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Kumail Nanjiani reveals his devotion to rom-coms on Pop Culture Happy Hour

Photo: FilmMagic/Getty
Photo: FilmMagic/Getty

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.

Code Switch
Want Some Gravy With Those Grievances?

The reason that Election Day traditionally falls in November entails some mildly boring facts involving agrarian society, harvest times, and winter storms. The fact that this forces us into close proximity with extended family for a number of theoretically pleasant gatherings just after the conclusions of immensely contentious national decisions is but a happy accident. At time of press, most of us have presumably made it through the Thanksgiving weekend without murdering or being murdered by relatives with opposing political views. But this is just the beginning of the season; there’s much more to come. In this episode of NPR’s Code Switch, Shereen Marisol Meraji, Gene Demby, and Kat Chow commiserate with one another over the specificities of how this dynamic plays out for people of color who might feel like they’re sitting down to eat with people who voted against their own well-being. There are no illuminating solutions to be found here, possibly because there aren’t any to be found anywhere. This is the inherent weirdness of family life. As if to drive this point home, the back half of the show features a particularly surreal conversation between a Muslim Trump supporter and her immigrant Hillary Clinton-supporting father.

Pop Culture Happy Hour
Romantic Comedies With Kumail Nanjiani

It is one of the great joys of life to listen in as thoughtful intellectuals expound upon and argue the finer points of topics that they have spent decades studying. We’re probably not used to those conversations involving Julia Roberts or Hugh Grant quite so much, but no matter—this is a great deal of fun regardless. In this live recording, NPR’s Linda Holmes and comedian Kumail Nanjiani show themselves to be society’s foremost thinkers on the subject of romantic comedies. During a somewhat heated discussion over one of Andie MacDowell’s more controversial line readings from Four Weddings And A Funeral, Nanjiani declares that he could “talk about this for three hours—and I don’t mean rom-coms, I mean that line.” It’s a laugh line, but it seems sincere. The genesis of this episode is a specific tweet from January in which the Silicon Valley star joked that his “favorite romantic comedy sub-genre is ‘Hugh Grant falls in love with someone for no reason.’” That spurred a lengthy back-and-forth debate between Nanjiani and Holmes in which they forged a friendship from their shared love for for the oft-mocked cinematic genre. That is what we’d refer to as a “meet cute.”

Terrible, Thanks For Asking
Sad Nora And The Secret Baby

There is an incredible amount of strength to be found in what often seems like the simplest of actions: talking honestly about one’s feelings. Human nature is not straightforward however, and societal pressures beget a culture where daily obfuscation and elision are commonplace. Writer Nora McInerny is intent on forging a different path with her new podcast Terrible, Thanks For Asking, which aims to provide a platform to convey and discuss emotions with integrity. One can hardly imagine a better way to launch such a project than with this wonderful, transparent episode, a short essay delivered with brio by McInerny about the tumultuous path she has traversed over the last couple of years. The details of McInerny’s story are best left for her to describe. It is by turns heart-wrenching and hilarious, brimming over with naked grief and clever turns of phrase. The episode’s greatest show of strength is in the way it doesn’t aspire toward a saccharine resolution, underscoring the mission of TTFA as one of acknowledgement and ownership of feelings, rather than suppression. With intelligence and bravery, McInerny and her team have made a truly striking debut.

The Beerists
South Carolina

Beer’s in right now, and there’s no shortage of podcasts on the topic. Few, however, are as consistently illuminating (and amusing) as The Beerists Podcast. In each episode, host John Rubio and a crew of fellow craft beer lovers set their sights on a particular beer, brewery, region, or theme, then taste a series of suds using evocative language that’s vivid enough to taste. It’s a must for anyone looking to master the language of tasting or to simply gather insight into the brewing process. What’s especially amusing about this latest episode is that, due to scheduling, it’s the second of a back-to-back recording session, meaning the hosts are all pretty tanked from moment one. Still, the haze of drunkenness doesn’t seem to phase their palates, as each finds plenty of interesting things to say about this batch of beers. Sent from a listener in South Carolina, the beers on hand provide a broad look at the state’s local brewing scene, with selections from breweries like River Dog, Westbrook, and the Birds Fly South Ale Project. Due to the drunkenness, there’s a definite wobble to the proceedings. Expect giggles, a little slurring, and a number of amusing detours, such as a prolonged discussion on Nicolas Cage and the 1983 movie Rumble Fish.

