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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Under The Moonlight
Roman Mars teams up with producer Avery Trufelman for an especially spooky and exciting episode about the origins of nighttime lighting in the modern city. They open with a creepy description of the gruesome pre-Jack The Ripper killings orchestrated in the 19th century by Austin serial killer “The Servant Girl Annihilator,” then tie in Austin’s massive moon towers erected some years later. There had simply been too many ways for violent criminals to steal away into the night with only the dim flickering of occasional lamps and gaslights, and so a medieval-level of devilry still haunted any densely populated area of human civilization. These incredibly tall, noisy, and powerful “moon light” towers emitted an intense, far-reaching carbon arc beam that dropped large chunks of carbon ash on the ground as they roared away. So powerful was the affect that citizens imbued them with supernatural abilities and even thought they could replace police and eliminate all but the most petty offenses. They not only inspired folklore; they chased away the mystery of the night and the accompanying demons that went with it. The story told here is still of design, but feels far darker than usual. While there is no direct correlation to the serial killings and the lamps, Mars and Trufelman deftly loop the two narratives together for an exciting, brief episode.
A podcast where a non-famous performer interviews people who are more famous than him for career insight could easily devolve into bitterness. But bitter is the last word I’d use to describe Box Angeles host Mike “Box” Elder (cue Pavement song). During his talk with actress Milana Vayntrub—known for her web series, Live Prude Girls and that AT&T college football commercial—he shows genuine interest in her true-to-self career path and breaks into endearing hyena laughter every few minutes at her humility and sarcasm. He also carves out just enough room for some more ponderous requests common to all his episodes, such as, “Describe what you do in three words” (“Observe. Pretend. Edit,” answers Vayntrub). At the end of the day, this is an easygoing conversation between two humble and likable people that’s compulsively listenable because, unlike so many other entertainers, Elder (and probably Vayntrub) is driven by curiosity and admiration rather than cynicism and competition.
Amid the controversial lack of diversity in this year’s Oscar nominations, it can be hard to think of the artistic landscape in the United States as anything approaching ideal, but this week’s guest Riz Ahmed truly believes it to be so. Ahmed, a British actor of Pakistani heritage, holds up as evidence England’s fixation with making whitewashed period pieces over entertainment that speaks to the vibrant, multicultural country. Most recently Ahmed appeared in Nightcrawler, and will next be part of the diverse cast on HBO’s upcoming miniseries Crime. Scroobius Pip, the British spoken-word artist—best known for his track with Dan Le Sac “Thou Shalt Always Kill”—proves an engaging host whose easy rapport with Ahmed draws out some earnest, considered discussion about the nature of artistry, differences between British and American acting, and Ahmed’s muslim faith. The last provides a few great moments, both funny and moving. Ahmed talks about starring in Four Lions, the controversial yet riotously hilarious jihadist movie that begs for cult status, as well as touching on his musical output as Riz MC. When Pip pauses to play Ahmed’s haunting song “Sour Times,” it becomes evident that this podcast is something special.
Marina Franklin’s very funny and insightful podcast FriendsLikeUs could stand to take a bit of sage advice from Archie Bell & The Drells. This free-form conversation, between Franklin and her panelists Pat Brown, Sade Pilot, and Gina Brillon, covers such a wide range of topics in an unhurried pace that it nearly crosses the two-hour mark. Things could be tightened up, but it’s still worth a listen. The perspectives offered by Franklin and her round table—all female comedians of color—are wonderful additions to the medium, and in this episode they tackle weighty issues covering everything from the struggles facing female comics, light versus dark skin colorism within black and Puerto Rican cultures, and even the pain of trying to punish someone by farting but coming up empty. One especially interesting anecdote is told about Margaret Cho, which serves to highlight the importance of a show like FriendsLikeUs. When Cho was starring on All-American Girl, the ABC sitcom based on her life, she was asked whether she felt a need to lose weight in order to play herself on television, showcasing the oftentimes ridiculous divided between reality and expectation affecting women in entertainment.
Girl On Guy
Wouldn’t it be cute to see young Aisha Tyler and Jesse Thorn as high school classmates in an offbeat cable show? The actor-comedian and the podcasting pioneer really did go to the same high school (San Francisco’s School Of The Arts), although they attended years apart, and Thorn’s adolescence, at least, was not the stuff of quirky comedy. In this hour, Thorn tells Tyler about his harrowing experiences as a white kid growing up in “the Mission”—the drugs offered to him, slurs shouted at him, and various weapons pulled on him. He has a lingering fondness for the neighborhood, though, and he attributes this to the relative instability of his home life, which presented a different sort of trauma. His divorced parents shared a “commitment to poverty,” Thorn says, and his father, who was diagnosed with PTSD, used to bring Jesse along to veterans’ AA meetings. The conversation eventually shifts to how Thorn came to be master of an empire composed of 20 podcasts. The secret to his success is partly revealed by his requisite “self-inflicted wound” story: Thorn speaks with candor about how his difficult childhood has driven him to cling to safe options that give him a sense of control.
