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Mara Wilson revisits the ’90s with Reductress

(Photo: Mara Wilson)
(Photo: Mara Wilson)

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 Best Show
Hayes Davenport! Tim Heidecker! Coach Hayes! Comments Section! At Best Show!

It’s a true testament to The Best Show that an episode can be three hours long and never falter. Packed with classic moments from start to finish, this episode sees host Tom Scharpling focusing on topics he can rightfully slam. He hilariously takes on Now You See Me 2, a film that feels like it was specifically made for the host to savagely knock down. Later, he takes a call from Tim Heidecker to discuss his new album In Glendale, and it’s refreshing to hear Heidecker being this candid. Together they bash the Grateful Dead in a segment so good that it could’ve been its own episode. In the third act of the show, Scharpling is joined by Hollywood Handbook’s Hayes Davenport, and drawing inspiration from Hamilton, they perform dramatic readings of various comment sections from Yelp, YouTube and even The A.V. Club. Each reading is bizarre and cringeworthy, as the duo finds themselves in the sweet spot of internet stupidity. Together, these segments provide an episode that’s consistently hilarious from a variety of angles.

Code Switch
Can We Talk About Whiteness?

“Code Switch” is likely the most enlightening corner of the NPR website, where journalists of color explore the impact of race and ethnicity in politics, culture, and media. This premiere episode of the Code Switch podcast proves that what works excellently as text works even better as audio. The creators do so by dissecting the complex issue of whiteness. “I know people are thinking, okay, you’re gonna spend the entire time talking about white folks? Did NPR put you up to this?” jokes co-host Shereen Marisol Meraji. But defining whiteness, it turns out, is an enjoyably strange endeavor. “It’s like whiteness is everywhere and invisible all at once,” co-host Gene Demby points. Conversations flow naturally and there is no strict format. Demby and Meraji invite listeners into the room with them to laugh, question navigate through the information they gather. Ultimately whiteness isn’t something that can be defined, but something that needs to be discussed. “One of the assumptions that people might come in with is that race is what other people have,” explains guest Catherine Orr, a professor at Beloit College. For a first episode, Code Switch knocks it out of the park.

Dale Radio
Luisa Diez

Comedy is an art largely appreciated in only the simplest of senses, with the entire discourse surrounding it often reduced to a binary of either being funny or not. The truth is that there is so much more to be dissected, and it is as worthwhile a topic for study as any other media. On this week’s episode of Dale Radio—the continually engaging examination of what drives the comedic process—host Dale Seever (the alter ego of actor James Bewley) sits down with comedy booker and anthropologist Luisa Diez for wonderfully in-depth conversation on the art form. Diez brings a wealth of experience from inside the comedy world and without, which allows the conversation to go down some very interesting avenues. Diez and Bewley have both traced eerily similar paths in life, from studying sculpture, to comedy, to holding prominent positions at museums, and as a result they operate from a place of near-total understanding, only further aiding their discussion. Among her many incisive insights into the world of comedy, Diez outlines strategies for success as a traveling comedian, the subtle regional differences in the way comedy is practiced, and most amazingly, her desire to craft an ethnography of the New York comedy scene. This is a must listen for anyone interested in the art of comedy.

Baja Fresh: Claudia O’Doherty

Claudia O’Doherty’s biggest introduction to the world outside of L.A. alt comedy so far has been on Netflix’s Love as Bertie, and regardless of one’s opinion of that show as a whole, it’s hard to argue that O’Doherty was anything but a sheer, hilarious delight on it. Now, she continues her campaign to charm the living shit out of as many people as possible with a tremendous appearance on Doughboys. The hosts themselves can’t resist, even, and can be heard giggling more than usual throughout the episode, in which O’Doherty bafflingly reveals she’s only been to a couple of fast food chains in her entire life, and even fewer during her not exactly brief stint in the United States. The silliness O’Doherty brings to the show helps to counterbalance the rather earnest disappointment the ’boys feel about how much the food at Baja Fresh has declined in quality in recent years, and the show remains as breezy, goofy, and hilarious as ever.

Flesh Thing Made Of Four Strings Of Dude

In this, the episode on the precipice of a milestone, it feels like something of a minor miracle that the DNA of Harmontown remains fundamentally unchanged. Mayor Dan Harmon continues to hold court in his enigmatically magnetic style, dispensing tales of intense honesty, madness, and hilarity. This week’s episode is an overstuffed sausage of truly excellent moments, opening with Harmon’s delightful tale of convening with all life forms through a fountain outside a fancy restaurant while high on mushrooms. In short order, old pals Jason Sudeikis and Will Forte join the full-strength Harmontown gang—Harmon, Jeff Davis, Rob Schrab, and Spencer Crittenden—for an end-to-end parade of comedy. Among the episode highlights is Harmon attempting to pimp Forte into improvising a bit about making new macarena-like dance crazes. This backfires spectacularly, becoming instead a completely silent pantomime about bear attacks by Forte, narrated in bonkers fashion by Harmon. Sudeikis—who listeners learn is burdened with the decidedly uncool nickname, “Suds”—recounts several wonderful tales, of basketball trash-talk, his favorite episode from his time on SNL, and the time that he may have been dissed by Rosie Perez. For a show this deep in its run, it is thrilling to see that time hasn’t dulled any of its verve and essential weirdness.

