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 email@example.com.
Due to the holidays, there will be no Podmass on Monday, December 28. Thank you for reading, and we’ll see you next year!
Regardless of one’s personal feelings on Roman Polanski vis-à-vis the artist vs. person conundrum—and that is a subject worthy of some introspection and debate—his life story is still fascinating, speckled with dizzying highs and unthinkable lows. In this interview with The Hollywood Reporter’s Peter Flax, the 82-year-old Jewish filmmaker recounts details of what has to be his most formative low: his childhood in Nazi-occupied Poland. Speaking soberly from his home in Paris, seven decades after the fact, Polanski uses his skills as a storyteller to adorn painful remembrances with just enough detail: the Kraków bridge upon which his father broke down crying while informing his 6-year-old self that his mother had been carted off to Auschwitz; the fountain of blood that erupted from an elderly neighbor’s back after she was felled by a German bullet; the insect-like buzzing sound of countless Allied planes as they filled the sky and arrived to liberate Poland. It’s a fascinating but difficult listen, hampered only slightly by the telephone-recording quality of Polanski’s voice.
Sara Benincasa, From Agoraphobia To ABC Pilot
Sara Benincasa’s diverse career makes her a difficult artist to classify—she’s worked as a comedian, a radio host, a bathtub blogger, and most recently, a TV writer. But no matter what she’s done, she’s always been a writer—making her a perfect interview subject for The Bindercast, which features conversations with women and gender-non-conforming writers. Benincasa walks co-hosts Lux Alptraum and Leigh Stein through the mental breakdown in her early 20s that led her to drop out of college and move home with her parents, and how these darker moments inspired her to start writing openly about her struggle with mental illness. After moving to New York to attend Columbia University, Benincasa started doing stand-up comedy and produced a one-woman show called Agorafabulous, inspired by her struggles with agoraphobia, which led to her first book deal for a memoir of the same name. Now, Benincasa’s story could reach an even bigger audience thanks to her current project—a TV pilot produced by Diablo Cody for ABC. Benincasa, who has also written two novels and whose forthcoming book, Real Artists Have Day Jobs, will be out in April, is full of practical and lighthearted advice about freelancing, rejection, and convincing editors and men in power positions that you’re the right person for the job—or as Benincasa refers to it, her “Convincing Men Tour 2015.”
David Bordwell (Daisy Kenyon)
If not underrated in terms of importance in the history of watching and talking about movies, David Bordwell is at the very least not talked about nearly as much as he should be. The Cinephiliacs host (and occasional A.V. Club contributor) Peter Labuza has long been an outspoken admirer of Bordwell, though, and here he gives him the spotlight for nearly two full hours. The man who wrote the film studies textbooks that launched a million undergrads’ own cinephilia is sharp as ever, and proves to be quite engaging while talking about, say, his preference for poetics over hermeneutics, among other potentially dry topics. Labuza, as always, is excited to be talking with his guest but also very, very prepared for the interview, and even Bordwell seems impressed with some of the questions he’s asking, producing no shortage of insight about film theory and criticism along the way. An impassioned discussion of Otto Preminger’s 1947 noir Daisy Kenyon follows, and, as usual with The Cinephiliacs, by the end, nothing sounds better than sitting down at home and watching a great movie.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
Xmas: Paul F. Tompkins, Lauren Lapkus, Jon Gabrus, Neil Campbell, Mike Hanford, Will Hines
One could measure the excellence of this holiday spectacular by the overflowing amount of off-mic laughs heard from Paul F. Tompkins before he enters as Andrew Lloyd Webber. The whole episode is scored by the players’ uncontrollable laughter as the characters weave themselves perfectly together. And what an all-star list of characters it is, with PFT playing Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jon Grabrus as intern Gino, Lauren Lapkus as Ho-Ho The Naughty Elf, Mike Hanford as John Lennon, Neil Campbell’s Maxwell Keeper, and the debut of a small business owner named David Bunting, played by Will Hines. Each improviser is completely in their element, playing the characters at the height of their comedic value. Take the time-obsessed Maxwell Keeper, who’s very voice and cadence is enough to make lines like “I don’t mind… not even a tid!!” more hilarious than they should be. The episode is brimming with quotable moments (“A hole that grabs things? Sounds like a pussy!”) from each character and is bound to be an instant classic. Plus, an impromptu Hollywood Facts sing along makes it the perfect gift for all the Comedy Bang! Bang! fans out there who know the lyrics better than they probably should.