This show is at its best when Kumail Nanjiani is there (which he is in this episode). Paired with first-timer David Cross, the episode fits perfectly into the Harmenian’s world. Some guests get lost in the absurdity, but Cross holds his own and isn’t afraid to follow Dan Harmon down the controversial rabbit hole, which results in an insightful and hilarious talk about religion. In fact, he doesn’t miss a beat the entire episode. This one is on the longer side (more than two hours), but it’s worth sticking around for the final moments. The gang has ditched their usual Dungeon & Dragons campaign to dive into the world of Shadowrun, an RPG game set in the fantastical near future. While Nanjiani, Harmon, and other regular players Erin McGathy and DeMorge Brown read through their character descriptions outlined by game master Spencer Crittenden with their usual flair, Cross is left to completely improvise. And boy does he deliver. Crittenden better watch his back: There could be a new game master in town.
The Infinite Monkey Cage
This week, The Infinite Monkey Cage looks at the world’s most dangerous animals, with special guest spots filled by people who have nearly been killed by some of them. The science/comedy podcast is recently back after a five-month hiatus, and co-hosts Robin Ince and Brian Cox are in fine form, though they mostly leave the spotlight to zoologist Lucy Cooke and naturalist Steve Backshall. Comedian Andy Hamilton provides some relief from the story of how Cooke nearly wiped tears from her eyes moments after handling a frog so poisonous its venom could kill two bull elephants in three minutes flat. (Cooke: “It’s one of those cheery poisons that shuts down all your nerves, so for the last minute, you appear to be dead, but you’re actually still alive, silently screaming inside.” Hamilton: “I’ve done gigs like that.”) As usual, Ince and Cox prove that the distance between science and comedy can be bridged, and this episode is typically hilarious and informative as they talk about the evolutionary arms race between a poisonous frog and a poisonous snake, being bitten in the left breast by a bullet ant, and a sting pain index that reads like wine tasting notes (a yellowjacket sting is “hot and smoky, almost irreverent”). The story of a man with 69 botflies under his skin isn’t even the most mesmerizing/horrifying thing in this episode: That dubious honor goes to a detailed explanation of an Amazonian initiation ritual that involves wearing gloves made of hundreds of bullet ants—so named because the pain is akin to being hit by a bullet—which, after 24 hours of searing pain, ends with a weeklong adrenaline high.
This week’s episode is an interview by two nerdy ladies with the queen of nerdy ladies. Hearing Miranda July talk to hosts Tricia Bobeda and Greta Johnsen about her various projects with a genuine passion for connecting people is completely inspiring. This is someone who truly does it all: movies, books, art, even apps. She approaches life and her work with a creativity and humanity unlike anyone else; any chance to hear her wax poetic on why she does what she does is an absolute pleasure. And here she seems truly delighted to be talking to Nerdette, almost as if she’s just catching up with old friends, which makes the whole thing all the more fun to listen to. Of course, along with the interview the ladies keep up their always enjoyable weekly features Great Lady Nerd In History and nerd confessions that do not disappoint.
Never Not Funny
Jimmy Pardo has an easy rapport with virtually everyone who comes on Never Not Funny, even if he does have to force it a little at times. But few guests fit as naturally into the vibe of the show as Pardo’s old pal Jon Hamm does, and because of that the entire episode feels extra relaxed—there’s no pressure to punctuate every other sentence with a joke, because it’s just friends hanging out. Of course, there still are plenty of jokes, and Jon Hamm remains infuriatingly funny, even if the gang returns to the well of a couple of recurring gags one or two times too many. A shake up in the behind-the-scenes crew means some fresh jokes about incompetence, but other than that it’s the same, breezy two-hour chat about nonsense between very funny people that one’s come to expect from Never Not Funny.
According to Rob McElhenney’s character Mac from It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, every great crew can be broken down along three basic archetypes: the Brains, the Looks, and the Wildcard. This week it became very apparent that on Probably Science those roles hold true for the core three leads, thus classifying them as an all-time great crew. British comedian Matt Kirshen is the Brains, Andy Wood is the Looks, and Jesse Case is, far and away, the show’s Wildcard. That dynamic, when paired with Probably Science’s fascination with all things scientific, makes for one of the few shows—perhaps the only—that is both genuinely informative and totally obsessed with scatological humor. Things get off to a quick start when an innocuous comment about podcast popularity in Holland spirals into a ridiculous discussion of whether people in China wear diapers on trains. The gang then cover PTSD, male squirting, the ability to implant false memories, and polar bear penis bones. This week’s guest Patrick Keane’s story about driving Buzz Aldrin around L.A. prompts some hilarious bits before Kirshen reads aloud the prepared speech Nixon would have delivered if the moon landing had ultimately failed, which may well change the way you look at the moon forever.
