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Professor Blastoff packs it up after a long stretch of success

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.

Box Angeles
Lauren Lapkus

The guests on Box Angeles are getting increasingly high-profile. A couple of weeks ago, Mike Elder talked to Thomas Middleditch of Silicon Valley; this week, he chats with Lauren Lapkus—beloved by alternative-comedy fans for her prolific work on Earwolf and recognizable by millions (make that billions) for her roles in Orange Is The New Black and Jurassic World. It’s this omnivorous kind of career that makes the episode so likable. Lapkus doesn’t have the self-righteousness that afflicts so many comedians who started underground (which, is to say, all of them), nor does she give Elder the idea that she wants to be a Hollywood legend. She just likes to be creative and stay busy—traits shared by almost every other artist on Elder’s steadily growing podcast. It’s good to know that, even as the number of listeners and the fame of his guests increase, modesty, enthusiasm, and conviviality are still the primary hallmarks of the show.

Cheap Heat
On Hulk Hogan: Greg “The Virgin” Valentine

The National Enquirer leak of Hulk Hogan’s explicitly racist sex tape rant scandalized the sports-entertainment community so thoroughly that his employer, WWE, scrubbed clean all website references to the six-time World Champion before the news even broke to the public. Cheap Heat responded to the controversy with a rare bonus episode that morning, a raw but insightful analysis of the Hulkster’s huge transgression and WWE’s bizarre decision to react how they always do—by feigning like they’d never done business with the guy in the first place. The hosts make no claims of authority on the situation, and they do talk circles around their feelings at times, but wrestling historian David Shoemaker’s unique ability to put these incidents in historical context is vital. Shoemaker and Peter Rosenberg pessimistically point out the apparent hypocrisy of WWE’s continued relationship with Donald Trump (who remains in the company’s Hall Of Fame, no less), and discuss the further pall this puts over professional wrestling’s well-documented lack of black World Champions. It’s Greg “The Virgin” Valentine, though, who steals this week’s show—a black man himself, Valentine thinks back to Hogan’s illustrious career as a good guy and wonders how young minority children can ever be sure anymore whether their hero is actually fighting for them.

The Faculty Of Horror
Jesus Wept: Hellraiser (1987) and Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988)

Andrea Subissati and Alexandra West are always at their best when discussing films near and dear to their hearts. (For a counter-example, look to last episode, where they quickly ran out of ways to say how much they disliked World War Z.) So this month’s installment finds the pair delving into the sexual politics of Clive Barker’s masterpiece Hellraiser (and its intriguing sequel, Hellbound: Hellraiser II) with joyful abandon. While their discussion on the function of desire feels a little too brief, it’s made up for by the passion they clearly have for these films, and the extensive background knowledge they bring to the subject. (Subissati, in particular, has published work on the movie.) Plus, August is their summer break, so this is the last episode until school starts again. Come for the horror talk, stay for their respective impressions of Pinhead. (A villain who’s getting a lot of attention right now.)

Creative Habits: Rosanne Cash, Elizabeth Craft

A podcast dedicated to staying happy and beefing it up, this episode features Rosanne Cash, who has practical solutions considering she’s lived an astounding life of entertainment, touring, and celebrity. Host Gretchen Rubin is a New York writer and her sister Elizabeth Craft, a writer with a bit of a drier sense of humor living out on the west coast, also stops by. For those reluctant to listen to a podcast with such a cheery mission statement, this podcast is less wishy washy and more about adding physical objects to a daily routine, something introverts should be able to slide into a schedule with relative ease. Simply using a white board adds a visibility that fellow writers with Moleskine notebooks and Google Docs might forget to use, and with both sisters coming from different writing worlds they make it quite clear how it works. When Cash steps into the podcast, it’s revealed that her kid and Rubin’s kid are dating, which makes for remarkably candid banter between productivity tips. Cash also leads with an amazing story of visiting Jamaica with her legendary father, read from her book. The story is about optimism and dreams, bleeding perfectly into a discussion about habits triumphing into true creative process.

The Late Show Podcast
Abba-Dabba-Doo: Jon Batiste

The role of the house band in late-night talk shows is something that has often felt curiously anachronistic, harking back to a time when network orchestras played a more active role in the program. Their contribution has largely been reduced to that of musical catalyst, popping in to play the host or guest to the desk, as well as shepherding the show in and out of commercial breaks. Despite recent attempts to shake up the staid atmosphere, the time-slot bands have mostly ended up being more for the benefit of the studio audience than an integral piece of the show itself. Which is what makes this week’s episode of The Late Show Podcast a worthwhile listen, as host Stephen Colbert steps out of the man-sized cabinet to talk with new bandleader Jon Batiste. A Juilliard-trained pianist from a prolific New Orleans musical family, Batiste has a rather radical idea of the band’s potential. Beyond that, his attitude is infectious, and he and Colbert have a distinct connection that augurs well for the show. What the podcast has done—with this episode in particular—is to show that the real radical change in late-night television will come from embracing the vibrant humanity of Colbert and Batiste.

The NYC Fairy Tale

How do you get what you want in life? This has been the central question that Megan Tan has explored in Millennial, her excellent podcast chronicling the many uncertainties she faces as a twentysomething trying to launch her life. What Tan wants most in life is a job in radio, career aspirations that have yet to materialize as job applications continue to go unanswered. Encouraged by her friends to actively pursue what she wants rather than continuing to wait for others to make things happen for her, Tan boards the bus to New York to network with radio friends and tell them what she really desires: to move to the city and become one of their colleagues. The way that Tan presents herself as both vulnerable and tenacious makes this episode so compelling to listen to; while she’s worried about seeming desperate or embarrassing herself in front of people she reveres (including Radiolab’s Jad Abumrad), Tan never lets these concerns stop her from asking for what she wants. By the end, one thing is certain: If Tan continues to work hard and tell stories this well, it’s only a matter of time before she makes her dreams reality.

