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.
Though Ouija boards seem like something that might be older than time itself, the game’s beginnings are tied to a creepy era of human history that the design podcast uses as a backdrop for its storytelling. The origins of the faux-spooky kids’ game are traced back to the desperate sadness caused by the Civil War’s bloodshed and the spiritualist movement that preceded it during the 19th century. This history lesson gives the episode plenty of post-Halloween value, as those who are unfamiliar with the origins of the modern clairvoyant will get an answer as to how these champions of the late-night hotline and neon-signed storefront came into our culture. Before the official game, this “talking board” was a fad that was informally taking hold as a spin-off of the Fox Sisters, who claimed to be mediums capable of translating knocks on the wall into letters of the alphabet. When the original Ouija was created, its subtitle was “The Egyptian Luck Board,” and it became a symbol of the loss America was experiencing during the dark industrial era. Host Roman Mars and producer Katie Mingle dabble in everything from the dark arts to contemporary psychology to explain how this game has transcended novelty and changed the way we view the afterlife as well as human compulsive behavior.
Michael Silverblatt is not your typical host. For one, words fall from his mouth like lemmings from a cliff: slowly, meanderingly, with an admirable deliberateness. He’s also not much for small talk, which makes sense as KCRW’s Bookworm is not an interview show, but rather a series of “intellectual, accessible, and provocative literary conversations” with noted authors. Silverblatt’s measured approach is almost completely at odds with this week’s guest: John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats’ frontman and author of the excellent novel Wolf In White Van. Anyone who’s heard him interviewed on the likes of WTF or Vish Khanna’s Kreative Kontrol, knows Darnielle has a peripatetic wit and willingness to reach back into the darker recesses of his youth. Bookworm, however, isn’t the place for it. But Darnielle adapts to the format well, quietly absorbing the bite-sized nuggets of analysis Silverblatt offers in between questions. Their discussion touches on several fascinating topics, from role-playing and backward masking in music to the line Darnielle draws between music and literature. The true highlight, however, is a five-minute excerpt of the novel itself. As read by Darnielle, single words explode into shrapnel and sentences link like speeding railcars, evoking the reckless desperation that carries his best songs with The Mountain Goats.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
One of the reasons Matt Besser’s Improv4humans is so consistently funny is because of how exceptionally gifted its host is at steering setups away from the obvious and toward whatever oddities come up organically. His name on a Comedy Bang! Bang! episode essentially guarantees it’s a winner, and this is no exception. Celebrity nude photo leaker “Paul Funyuns” (Besser) interrupts an interview with Wyatt Cenac about his new album Brooklyn in order to “hack” sound effects into the episode, steal passwords, and inadvertently improve careers. Cenac’s dry straight-man persona is a nice foil for Besser and later Jocelyn DeBoer, who visits as an unfrozen MGM girl with a dream. Somehow, Japanese android pop stars make their way into the mix, and, without actually appearing in any way, a devious and opportunistic Horatio Sanz ends up stealing the show.
Doug Loves Movies
Gillian Jacobs, Laura Silverman, Cameron Esposito, Eddie Pepitone
Given how frequently her sister makes appearances, it’s sort of astonishing that Laura Silverman (Dr. Katz, Bob’s Burgers) has never been a guest on Doug Loves Movies until now. She stops by this week to plug the upcoming “meta meta meta” return of HBO’s cult hit The Comeback, in which she and the original cast return with even funnier and more prescient performances than in the first ahead-of-its-time season. Predictably, she’s a witty delight, and her subtle asides are some of the most surprising and hilarious bits in this L.A. Upright Citizens Brigade show. A verbose four-person panel and an hour running time leaves no room for The Leonard Maltin Game, but Doug Benson squeezes in a quick Mark Wahlberg-edition of Last Man Stanton. A roundup of horror movie favorites fills most of the discussion segment, which launches Eddie Pepitone into a bombastic diatribe against his least favorite tropes used in The Shining. It might be better that Cameron Esposito runs late, partly because it results in a rare reverse apology from Put Your Hands Together, but mostly because she steps on her own lesbian-joke rake a few times more than she needs to.
