If you love something, it’s worth a little embarrassment. That’s the hook of the Maximum Fun network show The Greatest Generation, a Star Trek: The Next Generation podcast by “two guys who are a little bit embarrassed to have a Star Trek podcast.” The chagrined gentlemen in question are Benjamin Ahr Harrison and Adam Pranica, two 30-something writer-filmmakers who live in not-so-secret shame on opposite coasts. Musician John Roderick—front man for the Long Winters and a mutual friend—paired the two after one of his shows, proclaiming, “You two are the same guy . . . you’re going to be friends.” True to those words, Adam and Ben found themselves down at the other end of the table that night, kibitzing and cracking wise.
As I sat down with Adam and Ben a few weeks ago before their sold-out, tour-opening show at Brave New Workshop in Minneapolis, I asked them whether their mutual love of Star Trek had been immediately apparent. “It probably took a year or two before we ever made jokes about that,” said Ben. Adam added that after Ben made a Trek-related post on social media, “I placed a very big hat on top of his hat so that he would notice my interest . . . we started batting around Star Trek jokes.”
“We were taking huge, for-the-fences swings at these jokes,” offered Ben. “And sexualizing them in a way we wouldn’t ever do on a live podcast show,” finished Adam dryly, glancing around at the 300-seat theater, prepped and ready for the night’s live podcast show, “when I had 30 Twitter followers and a lot of shame.”
The shame is the same these days, but the Twitter followers have increased somewhat. If you searched for the hashtag #greatestgen before the show began in early 2016, you could reasonably expect to see black-and-white combat photography or messages of thanks to our surviving World War II vets. Now, however, it’s more likely you’ll see a shout-out tweet to Adam and Ben or a screengrab of Riker with his foot up on something. Greatest Generation fans have built communities on Twitter, Facebook, and Reddit to discuss the show, with one Twitter user, writer and artist Bill Tilley, going so far as to create trading cards for each episode. The cards feature stills of scenes and characters from each Next Generation episode, lettered with Adam’s and Ben’s off-color comments about “space buttholes,” “rockin’ knuck,” and whatever other shameful but fully consent-driven hanky-panky that Riker’s been up to that week.
— Bill Tilley (@billtilley1973) December 18, 2016
If it seems like I’m overstating the “blue” nature of Adam and Ben’s material, you need to visualize the galaxy of dry, preexisting Star Trek podcasts that their show is venturing into. “I had a less-than-zero expectation that this would get any traction at all,” said Adam, citing a podcast market saturated with Star Trek shows created by a range of players, from the weird guy that lives across the hall from you all the way up to Mission Log, the official podcast of “Big Rod,” a term the pair half-sneeringly use to refer to the Roddenberry machine of self-promotion. (Full disclosure—your author also has a Star Trek podcast. Shame level: moderate.)
But while other podcasts are counting photon torpedoes, debating Kirk versus Picard or which Trek series is superior, and generally working to shore up the edifice of Gene Roddenberry’s sacrosanct creation, Greatest Gen is committed to popping the warp bubble of Star Trek’s self-important fandom in a neat little package filled with dick and fart jokes. Each hour-long show features the two delivering a dressed-down, snark-filled recap of whatever installment of TNG they’ve progressed to, and every part of the sacred cow gets used. In the first episode, “Encounter at Farpoint,” Captain Picard admits (in reference to Wesley) that he “doesn’t feel comfortable with children.” Adam and Ben make the most of that stilted and suggestive line delivery by spinning it into a torrid, behind-closed-doors affair between the captain and his young ensign, a tragic parable about the temptations of power. Each future mention of Wesley’s name on the show is accompanied by audio drops of goony season 1 Picard intoning “Young Wesley Crusher . . .” and his mother’s impassioned, imploring cries of “My son!,” all of which are naturally set to the blistering sax licks of Gerry Rafferty’s “Baker Street.”
