In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends 10–15 of the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Axe Files
As that hoary street maxim about the mutual respect shared by powerful people goes, “game recognize game,” and it once again proves true in strange and interesting ways on this week’s episode of The Axe Files. Host David Axelrod sits down in conversation with perhaps his least likely guest, former presidential candidate Mitt Romney and the pair find they have more in common than either would have previously thought. For the uninitiated listener, this comes as such surprise given that Axelrod—serving as campaign manager for President Barack Obama’s successful reelection in 2012—was the architect of Romney’s defeat in that selfsame contest. Axelrod begins the interview in smart fashion by expressing that one of his earliest political heroes was none other than Romney’s own father George. This move slightly disarms Romney, giving the pair a nice base on which to build their conversation. One of the more striking elements of the interview comes from experiencing Romney’s earnest humanity, a quality of which his Presidential race had been woefully bereft. Axelrod is able to goad Romney into talking about the current political climate and it makes for a compelling listen as the former Republican nominee has much to say about his party. Through just five episodes in, The Axe Files is proving itself to be a formidable entry in the world of podcasting.
Mike Elder celebrated the 100th episode of his podcast this week. Not bad when you consider he started it simply as a way to learn more about show business from the people who make a living at it. Although his guests started out small—working actors and comedians who have carved out respectable careers for themselves—they grew in profile as the series progressed. But even regular listeners were probably surprised when he nabbed this guest for his landmark installment: none other than the Podfather himself, Scott Aukerman. Best of all, it’s an Aukerman that fans of Comedy Bang! Bang! don’t usually get to see—one that stays (relatively) straight-faced throughout the conversation as he details the trial-and-error approach to his career and touches on some more somber topics, such as getting depressed about his weight gain between the first and second season of Comedy Bang! Bang!’s TV show. But even that stemmed from his wanting the series to succeed—he wasn’t just sad that he was heavier; he also felt it took away from the amusing physical contrast between himself and then-co-host Reggie Watts. This shows that even in his more self-loathing moments, Aukerman eats, sleeps, and breathes comedy. And at 100 episodes of his simple yet unique podcast, so does Elder.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
Kitchen Stand-up: Nathan Fielder, Anthony Jeselnik, Drew Tarver
You can’t really get two comedic personas more different than those of Anthony Jeselnik and Nathan Fielder. But put the two together on Comedy Bang! Bang! and something magical happens. Without Eugene Mirman, the last third of the “Titans Of Comedy,” the faux tension between the two is even more hilarious, and Scott Aukerman only exaggerates it with his sly twisting and prying. They find the game of the episode quickly, where Fielder’s words are bleeped out as he’s trying to thank Aukerman for his support, only to have him and Jeselnik react as if he’s said something wildly offensive. To turn the kind and unassuming Fielder into a villain while Jeselnik—known for his provocative material—scolds him in disbelief was simply genius. Later, Drew Tarver makes a great debut on the show as the Southern personality Terry Burkhalter, who brings his new cookbook and original kitchen stand-up. The more that’s revealed about this character, the stranger he gets, and it’s delightful.
Conversation With Alanis Morissette
Conversation With Katherine Woodward Thomas
Finally what the world has been waiting for: Alanis Morissette has a podcast. On this new show Morissette invites her friends on to talk about love, music, science, and really anything else they want to. Her first guest is Katherine Woodward Thomas, the creator of conscious uncoupling. The phrase was turned into a joke when Gwyneth Paltrow and Christ Martin used it to describe their breakup, but this discussion dives deeper into the concept: It’s not a silly celebrity trope but rather a tactic to deal with codependence issues and abusive relationships. Throughout the conversation Morissette is so intelligent and forthcoming with her own experiences. As much as she is learning from Woodward through the discussion, Woodward is learning just as much from her. The two ask each other extremely insightful questions, and because of their friendship, it feels natural. The most interesting nuggets come from moments when the two disagree and are forced to step into each other’s shoes. Morissette has such a calming, authoritative voice that makes you forget that she was the vindictive voice behind songs like “You Oughta Know.” The episodes come out monthly, so it’ll be a few weeks before the next great conversation, but it will be worth the wait.
Harmontown is entirely predicated on the openness of host Dan Harmon to share and work through his personal issues and shortcomings; Harmon has bonded with his audience and listeners in a way that is unique among podcasts. That connection makes episodes like this both painful and essential. Dan immediately dives into the news that he and Erin McGathy are divorcing after less than a year of marriage. He’s incredibly candid, accepting the blame for creating a toxic environment, and trying to move on. Of course, this is Dan Harmon, so he’ll likely share himself processing the news over months of future episodes. In fact, he finds plenty of relevance in the discussions that follow. Guest Colin Hanks talks about his documentary, All Things Must Pass, which tracks the rise and fall of Tower Records, and of course this discussion can only be heard through the echoes of Harmon’s personal news. Then his neighbors visit to discuss a heated exchange of text messages regarding the demise of their beloved eucalyptus trees, which Harmon couldn’t really care about because he was busy getting divorced. Things mercifully get a little lighter when Harmon and MC Clarity engage in a rap battle, reminding us that that while all things must pass, Harmontown will hopefully offer many years of Harmon’s personal ups and downs.
