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Comedy Podcast Review: Today in the Past

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Although more than likely John Hodgman's Today in the Past is meant as an advertisement for his book More Information Than You Require, it is nonetheless an entertaining advertisement, and neither overt nor high-powered. Indeed, if you don't bother to read the introductory blurb on iTunes, you might not even know that these were readings from his book. You might not even know that there was a book to have readings from. There is, and Hodgman's readings from it may well whet your appetite enough to get you to grab a copy.

Today in the Past is a daily calendar of faux facts supposedly occurring on that day in history. According to the post on his web page, it is a page-a-day calendar "without those annoying pages." So for October 30, 1938: Orson Welles produces a radio dramatization of Leaves of Grass after the success of his War of the Worlds, and again gets people believing it is true. October 31 provides a dissertation on the origins of Halloween. Oct 29, 1999: John Glenn becomes the oldest man to ever to take a fake space flight, which reminds him of his first fake space flight. November 2, 1948: Dewey beats Truman.

None of the podcasts takes longer than a minute. One is as short as twelve seconds. There seems to be just enough time to chuckle, if you are so inclined, and then it's over. No doubt this is a positive if you're not amused; if, on the other hand, you find this sort of thing to your taste, you may well be left feeling unsatisfied (like with some of those portions at a fancy French restaurant). Still, the price is right, so why complain?

Hodgman's work on The Daily Show and the CBC's Wiretap, along with his Apple commercials, have made him a household name. He has proved himself a master of the low-key deadpan and his delivery of these invented events on Today in the Past is spot on. This is a man who knows what he does best, and sticks to what he knows. He has made a career of writing and performing this kind of understated satire, and his work on Today in the Past illustrates why he has been so successful.

This kind of mini-comic moment seems to have proliferated on the internet. The Onion's audio podcasts rarely last more than a minute, and even their videos run only a few minutes. Youtube videos tend to be relatively short. Dilbert cartoons and the New Yorker cartoons are only a few seconds in length. Indeed the Audible Books advertisements that frame them are always longer than the cartoons themselves, which is somewhat annoying to say the least.

These mini-moments are not popular just in comedy. Other areas range from readings of classical poems and songs of the day to scientific reports and individual news stories. There would definitely seem to be an audience for the short spurt, whether it be a spurt of information or a spurt of laughter. In a busy world, it seems a minute here and a minute there is just about all we have time for.

By the way, you may want to check out Hodgman's web site for figure 79: "A Typical Seventeenth Century Maleman, Shown Wearing Worm Scale Armor Likely Made With His Own Claws."

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About Jack Goodstein