Criminal’s Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer on pot, murder, and podcasting

A.V. Club Most Read

Criminal’s Phoebe Judge and Lauren Spohrer on pot, murder, and podcasting

Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge (Photos: Criminal)
Lauren Spohrer and Phoebe Judge (Photos: Criminal)

Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast. Ties are allowed/encouraged. For more podcast coverage, see Podmass,The A.V. Club’s weekly roundup of the best ’casts out there.

The podcasters: Everybody loves a good true-crime story. That’s been made increasingly evident in recent years with the popularity of series like Serial and Making A Murderer. But Criminal, a long-running podcast out of North Carolina, is more than that. Every other week, host Phoebe Judge and producer Lauren Spohrer look at crime from a different angle, some of which are fairly surprising. One episode has Criminal focused on a man who trains drug-sniffing dogs, while another featured a woman who has helped dozens of people end their own lives. Criminal has looked at 19th-century New England murder sprees and San Francisco-based pot dealers, with Judge bringing both humanity and a genuine sense of interest to each and every story.

Criminal is going on a North American tour later this month, with dates kicking off October 25 in Washington, D.C.

Episode 36: “Perfect Specimen”

The A.V. Club: “Perfect Specimen” tells the story of the mysterious poisoning of one of Austin, Texas’ biggest and oldest trees. Why did this make your list?

Phoebe Judge: It encapsulates what we hope to do with Criminal, which is to try to find the story that you want to talk to someone about because it’s just so crazy or odd.

What really sealed the deal with that episode is that, yes, we knew this Treaty Oak had been poisoned and that was kind of crazy and weird. But when we heard it was being poisoned potentially to break a love curse or to entrance a woman, then we just went, “We absolutely have to do this story.” We’re always looking for that extra little thing that we just can’t pass up. That’s the type of story we hear where we go, “I guess we just have to do this then.”

AVC: How do you two find stories?

Lauren Spohrer: We worked together on a daily public radio show—Phoebe was a reporter and I was an NPR producer—so we had a lot of experience. It had been our regular job for a long time, so the idea of taking that skill of, “Let’s find a story quickly and let’s find the right person to tell this story,” that’s a skill we already had. And now what we get to do is flex that muscle with our own projects, so it’s not only like, “Let’s find a good story,” but also, “Let’s find a story that we both are fascinated by.”

It’s a lot of reading and a lot of reading of strange things, but most of our favorite stories have come from talking to people. It’s essentially family friends. People who know we do this show will keep their radar up a little bit and give us a call and go, “I read about this crazy thing,” or, “My next-door neighbor had this happen to them—you should call them.” That’s our favorite way to do it, to just talk with people about what they’re curious about.

AVC: Do you remember how “Perfect Specimen” came about?

LS: I think it was an email that came in from a listener. It was the second one we’ve done where it was a pitch from a listener. I remember reading it—we get tons of pitches from listeners, and usually I read them and I’m not sure what to make of them—but this was one where I said, “Absolutely yes,” and started that same day making phone calls, trying to track people down. Then I remember thinking, “It would be so cool if we could get Ross Perot,” and then he said yes. So that one came together in a really fun way for us.

AVC: I had no idea he was still alive.

PJ: I had no idea that he answered his phone. When I was calling his office, I thought, “I’ll just try this and it’ll never work,” and then, all of a sudden they said, “Okay, we’re putting you through to Mr. Perot now,” and he answered the phone. I said, “I’m sorry, Mr. Perot”—I was just sitting in my living room half-dressed or something—“Can I call you back?” He was so confused. “I just need to call you back in five minutes.” I called Lauren and said, “I’m going, I’m going, I’m going!” I got in the car and was flying to the radio station, probably half-dressed still, and then I ran in and called him back. He was very confused by the whole thing, but I guess he was a good sport.

AVC: What percentage of ideas do you think make it to air?

PJ: Two percent.

We put episodes out twice a month, but we are constantly seeing ideas and reading stuff. We can sometimes get really far into the process of a story and then kill it. We’ve gotten to the point where we basically had a script and said, “This just can’t work,” and we’ll kill it then. I think our bar is pretty high not only for topics that are Criminal and sound like Criminal, but also for finding a guest that will give us enough. That’s the hard thing. Sometimes we find great stories, but we just can’t find anyone to tell them. And then we have to kill it. So that’s always a challenge. You find a great story, but who are you going to find to have in this piece?

AVC: I imagine there are a lot of stories that are either too big or too small as well, stories where you think, “This could be a whole series on its own.”

PJ: We love stories that seem too small, because I don’t think there’s actually anything that’s really too small. Too-small stories are a great challenge and can often be more successful than the stories that are too big. Those are the ones where we say, “All right, what’s going on? Can we do this justice?” And to do those justice, usually we look for the smallest angle and try to broaden that out.

Episode 38: “Jolly Jane”

AVC: This is a good example of a historic story, but one where you found an expert that could do the story justice.

LS: Yeah, in this case, a librarian took us out. These were crimes that took place down the road from where she’s lived her whole life, and she has a lot of personal fascination with this woman’s story. And that, to me, is more compelling—it makes it more surprising rather than just having a historian lay out the criminology of what we know. And then at the end, she performed a little bit of her Jolly Jane monologue, which was completely surprising since we were not expecting that. The monologue was actually quite a bit longer than what we included in the episode. It was one of those amazing moments where we were sitting there like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” It was very effective and creepy—I had goosebumps listening to her just go for it.

AVC: What made you pick this episode? Was it the story, was it the performer, was it the expert, or all of it together?

