Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Podmass’ 2015 superlatives, including awards for Obama and Charles Manson

Illustration by Lucy Engelman (http://www.lucyengelman.com/)
PodmassPodmassIn 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 podmass@avclub.com.

Last year, podcasting saw a welcome increase in popularity, with notable newcomers both in podcasts and podcasting networks. This year, the hot streak continues, as our president took to Marc Maron’s garage for one of his most candid interviews, proving once and for all the worth of this medium—one that remains dedicated to the sincere, unifying power of the conversation. Podmass is celebrating these achievements by awarding accolades to a few of the best and brightest in this year’s class. Below are The A.V. Club’s Podmass superlatives for 2015:

Biggest get: Barack Obama
WTF: President Barack Obama


Though President Obama has appeared on Between Two Ferns With Zach Galifianakis, joked around with Jimmy Fallon, and has generally proved himself to be a genial and media savvy guy, no one would have guessed he would pop up on a podcast anytime soon, let alone one that records in some dude’s garage. Yet he did, making an appearance earlier this summer on Marc Maron’s WTF. In a lengthy chat—for the president, at least—Obama and Maron gabbed about everything from gun control to comedians, with Maron taking an uncharacteristic (and understandable) backseat to his guest. The host had clearly done his homework and prepped out the wazoo, allowing for a discussion both remarkably reverent for WTF and a little laid-back for a sitting president’s taste. It was the perfect blend of the Obama’s aesthetic with that of the reigning king of podcasts, and it made for some truly compelling listening that captured the attention of about a million downloaders—a good portion of whom had no doubt never even heard a podcast before. [Marah Eakin]

Class clown: Earwolf Engineer Cody “Grease Nose” Skully
Hollywood Handbook: The Grease Knows Eggs Show With Jesse Thorn


Who will ever forget this year’s most shocking coupling, between bona fide Hollywood insiders Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport and high school DJ Tom Scharpling, long considered unworthy of even vacuuming the red-carpet-lined back hallways of this industry called showbiz? These strange bedfellows tickled our funny bones every time they got behind a microphone together at Earwolf’s Los Angeles studios, and in no small part thanks to their sound engineer Cody “Grease Nose” Skully. Scharpling took Skully under his wing for a pilot episode of The Grease Knows Eggs Show, where he finally showed the virtuosic side of himself Clements and Davenport had always prodded for. Whether lightening up Scharpling’s radio routine with a quick error noise on his computer or rattling the gang with a long-workshopped observation about death, Skully’s range of talent had never been more apparent. It’s a wonder Earwolf isn’t the biggest thing on the planet, knowing what we know now about what classically funny minds work tirelessly behind the boards, out of the spotlight. 2015 was Grease Nose’s best year, and we can’t wait to watch what happens next. [Nowah Jacobs]

Most likely to quash racism and homophobia: Kid Fury and Crissle
The Read


If you’re one of the 150,000-plus subscribers of The Read, you know that hosts Crissle and Kid Fury do not have patience for a lot of things—the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s fare card policies, Raven “Hyphen Sigh’Moan,” or that listener who wrote in to ask how she should handle the emotional consequences of having sex with her cousin. It’s a testament to their chemistry and comedic timing as hosts that they can make even their commercials entertaining. But for all the show’s amazing segments, Crissle and Kid Fury do some of their best work as professional shade-throwers when there is a racist or homophobic viewpoint ready to be torn to shreds. When Target announced in August that the store would no longer differentiate their toy sections by gender, some conservative parents lost their minds, afraid the decision would not only complicate their shopping experience but also force a “homosexual agenda” on their children—and Kid Fury would have none of it: “Every child deserves an Easy Bake Oven. That ain’t got nothing to do with sexuality. You mean to tell me that I can be 8 years old and prepare my own cookies and cakes and pies and shit? In my bedroom? SIGN ME THE FUCK UP!” [Erin Vogel]

Biggest journalistic heartbreaker: Lina Misitzis
Here Be Monsters: Last Chance To Evacuate Earth


Here Be Monsters is a radio show/podcast that examines the darker corners of human behavior, and in 2015 it has really come into its own. The stories come from artists, journalists, and storytellers, allowing each episode to seem vastly different from the last, while managing to avoid the tropes that plague other story shows. This year has featured a fantastic piece on a transgender child (Deep Stealth Mode) and varying views on the hierarchy of earthly life (Deers). But it was one story that, through luck and patience, utterly transcended storytelling and journalism. During a series of devastating interviews with a Heaven’s Gate suicide cult survivors, Here Be Monsters contributor Lina Misitzis spoke at length with one forlorn survivor in particular named Steve who is now estranged from nearly his entire family. Hearing how Steve lost his wife to the cult—and nearly his own life—is heartbreaking, but even more so once he reveals how he attempted to return to his children. After a series of polite invitations to linger during some family meetings, Misitzis happens into Steve meeting his granddaughter for the first time. When combined with the podcast’s haunting sound design and pace, listeners will have their hearts knocked right on their asses. [Dan Telfer]

