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Paul F. Tompkins launches new podcast, guests on Comedy Bang! Bang!

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.

99% Invisible

In light of John Oliver’s recent pitch to America that infrastructure can be sexy and interesting, 99% Invisible’s Roman Mars highlights a piece by producer Dan Collison about New York City’s urban miners, the Sandhogs. As a reminder that human blood went into the city’s creation, stories of the Sandhogs who built the Lincoln Tunnel during the Great Depression of the 1930s are shared: They took the job when paid work was almost non-existent, so the fact that they were in constant peril seemed necessary. The illnesses they suffered were the same as those suffered by deep-sea divers, from the bends caused by being in air pockets beneath the Hudson River to drowning. That their personal stories could be captured in radio interviews is as impressive as their design and physical achievements. The vintage sounds of gigantic, ancient drill bits come to life in this piece, and the radio’s original recordings from the ’90s allowed for interviews with Sandhogs that are no longer alive today. They speak of slipping into infinite black churning water, their legs tangled in cable, and it sounds like something from a post-apocalyptic fantasy. The physical immediacy of this piece of radio is undeniable, and as half-hour podcasts go, it is fantastic.

Comedy Bang! Bang!
Thomas Middleditch, Kumail Nanjiani, Martin Starr, Paul F. Tompkins

In the parlance of Comedy Bang! Bang!, there is no higher an honor bestowed upon a particular show than for it to be labeled a grepisode, or great episode. The problem is that, as listener tastes vary, the term is often liberally applied, with each new entry in the canon having this honor bestowed. This preamble is simply to say that whatever magic transpired at Earwolf studios during the recording of this show might require a higher level of recognition. Host Scott Aukerman is joined by several members of the cast of HBO’s Silicon Valley, along with a cameo appearance by the virtually ubiquitous Paul F. Tompkins, and the show which issues forth is a pure delight. Part of this comes from the group mind the Silicon Valley cast exhibits, but it is mostly due to the comedic chops of each individual member. Perhaps none stronger than that of Thomas Middleditch, making his CB!B! p-cast debut and bid for hall of fame status, playing the wildly ridiculous Joey Tortellini, a Sudanese DJ/amateur pediatrician/unemployed firefighter billionaire who inexplicably talks like a New Jersey mobster. Perhaps the best moments come at the end, when Aukerman calls China and literally can’t hang up fast enough.

The Daily Show Podcast Without Jon Stewart
Tales Of Rejection

Given the lukewarm reception freshly-announced host Trevor Noah has faced online, as well as the ongoing “weak tea” fest that is The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, there’s more pressure on The Daily Show staff writers than ever before to consistently turn out segments worthy of the show’s banner. That makes this week’s episode, “Tales Of Rejection,” especially apropos, and it serves as a reminder of how much labor gets tossed out when refining each episode. This week, correspondent Hasan Minhaj admits early on that television writers kvetching about career let-downs is “#champagneproblems,” but that doesn’t make his story about traveling to a Boston commuter school to perform in front of an empty house—and the subsequent humiliation when a few high school friends and a janitor trickle in—any less relatable. Likewise, writer Delaney Yeager discusses how she counterintuitively feels more at ease when her rejections come from the top (Jon Stewart often sits in on early morning writers room meetings, which consistent of about 20 comics pitching headlines), and how it took hearing at least four jokes she withheld, and which made it to the final script after being pitched by others, before she felt comfortable taking risks.

The Duncan Trussell Family Hour
Rick Doblin From MAPS!

As the public perception of marijuana legalization begins to reach a tipping point in the United States, advocates for the medical application of psychoactive drugs now have a framework to follow to bring these treatments to the general public. But as this week’s episode of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour outlines, there is still a disconnect with regard to both the uses and benefits of these agonists, even within the community of advocates. Trussell invites the pioneering drug policy activist and evangelist Rick Doblin of the Multidisciplinary Association For Psychedelic Studies on to talk about the advances made in studying the use of MDMA in a clinical setting, particularly as a means of reshaping traumatic memories. This part of the show is quite interesting, with Doblin discussing the neurophysiological concepts of accessing and storing memories, and how the use of empathogens in concert with therapy can be used to positively alter them. The talk goes a little off as it progresses, when it feels like there is simply too much reverence given to the power of such substances to act as potential panacea, but despite this Trussell and Doblin’s conversation sheds some much needed light on these substances and the state of the research.