Judge John Hodgman
The Hard Of Hearing
Bruce suffers from mild hearing loss but refuses to get a hearing aid, a fact that his son Reed finds so annoying that he brings the case before John Hodgman’s court. Filled with the kind of squabbling that only comes out of prolonged family disputes involving frustration on one side and stubbornness on the other, the disagreement allows Judge Hodgman to indulge in one of his favorite things: being a weird dad. As far as weird dads go, it’s hard to do better than Bruce, who proves his bonafides in the podcast’s first moments with a ridiculous answer to Hodgman’s cultural reference. It only escalates from there as Bruce randomly speaks foreign languages, attempts to defend why he calls his wife “Mumbles,” and defends the way he dealt with complaints that his TV was too loud. Each of these moments is better than the last. No one is more delighted by Bruce than Hodgman, who sees in him a kindred spirit (or perhaps a vision of his future weird self). And while Hodgman’s ruling doesn’t fully satisfy Bruce—or Reed—he can rest proud knowing that he’s one of the show’s all-time top five weird dads.
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It’s not clear where Limetown is going to go as a podcast. From the outset, the podcast stated it will only exist as a seven-part series investigating the mass disappearance of Limetown’s colony of scientific luminaries. But by the end of episode three, host Lia Haddock (Annie-Sage Whitehurst) seems even farther away from answers. This episode takes an emotionally sharp turn, as Haddock tracks down a traveling preacher who once served as a large-animal vet in Limetown. “Reverend” Warren Chambers recounts becoming a subject in human-animal telekinetic experiments—experiments with a tragic, brutal outcome. The specifics of the experiments require some suspension of disbelief, and rely heavily on one of Limetown’s strengths: the ability for the voice actors to sell the seriousness and authenticity of a science fiction tale posing as a Serial-type exposé. As more of the mythology is unpacked, we also discover the depth of devastation that was inflicted on at least two of its subjects. The Reverend meets his demise shortly after the interview, leaving Lia unclear where to turn next. Another unsettling mysterious visitation in the final act sets the pieces for next episode, and again suggests the Lia will likely discover even more personal connections to the abandoned town.
The newest release from Slate’s Panoply network, The Message is something perplexing. Two 15-minute episodes into its eight-episode season, it’s so-called sci-fi theater nestled in a familiar format: the tireless reporter chasing a cold case that hasn’t yet found its wider audience. An extraterrestrial broadcast was picked up by American military 70 years ago and has remained a mystery ever since, but plucky podcaster Nicky Tomalin scores the opportunity to record the secretive Cypher Group, a think tank hired to cast light on the mysterious message. In episode two of Tomalin’s “cyphercast,” Cypher Group’s team of brilliant code-breakers—whose idle chatter, personal quirks, and self-awareness either add to or detract from the believability of this program—are introduced. Theatrical podcasts, like documentary films, have to lean into their medium. Whereas people turn to film and TV for exactly the type of realistic fiction offered by The Message, nearly all top U.S. podcasts are educational, instructional, or investigative, implying that the audio space is paired with the presumption of authenticity. But even if The Message amounts to nothing more than the competence porn of watching researchers do their thing, it could stay compelling if they keep listeners guessing—and if they downplay their connection to top sponsor General Electric by not making GE technologies too pivotal to the team’s success.
Your Sanity Or Your Kidneys: Jaime Lowe
This week Only Human tells the story behind an intense relationship—not between two people, but between New York Times Magazine writer Jaime Lowe and the mood stabilizer drug Lithium. Lowe was diagnosed with bipolar disorder after being placed in a psychiatric ward during a manic episode at age 17. She credits Lithium as the reason she was able to start sleeping, eating, and living life normally again, but in her mid-20s, she decides to wean herself off the drug, curious to live an unmedicated life. What follows is months of mania that included turning down a series of jobs, an obsessive yoga habit, and spending hundreds of dollars on butternut squash, all of which came to a head when her apartment burned down. Thanks to the desperate pleading of her mother, Lowe starting taking Lithium again and hasn’t had a manic episode since. Now 37, she’s built a successful writing career and a relationship, but although she credits Lithium for her emotional stability, it has come at a major cost—her health. Lowe recently found out that after 20 years of using the drug, her kidneys are significantly damaged, and she has two impossible choices for recovery: either abandon Lithium altogether, and risk future manic episodes, or sign up for a future of dialysis and an eventual kidney transplant. Lowe is relentlessly positive that regardless of where she lands, she’ll be able to get through it, and hearing her thoughts on the matter is fascinating.
The Projection Booth
The Beyond: Troy Howarth
If the idea of a 90-minute in-depth analysis of movie that involves a man being devoured alive by tarantulas sounds appealing, then listen to the latest episode of The Projection Booth. Mike White and Rob St. Mary—co-hosts of this film discussion podcast that gives special consideration to the kinds of genre films that have historically been unrepresented in the thoughtful examination department—invite Troy Howarth, author of Splintered Visions: Lucio Fulci And His Films, onto the show to help them dissect the Italian horror auteur’s 1981 surrealist cult classic The Beyond, and in the process answer such questions as: What’s the difference between being dream-like and making no sense? Is this an example of feminist cinema? And what’s up with all the violence to eyeballs? While this is probably not a great listening choice for casual horror fans, there is a large, and growing, subset of cinephiles who should be very happy that there is this much intelligent discussion devoted to low-budget Italian gore of this particular order. What a time to be alive.
