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.
When Julius Robinson found out that his sister had been brutally murdered—stabbed 26 times while she slept—his first thought turned to revenge. And it wasn’t an idle thought: A violent ex-con, Robinson was sentenced to 30 years for killing a man and shooting four others who had assaulted him and his wife, which caused her to miscarry. In a probing interview, Phoebe Judge explores Robinson’s history of violence, starting with the shootings that landed him in a prison system, where, he says, he learned more about violence than he ever had before. He had tried to put all his past behind him when he got out, but that was all tested when when his 17-year-old nephew Trayvon was charged with Robinson’s sister’s murder. It’s a heartbreaking story that speaks to the continued failure of the prison system to rehabilitate inmates, the difficulty of escaping one’s past, and the ways tragedies can tear families apart. But it’s also an inspiring story of redemption, and hearing Robinson explain to Judge how he overcame his violent nature—and his attempts to help his nephew do the same—makes for a powerful story of compassion and contrition.
The Engineering Commons
Career Planning: Patrick Riordan
Much has been said lately in comedy programs like Last Week Tonight as well as democratic politics about how to revitalize infrastructure and what it takes to maintain it. The Engineering Commons podcast is geared toward engineering professionals, but that defines such a broad swath of careers and personalities that once in a while it has a surprisingly accessible episode such as this. In a lighthearted conversation, podcast host Jeff Shelton talks with aeronautical engineer Patrick Riordan about the challenges of starting and staying motivated in an increasingly challenging field. It includes a frank discussion about unemployment and time management that is relatable and valuable to any young person entering the workforce. Early on, Riordan is asked if he thinks he has in any way changed the world, and quickly says “No” with a resounding thud. But both engineers are able to laugh off their histories with the dot-com crash and jet engine industries. If engineers are known as a clichéd closed-off type, neither Riordan or Shelton fit the mold, as both offer good-natured advice about preserving self esteem in the workplace and using a Star Trek model of under-promising and over-delivering to keep themselves relevant.
The Flop House
Bad comedies are a singularly unenjoyable form of bad movies: You can laugh at overwrought dramas or schlocky horror films, but bad, uninspired jokes aren’t fun for the viewer at any level. And that’s why The Flop House hosts’ tempered treatment of the Johnny Depp mustache movie Mortdecai is somewhat surprising. Indeed, Mortdecai comes out fairly unscathed at the end of the episode, but the same can’t be said for George Lucas. As usual, the most memorable moments of the episode have little to do with the movie, and almost all of those moments in this case have to do with making fun of the Star Wars auteur—for his voice, for his constant tinkering with his films, for his love of hot rods, and for his general teddy-bear-like qualities. Although the rest of the episode is also solid, hearing Elliott Kalan and Dan McCoy impersonating Lucas is the highlight of the whole thing.
The Giant Beastcast
Episode 01: Jeff Bakalar, Austin Walker
New podcast, The Giant Beastcast, was born from The Giant Bombcast, a wildly popular hangout podcast that’s ostensibly about video games but often veers into any corner of the pop culture landscape. The same goes to The Giant Beastcast, which, in its first “official” episode (there was an Episode 0, which causes much debate between the hosts) oscillates between video game news, sports, movies, and questions from listeners. First-time listeners may initially find it hard to ease in, as hosts Vinny Caravella and Alex Navarro don’t necessarily welcome guests so much as invite them to what feels like an in media res conversation, replete with in-jokes and shared history. But the hosts, along with guests/critics Jeff Bakalar and Austin Walker, are amusing and endlessly engaging as they bounce from topic to topic, and, by the second hour, it’s hard not to be swept up in their energy. One especially gripping portion finds the hosts debating a listener question that asks, “If a mysterious salesman showed up at your office promising a mysterious new game from either Bungie, Rockstar, Nintendo, or Kojima, which would you choose?” Here, listeners get a sense of each host’s personal tastes, as well as some speculation about what a new game from each developer would resemble. It’s a moment of structure in an otherwise structure-less podcast that offers a secure foothold despite itself.