Mychal Denzel Smith
Grantland’s initial aim to cover sports and pop culture in equal measure attracted several big personalities, but few did more than simply straddle both realms, writing about movies using sports references or vice-versa. Rembert Browne, however, has taken the platform and used it as a springboard, acting as an observer of American culture filtered through his unique experience and singular voice. On his podcast, Rembert Explains, Browne proves a thoughtful critic who speaks with the voice of young America. Browne and his guest Mychal Denzel Smith of The Nation talk about the media attention paid to Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks, likening it to the Oscar snub of Selma director Ava DuVernay. The two, Browne explains, are paying the “black tax,” for refraining from altering themselves to fit in. Browne and Smith approach the domestic violence PSA set to air during the Super Bowl from the angle that, while an important thing to address, unfortunately doesn’t seek to change the culture of masculinity surrounding the game. The show ends on a wonderfully off-kilter comic note when the pair attempts to devise a Black History Month power ranking, questioning and ultimately praising George Washington Carver’s importance.
Stuff You Missed In History Class
The Ghost Army
There hasn’t been a military history episode in a while, and this one is about the top-secret group assembled to mislead Axis forces during World War II. It organized the one and only “deception outfit” in U.S. military history, and likewise the insane camouflage and tactics involved are both compelling and surprising. The process of building prototype prop equipment and “dummy tanks” completely threw off German forces and misled the Germans leading up to the D-Day operations. While the inflatable tanks involved get much of the attention, Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey discuss the vast catalog of soundscapes made to create the illusion that unique engine types were revving and that types of foliage were crunching underfoot. The speed-sewn uniforms that the individual soldiers had to make for themselves reveal the sort of army that one might think exists only in comic books. They were actually art students that had been recruited based on their ability to create a detailed deception technique from the paintbrush up. But in fact their adventures in drawing fire and avoiding becoming a suicide outfit provide a narrative as interesting as any of the more violent battles.
The Trap Set
Drummer Joe Wong—full disclosure: a friendly acquaintance of mine—has played drums for a bunch of great bands over the years, including Parts & Labor. More recently he’s been composing music for movies and TV, and The Trap Set—that’s what drummers sometimes call drum sets—is his first foray into podcast hosting. He’s pretty good at it, judging by this first episode, which, as will all future installments, features an interview with a well-known drummer. Out of the gate it’s Fugazi’s Brendan Canty, who talks about meeting his bandmates, drinking, and seeing Bad Brains for the first time. (“Your whole DNA changes.”) There’s actually surprisingly little talk about the actual art of drumming, which is strange considering the name of the podcast and the backgrounds of both interviewer and interviewee. That’s cool, though: It’s probably more fun for most Fugazi fans to hear the story of the one time Canty’s dad showed up at a gig than to hear him talk about time signatures and hi-hat clutches.
We Hate Movies
You cannot imitate Arnold Schwarzenegger without having the time of your life. This is a truth. And it’s part of why this latest episode of We Hate Movies is one of the show’s best in recent memory. Good, bad, and baffling Impressions of the Governator abound as the trio of Andrew Jupin, Stephen Sajdak, and Eric Szyszka tackle last year’s Sabotage, an aggressive action-slasher starring Schwarzenegger and a host of dirty, cornrowed hunks with names like Monster, Grinder, Pyro, and Neck (“Arnold started running out of creative nicknames,” Jupin quips of the latter). The gang rightly rags on the film’s ’roided-out machismo and exploitative misogyny, with Jupin ultimately deeming Sabotage “the worst Arnold Schwarzenegger movie I’ve ever seen in my life.” This gives way to a larger conversation about Schwarzenegger’s post-politico resurgence and why, at 67, the actor should probably stop playing roles better suited to someone 30 years his junior (“Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s name is bandied about). Ultimately, though, it’s the trio’s increasingly off-the-rails riffs that make the episode. There’s something almost transcendent about hearing Jupin say “Muppet Babies” in an Ah-nold voice.
We see what you said there
“I was particularly homosexual. To be fair, I always have been a bit of a fancy lad.”—Jesse Thorn on why he was a ripe target for verbal abuse in his neighborhood, Girl On Guy
“I like to think of this as a really high-tech version of the King Arthur thing of banging two coconuts around.”—Tracy V. Wilson on the World War II sounds used by the U.S. Ghost Army, Stuff You Missed In History Class
“Think of the faces [Schwarzenegger] made on the posters for Kindergarten Cop and Jingle All The Way... he can’t make those faces now.”—Andrew Jupin on modern-day Schwarzenegger, We Hate Movies