If that doesn’t sound funny, that’s okay—Adam and Ben know that their raunchy and often obscure references are sometimes going to fall on uncomprehending (or undesiring) ears. They have a term for jokes that rely on listeners having a warped sense of humor or possessing the kind of granular knowledge that comes from being steeping in Trek lore for their entire lives: “two-percenters.” As in, “two percent of our audience has a shot at enjoying this.” Their early episodes are filled with speculation about their hypothetical listeners, questioning whether the entire enterprise was a bad idea, and wondering just how long they think they can countenance their wives’ disgusted looks. As the seasons roll by, however, the thing that they were embarrassed to start becomes the thing they may have been destined to do. Their interplay becomes more confident, their bits more fleshed out, and their two-percenters turn into . . . well, let’s say ten-percenters. You’re always going to need some measure of familiarity with Trek to understand why it’s funny that Data appears to be programmed for gleeful suicide, or that Geordi may secretly be a Red Pill, or that Kevin Uxbridge, the omnipotent Douwd who killed all Husnock everywhere, has a lucrative side hustle in the RealDoll business.
Kevin and his distinctive “Buffalo Bill by way of Sean Connery” delivery make an appearance on many episodes, though the actor who played him died several years after his role in the third-season TNG episode “The Survivors.” Much like Kevin’s own act of resurrection upon his wife, Rishon, Adam and Ben have returned the character to funereal, sibilant life through their dueling impressions of him. Whenever extreme measures or artificial life is discussed, or even when there’s just an overly hissy “s” sound heard (“schisms,” “special conscience”), Kevin arrives to talk sex-doll-industry shop, accompanied by the tinkle of the music-box theme he used to drive Counselor Troi insane.
As the podcast has continued, Adam and Ben have assembled a pantheon of goofy characters who drop in to comment on the circumstances of the episode. When the crew of the Enterprise is faced with a difficult technical task, a kindly Boston-accented character arrives to explain how to install rain gutters on your starship while noodly oboe music plays behind him. Whenever a character is being overly demanding or precocious, “Harry Picard” (a reference to the captain and his 10-year-old self from the sixth-season episode “Rascals”) can be heard over the Harry Potter theme, whining, “I want it now! Now, now, now!” And when someone . . . actually, I don’t even know why Bill Cosby shows up anymore, but he does. I just like hearing the opening strains of Junior Walker and the All Stars’ “Shotgun” while Adam and Ben try to out-“Theo!” and “Y’see . . . Ru-dy?” each other.
Like any mainstay of ironic commentary—an MST3K, a Beavis and Butt-Head, or those guys in the back of your junior-high shop class who would not stop quoting Monty Python sketches—The Greatest Generation makes its own comic gravy. Things that work will show up again. Things that don’t are just as often called out for being awful and become funnier as a result. The hosts are constantly exploring their own galaxy of comedic bits and half-remembered plot lines, and like those kids in shop class, it’s clear that they’re doing it for themselves just as much as anyone who might overhear.
I complimented the two on their near-Caliendo level of skill at impressions (“That’s a very veiled dig,” Ben fired back) and asked them whether they’d still be doing this if they didn’t have such a large following. “Absolutely,” Adam declared, without hesitation. Ben followed, thoughtfully: “I think so, yeah. We didn’t start it with the idea that there would be an audience . . . We laugh every single time we record an episode, and that’s a reward in and of itself. But [we] also feel a responsibility to make something that continues the fun for those people out there also.”
The concept of responsibility itself isn’t inherently fun; truthfully, the idea for doing some sort of podcast came from Adam’s and Ben’s desire to create a project that presented an obligation for them to commit to, something that required them to stick to a schedule. But the reliability they’ve cultivated in their careers as filmmakers has made Greatest Gen a podcast that listeners can trust to be consistently funny and technically sound. “It’s weird how obligation is the death of fun for a lot of things,” remarks Adam, “but it feels really good to make something that so many people enjoy. It’s no joke: this is the most satisfying project I’ve had of any kind. It’s great!”
The duo’s flashes of professionalism add new layers to the show, beyond its heady “hold my Romulan ale” flights of comedic one-upsmanship. They often smartly recontextualize the show’s questionable production decisions from the perspective of filmmakers who have had to work within a tight budget and schedule. Why are there still crew members with front-zip uniforms when the principals have upgraded to back-zips? Budget. Why are two contiguous episodes set in a cave? Budget. In one episode, Geordie finds a torn and burned Starfleet outfit, which ominously indicates that the crew member who was wearing it met a grisly end. Adam’s and Ben’s response: “Whoa! That was a $6,000 uniform!”
