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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Doin' It With Mike Sacks
Episode 16: Michael Nesmith
There is a legitimate type of fear plaguing pop culture fandom—not an active kind, but more of the subtle, gnawing variety—that The Monkees will go down in history as just a band and not as the pioneering figures in comedy that they were. This is the lament of those for whom Head, the Bob Rafelson-directed, Jack Nicholson co-scripted Monkees feature film, has become a vaunted cultural object, a precursor to the modern alternative comedy movement. On this week’s episode of Doin’ It, Mike Sacks’ continually wonderful comedy exploration, Sacks snags a rare interview with Monkees guitarist Michael Nesmith (the one in the hat). What follows is a genuinely fascinating conversation covering everything from his time as a member of the group, his deep ties to the Simpsons writers room, and his prescient vision of comedic content consumption that prefigured the MTV and YouTube models. One is perhaps most thrown for a loop by the forward-thinking nature of many of Nesmith’s ideas. The brevity of Sacks’ interview with Nesmith is the episode’s only drawback, insofar as the many topics covered could each fill their own full interview. Another solid listen from this excellent comedy lover’s companion.
Three episodes in and NBC-news-anchor-turned-podcasting-Lyft-driver Anthony Ponce is starting to hit his rhythm. For Halloween, Ponce had pondered asking riders about spooky traditions or the state of the holiday in American culture. His decision to interview them about paranormal experiences proves to be a wise choice, as his fares get to become raconteurs. In what is becoming the trend for Backseat Rider, Ponce edits his stories to begin with benign, if forgettable entries. As the episode progresses, the stories become more intense and culminate in a supernatural tale unfolding in real time, as Ponce and his fare become part of the story itself in an unexpected way. Backseat Rider is still very much a work in progress; Ponce would be well-served by less direct editorializing about the state of his own podcast. Rookie habits aside, the series has a solid format, and Ponce is off to a good start, with solid instincts for active listening, a grasp of follow-up questions, and a knack for how to intercut live interviews with breaks for narration.
Bitch Sesh: A Real Housewives Breakdown
Rock Bottom With Matt McConkey Episode 2
Casey Wilson and Danielle Schneider lend their Bitch Sesh feed to recurring guest/off-topic film critic Matt McConkey for a limited-run series breaking down Logo’s Finding Prince Charming. Like in the Real Housewives podcast it’s modeled on, Los Angeles-based comedians and writers use the preceding week’s episode as a launching point for highbrow/lowbrow commentary on all things reality TV. A week off for Prince Charming gives Vulture recapper Jeffery Self and Totally Yourself On Prince Charming performers Tom Lenk and Jimmy Fowlie an opportunity to have a big-picture chat about living in the surreal meta-reality of the tight-knit LGBT community in Hollywood. McConkey and company discuss the curious, mostly problematic trajectory of elimination-based gay dating shows, from the hidden sexual orientation gimmicks of Boy Meets Boy to the weirder, heteronormative harem style of The Bachelor-aimed Prince Charming. Some of the most inadvertently hilarious issues are practical: Unlike in a show with straight contestants, there’s no reason for the contestant guys holed up in a hotel to not fall in love with each other instead of the producer-picked “prize.” A very caffeinated Stephen Guarino calls in for some old-school campiness, and Noah’s Arc gets serious about the perils of modern-day app dating.
Jack Reacher: Never Go Back
If there’s anything Blank Check listeners know after the Cameron Crowe We Pod A Cast miniseries, it’s that Griffin Newman and David Sims love to talk about Tom Cruise. On this week’s episode they got to do just that in a one-off episode about the Jack Reacher franchise. What’s great about this decision is that there’s a tangible joy when the two friends discuss something they clearly feel a great passion for. The episode as a whole almost comes off as a pitch for listeners to give the Jack Reacher movies a chance, as they claim casually that the first is the “best movie ever made.” Cruise is also a ripe subject for examination, as they comb through his long career and examine the decisions he made that set him apart from other movie stars. They affectionately break down all that makes the first Jack Reacher film such an unrecognized success and all the reasons that the latest installment doesn’t live up to its predecessor. Their enthusiasm as they chronicle the films crescendos in a way that highlights their storytelling abilities and, like Jack Reacher itself, captivates an audience.
