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Rich Sommer debuts board game podcast, Tom Scharpling revisits old format

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
The Top 100 Fictional Characters Of All Time!

On any list of the top 100 fictional characters of all time, most would expect Hamlet or Moby Dick to at least crack the top 20. But not when Tom Scharpling plays listmaker; Hamlet—who Scharpling puts down as Hamlet from Hamlet to avoid any confusion—lands at 59 while Melville’s whale barely makes the cut at 91. Other expected characters like Walter White don’t make the list, pushed aside in favor of forgotten bit characters like Brody, the film bootlegger from Seinfeld, and the insurance mascot The General. While this could be a tedious and predictable exercise, Scharpling’s admittedly arbitrary standards keep things moving quickly as he shoots down caller suggestions in rapid fire succession. Scharpling also gets assists from an excited Paul Scheer (who loves the small characters just as much as Scharpling) and Pip from West Newbridge, who unsurprisingly nominates Brian Doyle Murphy’s Kamp Komfort Clerk from National Lampoon’s Vacation for the list. This marks the first time since The Best Show’s return that Scharpling has dedicated three hours to a single topic; when an episode is this fun to listen to, it’s only a matter of time before he does it again.

Box Angeles
Cook County Social Club Week

When Cook County Social Club was still based in Chicago, it was one of the most entertaining improv teams in town—smart but never smarmy, silly but never dumb, ratcheted up but still loose enough to have fun. Three-fifths of the members have since relocated to Los Angeles, a surprising move that naturally intrigued Box Angeles host Mike Elder. Why would a group that’s so successful in one city move halfway across the country to another? He touches on this and a lot more with the L.A. transplants of CCSC (or CoCoSoClo, as he affectionately dubs them), each of whom gets their own episode. There’s good-natured family man Brendan Jennings, deadpan academic Greg Hess, and observant smartass Mark Raterman. Each performer has his own strengths and showbiz narrative (Jennings worked as a Disney World character and Hess originally wanted to attend seminary school), thus teaching the valuable lesson that there’s no one way to succeed in the entertainment. Just look at Elder: The guy started out wanting to do comedy, but—as this trilogy of compelling conversations proves—he’s becoming one of the best interviewers in the podcasting world.

Firsts! With Ty Burrell, Rich’s Daughter, Flip the Table

Rich Sommer of Mad Men premiered his podcast, Cardboard!, last week. Cardboard! is about board games—but not the Monopoly-type board games you probably grew up with. With caveats and a lot of hedging, Sommer struggles with exactly what this podcast is and who it is for. He assumes listeners aren’t into board games, and so this acts as a gateway into the deep, rich world of board games waiting to be discovered. Sommer is a good actor, and some of the best moments come from him acting—reading silly flavor text that accompanies rule books is a highlight. Other highlight is Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, this episode’s guest star. The podcast comes to life when Burrell and Sommer talk about board games and novice Burrell asks questions of expert Sommer. Segments of only Sommer talking, though, get more boring the longer they go on. The podcast also suffers from the topic, as board games are inherently visual and can be difficult to understand unless you play, and this first episode of Cardboard! is all telling and no showing. The best segments come from Sommer and Burrell chatting and joking and a story Sommer tells about how irate he got during a mean-spirited game at a convention. He’ll have to figure out how to incorporate more of that and less board game exposition if this podcast will succeed.

Giant Bombcast

Brad Shoemaker and his co-hosts Jeff Gerstmann, Drew Scanlon, and Dan Ryckert represent the staff of online gaming magazine Giant Bomb, and Shoemaker claims early on that he has “nothing” to give this episode. Despite running on fumes, they immediately find something outside of gaming to excite them all. Taking a break from their usual video game format, they wax philosophical about DMX’s latest legal problems involving a gas station robbery that somehow supposedly evolved from a fan interaction. Fans themselves, the hosts have a good laugh at the defendant’s highly improbable accusation. A 21-year-old fan claims he just so happened to be carrying thousands of dollars in cash, talked to DMX, and a member of his entourage somehow guessed he was carrying a massive amount of money and shook him down. Comparing DMX’s entire online legal history with this stupidly suspicious story makes for a great deal of incredulous speculation that anyone who has ever surfed The Smoking Gun will find entertaining. But this remains a gaming podcast and eventually they get to the point. There’s also fun gamer talk about Nintendo news, the death of OnLive, and Skate. But it’s the off-topic bits that keep this nearly three-hour podcast cooking. Even a DraftKings.com commercial ignites a flame for the upcoming baseball season that shows how much the hosts really love chatting together, perhaps more than many “comedy” podcasters do.

Hello, From The Magic Tavern
Foon’s Greatest Swordsman

Here is a real humdinger of a premise: Arnie Niekamp, a comedian and podcaster living in Chicago, has fallen through a transdimensional portal—behind a Burger King of all places—landing in a Middle-Earth-like realm of adventure called Foon. While trapped in the rift Niekamp sets up a weekly show at the titular tavern, The Vermillion Minotaur, conversing with locals and learning about his new home all while recording episodes of the podcast. On this week’s show Niekamp is joined by one of two regular guests—the wizard Usidore, played with great bombast and vigor by Matt Young, as they interview the winkingly named Jak Vorpal, Foon’s greatest swordsman portrayed by Sean Kelley. The program is flush with an infectious sense of mirth, and Niekamp plays a deft straight man to Young and Kelly’s increasingly outrageous tales. There are some moments that feel a little on-the-nose—such as Vorpal’s story of fighting with the closely Smurf-adjacent Smorps—but the performers keep the details inventive and quite often hilarious. Kudos are due to the production team as well, as show features a bed of diegetic tavern noise that helps sell the idea of it being recorded in situ. If nothing else this might be the best show about sword sex you’ll hear all week.

