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Comedy Bang! Bang! and WTF remember Harris Wittels in frank conversations

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 podmass@avclub.com.

The Canon
E.T. Vs. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind

This week’s episode of The Canon is notable for a number of reasons. First of all, in pitting 1982’s E.T. against 1977’s Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, it marks the first time a director has had to do battle with themselves for a spot in the cinematic pantheon that the podcast is building week by week. (If you’ll recall, Steven Spielberg was denied a spot for Indiana Jones And The Temple of Doom.) Yes, the hosts have previously fought over the superiority of Star Wars And The Empire Strikes Back, but that’s really George Lucas going head-to-head with Irvin Kershner. This is also a stand-out episode because hosts Devin Faraci and Amy Nicholson seem genuinely unsure of how they would vote until the very end of the episode. Usually, they both enter the studio with a stack of arguments for their choice under their arms. Here, they both seem disturbed at the idea of choosing between two classics. Faraci was apparently sufficiently traumatized by the prospect that he considered calling off the contest. The weirdest aspect of the episode, though, was the noticeable lack of fireworks. No insults. No ad hominems. Just a couple talking to each other like friends. Weird!

Comedy Bang! Bang!
Harris Wittels, Chelsea Peretti, Adam Scott

The bulk of this installment falls victim to many of Comedy Bang! Bang!’s common pitfalls—inside jokes, mixing of segments, and characters that change too rapidly. Scott Aukerman admits all of this in the intro, but also says he felt the need to air it since it’s the last episode to feature Harris Wittels, who died last Thursday at the age of 30. While his passing would be unbelievably tragic no matter the circumstance, it hits especially hard given that Parks And Recreation—for which he served as Executive Producer—ends tomorrow night. This admittedly makes the podcast a little difficult to get through during its darker moments, including when Wittels expresses regret over discussing a former classmate who died too young. By the end, however, it’s comforting to be reminded of how comically gifted and empathetic he was. If the bit where he, Aukerman, and Parks And Rec cohorts Adam Scott and Chelsea Peretti try to dramatize every one of their email correspondences doesn’t quite work, Wittels’ moments of honest, precise grossness sure do, from recalling an eighth-grade blowjob on the floor of a sticky movie theater showing Half Baked to proposing that everyone in the world should get a text notification whenever someone masturbates to them. Then, in the final moments—when debating with Aukerman about the episode’s title—he confesses “I’m trying to get picked by The Onion’s Podmass as the best this week, and I think they want ‘Farts And Pro 4.’” We do, Harris. But more than anything, we want you back.

Comedy Bang! Bang!
Colin Hay, Gillian Jacobs, Paul F. Tompkins

One of the joys of Comedy Bang! Bang! is its ability to take a simple concept and run with it to the most bizarre depths possible. Ever since Gillian Jacobs met Garry Marshall, their relationship has been one simple and insane bit, and when they agreed one year ago to get married on Valentine’s Day of 2015, all we could really do was hope that they followed through. Their much-anticipated wedding did not disappoint. Paul F. Tompkins was in top form this episode, pulling quadruple character duty as Marshall, Len Wiseman, Alan Thicke, and Reverend Parsimony, all while providing his signature off-mic laughs nearly every time he wasn’t on the mic. Men At Work’s Colin Hay was a dream musical guest, playing some of his best songs and being totally game with every comedy bit that was thrown at him. When he jumped in to provide musical accompaniment for Gilli and Garry’s vows to each other without skipping a beat, he proved himself to be a Comedy Bang! Bang! champion.