The Late Show Podcast
In The Bad Room With Stephen
With David Letterman finally out of the Ed Sullivan Theater, Stephen Colbert and his staff have begun the full-court press for the September launch of Late Show With Stephen Colbert. Part of that push is The Late Show Podcast, which launched this week with a 20-minute episode complete with a charming theme sung by Colbert and a built-in fake sponsor, CloudFog, which lets you put your fog “in the cloud.” Though it’s a little formless so far, Colbert says he hopes The Late Show Podcast will mostly be about process—as in, how writing, producing, and actually making the show happens. So far, it’s surprisingly interesting stuff, with Colbert, his executive producer, and his head writer rehashing everything from writing for upfronts to the decision Colbert had to make about how wide the new seats in the Ed Sullivan Theater should be. Consider us subscribed.
In The Woods
On each episode of Lore, Boston author Aaron Mahnke details the origins of a different regional scary story. But anyone in search of a skeptical debunking of myths should look elsewhere. Like many horror writers, Mahnke prefers the monster to be real, and, as a result, he’s more interested in how locals are affected by a spooky phenomenon rather than why they don’t believe in it. Just listen to that ambient music underscoring the entirety of “In The Woods.” It’s not the least bit ominous—more lucid and gorgeous as Mahnke shares various stories about the Bridgewater Triangle, a patch of Massachusetts forest inhabited by various spirits due to a lost Native American artifact. Sure, there are Bigfoots, Pukwudgies, and other potentially murderous cryptids, but the soundtrack and Mahnke’s even-keeled narration paint a mood of fascination, not terror. This is especially true of the episode’s conclusion, when one adventurer discovers that what he initially thought was a threat from one creature might actually be an invitation. To say any more would spoil the ending, but just know that Lore is the perfect podcast for anyone who dares to believe in—and embrace—the supernatural.
Case #3 Belt Buckle
Mystery Show, while purportedly about solving the sundry mysteries presented to host Starlee Kine, is on a deeper quest seeking answers to the mystery of whether every situation, object, and person has a story worth telling. With the ever-excellent Kine at the helm, it is hard to imagine that there are any dead-ends to be found on such an exploration. Take this week’s show for example, which rather handily answers the question of whether listeners could be brought to tears over a forlorn belt buckle found in a Phoenix gutter some 26 years ago. What follows is another rollicking investigation, glimmering with flashes of fate as chance encounters befall Kine at nearly every turn in her attempts to seek out the belt buckle’s original owner and flesh out his story. The lost buckle—as is the case with most objects at the center of a good mystery—is something of a MacGuffin since the real question at hand isn’t in the how but the who. Though only three episodes old, Mystery Show feels firm in its understanding to find the surprise and wonder in the world through the lens of the seemingly insignificant; no wonder it is a breakout podcast.
Never Not Funny
First-time guests on Never Not Funny often take some to find Jimmy Pardo’s tempo and sometimes don’t even find it by the end of their episode. Comedian and actress Cristela Alonzo not only finds it instantly but then proceeds throughout the two-hour conversation to constantly push it. Pardo has one of the sharpest, quickest wits in the game, but Alonzo’s isn’t too shabby either, and she certainly keeps him on his toes. The entire duration of her appearance is quite great—it’s consistently funny and engaging, and to hear her talk about her canceled sitcom and her recent meeting with Norman Lear is invariably interesting—but the pre-guest top of the episode is solid, too. It’s the usual nonsense with a healthy helping of L.A. Kiss talk thrown in, which never gets old. One appearance in, and Cristela Alonzo already feels like a long-time friend of Never Not Funny, and her next appearance can’t come soon enough.
