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Vexing Nicolas Cage films elevate this week’s podcasts

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
Perfect Security

This week, design podcast 99% Invisible digs into the ancient art of locks and lock picking using the term “perfect security” as a banner, a term devised by locksmiths to describe a security system that cannot be breached. Given that there was only a period of about 70 years when locks were valid ways of deterring thieves, this is a fleeting idea used mostly to add a dimension to the art form of crafting security through physical means. According to the experts interviewed here some of the best locks seem to be ones that don’t work at all, but merely distract would-be thieves from the “true” lock. Resisting the urge to go the digital security route, the podcast harnesses its radio storytelling powers and clicks deeply into a tunnel of physical lock picking through history. The history is fascinating, and well explained considering its complexity, but it’s the sounds that really sell it, with the music beds and noises of forced entry, from anxiety-inducing pick sounds to the satisfying and relieving release of mechanisms giving way. They build to 1851, when a hugely popular and complex lock called Chubb was finally picked with much public spectacle, and the art-form of defying physical locks became something of a competitive sport.

Dale Radio
Dale Asks Four Questions

There are not many comedic podcasts confident enough in their abilities to regularly record solo episodes, but then there aren’t many programs quite like Dale Radio. James Bewley’s alter ego, Dale Seever, the oft-forlorn yet oddly endearing loser, is like some post-modern Garrison Keillor, crafting a fictional world of such rich detail as to be completely believable. The episode is one long free-form soliloquy, covering everything from attending a stranger’s Passover Seder to his solutions to the drought currently affecting California. There are several moments of feverish hilarity in the episode, most notably found in Seever’s imagining of what Hell must be like, as well as in the surprisingly deft way he manages to connect David and Goliath with drones. The skill in Bewley’s writing is what serves to make the material work so well, as the comedy never feels forced, arising organically out of the ridiculous world that has been constructed and which Dale Seever inhabits. There are relatively few podcasts where you can hear lines like, “zoom out and we’re all inside the eye of a space whale,” but fewer still are those where it feels like it makes perfect sense.

The Dead Authors Podcast
L. Ron Hubbard, Featuring Andrew Daly

By the time H.G. Wells notices they’ve reached the allotted hour, L. Ron Hubbard has barely covered the religion/free labor system he created; instead, he’s taken listeners to past lives as a Roman, his time as the “First Commander Of McDonald’s,” his service as Prime Minister Of The Pygmies, and his tenure as a race car driver on Venus. The race, which Hubbard (as portrayed by Andy Daly) describes is emblematic of Daly’s skills as an improviser: Every twist and turn is expertly followed, somehow always arriving safely at the finish line. This episode also might be the perfect distillation of Daly’s podcast presence for neophytes: always absurd, strangely dark (while this appearance is largely breezy he still fits in child sacrifice during Hubbard’s “Condor Scout”—the mythical rank above Eagle Scout—induction ceremony), deftly nimble, and uniformly uproarious. While professing a desire to read an excerpt of Battlefield: Earth but being “unable to makes heads or tails of it,” Daly displays that the strength of this podcast is not on the performer’s knowledge of their character’s oeuvre but upon their strength as an improviser. Using the wellspring of Hubbard’s braggadocio, Daly scales increasingly absurd heights to laugh-out-loud dividends. The reality of Hubbard’s interrogation questionnaire might be the most absurd and silliest part of the episode.

Here's The Thing
Lawrence Wright On Religion, ISIS, And Scientology

To the untrained ear it might seem an easy assumption that Alec Baldwin, in hosting Here’s The Thing, is gunning for Terry Gross’ crown as public radio’s best long-form interviewer. There is something inescapable about Baldwin’s presence that adds a completely different energy to the program. In short, there is a sense of novelty in Baldwin’s endeavor. No matter though, as this week’s episode provides some truly interesting stories from interview guest Lawrence Wright, author of the Scientology exposé Going Clear, which was adapted into the HBO documentary of the same name. Wright has made his name mostly in covering religious fanaticism, with stories from Jonestown to Al-Qaeda and everywhere in between. Wright parlayed his work on Al-Qaeda into an off-broadway one man show, which was then turned into a film by Alex Gibney who would later direct Going Clear as well. The conversation reaches its most interesting part when Baldwin divulges that shortly after having seen Going Clear he flew off to film a movie with Tom Cruise. For his part, Baldwin doesn’t pass judgement on Cruise, praising him as a true friend and good person, but the conversation that follows is tacitly damning anyhow.