Cheap Heat
Thanksgiving Special

Cheap Heat has a forged a strong, fresh identity since the departure of former co-host David Shoemaker earlier this year, with ESPN’s (THE) Brian Campbell stepping in alongside hosts Peter Rosenberg and “Stat Guy” Greg “The Virgin” Valentine to comment on the current state of the WWE. Campbell’s optimistic and articulate presence serves as a fine counterpoint to Rosenberg’s excitable personality, while The Virgin’s measured commentary provides an overall sense of balance. The jokes are great, too; there’s been some fabulous world-building on display over the last few months, with Rosenberg becoming more and more incensed at the Stat Guy’s lack of stats and Campbell casually peppering his responses with ‘90s hip-hop lyrics. All of this is on display in this most recent episode, wherein the boys drop hot take after hot take while breaking down the previous weekend’s Survivor Series. Fans of WWE’s vintage product will also find plenty to love, as Rosenberg is joined by his agent, longtime fan favorite Bryan Diperstein, a kayfabe devotee whose love for ’80s WWE spurs a number of deep-cut references to the old days. Still, the episode’s best moment might be a proposed angle that places WWE performer Rusev, a “Bulgarian brute” with a Russian manager, into the much-publicized relationship between Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. Hey, they’ve done crazier things.

Alternate Reality

Codebreaker is a show of great curiosity and intellect that examines the myriad ways technology intersects with our lives. What sets it apart from other programs in the genre is the show’s novel manner of inquiry. Each season, host Ben Brock Johnson interprets these connections through the lens of a single overriding question, to develop a sort of definitive point of view. With the world in the grip of so much uncertainty, it is a blessing that Codebreaker’s current season is fixated on technology’s more benevolent side, asking, “Can it save us?” Johnson and his team spend the episode digging into one of the hottest topics of the day: virtual reality. This includes everything from VR’s place as an engine for radical empathy, its employment as a tool in the courtroom, as a treatment modality in therapy settings, and in a very touching segment as a form of end-of-life care. Author Ernest Cline of Ready Player One fame even drops by, meeting Johnson in a virtual reality space to act as arbiter, weighing the salvatory merits of VR. Codebreaker has a lot to offer, and might even ease listeners’ minds during these trying times.

The Wiseguys

From the creators who hooked us with The Jinx, Catfish, and Capturing The Friedmans, Gimlet Media’s Crimetown is as slick and engrossing as a podcast by Oscar-nominated producers promises to be. This new show details the influence of the powerful Providence, Rhode Island mafia throughout the last half-century, employing the same immersive reenactments that made the HBO crime documentary The Jinx so striking. In episode two, “The Wiseguys,” the story turns to Bobby Walason and Jerry Tillinghast, fellow inmates of untouchable mob boss Raymond Patriarca in the late 1960s who are brought quickly into the fold and given trusted positions within the organization. The descriptions of prison life for the well-connected are as every movie trope ever portrayed them: ice-filled glasses of scotch, unrestricted telephones, and even pets fill the cells of maximum-security, and it’s hard not to understand the mob’s appeal to underprivileged adolescents with everything in the world to gain. As “enforcers,” Bobby and Jerry become the ruthless messengers Patriarca requires them to be, and in their interviews it’s possible to hear the adoration of two sons for their beloved father. With Crimetown so skilled at capturing these moments, the Oscars will soon need a podcast category.