Darkest Night Chapters 1 & 2
It’s a shame that The Paragon Collective and AMC’s Shudder chose Halloween as the launch day for their new joint podcasting project, because this would have been the perfect tool for getting listeners into the holiday spirit earlier. They really used the medium to its utmost advantage here, recording this drama-horror anthology series binaurally, creating aural sensation such that the action is happening in 3-D space all around listeners. And dead center of these storylines is not a particularly soothing place to be. Writer Christopher Bloodworth’s dark world full of unpleasant people and unsettling entities exists somewhere on the continuum between EC Comics and H.P. Lovecraft. So far, only two installments have been released, but it appears that each half-hour episode will tell a mostly self-contained story with a wrap-around involving Project Cyclops, the top secret at a top-secret research facility that weaves its way into each narrative, so it’s less like a collection of stand-alones and more like a very creepy pastiche. A show like this could get away with having semi-professional voice actors, but they didn’t go that route, assembling instead a top-notch cast including Missi Pyle (The Artist) and Lee Pace (Halt And Catch Fire).
Everything's Coming Up Podcast!
Three Gays Of The Condo: “Weird Al” Yankovic
One of the central appeals of Everything’s Coming Up Podcast! is hearing both celebrities and members of the Simpsons universe quoting the show with the same zeal as the rest of us. Allie Goertz and Julia Prescott’s latest guest is parody songwriter “Weird Al” Yankovic, who was referenced on The Simpsons multiple times before ever having a chance to appear as himself. When he did first appear, it was in the season 14 episode “Three Gays Of The Condo,” which includes a Yankovic-style song (modeled on “Jack And Diane”) that, he reveals, he didn’t write. It was written by Simpsons writers, and one of Yankovic’s most amusing moments in the episode is in hearing how he took to embodying that onscreen version of himself. Also of note is a discussion about the episode itself, which is one of the show’s earliest attempts to weave homosexuality into the story. That it holds up as relatively progressive is a testament to the show’s connection with culture. It’s also great fun to hear him and the hosts share their favorite episodes and characters—an extended riff on fan favorite Hans Moleman is a delight—as well as what Yankovic would like to see himself do next were he to guest again.
The Faculty Of Horror
Compendium of Fear: Creepshow (1982) and Trick ‘RTreat (2007)
Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West’s academic horror podcast comes but just once a month, which is understandable when you consider the depth of their research. Far from the typical “let’s pick a film and riff on it” format of many podcasts, Faculty Of Horror unfolds like a real-time essay, one that’s rife with thoughtful analysis, contextual background, and sharp insights into how the material dovetails with modern-day social issues. For the Halloween season, the duo decided to compare and contrast two separate horror anthologies, 1982’s Creepshow and 2007’s Trick ’R Treat, films that differ in both tone and structure. While the entire 90 minutes is engaging, the most fascinating insights come in how Halloween’s shift from the “ritualistic to the commodified” manifests on screen; traces of Halloween’s pagan roots still lurk beneath all the costumes and candy. Subissati and West’s feminist lens also provides a unique perspective on the horror, with ample insight into how gender factors into both films. Through it all, the hosts maintain a casual vibe as well as a level of articulateness that’s rare in the podcast world.
DOC: The Real Legacy Of Ross Perot
It is a commonly held political tenet that without Ross Perot, there’d be no president Bill Clinton—and by extension, no likely president Hillary Clinton. As the wisdom goes, the fiscally conservative Perot leached sufficient votes away from sitting president George H.W. Bush, that he created space for the Clintons to slip into the White House and start building their dynasty. However, it might not be that simple. In the latest installment of FiveThirtyEight Elections’ documentary series, Galen Druke goes back and looks at the 1992 election from a number of angles and concludes that that wasn’t the case. Probably wasn’t the case. Okay, maybe it was the case a little. The point is that it’s a lot more complex than it seems at first. With the aid of interview subjects like James Carville (Bill Clinton’s chief campaign strategist), Mary Matalin (Bush’s deputy campaign manager), and Frank Luntz (Perot’s director of research), a genuinely fascinating narrative is revealed, involving one of the oddest ducks ever to waddle into electoral history. It eventually becomes clear that even if the plainspoken but eccentric populist billionaire did not actually set the stage for the Clintons, he almost certainly did for another 2016 candidate.
