MaxFunCon 2014: Enthusiastic About Enthusiasm

There was a point, while I was dancing along to Dan Deacon in an Oxford shirt and tie, that I thought, "I have never seen so many people taking 'Bohemian Rhapsody' quite so seriously and joyfully."

Also, "I'm surprised I'm still wearing this tie."


I'm not entirely sure what drew me to MaxFunCon 2014.  It was a question I asked myself several times before going, and, failing to find an answer that made sense to me, or to my family, I asked fellow attendees.

Their response was mostly: the podcasts.  And not just the podcasts generally.  Most of the attendees had specific favorites that they listened to regularly -- Stop Podcasting Yourself, for example, or Jordan, Jesse Go!

They were enthusiasts.

As am I -- I've been writing a website about an often-marginalized and still niche music genre for nearly a decade -- but they were at a conference that actually included things they were enthusiastic about.

Me, I'm just enthusiastic generally.  So if there was anything I had in common with the other attendees, it was this: we were enthusiastic about enthusiasm.


At this point, I think I should backtrack a bit and explain what MaxFunCon actually is.  The Maximum Fun (the "MaxFun" part) network is a collection of shows primarily distributed as podcasts, though what I consider to be the flagship show, the pop culture interview and review show "Bullseye," is also distributed on NPR stations.

(Perhaps my characterization of that show as the network's flagship, however, is shaded by my own biases, as "Bullseye" is one of just two shows I listen to on a regular basis, and as much as I enjoy podcasts, I still tend to defer to shows that air on actual radio as being more "important," even though for all I know "Bullseye" doesn't get as many listeners as some of the podcast-only shows.  Also, NPR pays me to review stuff.  In any case, I got the impression that I was in the minority of attendees for whom "Bullseye" was at the top of their MaxFun list.)

"Bullseye" is hosted by, and the MaxFun network run by, Jesse Thorn, who in addition to hosting radio shows and running podcast networks also runs a men's fashion website, Put This On.  (Not to mention the Atlantic Ocean Comedy and Music Festival, a cruise which grew out of a one-time MaxFunCon East.)  As you can tell, the man, too, is an enthusiast and he has diverse interests that mix in often harmonious ways.  ("All Things Scottish… and Pizza," this is not.)

Several years ago, Thorn thought it would be interesting (or maybe just make a little money for his non-profit network) to put on a convention -- a "Con" -- that drew together Thorn's podcasters and talented friends and his fans and listeners. Or, as it's described now, a "gathering of creative people who wish to be more awesome."

"MaxFun" + "Con" = "MaxFunCon"


So for several years, Thorn and his Maximum Fun colleagues have hosted MaxFunCon at UCLA Lake Arrowhead Conference Center, a gorgeous facility along Lake Arrowhead in the San Bernardino mountains northeast of Los Angeles.

I heard the phrases "Shangri-La" and "Brigadoon" thrown around to describe MaxFunCon.  They're not inappropriate.


OK, but what did you actually do?

I got there shortly before 6 pm on Friday evening after driving from Phoenix (5 1/2 hours door-to-door).  Needing to check in and unpack in the condolet (a fancy word for chalet-style hotel room), I missed the welcome happy hour, but slid into a back-row seat amidst the 200 or so attendees in a conference room-as-mountain chalet as we were formally introduced to MaxFunCon by Jesse Thorn.  He outlined the basic ground rules, which I'd summarize as be welcoming, seek consent (kids, ask your parents), and don't be too weird to the teachers/comedians.  With that, John Hodgman (host of the other MaxFun podcast I regularly listen to, Judge John Hodgman) came out and welcomed us all by providing a flask of artisanal bad spirits (following up on a bit he did last year) and singing one of his favorite songs, Cynthia Hopkins' "Surrounded by Friendship," which he has done repeatedly at MaxFunCons and other shows of his.

[Note: this is the only explicitly kindie-related link of the conference.  Long-time kids music listeners will recognize Hopkins' name and that song as Dan Zanes and Hopkins performed it on his House Party album.  (Hear Hodgman, Hopkins, and Jonathan Coulton perform it live back in 2011 here.)  </kids music nerdery>]

And at some point -- I can't remember if it was before or after Hodgman played "Surrounded by Friendship" -- he brought out John Roderick to join him on a few songs (I remember Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner" being one of them).  From my corner-room vantage point, it was all a little surreal: six hours before I was sitting in my dining room in a blazes-hot Phoenix having a lunch of leftovers with my wife and Little Boy Blue, and now I was in some high-altitude lakeside resort with musicians and comedians and people who were very excited to be there laughing at inside jokes.  It was like the plot of every great middle-school novel -- outsider gets transported to an entirely different world with fantastic rituals and secrets.  ("Harry Potter and the Slithery Stand-Up")

But lest you think that it was a clique-y crowd, I think my favorite thing about the conference was that it was decidedly not.  From my first meal that Friday night right after the Hodgman benediction to the lunch on Sunday afternoon, there was an openness to conversation and discovery that was quite unlike any convention I've been to.  Kindiefest had some of that, but that was aided by everybody having the same particular interest, and the level of excitement -- enthusiastic about enthusiasm, remember -- was off the charts here.