Most likely to infect your nightmares: Charles Manson
You Must Remember This: Charles Manson’s Hollywood #9


The Manson family murders that terrorized L.A. and mesmerized the nation more than four decades ago have so thoroughly faded into the recesses of the public imagination that the man behind them is today more likely to be referenced as a punchline than as a monster. And that’s part of what makes this account of a few violent nights so affecting. Who’d have thought Charles Manson and his brainwashed sycophants could be this disturbing today? Over the course of the eight preceding episodes in a series covering Hollywood at the tail end of the ’60s, host Karina Longworth—whose podcast focuses often stories of the film industry’s darker side—slowly and methodically unspools intimate details about all the players in this real world Grand Guignol, large and small, so that by the time she reaches the ninth episode (out of 12) and leads her listeners into a mansion on a Cielo Drive cul-de-sac and walks them through the grisly murders of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others, the late summer night in 1969 is rendered in such detail that every death is imbued with a sense of tragedy rarely found in true crime narratives. Fans of Serial will find a lot to like here, though be advised: Listening in an empty house at night is not recommended. [Dennis DiClaudio]

Best parent: Dave Shumka
Stop Podcasting Yourself: Alicia Tobin


As is typically the case with these kinds of things, Dave Shumka’s great moment in parenting was born of necessity. As he tried to rock his daughter to sleep one night, his wife Abby did the dishes in the next room over, the door wide open. When texts to his wife weren’t answered, Shumka had to resort to more drastic measures: communicating through song. Shumka tells of his efforts to find a song to tell his wife to close the door (after a quick search, he makes a spot on choice with “Close The Door” by Teddy Pendergrass) and turning the volume up and down to grab her attention shows the kind of quick thinking, ingenuity, and determination that arises when trying to get a baby to sleep for the night. Getting the door closed is only part of the ordeal, however; Shumka must return to communicating via Bluetooth (and the Baha Men) once he realizes that he has now trapped the dog in the baby’s room. “I felt like Helen Keller teaching that lady to talk,” Shumka says to sum up the predicament. [Dan Fitchette]

Most musical: Darren From Work (Jon Wurster)
The Best Show: Martin Courtney! Gail Bennington! The Newbridge Wall!


When Darren Ploppleton, Tom Scharpling’s childhood friend and co-worker at Consolidated Cardboard, called in to The Best Show to tell Scharpling that he’d found the long-lost cassette of “The Newbridge Wall,” listeners had no idea what was in store for them. For this call, a masterpiece that is easily one of the best and most ambitious Scharpling and Wurster bits in The Best Show’s 15-year run, Wurster and a band recorded six Newbridge-inspired songs parodying Pink Floyd’s The Wall. Each song features Wurster’s best pre-pubescent falsetto, Brian Dennis’ perfectly unnatural left-handed guitar playing, and Scharpling’s awful slap bass skills, making for tracks that sound like something off a record from The Shaggs: The rhythms are stilted, the lyrics awkward, and the production quality purposely terrible. In other words, it’s perfect. While Scharpling feigns embarrassment at having the tape unearthed, shame isn’t in Ploppleton’s purview and the debut of each new song is preceded by an excited countdown that drowns out Scharpling’s pleas that they stay off the air. (Not that he has a choice, since Ploppleton uses a program called Playlist Enforcer to take over the sound board.) Ultimately, that’s a good thing because otherwise “The Newbridge Wall” would have stayed buried in the wild environs of Newbridge Woods forever. [Dan Fitchette]

Best fictional place we want to go to: The Vermillion Minotaur tavern
Hello, From The Magic Tavern


