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.
Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend
Matt Nathanson Returns
A new episode of Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend already has fans on Twitter calling one of their favorite episodes ever. Rosen interviews her old friend from college, Matt Nathanson, three years after his first time on the show. Rosen and Nathanson jump right into a fascinating, jarringly honest discussion about their separate paths to becoming better, happier people, and the efforts they’ve made in recent years to identify the good people and things in their life and get rid of everything else. Their effortless rapport results in some incredible stories from Nathanson about his childhood and family, including being sent to boarding school at age 10 and coming to terms with his mother’s decision to stop talking to him because she was unhappy with the things he shared on a separate podcast. He talks about how the decisions his parents made about raising him has informed his relationship with his own daughter, the evolution of his relationship with his wife since they first met when he was a teenager, and that time he angered thousands of diehard Swifties when he accused Taylor Swift of stealing a line from one of his songs. Regardless of whether you’re a serious fan of Nathanson’s music or just a person going through a difficult time, you will find something in this episode to relate to.
“Linguistic determinism” is a clunky phrase for what we already know: The speech with which we define the world around us shapes the world we see. Toki Pona, a language with only 123 words and a 14-letter alphabet, was designed in 2001 by linguist Sonja Lang, and she’s not shy about her reasons for developing it. “How can I reduce my thoughts? ‘Simplify your thoughts’ was a core part of the endeavor.” Her goals eerily evoke Orwellian Newspeak, whose limited range of expression also limits the power of its speakers. Indeed, Toki Pona insists on minimalism. For instance, host Helen Zaltzman asks how would one say “I have eight sisters”; Lang balks. “Eight? That’s too specific. Let’s just say ‘many.’” All of Toki Pona’s potentially sinister applications aside, once Zaltzman resolves to learn this micro-language, there are romantic and even utopian conclusions to draw: Its simplicity invites nearly anyone on Earth to gain mastery. Its limitations foster creativity as the speaker compresses an idea into the few phonemes available to form it. Best of all, Toki Pona necessitates a singular engagement between speaker and listener, as they work together to sort out these puzzles of syntax and metaphor.
The Axe Files
Last week, David Axelrod, former chief strategist to President Barack Obama, sat down for a conversation about justice reform opposite Mark Holden, senior vice president and general counsel at Koch Industries. Listeners expecting an impassioned tête-à-tête between intellectual titans across the political spectrum would be pleasantly surprised to hear how constructive and enlightening it actually was, and most strikingly, how much more in-depth and articulate their discourse is compared to official congressional debates. Axelrod’s measured demeanor and emphasis on substance makes him a bit like the Phil Jackson of the political realm, qualities that have made his show a stand-out in a crowded field of political commentary. Substance alone doesn’t win campaigns, though, and this week, Axelrod discusses style and strategy with Jon Favreau, Obama’s exceptionally young former chief speechwriter, dubbed “Mozart” for his wisdom beyond his age. Both lament how fear and caution among candidates have normalized boilerplate one-liners, and they trace Obama’s evolution from profound speechwriter to profound orator. It’s a fascinating look at how much of American history comes down to a 27-year-old pulling late-nighters with a pack of Red Bull.
Jillian Lauren Doesn’t Need Your Permission
The second episode of the new podcast The BinderCast—a show about women and gender non-conforming writers— confronts some of the issues that trouble many new writers, from the struggle to get started to the difficulty of telling stories about their lives without upsetting the people in them. Hosts Lux Alptraum and Leigh Stein interview bestselling memoirist Jillian Lauren about her struggle to sell a “parenting book” in a saturated market, writing about the act of writing, and how she felt when her parents disowned her after her first memoir. She also discusses her latest book, Everything You Ever Wanted, about the adoption of her son Tariku from Ethiopia, which was written during the most difficult parts of that process. Along with Lauren, Alptraum and Stein wrestle with their own personal feelings about the memoir as an art form: Good, bad, and in between, and all three agree a well-done memoir must be more than just a transcription of journals or therapy that the reader is paying for. But if done correctly, the memoir can be a great way to take back power over events that once made the writer feel powerless. “I haven’t always had control over some of the things that have happened in my life, but I have control over the story of them,” Lauren says.