Less Than Live!
Aggressively Feminine

With comic books becoming more mainstream and the medium becoming a better-appreciated form of entertainment, there has been a push toward recognizing the efforts of all who contribute to a book’s success. Recently this has focused on universal cover credit and creator royalties for colorists, as their contributions to a comic are massively important and often under-appreciated. Less Than Live host Kate Leth, returning from a lengthy sabbatical, invites colorist Paulina Ganucheau on the show and she and Leth nerd out in a lot of great and interesting ways. The pair talks extensively about the art of coloring in comics, from the impact a particular palette can have on an issue to the unfamiliar world of flatting artwork before coloring. As well, the pair touch on ways of getting started in the business and the particularly awesome rise in the number of female comic creators of late, especially those working for major publishers. Leth and Ganucheau also find time to talk in-depth over some of their mutual obsessions, like ’shipping Dragon Age: Inquisition characters, the mind-boggling excellence of Steven Universe, and their hatred of Sailor Moon Crystal. And as always, the show’s interstitial songs are a delight.

Probably Science
Water Crisis With Jay Famiglietti

As California finds itself hit with the worst drought in its recorded history, demonstrably affecting the state’s freshwater reserves, there is a lot of misinformation which needs correcting. Naturally, when one wants to set the record straight they need look no further than the authorities at Probably Science for a measured take. That, and perhaps some madcap japery. The ProbSci crew—Jesse Case, Matt Kirshen, and Andy Wood—manage to snag a sit-down with Jay Famiglietti, a hydrologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who penned the L.A. Times op-ed that catalyzed national attentions to the issue. This results in what may be the most topical and scientific episode of the show yet. Famiglietti is very much a professional scientist and thus takes a bit to get into the groove of the show, but soon he is cracking jokes and the episode takes off. Discussion of Famiglietti’s satellite imaging work with NASA leads Case to ask if the space agency comes up with the acronyms for projects first, leading to a series of jokes where project names are created solely to fit cool acronyms. In a bit of hilarious kismet, amid all the drought talk, the pool guy shows up and starts aimlessly spraying water in the background of the recording.

Reply All

There are a lot of famous dogs on Instagram, but 12-year-old Marnie The Dog is one of the most famous. With 1.2 million followers and fans including Taylor Swift, Lena Dunham, and James Franco, Marnie is a sensation, what with her crooked head and sideways walk. In “Underdog,” Reply All attempts to quantify why that is—what makes Marnie more clickable and likeable than almost any other dog online. Together, PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman come up with some pretty good explanations, from an analogy between Marnie and Bill Murray to a heartwarming theory that the love Marnie’s owner, Shirley Braha, has for her dog baby is so palpable that following Marnie The Dog on Instagram is tantamount to wholeheartedly endorsing the purest form of love. With “Underdog,” Reply All turns a critical eye to a silly phenomenon and comes away smiling—after having taken a selfie with Marnie, of course.

Stuff You Should Know
What’s The Deal With Blood Types?

This episode hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant have an absolute blast recounting centuries of botched transfusion experiments. Blood types are seemingly independent of so many other external aspects of human beings, and this SYSK both explains the unique language of types involved in donations and transfusions as well as how it’s related to the rest of us. And most of what we’ve learned as a society comes from injecting ourselves with animal blood, milk, and playing with seemingly limitless samples of mixed blood. Thinking at first that injecting milk was better and that blood clumped because of “disease or something,” this was one aspect of medical science that took a great deal of horror to sort out. And there’s a lot of odd distinguishments to make with blood; outside of the letter codes there are the Rh protein factor, whether or not a person is a “secretor” (a surprising 80 percent of us are), and many subtleties to the “O” designation. The podcast excels at science topics, and this theme seems long overdue. It’s especially fun to hear Bryant and Clark roll up their sleeves and mock the messy history of experiments and decide who to accuse of being a “secretor.”

Where There's Smoke
Know Fear (Courage)

The new-ish podcast Where There’s Smoke, hosted by business writer Brett Gajda, is a weekly dose of self-improvement advice based on TED talks, social science research, and anecdotes. In this episode, Gajda tackles the topic of fear—where our fear response comes from, why it can be so out of proportion to actual risks, and how we can overcome it to achieve goals like asking someone out or leaving a steady job to start a business. If you avoid the short-term risk of pursuing a life you desire, he emphasizes, you run the long-term risk of a dissatisfied life where you count down the days to vacations and, eventually, retirement. In the second half of the episode, Gajda brings in consultant Brad Axelrad for a discussion of their personal (and universal) fears of rejection and success, and they conclude that overcoming those fears always comes down to self-esteem. Speaking of which, the self-congratulatory affirmations are a little icky (during breaks, listeners are told that they’re practically geniuses for listening to the podcast), but the rest of the show might be the dose of inspiration that many of us need to get through the week with confidence.

We see what you said there

“I know a lot about trees. So I like to go look at the trees. I have a trees book.”—Improviser Greg Hess on his love of trees, Box Angeles

“I feel like we should create a game just called Better Jenga and all it is is just random shit that you’re just stacking on top of. It could literally just be garbage.”—Ty Burrell on how every dexterity game is better than Jenga, Cardboard!