LS: I think we were interested in this historical figure, Jolly Jane, and then, like Phoebe said, it’s that question of, “Can we find the right person to talk about it?” Diane [the librarian] seemed like the best person to talk to about it. It’s those two things together: someone who can really tell a story and also, when we’re doing these stories that aren’t first person, we’re looking for someone who isn’t going to lecture us. As a listener, I don’t like that.

PJ: And also, for me at least, what sealed the deal on Jolly Jane is that, yes, she was a female serial killer, and, yes, she was a nurse, which goes counter to what you think—a nurse shouldn’t be killing people—but then when I heard there was potential that she was killing people to get some sort of sexual thrill, I thought to myself, “Oh, okay, then we have to do this one.” There’s always that point where I’m intrigued, but then I hear that next little bit of information, and I just think, “Well, we have to explore this one because that’s just wild.” And it was that for Jolly Jane, that she would lay with her patients and kiss them as they were dying.

AVC: It’s fascinating that there’s proof of that as well, rather than just wild, torrid speculation.

PJ: Yeah, one of the patients woke up.

Episode 40: “Pappy”

AVC: With this episode, you had an actual crime story but you were also just talking about Pappy Van Winkle and bourbon culture in general.

PJ: We had heard about this bourbon theft and it was interesting and intriguing to us, but, again, what really sealed the deal on whether we were going to do the Pappy story was that we heard about a bar in Louisville that was getting death threats for making Jell-O shots with Pappy. When we heard that, we thought, “Okay, we’re going to do this story now.” That was the thing that got our attention. What in the world is going on if someone’s going to make death threats over Jell-O shots?

That story was really hard for us to put together. It was really a very complicated story for us. There are so many voices, there are so many aspects. It turned out to be successful, I think, but I’m really happy we were able to include that Jell-O shot-Pappy story, because I think that heightens the importance of just how absolutely out of control this whole world has gotten.

AVC: Do you think that kind of story—death threats over Jell-O shots—is particular to this time period, or have you discovered that crime, or at least the threat of crime, is timeless?

PJ: I don’t know. I think we’ve been getting out of hand since prehistoric times. It’s just keeping your eyes open for when that’s happened. But, sure, that’s a story that could have happened in some different way in 1920. I don’t think it’s necessarily 2016. But it’s an interesting cultural commentary on what’s going on with economics and craft—people wanting to be nostalgic for a time when they were going to speakeasies. There are a lot of things behind that whole Pappy craze. I think that’s what we were trying to get to the bottom of.

AVC: There’s a degree of entitlement to it. People think, “I feel like I should be able to get this bourbon, so therefore I should be able to get it.”

LS: Absolutely. We had fun trying to figure out for ourselves, to what extent is there the same hype around any luxury object? It’s just playing out in these particular ways.

I liked hearing the bartender, Amy, talk about these men coming in and being so shitty to her, like, “You’re going to give it to me. I can pay for it, so you’re going to give it to me, and I’ll do whatever I want with it.” I thought that was really interesting, and that’s something that’s not specifically tied to 2016. The sort of idea of, “I have money and therefore I can get whatever I want.”

We were really hoping to talk with the officers. And the officers would talk with us off the record, but they would not record with us. So hopefully as the case about this particular syndicate comes to a resolution, maybe we can follow up with them. The officers were all super interesting and had a lot of interesting details, but they would only talk on background.

AVC: Even the Pappy Van Winkle family seems to have felt like they could only make so many comments. They don’t want to give motives credence or give people ideas.

LS: I mean, can you imagine all of this from their point of view? This story has just taken over their lives. They must be exhausted by it.

AVC: Are there stories that you’ve been working on since the advent of your podcast that you just haven’t been able to figure out?

LS: We’ve had a lot of preliminary conversations with sex workers, but we haven’t been able to make those episodes work for various logistical reasons. We’re still working on that. I also have a long-held fantasy of doing a story with a marijuana dealer and exploring the ecosystem around marijuana. Kind of like that show—I’m forgetting the name of it—that funny show on HBO. Not Weeds. They just moved to HBO from Vimeo. I can’t remember what it’s called.

PJ: Lauren’s a lot hipper than I am. I never know what she’s talking about. [Laughs.]

LS: Oh! High Maintenance. Have you seen that show? It’s really funny and it follows this good-humored weed dealer around town. I feel like every town has one or many of those, and I’d like to figure out a way to do that story, but that has also proven to be difficult. We’ve spoken to people and then they’re super reluctant about going on tape, which I totally understand.

AVC: Phoebe, do you have any holy grails?

PJ: Lauren makes fun of me, but I really love animal stories. I still really want to do a story about a petting zoo in Florida that convicts run. There are drug dealers out in the field dealing with llamas and monkeys. I really want to do that story so badly, but Lauren keeps telling me, “Phoebe, I understand that you really want to do that story, but you need to find an angle.” I have these big ideas for things, but Lauren’s the smart one saying, “Phoebe, that might be a great idea, but what’s the angle? You can’t just talk about animals.”

I think Lauren and I are both really interested in doing more stories about criminals. Oftentimes we are talking about criminals or showing victims or talking about events, but we are really interested in finding more people who have broken the law. That’s one of our hopes.

Also, when we can go somewhere and be around an event, it can make for a richer episode. That’s something we’re hoping to do more of, just kind of get out there. We’re going to New Orleans on Monday to do a story about a tiger in a truck stop outside Baton Rouge, but also throwing in potential stories about the assassination of Huey Long and conspiracy theories. [The tiger story is below, and it’s great. —ed.] That’s what’s so fun about it—we’re curious people, we’re open to anything.