Chicago Humanities Festival
Between The World And Me: Ta-Nehisi Coates
There is a moment in this vibrant and vital discussion with author and 2015 MacArthur Fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates when interviewer Natalie Moore touches on Coates having become “the only black person that white people want to listen to or read.” It is indeed representative of a certain facet of the shallow culture of engagement in America today where only the most prominent writers and thinkers dominate the landscape. But, in listening to Coates in conversation with Moore, it becomes obvious that in his case it is far more meritocratic. In their discussion, Coates seeks to position himself as being only one single stitch in the grander tapestry of African American writers, insisting that his prominence is more due to his platform at The Atlantic, which leads to his goading listeners to delve deeper into issues by reading the works of his predecessors. Of the more interesting points that Coates raises on the show is that of the divide between race versus ethnic and cultural identity, and the means by which it affects the dialog in the country today. With so many important topics covered by Moore and Coates, this podcast should serve as a jumping-off point, as a wonderful catalyst for further exploration and change.
Death, Sex & Money
Why You’re Not Having Sex
This week on Death, Sex, And Money, Anna Sale interviews some of her listeners about the most intimate details of their sex lives—but she’s not looking for the steamy details. She wants to know more about her listeners who aren’t having sex—whether by accident, choice, or compromise. The show starts off with Marie, a listener in her mid-30s who is still a virgin, but doesn’t want to be. She’s embarrassed that she’s never had sex before, but it’s been tricky to find someone who won’t be scared off by the stigma of it being her first time. Another listener shares her insecurity about her recent herpes diagnosis and her fear of the rejection that might happen if she tells a potential partner, joking that her dream scenario would be finding a partner that also has herpes. Most surprising is the story of Mike from Michigan, who at first glance seems like he should be having a lot of sex; he’s in a polyamorous triad with his wife of 10 years and their girlfriend. But in the last year and a half, sex has been a constant fight, and it’s easier to just to let it go. Although he misses having sex, he’s not thinking of breaking up. “We’ve made a life together,” he says. “Just because there’s the three of us, doesn’t mean that this isn’t a family.”
Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period
Spike Lee: Another Thing People Don’t Know
This is a special episode right here. In fact, the word special doesn’t even begin to touch the electricity that comes coursing through when listening. The planets aligned, allowing hosts W. Kamau Bell and Kevin Avery to welcome the inimitable impresario Spike Lee to the show, talking about his work directing Denzel Washington as well as his history in Hollywood. It helps that Bell and Avery find Lee in absolutely rare form easily elevating the episode to all-time classic status. Lee’s candor and abundant, raucous humor, when coupled with his assured place in the pantheon of filmmaking, make for a singularly engaging listen. In addition to talking about his films, Lee goes in on the idea of black talent as something innate, attacking the fallacious narrative of natural ability that is used to minimize the efforts of black athletes and creatives. The episode title comes from Lee continually revealing excellent bits of behind the scenes trivia about his films and Washington’s performances. Among the other delights of the episode is the joy that Bell and Avery experience in conducting the interview with such a major presence in their filmic life, the energy is both palpable and infectious.
Del Taco: Alan Yang
Ever since Nick Wiger flew off the handle and prematurely spilled the beans on his fork rating for Del Taco a couple of weeks back—only to be saved by a bleep inserted in post-production—Doughboys listeners have waited with burger and fry-scented breath to hear what was behind that infamous bleep, but now the wait is over. Wiger’s passion for Del Taco is palpable, and it helps drive the episode, which ends up being one of the most food-focused installments to date. Master Of None co-creator Alan Yang is a great guest, funny and enthusiastic, and he shares a good deal of interesting stories about his upbringing and his ever-evolving relationship with the food he loves. The episode as a whole feels cohesive and, weirdly, a little uplifting, although the playfully aggressive antagonism between Wiger and his co-host Mike Mitchell, which has slowly become the show’s signature, is still very present and very funny. The discussion of “Friendsgivings” is enough to make anyone feel warm inside, and it’s the perfect episode to lead into the most food-focused holiday of the year.