New Yorker: Fiction
Michael Cunningham Reads “Dumbness Is Everything” By Harold Brodkey
A good 18 years before the phrase “__ is everything” became shorthand for exaggerated hipster enthusiasm, Harold Brodkey used the same syntax to title one of his last short stories, which was published posthumously in The New Yorker in 1996. Brodkey’s “everything” lacks the cliché of the current usage but shares its ironic tone. “Dumbness Is Everything,” which recounts a couple’s drunken after-party sex on a moonlit lawn in 1954, is the opposite of dumb. It’s a cerebral analysis of the act told from the perspective of the inebriated man, who ponders the workings of his partner’s physicality and psyche as he manipulates her body and has his way with her. It’s a very un-sexy depiction of sex, described as if seen from a distance and preoccupied with the roles the two are playing on their risqué stage. In the opening discussion with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman, Michael Cunningham recounts the time that he first met Brodkey, when Cunningham was a nervous young writer. The elder author, Cunningham says, was a real asshole at first, but they later became friends. Perhaps this friendship shows through in Cunningham’s subsequent reading, which has an excellent pace, letting Brodkey’s dense text unfold with drama.
Porchlight Storytelling Series
Last One To Leave Please Turn Out The Lights: Tim Redmond, Cammy Blackstone, Rio And Rene Yañez, Marilynn Fowler, Shannon Matesky, Ed Wolf
A storytelling podcast set music, this episode of the Porchlight Storytelling Series features stories about the rapidly gentrifying and mutating Bay Area. Guest host Beth Lisick frames the episode by emphasizing that the area is “rapidly changing” but it’s clear from the opening song by Stephen Smith that this will be a series of stories about those who are moving on and no longer belong. The tone is lively and nuanced, but also incredibly heavy. It focuses largely on the inability of artists and freaks to continue living in the community they were born into due to corporate interests. In one breath we hear former Bay Guardian editor Tim Redmond reminisce about a bar called The Theater Club being shut down and the homogenous condos that have since paved over the converging of punks and artists alike. Cammy Blackstone, another guest, also works to keep live performance venues alive, and often fails because people simply won’t leave the house. Blackstone shares tells a story about seeing The Pointed Sticks, Psychotic Pineapple, Dead Kennedys, and The Buzzcocks on her 17th birthday. It’s not the type of story one would expect from someone who works so closely with the city, making it seem all the more immediate that the heart of San Francisco’s culture be preserved before its too late.
30 Johnny’s Bananas Season 4 Writer’s Room: Gil Ozeri, Jake Fogelnest, Shelby Fero, Joe Mande, John Gemberling, Gabe Delahaye, Tom Scharpling, John Levenstein
It’s always interesting to see behind the scenes in Hollywood. That’s sort of the premise of the latest Rafflecast episode, which takes us into the writer’s room of Johnny’s Bananas, the fictional animated sitcom Johnny Drama got on Entourage. Helmed by Rafflecast host Jon Daly, the episode is hilariously complex, with John Gemberling, Tom Scharpling, Jake Fogelnest, Gil Ozeri, Gabe Delahaye, Joe Mande, John Levenstein, and Shelby Fero all improvising typical writer’s room patter—but about a stupid, made-up show within a show that, now entering its fourth season, airs on StreamBay, eBay’s new (and very fictional) video service. There’s intense discussion of lunch orders, whether or not Johnny Bananas is an ape or a monkey, whether or not they think they can lure Harry Shearer over to the show now that he’s off The Simpsons, and all sorts of other shenanigans. It’s a must listen.
Although this episode of StarTalk Radio is more about disease than astronomy, Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s boundless curiosity and enthusiasm makes him especially adept at discussing another realm of science. Having a well-educated and progressive president of the United States sitting down for an interview certainly gives the episode some novelty, but Jimmy Carter has a great deal to say in particular about the potential eradication of a parasite known as a Guinea worm and how he has been able to negotiate with other world leaders to remove it from existence. Not only has this parasite been plaguing humans for millennia, it preys exclusively upon humans and is the only parasite that requires the infliction of pain to complete its life cycle. The interview with Carter is interwoven with edits from a live panel with comedian Chuck Nice and scientist Mark Siddall, who discuss more of the biological nature of the parasite. Tyson is able to keep the killer worm talk lively with the help of Nice, and his one-on-one interview with the former president manages some lighthearted moments too given that none of the personalities in this episode have a cynical side. Bill Nye also stops by to compare the threat of disease with the much less “real” threat of alien invaders.
