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Week of April 7-13

The best podcasts of the week


“I was looking around for something else. If I was a more emo teenager, I might have found The Smiths and locked onto them. If I was an angrier teenager, I might have found The Violet Femmes. If I was a teenager who had even a shot at having sex with anyone, I would have found Roxy Music, maybe. But as it was, I was a horribly, insufferably pretentious kid… This is the band that I discovered.” —Glen Weldon on Talking Heads, Pop Culture Happy Hour

“There’s no really tactful way to tell anybody you want them to be your sex slave.”  —Dan Savage, Savage Love 

The B.S. Report With Bill Simmons
It’s a rare NBA-free week for Bill Simmons, who starts off by hosting former Red Sox player Kevin Millar. The two begin by going over the recent Manny Ramirez news, then spend an inordinate amount of time on Simmons’ favorite subject: the 2004 Red Sox. They touch on the Red Sox’s slow start to this season, but briefly, in the final 10 minutes of the podcast. Next up, Simmons welcomes comedian Norm MacDonald, who starts off the podcast sounding barely conscious and coherent. But MacDonald perks up as he goes through anecdotes like when he played tennis with Jon Lovitz, and sings “Maggie Mae” in the voice of Gordon Lightfoot. While a lot of his humor misses, MacDonald’s acerbic deadpan still hits solidly when he discusses the O.J. Simpson and Robert Blake cases, or talks about meeting ill children who don’t know who he is. For the last podcast of the week, Simmons has a double-header of ESPN’s Wright Thompson and Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynksi. Thompson offers up one of the week’s most intriguing segments, discussing what it’s like to cover the Masters golf tournament and the cricket world cup, not to mention his favorite whiskeys. Wyshynski previews the NHL playoffs, and much to Simmons’ delight, claims the Bruins have a good shot at making the Stanley Cup Finals. 

Culture Gabfest: #134 Drinkable Suede Edition
This week’s Gabfest begins with a meaty discussion of the late director Sidney Lumet. The hosts mostly focus on Dog Day Afternoon, Serpico, and The Verdict, making for another reminder of how unlikely and satisfying it is that one person made so many great yet dissimilar movies. But they do find common threads in Lumet’s career, including an obsession with law, how little ego he imposed onto his films, and how his heroes are often “crazy, insecure assholes.” The Gabfest trio can just as strongly compel listeners to watch something by panning it, which they do with PBS’ new Stanley Tucci-hosted series, Vine Talk. (Celebrities attempting vapid wine reviews and John Lithgow bloviating about his slow cooker? Shit, try everything once!) Lastly, Slate staffer Meghan O’Rourke comes on to discuss her new memoir of grief, The Long Goodbye. Because Julia Turner and the other hosts were around to encourage the book, they’re able to make the discussion more heartfelt and insightful than just a plug for a co-worker.

Doug Loves Movies: Ralph Garman, T.J. Miller, and Andy Wood
The games are never the most notable aspect of any Doug Loves Movies episode, but this week’s round of The Leonard Maltin Game merits notice because a panelist finally bites the “Ernest Goes To… movies” bullet. And after weeks of anticipation, there’s an actual climax: First-time guest Andy Wood pulls the Ernest rug out from under DLM regular T.J. Miller, guessing Ernest Goes To School in “negative one names” (meaning he had to guess the title of the film and name the first actor billed—which, duh), going only by the year of release (1994) and some typically vague, wishy-washy details from Maltin (“completely predictable and unfunny,” “only for diehard Ernest fans”). Wood’s victory is perhaps the biggest Ernest-related payoff earned by anyone not named Jim Varney.

