In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Podmass Series Spotlight
If there’s one thing certain about Bill Cosby, it’s that we haven’t heard the last of him. The Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, District Attorney insists he will re-try the entertainer for an alleged 2004 sexual assault despite the case ending in a mistrial. And Cosby isn’t done with us either, as his upcoming sexual assault legal clinic tour shows.
The Philadelphia Public Radio podcast Cosby Unraveled does a serviceable job of trying to understand the man. Many people struggled when claims of date rape against the formerly beloved comedian first began to pile up a few years ago—Philadelphians especially. Cosby is a native son of the city, one of its most celebrated citizens since Benjamin Franklin. But if the allegations against him are true, he’s also a heinous and unimaginably prolific sexual predator.
Cosby Unraveled grapples with this dichotomy by revealing the many others that make up Cosby’s life: He’s a high school dropout who later earned a Doctor of Education degree. A black stand-up succeeding in the Civil Rights era with a non-racial set, he nevertheless was deeply committed to black causes offstage, yet in later years leveled criticisms that many African Americans regarded as hostile and shaming. The podcast takes on disparate formats, beginning as a narrated biography, featuring interviews with the musicians Cosby hung around with as an aspiring jazz drummer; the Philadelphia mayor who cozied up to his star at the apex of his career as Cliff Huxtable on The Cosby Show; and the academics who contextualize his subsequent turn as a “tough love” black activist.
Halfway through the series, however, the trial starts and the program morphs into a broadcast news program recounting recent courtroom proceedings. A legal reporter summarizes the opening arguments and testimony, relating the similar accusations of Andrea Constand and Kelly Johnson. The series wrap-up includes a discussion of legal next steps following the mistrial and the difficulty of cases involving allegations of long-ago sex crimes. Not so much an epilogue, but a preface outlining the next go-round.
Beyond Yacht Rock
The Trump family has been inspiring musicians since the days of Woody Guthrie, who penned “Old Man Trump” about Donald’s dad in the early ’50s. The era of “the human skid mark” has already garnered quite a few songs, both positive and negative. The Yacht Rock guys (and special guest Julian McCullough) list songs ranging from the white-boy hip-hop of Mac Miller (who the president called the next Eminem) to the surprisingly melodic Pussy Riot, and arguably the best song title on the countdown: “Donald Trump Is A Fuckboy” from Chicago psych rockers Netherfriends. The highlight of the show are the countdown bumpers from Jeff Selby, who cut together fake Trump interviews from various sound bites that sound terrifyingly realistic. The show really comes alive when they grab pro-Trump tunes by the balls, such as gospel singer Steve Warren’s “The Donald Trump Song (Make America Great Again),” a song that basically advocates for martial law. On a sunnier note, Cheap Trick’s 1984 single “Up The Creek” gets a mention in the “50 Songs In 50 Soundtracks” portion of the show. We survived Reagan, right?
The Hood, The Schmuck & Miss New Jersey Legs
Listen to Marc Maron’s WTF interviews with some of today’s most popular comedians—think Andy Samberg or Bill Hader—and you’ll hear fit, sober, well-adjusted dudes. This is great, but also a far cry from the comics of yesteryear, the ones Maron grew up idolizing. Clad in tuxedos, guys like Jack Carter and Shecky Greene played smoky strip clubs and seedy dives in between swigs of whiskey. Were they paragons of healthy living? Hell no, but they’ve got good stories. And those are the stories Kliph Nesteroff wants to tell on his new podcast, Classic Showbiz, which aims to shine a light on the forgotten comics who paved the way for today’s jokesters. This first episode follows Allan Drake, a “mediocre” comic with mob connections that helped him find far more success than he probably should have. Sadly, his rise and fall in both life and comedy intersects with mob violence, infidelity, and betrayal. It’s a fascinating story, but equally gripping is Nesteroff’s breakdown of how the mob gained such a stronghold over nightclubs and, by extension, stand-up comedy from the ’30s through the ’60s. It’s enough to make even the grittiest Netflix stand-up special look like a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
The Ezra Klein Show
Al Franken On Learning To Be A Politician
For most of his first term in the Senate, lifelong professional comedian Al Franken was shockingly unfunny. And not unfunny in a Mike Huckabee mean uncle way, but seemingly mirthless. It was a strange look for him, and apparently not one that he wore easily. As he explains here, the SNL pioneer had to learn how to be a politician, which is a weird admission in a world where politicians are constantly trying to distance themselves from that label. His rationale is compelling, shedding light on why successful legislators behave in the non-human way they do and why the legislators who don’t aren’t all that successful. It’s a frank explanation from a guy who seems to be feeling a bit more at ease in his political role and is willing to drop the mask of solemnity. Not much discussion of extremely current events, which might extend the shelf life of this conversation. Probably the most interesting chunk of talk comes when Franken unpacks the reasons Ted Cruz is his most universally despised co-worker. Worth the listen for that part alone.