Us & Them
The Talk: Jonathan Zimmerman
Last year, the Pew Research Center published its findings about the widening ideological-gap fueling the so-called “culture war” in America, and the results were not good. The stigma of “the other” has gotten so bad, in fact, that it’s now a major indicator of where citizens choose to live or, as The Wall Street Journal claimed, where to have lunch. With those bleak facts in mind, public radio producer Trey Kay tries to find otherwise unseen nuances within thought camps on hot-button issues, and investigates how those beliefs became so combative to begin with. Not surprisingly, most of the topics in the show’s six episodes have fallen along familiar liberal vs. conservative partisan lines, like the infamous 1974 West Virginia textbook debate. This week’s episode about public school sex education, though, goes beyond the base disagreement and finds some strange bedfellows in unexpected groups. In the opening segment, a college freshman experiences culture shock when it becomes apparent that a West Point Academy cadet he’s debating against has no idea what a tampon or menstrual cycle is, and things get odder and more entertaining from there. Kay makes no presumptions about his show’s ability to put issues to rest, but his willingness to bridge the gap, and even look outside the U.S. for ideas, are a welcome addition to the conversation.
Why Oh Why?
Goodbye WFMU (Is Randy Real?)
Andrea Silenzi’s transition toward independent podcasting was always an inevitability. Silenzi is just too talented a radio producer to shackle herself to WFMU’s wondrous, godforsaken non-commercial format. Silenzi cut her teeth at the station as a producer on Seven Second Delay, and the way she blended her feminist outlook on dating with sad, lonely, hippie callers always harkened back to the radio irreverence of her sister show. Silenzi bid farewell to her listeners with an amalgamation of the Why Oh Why? format: She and frequent “hyper-articulate radical feminist” guest Holly Wood chatted about performing femininity, her intern Aaron said a sweet goodbye, and then Silenzi took one last call from Randy, the enigmatic and frustratingly misogynistic hunk she met at a bar early in her run on WFMU. As it said goodbye to WFMU, Why Oh Why? positioned itself among the station’s most inventive programs and, indeed, among a broad trend in call-in comedy forged by The Best Show‘s Tom Scharpling and Chris Gethard, in which Silenzi forced conversations about legitimate topics but sometimes necessarily under false pretenses.
With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus
Kyle Dunnigan: Sunshine And Smiles From Rolling Hills With Del LaRue
In just over the half-year since With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus launched into the podcast arena, there have been a number of stellar episodes of the decidedly high-concept, improvised podcast, and this week’s is another wonderful entry on that list. There are few podcasts today that are as inventively formatted, with each episode springing whole cloth from the imagination of the guest-host of the show. Since Lapkus is a game and hilarious improviser each episode rises and falls entirely on the strength of her partner in the endeavor. Kyle Dunnigan, of Professor Blastoff fame, is an illustration of the power that a patient and talented “host” can have on an episode of With Special Guest Lauren Lapkus Dunnigan, playing Del LaRue a sing-songy retiree in an assisted living facility, creates a believably warped world and endows Lapkus’ “ballbusting” nurse Lucy with a well-defined character and relationship to play off and it makes the episode that much stronger. Some of the best bits of the episode revolve around the generational gap in understanding slang terms, Dunnigan’s rather unorthodox use for Bed, Bath & Beyond coupons, and the fantastic game Scrotum or Leg Skin? It makes for a hilarious episode and a framework for future successes at the same time.
We see what you said there
“One of the things I love about all fiction, and certainly... relatively contemporary fiction, is that it’s not cast in stone yet… a story published in 1996 is still a story in which the hits and the misses are more visible.”—Michael Cunningham on works of fiction, New Yorker: Fiction
“I honestly think that what’s going on with this measles epidemic is people failing to care about their community.”—Zoologist Mark Siddall on how apathy and a lack of immunization empowers disease, StarTalk Radio
“It’s not nearly as beautiful, and I don’t want to talk about it now.”—Jonathan Zimmerman quoting a Wales teacher’s response to a student asking if humans are born the same way as chickens, Us & Them