They’re also unafraid to critique the skill of an episode’s director and are full of praise when one can manage to expand the look of the small screen of syndicated TV. They’re particularly appreciative of the work of Jonathan Frakes, who, in addition to being the actor behind Commander Riker, directed eight episodes of The Next Generation and liked to “go high,” using the camera in innovative ways. Frakes is also the director of Star Trek: First Contact, the second, Borgs-themed TNG film, which was the subject of Greatest Gen’s latest outing, the Premature Assimilation Tour. The nine-city trek through the Midwest, Northeast, and Canada is something that “happens to every podcast from time to time.” Tickets, as Adam reminded listeners on a show earlier in the summer, would “sell out disappointingly quickly.” As I sat in the Minneapolis audience waiting for Adam and Ben to emerge to the sounds of the show’s Dark Materia–mixed theme, I marveled at the size and diversity of the sold-out crowd. Not because I don’t like the show or because I think it’s unworthy, but because I find it instinctively hard to believe that so many people also love this thing I’ve spent years being ashamed of enjoying.
That catharsis, that realization that there are two hilarious guys who have done even more ridiculous things than you have over their love of Star Trek, is critical to the show’s broad appeal and its continued growth. Adam’s preteen obsession with Star Trek trading cards led to him buy entire boxes of them for himself and Ben, which they open on the air in search of a “natural Yeager.” On one early show, Ben related an excruciating anecdote about the year at summer camp when he introduced himself to the other kids as Wesley out of love for his favorite TNG character. A Wes Hot American Summer T-shirt became the show’s first piece of merchandise soon after. “One of the weirdest things about the show,” Ben said, “is that we’ve both gotten a little bit more open about sharing really embarrassing things.” Adam continued, “Not even related to Star Trek, just life stuff, and people really respond to that.”
“I think that, as nerds, we’re all used to not knowing how to do a social thing,” Ben concluded, laughing.
Their willingness to start the mockery with themselves as targets, from the “Wes Hot” story to the premise of the show being clothed in shame, is undoubtedly what gives Greatest Gen the edge over more staid and conventional Star Trek shows. For example, many people are unaware that Gene Roddenberry’s middle name is Wesley, which adds a squicky, Mary Sue–ish vibe to the precocious adventures of young Wesley Crusher (“My son!”). While more reverent (read: boring) Trek podcasts would steer around that fact, Greatest Gen goes out of its way to run down the avatar of Trek’s creator with suggestions of catamitism. The admiral is out of uniform.
It’s that populism that makes the show’s fan base so wide, as well. Where other Trek shows are aiming for aging die-hards who know obscure facts about a long-cancelled show, Greatest Gen is leveraging the memories of a generation (#sorrynotsorry) who were growing up when TNG was on every Monday night and twice on weekends. In the pre-Internet ’80s, you watched what was on one of four or five channels, and if you weren’t an Evening Shade fan, there’s a good chance you were tuning in to see Data try to off himself in some new way, Trekkie or no. Looking around the audience at Brave New Workshop, the crowd included the requisite amount of Spock ears and Data shirts for a Trek audience, but I also saw the kind of rustic facial hair and lumberjack prints you’d expect at an Imagine Dragons concert.
By that logic, it’s tempting to speculate as to whether Adam and Ben would have had similar success with their fan base by doing a dirty-joke-filled Step-by-Step or Small Wonder podcast. But, as my particular shame is tied to Trek, I’m glad they landed where they did. As for their live show, it was a polished affair designed to feel like the podcast, with clips from the film and, of course, the standard audio drops and familiar comedy bits you can hear on the twice-weekly show. There were a few technical glitches that added unintentional comedy, which the boys took advantage of in proper “Yes, and . . .” improv style, no doubt bolstered by the copious amounts of “podcast fluid” the audience was supplying them with. The whole show ran a breezy 90 minutes, but Adam and Ben stuck around at Brave New Workshop for hours afterward, talking to fans, taking selfies, selling merch, and receiving cards, toys, and trinkets from appreciative listeners. Everyone’s happy, everyone’s laughing, and no one looks all that embarrassed to love Star Trek, or a Star Trek podcast.
The Greatest Generation is a twice-weekly podcast, available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, and Stitcher and at maximumfun.org/shows/greatest-generation. You can find Adam and Ben on Twitter at @cutfortime and @BenjaminAhr.