Week of March 17-23

The best podcasts of the week

Since the iPod debuted in 2001, it has gone from portable music player to a medium in itself: Podcasts, like blogs, indelibly shaped the media landscape in less than a decade. The A.V. Club listens to a lot of them, and Podmass is our weekly round-up of the podcasts we follow. 

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

“It’s been an absolutely titanic tussle, John. Just when you think mankind has worked its way back into the lead as the biggest tool versus nature, nature pulls another piece of dickery out of its capacious nutsack.” —Andy Zaltzman, The Bugle

THE BEST
Best Show Gems: An Interview With Chris Langstrom From The Wednesday Rockets
This 30-minute installment of Best Show Gems makes listeners work for their laughs. The first third is a relatively straight-faced interview between Scharpling and Jon Wurster as Chris Langstrom, an emo superstar proud to announce the latest addition to his band: the father who abandoned him decades earlier and inspired his many songs of betrayal and abandonment. After Langstrom hangs up in despair upon realizing his father almost assuredly has dodgy motives for reconciling with him, the real fun begins, as Wurster calls up again, this time in the guise of the elder Langstrom. Like many of the best Scharpling & Wurster routines, this gets comic mileage out of sleazy show-business opportunists before taking a turn for the bizarre and obscure: The elder Langstrom segues from pimping his new line of denim lingerie to recounting being whipped during a hazing by the secretly sadistic prog-rock menaces in Yes. The podcast’s first third doesn’t even try to be funny, but listeners who hang around for the entire bit will be richly rewarded with another of Wurster’s delightfully demented, undeservedly antagonistic schemers. 

The Bugle #147: Man Versus Nature
According to John Oliver, Andy Zaltzman chose the right week to head off to India for the Cricket World Cup: “You could not have picked a better time to hibernate from the world by curling up in the comforting womb of sports.” Nevertheless, the two “dive into the depressing pond of horror that is human affairs” by weighing the dickishness of nature against the tyranny of man. The battle ends more or less in a draw, but Oliver and Zaltzman make clear their bottomless contempt for Colonel Gadhafi and the Earth’s crust. They also go off on Donald Trump, who this week audaciously trumpeted his ambitions as a viable GOP Presidential candidate by declaring, “Part of the beauty of me is that I’m very rich.” The back-and-forth on Japan, Libya, and other such horrors is typically witty, but they find some levity, too, in Hugo Chavez’s bizarre campaign against breast augmentation and an Al Qaeda-produced glossy magazine for women that mixes beauty tips with lessons in jihad. 

Comedy Death-Ray Radio #97: Jon Hamm, Seth Morris
A CDR episode with Don Draper and Bob Ducca has all the makings of a blockbuster, and #97 more or less delivers. Surprisingly, Hamm is a frequent guest in podcast land—or maybe not, with Mad Men on hiatus—and he makes for an affable, funny guest going up against the warped neediness of Seth Morris’ Ducca. Before Ducca arrives, Aukerman (a.k.a. Clark Soccermom) is able to talk to Hamm about the usual stuff (upcoming projects, the nebulous return of Mad Men), but once his sad-sack ex-step-father shows up, the silliness kicks in: a list of things Ducca is powerless over (including Celestial Seasonings Sleepytime Tea and “Michael Jackson’s coma juice”), a poem devoted to coconut water (“Inside you is contained the moist wisdom of tropical ancients!”), another list about pornography, and even a self-penned theme song. Hamm is game for all of it, patiently explaining that, no, Mad Men isn’t simply actors recreating old-time commercials. “Angry Fellas, that’s what it’s called?” Ducca asks.

Culture Gabfest #130: SXSW Edition
Podcasting live from South By Southwest amplifies the silly flirtatiousness of the three Gabfest hosts in this suitably loose episode, which veers from Stephen Metcalf joking about how good Julia Turner looks draped across the hood of a car to an argument about how to pronounce “vehement.” They’re more in their element at SXSW than you might expect: The hosts lead an impressively eclectic discussion about their best live-music experiences, ranging from Vic Chesnutt to Das Racist. Besides, they had better be a tad giddy if they’re going to discuss The Beaver, a new film in which Mel Gibson handles his depression by way of a puppet alter-ego (though nobody points out the sheer weirdness of a Frightened Rabbit song being used in the trailer). Later, film critic Dana Stevens sticks up for the new Jane Eyre film adaptation, which inspires a discussion about Austen vs. Bronte.