As the podcast medium has gained momentum, it sometimes feels like a large number of new shows consist merely of two or more dudes sitting around a table and talking. While it isn’t entirely wrong to categorize Hello, From The Magic Tavern as one of those shows, it would be grossly, almost negligently reductive to do so. That’s because the world created by host Arnie Niekamp, and co-hosts Chunt The Shapeshifter (Adal Rifai) and Usidore The Wizard (Matt Young), is perhaps comic podcasting’s most continually rewarding achievement. Taking place in the alternate-dimensional land of Foon, every element of the show is created through improvisation. As such, each word spoken becomes part of the series’ canon, with the details being meticulously maintained from one episode to the next. This provides for amazingly deep callbacks for the dedicated listener. There is simply no other podcast recording today which contains as vast and vivid a collection of fantastic oddities as Hello, From The Magic Tavern. It can be found in the show’s panoply of wild characters—like a suicidal, foul-mouthed, booze-addled flower, or in the way a misheard line from a listener’s email can eventually birth an entirely new character, or that a lame Hoobastank reference can unexpectedly metastasize into a rousing song worthy of genuine applause. The show’s success in its first year has been rather amazing, and the reason is Foon. [Ben Cannon]

Most likely to moonlight as your therapist: Alison Rosen
Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend


If you’re a fan of Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend, you already know from the show’s hilarious and unpredictable panel episodes and her thoughtful interviews that Rosen is, without a doubt, best friend material. But judging from the conversations she has with her guests, she’d make a great therapist, too. A recent episode with Rosen’s old friend and musician Matt Nathanson is a great example: Even as the two discuss some of life’s most complicated topics, from estranged parents to raising children to infidelity, the flow of the conversation is so natural it’s impossible not to come to a grand conclusion or two about your own life while you’re listening. Rosen isn’t afraid to press her subjects about some of the more difficult, intimate moments of their lives, but she does it with such delicacy and sensitivity that questions that could hinge on exploitative in the hands of someone else only feel like the result of Rosen’s genuine interest in other people. And she repays the honesty of her friends, interview subjects, and fans by being unflinchingly forthright about her own life, too: In a recent episode she discussed her struggle with infertility after years of shrugging off advice from others to get started on kids sooner rather than later. It doesn’t seem like there will ever be a topic that Rosen would be afraid to confront honestly in her show, which, lucky for us, means she won’t run out of podcast material anytime soon. [Erin Vogel]

Cutest couple: Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport,
Hollywood Handbook: Nip/Tuck Commentary


Hollywood Handbook has such a specific tone, it’s a miracle they can get guests to fold into it successfully. The personas that Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements embody are so particular and ever evolving, it becomes one of those things that must be experienced rather than explained. The only reason that these objectively awful, cringe-inducing characters turn out such comedic gold is because of the strength of their chemistry as improvisers and perhaps even more importantly, friends. So many of their most memorable moments come from an innate need to make to make the other break, and stifled laughter has become it’s own natural motif within the show. It’s that insatiable desire to push each other over the edge, and the obvious fun they’re having together that has garnered the show a much-deserved community of fans. Look no further than their guest-less Nip/Tuck commentary episode, where for the entirety of the podcast they watch an episode of the show and somehow end up talking about blue balls, Point Break, and what happens after you die. At the top of the episode, they joke that listeners could watch the show with them, saying, “What a great way in, to hear Hayes and Sean tell you how they’re your buddies and they’re watching it!” The thing is, that sentiment might be truer than they realize. [Rebecca Bulnes]

Most sincere: Dave Shumka, Graham Clark, John Hodgman, and John Roderick
Stop Podcasting Yourself: John Hodgman, John Roderick


With over 400 episodes in the can at year’s end, few podcasts can match the output of the multi-time Canadian Comedy Award-winning Stop Podcasting Yourself. In the nearly eight years since its launch, the program’s dedicated listenership—bumpers, they call themselves—has celebrated Dave Shumka’s marriage and the eventual birth of his first daughter, and told-you-so as Graham Clark became a closet mainstay at the Edinburgh Fringe. At the same time, they became a cornerstone of a network of programs that weaved around Jesse Thorn’s seminal college radio show The Sound Of Young America and the three-piece podcasting pioneers Young Look Nice Today. So when fellow network contributors John Hodgman and John Roderick stopped by for the year’s standout episode, it was like a summit of some of podcasting’s best kept secrets. Of course, the four hardly focused on anything of import, instead dealing with Hodgman’s fascination with generic brand Canadian groceries, Roderick’s fascination with being called “Bob Dylan in a hoodie” in the early days of his rock ’n’ roll career, and Shumka’s fascination with how long Clark spent in Rotterdam. But the episode still served to highlight what’s been right under the noses of so many for so long: the sincere, unifying power of podcasts. [Nowah Jacobs]

Grossest food podcast that will still make you hungry: Doughboys
Doughboys: Taco Bell: Jack Allison


