It’s Like Eavesdropping on Two Friends … Who Secretly Hate Each Other

If you don’t regularly listen to the “Too Far” podcast, you may have missed the first punch: “I know you don’t like long stories,” Robby Hoffman told her co-host and fellow comedian, Rachel Kaly, last month.

The back story is that Kaly complains that Hoffman hogs the mic, never giving her a chance to speak. Hoffman’s defensive jab set up a flurry of escalating blows over who had started in comedy first. Hoffman stormed away, and Kaly, like a hostage on her own podcast, whispered: “I’m going to take this moment to speak directly to the listeners: I can’t get a word in. DM her ‘Let Rachel talk.’”

When Hoffman returned with evidence: a joke she had made as a kid (“I started at 7. I beat you.”), Kaly said she was going to have an anxiety attack and threatened to quit the podcast. “So quit!” Hoffman retorted. “The world moves on.”

Things had gone off the rails and we were only seven minutes into the episode, long before the threats of litigation, talk of suicide, brutal emotional negotiation (Kaly: “Meet me halfway.” Hoffman: “Too much. 40-60?”) and some committed passive aggression. Tired of fighting, Kaly said she had nothing to say. “See!” Hoffman shouted like Poirot solving the case. “She has nothing to say and wants to talk?”

Most comedian podcasts are terminally chummy. Eavesdropping on a friendly hang can be fun. But there’s only so much amiable riffing one can take. And so much of truly great comedy emerges from combustible hostility, discord and a melodramatic sense of conflict. “Too Far,” which started in late July, is an addictive listen because it provides all three. Instead of old pals messing around, it documents a comically tense new friendship that could implode at any moment. Imagine that dysfunctional family dinner scene from “The Bear” recast with very funny lesbian Jewish comics who are both estranged from their fathers.

Hoffman, an inspired kvetch from the Larry David school, grew up in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, in an Orthodox family with nine siblings. As she will tell you, she had to fight to be heard and emerged brashly overcompensating. Her special “I’m Nervous” is full of off-kilter insult comedy (foodies get abused). On the podcast, she shows more of herself, delighting in provoking or boasting or twisting her own persona into a cartoon. Is she serious when she says she made being Jewish cool again? How about when she predicts that she will be playing arenas within a decade? (Don’t bet against it.)

Hoffman, left, is a kvetch from the Larry David school; Kaly is more of a deadpan artist.Credit…Lena Richards

Kaly is more of a sly, deadpan artist. She leans into vulnerability. I saw her do an hour at Union Hall about her terrible relationship with her father that rode the line between funny and sad. It ended with her enlisting the audience in writing him an email that almost surely did not lead to any kind of reconciliation. Her religious boasts are more absurd: “Jewish is a race, and I’m winning bitch,” she once posted on X (formerly Twitter).

On the podcast, Kaly has talked about her eating disorder and her own mental health, which immediately drew skepticism from Hoffman, who said, “She’s stuck in her Brooklyn alt comedy bubble where you’re valued based on how mentally ill you are.”

Hoffman has one foot in the alt world but another in club comedy. Part of her mission is to build a space for queer female comics that is akin to the podcasts in Joe Rogan’s orbit. “They get to meander. I can’t meander?” she says, umbrage infusing every syllable.

Like those male-dominated podcasts, the subject matter of these episodes wanders from hot takes to sexuality (“Do you think we’re gay because we didn’t have dads?” Kaly asked) to comedy-world gossip (My favorite part of comedy podcasts is hearing who’s stealing whose jokes). But these are all secondary to their own relationship. “I think you bring out the worst qualities in me,” Kaly said to open the first episode. She is resentful about doing more logistical work on the podcast and defers to Hoffman, who periodically brings up, tongue in cheek, that she plucked Kaly out of obscurity. Kaly can seem like she’s taking most of the abuse, but she plays rope-a-dope well.

The “Saturday Night Live” star Sarah Sherman appeared on the fifth episode and sounded uncomfortable, as if she had walked into a party hosted by a couple who had just decided to get a divorce. “Both of you to the outside observer are being equally mean to each other,” she said.

There is something a little performative about these clashes, but they don’t feel contrived or imbalanced. Kaly is deft at deflating Hoffman, who can be sensitive, especially when it comes to class-based snobbery. Hoffman spent much of an episode enraged that Kaly had said that Taylor Swift looked as if her wardrobe came from Target.

None of this would work as a podcast if you didn’t think these two people on some level liked and respected each other. It’s what gives the conflict stakes. They are fighting but also trying to get along. There’s drama in that, and comedy in this drama. Not everyone will find this entertaining — it might stress some out — but consider this: Is there any better cringe comedy than when friends fight?

Prickly conflict is also behind the sudden fame of the podcaster Bobbi Althoff, a perpetually over-it 26-year-old who became ubiquitous on TikTok this year for awkwardly interviewing celebrities. The speed with which she went from doing mom comedy to interviewing Drake, Shaquille O’Neal and Scarlett Johansson has led to accusations that she’s an industry plant. Her most amusing interview was with the comedian Funny Marco, who shares a similar cringe sense of humor.

Bobbi Althoff’s interviews follow in the tradition of “Between Two Ferns.”Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

That she seemed to disproportionately interview Black stars and hip-hop artists added another layer to the criticism. The journalist Jemele Hill posted on X about her dislike of Althoff, pointing out how the success of these interviews represented the erasure of hip-hop writers. Althoff does seem touchy on the subject of race, changing the subject when an interviewee brings it up, preferring to keep it in the subtext.

But Althoff is operating more as a comedian than a journalist, one whose subjects are in on the joke. She belongs to the tradition of Jiminy Glick and “Between Two Ferns” where treating stars with contempt or indifference is part of the joke. She asked Drake if he considered himself famous and Mark Cuban, “When did you stop being poor?”

In return, the celebrities don’t have to worry about probing questions, since her focus sticks to the fairly mundane, although one consistent interest is nosy queries about money. Her lack of preparation can lead to some boring exchanges, and if she is going to evolve or avoid redundancy, she will need to come armed with more jokes or at least conversational gambits. But that might be the wrong way to look at her. Her podcast is in some ways a rough draft, and the final version, the one most people see, are the shorter clips she posts, bite-size bits of awkwardness that are too tossed off to rise to the level of hostile.

She’s sort of the toothless inverse of the comic Ziwe, who made white guests uncomfortable by challenging them with questions like “How many Black friends do you have?” (In her new book, “Black Friend,” Ziwe says the question is a trap, but it does produce some funny reactions.) Althoff contrives awkwardness with mostly Black celebrities by her impertinent awkward small talk. What she and Ziwe have in common is that they disrupt the puffery of the typical celebrity interview in the hope that the conflict will lead somewhere new and spontaneous. In an attention economy drawn to friction, a good conversation doesn’t necessarily run smoothly.

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