The Dollop
Comet Panic

Oh my stars, it is apparent that one is in for a treat with this episode of The Dollop from the earliest moments. It comes precisely when Halley’s Comet, the title’s panic-inducing object, is described in contemporaneous reports as “The Hobo Of The Heavens,” as well as “The Big Eye In The Sky.” Much of the humor comes less from co-hosts Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds—not to their discredit—and more from the absolutely batshit-crazy headlines, interpretations, and machinations of the citizens of 1909 America, which are laugh-out-loud absurd. This is due, of course, to the pseudo-scientific reports that the comet will likely kill all of life on Earth. It is in the exploration of the details that things get surprising, when laughing about the backward ways of a misinformed populous believing in the mistruths spread by the media slowly become evidently an echo of many of our present situations. This especially rings true when events are compared to the Y2K scare. Perhaps the best, and craziest of all the proposals is the concrete-sealed comet-proof rooms built into a mineshaft, free of charge for occupants, though they would have to pay a fee for the unsealing after the comet’s passing.

The Flop House
Dorothy’s Return

What does one hope to achieve in making a sequel to a beloved classic film? The amount of hubris for any filmmaker seeking to tackle such an assignment must be enormous, thinking that they might somehow match or even best the original vision is often ludicrous. At best these films can simply hope to fail upward, which seems to be the verdict doled out by The Original Peaches after viewing the 2013 film Legends Of Oz: Dorothy’s Return. The film, a CGI sequel to The Wizard Of Oz, sounds like a contender for least essential film sequel of all time. However, hosts Elliott Kalan, Dan McCoy, and Stuart Wellington find it an uninteresting exercise rather than truly bad, going so far as to say that it didn’t feel like a desecration of the original. But, as always, the film is really just a jumping-off point for some hilarious bits that showcase the Peaches’ savant-like ability to riff on every topic under the sun, especially when motivated by McCoy’s mispronunciations. Perhaps the best moment comes when The Flop House house-cat’s nerdy brother shows up, leading Kalan to make a joke about cat breasts that nearly kills Wellington.

For Colored Nerds
Blacker The Violence

Kendrick Lamar is, by this point, the Internet’s Helen Of Troy, with his every track launching a thousand think pieces. This holds true for his latest effort, “The Blacker The Berry” which openly draws parallels between the recent, horrific killings of unarmed black males by authority figures with that of gang violence within the black community. Hosts Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings are unable to deny the pure fire that Lamar spit on the track, but are a bit less certain as to several other aspects of the song. Namely, who is its intended audience? Does the conflation of issues falsely position them as being on equal footing? This is hardly just a light discussion of opinion, as the hosts come out with a great deal of research and data exposing the myth of black on black violence as some sort of plague unique to the black community. The song is not to be held to account it seems, given its ability to stir up these discussions, letting the truth come to the fore. Though this sounds like a bit of a depressing discussion, Luse and Eddings manage to keep things humorous and engaging, showing that this is a show worth following for more informed and interesting perspectives.

Never Not Funny
Andy Daly

Andy Daly is comedy podcasting royalty and, well, never not funny, so it goes without saying that his return to Jimmy Pardo’s podcast is a joy from start to finish. His rapport with Pardo and the gang is so relaxed that the show feels even looser and more freeform than usual, and the first hour of the episode could stand on its own as a remarkable piece of podcasting. What that freeform builds to toward the end, however, is kind of beautiful: The saga of the tarp-covered sign at the 7-Eleven near the recording studio (which began with Rich Sommer’s stellar appearance last week) reaches its natural culmination, with every single person present going in to pester the poor convenience store employees about the sign, including Pardo in characte. The show reaches peak giddiness, here, as it’s quite literally the antics of schoolboys, and it could not be more delightful.

Not All Women
Hillary Boucher

Not All Women is an outspoken, intersectional feminist podcast “celebrating badass women from all walks of life” hosted by a transgender woman and a woman of color. Despite launching independently only six months ago and supporting a perceived niche, it quickly earned the attention of and a contract with CBS’ Play for Callie Rasmussen and Sarah Sahim’s virtuosic hosting work. Rasmussen and Sahim spend a large portion of this installment humming The Smurfs theme song, expertly analyzing Bruce Jenner’s highly public transition, and anchoring the episode on an interview with self defense instructor Hillary Boucher of Vermont’s non-profit Safety Team that highlights Not All Women’s strength. Rasmussen and Sahim are both articulate women with a tight grasp on feminist theory, and Boucher brings a mastery of feminist practice even as she simply describes self-defense moves over the air. The interview provides women with a real incentive to take ownership of their own safety by laying out how and—in no uncertain terms, be warned—why to go about it.

