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 email@example.com.
Madam Secretary, What’s Good?
This week finds Another Round hosts Heben Nigatu and Tracy Clayton on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport, Iowa. Though it may seem an odd location for the pair, it is an auspicious one, as it marks the site of their unprecedented interview with Hillary Clinton in advance of this week’s Democratic Party presidential debate. The hosts begin by inquiring about Clinton’s personal experiences, such as living in the public eye, the tightrope of emotionality that female politicians are forced to walk, and the ways she went toe-to-toe with male political counterparts. Before long Nigatu and Clayton get to the meat of their interview, delving into Clinton’s interaction with representatives of the Black Lives Matter movement. The gloves come off when Clinton is pointedly asked whether or not she feels that the mass incarceration policies passed during her husband’s administration, as Clayton puts it, “really fucked [things] up for black people.” There is still sweetness and light to be found, such as when—during a section of humorous questions—Clinton lets loose and jokingly admits that she is actually a robot built in a Palo Alto garage. Through their entire interaction Nigatu and Clayton wonderfully maintain their signature blend of intelligence and irreverence, making for a political interview unlike any other.
Constance Wu & Ron Nyswaner
Jesse Thorn has always had a talent for scouting and giving platforms to minority voices, from women to people of color to the LGBTQ entertainment community. This week is no different as he cedes the host chair to Guy Branum, host of fellow MaximumFun pop culture podcast Pop Rocket and a growing voice in gay comedy. Branum’s guests are equally underrepresented on television and in Bullseye’s public radio. First, Constance Wu (Fresh Off The Boat’s Jessica Huang) chats with Branum about Asian Americans in the media, beginning somewhat negatively with how often she was cast for “non-Caucasian best friend” or laundromat employee roles, but is increasingly hopeful for the future thanks to Nahnatchka Khan’s adaptation of Eddie Huang’s memoir. Afterward, Branum takes a more visceral route with Ron Nyswaner, a gay activist and screenwriter, about his experience coming out and the ways he writes to show positive depictions of people like him in the media. An amazing moment of candor happens when Nyswaner relates coming out to his parents, first choking up and then outwardly crying, Branum sitting beside him unsure of how to comfort him on the air—another moment in a long list that separates Bullseye from its more sterile public radio magazine counterparts.
Call Chelsea Peretti
Into The Ether
Call Chelsea Peretti is quite the sporadic little podcast. You never know when you’ll get an episode, and you’ll refresh your podcast app reflexively searching for a quick fix of the strangely addictive call-in show. Finally, after two long months, it’s made a triumphant return. Peretti’s podcast is a direct reflection of everything that makes her such a sought-after force in the comedy world. It’s her ability to be so damn entertaining without even trying, aimlessly flowing in and out of genuine conversation and brutal hang ups, stitched together by some a cappella singing, off-the-wall sound effects, and the occasional monologue. This homecoming episode has everything that fans could hope for, from her signature voices, talks of wanderlust, the biz, and phone addiction. But the last five minutes really hits the gold. At the risk of spoiling anything, let’s just say that things escalate very, very quickly. It’s worth the wait, and you will be forever changed.
Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period
48 Mo’ Better Blues: Ava DuVernay
Denzealots, rejoice, as this week’s episode features perhaps the highest-profile guest in the show’s history. Hosts W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery start the show off with a short discussion of the latest in Matt Damon’s spate of awful comments about diversity, this time touching on gay actors in Hollywood. Bell then reveals that he was able to secure an interview with director Ava Duvernay, talking about her love for the Spike Lee film Mo’ Better Blues. Bell is especially proud of the interview since co-host Avery was not able to be present for it. Bell and Avery’s playfully antagonistic relationship is on full display, with Bell throwing Avery under the bus multiple times in his conversation with Duvernay, to hilarious effect. Avery and Bell even stop the tape of the interview multiple times to discuss Bell’s slights. Duvernay is wonderful in her conversation with Bell, giving honest, unguarded stories about her formative years, as well as her feelings about the state of black women in the entertainment industry. It is a treat to listen to, and one can only hope that Duvernay will be able to return to the show to deliver such an address in earnest, as she clearly has a lot to contribute to the conversation.