Never Not Funny
Matt Walsh

Matt Walsh is a Never Not Funny veteran, which means his rapport with the crew is not only stellar, it allows him to be comfortable enough among them to shut down their idea for a silly “prank” involving 7-Eleven hot dogs. When his revamped version of the prank also gets shut down, but for other reasons, it’s hard not to feel a little disappointed. The slack, however, is picked up almost immediately. What follows is a typically strong 90-minute Never Not Funny conversation about all sorts of nonsense—strong opinions about Shakey’s Pizza; a dry, almost deadpan discussion about the detailed logistics of putting a gerbil into one’s asshole for sexual gratification; and fantasy baseball, among other things. There are perhaps fewer actual jokes throughout than the previous episode, but it remains compulsively listenable and immensely enjoyable.

No Such Thing As A Fish
No Such Thing As Domesticated Furniture

This entry of No Such Thing As A Fish is another live episode from the Soho Theater full of surprising facts. From the process of getting a vegan tattoo, to how more teachers than members of the armed forces now have tattoos, to who on the panel has a grandmother with tattooed-on eyebrows, the hook of the live shows is when the panel pockets key personal facts to ambush each other. The impressed hush that falls over the crowd when submarine facts are revealed to be herrings communicating to each other with farts is as hilarious as the moments when the live audience laughs. Some of the topics, such as the eccentric dinner parties thrown by the inventor of the airship, might seem at first to be light on shock value, but they are perfect for a roundtable deconstruction. Given that the podcast originally started as a place to reveal facts that didn’t make it onto the Q.I. television panel show, it is reassuring to see the podcast material has grown to have its own flair and purpose.

Reply All
Silence And Respect

Jon Ronson has become an expert on the phenomenon of online shaming; its also the topic of his latest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Reply All opens with a seemingly unrelated topic—Ronson’s awkward encounter with a Twitter spambot that had co-opted his identity. After Ronson confronts the spambot’s unlikable creators in a video interview, the episode pivots by revealing what happened after he posted the video online. To his horror, outright hostility immediately broke out toward the spambot’s creators. Shaming’s slide from righteousness into viciousness is familiar, but typically we’re shielded from our targets. Enter Lindsey Stone, a young woman who posed for a very unfortunate picture. Within a month, the photo had circulated online, and her life unraveled. Amid Facebook groups calling for revenge and bodily harm, Stone was fired from her job. Ronson shares how Stone’s plight moved him, including arranging for Reputation.com to salvage her online identity. The limits of her rehabilitation, and Lindsey’s resignation that she will never transcend her ordeal, get at shaming’s rotten core. Joining an online chorus has the allure of disposable, vindicating cruelty granted under the guise of communal righteousness—without having to examine, or even consider, the permanent damage one’s causing.

A Denny’s Parking Lot

Anyone who has listened to Paul F. Tompkins’ stand-up album Freak Wharf—or indeed much of his myriad podcast output since then—knows that he has a nearly singular facility for riffing. In launching his own podcast on the Earwolf network Tompkins goes with this strength, beginning the show with a lengthy stretch of logorrhea, neatly underscored by both Eban Schletter’s piano work and guest Busy Philipps off-mic laughter. The section acts as something like a distillation of Tompkins’ essence for the uninitiated listener: warm, inclusive, at times dizzying, and above all else, hilarious. The format that Spontaneanation takes is a bit of a deconstruction of improv forms like Armando Diaz and ASSSSCAT, with a long-format interview with a guest giving way to an equally long narrative improv show. The inaugural episode’s foray into this is helped along immensely by featuring a game cast—the bright lights of Janet Varney, Craig Cackowski, and Matt Gourley—exhibiting a genuine sense of understanding and ease playing with one another. The interview with Philipps is a delight as well, covering everything from children being the root of all illness, Idi Amin, and the eating of one’s feelings. The feel is a bit experimental, but in a medium often marked by similarity the change is a welcome one.