Should I Worry About This?
Should I Worry About... Being A Fraud?

It seems like impostor syndrome has been on the brain of late, what with the recent article on website The Billfold chalking up Jessica Williams as a “high-profile victim” of it, due to her recent comments quashing rumors about her ascendancy to The Daily Show desk. Williams struck back, and rightly so, showing that she suffers no crisis of confidence. That doesn’t ring as true for Should I Worry About This? hosts Eden Robins and Cat Oddy, as they explore the topic of impostor syndrome and its prominence in otherwise smart and capable people. Oddy and Robins are a warm and funny pair, representing either side of the divide. This tale becomes all the more shocking with the description of a study shedding light on the idea of stereotype threat, a phenomenon primarily affecting women and minorities in the workplace. This is where an individual’s conscious efforts to subvert a perceived stereotype end up causing them to overcorrect, resulting in their unfortunately embodying the very stereotype they sought to avoid. If one can listen to the episode without finding some commonalities, then perhaps it is time to read a bit about the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is something actually worth worrying about.

Spray Diagrams: Damian Abraham, Human Behavior

Host Nick Prevenas built up an enviable body of work in the first year of his Tucson, Arizona-based SideStreets podcast, but rather than sit and navel gaze for the length of his anniversary show, he spends his entire monologue gushing about how lucky he felt while interviewing Fucked Up’s Damian Abraham. The endlessly charismatic host of Turned Out A Punk focuses his sermon on the constant, slight effort it takes just to seek out counterculture (“What would I be like if I had to fit in?”) with an authority befitting a living hardcore legend and Prevenas, to his credit, barely makes a peep after teeing Abraham up for this uninterrupted hour of heartfelt extrapolation about how deeply alienated one needs to feel in order to consciously disavow mainstream media. The two close the show with a topical bit of a chat about the influence of Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s fictional Newbridge, New Jersey on their lives and their work. Here’s hoping for many happy returns for SideStreets, and here’s to whatever got you to the dance.

Strange Brews
Brian And Lindsay Will Totally Eat That!

The existence of Heritage Radio Network, the excellent Brooklyn-based non-profit organization that produces Beer Sessions Radio and Fuhmentaboudit!, makes the tagline for this WBEZ program—the only public radio craft beer podcast”—a little dubious. In truth, there are more podcasts, forums, and resources now than ever for microbrew and home beer enthusiasts, but few package deep-cut tastings and recommendations, tips, entertaining debate, and in-depth news like Strange Brews. This week, hosts Andrew Gill and Alison Cuddy chat about the different ways the business behind good beer is evolving, for better and worse. Grocery stores, many now with taps, have played a major role in rolling back Sunday alcohol laws and provided more craft shelf space to meet growing mainstream demand. At the same, quality breweries are increasingly making strange bedfellows with massive companies like Anheuser-Busch, whose craft head Andy Goeler eerily described his mission as “buying the culture and the people who have built that culture.” Over cans of FoBAB 2014 Classic Style Winner “Soul Shakedown Party” from Sun King Brewing Company, Cuddy and Gill interview Maximum Fun’s Brian Fernandes and Lindsay Pavlas about food science’s (mostly failed) efforts to capitalize on beer flavor, like in Larry The Cable Guy’s beer bread. The consensus is that it, like most similar products, tastes like a stadium smells at the end of a ballgame is about as unsettling as the fact someone else on the panel can’t stop eating it.