Firewall & Iceberg: No. 68 
In another dense episode, Hitfix.com’s Alan Sepinwall and Daniel Fienberg review the première of the moving final season of NBC’s Friday Night Lights, the overlong Burn Notice standalone prequel movie The Fall Of Sam Axe, the bland pilot of Happy Endings (the latest adventures-of-six-friends drama-comedy), the so-so debut of The Paul Reiser Show (Reiser plays a version of himself in the most recent variation on the Curb Your Enthusiasm model), and more. Sepinwall and Fienberg love HBO’s Game Of Thrones, an epic, pseudo-medieval, semi-mystical story of political intrigue. Neither Fire nor Ice is a big fantasy fan, but they declare it The Sopranos with swords, and they rank it just short of Lord Of The Rings. Then the critics take a battleaxe to the returning, rebooted, revamped Law & Order: Los Angeles, which mounts a spree of rape and death in a ploy to get blood flowing among flagging viewers—which it does, but in a bad way. (“This is about as exploitative and nasty a way of bringing the show back as [executive producer] Dick Wolfe could possibly conceive of, and I don’t know if he’s punishing viewers or if he’s punishing NBC, but he’s sure as hell punishing somebody, and I got pissed off watching these episodes,” notes Fienberg. “This is despicable, the way he has brought this show back… ‘Worse than The Event’ is the worst pejorative I can come up with. I don’t root against shows very often, but I really want this to fail.”)

Hang Up And Listen: The Cabin Unlike Any Other Edition
The wackiest Masters finish in ages provides so many dramatic and stupefying subplots that hosts Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca probably could have devoted all three segments to it. So they hit the high points, including Tiger Woods’ just-a-few-putts-short-of-spectacular run on Sunday, which leads them to offer up the surprising stat that age affects putting more than power; 21-year-old Rory McIlroy’s stunning collapse from the leaderboard (also perhaps age-influenced); and Adam Scott’s use of the “long-putter,” which seems like a club that would be banned if more people used it. And, of course, they can’t resist taking shots at Jim Nantz, the man responsible for the nauseating gravitas that CBS brings to the Masters annually. Elsewhere, Fatsis and Pesca look more sympathetically than most on Manny Ramirez’s legacy in the wake of his sudden retirement after a second failed drug test, and the gang uses Derrick Rose’s presumptive MVP award as a reason to reflect on what MVP is supposed to mean. Fatsis offers the juiciest “afterball” segment, about the sponsoring of pages at baseball-reference.com. For the right price, sponsors are allowed to leave a message on the page. (On Marvin Benard’s page, a sponsor named “A high fastball” writes: “I loved this guy. He couldn’t hit me with a tree trunk.”)

How Was Your Week With Julie Klausner: Ep. 5 The One With Joan Rivers
The celebrity caliber of Julie Klausner’s podcast guests to date jumped exponentially this week with guest Joan Rivers. Any fan of Rivers (or of last year’s fine documentary Joan Rivers: A Piece Of Work) will especially want to tune in, as Klausner, an unapologetic fangirl who disdains anyone for taking the time to point out that Rivers has had some cosmetic surgery done, treats her interview subject both as a comedy legend and a loving Jewish grandma. Klausner avoids the obvious touchstones of her career to discuss Rivers’ relationship with other performers and her family, and gets her to talk shit about Peter Cook and Elizabeth Taylor, not to mention play “Fuck, Marry, Kill,” Hollywood Squares edition. Warning: may make gentiles consider converting to Judaism. 

Jordan, Jesse, Go!: #170 The Bible Guarantees It With Trevor Moore
If your podcast rating system heavily figures in how many times A.V. Club staff members are name-checked, then this is one of the best podcasts in the history of time. Jesse Thorn and Jordan Morris are joined by Trevor Moore of The Whitest Kids U Know, and open the show with the DVD commentary of the sketch where Timmy eats too many hot dogs. Moore correctly points out that it’s stupid that people try to save sharks from extinction when they’re such awful animals to begin with. The guys also take on the impending apocalypse, placing bets on whether the world will end in a purging, cleansing, punishing fire, or a simple blip. (The answer of course being: a long time from now when we don’t have to worry about it and all our dogs will go to heaven.) The usually magnanimous Thorn also takes this opportunity to declare with authority that Ray-J (of Kim Kardashian sex-tape fame) is, by definition, a dipshit, which we all knew already, but he’s backed up by a Ray-J anecdote from Jordan.

Judge John Hodgman: #19 The Ironman Trial-Athlon
Displaying very little wisdom about the sports-adverse Judge Hodgman, marathoner Tom foolishly brings a case against his wife Veronique, who doesn’t want him to train for and participate in the Ironman Triathlon, an annual event in Hawaii where athletes swim 2.4 miles, bike another 112 miles, then run a full marathon. Tom speaks of his passion for running, which is responsible for the shedding of 80 pounds and feelings of euphoria over a great accomplishment. But Tom, who’s in his 40s and has two sons, promised his wife after his first marathon that he’d never run another, and that promise proved to be meaningless, as he continues to pursue his extreme-sporting dreams at his family’s potential expense. This is a big decision for Judge Hodgman—almost too weighty, in fact, for a whimsical podcast to take responsibility for making—but it’s also a reminder of how his verdicts are usually at least as wise as they are funny. 

The Nerdist: #77 Black Dynamite Panel
The Caucasians over at The Nerdist have been geeking out over the blaxploitation spoof Black Dynamite for months now, with good reason: It’s an amazing comedy. Chris Hardwick, Matt Mira, and Jonah Ray take their love of Black Dynamite to a whole new level and spread the Dynamite gospel even further by hosting a panel featuring star/co-writer Michael Jai White; co-writer/director Scott Sanders; Brian Ash, writer of the Black Dynamite spin-off comic book; and actor Byron Mims, who plays Bullhorn in the film. The panel will obviously play better to fans of the movie, who’ll dig hearing the insane level of detail that went into every element of it. Sanders, for example, explains how when he was directing, he put himself inside the mindset of a Jewish hippie obsessed with black culture who became more and more addled by his debilitating addiction to marijuana. White proves a genial, amusing panelist and his rage toward mascots and costumed creatures of all sorts proves a winning running joke. This will delight Black Dynamite fans, and hopefully bring plenty of new recruits into the fold. 

Never Not Funny: #820 Jon Hamm
With Mad Men on hiatus until 2012, Jon Hamm is bored, so he fills his time with what’s likely instinctual at this point: guesting on a comedy podcast. It’s his fourth trip to the world of Never Not Funny, but this episode sounds more like it was imported from the calming shores of Sklarboro Country. Together, Hamm and Jimmy Pardo rival the brothers Sklar in pace, often climbing over each other to get to the punchline as they share their extensive knowledge of the absurdities in baseball history, from players’ names to advantageous deformities (pitcher Antonio “The Octopus” Alfonseca has six fingers on each hand) to unfortunate team colors. (“The San Diego Padres were very dependent on mustard.”) They also repeatedly touch on God and the devil, as Hamm contemplates a sequel to “Devil Went Down To Georgia” featuring Chuck D, and plays devil’s advocate in a long-standing rift between Pardo and the villainous George Lopez. 

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Comfort Food For Your Weary Soul
This week’s PCHH starts off with a discussion of “comfort food” pop culture that the participants return to when they’re feeling distanced from their favorite genres and want to be reminded why they love what they love. That topic easily could have become a nostalgic, enthusiastic, but not particularly nuanced list-fest like the recent podcast on recommended pop culture for children, but some unusual, diverse choices (My Bodyguard, Laura, Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni novels, Stars Of The Lid) and discussion of how the participants engage with these works makes this a particularly winning episode. And as usual, the participants’ willingness to both openly laugh at each other’s choices and to ask serious questions about them makes for an acid-tinged yet casual, comfortable conversation. This episode also features the welcome return of the Regrettable Television Pop Quiz, where one participant digs up a ridiculous recent TV moment (“My restaurant concept would be soups, and my inspiration probably comes from soups”), and challenges the other three to identify it. And this week’s What’s Making Us Happy show-end roundup covers comedy podcasts, Marc Maron’s Conan O’Brien episode of WTF, “Lex Luthor on a bike,” and The Onion’s new release of its old archives. (“It’s a little like your mother posting a rich archive of pictures of you on the potty,” laments Onion vet and A.V. Club founder Stephen Thompson, who’s worried his old writing might come to light.)

The Sound Of Young America: Das Racist’s Kool A.D. and Dap
For many, Das Racist is one of those groups whose name has become increasingly familiar, but whose work isn’t necessarily ubiquitous. Jesse Thorn’s interview with two of the rap trio’s three members reveals what about the Brooklyn-based group attracts its fans: an ironic, intelligent sensibility, and lyrics that reference everything from combination Pizza Hut/Taco Bells to the Office’s Dwight Schrute to cuneiform. It’s hard not to like Kool A.D. and Dap, who try to downplay their own success and ambition while in the same breath admitting that their seeming apathy is just a front. It may also be the only rap interview (or interview in history) where the subjects defend New York Times Magazine Q&A columnist Deborah Solomon. 