Kenya Barris is one of Doodie Calls’ most esteemed guests to date, so it’s only natural that the Black-ish creator’s shit story should involve celebrities. Doodie Calls has long chronicled the agony of having to conduct polite conversation in a “shit emergency,” but Barris’ story ups the ante by bringing the likes of Nas, Busta Rhymes, and Pink into the mix. Barris, a natural storyteller, gives the story a satisfying arc and, oddly enough, a heartwarming epilogue that reveals, after shitting his pants, the first person he called was his mom. “It happens,” she told him, and anyone who’s ever shit their pants will tell you that’s exactly what you long to hear in the aftermath. As always, host Doug Mand’s infectious laughter carries us from beat to beat, as do his innumerable shit puns. As a bonus, the episode begins with an absolutely hysterical story about how Mand was able to use his skittery bowels to get out of jury duty. He even reads aloud the note from his doctor. “I am both proud and completely ashamed,” Mand says of the incident, a sentiment that may as well sum up the general attitude this long-running podcast brings to its stories of gastrointestinal mishaps.
The inaugural Rockdoughberfest is upon us, and it finds the Spoonman and the Burger Boy broadening their horizons by limiting their scope, specifically to rock-themed chain restaurants. Because the hosts (and their guest, Review’s Julie Brister) were all first-time visitors to Sammy Hagar’s Cabo Wabo Cantina, there aren’t a lot of memories about it shared (or even to be shared), but there are enough tangentially related stories with varying degrees of wistfulness scattered throughout to make up for it. Brister’s stories of living (and eating) in New York City in the late ’80s in particular are fascinating, although Mike Mitchell’s story about being sexually harassed by a pod of dolphins as a child may be the oddball highlight of the episode. In the end, The Red Rocker comes out less scathed than one might expect, and overall it’s a strong start to what promises to be a great Rockdoughberfest.
Esquire Classic Podcast
The debut episode of the brand-new Esquire Classic podcast, which explores the magazine’s most memorable nonfiction pieces, is about one of Esquire’s most-read story of all time, “The Falling Man,” by Tom Junod. The story hit a specific, painful nerve for readers everywhere when it was published, examining the famous photograph from 9/11 of an unidentified man falling from the World Trade Center’s north tower. With excerpts of the story woven throughout the episode, Junod and host David Brancaccio discuss the falling man, his thoughts in the moment the picture was taken and his possible identity, and the complicated history of our country’s relationship to the image. As the photo is clearly depicting a conscious man hurtling toward death, this episode examines the question: What is our moral obligation as the viewer of the photo—to look in order to remember the specific horrors of that day that led to this man’s leap from one of the world’s tallest buildings, or to look away out of respect? As Junod writes in his article, “The photograph is all we know of him, and yet all we know of him becomes a measure of what we know of ourselves.”
The hosts of Hollywood Handbook were evidently left in a bit of a lurch this week, making reference to a guest no-showing the taping. Their innovative solution to a guest-free Handbook? They pulled out their laptop and searched around for a show they could watch for free, eventually settling on season four, episode eight of the plastic surgery drama Nip/Tuck, and forged ahead with a bizarre and deliberately amateur RifftTax-style commentary on the show. Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements hadn’t ever seen Nip/Tuck to that point—“We wanted to see the first one, but then I realized—why?”—and they mine a good portion of the episode’s humor alternating being clueless to the plot and boastfully declaring how easy it is, as Hollywood insiders, to come into a show this late. Well-placed wows and whoas, particularly from Clements, enhance this theme throughout the episode. But the highlight comes after a few seconds-long pause from the commentators while the characters call one another assholes. “Sorry, I got really absorbed in this show for a minute,” Davenport apologizes. It takes a great improvisor to effectively pretend to not be a great improvisor, a line that Hollywood Handbook walks increasingly well in these form-breaking installments.
