Matt Besser and His Hilarious Friends Fall Flat In Punk Musical Stolen Idea
Hard to believe the Minor Threat medley doesn't work.
October 4, 2017 | by James Greene, Jr.
The field of punk-rock musicals is fairly narrow. The video store I worked at in college insisted on keeping Rock N’ Roll High School in the musical section, so that must count. Green Day adapted their massive comeback American Idiot for Broadway, though the disc works fine on its own as a rousing soundtrack to whatever exact saga you’d like to imagine. The first Circle Jerks album tells a kind of depraved linear story that if you’re high enough might seem like it borrows from Greek tragedy (there’s a betrayal and an orgy). Now Matt Besser and Bobby Matthews have thrown their studded bracelets into the ring with Stolen Idea, which is technically a podcast offered by Stitcher Premium. It’s a musical, it’s a comedy, it’s a podcast, and it’s only punk in the sense that several classic punk songs are parodied to help tell Stolen Idea’s potentially fertile story.
Besser, who has proven himself time and again to be effortlessly funny via the Improv4Humans podcast and his establishing work for groundbreaking troupe the Upright Citizens Brigade, plays a comic named Matt who is grappling with middle age. Just as Matt feels his opportunities fading, an upstart comedian lifts one of his bits to great acclaim. Running parallel is a narrative that posits Matthews’ character Phil as a struggling songwriter who, in a moment of weakness, copies a proven hit so he can coast to his own fame and fortune. Joining the principles for this wild ride of dizzying highs and cataclysmic lows are, of course, the spectral visions of Alexander Graham Bell and Elisha Gray (who fought to some degree of infamy over credit for invention of the telephone).
There are many deft laughs and potential lessons to be mined from this concept; unfortunately, Stolen Idea fails to maximize any of its potential, couching clichéd gags in equally uninspired songwriting and plotting. The whole thing is a bland elementary school lesson with no nuance or depth, to wit: heft is tempting, theft is wrong, you will pay the price, also here’s some absurdity with ghosts. Spoiler alert: there are no iPhones in the afterlife and the undead are just as excited about them as the living.
Comedy MVPs James Adomian, John Gemberling, Scott Aukerman, and the late Harris Whittels all pop up at different intervals in Stolen Idea but none of them offer anything memorable (time is carved out for Adomian’s stellar Marc Maron impression but it serves no purpose beyond a reminder that Adomian has this dagger in his arsenal). Stolen Idea’s fatal flaw could be that the entire presentation was not staged before an audience. Portions do take place in a live theater setting, and the warmer, livelier dynamic — that basic ebb and flow you get with a crowd of tension, release, tension — helps the players and the material. Theater is the art of keeping large numbers of people from coughing, Ralph Richardson once said. Absent that tightrope walk, Stolen Idea tumbles into a void.
None of Stolen Idea’s song parodies are very clever or engaging, and the nadir comes when Matt and the young comic who steals his bit (a character literally named Young Comic) have a heated confrontation set to a medley of Minor Threat rewrites. Minor Threat’s music contains such a specific intensity and personal passion that it is almost impossible to replicate with any justice (Slayer barely gets away with it on their 1996 cover album Undisputed Attitude). Stolen Idea falls many yards short as well, proving if you’re going to imitate Ian MacKaye or Lyle Preslar, you better go to 11. There is also something unsettling about hearing powerful screeds like “Filler” and “Out of Step” reworked into a fictional spat between club comics.
Stolen Idea is only and hour long, and you have to give it that. Rock N’ Roll High School, which stars the Ramones in their prime, often makes 90 minutes feel like 900 (note to 1979: Vince Van Patten is not the next Robert Redford). Besser and company avoid wild diversions and in that sense keep their comedy musical podcast punk as fuck.
Have a sneak peek: