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W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu’s Politically Re-Active begins with a bang

W. Kamau Bell (Photo: Mychal Watts/Getty Images Portrait)
W. Kamau Bell (Photo: Mychal Watts/Getty Images Portrait)

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.

Best of the Left - The best of progressive and liberal talk
(2016/07/01) Independence Day, but only for some (Racism)

Best Of The Left’s goal is to present exactly what you’re furiously searching for on Google. Haven’t heard Jesse Williams’ remarks from the BET Awards? You can listen to it here. Have conflicting feelings toward Independence Day? (I’m not talking about the movie.) You can listen to James Earl Jones read a speech from Frederick Douglass that touches on that very issue here. This curation of clips from other podcasts and media makes Best Of The Left a great source of weekly information and a path for discovering other programs worth subscribing to. Creator and host Jay Tomlinson focuses episodes on a central theme, but doesn’t have the heavy-handed approach that one might expect from a left-leaning program. Instead, it seems to be of keen interest to Tomlinson to let the clips speak for themselves, leaving room for listeners to form their own opinions. This is essentially an intellectual mixtape for those interested in social activism.

The Dork Forest
TDF 358 Wil Anderson

Stand-up comedian Jackie Kashian has, for more than 350 episodes of The Dork Forest, displayed an amazing ability to indulge her guests’ deepest, dorkiest desires to talk at length about their sometimes odd obsessions. These obsessions tend to be traditionally nerdy pursuits—comics, television shows, video games—but with this week’s episode, Kashian welcomes prolific Australian comedian and podcaster Wil Anderson to talk about the game of cricket. The discussion works on a few levels, acting sometimes as a perfect explainer of the basic rules of the game, while also being delightfully aware of how ridiculous the mechanics of the sport can seem to the unfamiliar. It’s almost a dare at times to encounter a sport with positions called the “near silly mid on” and the “silly mid off” and not give a puzzled chuckle. Anderson’s passion for cricket and the strategy behind it is infectious though, and it pairs well with Kashian’s joy at further understanding its intricacies. Listeners who stick around are even gifted a miniature episode when Anderson attempts to prove that he’s not just interested in sports, divulging his love for the TV show Person Of Interest. Another stellar example of a show that revels in how much more rewarding life can be when people’s nerdy loves are championed.

Hello, From The Magic Tavern
69 - Halfling Bards

Everyone’s favorite talking badger, Chunt, is finally out of death’s reach. It’s cause for celebration! This week, Arnie pays for Foon’s biggest band, the Halfling Bards, to stop by the Vermillion Minotaur to visit Usidore and Chunt and play a few of their most famous tunes. The band is made up of brothers Nymbee and Grundle, played by real-life comedic musical duo Paul And Storm. The two play Nymbee and Grundle effortlessly, launching into song with ease, and their Foonish Spinal Tap vibe is putty in the hands of the three hosts. The trio continuously prods Paul And Storm into coming up with ultra-specific songs that fit into the established universe of Foon. What exemplifies the genius of this episode is the sincerity in which the songs are sung. Since they are improvised, it would be easy to allow the band to be an obvious joke with no real grounding, but the genuine effort cements Halfling Bards as an ever expanding part of the world. Their feuding-brother dynamic ends up revealing conspiracies about the now deceased King Belaroth, which adds an extra element of hilarious tension, since, as listeners know, Arnie was responsible for his death.

Here We Are
Time + Decisions

What better way to figure out the secrets of the universe than having skilled thinkers explain things to a comedian? It’s a format that works excellently on shows like StarTalk, in which Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye, and others talk to the likes of Eugene Mirman and Chuck Nice. However, Here We Are isn’t limited to the outer reaches of space. Episodes cover drugs, the human condition, plants, and many of host Shane Mauss’ strange personal theories. He’s joined by Hal Hershfield, an assistant professor at UCLA, whose work involves teaching people to focus more on aging instead of avoiding it. Mauss is a natural interviewer who is actively learning throughout the episode. Hershfield’s studies boil down to this question: How do people make decisions when they are actively thinking about their limited time on earth in comparison to those who do not? “There’s definitely some people who are more comfortable with aging,” Hershfield explains before noting that those with a negative view toward aging typically suffer negative consequences. “I always just assumed I’d be dead by 30 or whatever, and lived that way,” Mauss jokes. “And my savings account reflected that plan as well.”

Hey, Cool Job!
Hey, Cool Job! Episode 10: Editor-In-Chief of Fader Magazine, Naomi Zeichner

On this week’s entertaining and altogether enlightening episode of Hey, Cool Job!, the prodigiously talented Mary H.K. Choi sits down with Naomi Zeichner, editor-in-chief of music magazine The Fader, to discuss Zeichner’s path from interning for the publication to top-lining its masthead. Choi’s interview style is wonderfully colloquial and unguarded, which elevates the conversation between her and Zeichner. Part of what makes the episode vital is found in the pair’s discussion on the importance of editing in the world of journalism, with the light that they shine on the women who have helped redefine its role in today’s media. Among the more interesting discoveries in their talk comes when Zeichner explains that in a world of shrinking access to musicians, Snapchat has become everything for journalists looking to get information and discover new music. Zeichner confesses to be drawn more to the stories of the people behind the music, something that helped fringe artists like reggaeton singer J. Balvin and French-Catalan rap duo PNL land The Fader cover stories. Choi’s excellent work at the show’s helm signals that Hey, Cool Job! is more than just a diverting affair and definitely one worth following.

Radiolab Presents: More Perfect
Kittens Kick The Giggly Blue Robot All Summer

Each More Perfect looks at Supreme Court cases and explains why each one was momentous. Its hosts are so enthusiastic and curious, and the episodes are so well-written, that what could have been a snoozefest is instead a wonderful political rabbit hole. (The caliber of writing and production are no surprise, given that this is a spin-off of Radiolab.) This week, Jad Abumrad and contributors look at Marbury v. Madison, a court case that changed American history, but the details of which will be unfamiliar (or just forgotten) to many listeners. “Kittens Kick The Giggly Blue Robot All Summer,” an episode name that doubles as a mnemonic device for the standing Supreme Court justices, tries to answer the following questions: Why does the Supreme Court have so much power? And was it always like that? In just 36 minutes, More Perfect provides a pretty damn good primer on the history of SCOTUS that includes characters like Old Bacon Face and first cousins John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson (whose mutual hatred affected the course of our country). Despite some heavy-handed Star Wars references, the hosts are not at all condescending and make learning about SCOTUS is an absolute delight.

Politically Re-Active
#3 Kathleen Hanna

Politically Re-Active starts off strong, dropping three episodes in its first week. (The first two eps covered political dog-whistling and private prisons and are both outstanding.) Billing themselves as two comedians trying to make sense of politics, this week comedians W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu interview riot grrl/feminist/musician Kathleen Hanna. In just over 40 minutes, they manage to cover both musical and political ground, from how safe Hanna felt (or didn’t feel) performing in the ’80s to her role in third-wave feminism to the Brock Turner rape case at Stanford. The podcast is well-paced with “Hold Up, Wait A Minute” segments interspersed throughout the interview to explain things from the interview. For instance, Hanna mentions a feud between Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony that “everybody knows about.” Bell laughs along, and then interrupts the interview during production to confess he had no idea what she was talking about. (He did some research.) Bell and Kondabolu tip-toe around Gloria Steinem’s baffling remarks about women who support Bernie Sanders, but it’s an altogether enjoyable episode that’s also a nice primer on both feminism and mansplaining. If the first three episodes are any indication, Bell and Kondabolu are going to be a podcasting force to be reckoned with.

Reply All
#69 Disappeared

This week’s episode of Reply All covers two stories that share a surprising emotional core about living in the shadow of one’s creations. The first story is about how Azer Koçulu, the author of a seemingly simple program called Leftpad, almost broke this omnipresent thing we call the internet. The story steadily reveals the very human inner workings of this godlike yet fragile thing we rely on without second thought. It describes open source, a community of people who write and share codes as a part of an ideal ecosystem, but one that could easily succumb to the domino effect of one person’s emotional impulses and subsequently crumble. The next segment explores the birthplace of the word “yas,” which is just like the story of Leftpad—a story about an uncredited community of people thriving together in a world they built themselves. To get to the root of the word, host PJ Vogt explores Paris Is Burning, a documentary about the late-night parties of the 1980s, called balls, that were thrown by young, black, queer, and Latinx people. He also speaks to Jose Xtravaganza, who attended those balls where many now-commonplace phrases were used as personal code. It’s moving to hear how an entire culture’s suffering gave rise to personal language that later became more widely known. Both stories explore how these intangible concepts everyone takes advantage of in one way or another are truly the stories of people and their communities.

Retronauts Episode 69: EarthBound

Retronauts host Bob Mackey has been trying to make an EarthBound episode happen for years, and finally the stars have aligned. EarthBound is a Japanese role-playing game released for Super Nintendo in 1994. While critically decried at the time, it persevered, becoming one of the most slavishly adored games of its time. Mackey, a bona fide superfan, is joined in this critical evaluation by Ray Barnholt, Michael Grimm, and Andrew Goldfarb, a collection of gaming writers with their own connections to the game. Their conversation spans multiple topics, from the game’s long, tortuous development to its weird, ineffective marketing campaign to its music. As wonderful and bizarre as the game is, it’s the gang’s breakdown of the music (er, aggressive sampling) that resonates the most; even the most rabid of players might not realize that the game blatantly (and illegally) sampled The Beatles and The Cars’ Ric Ocasek. But the whole conversation is great—the game is so unlike anything that came before or after, and this deep dive into its nooks and crannies reveals something magical.

Sword and Scale
Sword and Scale Episode 70

Sword And Scale is a true-crime podcast that reveals how the worst monsters are real. This week, host Mike Boudet takes listeners into two very different stories. The first is about Harvey’s Wagon Wheel Casino and the bomb that would eventually destroy it. Boudet brings in Adam Higginbotham, author of A Thousand Pounds Of Dynamite, to help explain the intricacies that made it one of the most complex bombs ever created as well as explain the convoluted plan of its creator. It’s a narrative that gets more and more intriguing as details reveal misused genius and the lengths to which people will go to get what they want. The second segment is not for the faint of heart. It tells the story of Junko Furuta, a teenage girl in Japan who endured 44 days of torture, before her eventual death. To say the details described about what a group of teenage boys did to this girl are brutal would be an understatement. There are not enough trigger warnings in the world to truly encapsulate the horror Junko endured. The case acted as a catalyst for the Japanese people to open their eyes to the pervasive problem of child abduction and remains one of the country’s most troubling instances of violence to date. What is incredible about this story is not just the unthinkable savagery of those who took her life but also Junko’s will to carry on as long as she did.

Episode 720 - Joe Dante / John Carpenter

Most recent John Carpenter interviews make the Halloween director sound like he’s over the interview process and more interested in talking about video games and NBA basketball than his film career. Carpenter stopped by Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, promoting his latest two albums of original music—Lost Themes and Lost Themes II—in addition to his international tour. Maron comes off as apologetic in the bumper segments, implying that he maybe didn’t get as much as he wanted out of the man behind The Thing and They Live, but Carpenter is quite chatty, delving into his time at the University Of Southern California, where George Lucas was a year ahead of him and Robert Zemeckis a year behind, as well as the current state of horror and his disinterest in The Walking Dead. The second half finds Maron chatting with Roger Corman protégé Joe Dante. Dante reminisces on his early days working for New World Pictures, cutting trailers (“cinematic haiku”) for Corman’s low-budget schlockers. One of the more amusing tales details how the man would eventually bring audiences subversive hits such as Gremlins, The ’Burbs, and Innerspace in the ’80s and how he hustled his way to his first directorial effort (Hollywood Boulevard) alongside Allan Arkush (Rock ’NRoll High School) by using stock footage from the New World Library to craft a parody of moviemaking, using the Corman “three-girl formula.”

We see what you said there

“So apparently, Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony were really good friends. But they had one of the first public battles of who has it worse: black men or white women. The battle has existed publicly to this day. You may remember it in 2008 with Barack Obama vs. Hillary Clinton.” —W. Kamau Bell on Politically Re-Active, digging into one of Kathleen Hanna’s comments about Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony

“What happens if we mansplain mansplaining? Does that mean we’re like the ultimate mansplainers or the ultimate feminists?” —W. Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu on Politically Re-Active

“John Marshall is still the chief justice, and he gets into a dustup with Andrew Jackson. And this is Jackson we’re talking about, so generally it was, ‘I would like to do horrible things to Native Americans.’ And the court was like, ‘You probably shouldn’t horrible things to the Native Americans.’ And Jackson was like, ‘SHUT UP. I don’t remember asking you a goddamn thing.’ —Contributing legal editor Elie Mystal on More Perfect