There’s no one more devoted to Aaron Carter than Desiray, a 28-year-old woman who’s seen him in concert more than 30 times. Carter’s music resonates with her. It’s inspired her and helped her get through some hard times. And on the occasions she’s met him—which have been many, because she always springs for the post-show meet-and-greet—she’s felt a genuine connection with him. He gets her. But despite all of this, she’s not not sure where she stands with Carter and she questions whether he considers her a friend or just another fan. Desiray’s attempts to find closure form the crux of this especially thought-provoking episode about insecurity and alienation. As the narrative progresses, it becomes clear that these issues run both ways as Carter’s own insecurities, born of his complicated relationship to a celebrity steeped in nostalgia and irony, are revealed. By shining a light on this side of Carter’s personality, what emerges is more than a portrait of a devoted fan being disappointed by a celebrity. Instead, The Heart again presents a probing examination of how an inability for intimacy causes relationships to fall apart.
Handbook East With Tom Scharpling
Sadly, Hayes Davenport has been out of town for the past few episodes, and although Hollywood Handbook has been innovative in filling his spot, his presence on the show has surely been missed. On this episode he’s back, joining Tom Scharpling in New York to discuss setting up Earwolf East. One could assume the whole thing is a joke, but also, who knows with these guys. Scharpling is a consistently great guest, and though the overall dynamic is different without Sean in studio, the two find a perfect rhythm. Together they pitch some New York-centric ideas like “DeGrasse Is Greener,” a weed podcast hosted by Neil DeGrasse Tyson, or a Hamilton podcast that would involve doppelgängers and murders to become a reality. Later, Sean calls in to check up on their progress, and even through the phone the trio conjures up the magic listeners have come to love and expect. Scharpling is scarily accurate as the pretentious old school New Yorker ranting about how Times Square used to be rough and rugged, and now it’s all, “you know, the M&M’s stoooore.” Though this is probably true for most of the episodes, listeners truly get the sense that the guys are trying their hardest to make each other laugh and break character. The banter highlights just how comfortable Hollywood Handbook has become with its tone, allowing everyone to revel in the strange details that make it one of the best comedy podcasts out there.
Little Gold Men
Did The Oscars Really Begin As A Publicity Scam?
Vanity Fair‘s Oscar-tracking podcast crosses streams this week with You Must Remember This, Karina Longworth’s exemplary show dedicated to shadow histories of Hollywood’s first century. As her two-part chronicle of David O. Selznick’s quest to legitimize his independent production company via golden statuettes is in the midst of playing out, Longworth joins the conversation here to discuss how the halo of Academy praise has been sought after and put to use by studios and producers over the years. Listeners who have been following her current “MGM Stories” series, will likely enjoy hearing theYMRT host in casual conversation and outside the cadence of the performance voice. Later, the Little Golden Men co-hosts grouse over the modern blight of “category fraud,” which sees lead actors relegated to supporting performance award categories so that they can more easily secure a victory for the film they’re representing. (Think Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Master.) Anyone who wasn’t sufficiently annoyed with this practice before hearing this will almost certainly come out the other end with a new sense of righteous indignation. Finally, the co-hosts, who seem especially taken with Spotlight, make their best guesses at who will win the Best Supporting Actor award this year.
Topping iTunes charts each week, The Message seems to indicate rising demand either for more fantastical or immersive podcast formats, and this finale delivers both. Ty Waldman has instructed the Cypher team to push him as close to death as possible to access the alien message reverberating in his medulla, and the chaotic composite of his rattling breath, vitals beeping progressively slower, Nicky conveying Ty’s typed ramblings, Robin’s arguments with Dr. Kalpana Singh, and Mod’s panic as he sees Ty flatlining is a testament to the program’s intricate audio landscape. This world is rendered concrete by its characters’ incredulity and doubt: They are unwashed, unglamorous, and stressed as hell, and this believability upholds the more outlandish sci-fi flourishes, especially the endearing if cheesy “gotcha” ending. The final installment of GE Podcast Theater’s inaugural series is thrilling not only because of its surprise twist, but because a podcast funded by a multinational conglomerate had every opportunity to treat its audience like consumers, and chose instead to create an immersive, unbranded world with zero commercial interruption. If this is the future of advertising, it is a comfort to know that appeals can be made to one’s collective imagination over their purchasing power.