Definitely Dying
Death is Weird & Funny: Nicole Byer

If there’s anyone who could spin a sad story on Definitely Dying into a fun and engaging listen, it’s guest Nicole Byer. Infectiously endearing, Byer is candid and open as she discusses the passing of her parents and her thoughts on death. Perhaps most importantly, she’s able to laugh as she discusses particularly funny experiences, others’ reactions to death, and the evolution of her perspective on it. She is enthusiastically herself, a key quality in the podcasting world that sets her apart from other guests. Her self awareness is hilarious as the show pivots to talking about how she lives recklessly, with bad eating habits and being “nasty.” Hosts Madeline Walter and Ben Axelrad are clearly having fun as they leave room for tangents, from Byer’s first time voting and potential voter fraud, to trying to figure out the correct term for a person with albinism. They close the episode with a game that teaches Byer how long certain foods last before you should stop eating them; the place they end would almost be unrecognizable from the place they began, if not for Byer’s consistent charm.

The Director's Cut
Miss Sharon Jones!: Barbara Kopple, Shari Springer Berman

November 2016 has proven itself to be a particular awful month in a particularly awful year. And that was before we lost R&B juggernaut Sharon Jones on the 18th. For music fans searching searching for some small glimmer of goodness in this ongoing miasma of shitty news, here’s this: The 60-year-old singer went out at the sharpest pinnacle of her fame, respect, and adulation. Miss Sharon Jones!, the 2015 documentary on her recent struggles with career and pancreatic cancer, has been steadily gaining eyeballs since its initial release last September, so that more than ever before, hers was a household name. In this DGA-produced interview, Shari Springer Berman (co-director of American Splendor) sat down with documentarian Barbara Kopple—just days before Jones suffered the initial stroke that would ultimately lead to her death—to discuss the life-affirming experience of following the performer though one of the hardest and darkest periods of her life and the way that the final product was absorbed by its subject. This conversation provides some fantastic insight for people who have seen the film, and plenty of impetus for those who haven’t yet.

Hollywood Handbook
Ryan Stanger, Our Close Friend

Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements have become experts at their Hollywood Handbook personas, and that solid character foundation is what makes the show so successful, week after week. On the latest episode, they are joined by Ryan Stanger of The Dumbbells podcast, whose own commitment to character compliments the hosts perfectly, so that the dynamic feels effortless. Stanger plays up his role as their trainer, taking on the aura of a lame high school principal, and the trio’s obsession with his authoritative presence provides a well of opportunity for cringey praise and faux sincerity, where Clements and Davenport thrive. They discuss Stanger’s training methods, from filling Davenport’s “hollow muscles” with pieces of his lungs, to fixing Clements’ criss-crossed muscles by putting him in a coma. Some of the episode’s highlights though, come from their utilization of engineer Ryan and production coordinator Kevin. They attempt to pimp Ryan into doing a freestyle rap battle, which they insist is a longstanding tradition, and further a new and increasingly hilarious element of the show where they force Kevin to ask permission before taking pictures. He comes in with an amazing pre-written statement, cementing the joke as a new favorite within the fabric of the show.

The Imposter

The appeal of a television series like the Degrassi family of shows is at once completely understandable and yet a bit baffling all the same. Ostensibly a junior high and high school soap opera, it makes sense that the show found purchase among audiences of a similar age. But considering that it has been running in one form or another since 1979, viewers tuning in well past their own teenage years can come across as somewhat loathe to move on. There is a hint of that dichotomous feeling to this week’s The Imposter—the engaging new arts and culture show from Canadaland—as host Aliya Pabani walks the line between reveling in the nostalgia of the show and chuckling at the devotion it has inspired. The episode, recorded live in Toronto, is composed of several short segments filled with heart, humor, and some interesting insights. Highlights include longest tenured cast member Stefan Brogren reading some decidedly uncomfortable fan fiction, a humorous Drake story, and Degrassi creator Linda Schuyler providing a much deeper look at the documentary roots of the now legendary teen drama. In all, the episode provides a great encapsulation of why The Imposter is a show well worth following.

