Photo: The Hollywood Reporter

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.

The Allusionist
Step Away: Aaron Mahnke

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The terms stepfather, stepmother, and stepchild are loaded; for many, the distance implied does not accurately reflect how meaningful the step-family relationship can be. The culprit here is language, specifically the baggage the prefix “step” has taken on. In yet another brilliant etymological study, Helen Zaltzman shows that the current understanding of step-relations is cultural rather than historical. Zaltzman explains that the “step” prefix first appeared in Europe a few hundred years ago out of tragedy, used to describe children whose parents had remarried after a parent had died. She’s joined by Lore’s Aaron Mahnke to explain how the wider culture came to understand the term and Mahnke’s deep knowledge of literature and history makes for an erudite and fascinating listen. As Zaltzman and Mahnke talk about a study that found the life expectancy of children in 18th-century Europe shortened after a parent remarried, they show how the hard reality of life as a stepchild—codified in fairy tales like Cinderella and the trope of the evil stepmother—gave rise to the current understanding of the “step” prefix. In Zaltzman’s hands, what started as a straightforward question about etymology ends up a rich anthropological study of the mutual influence language and culture can have on each other.
[Dan Fitchette]


Benjamen Walker’s Theory Of Everything
1984 (The Year Not The Book)

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Built around a real audio diary kept by host Benjamen Walker when he was 12, this episode isn’t so much him walking around with a tape recorder as it is an audio play built around his written memories. In an endearing opening moment, there’s an audio collage of file sound bites featuring Orwellian sci-fi and Times Square TV personalities screwing up the New Year’s countdown. From there his memories become more personal and the references more rapid-fire. The final result is quite an impressive 66 minutes that manages to weave together ancient sounds of Macintosh computers, archival speeches, 1984 music that may not resonate until it hits 60 seconds in, and personal reflections all crashing together at once and in waves. Originally put together in spring of 2014, this “expanded edition” offers over 20 more minutes of content, and the end result is worth a revisit. So much of the hour-plus is pure connective tissue that the experience functions more like a synthetic human organ than storytelling. The story itself, involving “Where’s The Beef?” T-shirt-wearing childhood awkwardness, is also charming enough but only half the point.
[Dan Telfer]


The Brilliant Idiots
Show And Prove

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Although this past week’s flash-in-the-pan social-media feud between Drake and Meek Mill didn’t reach anything close to classic levels, it was still a shot in the arm for hip-hop culture as a whole. Part of that beef, though it’s a stretch to even label it that, included Drake name-dropping The Brilliant Idiots co-host Charlamagne Tha God, which may be the first time that mainstream rap has touched the world of podcasting. Even though Drake was certainly referring to Charlamagne’s role as co-host of The Breakfast Club radio show, it still feels like a win. Given that shout-out, this week’s episode is nearly entirely a discussion between Charlamagne and co-host Andrew Schulz about the lopsided and comparatively tepid affair. The banter is lively between the pair as they try to place where this ranks in the history of rap rivalries, as well as pick up on the nuances in both of the tracks Drake dropped, “Charged Up” and “Back To Back.” If there is a bit of a regret to be had it is that the episode was recorded before Meek Mill’s objectively rotten response track “Wanna Know” dropped on Thursday night, but it doesn’t detract from the engaging jocularity to be had.
[Ben Cannon]


BuzzFeed's Internet Explorer
How A Teen Uncovered The Internet’s Weirdest Catfish: Leo Loera

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Katie Notopoulos made her name online by engaging with Weird Twitter and asking Aaron Carter what’s up with his “horny level,” but it takes a certain pedigree of journalist to make those angles and stories stick—Notopoulos, to put it bluntly, is a great reporter when she wants to be. This week’s edition of BuzzFeed‘s Internet Explorer allows Notopolous to flex those muscles as she presents co-host Ryan Broderick with a series of interviews conducted about a bizarre and unsolved catfish mystery primarily played out in the niche Ariana Grande fandom. The bulk of the show features Notopoulos interviewing Leo Loera, a teenage Grande fan whose surface-level sleuthing of “up-and-coming singer” Lucia Cole’s credentials (purported at the time to be a future Grande collaborator) uncovered the fact that all of Cole’s songs were in fact direct recordings from Jessica Simpson’s 1999 debut album Sweet Kisses. Notopoulos goes on to discern how this hoaxer gained so much traction—journalistic negligence—and opens the floor to the startling “conclusion” of Cole’s story, an alleged suicide that neither Notopoulos nor Broderick is willing to believe ever happened. Internet Explorer is at its best when covering fringe web trends, especially when those trends have real-world implications. This week, Notopoulos checks each of those boxes.
[Nowah Jacobs]


