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 podmass@avclub.com.

There will be no Podmass on Monday, December 1 due to the holiday weekend.

Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period
American Gangster

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Going back to last week’s introduction of the term “black people homework,” host W. Kamau Bell shares his top 10 films that are so important to black culture they’re now essentially mandatory viewing. Bell finds a few loopholes, naming two television miniseries to the list —The Jacksons: An American Dream and Roots—as well as naming all of Spike Lee’s films from She’s Gotta Have It to Malcolm X as a single film, though given the monolithic status that Lee held at that time it holds up, with each film proving to be as important as the next. When trying to name films that could be considered “white people homework” Bell and co-host Kevin Avery create unintentional hilarity in their inability to remember the name of The Big Lebowski. The pair then turn their attentions to the next film in Denzel’s filmography, American Gangster. The preponderance of rappers in the cast lead to a realization that the transition from rapping to acting is made easier since rapping is all about posturing and playing a role. Avery says that American Gangster is his Julie & Julia, because he skips all of the scenes with Russell Crowe like others do with the Amy Adams’ scenes in that film.
[Ben Cannon]


The Flop House
Robocop (2014)

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No matter how ridiculous the movie may be, the hosts of The Flop House always give their viewing material a fair shake, or at least as fair a shake as can be reasonably expected. It’s more difficult for them than usual when they discuss the 2014 Robocop remake, because their love for the original film is so strong. That’s lucky though, because at times it seems like that investment in pointing out how, exactly, the film fails compared to the original is the only thing keeping the conversation tethered to a coherent plane of existence. Indeed, with Dan McCoy having slept through a large portion of the movie and sounding thoroughly woozy through a large portion of the podcast, there is not much to keep Stuart Wellington’s off-the-wall jokes and references and Elliott Kalan’s rapid-fire stream of absurd puns and word association from taking over the show entirely. It’s almost whimsical how little sense the episode makes at points, sometimes veering into straight comedy id. The dynamic wouldn’t work for every episode but, here, it’s a delight.
[Colin Griffith]


Music Popcast
London Calls Mary J. Blige

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New York Times music critic Ben Ratliff joins host and colleague Jon Caramanica on this week’s episode to dig into The London Sessions, the latest release by Mary J. Blige. Ratliff provides a great through-line, following the failure of Blige’s previous two albums and how it lead to her decamping to England to record her latest album. The pair discuss how Blige developed an unlikely brain trust in London, revolving around the house music duo Disclosure, with the circle widening to include Sam Smith, Emeli Sande, and Naughty Boy. Caramanica posits that her revitalized sound on the new record is due to the brain trust having grown up idolizing Blige, and as such she is not viewed as a fading star in the way U.S.-based producers might see her. Therefore, risks are taken and the sound is daring. This is also partly attributed by Ratliff to the Northern Soul movement—where in the north of England lesser-known soul music was sought out and put on a pedestal—as she is exactly the kind of artist to be appreciated this way. Caramanica and Ratliff are casual scholars whose omnivorous interests make for a fantastic discussion of a topic that, at surface level, seems played out, but turns the show into something of a microcosm of Blige today.
[Ben Cannon]


No Such Thing As A Fish
No Such Thing As A Good Sloth Onesie

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No Such Thing As A Fish experienced so much success with its first live episode that it booked its second one almost immediately. Perhaps what is especially fun about these live episodes is how they look when compared directly with one of the weekly in-studio episodes. A regular episode is usually no more than 20 to 30 minutes, a rollercoaster of jokes and insane trivia. But in these live episodes each fact, normally a six-minute segment, is blown out to 10 to 15 minutes. This not only means more off-the-cuff nonsense, it also showcases the panelists, who are whip smart TV researchers and have thoughtful contributions that might not make a shorter episode. This episode riffs and deconstructs the facts in the new Q.I. book, including the insane/literal ancient Viking names, where in the world people are most likely to be named Penis (no big surprise, it’s America), and best of all a thorough and hilarious description of early anesthesia. Apparently surgeons once preferred to operate while being guided by their patients’ screams, and when doctors first started testing the drugs that make us sleep or feel numb they did terrible experiments to each other’s genitals. The live crowd seems even larger than the last, proving that this podcast has ascended in the short span of its existence.
[Dan Telfer]


Nothing To Write Home About
Modern Baseball

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A few months ago Modern Baseball opened for The Get Up Kids, and in addition to absolutely killing, the concert ended up being the catalyst for this latest episode of Matt Pryor’s Nothing To Write Home About podcast, which finds the GUK frontman and prolific solo artist interviewing Modern Baseball’s chief songwriters, Brendan Lukens and Jake Ewald. As they do in concert, the duo comes across as humble, free-spirited, and just a little bit nerdy, even if their discussion of life on the road is a little inside baseball. The real joy of this episode is listening to Pryor, an obvious influence on Modern Baseball, retreat into the memories he was making when he was their same age and on a similar trajectory. There’s also something charmingly ramshackle about Pryor’s podcast, which stops and starts several times due to interruptions and, at one point, a band’s set starting at the venue where the interview is taking place. Sloppy? Maybe. But Pryor’s DIY through and through and that can be damn refreshing.
[Randall Colburn]


Serial
To Be Suspected

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When Serial began it was a podcast operating in a bit of a vacuum, unaware of the phenomenon it was to become. Prior to the first episode, host Sarah Koenig and her team of producers had time to delve into the investigation of the central case, as well as the logistics of presenting listeners the story of the case and said investigation. But in this week’s episode nearly one-third of the runtime is devoted to, in the parlance of our times, new shit coming to light. This is largely due to the bright, halide light that the show’s popularity has cast on the murder of Hae Min Lee and how it has caused several people to come forward with further details and clarifications. This information isn’t a smoking gun that could potentially exonerate Adnan Syed; it more serves to fill in the peripheral scenery and feels a little like padding in an otherwise thin episode. Following the recent developments, the focus narrows on Adnan and his time during the trial as well as his life behind bars. At this point in the show every detail seems to serve as confirmation bias, as listeners aren’t likely to be swayed from their entrenched points of view.
[Ben Cannon]