Hollywood Handbook
Mary Holland, Our Close Friend

Burgeoning Earwolf breakout Mary Holland’s Hollywood Handbook debut is nothing short of a star turn for the improvisor, leaving even hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport snickering in the background for the majority of an episode dominated by her sharply silly impromptu. Whether answering listener questions or subverting every attempt Davenport and Clements make to playfully belittle her for being a lady, Holland gets incredible mileage out of any scenario she talks her way into. In the meantime, the trio digresses through an elaborate RPG-style trading mission during a game of Queue And A and fake their way through a rare appearance from the Popcorn Gallery that provides a semblance of structure to the program, but make no mistake: This is Holland’s hour all the way. Clements and Davenport also provide a bizarre update to their TV pilot saga—now apparently a “many short movies” saga—at the top of the program.

How Did This Get Made?
Con Air Live!: Seth Grahame-Smith

In podcasting, as in life, there are few things more fun than listening to someone in love with a legitimately bad film trying in earnest to defend its existence. That enjoyment goes near supernova when the person is as indignantly hilarious as How Did This Get Made? co-host Jason Mantzoukas, making this week’s live dissection of Con Air one of the best episodes in recent memory. Mantzoukas is joined by regular co-hosts Paul Scheer and the now-reclusive June Diane Raphael (on a shaky Skype connection that serves to heighten the hilarity of her usual disconnect with the the other two hosts), as well as author/screenwriter/savant Seth Grahame-Smith. Things get off to a great start, as Grahame-Smith declares Con Air to be the most racist movie since Birth Of A Nation; Mantzoukas counters by saying, “the movie starts and it’s great, the movie ends and it’s great, and in between I’m fucking rock hard.” Scheer unlocks the secret at the film’s crazy heart, revealing that the script was being rewritten nearly every single day of filming. Though, the episode’s real showstopper comes when Mantzoukas realizes that the film acts as a perfect allegory for the U.S. intelligence community’s pre-9/11 communication flaws, yelling out, “It took Snowden? We had Con Air, guys, and it took Snowden?”

Seven Second Delay
Andy & Ken Stalk A Listener In The Suburbs

This pre-recorded show opens with Ken Freedman in the passenger seat of Andy Breckman’s car as they drive around Montclair, New Jersey, on a mission to deliver WFMU Marathon prizes to listeners who donated during this spring’s pledge drive. As it turns out, Montclair (at least when the episode was being recorded) is filled with delightful, fun-loving people. First, there’s Jennifer, a helpful, good-natured, giggly OnStar operator who sends directions to listener Mike’s apartment. After a failing to meet Mike (despite the best efforts of a nice-guy neighbor), the pair visit the home of listener Matt to be greeted by his wife Angie and their son Miles, a 2-year-old who loves trains. So many of the stunts on Seven Second Delay rely on the willingness of people and callers to play along, and the episode succeeds largely because Angie is game to help orchestrate a surprise for her husband from the minute she answers the door. Seven Second Delay also typically handles interactions with children well, and it’s Miles—adorable as he talks nonstop about the comings and goings of the “Amtrak” in his videos—who helps Breckman and Freedman steer clear of the wreckage in Dead Air Gulch this week.

Stuff You Missed In History Class
The Lady Who Turned to Soap

As any witnesses of Fight Club already know, a human body’s fat can supposedly be made into soap. But this episode focuses on bodies being purchased for medical use back when such a thing was questionable; bodies exhumed for a train project in 1875; and, in particular, one woman’s body that had spent just the right amount of time in the ground, under just the right circumstances, to become something extraordinary. To hear it from hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey, it happens fairly often but always as something of a shock because the bodies are usually dug up for unusual reasons that do not include a presumption that the body will be anything but a desiccated skeleton. And indeed the central case of corpses turning to soap intersects with the life of a famous paleontologist best known for identifying dinosaur skeletons. The mere research of this process has been known to call to question the sanity of those who would examine it given that on paper it sounds like it makes little sense. Also known as being “covered in grave wax” but more accurately called adipocere, this scientific process is both grisly and fascinating. It’s the sort of story that someone would not want to listen to while driving for fear of missing an exit or gagging on coffee.

