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.
The Best Show
Rev It Up In 2014
Tom Scharpling has always had plenty of reason to rip into the podcast boom that saw others quickly benefit from sponsors and fund drives while he continued to toil on volunteer-powered terrestrial radio for the love of the game. Jon Wurster’s weekly scripted phone call dives headlong into that frustration as Ron Scharpling boasts of his own new project, Big Brother Ron’s The Real Best Show, though they hardly get the chance to dwell on the subject before Ron’s story of being drafted out of high school to a third rate professional football league takes them on their way. Scharpling’s rants about Ringo Starr in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame and getting robbed at Ikea thread him through an episode also highlighted by an appearance from The New Pornographers frontman A.C. Newman and a caller reading the deep purple prose that litters Roger Hodgson’s Wikipedia page. In the three weeks since settling back into the Tuesday night time slot that he made famous on WFMU, Scharpling’s independent revival of The Best Show continues to thrive off of his signature voice even without “the freeform station of the nation.”
Weird Al Yankovic
Since its inception, the concept of Sarah Thyre and Susan Orlean’s Wolfpop show Crybabies has seemed a half-step removed from being self-limiting; always about to get caught in a reductio ad lacrimas trap. This is to say that, on the face of things, having each discussion focus solely on songs and movies that have made one cry seems one-note. But the show’s saving grace is found in the tangents that arise when hosts and guests explore these tear-inducing entertainments, and as Thyre and Orlean are both immensely intelligent and hilarious, their great rapport lifts the proceedings. This week they welcome “Weird Al” Yankovic onto the podcast to peel back, if ever so slightly, the unflappably happy varnish on his image. In the show’s opening section, Orlean names Rutger Hauer’s “Tears In The Rain” speech from Blade Runner as this week’s Classic Cry, bravely relating it to her own mother’s progressive dementia. For his song cry Yankovic brings Ben Folds’ “The Luckiest,” but Thyre, looking to stave off any royalty issues, cuts the song off after just 29 seconds, making an otherwise maudlin moment into a comic one. Yankovic is warm and funny, especially when talking about crying at Toy Story 3, and when it is okay to renew marriage vows.
Denzel Washington Is The Greatest Actor Of All Time Period
A Soldier’s Play
At the outset, this week’s show appears to be a repeat, bearing nearly the same title as the earlier episode “A Soldier’s Story.” But it quickly becomes evident that it is in fact the show’s first ever special episode, featuring celebrity guest David Alan Grier. Listeners will remember co-host Kevin Avery, in previous episodes, repeatedly bragging about being friends with Grier, which is played for maximum comic effect throughout. The episode starts slowly—Grier initially displays a measure of reserve, but once their discussion gets humming what follows is nothing short of a classic episode, the series’ high-water mark for sure. Grier keeps Avery and co-host W. Kamau Bell in absolute hysterics, regaling the pair with tales of doing A Soldier’s Play off-broadway alongside Denzel, as well as making the movie adaptation, A Soldier’s Story. An extended sequence discussing the dressing room antics of Samuel L. Jackson and Adolph Caesar is particularly sublime. Grier brings a bit of a wilder, more subversive energy to the show, off of which Bell and Avery feed, making listeners hope Grier will become a more regular presence going forward. If you’re not listening to this show yet, this is the one to check out.
The Flop House
Cagemas is that blessed Flop House holiday that brings people together to honor the patron saint of bad movies, Nicolas Cage. The Floppers celebrate Cagemas 2014 by watching Rage, in which the patron saint takes on the role of reformed bad guy seeking vengeance against the Russian mob after they kill his daughter. If it sounds lightly plotted and dumb, that’s because Rage is more a series of scenes in which Cage busts into rooms and shoots people than it is a work of art. Even though it’s unceremoniously declared the second worst Cage flick ever, Rage is not enough to ruin another joyous Cagemas celebration. Stuart Wellington even uncovers something of a Cagemas miracle in the film’s one good scene, the result of a weird camera angle rather than any sort of artistry. The letter section includes a lesson in evolutionary psychology and orangutan sexuality, serving as an update to a previous episode on Any Which Way You Can, and a question about Julie Andrews’ movies morphs into one of the best Elliott Kalan-annoys-Dan McCoy bits in a while. Merry Cagemas, everyone!
Chris Sims and Matt Wilson of the War Rocket Ajax comic-book podcast are running Movie Fighters, a podcast where they sit down and watch a movie together, then reconvene to deconstruct it. Like many movie podcast hosts, Sims and Wilson are affable, funny, and have a natural rapport. But what sets them apart from the vast pool of other comedy- and movie-focused podcasts run by intellectuals and professional comedians is that they are, truly, big nerds. They start each episode not only with some background information on the movie, but a breakdown of how easy it is for listeners to do their own research should they choose to. This episode is particularly entertaining, because the film in question is the ABC Family movie Christmas Bounty, and its star is WWE wrestler and MTV darling “The Miz,” who has quite an addiction to leaning on his stunt double for work as well as a possible desire to erase this movie from popular consumption. (It might be a bit of a stretch, but among other “evidence,” Christmas Bounty cannot be found on Wikipedia.) The hosts have a genuine affection for The Mizz as well, and are not overly cruel when calling him out as a “shithead.” They only mean to label his carefully crafted persona, which spirals into bad accents and a never ending series of genre shifts.