On every episode of the wonderfully earnest and very funny Doughboys, Nick Wiger and Mike Mitchell subject their bodies to various chain restaurants’ offerings and give their thoughts on the food, along with memories they associate with each restaurant. “Subject” is the right word, because they frequently feel sick afterward, even when they love the food in question. This contrast is drawn most sharply in the second episode, featuring Taco Bell, during which Mitchell and guest Jack Allison admit to feeling terrible after eating there that morning, but also admit how much they love its “tube meat.” It’s enough to put anyone off Taco Bell, and yet the Bell’s undeniable draw lingers long after the podcast ends—an odd but interesting takeaway for a food podcast, and one consistently accomplished with the help of unique guests. As early as that second episode, too, you can see the hosts’ perfectly antagonistic dynamic developing, and Mitchell even says at one point that he wants to quit the podcast, which is more or less his hallmark by now. So long as that doesn’t actually happen, Doughboys—consistently very strong thus far—will likely remain essential listening until the ’boys run out of restaurants. [Colin Griffith]

Most inspirational: Before You Were Funny


The road to success is a rocky one, and no one knows this better (or has proven this to be true more publicly) than the guests on Before You Were Funny. Justin Michael and Jacob Reed, the duo behind sketch group Tremendosaur, ask their guests to dig deep into their vaults of written material and bring to life the sketches, scripts, diary entries, poetry, and more from a time when the very funny participants were less so. Alison Becker (Parks And Recreation, Kroll Show) once wrote a parody to The Little Mermaid’s “Part Of Your World” about what a slut she was; Baron Vaughn (Comedy Bang! Bang!, Grace And Frankie) once wrote a play about the cartoon Duck Tales; and Kyle Mooney (Saturday Night Live) once wrote a sketch called “Queeftard.” But look at them now! It’s a lesson that even people who write erotic plays about their high school English teacher (Erin McGathy) or a very offensive sketch called “Smart Slut” (Kevin Manwarren) go on to be some of the funniest and most successful people in the world. Even Michael and Reed aren’t immune; they have enough terrible work in their history to share one or two pieces of their own in every episode. Yet here they are, still doing it, never giving up on their dream to one day be funny, which in itself provides plenty of laughs along the way. [Brianna Wellen]

Best demystification of showbiz: Box Angeles


While Mike “Box” Elder’s guests differ in fame and experience, they all have one thing in common: They’ve been able to carve out a living for themselves in show business. Elder—a burgeoning actor and improviser himself—remains consistently fascinated by their varying levels of success on his podcast Box Angeles, not from a place of envy or starfuckery, but from a place of educational interest. Whether he’s talking to a comedic giant like Scott Aukerman (no introduction necessary if you’re reading this), commercial/webseries hoofer Milana Vayntrub, or more obscure guests such as Chicago improv transplants Cook County Social Club, he delves deep into everything from their work/life balance to the logistics of their journey to Hollywood. Almost everyone has taken a different approach to their career and, when talking with the charming, easygoing Elder, they all seem immune to pretension. This makes for a podcast that time and time again demystifies the entertainment industry, giving listeners (and Elder) practical advice on how to make a living doing what you love. [Dan Caffrey]

Most improved: Cheap Heat


With the fall of mighty sports and pop culture site Grantland earlier this year came the sad disintegration of its vast, uniformly solid podcast network. Caught in the collapse was Cheap Heat, a wrestling ’cast hosted by HOT 97’s Peter Rosenberg and brainy wrestling scribe David Shoemaker, who wrote for Grantland and a host of other sites as The Masked Man. The potential loss of Cheap Heat was particularly sad, as 2015 was a banner year for the podcast. Shoemaker, a naturally soft-spoken intellectual, has warmed up to the mic, while Rosenberg has (mostly) reined in his peripatetic wit and, on occasion, tapped into heretofore unseen wells of passion about the deeper issues in wrestling. Also of note was the addition of Greg “The Virgin” Valentine, an ostensible “stat guy” that’s just as valuable for his own insightful commentary, as well as the introduction of Rosenberg’s wrestling-centric sound board, which injects a little “morning zoo” tomfoolery to otherwise heated debates. It was a great day, then, when Cheap Heat resurfaced, and the hosts felt the love by seeing its perpetual mid-carding podcast rocket up the iTunes charts after its absence. Credit, among other things, the podcast’s innate optimism for this outpouring of love. Wrestling fans (and podcasters) are an irascible bunch, always finding plenty to grouch about post-Raw, so there’s something very welcome about Cheap Heat’s “glass half full” stance. Sure, they’ll fantasy book with the rest of them, but more often than not Shoemaker searches for the silver lining, resulting in discussions that help remind us that being a wrestling fan is supposed to be fun. Long live, Cheap Heat. [Randall Colburn]

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