This week’s Reply All, reported by producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni, is a health mystery about 29-year-old wedding photographer “Hope.” Last year, Hope started suffering from variety of unexplainable symptoms, almost as if “her body was turning into a David Lynch movie.” What started with her eye bulging and intense fatigue eventually morphed into dizziness, facial numbness, and constant headaches that interfered with her work and daily life. Despite her intense pain, the multitude of doctors Hope visits are unable to properly diagnose her, and instead she is repeatedly prescribed medication for migraines and sent home. As Hope’s symptoms worsen, she also has to deal with the terrifying possibility that her pain might be in her head, after multiple doctors suggest her issues could be a physical manifestation of grief due to husband’s unexpected suicide three years earlier. After a brain scan turns up nothing abnormal, Hope starts reading The New York Times medical mystery column “Diagnosis,” written by Dr. Lisa Sanders (the inspiration for the television show House), in a desperate attempt to find something that could help her. She learns about the website CrowdMed, an online community of “medical detectives” composed of doctors, nurses, and academics tasked to come up with theories to solve health problems for clients who are looking for a diagnosis. Thanks to this community of health sleuths, Hope finally finds answers about what might be happening to her body, but shockingly, even after she lands on a possible cure for her pain, the story doesn’t end.
Ilya Marritz and Matt Collette of WNYC have been following the Columbia University football team the Lions since September to see if after two years of losing, they can finally win a game. The past four episodes have introduced the players, the “miracle worker” head coach Al Bagnoli, and a new strategy that had yet to net a win, but at least made the team lose a little better than before. Well, it’s in episode five where the Lions are finally triumphant! It plays like an episode of Friday Night Lights, and even the uninitiated sports fans will find a compelling tale behind the college football team. Who doesn’t love an underdog story? This penultimate episode sets the stage for not only the rest of this season of the podcast, but for the history of the football time, and that’s an exciting things to get an inside listen to.
Best Songs Of The ’90s
SportsAlcohol is the offshoot podcast from the website of the same name, where a group of friends talk movies, music, and more. This week they rank the songs of an era of their formative years as music junkies, the ever-nostalgic 1990s. And what’s more fun than listening to ’90s music? Listening to people talk about ’90s music! It’s a big group with great give and take, and it’s interesting to hear why people love or hate different tracks, whether it be memories of make-out mixtapes or lousy Warped Tour shows. The conversation is extremely accessible, and feels like one you might’ve had before with your own friends. Lacking the ego of music criticism, they’re able to drive through the vast landscape of music the ’90s produced without feeling tedious or tiresome. As a listener, it’s interactive in the sense that they might bring up a song you forgot even existed, and like them, you can reminisce on your own musical memories.
Stuff You Missed In History Class
Sir Christopher Lee
Since Stuff You Missed In History Class already paid homage to cinema’s most iconic Dracula last Halloween season, this time around it’s hitting cinema’s most accomplished Dracula. One might recognize Sir Christopher Lee from one or two of his 278 credits on IMDB, but you’re probably less familiar with his work on Winston Churchill’s Ministry Of Ungentlemanly Warfare during World War II or his award-winning output as a symphonic metal vocalist. And while it’s common knowledge that he has played both Count Dracula and Count Dooku, one might be surprised to learn that he is, in reality, a descended from an Italian royal family that traces its bloodline all the way back to Charlemagne, the first Holy Roman Emperor. Co-hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey have managed to dig up a lot of weird, surprising, and somewhat disturbing facts about the life of the much-loved actor who died this past June at the age of 93. And on top of being a quick and interesting listen, it proves to be a fantastic reminder of all his great films just waiting to be rediscovered.
We see what you said there
“I guess part of what gives me struggle is the quest for independence in a world defined by loneliness. In a lot of ways, I guess I’m like a giant eucalyptus tree, rotting away from the inside.” Dan Harmon’s text to his neighbor as he’s hitting rock bottom, Harmontown
“The nephrologist that I’ve been seeing suggested one thing would be to give my boyfriend my credit cards, since one of the symptoms is spending a lot, and I was like, ‘Over my dead body.’ That is never going to happen. I am not giving up financial control. I feel like that’s years and years of feminism down the toilet.”—Jaime Lowe on preparing for possible manic episodes once she discontinues taking Lithium, Only Human
“It really felt like they were in the middle of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.”—Mike White on the climax sequence of Lucio Fulci’s The Beyond, The Projection Booth
“We don’t live in a world of certainties in medicine. We only live in a world of possibilities, and the possibility of something terrible happening to somebody because we didn’t think of something is the stuff of my nightmares. All doctors’ nightmares.”—Lisa Sanders, M.D. on medical diagnosing, Reply All