Friends Without Benefits
Returning to Friends Without Benefits after a yearlong hiatus, host Jason Horton is joined by actor/director Ben Giroux, best known for his work in the children’s television show Bunsen Is A Beast. Recapping his life over the course of the last year, Horton tells of getting married, traveling, and being in London during the terror attack on the London Bridge in June. Despite the potentially heavy experience, Horton maintains a grounded perspective on how such events play into the context of one’s life. The two also talk through their respective approaches to generating material; Giroux, for his part, tends to make fewer videos, preferring to invest heavily in the quality of his chosen projects. One of the more interesting elements of the conversation is Giroux talking about the arc of his career and his ability to learn from mistakes. Horton and Giroux have a number of fun anecdotes between the two of them, from growing up in a family that ran a comic book shop to learning what stand-ins are for on film sets.
Nearly two months after its initial release as a Spotify exclusive, one of the year’s most anticipated podcasts is finally available to the masses. The protracted wait for Mogul has felt like an eternity given the weight of its exploration. The program—born of a unique collaboration between Spotify and the Gimlet and Loud Speakers networks—seeks to document the life and eventual suicide of Chris Lighty, the enormously successful and important hip-hop impresario. Mogul is expertly guided by the note-perfect hosting from Reggie Ossé, better known to Loud Speakers fans as Combat Jack: ostensible father figure to that network, host of its eponymous Combat Jack Show, and a former music attorney with deep ties to the culture. Because Lighty’s story is so entwined with the birth and rise of hip-hop, the podcast functions as a biography for both. Indeed, there is so much of Lighty’s story that is also Ossé’s as well, and he doesn’t hold back from injecting himself into the show, adding an extra layer of passion and specificity. With its skillful production, luxuriant sound design, and compelling story, this podcast that has been worth the wait.
Out Here In America
Launched this Pride season, Out Here In America is an interview-driven podcast that centers on LGBTQ voices from the historically conservative and traditionally religious deep south. After an especially heavy first episode featuring Pulse nightclub shooting survivor and Arkansas native Chris Hansen, Out Here In America returns with comedian Tig Notaro for a slightly lighter but equally important chat. Joining host Justin Mitchell in McClatchy’s Biloxi Sun Herald newsroom, Notaro discusses her Mississippi roots and how they landed her and her partner, Stephanie Allynne, in Pass Christian, Mississippi, on their wedding day. The most hopeful takeaway comes when Notaro mentions her fellow Mississippians expanding their mindsets in favor of acceptance and rallying around her and Allynne in an authentic and loving way.
Why Oh Why
It feels that the default setting in human interaction is subterfuge: We’re conditioned to cloak our true feelings under a garb dictated by social mores. These days, though, no matter how much we try to obfuscate, there is no way to hide from the all-seeing eye of big data. On this week’s Why Oh Why, host Andrea Silenzi is joined by economist and author Seth Stephens-Davidowitz to discuss the trends he‘s found after analyzing mountains of data points focused on dating and porn consumption. At times dispiriting, often surprising, the data reveal interesting insights into the balance of primality and social pressure that composes human behavior. Silenzi pounces upon every reveal with a revelrous fervor, propelling the conversation into great detours. It is in one of these deviations that an exploration of Slavoj Žižek and the object-cause of desire provides maybe more insight than all of the previous data. Why Oh Why is peerless in its dogged endeavor to unpuzzle intimacy, and we’re all better for it.