Hollywood Handbook
Alex Blumberg, Our Live Helper At Being The Best Podcast At The Live Show

There are two facets of Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport’s characters that drive their latest live episode; blind ambition and total incompetence. They declare early in the episode that they have decided to be the number one podcast, so they bring along Alex Blumberg of Gimlet Media (formerly This American Life) to help them on their quest to the top. By setting such a ridiculous goal from the get go, they allow themselves to play up the childlike aspect of their characters in which they don’t know how to do anything at all. Much of the episode is spent teaching the two how to operate a computer, which garners perfect moments like Davenport shouting “Initiate computer!” and Clements laughing in triumphant amusement as Davenport scrolls down iTunes, because scrolling is fun. Blumberg acts clueless about Hollywood Handbook, which continuously sets up hilarious instances of exploring the podcast from the hosts’ point of view, as he asks them to explain the show to him. By the end of the episode, they are both in bed being interviewed by Blumberg about their fears, which is a perfect way to tap even deeper into their childlike personas as they heighten their vulnerability.

The Longest Shortest Time
Dispatches From Black Motherhood

Remember that Malcolm X quote in Beyoncé’s Lemonade? “The most disrespected person in America is the black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the black woman. The most neglected person in America is the black woman.” The Longest Shortest Time explores the concept of family in all it’s shapes and forms. By focusing this episode on black motherhood, host and This American Life contributor Hillary Frank elaborates on X’s thought in a sense; not by reinforcing the statement, but depicting the repercussions of that reality. Most highlighted here is the work of Anthonia Akitunde, who created the stereotype breaking website Mater Mea. By simply showing black women and children doing everyday things, Mater Mea is a space for people to break the mold of what is often depicted of black families in the media. More importantly, it’s a space for working black mothers to see themselves. With a calm pace and genuine interest, Frank allows listeners hear the trials many black women face when explaining racism to their children and interacting with notions of black womanhood in America and abroad.

Mouth Time
Whoa! The ’90s!: Mara Wilson

Taking this fledgling podcast outside the techno-laced cocoon of its studio iteration to record live at NYC Podfest, Mouth Time launches a satirical assault upon its unsuspecting audience, whose nervous giggles soon turn to outright guffaws as they become attuned to the conceit. Hosts Quenn and Div plow through rapid-fire segments that are all the funnier for their brevity, including one called Same, in which they tick off relatable (and increasingly absurd) scenarios: “I saw my reflection in a pond and I was like, same.” “Two empty graves? C’est moi!” Mara Wilson joins them in character as Ruth Hrorgen, feminist dog trainer, to discuss the particulars of her career instilling values of gender equality into the nation’s pets. (For example, the phrase “dog-eat-dog world” only reinforces the patriarchal viewpoint that dogs are cannibals.) The swift throwaway jokes throughout each show are often the gems of Mouth Time, and in this episode, the highlight might be Quenn and Div’s warped, inaccurate reminiscing about the turbulent 1990s: Hillary Clinton’s presidency, Elton John’s untimely death, and Michael B. Jordan’s basketball career. Reductress’ venture into audio has so far been fruitful territory, and as more listeners begin to keep pace with its rapid-fire banter, there will only be more to sow.

Off Camera
Kathryn Hahn

2007 was a pivotal year for Kathryn Hahn. Though she’d been a professional actor for years, the 35-year-old Ohio native had racked up only a handful of small film parts and a secondary role on the NBC drama Crossing Jordan. But in that one year, shortly after the birth of her first child, she acted alongside Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslet, and Michael Shannon in Sam Mendes’ Oscar-winning Revolutionary Road; and she held her own with Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly, and Adam Scott in Adam McKay’s absurdist comedy gem Step Brothers. Two big roles that made people notice her; two wildly divergent approaches to the form. This tonal dissonance would come to exemplify her career and lead to a very happy creative relationship with dramatic-comedy writer-director Jill Soloway (Afternoon Delight, Transparent). In this loose, playful (sometimes crude) conversation with Sam Jones, Hahn reveals how her approach to farce and drama is rooted in the same core performance principles and explains how she works so well with trained comedians despite having no formal background in sketch or improv. She comes across as an extremely grounded and unusually grateful craftsperson.

Radio Diaries
Majd’s Diary: Two Years In The Life Of A Saudi Girl

There is so much power to be found in audio which often goes unheralded in today’s visual world, but the ascendency of podcasting is slowly shifting the balance. Take Radio Diaries, for example: The now 20-year-old program seeks to understand life in all its prismatic brilliance through understated, self-recorded narrative documentaries, giving a platform to so many disenfranchised. With this week’s episode the show releases one of its most interesting episodes, a piece that represents the culmination of two years of audio journals from Majd, a young woman in Saudi Arabia navigating the uncertainty of whether to follow her career aspirations or accept an arrangement for marriage. Majd’s story is rather unique for a number of reasons, not simply for her giving voice to a marginalized population but also for her diversity of interests. Majd comes across as a vibrant spirit, driven by her passion of genetics, interested in practicing karate, as well as displaying a keen sense of humor. In short order listeners will doubtless become invested in Majd’s life and the tricky calculus she faces in the form of a marriage proposal. Over the course of the episode one can’t help reflecting on the nature of love, autonomy, and Western cultural conditioning, further underlining the importance of Radio Diaries’ mission.

