Column: Angus McMahan and the Last Pagan Humor Seminar

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I didn’t pay much attention to the schedule at the final Pantheacon. I spent most of my time there wandering the floors of the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose, occasionally taking in one of the hospitality suites. Many of the presenters that I had enjoyed in the past were not at the convention this year, though I cannot say whether their absence was due to solidarity, scheduling, or a simple lack of interest. In any case, I admit that I had more interest in catching up with old friends (and old ghosts) from conventions past than I had with spending a lot of time in workshops.

That said, I knew there was one I simply couldn’t miss: the final Pagan Humor Seminar, as presented by Angus McMahan, who has been a staple of Pantheacon’s programming. The Pagan Humor Seminar is more or less what it sounds like: it features Angus telling stories drawn from his life, told less like a standup comedian and more like a humorist featured in some “An Evening with…” show.

“I find standup humor to be very bitter and bracing,” Angus tells me, the week after Pantheacon. “It’s funny sometimes, but it’s not welcoming, and that’s what I’m really after; I’m after that connection with the audience. When I tell people I’m a storyteller, I can surprise them with how funny it is.”

Angus McMahan performing at a Pagan Humor Seminar [courtesy A. McMahan]

Angus has been presenting the Pagan Humor Seminar for twelve years, in which he has presented all over the Doubletree, from the Silicon Valley room (a room so difficult to find that he had to include detailed walking instructions on a flier) to Cafe Max (a space that slowly became more of a storeroom than a nightclub – “It was like the jungle was reclaiming it,” says Angus). His initial inspiration wasn’t particularly awe-inspiring. “There’s no divine answer to this – sometimes you get a divine vision from beyond, and sometimes you just see something so godawful at Pantheacon that you walk out in disgust and say, ‘even I could do better than that.'” At that time, 2008, he didn’t see himself as an elder in the community, but he was a writer and a humorist, and he thought a comedy show could be his contribution to the conference’s schedule. Given the longevity and popularity of his workshop, his instinct seems to have been correct.

I asked Angus what made him keep going for so long – twelve years is longer than most festivals can make a go of it, much less a specific workshop at a specific festival. “Momentum and ego!” he says. “Well, maybe that’s a little stark. There’s a wonderful conceit about starting with a blank page with a deadline I can’t miss. I don’t sing or dance; it’s a big deal when I hold up a prop. I love the challenge of that blinking cursor, coming up with something that would hold 200 peoples’ attention for the length of a feature-length movie.” He also says it he felt it was something that he could do to return the favor to Pantheacon for what it had given to him: “My gods can be described as ‘service’ – that’s who I’m dedicated to. It was my way of giving back to the convention.”

At the final Pagan Humor Seminar, Angus presented a number of his “greatest hits” from throughout the years. These included stories from his childhood – such as one about a runaway family car in which Angus was but an infant – and tales of his more recent adventures in enduring a colonoscopy and learning the hazards of finally holding a job with retirement benefits.

Surprisingly, few of the stories were about Paganism directly, except for one about Angus’s experiences at the Harbin Hot Springs retreat, which unfortunately was destroyed by a wildfire in 2015. “It had very little to do with Paganism,” Angus says of his seminar, “but it had everything to do with this convention.” Pantheacon itself was often the subject of Angus’s material, to the point that his stories developed a certain vocabulary that anyone familiar with the Doubletree Hotel could recognize, such as referring to the hotel restaurant exclusively as “Cafe Ho-Hum.” “It’s a private club where we all know the lingo,” he says.

Although he attends other festivals when he can – he particularly enjoys Hexenfest – Pantheacon was special to Angus. “I loved this convention – it’s in my backyard,” he says. “And this convention took a chance on me, a complete unknown. I did the best I could and was rewarded with better rooms and time slots. I had a blast: I experienced some amazing, life-changing things, things that kicked my complacent ass.”

I asked Angus about his thoughts on the decision to stop holding the convention. Glenn Turner, Pantheacon’s founder and primary leader, cited her own desire for retirement, but also mentioned that “viewpoints diverged” over time at the convention, a reference to repeated controversies over claims of discrimination against people of color and transgender Pagans, cultural appropriation, and groups like Coru Cathubodua Priesthood deciding to no longer present at the convention.

“I don’t have much to say about how Pantheacon ended,” says Angus. “I tried to stay out of that. But as someone who has been on a nonprofit board, one of the best things you can do is train your successor. Believing you’re the only person who can do your job is a recipe for burnout and martyrdom. It seems like Pantheacon was extremely resistant to change, and change is work.” He pauses. “I don’t have the insight, but that’s my long-distance view.”

He supports efforts to make Paganism more inclusive and aware of the needs of different communities that participate in it. “For the nonprofit I volunteer for, I love the fact that we’re always focused on new people and younger folks, seekers, folks who had an idea and didn’t know what to call it. These younger people are challenging a lot of things we grew up within the 90s Wicca boom. They are kicking the asses of us old folks, and more power to them.” While Pantheacon may be gone, he hopes that its potential successor, the Between the Veils conference, will learn from Pantheacon’s history. “We’ll see how much Between the Veils changes, if it can keep the good parts but make needed changes,” he says. “’Well, we’ll see’ is not good enough.”

One aspect he sees as needing improvement by any future convention is the way Pantheacon treated its presenters. “It was kind of a good for me to cut my teeth on Pantheacon, because it was the worst in terms of how it treated the people who provided all the content that filled up the rooms and the programs – and, frankly, the pockets.” Angus notes that, unlike other festivals he has attended, Pantheacon did not generally provide any perks for presenters, such as free entry into the conference, guaranteed hotel rooms, or hardly any opportunity for payment. “For 12 years of presenting to packed rooms, I received all of one ten-dollar check. And that was only offered on the website, and very awkwardly. Almost none of my presenter friends even knew about it.”

As for the legacy of the Pagan Humor Seminar itself, Angus is a bit more easy-going. “If I made people laugh a lot, and maybe think a little, I’m happy. One of my favorite writer quotes is by [Stephen] King, something like, ‘if I distracted you through a rough night or a crappy detention hour, I’ve done my job.’ I like the humility of that; I like the public service aspect.”

For now, the Pagan Humor Seminar is at an end, though Angus does not count out the idea of bringing the idea to other conventions if he can find the time to attend them. “I’m a working man, I can only ask for so many days off.” He’s also interested in presenting other kinds of workshops besides Pagan Humor: “I really like doing hands-on things; I might do something with the Tarot. Pendulum-dowsing workshops. Or maybe I’ll write some new stories and we’ll slap a new name on it.”

In the meantime, he is focused on his Patreon, where he posts stories and essays in a similar vein to the material he’s brought to Pantheacon for the past twelve years. He admits that he’s looking forward to having a break from the extra commitment of Pagan Humor: “Six posts I have to churn out every month. To do that and then come up with 11,000 words [for Pantheacon] was a lot of work.”

At the end of our conversation, I ask Angus about what his feelings are about the end of this convention, which was a major part of Pagan culture both locally and nationally. “I don’t think it’s really sunk in yet,” he says. “I hope we’ll have something better. It’s going to be up to all of us to make Between the Veils – or whatever our local convention is – better. We’re the ones who make the decisions on these things; it’s up to us.”