It’s always been a little bit difficult to pin down exactly what HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK is supposed to be, in large part because it goes down a different rabbit hole every week.
The premise that ties this thing together is that it is, loosely speaking, a parody of the business side of the entertainment industry. Hosts Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements play themselves as arrogant, name-dropping industry power brokers, a cross between E! Network talking heads and would-be behind-the-scenes big shots. The show has moved away from a strict form as it has carried on through the last five years, and the looseness of its premise fits the show well, as it allows for Davenport and Clements to cover a lot of satirical ground. Sometimes the show shapes itself similarly to a film press junket, sometimes it’s more like an “expert” roundtable, and other times, it’s an improv-heavy direct parody of a buzzy pop-culture property like Black Mirror’s BANDERSNATCH.
A standard episode of HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK will see Davenport and Clements joined by a guest, though seldom for direct promotional purposes as one might see with a COMEDY BANG BANG guest. One of the show’s biggest strengths is that it doesn’t seem to be too concerned about pleasing any particular entity and embraces its innate chaotic tendencies. I would be remiss not to mention that HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK’s tendency to do cavalier, improv-heavy ad reads, which are so popular with fans that there was a rash of complaints when Stitcher took the ads out of the show’s Premium feed. The show has a higher rate of repeat guests than most of its contemporaries, which means you’re more likely to get a guest on mic who has a good rapport with the hosts. If there’s anything negative to be said about that, it’s that some of the show’s most entertaining moments come when the guest is not familiar with the show’s schtick. Most of these now exist in the show’s archives, but a recent example is comedian and infotainer Adam Conover, in one of the show’s best recent episodes, who seemed to be unfamiliar with, but delighted by, Davenport and Clements’ approach as they gleefully antagonized him.
For a show that has gotten a lot of mileage out of intentionally alienating guests and that is influenced by insult comedy and roasting, at least in a sort of roundabout way, HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK has a lot of genuine humanity to it. The show isn’t totally all in on the “friends hanging out” vibe that many successful podcasts aim to duplicate, but it becomes clear in most new episodes that the guests know and enjoy the hosts’ on-mic personas. This is also helped by their inclusion of the cast of folks surrounding the show in the show itself, including Earwolf studio engineers, producers, interns, and Clements’ dog, Bosch. They have been absorbed into the show’s mythos as Wack Pack-esque figures through comic exaggeration of relatively mundane parts of their on-air personality, an aspect of the show that becomes more rewarding with continuous listening. Both hosts also have excellent instincts in terms of knowing when to come out from behind their irony-doused curtain, and some of the show’s best episodes, notably this summer’s “Triumph at Comic-Con,” live up to the show’s premise of being an “insider’s guide” to Hollywood by allowing us to see these comedians deal with the lows of a tough performance or a gig that doesn’t pan out.
Despite it being one of the most consistently excellent comedy podcasts in the game, the task of getting into HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK can be daunting—something I can personally confirm as someone who didn’t listen to and appreciate the show from day one. From a passionate fanbase that recently received a tongue-in-cheek characterization from Comedy Bang Bang host Scott Aukerman as the “most annoying fanbase in podcasts,” to a bevy of inside jokes and references, to a central spirit of insurgency, HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK, like many other cult properties, doesn’t really have a perfect entry point. Luckily, the most recent episode, “The Masked Engineer, Our Masked Friend,” might be the best opportunity yet. Even if it does reference a prominent ongoing gag from previous episodes that might go over a new listener’s head (but can probably be put together based on context given within the episode), “The Masked Engineer” is a perfect storm of everything HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK has ever done well condensed in one episode. A pointedly absurd riff on a zeitgeisty pop culture phenomenon, several laugh-out-loud moments that come at the most unexpected times, and most importantly, a room full of people having a good time.
Comedy podcasts can become repetitive and laborious listens over long amounts of time. HOLLYWOOD HANDBOOK stays fresh by staying loose and by never, ever trying too hard to impress anyone. Its inherent volatility makes it funny even when it doesn’t totally hit its marks, and the “bad” episodes are sometimes even more entertaining than the good ones. Even if it takes a while to get into, it’s worth the investment and is a must-listen on a week-to-week basis.