Extra Hot Great: #23: Our Favorite Martians
Given the choice between seeing Paul among the nerds or Limitless among the douchebags, David Cole, Tara Ariano, and Joe Reid opted for the former and wound up mostly regretting it. All of them feel the comedy isn’t up to the standard set by other Simon Pegg/Nick Frost collaborations like Shaun Of The Dead and Hot Fuzz, and they’re particularly bothered the film’s habit of making mere reference to various sci-fi staples without also making any jokes. But the gang converts this piece of pop-culture flotsam into delightful jetsam by listing their three favorite Martians from TV and movies, leaning heavily on examples from the Star Wars movies and Futurama. (Particularly funny: Cole’s citing of the perpetually topless vampire alien from Lifeforce, and a hilarious sound clip of Leonard Maltin’s incredulous review.) Elsewhere, Ariano launches on an “I Am Not A Crackpot” rant about the obtrusive size of the TV ratings graphic—and threatens violence should it ever cover Timothy Olyphant’s face—and Reid marvels at the evolution of his snarky #futureCommunitygimmicks meme, which started as a joke, grew more surreal, and was finally picked up by people who actually work on the show. 

Hang Up And Listen: The Super Sweet 16 Edition
“There are as many teams Big East teams [in the Sweet 16] as there are teams from Richmond, Virginia,” marvels Josh Levin over the opening rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. (Only two of the 11 teams from the vaunted Big East conference made it past the first weekend, while Richmond and VCU proved to be viable Cinderella stories.) Levin and co-hosts Mike Pesca and Stefan Fatsis are generally not given to unabashed enthusiasm, but a tournament full of nail-biters and big-star turns from the likes of BYU’s Jimmer Fredette and UConn’s Kemba Walker brings out the fan in them. Not to worry, though, because the shameful violations of NCAA coaches returns them to earth, leaving them to argue over whether Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel’s nondisclosure of his players’ tattoos-for-memorabilia trade was worse than now-former Tennessee basketball coach Bruce Pearl’s barbecue for potential recruits. The episode ends on a fascinating interview with Jonah Keri about his Tampa Bay Rays book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took A Major League Baseball Team From Worst To First. Keri’s remarks about the breathtaking chicanery of former Rays owner Vince Naimoli—whose Draconian ban on outside food once kept an diabetic senior from entering the stadium with a baggie full of cashews—are particularly amusing/horrifying.

How Was Your Week? With Julie Klausner #2: “The Taste Of Christmas Morning”
Humor writer and actress Julie Klausner has added podcasting to her resume with her new show How Was Your Week?, a low-key, chatty show that should appeal to smart people who like talking about relatively silly things, such as Johnny Depp’s increasing levels of pretentiousness or the shady history of McDonaldland characters. Klausner’s guests are her friends, who either run in entertainment circles or share her passion for pop culture. This week, Jesse Murray visits to discuss the top five films set in New York (a much less pretentious list of movies than you’d probably expect with a title like that) and actor Anthony Atamanuik comes by to talk about his experience as a diner on Top Chef Masters.  For those who enjoy pop culture but don’t take it too seriously, Klausner’s podcast may have listeners nodding in agreement and wishing they could join the conversation. 

Jordan, Jesse, Go! #168: Moose with Dana Gould
JJGo is always Los Angeles-centric, and this week’s episode features one of the show’s occasional glimpses into the business of entertainment, as Simpsons writer-producer and comic Dana Gould reveals how he got his job and talks about being married to HBO president Sue Naegle. For comedy nerds, Gould dissects an old bit discussing whether it’s cool to use the word “retarded” in comedy, and for NPR nerds, the guys discuss the most fuckable NPR hosts (and make fun of Garrison Keillor and the overly enthusiastic Prairie Home Companion audience).

The Moth: Anthony Griffith: Best Of Times, Worst Of Times
In his introduction to this episode, Dan Kennedy warns that this might be the saddest story The Moth has ever featured, and he’s not exaggerating. “Best Of Times, Worst Of Times” is brutal. Griffith is a stand-up comedian, something he utilizes as a framing device rather than a storytelling style: He recounts his three appearances on The Tonight Show in 1990, contrasting his professional success with the personal tragedy of watching his 2-year-old daughter suffer from cancer, a heartbreak that he clearly still carries right on the surface. Griffith’s narration is almost uncomfortably raw, jackknifing between unvarnished anguish and vulnerable anger as he approaches the story’s inevitable conclusion. It’s powerful, tear-jerking stuff, and should not be listened to anywhere there’s a chance people might catch you openly weeping. 

Sklarbro Country #34: Kumail Nanjiani, Chris Cox
Jason and Randy Sklar marry the seemingly disparate worlds of sports, comedy, and independent rock by irreverently documenting a ridiculous side of the sports universe. In the Sklars’ capable hands, the wild world of sports becomes a cavalcade of crazy, featuring larger-than-life loons like Cappie Pondexter, the gloriously named WNBA lunatic whose tweets about the Japanese tsunami being some sort of cosmic revenge for Pearl Harbor understandably got her into trouble, and the opportunist jackasses behind the Lebron Jordan shoe company (which is endorsed by neither Lebron James nor Michael Jordan). Guest Kumail Nanjiani drops by to discuss his love of basketball video games and respond to the Sklars’ theory that distracting Islamist fundamentalists with video games and sports is the key to Middle East peace. Closing out the strong episode is Chris Cox’s Jerry Jones impersonation, which plays to the jock side of the Sklarbro demographic, but appeases the geekocracy with a bit involving Jones’ unexpectedly effete clone. 