Totally Cerebral Parts 1 And 2

Transistor mixes science with storytelling, and its two most recent of the young podcasts four episodes neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki discusses the most recent advances in studying amnesia. A patient, identified originally only as “HM” due to the nature of his study, went through a series of tests in Montreal during the 1950s, answering a question mankind was still perplexed by: Which parts of the brain process and contain memory? Dr. Brenda Milner conducted the study, and at 96 still works in the field and is exceptionally lively in her interviews. Here she allows Suzuki to invoke her own memories of the study that started almost 60 years ago and they are satisfyingly vivid. The first episode focuses on the exposition required for such a thing. There are tests with rats and misconceptions about lobes. The second episode is especially involving, delving deep into the generous contributions an afflicted man who listeners will come to know with great intimacy, and who gave science more than he could literally ever understand since he had lost the ability to retain long-term memory after age 27. Transistor manages to be gripping and immediate the way the best sort of storytelling podcast can be, as these scientists are not only bright but personable and emotionally connected to their studies. The professional production value helps as well, making it a reasonable contender for the next big thing.

Remembering Harris Wittels

The loss of Harris Wittels is immense. A thousand condolences have been tweeted by fans and peers alike about his death and yet it still seems impossible to find the words to express how impoverished the comedy world will be without him and his perspective. Addiction, at least, can’t rob us of his many podcast appearances, and while his WTF interview from 2013 has neither the humor of his spots on Comedy Bang! Bang! (among others) nor the heft of his harrowing You Made It Weird episode, it remains noteworthy nonetheless. It’s painful, of course, now, to hear Wittels speak so cavalierly about his recreational drug use, and perhaps even more painful to hear him talk with such passion about the craft of joke-writing, knowing we’ll never get to see or hear any new material from him ever again, but it is a vital portrait of someone so supremely talented who had yet to succumb to the dark cloud of addiction. As Maron puts it, he hadn’t even had a chance to live his life yet. And as George Saunders put it, “What a degraded cosmos.” Rest in peace, Harris.

Woman’s Hour
50 Shades. Cost Of Childcare And The Girl In The Dark.

This long-running show from BBC Radio 4 kicked off last week with a cheerful discussion of the British relationship with spanking. Host Emma Barnett and her guest, a professional dominatrix, briefly talk about the BDSM community’s complaints with Fifty Shades Of Grey—namely, the lack of consent in the series. They proceed to survey the history of spanking in British pop culture and current trends in sexual discipline. (Women are more likely to be the ones suggesting it to their partners these days, the mistress happily reports.) After a live demo of whipping implements, Barnett gracefully segues to a roundtable about how political parties in the U.K. plan to address the rising cost of childcare. Later in the program, two women who started having children after the age of 35 share how they arrived at their decision amid busy lives and careers, but not before an interview with a woman who is allergic to all forms of light. The victim of this awful-sounding affliction says without irony that she’s had “some incredibly dark times.” Woman’s Hour might have a frumpy name, but the show’s ability to jump from topics of high culture to low, and from the personal to the political, makes it a refreshing listen.

We see what you said there

“What makes these movies really interesting is that E.T., essentially, is an answer movie to Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. It is Spielberg sort rebutting himself.”—Devin Faraci on Steven Spielberg’s canon, The Canon

“Abortion reform? More like a-snore-tion reform!”—Sarah Sahim on auditioning for The Daily Show host chair, Not All Women

“I would love to just get it. Like, a Sam Smith song comes on and, shit, this is my jam. And then I turn on the TV and it’s an LMFAO song—my favorite!”—Damian Abraham on how easy it would be to not like punk rock, SideStreets

“What do you think you’ll do tomorrow?’
“Whatever’s beneficial.”—Dr. Brenda Milner and “HM” on the latter’s ability to form plans despite his inability to form long term memory, Transistor

“We have a great relationship with the cane, and public school beatings, and it’s a very British thing to do, isn’t it, a bit of spanking?”—Emma Barnett on the history of spanking, Woman’s Hour