Jack Benny, Internet edutainment, Oval, an unskippable podcast episode, and a board game

Jack Benny, Internet edutainment, Oval, an unskippable podcast episode, and a board game

NOT OPTIONAL takes a quick weekly look at five essential releases, some recent, some not.

Crash Course
John and Hank Green’s web series, VlogBrothers, is a staggering piece of work, spanning several years, with hundreds of videos per year. The series isn’t for everyone, but it can be at turns funny, awkward, and deeply poignant, and it’s easy to see why the brothers have such a fervent following among the Tumblr set. The two were gifted with their own channel by YouTube during the site’s programming initiative last year, and they’ve used it to create a series that’s more easily digestible for those who don’t want to wade through years of material. Crash Course takes some of the lessons of VlogBrothers, adds a coat of production-value paint, and tosses in lots of cool knowledge. The basic idea of the series—getting a crash course in a particular school subject—is infinitely malleable, and in particular, John Green’s journeys through world history, literature, and U.S. history have been a lot of fun. (Hank Green has taken viewers through biology, ecology, and chemistry.) In particular, the series is brilliantly edited, keeping things moving along at a fast clip, packing in lots of information, endearing moments, animation, and jokes. Serious students of these particular subjects won’t really learn anything from Crash Course, but even if you know everything the Greens are talking about already, the two have such a firm command of the web-video form that Crash Course goes down easy. It’s the perfect bit of edutainment for the Internet, all bite-sized chunks and constantly entertaining. [Todd VanDerWerff]

The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes
Everyone already knows about the great work Shout! Factory does with its TV-DVD sets, but for fans of classic comedy, the retro pop-culture label has really outdone itself by teaming with the UCLA Film And Television Archive to release The Jack Benny Program: The Lost Episodes. Taken from Benny’s personal collection of kinescopes, which the comedian donated to the university, these episodes literally haven’t been seen in half a century, and while some of the references are dated, the talent on display hasn’t aged a day. Guest stars on the various installments include George Burns, Gary Cooper, Robert Wagner and Natalie Wood, Milton Berle, John Wayne, Dick Van Dyke, and President Harry S. Truman, among others. Also included on the set are classic newsreel footage, some of Benny’s TV specials from the late ’60s and early ’70s, and new interviews with Dorothy Ohman (Benny’s secretary and personal assistant), Norman Abbott (director of The Jack Benny Program), and Harry Shearer, who spent part of his youth as a recurring actor on Benny’s radio and television shows. Benny’s way with timing and delivery were inspirational to many, including Johnny Carson and Kelsey Grammer, so if you haven’t familiarized yourself with his comedic genius yet, this set is an excellent way to remedy that problem. [Will Harris]

Radiolab, “23 Weeks 6 Days”
This episode of Radiolab came out at the end of April, but it stayed on my iPod for weeks because I wasn’t sure if my new-parent sensitivity could handle it. Based on a series of articles by Kelley Benham in the Tampa Bay Times detailing her and her husband’s experience with their dangerously premature baby, “23 Weeks 6 Days” is gut-wrenching, but also frequently funny. Benham and her husband/former co-worker, Tom French, couldn’t switch off their journalist brains during their ordeal, and their memory and recordings of what happened suit Radiolab’s format well. It’s the first time the show has devoted its entire episode to one story, and it emulates This American Life in its mixture of emotion, reason, and levity. “23 Weeks 6 Days” is heartbreaking at times, to be sure, but excellent regardless. [Kyle Ryan]

Oval’s Bandcamp page
Maybe because so much of Markus Popp’s music resembles a happy accident anyway, the glitch savant behind Oval has taken to releasing hours of his music for free—liberating it to be stumbled upon, in the same spirit in which so many of its sounds appear to have been created. This past March saw the debut of Calidostópia! as a free download, with Popp moving away from the “skipping CD” sounds of Oval’s Thrill Jockey days, and applying his collagist approach by adding live South American singers to his meticulously assembled, skittering, mellow tones. As he continues to move in these new directions, Popp has also seemingly been purging his past: For the exchange of an email address, Popp generously offers seven-and-counting free EPs, Japanese imports, and other Oval curios through his Bandcamp page—from 1999’s Aero Deko, to his (formerly) Record Store Day-exclusive split with Liturgy—with the promise of much more to come. If you’re an Oval fan, or just curious about checking out one of electronic music’s most prolific and unpredictable composers, it’s an embarrassment of legally obtained riches. [Sean O’Neal]

Twilight Imperium: Third Edition
An eight-year-old board game that takes an average of four to six hours to complete might be a strain on the definition of “mandatory,” but I recently spent an entire Saturday playing the sci-fi epic Twilight Imperium, and some part of me needs to justify that sacrifice. The other parts of me, however, want to evangelize for the game, an engrossing chimera of The Settlers Of Catan, Power Grid, and Axis & Allies that also provides ample opportunity for jokes about the various intergalactic races represented by its players. (The most fun and the funniest: The Xxcha Kingdom, ancient space reptiles whose backstory suggests what it would be like if the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were a lot more like Splinter. Only, you know, in space.) I love that Twilight Imperium and its ilk teach you how to play as the game goes along; the relaxed pace at which players travel the board and the deliberateness of the game’s strategies—conquering planets, battling rivals, and less sexy board-game stuff like resource management—really help with this. Also, when everything’s gone to shit in the 11th hour (which actually was the 11th hour when I played), you can do what I did and commit your dwindling fleet of plastic spaceships to blowing up your neighbors. Because nobody said an overly intellectualized board-game experience has to exclude rash and impudent decision-making. [Erik Adams]