On The Media
Havana, Hacks, And Shame Attacks: Anthony DePalma, Paul Ford

Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield have performed double duty on their Peabody Award-winning NPR show over the past few grim news-filled months: Not only have they upheld their traditional media-watchdog posts—calling out the bullshit use of unscientific polls on network and cable news channels that should know better—they’ve also provided superb and comprehensive timelined discussions on stories like police and community relations and privacy, demonstrating for those they comment on the informative and responsible way to examine multi-faceted, emotionally divisive issues. This week, Gladstone puts the historic reopening of embassies in Washington, D.C. and Havana in the bigger context of Cuban-U.S. normalization, and reveals how the media circus behind the Elián González incident (no, seriously) played a crucial part. Then, after a discussion with Anthony DePalma about The New York Times’ line-crossing, infamous 1957 interview with Fidel Castro, Gladstone chats with Paul Ford about the centralized versus decentralized internet troubles highlighted by the Ashley Madison hack. Jon Ronson’s bit about public shaming feels like old news, but a specific tidbit about Jonah Lehrer being blindsided by a Twitter-wall-of-shame makes it worth revisiting.

Probably Science
Pluto Flyby: Dipak Srinivasan

Although hosts Andy Wood and Matt Kirshen spend time cracking wise, which is hardly something to complain about, this week’s episode creates no need to qualify its scientific nature. It may say Probably Science on the label, but inside there is no doubt it’s the real deal. Wood and Kirshen are joined by Dipak Srinivasan, Wood’s old college roommate who works for the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University as a part of the team behind the New Horizons mission that recently passed Pluto. The episode contains a surfeit of wonderful information regarding the historic flyby mission, amiably explained by Srinivasan, from the radioisotope thermoelectric generator powering the craft, to how the use of a precisely timed gravitational assist from Jupiter cut several years off the mission, and much more. Srinivasan goes on to explain future planned explorations, but he is quick to pump the brakes, explaining that deep space exploration is not something for fans of instant gratification. Weird that space-exploration budgets are getting cut, since that sounds just like Congress.

Professor Blastoff

Damn, damn, damn. There is that stupid old saying that all good things must come to an end, which is stupid mostly because all things end, good and bad, and that it also doesn’t go far in softening the blow. Showing that there are no exceptions to the rule is the surprise announcement that this week’s episode of Professor Blastoff is also the very last. The reasons for the show ending are all worth cheering, motivated largely by co-host Tig Notaro’s engagement. Co-hosts Kyle Dunnigan and David Huntsberger also agree that as the three have had increasingly busy touring schedules it became a bit much to keep things going. That and the titular professor pulled a Poochie and died in space, so how could the show possibly go on? The episode is fittingly classic Professor Blastoff material, with the three hosts all together again, riffing loosely. There is also perhaps the best “throw to midroll ad break” moment in a podcast; as the conversation winds down heading into the commercial slot, it dawns on the hosts that perhaps listeners will just stop listening to the episode at this point, prompting all three to go through their relevant plugs. The loss of the show from the podcast landscape will be acutely felt.

Reply All
@ISIS: Rukmini Callimachi

For a while in 2013, some members of ISIS used pictures of coffee mugs as avatars on social media. They also used kittens, because a cat was the prophet Muhammad’s favorite pet. These are some of the lighter facts to emerge from PJ Vogt’s interview with New York Times reporter Rukmini Callimachi, who uses the internet to familiarize herself with jihadis. Members of terrorist organizations use the internet just like the rest of us, and Callimachi has found ways to engage with them online, adding depth to her reporting. Her methods involve a lot of patience and doggedness, as she describes the process. Through one-on-one communication, and by carefully observing the groups’ output—which includes watching every awful beheading video—Callimachi has managed to glean a better understanding of jihadis than most western journalists could hope to accomplish in person (and still remain alive). After this conversation, the new segment that the hosts debut, Super Tech Support, seems trivial. But Alex Goldman’s quest to extricate himself from a cleaning service that is nearly impossible to cancel, and getting the company to improve its customer service as a result, is both amusing and satisfying.

Toxic Tech In America

Reveal is a fantastic investigative journalism podcast. This episode focuses on machines and chemicals that cause long-term damage in people, often surfacing after they’ve left the work behind. Host Laura Starecheski follows several stories that span decades from processing plants to checkout lines, and how laws have changed to anticipate changes… more from the point of view of big companies than victims. Yvette Flores worked in a small factory room mixing “green junk” for bar-code scanners. She made them when they were brand new inventions, so this “green junk” was only a paper mask away from her. This may have directly resulted in medical issues for her newborn son. The level of detail is brisk in that this podcast is a breezy 10 minutes in length. Yet it’s the kind of story that feels immediate and important. An occupational medicine doctor for Silicone Valley also backs up the story with tales of the many unnamable chemicals that affected his patients throughout the years. Technology is far outstripping medicine, even if that technology ends up being medical in nature. It’s difficult to not leave the episode with a Marxist level of appreciation for the working class suffering through each breakthrough.

We see what you said there

“If I see one more picture of an American correspondent posing in front of a vintage Ford on the streets of Havana, I’m going to scream.”—Tim Padgett, On The Media