Death, Sex & Money
Stop Calling Me “The Homeless Valedictorian”
Most people know Georgetown University sophomore Rashema Melson as “The Homeless Valedictorian” after she made national news when she graduated at the top of Washington, D.C. high school class while living in a homeless shelter with her mother and two brothers. But despite the attention and financial assistance she’s received because of the story, Melson is finding that sometimes this label has made it even harder for her to succeed. In high school, Melson’s first concern was excelling in school and sports to win a college scholarship—getting anything less than first place, like a cross country meet where she placed seventh, devastated her. But now that Melson has made it to college on the full scholarship she used to dream about, that pressure to always be the best hasn’t changed. This past semester Melson had a breakdown and nearly dropped out of Georgetown when she realized she was focusing on school at the expense of everything else, like having a social life. She’s back on track now, but she’s found the longer she’s away at school, the more she wants to be with her family. “I would rather be with them,” she says. “This isn’t permanent. To me, this is my home for the moment.”
Steak ‘N Shake 2: Evan Susser
It’s been a whirlwind first year for Doughboys, and it ends in a spectacular way with third Doughboy Evan Susser’s return to the show. The gradual building of the show’s mythos pays off handsomely with the show’s return trip to Steak ‘N Shake, which gives the hosts a chance to look back on how they’ve gotten to where they’re at, and which comes to a very satisfying conclusion come ratings time. Susser gets involved in the typically hilarious barbs traded between Nick Wiger and Mike Mitchell throughout, and his pedantry about his favorite chain serves nicely as an object for the ’boys’ ridicule as well as an emblem of the sort of strong interest in things most people would mock that, in a way, formed the bedrock of the entire show. Even the negative reception to virtually every product tasted in yet another new segment toward the end of the show can’t sour the positive energy, and it’s hard not to feel all warm inside as holiday well-wishes are exchanged. Here’s to more great Doughboys in 2016.
The Flop House
In theory, The Flop House hosts brought Elliott Kalan’s brother (and the show’s ultimate nemesis) David Kalan on for this episode because he knows a lot about sports, and the FIFA propaganda piece United Passions is allegedly about the sport of soccer. That proves to be misguided, as the film is less about sports and more about, well, meetings and that sort of stuff. But that also works in the show’s favor, because David spends minimal time talking about sports and more time simply joking around with his friends who pretend to hate him. And, as it turns out, David is funny, and he adds a good deal of comedy to the episode, which is brimming with funny to begin with. As usual, the content of the film is more or less completely incidental here, and nevertheless the episode is an instant Flop House classic. Maybe that David Kalan guy isn’t so bad after all.
Hello, From The Magic Tavern
Much of the underlying brilliance in Hello, From The Magic Tavern is in the subtle parallels that are discovered between the real world and the mystical land of Foon. Among Foon’s working class, there’s Clax/Clacks (“It’s never been spelled!”) a skeleton who guards “the main dungeons.” Played by the immensely talented improv legend, TJ Jagodowski, Clax (let’s just spell it like that) is hardly mystical at all. He is just a charming, regular guy who happens to be a reanimated skeleton. Before that, he owned a reupholstery shop and loved to read. Now, he works every hour of every day getting his head knocked off by adventurers in the first level of the dungeons, which doesn’t hurt him, mind you, but the sound is unpleasant. He’s extremely humble and acts as a great contrast to the rambunctious and power seeking Usidore. He also facilitates new detail to embellish the world of Foon. For instance, he hums “the old travelers’ song,” which is equivalent to “Freebird.” He also lends information of the Lunar Sword, a weapon so powerful it could aid Usidore in his quest to defeat The Dark Lord. Not only does he create his own fully rounded character, but he sets up more to be discovered in the future of the podcast. It’s a brilliant move by Jagodowski, and will likely pay off in spades.
Never Not Funny
Jimmy Pardo’s name is at this point practically synonymous with quick wit, but when he’s releasing between four and six hours of recorded conversations every week, there are inevitably times when he struggles to stay on the ball. And then there are times, as with his first episode after a recent trip to Mexico, in which he has seemingly never been more on his toes, at his sharpest and funniest. Every joke he lies down hits and hits hard, and at times in offbeat ways, and even guest Pat Francis can’t derail Pardo’s hot streak. In fact, Francis’ rapport on the show is as strong as ever, and everything in the first 100 or so minutes of the episode is instantly classic Never Not Funny. After that, when the gang discusses the aforementioned trip south of the border—to meet people associated with and who have benefited from the work of Pardo’s longtime favorite charity Smile Train—is not particularly funny, nor is it even trying to be. It is, however, genuinely heartwarming at points, and it makes a damn good case for making a donation.