Lore is already the Halloween ghost story of podcasts, so it’s fair to wonder how Aaron Mahnke would usher in the month of October. Instead of a circuitous, strange tale that takes place at the intersection of folklore, superstition, and fact, Mahnke goes headlong into ax murderers of the early 20th century. First up is the story of a murderer who slaughtered several mixed-race families across Louisiana and East Texas between 1911 and 1912. The crimes are gruesome, plentiful, and to this day, still unsolved. All of the victims were killed while sleeping in their beds. Case after case unfolded, until one evening a woman awoke before the killer could split her skull. Screaming in terror, the would-be victim scared away her assailant, who disappeared into the night and never resurfaced. Mahnke then jumps to another case in Villisca, Iowa, painstakingly walking us through the separate, unsolved murders of an entire family. Lore’s quiet, measured delivery is chillingly fitting to the forensics of the case. In a world where we are confronted and desensitized with near-daily tales of horrible gun violence, these stories construct dread-soaked dioramas of a simpler time when murder struck unsuspecting victims who didn’t think to lock their doors, and even left an oak-handled murder weapon conveniently available on the front porch.
The Majority Report
Melissa Etehad: UN Recap & David Futrelle: Exposing “Mens Rights”
There are few online activities more deeply satisfying than pointing and laughing at men’s rights activists. It allows for a feeling of superiority over your fellow internet citizens while simultaneously feeling completely justified about it. However, like many progressive radio shows and podcasts, Sam Seder’s Majority Report can sometimes present itself as a bit too strident for even the more liberal listeners. Matt Binder’s conversation with David Futrelle—curator of the We Hunted The Mammoth blog, which “tracks and mocks the new misogyny online”—is simply delightful, as the two spend a half-hour trying to untangle the “pick up artist” community from the adherents to the “Men Going Their Own Way” (or “MGTOW”) movement from the dedicated soldiers of the conspiracy theory and white supremacist factions. The anti-women world is so much weirder than one would imagine. That interview, though, begins about midway through the episode, following a much less humorous, and much more depressing, discussion of Syria, Russia, and the United Nations with independent journalist Melissa Etehad.
On The Media
Dahlia Lithwick, host of Slate’s Amicus podcast, jokes that Supreme Court beat reporters usually leave their jobs the same way justices do: feet first. That’s because understanding the huge implications of high court decisions requires arcane insider knowledge of both tedious legal processes and the court’s technology-adverse ways of doing business. That doesn’t stop cable news networks from applying their on-the-fly habits to their SCOTUS coverage, though, often with embarrassing and misleading results. This week, On The Media delivers another excellent special-edition Breaking News Consumer Handbook covering the most common offenses networks commit after a seemingly large (or deceptively small) decision is handed down. Several outlet have written or aired excellent previews of the new and likely contentious session, but OTM’s special is the most comprehensive, easy to understand, and entertaining. Most impressively, an investigative segment revealing the opaque and undocumented after-the-fact execution of opinion revisions was apparently so effective that it garnered an official response and mea cultpa straight from the source, rendering the issue obsolete before the report about it even had the chance to air.
Keep The Baby, Get The Chemo
The focus of the new podcast “Only Human” is a topic we often would rather ignore than discuss: health, and the stories about how the limits of our physical bodies affect our day-to-day lives, because, as the show’s tagline goes, “every body has a story.” It’s a personal subject that host Mary Harris knows isn’t easy for others to talk about, and so she starts of the show with her own story: her breast cancer diagnosis two years ago, which was immediately followed by the discovery that she was pregnant with her second child. Despite being reassured by experts that chemotherapy treatment wouldn’t harm the baby, Harris and her husband were plagued with worries over everything that could still go wrong, but they handled their what-ifs with an incredible sense of humor and optimism. Harris—whose baby Stella is now a healthy 16-month-old—is currently in remission, and she ends the episode with a conversation with her husband about being on the other side of the life-threatening illness, and the fears that stick with them that the cancer might someday come back. “I feel like I should be exercising more,” she says about making life changes since her diagnosis, and her husband jokingly agrees, and in that way, she is all of us, and we see a preview of the stories to come from this podcast, examining the contradiction of how easy it is to take our health for granted when everything is fine.