How Did This Get Made?
Paul Scheer reports that horror director George A. Romero was downing upwards of an entire bottle of vodka a day when he wrote and directed this 1988 monstrosity about a quadriplegic whose world is terrorized by a monkey after a dark experiment goes awry. Its plot summary and head-scratcher poem tagline make it look like a self-aware animal thriller yarn like Black Sheep or Tusk, but its grim self-seriousness make it an absurd viewing experience for reasons that go beyond its plot holes. The long, bizarre flick went on to some notoriety for being one of the few films to depict sex between a character with a disability and one without—one of the few good scenes in the otherwise inscrutable mess. How Did This Get Made? turns into What Were They Even Trying To Make? when the gang attempts to piece together the plot using tidbits about deleted scenes. For a Halloween episode, it doesn’t quite reach the bubbly heights of the show’s Sleepaway Camp commentary, but no guest is needed to pack in 85 minutes of solid riffs and analysis. June Diane Raphael’s animal rights concerns about how monkey actors are credited—animated by an Earwolf user here—leads to one of the best June theories and subsequent fallout discussions to date.
If you’ve seen Larry Fessenden onscreen, you’ve probably seen him die. “I think people cast you to kill you,” quips one of Killer POV‘s hosts as they interview the indie journeyman, whose influence as a director, actor, writer, and producer (he runs “micro-studio” Glass Eye Pix) has quietly pervaded the modern indie horror scene. In addition to helming cult films like The Wendigo and Habit, Fessenden is responsible for cultivating the careers of young visionaries like Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are) and Ti West (The House Of The Devil, The Innkeepers), who is probably the breakout star of the mumblegore movement. This makes him a perfect fit for Killer POV, an exhaustive, oft-brilliant horror movie podcast that, with every new guest or discussion, weaves together a tapestry of the horror landscape that draws string between trends, innovations, and talent both classic and contemporary. Hosts Elric Kane, Rebekah McKendry, and Rob Galluzzo, all accomplished horror journalists, share a bottomless well of genre knowledge, as does Fessenden, as adaptable on the mic as he is behind the camera. His anecdotes about West’s early career, in particular, are funny, fatherly, and likely to inspire budding horror auteurs everywhere.
Bob Odenkirk Returns
It’s hard to believe it’s only been about two and a half years since Bob Odenkirk’s last appearance on Nerdist. When he sat down with Chris Hardwick, Jonah Ray, and Matt Mira in early 2012, his dramatic work as a tertiary character on AMC’s Breaking Bad was still an anomaly. Now, 426 Nerdist episodes later, not only is he the star player on the show’s highly anticipated spin-off Better Call Saul (acting, to hear him tell it, in practically every scene), but he’s been used in other critically acclaimed comic-dramatic projects, such as FX’s Fargo and Alexander Payne’s Oscar-nominated Nebraska. In fact, his career has bent to such a degree that many fans will probably be surprised to learn he recently published a book of sketch comedy (A Load Of Hooey) and will soon be releasing a stand-up album (Amateur Hour)—two of main reasons for his appearance here. While he does spend some time discussing the overwhelming and exhausting experience of filming Better Call Saul, he doesn’t offer anything even remotely spoiler-esque. The best bits, really, are just him and the guys talking about comedy. It’s always fun listening to someone this smart talk about something he loves.
In exploring the murder of Hae Min Lee, the crime that is the nucleus around which the podcast revolves, the listener has been presented a rather unbalanced version of events. Host Sarah Koenig is acutely aware that her role is to observe, interpret, and parcel out information in order to achieve optimal dramatic effect, rather than present evidence in a linear fashion. This holds true even if it means concealing crucial pieces of the story until the adjudged right moment. And so, after five episodes of examining figures on the periphery, Serial finally dives deep into the murky heart of the murder and explores Adnan Syed’s guilt. Koenig lays her cards on the table, examining the vexing aspects of the case—from eyewitness testimony of his curious behavior on the night of the murder, to a damning phone call and the machinations he may have taken to reframe the discussion surrounding it, and beyond. Rather than a spotlight boldly illuminating Syed as the murderer, though, this is just another candle in a too-dark room, offering only slightly more definition to an unclear picture. The additional information presented troubles already turbid waters, leaving listeners wondering whether this is just another illusory tactic in this sprawling tapestry being woven by Koenig.