The New Flesh
Mark Neveldine (Crank, Gamer, Vatican Tapes)
It may be hard to believe, but there is perhaps no better example of a film existing simultaneously within a genre while constantly subverting it than the 2006 Jason Statham cult phenomenon Crank. It works both as audience wish-fulfillment and commentary on the tired excess of the Hollywood blockbuster formula. It is fortuitous, then, that The New Flesh podcast hosts Brett Arnold and Joe Avella landed an exclusive interview with that film’s co-writer and director, Mark Neveldine for a legitimately euphoric discussion about his brand of gutsy, passionate, and sometimes reckless filmmaking. Arnold and Avella continually display a childlike sense of wonder at hearing about the making of Crank—and its similarly batshit follow-up Crank: High Voltage—direct from the source, while Neveldine does great work keeping the conversation funny and engaging. There are many interesting revelations disclosed over the course of the show, from the way Neveldine and writing and directing partner Brian Taylor used rollerblades to backdoor their way into the film business working as “extreme visual sequence creators,” to the fact that Seann William Scott was, at one point, up for the lead role in Crank. There is a genuine electricity to the interview, coming off more as three friends shooting the shit over some beers than mere staid conversation. This episode marks a great leap forward for a promising movie podcast.
One Bad Mother
The Santa Talk
Chock full of gleeful profanity and brutally honest accounts of the burden of child-rearing, this is, under normal circumstances, the kind of parenting podcast that parents would be advised against listening to while actively parenting. Prepubescent ears are definitely not this weekly show’s intended target. That’s particularly the case in this holiday-themed episode, in which co-hosts Biz Ellis and Theresa Thorn wrestle with the existential issue of dealing with Santa’s existence. Is it better to psychologically damage one’s children through an extended campaign of deceit that ultimately leads to a demoralizing and soul-shuddering revelation of truth, or through the conscious decision to deprive their formative years of all magic and wonder? There’s obviously no definitive answer to such an impossible dilemma, but the discussion, argued from opposite sides of the divide, may help new or soon-to-be-parents in codifying their own thoughts on the matter. Or it might just make things even more confusing. Either way, the back and forth—like many of the subjects dealt with on One Bad Mother—should at least help confused, anxious and sleep-deprived listeners feel a little less alone in their toil. While both hosts are women, there’s nothing particularly mom-centered about their conversations; dads should not feel dissuaded from listening in.
In this week’s episode of Startup, the show does something unique not just by podcast standards, but unique by company standards, as host and Gimlet Media co-founder Alex Bloomberg takes an honest look at Gimlet’s diversity by having conversations with the three non-white staff members at the largely-white company: Sampler host Brittany Luse, Startup co-host Lisa Chow, and Reply All producer Sruthi Pinnamaneni. And what follows from these conversations are thoughts and ideas that Bloomberg’s identity as a white man has prevented him from seeing before, things that to a white person, might seem like a harmless mistake—like Luse realizing she had been left off the company roster —but to a person of color is another microaggression in a long life of microaggressions. Or the insecurity a person of color feels when they aren’t totally sure if they were hired because of their talent, or because they’re fulfilling a diversity quota. The show also examines all the other ways Gimlet could hire individuals who are different in a less openly visible way—in sexual orientation, political beliefs, or religious beliefs—and starts imagining what a more diverse office might look like in the future, ideally with a lot less white people tip-toeing on eggshells around racial issues because they are so afraid of saying something offensive. And Gimlet isn’t just interested in discussing their issues with diversity—they’re interesting in doing something about it too, like building more diverse talent networks and the launch of an official training academy with a focus on people of color sometime next year.
Stuff You Should Know
The Star Wars Holiday Special Of 1978
It’s hard to say anything new about the Star Wars Holiday Special in an age where whole cottage industries are built upon publicly dissecting colossal failures (or in an age where Nathan Rabin exists). But Josh and Chuck are happy just to revel in the program’s confounding existence, detailing its unlikely origins and bizarre execution. By July of 1978, Star Wars mania was at a fever pitch, and all the preparations needed to get The Empire Strikes Back off the ground might explain George Lucas’ absentminded trust in a team of CBS executives who insisted that a Star Wars Christmastime variety hour could build buzz for the upcoming sequel and even sell more toys in the process. Indeed, so many advertisers clambered aboard that the hapless writers were forced to stretch their 25-minute conceit to two full hours. And stretch they did, peppering the meandering tale with cartoon segments, lengthy untranslated Wookiee conversations, and of course, softcore Wookiee pornography. Given the creative constraints of an outer-space special set in a living room on the planet of Kashyyyk and the total unwillingness of every cast member to partake, the result is a halting, hilarious black spot on Star Wars’ record. But at least fans came out the other side with two important gains: the introduction of Boba Fett into the saga and the unnecessary clarification that Bea Arthur is apparently the owner of the Mos Eisley cantina.