Smile My Ass
Host Jad Abumrad realizes something halfway through this episode that gives him pause: He and his friends grew up quoting the famous catchphrase, “Smile! You’re on Candid Camera!” without ever having seen the eponymous show. Reporter Latif Nasser investigates the history and success of what began in 1947 as The Candid Microphone, a show that only managed at first to prove how mundane everyday conversation really was. Creator Allen Funt had a twofold solution to this: first, the “setup.” Idle chatter could easily be shaped into a heightened, dramatic exchange by presenting subjects with a mysterious moaning suitcase or a malfunctioning alarm clock. Once the newly branded Candid Camera made the leap to TV, Funt added the oh-so-critical “reveal”: Viewers were now witness to the captivating mixture of shame and giddiness that overtook each and every dupe. “This tiny sliver of your private life could be excised and then broadcast to the world,” Nasser explains, and that possibility carried weight, demanding new levels of engagement from audiences. It was real, occurring in the world we all shared, and laughing at someone’s misfortune was suddenly unmediated by the complicity of an actor as it always had been. The phenomenon became perhaps more insidious than Funt ever intended, his daughter explains to Radiolab, citing a truly gripping piece of family lore involving an airplane hijacking and a gaggle of incredulous hostages who, upon seeing Funt, all begin to smile.
Stuff Mom Never Told You
This week’s episode of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You is all about Ronda Rousey, the world’s most successful female MMA fighter. Rousey has been in and out of the press lately thanks to not only her incredible fights, but her incredible fighting words, her trash talking of opponents and rejection of critics who have the nerve to call her fat or unfeminine. Her rise to mainstream fame as the first female UFC champion and unapologetic attitude about body image and female athletes has earned her the reputation of feminist icon by women everywhere, including Beyoncé, who played a recording of Rousey quotes before a song she performed at the Made In America festival this September. Although podcast hosts Cristen Conger and Caroline Ervin admit that “you can’t not be impressed” by Rousey’s accomplishments and athletic prowess, they also wrestle with Rousey’s label as a feminist icon considering her history of extremely gendered trash-talking to female opponents and transphobic comments to the media, all while jokingly worrying that their critical conversation might result in a challenge to fight from Rousey. But “luckily, there’s no octagon in the How Stuff Works headquarters.”
Switched On Pop
Justin Bieber’s Existential Suite
For songwriter Charlie Harding and musicologist Nate Sloan, Justin Bieber’s two most recent singles “Where Are Ü Now” and “What Do You Mean?” stand apart from not only his previous songs but also from other recent pop music. Whereas Bieber’s past hits were brimming with bravado and swag, here he is uncertain and doubtful, attempting to understand who he is in the aftermath of his breakup with Selena Gomez. This new melancholy, introspective Bieber serves as the entry point for Harding and Sloan’s brilliant deconstruction of the two songs they have dubbed “Justin Bieber’s existential suite.” Built around quotes about alienation drawn from the work of Albert Camus, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche, Harding and Sloan’s examination focuses on how lyrical, songwriting, and production choices all contribute to the feelings of dislocation, dread, and emptiness that saturate and unite both songs. It’s a thoughtful, deep critique that elevates these tracks as the product of a (possibly) more mature Bieber. And while not enough to make one a Belieber, Harding and Sloan’s argument is likely to persuade listeners that “Where Are Ü Now” and “What Do You Mean?” are legitimately good songs that stand as Bieber’s most interesting work to date.
“He must be mega boned-out right now because this is a very deep kiss. And now he’s walking away, effectively giving himself blue balls.”—Sean Clements commentating on Nip/Tuck, Hollywood Handbook
“What’s the casting notice that you just got so annoyed to see in your email inbox?”
“Best friend. Please submit all ethnicities except Caucasian.”—Guy Branum and Constance Wu, Bullseye