Cosmic Queries: Superheroes
Despite host Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s penchant for fact-busting the world of science fiction, he allows the fantasy element of superheroes to tempt him into examining the powers and habitats of all the popular comic book heroes. Starting with the obvious idea that superheroes would be amusing to subject to the spaghettification of a black hole, he then goes through superheroes one by one and tries to figure out just how easily an unforgiving universe would be to them. For instance, though Wolverine is incredibly popular, his simple vulnerability to basic short-term tissue damage makes him less fun to do hypothetical harm to than the similarly structured Terminator cyborg. Though he debunks everything and ends up sticking with the non-mystical Batman as his favorite, Tyson has a load of fun discussing everything from Superman’s arctic recharge-ability to Thor’s hammer and transportation system. It may be telling that Tyson has to reach all the way back to early childhood to find a deeply personal connection in a hero through Mighty Mouse, given the extreme suspension of disbelief needed to appreciate the example, but nonetheless he is amusingly honest when he confesses that Iron Man’s reactor is too much for him. Saturday Night Live’s Colin Jost also makes for the perfect co-host, keeping Tyson from sucking out all the whimsy from the premise of the episode.
Stuff You Should Know
Is There A Disease That Kills By Preventing Sleep?
Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant don’t normally cover diseases so obscure they barely exist, but in this episode they tackle a particularly compelling and creepy problem that will send hypochondriac listeners’ teeth on edge. For hundreds of years doctors have tracked a disorder called fatal familial insomnia, a very rare and always deadly sleep disorder that may or may not be genetic. Sufferers find that FFI deprives the sufferer of sleep until the secondary effects of lack of rest kills them. Because the disease involves brain degeneration and is so unlikely to occur, it has been nearly impossible to research, but doctors are beginning to realize the damage is not unlike mad cow disease. FFI appears to be the result of “misfolded proteins,” or at least something else that we’re only beginning to understand. One of the ways the disease begins to manifest is something horrible that Clark and Bryant call “sponge brain,” a reference to a series of tiny holes that begin to create themselves in important parts of the brain. The mystery surrounding the disease’s occurrence coupled with its barely confirmed existence haunts the research, keeping the podcast episode mysterious even though the hosts have done their homework.
Who Stole What?
Michael Jackson – Prince Of Thieves
For the true Michael Jackson fan, this week’s episode is worth putting up with the Shields brothers’ hackneyed impersonations. Though this outing goes a bit longer than usual for this quick-hit podcast, the hosts keep things moving along, even with a lot more material to wade through. They follow the usual shtick, detailing several of the instances when other artists accused the King Of Pop of song thievery and sought legal restitution, judging for themselves how strong each case appears to be. An additional treat arrives in the form of an a cappella audio clip of Jackson performing all the vocal parts and some of the instrumentals of “Beat It”—a trick that reportedly won him a court case or two. Specific tunes discussed include the “mama-se mama-sa mama-ku-sa” part from “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” “Dangerous,” “You Are Not Alone,” and “Will You Be There?” Fun facts abound for all. Namely, that third tune’s lyricist was none other than Robert Kelly—best known by his first initial. Also, Michael Jackson is only considered a song thief in Belgium, even though he used an uncleared clip from the Cleveland Orchestra in “Will You Be There?,” as if that town doesn’t have enough challenges.
We see what you said there
“I don’t know how we stayed on for four seasons. There was no audience for it. None.”—Bob Odenkirk on Mr. Show with Bob and Dave, Nerdist
“Anyone who’s stretchable, in principle might be immune to this.”—Neil DeGrasse Tyson on the spagettification effect of Black Holes, Star Talk Radio
“Once it happens you’ve got between one to three years of basically a living hell.”—Josh Clark on the terrifying onset of Fatal Familial Insomnia, Stuff You Should Know