rand and brought home the cultish innuendos by encouraging us to “all get vulnerable together.” (Very un–Ayn Rand, of course.)

Left: Comedian and author John Hodgman. Right: Comedian Kyle Kinane.

Thorn suggested that we sit with strangers at meals, which I took to heart. (Not that I had much choice.) It wasn’t hard to engage with my picnic tablemates at dinner the first night, particularly Nate DiMeo, the Parks and Recreation writer, Thurber Award for American Humor nominee, and host of MF’s The Memory Palace, a heartfelt, short-form storytelling show. “There’s something very early-’90s about what takes place here,” he told me, in reference to the “overriding sincerity” and “underlying ra-ra-ness” of the “semi-socialist workers’ collective.” MaxFun’s “cuddle-party vibe,” he admitted, can be a bit much for him, though he felt deeply connected to the network’s overall ethos of “having more fun.”

The network did an impressive job animating this ethos with stellar performances by Irish stand-up comedian Maeve Higgins (“All the cool people are atheists…But you’re not going to heaven!”) and the Los Angeles–based improv group Convoy. Later that evening we trekked up a steep forest pathway to a bonfire-and-s’mores party in Frontier Village, the convention center’s re-creation of a nineteenth-century campsite surrounded by covered wagons. The stars were out, and people mingled eagerly over drinks and sweets. I chatted with tough yet affable comedian Kyle Kinane, who at first seemed uneasy about the crowd’s unbridled enthusiasm. “As a comic, you need to be criticized. I don’t think you progress unless some people don’t like what you do.” Though later he assented: “It’s still pretty nice to be loved sometimes.”

Throughout Saturday we heard erudite and amusing talks by DiMeo, British journalist Jon Ronson, and film critic and public radio’s The Treatment host Elvis Mitchell, who riffed on the homogeneous nature of the MFC demographic (“Welcome to the MaxFunCon diversity conference,” he joked) before giving a sharp, scholarly lecture on heroism in the movie Pootie Tang. That day, I also took beginner improv with comedy writer and performer Jordan Morris, and dropped by a rousing “Pub Quiz” (aka Drunk Trivia) presided over by Hodgman and “Stuff You Should Know” podcast cohost Chuck Bryant. I later peeked into more sober, intimate offerings such as “Begin your novel right NOW” with author Antoine Wilson and a “Superhero Battle” with animator Pendleton Ward.

Left: Critic and public radio host Elvis Mitchell. Right: Improv Team Convoy.

Saturday, just before dinner we once again gathered as a group for the event that many of us had been waiting for—a live recording of Jordan, Jesse, Go!, MF’s premier comedy podcast, cohosted by Morris and Thorn and featuring special guests Higgins and novelist–Moth podcast host Dan Kennedy. The hosts exhibited their characteristically witty, freewheeling banter and took advantage of their listeners’ presence by indulging in interactivity (one audience member was coerced onstage to call her mother, whose seventy-third birthday she revealed she was missing for the Con). Lots of laughing, cheering, and clapping ensued, and it was extraordinary to find ourselves surrounded by enthusiasts as we listened to a program that we nearly always enjoy alone.

As if this weren’t enough, that evening we were treated to a talent-packed, plein air stand-up showcase in an amphitheater including Ali Wong, Laurie Kilmartin, Morgan Murphy, Matt Braunger, and Maria Bamford. Kinane went on second-to-last, performing an epic account of the trail of stains covering his linens (“Don’t look at your pillows—ever—if you wanna think there’s beauty and innocence in this world.”) I’ve seen them all before but never quite like this, as the comedians, spurred by the warm, devoted crowd, let their idiosyncrasies really hang loose. (“It’s pretty nice to be loved sometimes” indeed.)

Left: Comedian and podcaster Jordan Morris (left). Comedy open mic workshop participant Zena Chew and comedian Maria Bamford. (Photo: Justin Appelgren)

Bamford’s set in particular felt stretched to its artistic edges, and it was riveting to watch her whisper punch lines, contort her body, slur her words, and shift unexpectedly from one character to next—performative techniques that she tends to play down when headlining in more traditional settings. She cheer-led us through darker times we may face—“Sometimes your brain breaks…you’re not alone”—and torqued the double standard in attitudes toward mental versus other illnesses (“Apparently Steve has cancer. It’s like, ‘Fuck you, we all have cancer!’ ”). The comedian closed, aptly, on a bit about ignoring haters and owning your creativity: “Carve a skull out of a Granny Smith apple, pop that on a Bratz doll torso, upload it to Etsy, price it hi-i-i-gh.”

When I spoke with Bamford at the Country Estate dress-up dance party after the show, I came to understand just how much her artistic credo matches the Con’s. She lauded the attendees who “take risks and support each other’s risks” and “make stuff just to make stuff, whether they get paid for it or not.” She herself took one of her first improv classes, and practiced crowd work—which terrifies her—at her own stand-up workshop here at MaxFunCon. “What brings me happiness is the creative act. It hasn’t been any prestige or money. Just doing it makes for a much better life.”

Miriam Katz