To The Moon

One wonders whether the title of this week’s installment of the ever-fascinating Upvoted is a bit of intentional misdirection, given that the episode focuses on NASCAR racing, something more often seen as a topic for derision than a source of interesting stories by podcast standards. But Upvoted host and reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian has a knack for telling great stories—as well as access to perhaps the largest platform for their curation that the world has ever known—and as such “To The Moon” is an engaging listen, despite the topic. The tale told on this episode is something of a love letter to the sense of community that develops around particular subreddits, and how they can come to alter the trajectory of persons wholly unaffiliated with said community. Particularly it is the story of Josh Wise, an underdog racecar driver whose unsponsored racecar caught the notice of several redditors, leading a few to attempt to secure sponsorship for Wise’s car from the meme-inspired cryptocurrency Dogecoin. What seems like a very narrow three-way Venn diagram overlap, that of cryptocurrency enthusiasts, meme lovers, and fans of NASCAR, proves to be something of a dream partnership, making for a continually interesting episode. Much wow indeed.

We Hate Movies

Let it be said that in this week’s hasty skirmish of duelling Nicolas Cage-centric comedic movie review podcasts, there can be only winners, no losers. Listening to the We Hate Movies crew of Andrew Jupin, Stephen Sajdak, and Eric Szyszka furiously take down the 1997 Cagesterpiece Face/Off, paired with How Did This Get Made?’s own Con Air discussion makes for a wonderful scenery-chewing pas de deux. It’s almost as good a pairing as the unbelievable casting of Cage and John Travolta in the film, whose contributions to the decidedly over the top affair suffer mercilessly under the We Hate Movies microscope. In particular the gang’s frustration over the complete lack of anything even approaching logic in the screenplay, from the plot’s fundamental concept to even the most minor of details. Some great moments come near the episode’s latter half, when the ridiculous tale has completely worn out its welcome, even as it doubles down with an unnecessary escalation of fight scenes. The real gem of the episode is the repetition of Travolta’s line from The Taking Of Pelham 123, informing haters to, “Lick my bunghole, motherfucker!,” repeated so often as to take on a sort of mantric quality

We see what you said there

“He inserts the tool into the keyhole. He deftly slides the tool around inside the keyhole. Until… he’s in. Security has been breached. But only in the movies. Because, prospective lock-pickers take note, you generally can’t do that with just a pick. Or hairpin. Or a paper clip. There are two tools you need to pick a lock, and one of them is usually left out. The tension wrench.”—Roman Mars on why lock picking is so complicated that few people even understand the basics, 99% Invisible

“People at the park or on the plane learn that you live with your niece and her daughter in a small place above a Superfund site and you watch how quick you end up complementing a woman’s chicken Kiev.”—Dale Seever (James Bewley), talking about his desire to meet people who will eventually invite him over for dinner, Dale Radio

“There’s no such thing as a safe place, H.G., not as long as psychiatry exists.”—L. Ron Hubbard (Andy Daly) on personal safety, The Dead Authors Podcast

“Here’s a question from [a listener]: Do you get sweaty when you do improv comedy? I feel like I’m always sweating and I don’t even do improv comedy.”
“The short answer is yes. The long answer is yeah, a lot.”—Sean Clements and Mary Holland, Hollywood Handbook

“Dave Chappelle is the black crackhead, as opposed to the black diabetic, and the uppity black terrorist who hates the white people.”—Seth Grahame-Smith on the overtly racist characterizations of Con Air, How Did This Get Made?

“How on earth, if you’ve been fucking a guy for 20 years... if he comes home with a haircut you’re like oh, nice haircut, but if he comes home with a different dick, you’re calling the cops.”—Andrew Jupin on why Joan Allen would never be okay with sleeping with Nicolas Cage wearing John Travolta’s face in Face/Off, We Hate Movies