The Road Appearing
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Keith Ecker and Erin Kahoa are staples of Chicago’s burgeoning storytelling community, but the duo’s PleasureTown isn’t a storytelling podcast, at least not in the traditional sense. Rather, it unspools the yarn of a fictional, early 20th century town where happiness is the primary concern and sin is relative, told through a seamless blend of confessional monologues and theatrical scenes. Think This American Life meets Carnivàle by way of Lake Wobegon: The stories are fictional in service to an overarching narrative, but each carries the intimacy and earnestness of non-fiction podcasts like The Moth and Risk! Listening to PleasureTown’s latest episode—the season one finale—it’s impossible not to be struck by its growth. The pocket-sized world of episode one has ballooned into something epic, with its rich ensemble thrust into a truly apocalyptic finale underscored by howling winds and supernatural strains that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Final Fantasy game. In the end, PleasureTown feels of a piece with prestige dramas like the aforementioned Carnivàle and Deadwood, and not just because of its sepia toned, dust-swept milieu and the slurry drawl of its performers. Like those shows, PleasureTown is ultimately about community, with a motley crew finding hope, strife, and transcendence in each other. Considering the podcast began as a communal live show, that seems fitting.
Stuff You Missed In History Class
Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey were excited to include some Stonehenge updates in their end-of-year Unearthed series, which bring back old topics and relates new information that dedicated listeners may have noticed cropping up. Yet, despite the level of infamy associated with Stonehenge, it turns out that in the very long history of the podcast they had never actually covered Stonehenge. Not only is this episode several years in the making: There was a recent announcement revealing a new encampment found near the monument that dates from 1,000 years before the main structure and may alter how we view Britain’s history forever. Much of Stonehenge’s history is actively debated—its construction was relatively recently decided to have been in the Bronze Age and it’s estimated to have taken more than three million hours to build. Wilson and Frey have pegged almost everything that’s been discovered and researched, making this the perfect source to start with if you still think Stonehenge was built by druids and might have something to do with calendars. The Stonehenge Hidden Landscape Project that started in 2010 was able to non-invasively map the entire area through magnetic imaging and uncover its biggest secrets, which are addressed here.
Stuff You Should Know
How Sea Monsters Work
The title of this episode refers to one of the strangest but oldest subjects the show has yet to tackle. The hosts admit to being terrified of Sigmund The Sea Monster off the bat, but their freaked-out curiosity leads to a geeky passion when discussing the depths of mythology from whence it came. The hosts thought they knew a lot, but their research surprises—particularly that the stories are thousands of years old. The stories of sea monsters seem to have one major theme, which is that no matter how diabolically ridiculous the monster, it is essentially a metaphor for a very specific fear of humanity. The Kraken is simply a giant squid, but its size is blown out of proportion to represent the dangers of exploring deep water away from land. Perhaps the most obvious is Godzilla (technically a sea monster as its name means “gorilla whale”), because it manages Japan’s fear of nuclear technology. Though science has reduced much of this wonder to cryptozoology, they are quick to note how often in recent memory there have been supposed sea monster sightings on beaches. And of course it’s hilarious, as the hosts are apparently well versed in the works of Mr. Show.
As a middle-schooler in the late ’90s, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate Melissa Etheridge. “Come To My Window” was overplayed, and her and her partner’s selection of David Crosby as a sperm donor felt, at the time, custom-built for homeroom giggles. So color me sheepish after her discussion with Marc Maron, where she gamely—and humorously—opens up about everything from gay-rights activism to motherhood, her divorce, her second marriage, and her battle with cancer. Such honesty elevates the conversation above many of Maron’s talks with “cooler” musician guests (we’re looking at you, Nick Cave), which he gushes about in his opening monologue. But the knockout moment comes at the end with Ethridge’s garage performance of “Take My Number” from this year’s This Is M.E. Despite the album’s cringeworthy title, her empathetic chords and lyrics about finding new romance after a lifetime of regret move Maron, and perhaps even the middle-school student in all listeners, to tears.
Worst Idea Of All Time Podcast
The premise of Worst Idea of All Time is simple: Two friends watch the film Grown Ups 2 every week for a year, then get together to review (make fun of) it. The podcast started off as funny, but has since become a ninth circle of cinematic hell where hosts Guy Montgomery and Tim Batt don’t so much review the movie as they shudder at the numbing effect it’s had on their lives. Their 44th episode was especially reflective, as their viewing landed smack-dab in the middle of New Year’s Eve, meaning they had to step away from their family, friends, and idyllic New Zealand vacations to torture themselves. After making a couple of uber-specific observations about the production (the deer in the beginning sounds unmistakably like a goat), they voice regret about having devoted 74 hours in 2014 to watching Adam Sandler and his goons bully people. Their punch-drunk tone, while fascinating, might not make you laugh, but it will make you feel better about how you spent your year.
“Think about what a dumb title that is. Sgt. Pepper’s. Any self respecting kid back in 1967 should have walked right out of the record store. Hey, where’s the band that did Rubber Soul and Revolver’s new album? Oh, here it is, this garish thing where all your heroes now have dopey mustaches.”—Tom Scharpling on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonley Hearts Club Band, The Best Show
“The weather outside is Cage-ing / The movie is kind of enraging / Let it Cage, let it Cage, let it Cage.”—Elliott Kalan on the spirit of Cagemas, The Flop House
“The idea of the Kraken may have come before a sighting of a giant squid. It came from whalers finding scars.”—Josh Clark on how old the idea of the Norse monster is, Stuff You Should Know
“I understand Grown Ups 2 in a way I don’t understand pretty much anything else in the world.”—Guy Montgomery on Worst Idea Of All Time