It was that first dinner where I found out that a lot of the people there were there because they were big fans of a particular podcast, or had been on the first Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival last fall and wanted a more "MaxFun" experience (since the attendees only made up a small percentage of the cruise boat).  Given that I wasn't entirely sure why I was there (that's why I kept asking everyone else why they were there, in what might have been a useful conversational gambit but was probably a lousy way to try to answer my own question) and my (slightly) older age, I could've been an outsider.  But I never, not once, felt like one.


The sessions themselves ranged in entertainment value from "hey, not bad!" to "that was worth the drive from Phoenix."  The RISK! show on Friday night featured 4 "true-life" confessional stories.  That style of storytelling is generally not my cup of tea, but the tales were well-told, and that's 90% of the battle there.  My classes on Saturday -- "Introduction to Clown and Physical Comedy" with Stephen Simon of the troupe Ten West and "Making Good Satire" with Joe Randazzo (who used to hold creative leadership positions at places you might have heard of called The Onion and Adult Swim) -- were classes in topic areas I typically would not consider.  But that was intentional on my part -- I wanted to get out and learn new things .  Some workshops were even more frivolous, perhaps (making disco balls) and some were less so (specific writing feedback), so the conference could have been more or less "serious" depending on your workshop choices.

As a general rule, the more interactive the session, the better -- the clowning workshop, which was essentially an introduction to movement you might find in an improv class, worked better than the satire class, which was more lecture-y.  I had just as much fun playing a game -- Coup, The Resistance, a fast and fast-paced bluffing game, in case you were wondering -- in the impromptu gaming session scheduled during one of the few moments of downtime.  ("Remember," we were told multiple times, "MaxFunCon is a marathon, not a sprint, so pace yourself."  Truer words were never spoken, even if they weren't completely adhered to.)

The comedy was great.  I laughed quite a bit at the live tapings of podcasts Throwing Shade and Stop Podcasting Yourself, but it was the Saturday night comedy showcase featuring Ricky Carmona, Graham Clark, Ian Edwards, Shelby Fero, Kumail Nanjiani (battling illness), and Brent Weinbach (whose absurdist comedy was definitely my favorite set of the evening) that was the most laugh-filled session.  (It also introduced MaxFunCon's buzzword, "Doubt," courtesy of Weinbach, who was trying to pitch it as a word meaning "Definitely."  You had to be there.)


I've been to my share of conventions, and none of my memories of those conventions revolve around the topical things I've supposedly learned there, the conventions' ostensible subject.  Rather, they all pertain to the people and the interactions, both during the sessions as well as before and after the official events.  Part of that is probably due to the sequential and cumulative nature of learning a topic area as opposed to the individual nature of specific memories.  I'm not saying that conventions for work-related reasons aren't worthwhile (and there could be some fields in which the topic area knowledge gained is worth the trip), but the attendee (or payee) needs to be clear on what they're likely to gain and whether that is worth the cost.

MaxFunCon was worth it.  I met some great people, learned a bit, laughed a lot, and had tons of fun.

While MaxFunCon has the structure of a convention, it's only the barest of scaffoldings upon which the useful function of conventions is hung -- the building of bonds with, and learning about, individual people rather than things.  It set up a place where naturally enthusiastic people could gather and then got the hell out of the way. 

I'm not saying anything that hasn't been noted before, and I understood it in some way intellectually before the weekend, but MaxFunCon clarified it in some essential way for me -- invest in time with others above all else.  That can be with your family, with friends, or with strangers -- and really, it should be all three at various points -- and it should be doing things you're enthusiastic about.


Which brings us back to me and my salmon-colored Oxford shirt and tie, tired and happy, dancing to a DJ set from Dan Deacon.  Deacon gave a talk midday Saturday that thoroughly entertained me.  He talked about trying to figure out how participatory art would change in the 21st century with people with smartphones at their side in the audience.  He pleaded for a more interactive experience from both artists, arguing that the hushed audience at, say, a 20th century symphony orchestra concert was more the exception than the rule if one were to look back over history.  Again, the idea that live musical performances are a product not just of the artist but also of the audience is not new, but Deacon made the point more convincingly than I'd previously heard.  Or maybe I was just more receptive.  In any case, audiences should participate.

This is a useful argument to make when you're going to DJ a party later that evening.  All that day, Thorn reminded us that the party started at 10 pm and we needed to get there on time because it was going to have to shut down at midnight.  (Don't worry, there were after-parties.)  Deacon did everything he could to get us out on the dancefloor -- Beyonce, classic '90s hip-hop, stuff I'd never heard of (but would find out later had like 80 million views on YouTube.  It was great -- now that I'm of friends-generally-too-old-to-get-married, friends'-kids-generally-too-young age, I don't get invited to weddings, and so my opportunities to dance are great circumscribed.  (In fact, this was the part of the weekend my wife was most sad to miss.)  Eventually -- we only have 2 hours, people! -- the dance floor was packed and by the time Deacon concluded with Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," he made a convincing case for the viability of real-life interaction.  (There's a whole bunch of joy in this picture.)  Why was I still wearing the tie?  Because I was having too much fun to think about things like removing a tie.

If you've read this far, thanks.  I would also suggest that MaxFunCon 2015 is for you.  But even if you're just an interested family musician who read this far (and isn't secretly seething that the time I spent writing this could've been spent writing two or three album reviews), the (obvious) lessons here -- escape your comfort zone, engage with people, your performances are two-way streets -- are worth repeating, even if you've heard them hundreds of times before.  Going to a conference in the mountains above Los Angeles might help you remember those things -- the tricky part is not forgetting them when you come back down from the mountain.