Parking Garage: Live from Largo: Kristen Schaal, Matt Gourley, Mark McConville, Jeremy Carter
From start to finish, this live episode of Spontaneanation is by far one of the best the young podcast has seen. And with such a promising line-up of guests, it’s hardly a surprise. Kristen Schaal (Bob’s Burgers, Flight Of The Conchords) is the interviewee, and she’s endlessly entertaining. Her fresh take on the question of changing your past is hilarious and endearing, and ends in an anecdote about how she drunkenly fell off her bike and lost her front teeth a year ago. The story is such a gift to Paul F. Tompkins and the improvisers alike, offering endless elements to draw from for the rest of the show. The improvisers are Tompkins’ former Superego colleagues, their comedic history together shining through and making it one of the strongest improve sets yet. The level of fun they are clearly having with each other allows listeners to easily play along with the crazy and convoluted story they tell about Wikipedia, Best Buy parking garages, and multiple dimensions. It’s filled to the brim with callbacks and confusion, which truly makes it a Spontaneanation story through and through. From the playful interview, the combined effort of three seasoned improvisers, and the mess of flashbacks and flash-forwards, it is the epitome of what Spontaneanation aims for.
What's The Point
God, In One Chart: Emma Green, Leah Libresco
What’s The Point, a podcast under the umbrella of data-porn site FiveThirtyEight, makes a good faith attempt at understanding religious beliefs through statistical analysis. Or, more accurately, makes a good faith attempt at understanding statisticians continued attempts at understand religious beliefs through statistical analysis. However, as this week’s guests, religion journalists Emma Green (The Atlantic) and Leah Libresco (FiveThirtyEight) point out, all such endeavors are somewhat feckless. If a polling agency can’t measure exactly what a subject means by “sin” or “prayer,” which it cannot, then it can’t really measure who thinks what’s a sin and how often people pray, can it? If there’s one thing to nitpick in this compelling look at the way we look at God in this country, it’s that Green and Libresco, who are both professedly religious themselves, stretch the “religion is a thousand things to a thousand different people” meme a little far at times, which makes the concept of religion just amorphous enough to render any hope of measuring it impossible while simultaneously imbuing all faiths with the ineffable glow of the mysterious. If one is going approach the subject like that, then why bother studying it at all?
After a short hiatus, the Marissa Wompler (Jessica St. Clair) and Charlotte Listler (Lennon Parham) are finally back with all the dick jokes and cream cheesed DiGiornos a Wompster could want. After a wild Halloween weekend in Tijuana (which may or may not have resulted in Marissa getting herpes on her elbow) a new character is added to the ever-expanding Marina Del Rey High School universe, and his name is Red Morrison. Played by the hysterical Tony Hale, Red is the Southern smooth talking guidance counselor who is debuting his tape series appropriately titled “I Will Guide You.” His “dulcet tones” and excessively tranquil demeanor acts as a perfect foil to Marissa’s overtly unhinged and explicit personality, and it’s a game the improvisers recognize and utilize in full force. Hale’s choice to have Red sing over every single music break while Marissa wails in disgust is one of the many gifts that keep on giving in this episode. When Listler sings along with him, all the better. Seeing Marina Del Rey High School through the eyes of so many different characters allows this podcast to thrive and grow in a beautiful way. This episode is just one of many examples.
“I don’t remember if it was Sasha or Malia who said to him, ‘Hey Daddy, you won the Nobel Peace Prize. And it’s Bo’s birthday. And it’s a three-day weekend!”—Jon Favreau, The Axe Files
“I was just so hurt and so angry, and it really kind of cracked me open in that way that is so painful and can also really be a blessing for us artists, that we get shaken out of our habitual patterns.”—Jillian Lauren on how the fight with her husband over his indecision about adoption inspired her latest memoir, The BinderCast
“Can I tack something onto this 9/11 museum plug? If you go to the 9/11 museum and you tell them that you actually were in one of the towers during the attacks, they will give you a middling show biz career for about seven years.”—Sean Clements passively burning Steve Rannazzisi for lying about being in a tower during 9/11, Hollywood Handbook
“If that doesn’t work, we can use these two sticks of dynamite I’ve been holding the whole time!’
“I didn’t want to say anything… I thought they were like, candles or something”
“They are for a little bit!”—Matt Gourley and Paul F. Tompkins, Spontaneanation