WTF With Marc Maron: #164 Live With Bill Hader, Fred Armisen, Eric Drysdale, Chuck Klosterman, and Sarah Vowell
On live WTFs, Marc Maron takes a brief break from delivering psychological enemas to comedy giants and ventures out into the world to get outside his head for a while. On this rollicking live episode, Maron ponders the enigma of Charlie Sheen alongside a characteristically manic Chuck Klosterman, waxes geeky and historical with Sarah Vowell (who has the line of the episode when she quips that discussing trending topics like Glenn Beck and Charlie Sheen alongside pop-culture geeks made her feel like she was “in a room with the Internet”), and is equally intrigued and perplexed by a project from Colbert Report writer Eric Drysdale that involves creating satirical 3-D view strips for old ViewMasters. That’s exactly the kind of precious McSweeney’s conceit Maron usually finds overly twee, but he nevertheless enjoys talking about the kind of curious obsession Drysdale acknowledges would qualify as outsider art if he wasn’t a professional comedy writer. The episode peaks with Fred Armisen acknowledging what comedy fans have long suspected: that the “political comedian” with plenty of incoherent anger and no jokes or material he sometimes plays on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” is essentially a pastiche of Maron and David Cross. This episode doesn’t just have the agreeably shaggy, ramshackle, loosey-goosey vibe of a stellar live WTF; it’s informative too! 

The Adam Carolla Show
Adam Carolla and crew go one for five this week, producing one tight conversation and four optional downloads. Ace spends a quality hour with Jesse “The Body” Ventura, the former pro-wrestling great and Minnesota governor. Ventura discusses the art of manly existence, including Navy SEAL training, the nuances of underwater demolition, and raising your kids to have intestinal fortitude. The Body also teases his new book, 63 Documents Your Government Doesn’t Want You To See. Ventura, who has firsthand experience, characterizes the U.S. government’s collective persona as “a lying bastard” and says waterboarding “is absolutely torture… It fills all your sinuses, you’re in extreme pain, and from there, you get the complete sensation of drowning.” In a two-hour gabfest, Carolla and comedian Joe Rogan talk about life in L.A. and their best stand-up gigs. (Apparently, Canadian audiences proportionately have 20 percent fewer douchebags.) Comedian Greg Fitzsimmons returns for show No. 1 in as many weeks, comparing notes about domestic bliss and ordering Taco Bell in volume. Ace and comedian-actor Christopher Titus dish on dealing with Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien. (Leno comes off more favorably.) And Carrola flies solo, playing Dan Savage in “Relationship Calls,” advising callers on how to get a girlfriend to drop weight, whether two and a half years is too long to hold a grudge about a controversy early in a relationship, and how to deal with an ex who doesn’t want to accept the “ex” mantle. 

Extra Hot Great: #26 Canon Fodder
With all three hosts—David T. Cole, Tara Ariano, and Joe Reid—going away for the weekend, this super-sized episode tackles a whopping four user-submitted entries for EHG’s TV “Canon,” specifically Friday Night Lights’ “I Think We Should Have Sex,” Terriers’ “Asunder,” The West Wing’s “Somebody’s Going To Emergency, Somebody’s Going To Jail,” and Freaks And Geeks’ “Dead Dogs And Gym Teachers.” They come up with fresh insights and perspective on all four—three of which the hosts wisely regard as stone-cold classics—but it’ll be nice to return to the usual variety of segments next week. 

The Moth: Salman Rushdie: Writer’s Block
Not many people can kick off a story with the statement “As it happened, I’d been invited to a revolution,” but novelist Salman Rushdie does just that in this narrative about visiting Nicaragua in 1986 at the behest of Rosario Murillo, the “compañera” of Sandinista National Liberation Front leader Daniel Ortega. His likely isn’t the most common method of combating writer’s block, but as Rushdie explains, “If you’re writing a book and it’s not going well, why don’t you go and look at the lives of people who are really having a bad time, and you can immediately feel superior and come home and finish your work.” His story is really more of a string of small anecdotes than an organized narrative, but it provides an interesting—and often surprisingly funny—snapshot of a tumultuous era. It certainly proved fruitful for him: He completed The Satanic Verses upon returning home.