Comedy Bang! Bang!
Bongo Vs. Bongos: Jason Mantzoukas, Andy Daly, Paul F. Tompkins

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Despite host Scott Aukerman’s continued protestations that Comedy Bang! Bang! is “not that kind of show,” whenever Jason Mantzoukas is a guest on the program it can’t help but become “that kind of show.” In what feels like a backdoor pilot for the eventual launch of the Talkin’ ‘Tang podcast, Mantzoukas—comedy’s swarthy Lothario—and Aukerman cover all things sexual, like how a completely unique third gender might genitally interface with existing genders, cringe-inducing tales of penile sounding with a mercury thermometer, teaching monkeys sexual-consent sign language, and plant sodomy. That kind of talk settles down for a bit when guest Andy Daly comes on as his Womplerverse character Joe Bongo, the Marina Del Rey High health teacher with a distinctly terrible sense of time—but not rhythm. But when Bongo plays his eponymous instrument there is a frisky frisson in the air. His alter ego Jimmy Bongos takes hold, and that dark and sexy energy swings things back the the blue. Paul F. Tompkins even stops by in the final third of the show to drop some classic Jarles for the kids. 2015 has been a good year for Comedy Bang! Bang!, with the program enjoying a sustained fertile period. Listen up, because if not, well, hashtag shamenong you.
[Ben Cannon]


The Dollop
The Death Of George Washington

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Apart from the rather tame common misconception that he sported a set of wooden teeth, America’s first president George Washington has had a fairly blemish-free public image for most of the country’s history. There is that nasty business about him owning a small town’s worth of slaves, but in the minds of most he is crossing the Delaware River in perpetuity. It is then a bit of an amazing act of debasement on this week’s The Dollop, as the heroic image of Washington is given an Ecce Hommo restoration-style makeover. The episode recounts Washington’s final days on Earth, which are an exhaustingly hilarious indictment of the treatment paid to America’s foundingest of fathers. Much of the humor comes from the rather more improvisational feeling surrounding the practice of medicine at the end of the 18th century, with new treatments being thought up and applied within the same moment. Show hosts Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds pour scathing acid on Washington’s physicians, who subjected the dying man to an absolutely horrific battery of remedies in his final hours and even beyond. The details of which, including a poultice of blister beetles, massive bloodletting, and spontaneous bowel evacuation, all feel a little “too soon!” even some 200 years hence. It is phenomenally funny, but the dollar may never look the same.
[Ben Cannon]


Here Be Monsters
Last Chance To Evacuate Earth: Steven Hill

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Dark-minded podcast Here Be Monsters and host Lina Misitzis interviews some of the people who were adjacent to the alien-obsessed suicide cult known as Heaven’s Gate. It’s as immersive as it sounds, the exceptional audio editing of the podcast making the episode feel especially creepy, like a crinkling water slowly rising up around the listener, reaching ear level. Central to this is former Heaven’s Gate member Steven Hill, the last surviving member to escape the cult before its “exit event.” Hill is remarkably candid and remorseful for his involvement, which resulted in his wife’s complete brainwashing and eventual suicide. Those new to the story will of course be stunned by how much money it amassed, its castration practices, and other details the news of the era provided. The intimacy of Hill’s interview when mixed with the stunning audio editing builds outward into a work of journalistic art. Yet it is the final chapter of the episode that surprises most, wherein Misitzis and Hill both meet someone for the first time. The recorder is serendipitously rolling, unobtrusively, and we hear more than a small moment. This bit plays just a few seconds longer than it needs to, allowing the listener to feel they are eavesdropping on something much bigger than a simple interview. The result is incredibly moving. It folds everything taking place before it in half, a delicate thud in the stomach that brings unexpected closure.
[Dan Telfer]


Lore
Black Stockings

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Lore explores the true stories behind scary stories, told in an empathetic, articulate, and unblinking style. This particular episode works backward a bit, and instead offers the tale of a myth that took root and ended up inspiring something horrific. It’s told in a very mysterious way that gives little of its subject away until listeners are in deep. As in this case when host Aaron Mahnke unravels changelings, he describes how children in Ireland born with birth defects were thought to be a substitute left behind by faerie folk who had taken their true children from the womb or the crib. For centuries, this resulted in the ritualistic torture of these children, in the hopes they would suddenly confess to being false and reveal the location of the kidnapped child. Yet this extended to adults, even into the 20th century. “Black Stockings” reveals the particularly horrifying tale of one fiercely independent adult woman who went out for a walk in the rain and came home to discover the world turning against her. Though a difficult listen, Mahnke is careful not to sensationalize or minimalize any of the horror involved. Instead he lets it all unravel for maximum effect, which should sting anyone with a generalized, blind affection for Irish folktales in particular.
[Dan Telfer]