These Things Matter
Frozen: Michael Saul & Family
“What really matters is what you like, not what you are like. Books, records, films—these things matter. Call me shallow, but it’s the fuckin’ truth.” Kevin O’Brien and Taylor Gonda have sat atop the Denver-area podcast scene by taking John Cusack’s famous line from High Fidelity and drawing it to its natural conclusion—that, after all, what you like almost always informs what you are like. These Things Matter probes for nature and nurture from a pop-cultural lens with past guests swaying in prestige from family members to big-time stand up comedians, as well as a fair share of A.V. Club contributors. Guest Michael Saul, father of two and garage-pop guitarist, makes that explicit when he brings his family around to commiserate about the ubiquitous childhood-shaper Frozen. While Saul himself leans toward My Neighbor Totoro and Ponyo in his own nostalgia, the group breaks new ground for the podcast in a thoughtful and revealing conversation about dealing with the point when what a person is like needs to start factoring in what their children like. As the grown-ups critique the feminist subtext and soaring crescendos of “Let It Go,” delightful background chatter from Saul’s 4-year-old twins paints a picture of actual people, so ready for these changes.
Science Of Star Wars Episode 3—Sith Happens
There’s a certain mix of blind adoration (Boba Fett! Admiral Ackbar!) and very compartmentalized frustration (Jar Jar Binks! Midi-chlorians!) that all true Star Wars fans must possess. The scientist/comedians of Universe City, meanwhile, upturn a whole new plane of annoying plot holes across all six Star Wars films, highlighting inconsistencies in the laws of inertia and exit velocity. Amid the myriad scientific flubs throughout the franchise, Star Wars: Episode III—Revenge Of The Sith actually has some credit due: It’s the only film in the series that accurately represents the pressure inside an airlock, as opposed to previous depictions of the Death Star’s wide-open hangar through which aircraft freely fly. That, however, might be where the praises end. Revenge Of The Sith features an explosion in deep space that, while crowd-pleasing, is impossible without atmosphere. And though it might not technically be an anomaly of physics, where exactly did R2-D2’s unprecedented battle-droid-bludgeoning powers come from? The hosts of Universe City don’t take pains to mask their objective in irony or mockery, either, so there is a refreshingly thorough breakdown of why, when Anakin approaches a pool of lava, he should in fact explode rather than burn up. Hint: Think about the water temperature inside a human body. Or is it “humanoid?”
Womp It Up!
Jon Daly—Spotlight On: Matt Yanni
Marissa Wompler has trouble with love. Her erstwhile love, Eric “Gutterballs” Gutterman, betrayed her by sleeping with humanities teacher Rhonda DeLuce, and now, her boyfriend of seven days probably killed his twin brother and three of his friends. Played by the meticulously hilarious Jon Daly, Matt Yani is one of the most specific, fully formed characters the podcast has seen. Matt Yani is new to Marina Del Rey, and he met Marissa in the girl’s bathroom while he was popping a zit that somehow went from his chin to his forehead. Why was he in the girl’s bathroom? Oh, because the mirrors are cleaner than the boy’s and he likes to see his work splattered on a spotless surface. It’s strange, slightly disgusting details like that that make Jon Daly such a force of nature in this episode. Matt has a thick Pittsburgh accent that becomes almost indecipherable at times, has adolescent alopecia, loves Mike Nichols, and isn’t “no cisnormative weirdo.” The absurd thoroughness of Matt Yani only elevates the characterization of the hosts’ duo. Moments like Marissa mimicking Yani’s accent are so perfectly in character, it’s increasingly hard to remember that she isn’t actually a real person. Lennon Parham is so quick as her character of Charlotte Listler that she can promptly explain how to make an AK47 out of bamboo and have us all convinced. The whole episode is an improv masterclass and the Wompverse has never been stronger.
We see what you said there
“So much of being a writer, whatever medium you’re in, is convincing people that you can do the work. So much of it is self-promotion, confidence, faking it ’til you make it, so it’s very important to get into a room with people and say, ‘No, I’m the person to do this.’ You don’t have to drag anybody else down or criticize other people to do it, you just say, ‘No, I am definitely the person.’” —Sara Benincasa on convincing other people that you are the right person for the job is a big part of being a writer, The Bindercast
“What are you late for?”
“To tell you to fuck off!!”—Lauren Lapkus as Ho-Ho, putting Scott Aukerman in his place on Comedy Bang! Bang!
“If you guys had stopped at me, and I had to continue explaining what ‘Netflix and chill,’ means, and how it’s much older than the past three weeks, that would be tokenism and I don’t know how much I could take that.”—Ashley Luse on the difference between racial targeting in hiring versus racial tokenism, Startup
“Everything but. And I’m talking about butts. All right? I spank it.”—Jon Daly as Matt Yani on his sexual boundaries, Womp it Up!