Radiolab: Radiolab Shorts: In The Running
There isn’t a lot to this short, but Diane Van Deren, who became one of the world’s finest ultra-long-distance runners largely thanks to using running as an ad hoc seizure cure, is a fascinating character, and the twin stories of how she came up with her seizure-delay methods and the doctors who fought to save her are compelling.

Savage Love: Episode 234
Dan Savage finally follows through on his threat/promise of an entire episode of one-minute questions and answers. The show works best when the questions allow cut-and-dried answers (“Douche it, grease it, stick it in the air,” he advises a woman who wants to know how to get her boyfriend to give it to her anally) or the cold hard truth we love hearing from Savage. (He advises one woman to dump her depressed boyfriend because he won’t seek treatment, and another to butt out of her friend’s bush-maintenance preferences.) There are a surprising number of “I don’t know”-type answers this week as well, such as the older gentleman asking about the particulars of cruising Chicago’s Viagra Triangle for sex, or the woman who wants to know if there are any dating websites for people with STIs. The concept is fun for one episode, but doesn’t surpass the regular, more relaxed format. 

Sklarbro Country: 38 Howard Kremer, Jason Nash
Incestuous podcast worlds collide as Howard Kremer, the host of the supremely half-assed yet enjoyable podcast Who Charted?, trades quips and quick hits with the brothers Sklar. The episode peaks with a closing bit that finds Jason Nash’s viciously funny parody of Olympic-hero-turned-reality-television stooge Bruce Jenner talking up his new job folding sweaters at Forever 21 while trying to win back at least a tiny bit of the dignity his involvement with the Kardashians has cost him. 

The Sound Of Young America: Comedy From Superego: “The Remington County Folk and Electronics Expo
Superego provided a little comedy bitlet for The Sound this week, a clever radio-commercial parody based on the concept of what happens when a folksy country fair and gray-market tech expo share the same venue. Juxtaposition! Listen for the funniest reading of the word “Mitsubishi” you’ve ever heard. 

The Sound Of Young America: Interview With John Darnielle Of The Mountain Goats
Jesse Thorn has been theme-y the last few weeks on TSOYA: He had a few hip-hop-themed episodes followed by some indie-rock interviews. After last week’s interview with the New Pornographers’ Carl Newman, Thorn follows up with a chat with Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, largely about the songwriting process. The conversation occasionally gets heavy, especially on the topic of confessional songwriting, but Darnielle helps bring it down to earth by talking about what he gets out of death metal, the emotional merits of the strings in ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” and writing a song about watching the Cubs play on TV.

Sound Opinions: Tax Day Special
Jim Derogatis and Greg Kot help listeners chase away the Tax Day blues by sharing some of their favorite songs about money and the struggle to get it, including Wu-Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” Fenton Robinson’s “Somebody Loan Me A Dime,” and, predictably, The Beatles’ “Taxman.” They also rave about the new TV On The Radio album Nine Types Of Light, and are considerably less perceptive about Britney Spears’ Femme Fatale, making a silly argument about it signaling the end of her career as a pop phenom because it “only” sold 276,000 copies in its first week. Once again, the normally sharp minds of Sound Opinions reveal a troubling blind spot when it comes to pop music, and their inability to engage with it in a substantive way.  

This American Life, #432: Know When To Fold 'Em
This week’s episode is an easy listen, but lacks any single, strong narrative. The loose poker theme amounts to a series of standoffs in which someone backs down: Middle Eastern dictators vs. the people, Christian father vs. heathen son, alcoholics vs. sobriety. 

WTF With Marc Maron: 165: Ed Helms
Though he went through his share of normal adolescent ennui, Ed Helms may not have dark, shadowy, nightmarish depths for Marc Maron to plumb. So Maron and Helms sit down with a guitar and a banjo, respectively, for a semi-jam session/genial conversation that touches on Helms’ thriving career and the difficulties of simultaneously filming The Office and The Hangover while trying to keep a missing tooth a secret from his sitcom bosses. It’s breezy, likeable, engaging fare, but Maron usually aims a little higher.