The Steven Brody Stevens Festival Of Friendship
Brody’s Baseball Career

It’s a wonder, in a comedy landscape that values a constant rotation of fresh material at breakneck speed, that Brody Stevens’ cheerfully manic stream of consciousness act has stalled out since HBO’s Brody Stevens: Enjoy It! boosted his popularity. But if Stevens is adamant about anything, it’s that everything is a process. Fans of the comedian get another peek into the genesis of Stevens’ obsession with “the power of positive thinking,” this time framed by a baseball career cut short in favor of heading out to New York City to try his luck at stand up—or performance art, depending on who you ask. Stevens’ oratory is as gripping as ever as he describes the way he learned to spin his coaches’ punishment drills into cheerful learning experiences, begin to think positively in his daily life, and “get results.” So when Steven announces somewhere in his hour-long soliloquy that he intends to drag the podcast out of the irregular, rarely promoted funk that’s held it down thus far, that’s a promise of harder work and more results.

Stuff You Missed In History Class
The Great Moon Hoax Of 1835 Part 1 And 2

Partially inspired by the podcast coinciding with April Fools’ Day, The Great Moon Hoax is one of the greatest (if not the greatest) hoaxes in media history and the topic of conversation for hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey. Rooting itself in some of the harder-to-believe astronomical theories, the hoax easily trumps Orson Wells’ The War Of The Worlds with a sheer goofiness that could only be possible as far back in history as 1835. By publishing a story in The New York Sun about the moon including citizens with man-bat wings, resident moon beavers, and an entire false culture of fake fruits and manners, it is astonishing how gullible the people of the early 19th century were. Those who weren’t fooled (and many were) were still furious. To properly describe the origin of the story, its context, and the fallout, the podcast shares two highly listenable episodes. And it’s worth sticking around for the second episode, where the story of the telescope involved begins to fall apart and the account of the astronomers veers into what can only be compared to the heavy metal-inspired drawings in the notebook margins of a 1980s movie teenager. The inspiration for nearly 200 years of iconic imagery as described in podcast form by two whimsical hosts helps keep it from seeming too campy to have fooled anyone, though.

Utopia To Me?
Katie Crown

Giggly Canadian comedian Chris Locke has been slowly building an international reputation through Utopia To Me?, a stylized podcast that invites his fellow Canadian entertainers to talk about their own ideal utopian worlds. And while he used to bog himself down in sticking to the format, this week’s chat with prolific voice actress Katie Crown—best known to live action audiences as Angela Mackenzie-Ng of Kroll Show’s Show Us Your Songs Commonwealth—demonstrates how far Locke has come in easing himself into his hosting duties. The horror buff Crown brings a unique perspective to Locke’s prompt: she insists that she’s made for a life of adventure in a post-apocalyptic utopia with enough natural resources, friendly giraffes, and vague baddies to keep her healthy and happy. Locke and Crown go off on a maddening amount of tangents about scary movies and speech anxiety, only barely constructing a cohesive world, but their infectious chemistry is bound to appease new fans and diehards alike no matter the topic.

Varvet International
Bill Maher

It often gets lost in conversations about television hosts-as-social critics that Bill Maher has been on television in one form or another since 1993, dispensing his nonpartisan, often controversial worldview, injecting harsh realities into an otherwise idealized conversation. But he has persisted, as he mostly fills a necessary role of holding an aggressive mirror up to society. It is with some luck then—on both sides of the microphone—that the Swedish cultural reporter and charmingly odd gem Kristoffer Triumf snagged a candid, sit-down interview with Maher; Triumf’s request coming on the heels of Maher preparing to tour Europe for the first time in his career, including a few shows in Sweden, Maher obliged. Some time is spent discussing how Maher has had to obsess over the small idioms and genericized trademarks in his material that might not otherwise work with an international audience. The talk also gets around to the economics that led to the erosion of the middle class, Maher’s past as a drug dealer—including not heeding the words of Notorious B.I.G—and much more. It all makes for an interesting listen, down to the way the pair interact; the tonal shifts as Maher the crusader for rationalism and Triumf the affable Swede feel one another out.

We see what you said there

“Economics decides a lot of our lives. And it decided mine. I know the first time I went into a tunnel and they set off a blast of about 200 sticks of powder, I said, ‘What in the name of God brought me to this place?’”—Edward McGuinness on digging underwater tunnels during the depression, 99% Invisible

“My wife is gonna kill me!”
“Who’s your wife?”
“The ghost of Dom DeLuise.”—Joey Tortellini (Thomas Middleditch) and Scott Aukerman, Comedy Bang! Bang!

“If children don’t bring about the next Black Death, there’s a lot of great stuff to them.”—Paul F. Tompkins on kids’ disease spreading abilities, Spontaneanation