While there’s enough people “Feeling the Johnson” and “going green” to keep these third-party candidates in the cultural conversation, there’s absolutely no chance either of them will capture even a single state. But try telling that to them. Perhaps in a last-ditch effort to get out their messages, candidates Johnson (Jacob Wysocki) and Stein (D’Arcy Carden) appear on Hard Nation, subjecting themselves to the inquisition of hosts Mark and Pete Hard. And because this is Hard Nation, both “candidates” are the bat-shit insane versions of their real selves. If the real election has taught us anything over the past year, it’s that gonzo parodies have nothing on the weirdness of what is actually happening. But at least this fiction is somewhat more soothing. The Hard Nation versions of Johnson and Stein find the pair weathering the last days of the election from a suite in the Beverly Hilton, which they also share with Perez Hilton and Wesley Snipes (Jill Stein’s first husband). Johnson fades in and out of consciousness and Stein is biologically compelled to break into song. Yes, it’s bonkers and a little rough, as long-form improv usually is, but also surprisingly tender, which is certainly something the electorate is craving right now. And if only for a moment, imagining an America run by these two lovable nitwits actually seems like a protest vote worth casting.
Here Be Monsters
What Jacob Heard
Here Be Monsters, a podcast about fear and the unknown, can often be a bit creepy, and this latest episode, released just in time for Halloween, is rife with ominousness and deliciously unsettling sound design. It tells the story of Jacob Sutton, who, as a young man, struggled with reconciling his Pentecostal Christian upbringing with his romantic feelings for men. Things take a turn for the spooky, however, when Jacob reveals that, in a moment of resignation, he invited a demon to enter his body. Even spookier? The story of how he was visited by that demon in the dead of the night. That experience led him to what he calls a “Christian boot camp,” where he attempted to shake off his desires and be the “straight kid” he believed his father, an elder at the church, wanted him to be. It’s affecting stuff, made all the more resonant by the vulnerability Jacob displays in his recounting as well as his refusal to demonize those who, at the time, didn’t understand his plight. This isn’t a takedown of Christianity, nor is he decrying the kind of boot camps he was sent to (though the details he shares about it are truly bizarre); rather, Jacob focuses on what was so intensely personal about his experience and the moments of both fear and bliss that got him through it.
Note To Self
Come And Sit With Marina Abramović
World-famous Serbian performance artist Marina Abramović is no stranger to the podcast Note To Self—this is the second time she has appeared on the life and technology podcast hosted by the ever-curious and naturally conversational Manoush Zomorodi, who effortlessly plays off the brilliant and delightfully deadpan Abramović in a way that makes this episode a contender for one of the best podcast interviews of the year. Abramović turns 70 in November, and after spending half her career focused on challenging herself through her art with projects like breaking up with a romantic partner by meeting him on the Great Wall Of China, she has started using her art to challenge her audience instead by helping them find ways to unplug from our overstimulating, technologically overactive world. She gives Zomorodi a variety of tools, such as sitting alone for three hours doing nothing in order to find creativity through solitude and matter-of-factly discusses how she would like to continue her artistic mission even after her death by creating a 3-D hologram of herself so she can continue to spread her ideas about privacy, creativity, and connectedness between human beings in an isolated world. “You have to think about the future. I always think, ‘What is next?’”
He’s back: Jason Mantzoukas returns for another edition of “Yes, Yes, No,” the game where Gimlet founder Alex Blumberg brings a cryptic tweet before Reply All’s hosts Alex Goldman and PJ Vogt, in hopes of understanding the meaning. This time, the tweet in question is part of the surge of electoral maps parodying Nate Silver’s hypothetical, women-only election map. Specifically, a tweet posits what the map would look like if only Tim Buckley voted. From there Goldman and Vogt descend into a meme surrounding Ctrl+Alt+Del, Buckely’s long-standing, if uninspiring online comic strip. From there, Vogt delivers a master class on how far one corner of the internet can take obsession, mocking and deconstructing a single four-panel entry of C+A+D for years. How that circles back to an election map tweet is mind-blowing to Mantzoukas, who may well have been invited just for his reactions alone. The episode is closed out with the return of “10 minutes on Craigslist,” which finds Reply All producer Damiano Marchetti trying to help a man locate a missing tortoise that has been part of his family for over 30 years. Marchetti doesn’t find the turtle, but he does discover the strange shelter that’s dedicated just for housing wayward reptile pets.