Open Run
Maverick Carter

For a podcast focused on basketball, one of Open Run’s more wonderfully eccentric aspects has been hosts Stefan Marolachakis and Jesse Williams’ idiosyncratic, abiding love for nomenclatures. While usually predicated on given and nicknames, the pair’s naming obsession comes through in an unexpected way on this week’s episode, as they discuss Phil Jackson’s recent controversial use of the word “posse” to characterize LeBron James’ friends and business partners. To examine the matter, Marolachakis and Williams speak to the man who sparked the conversation, Maverick Carter, James’ childhood friend and business manager. Carter’s response to Jackson gets to the very heart of the issue, namely that the culture of the NBA—despite being a majority black league—is still subject to the bifurcation between the way black players’ actions are perceived relative to their white counterparts. It is a great exploration of language, and in the going Carter makes an impression as an charming, magnetic personality. There is also plenty of the delightfully off-the-wall Open Run magic to be found, as the hosts discuss everything from how Carter came to help shape the career of basketball’s current biggest star. True to form, they get the full story on how he got his name.

Train Station: Live From Largo: Horatio Sanz, Ryan Gaul, Mandell Maughan, Drew Tarver

On this week’s live Spontaneanation, host Paul F. Tompkins welcomes Horatio Sanz to discuss what his alternate career would be, listening to The Beatles in the dark with his friend, and more. Sanz is as usual, a charming and fun guest, whose later improv contributions are distinctly ridiculous in a way that only he could pull off. One of the strengths of a live episode is that we get to hear more from the improvisers in shorter interviews at the top of the show, which sets the stage for the rest of the episode and provides three balanced acts of hilarity. Joined by the Bajillion Dollar Propertie$ crew of Ryan Gaul, Mandell Maughan, and Drew Tarver, the chemistry of the group’s improv is evident immediately. Right off the bat, the story of an incompetent spy in training goes off the rails in the best way, as each player tops the last with bold characters and chaotic plot lines that find them deeper and deeper in the world of the story. Alongside strange details like Sanz’s character who sells flowers from the graves of people like Terri Schiavo, the episode succeeds in equal parts from its broad strokes and its specificity.

Street Fight Radio
Patriotic Motorcycle Heroes

When certain comedy podcasts are framed as being on the fringe of the mainstream part of that sector, it more often than not simply means that the show is based out of New York instead of Los Angeles. For some truly outside perspective, though, one need look no further than the number one anarcho-comedy radio show in the country: the proudly Ohio-based Street Fight Radio. Hosts Brett Pain and Bryan Quinby have been doing their own thing in Columbus for several years now, with frank and consistently hilarious discussions touching on politics, pop culture, drugs, getting by, and pretty much everything else. One of their episodes leading up to Thanksgiving provided some much needed counter-programming to Black Friday mania, with stories of petty theft past, present, and future—giving tips along the way for how to get food that you need at the grocery store when you don’t have enough money to pay for it. Sons Of Anarchy—one of their pet themes—comes up as well, making for an especially well-rounded episode of the show.

Vox's The Weeds
Conflicts Of Interest, Trump And The Media, And Rethinking Teen Pregnancy

Not for the faint of heart, not even for the firm of heart, really, this episode is, to put it mildly, a tough listen. But it’s probably a necessary one, especially for those people for whom it will be most difficult to get through. These coming four (or eight) years will likely not be very pleasant for citizens who value transparency and impartial justice. We’re not even a month out from Election Day—and still nearly two months from Inauguration Day—and the political and fiscal improprieties of the incoming administration are already overwhelming the media. Matt Yglesias, Sarah Kliff, and Ezra Klein begin the onerous task of sorting through the manifold conflicts of interest that will threaten to undermine not just Donald Trump’s presidency but the integrity of our union. And there’s a lot to sort through. From the Secret Service spending tax dollars to rent space in Trump Tower because the First Family does not want to move to the very real possibility of our president using national resources to prop up his own global business interests, it’s astounding that we find ourselves in this situation. And for their part, the hosts of The Weeds seem appropriately astonished.

We see what you said there

“Dear Ryan, where do I begin? I guess the beginning. Sorry for entering the room and interrupting the show. It has been noted that taking photos mid-recording has come off as abrasive and creepy. Sean and Hayes prefer I ask the guests if I can take their photos. So what do you say old friend? Can I take your picture? I promise they’ll look great. Sincerely, your sweetie, Kevin.”—Kevin Bartelt’s pre-written statement on taking photos for the episode, Hollywood Handbook