StarTalk Radio
StarTalk Live! SF Sketchfest

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StarTalk Radio’s regular host Neil DeGrasse Tyson has long ties with the comedy community, particularly with Eugene Mirman, so his podcast feels like a perfect fit for the San Francisco Sketchfest. It sticks to the facts surprisingly well, considering how badly Dave Foley tries to distract guest host Bill Nye. Topics range from amino acid carrying asteroids to aliens, but thankfully most of it is about aliens. Seth Shostak of the SETI Institute also provides an academic voice to the podcast’s panel. Shostak is feverishly energized to propel the discussion of our odds at ever finding life in the universe, with Mirman and Foley taking shots at the likelihood of our race being the stupidest possible beings that could reach out into the darkness. The episode hits a peak with Shostak and Nye’s combined statement that there are approximately 40 billion habitable planets in the known universe, only for Mirman to immediately look for the disturbing loopholes like whether any of the intelligence out there is a thinking machine or a terrifying “dead intelligence.” In fact, Shostak even goes as far as to say that most of the life out there is probably synthetic. That run of the discussion alone is enough to make this episode special and hilarious all at once.
[Dan Telfer]


Stuff You Should Know
What Is Collective Hysteria?

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Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant know a thing or two about modernizing old topics, and this episode about a strange historic group condition has many notes of modern hysteria mixed in. Though the illness is technically known as mass psychogenic disorder, it will immediately recall many historic accounts of hysteria, such as what was supposedly occurring during the Salem witch trials or even Beatlemania. The common elements include headache, nausea, and fainting. And for what seems to equally mysterious reasons it appears to mainly effect women more than men. Yet, this disorder looks and acts like some sort of strange bioterrorist epidemic, toxic exposure, or in the days of the witch trials, some kind of possession. The nearest Clark and Bryant come to answers in their research is that doctors are still taking the disorder seriously, even though it is purely psychological. Common elements include cultures and geographical areas enforcing heavy restrictions and rules. This formalized structure appears to have a strange repressive effect on individuals, women in particular, which can have devastating consequences regardless of hysteria. But once one person begins to panic violently, it can cause sympathetic reactions all around them. The episode also starts a fascinating examination of how minds connect through the subconscious that is more than a little brain melting.
[Dan Telfer]


WTF
John Mulaney

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John Mulaney could have shown up to the Cat Ranch and done nothing more than read off his grocery list to Marc Maron, and he would still come off as charming and hilarious. So it’s no surprise that his actual conversation with Maron is a treat from start to finish. The story behind his stand-up career from its inception to the present day deviates in a significant and interesting way from the type of tales typically told on WTF—hearing about the way Mike Birbiglia mentored him on the matter is downright heartwarming—and in general he comes across as relatively vulnerable throughout the episode. He does reveal just a little of the dark side behind his very buttoned-up appearance—he was a borderline alcoholic before he even reached the legal drinking age, he and his friends experimented with cocaine, he believes in God, etc.—but Maron doesn’t seem completely misguided when he does his usual Maron thing of assuming there’s more darkness to someone than he or she lets on. Perhaps Mulaney will one day return to WTF to tell all, but this will do for now.
[Colin Griffith]


You Made It Weird
Harris Wittels Returns

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Rehab. Robbery. Breakups. “One thousand dicks all over your body, all coming at the same time.” Scientology. These are a few of the myriad components of Harris Wittels’ second appearance on You Made It Weird. Beginning with talk of Wittels’ “little baby balls,” the episode evolves into an engrossing, harrowing, and occasionally terrifying story of relapse. Fans of Wittels are probably aware of his first rehab stint—Scott Aukerman orchestrated a sort of “big reveal” on the Analyze Phish podcast (even stifling Wittels from discussing it on a U Talkin’ U2 To Me appearance). Here, Wittels gives a remarkably candid account of the circumstances surrounding that visit as well as the insane tale of what led him to a second treatment. Having built the persona of the “drug guy” across podcasts and short films—even extolling a sort of gospel of drug use on his previous YMIW appearance—this episode finds him still chewing on what sobriety means for his day-to-day life rather than enthusiastically celebrating clean living. It is a very raw episode for Wittels as well as Holmes, who gives the sense that he is working hard to facilitate the story rather than wedge in “the cosmic joke.” Holmes’ lightness mixed with Wittels’ dark tale make for an unforgettable listen.
[Joe White]


We see what you said there

“I remember thinking to myself—this was the day I stopped—that if I was watching this guy in a movie, I wouldn’t be rooting for him anymore.” —John Mulaney on when he realized he was an alcoholic, WTF

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“People ask, ‘Do you wanna hang out?’ and you have to tell them no, I have plans with Rashy. And they’re like, Jim Rash, from Community? And I have to tell them, no, a rash on a homeless person’s leg.” —Pete Holmes and Harris Wittels on Wittels’ private instructor, You Made It Weird

“I was thinking the other day how cool it would be if, like, we get really bored of U.S. touring and do a whole tour with no GPS and just, like, a trucker’s atlas.”
“That’s cool that that’s like a challenge for you, but that’s how we used to do it.” —Modern Baseball’s Jake Ewald and host Matt Pryor, Nothing To Write Home About

“They just sit around with their Wiis or contemplating their navels, or whatever they’re doing.”
“Those are their only two options!” —Seth Shostak and Eugene Mirman on the peak of sentience, Star Talk Radio

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