Two Beers In: A Tipsy Political Round Table
Anthony Atamanuik, Dan Gurewitch, Melinda Taub, Robert George

Booze and politics are a perfect match. Recorded at UCB East with hosts Cody Lindquist and Charlie Todd, this podcast gets analysts and comedians to drink while discussing it all. The show’s power is in the guests they manage to align; Last Week Tonight writer Dan Gurewitch, Full Frontal writer Melinda Taub and NY Daily News editorial board member Robert George grace this episode and keep the crowd rolling with laughter and quick witted insights. To set things off right, Tony Atamanuik, who has a hilariously precise Trump impersonation, gives listeners a taste of the frightening reality that is The Donald’s political existence at the top of the show. Later, as part of the panel, he has the sharpest edge; pointing out the absurdities of each candidate and challenging audience members. Lindquist and Todd are comedic fuel for the fiery conversation at hand. When Lindquist referenced the Hitler-esque qualities of Trump’s rise in the Republican party, George says, “Some people come for the free trade, stay for the racism.” A perfect joke for these strange times. For those riled up in election anxiety, the hard-hitting issues discussed here, such as Kanye West’s electability as a Democrat are a much needed form of escape.

Two Truths And A Lie

If ever there was a subject perfect for a podcast that devotes itself to confusing the authentic with the apocryphal, it would have to be sex. So, this episode seems an apt introduction to Daniel David Shapiro’s Two Truths And A Lie. The premise is self-explanatory: Three people take the stage to deliver ostensibly confessional anecdotes from their pasts, but only two of them are on the level. The third (or perhaps the first or second—the live and listening audiences are both in the dark) is delivering a wholly invented falsehood with as much manufactured sincerity as they can manage. It’s a clever and charming curlicue on the increasingly popular spoken word subgenre, one that invites the listener to more actively engage with the storytellers than if they were simply imbibing a series of humorous narratives. Some squinting of ears is necessary to tease out the fabulism and guile, and every comedic flourish carries with it the possibility of artifice. In this particular episode, in which a trio of women reminiscence on embarrassing carnal encounters, the falsehood seems moderately apparent. But since mystery will not be revealed until the next episode, there’s no way to know for sure. And the world is full of very weird and very real happenings.

We Hate Movies
X-Men: The Last Stand

The We Hate Movies gang went all-in with X-Men coverage in the wake of the release of X-Men: Apocalypse, releasing an Animation Damnation episode on a notably bad episode of the animated series and an On-Screen episode about the new film—both of which are very much worth listening to—along with the centerpiece: a full episode on Brett Ratner’s X-Men: The Last Stand from 2006. Some of the hosts are big fans of the series but all of them are plenty knowledgeable about the characters, so they’re able to cut right through to the core of issues of the film while also expressing earnest appreciation of some of the elements of the film that hold up surprisingly well. Along the way of the plot recap, Andrew Jupin is able to drop in his fresh knowledge of some of the film’s deleted scenes—most of which are pretty unbelievable and really, really funny—which forms a nice (if incidental) structure to the episode as well.

With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus
Jason Mantzoukas: What Went Wrong?

Jason Mantzoukas is well known for playing zany, unpredictable characters that are often sexually devious and hilariously unfiltered. But this episode of With Special Guest showcases how he feels as comfortable, if not more inclined to perform very grounded improv that isn’t bending over backward to get a laugh. In turn, by letting emotional honesty drive his character of Alex Papas, this one off podcast episode builds authenticity from the start. The podcast is called What Went Wrong? and it takes its inspiration from the book and film High Fidelity as his character, Alex, talks to his past girlfriends and asks them the titular question. Lauren Lapkus plays Lulu, his previous girlfriend of four months. She plays it straight, both Lapkus and Mantzoukas creating the world of their relationship, letting it unfold naturally as they discover their history at the same time as the listeners do. They don’t reach for jokes, but instead give their characters the integrity they deserve by not treating them like props on a comedic stage. It’s refreshing, endlessly compelling, and one of those episodes fans will wish were a real show.

We see what you said there

“‘Let me explain a little bit about our show. We’re really cool, nice, funny, we love to have fun, we’re smart, we’re teaching you, we’re being nice, we have a ton of friends, girls like us.’

‘And just like, what the show has? The show has good parts, games, laughing, excitement.’

‘There’s good parts, there’s funny stuff.’

‘Facts about knowledge.’

‘It’s friendly, we’re your friends!’”—Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport explaining their show, Hollywood Handbook

“Anne Geddes was drunk on power.”—Quenn on remembering the ’90s, Mouth Time