The Trump Tapes, Part I & Part II
This two-part “psychological portrait” of Donald Trump comes courtesy of Michael D’Antonio, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter who also served as a biographer of our current Republican presidential nominee. D’Antonio conducted Trump’s last biographical interviews before his run for president, and the audio culled from these sessions reveals plenty about the man: his childhood, his approach to family, and most importantly, his need. “Donald Trump is a bottomless pit of need,” D’Antonio concludes as The Run-Up’s Michael Barbaro plays back various snippets from the more than five hours of recorded audio. Additional interviews from Trump’s children and ex-wives are equally interesting; there’s the tale of Trump storming off the slopes when ex-wife Ivana out-skied him and a robotic Eric Trump comparing his father to Winston Churchill. But if there’s one thing D’Antonio seems to have taken away from these conversations, it’s a humanistic view of Trump. “What’s really kind of tragic about Donald,” he says, “is that he doesn’t really know himself, and he doesn’t want anybody else to know him.” Consider these recordings yet another sign of how dangerous it would be to have a man such as this running our country.
Secrets, Crimes & Audiotape
Severed Threads—Part One
“What’s your secret?” This is the provocative refrain in the opening and ending credits of the new fictional series Secrets, Crimes & Audiotape, launched last month by the Wondery podcast network with the bold aim to “jump-start a new golden age of audio drama.” Each multipart story is tightly scripted and impeccably edited, much like The Truth over at Radiotopia, with a capable cast and rich layers of sound to create a dense, immersive atmosphere. “Severed Threads,” in the tradition of many prestige films, begins with three disparate storylines occurring on three different continents, within an audio landscape confident enough not to over-narrate each transition. In part one, listeners begin piecing together the connections between a disaffected 12-year-old at boarding school, a British journalist uncovering child labor violations in India, and a Minnesota religious nonprofit embroiled in sudden scandal. Characters are introduced and developed with surprising thoroughness in the first 40 minutes of this three-part thriller, and theme music provides a stunning through line that other high-quality fiction podcasts have lacked. More than anything, this series seems deeply committed to bringing listeners a cinematic experience, right down to keeping them in suspense of the next installment.
Does Climate Matter In America’s Election?
Like all climate-change podcasts, Warm Regards (produced by Slate) touches on a wide breadth of issues in every episode, and for good reason. It’s hard to discuss a topic as complex and obtuse as the warming of the planet by focusing on just one thing. But the latest episode, “Does Climate Change Matter In America’s Election?”—for all its commentary on budget, policy, and the two-party political machine—still has a simple takeaway: patience. As frustrating as it’s been to not see climate change as one of the primary talking points in the presidential debates, Huffington Post enterprise reporter Kate Sheppard stresses the acceptance of baby steps. As nice as it would be to see climate change at the forefront of the political conversation, the international dialogue is still in a much better place than it was even a year ago. She also cautions other journalists against seeking only the most sensationalized quotes from scientists when it comes to the planet’s future. Alarmism tends to cause readers to mentally shut down, and such catatonia isn’t good for anyone. Like the handful of other great climate-change podcasts, Warm Regards is all about finding that middle ground between being panicked and optimistic.
MUNCHIES: The Podcast
#27 Matt Orlando - Copenhagen, Christiania, and Compost
Say what you will about Vice and its dubious media empire disguised as slacker culture empowerment, but without such infrastructure, something as delightfully different as the MUNCHIES podcast would likely just be another food blog-cum-podcast. What sets MUNCHIES apart is its exploration of the culture of a restaurant and the people populating its kitchen more than the food itself. It is a canny decision, given food-related audio’s lack of visual appeal, unless of course one has an audience made up primarily of synesthetes. On this week’s particularly engaging episode, host Helen Hollyman travels to Copenhagen, Denmark, to sit down with the electrically eccentric American chef Matt Orlando and discuss the decidedly different ideas fueling his restaurant Amass. Orlando points toward the seemingly lawless Copenhagen neighborhood Christiania (think Hamsterdam from The Wire) as an inspiration for his approaches to running Amass. As the episode begins, Orlando jokingly calls himself the David Koresh of sustainability, but by the time he details his process for reincorporating traditional food waste into the menu, listeners may well be willing to join such a cult. As the first chapter of the MUNCHIES Copenhagen series, this seems like a journey that one should not miss.
“I like Tom Cruise. I do. I’m sorry. I love him. I’ve always loved Tom Cruise. I always will, and I do. I know he does all kinds of bizarre shit, and I know he’s involved with a religion—quote unquote religion—you know, that terrorizes people and makes no sense…”
“Judaism.”—David Sims and Griffin Newman, Blank Check
“The need of people to be together, to be human, to kind of vibrate this energy of peace, is so incredibly big right now, more than ever before.”—Marina Abramović, Note To Self