Oral Argument
Contaminated Evidence: Brandon Garrett

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It’s been nearly a year since the shooting death of Michael Brown by police in Ferguson, Missouri, sparked outrage and a national shouting match about law enforcement’s role and responsibilities when engaging suspects in communities predominantly of color. Politicians and activists have been quick to voice support for one of the few agreeable safeguards—body cameras—but there’s been little chatter about the place objective eyes are needed just as desperately: the interrogation room. For new listeners, this week’s episode is a superb entry point into law professors Joe Miller and Christian Turner’s in-depth show (university lecture, essentially) about a wide variety of thorny legal issues and the philosophies that inform them. Convicting The Innocent: Where Criminal Prosecutions Go Wrong author Brandon Garrett explains the alarming prevalence of illegal or contaminating interrogation tactics, and why there’s more incentive for police and the prosecution to get it done than get it right. Dahlia Lithwick of Slate’s tidy Amicus podcast recently mentioned her affinity for Oral Argument, and fans of that show might similarly enjoy this as a 400-level step-up. Though Miller and Turner get a little tangential and overly comfortable with the show’s long running time (again, they’re professors), it’s an invaluable resource to anyone curious about how lawyers think.
[Dan Jakes]


Pitchfork Conversations
In Sight Out #1: Jeff Tweedy

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In another life, Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy could very well be the host of his own long-form musical discussion podcast, so great is his conversational prowess. His easy, plainspoken charm coupled with his prodigious talent makes him the perfect guest to appear on this, the premiere of Pitchfork’s latest foray into podcasting following last year’s demise of The Pitchfork Podcast. Hosted by the music site’s editor-in-chief Mark Richardson, the podcast is a very good piece of exploratory listening, as Richardson attempts to suss out Tweedy’s feelings on a number of topics relating not just to Wilco but how the current state of the industry affects bands in general. These include whether a band can have a bigger level of success if the members are living in a certain city, and whether there is any link between mental anguish and good artistry. This last point brings out a very honest response from Tweedy, who castigates those people who would see him relapse into substance abuse in hopes of getting another Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The Pitchfork Conversations podcast feels like a natural extension for what is surely the de facto home of intelligent music journalism today, and one worth following as it can only build on its potential.
[Ben Cannon]


Should I Worry About This?
Should I Worry About… Procrastinating?

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Taking a vested interest in the goings on of the world of pop culture is hardly of an academic or professional nature, and usually leads to other work being swept aside in order to accommodate, which is probably an issue for most readers of The A.V. Club. Fret not, though, and there are plenty of very intriguing things to be found about the topic in this week’s Should I Worry About This? Hosts Eden Robins and Cat Oddy—both well versed in the self-delusional coping mechanism that is procrastination—pick it apart in typically fun fashion, making for an excellent listen. Much of the discussion circles around the discovery that rather than being a flaw in one’s time-management abilities, procrastination stems from an emotional core, making it all the more nebulous to pin down. Despite the topic feeling relatively understood, there is still much that surprises, especially from studies on how deadlines affect procrastination and even more in how representing a span of smaller increments of time versus larger ones can greatly increase a person’s ability to achieve.
[Ben Cannon]


Think Again
Stupidity Scaled/Robot Rights/Brand You: Baratunde Thurston

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This podcast from Big Think uses the website’s archive of short lecture videos to prompt conversations with innovators on topics outside of their areas of expertise. The guests aren’t briefed on what clips will be presented for discussion, the idea being that the podcast will feel like an impromptu meeting between two “big thinkers” who approach a topic from different perspectives. Host Jason Gots is the neutral third party who moves the discussion along without adding a distinctive flavor of his own. For this episode, Gots invites guest Baratunde Thurston, the comedian and author of How To Be Black, to hear clips from three different lecturers (all of them men) on heroes and villains in national security, misplaced fears about artificial intelligence, and personal brands—all in a 24-minute podcast. The conversation is scattered as a result, but the casual, unrehearsed format makes Think Again a good podcast for background listening: Hanging onto every word to follow along is unnecessary. Among other things, Thurston shares that he is totally cool with robot sex.
[Anna Hrachovec]


We see what you said there

“Listen, I didn’t want to leave my wife there, you know, but she was totally brainwashed by now, okay? When she walked by me, and she was looking around, she didn’t say a word to me. She was gone. She was gone.”—Steven Hill on his exit from the Heaven’s Gate cult, Here Be Monsters

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“When were you wrong?”—John Dickerson on his dream question for Donald Trump in the upcoming Fox News debates, Slate Political Gab Fest

“When you meet David, the only thing he talks about is Knight Rider. When I first met him, he was wearing the Knight Rider jacket.”—Swedish Kung Fury director David Sandberg on working with David Hasselhoff, On The Media