Sound Opinions: Sampling in music
This special episode discussing the legal system’s shutdown of the golden age of sampling covers some well-worn ground, but it’s a solid primer for those unaware (or unappreciative) of the vitality of this art form or how copyright laws have all but made it illegitimate in the mainstream. Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis speak with author, filmmaker, and academic Kembrew McLeod, whose documentary Copyright Criminals tells the story of the rise and fall of this technological innovation, where artists like Public Enemy and De La Soul created records by painstakingly piecing together sounds from hundreds of recordings, only to be later taken to court by the owners of those recordings. Because of the difficulty and expense of securing copyright clearances for samples, McLeod says the sample-based masterpieces of the late ’80s and early ’90s simply couldn’t be made today. (He estimates that the Beastie BoysPaul’s Boutique would now cost $20 million to make.) Again, nothing new here for the serious fan of hip-hop or sample-based music, though there are some surprises among Kot and DeRo’s choices for essential examples of sampling. Look out for the killer track “Power” by avant-garde artist John Oswald, who merged Led Zeppelin with a Southern Baptist preacher on the same song way back in 1975.

This American Life #402: Save The Day
When This American Life is at its best, it taps into things that are both extraordinary and universal, taking singular stories and prying them open until we’re looking at something human—something that looks like us. “Save The Day”—which originally aired last March, but trickily replayed with a new intro—does this well, hitting on normal folks who find themselves performing as heroes. Ira Glass takes the mic after a two-week absence, interviewing in the prologue a guy who, when he was 11, ended up handling poisonous snakes at a “butterfly farm” before a crowd of his classmates. Act One, though, is where this episode really excels. It’s always a bit of a risk to hand over half the show to a single narrator, but James Spring’s story is so incredible that it deserves every one of its 30 minutes. As part of a somewhat twisted midlife crisis, Spring decides he’d like to do something both good and big for this 40th birthday: He rejects standard charitable options and instead chooses to track down two missing girls in Baja, Mexico. Against his wife’s wishes, he calls in to work and says he’s not coming in, packs his car full of supplies, and heads south, relying on his former days as a drug trafficker to lead the way. As Spring says, he’s not a bounty hunter, he’s just a guy. And that’s what makes the story so crazy.

WTF With Marc Maron #158: Tom Rhodes
When Marc Maron describes Tom Rhodes as a “journeyman comic,” he means it as high praise. Rhodes had his cultural moment in the ’90s as one of Comedy Central’s pet comics and the star of a misbegotten sitcom (Mr. Rhodes), before settling into the life of touring comic with some unexpected stints as a travel-show presenter and talk-show host in Amsterdam. In a warm, affectionate, and anecdote-laden conversation, Maron and Rhodes discuss their strangely simpatico roads to relative happiness (they are comedians, so there’s a limit on how content they can be at any given time) while casting a bemused look back at their early, booze-and-drug-laden days coming up together. The episode gives listeners, who might vaguely remember Rhodes as a long-haired guy from the ’90s, a revealing glimpse into the veteran’s life, as both a stand-up and a human being. 

THE REST
The Adam Carolla Show
The Adam Carolla Show for the week, in order of descending interest: Ace holds a power podcaster summit with Nerdist host Chris Hardwick, with insights about DIY and the medium at hand: “Podcasts are the new comedy albums,” says Hardwick, “because people are so voracious about their entertainment. When you were younger, you could listen to a Steve Martin album 150 times. The concept of a comedy album is sad—nobody buys them. People will listen to stuff once, and that’s it. People want new content all the time.” After the crew raps about Chris Brown, director James Gunn talks about the gray areas of consensual sex, then the cast of his twisted new superhero movie, Super. Comedian Lisa Lampanelli goes in-depth about how Comedy Central roasts come together (and sometimes don’t). Want to get Ace on topic? Invite a race-car driver. IndyCar champion Dario Franchitti discusses the joys of wrecking $4 million cars. And Carolla honors sports-talk jocks Petros Papadakis and Matt “Money” Smith with his weekly recollection of how he met Jimmy Kimmel. (Everyone now: “Ace, then a carpenter and aspiring boxing trainer, volunteered to train Kimmel, then a DJ—and next thing you know, The Man Show!”)

The BS ReportSteve Kerr
Simmons’ lone podcast this week is with one of his regulars, Steve Kerr, former player and president of basketball operations for the Phoenix Suns. Kerr’s not the most magnetic of guests, and it’s a testament to Simmons that the podcast is as interesting as it is. The two hit on the NCAA men’s tournament—in which Kerr was a TV analyst for games involving his alma mater, the University Of Arizona—and the development of talent, discussing if some of today’s NBA stars would have been better served to play in college longer or, in the case of Kobe Bryant, at all. There’s plenty of talk about the possibility of an NBA lockout and the upcoming playoffs; it’s territory Simmons has tread before, particularly in recent weeks, so there’s not a whole of new information.

Doug Loves Movies: Kevin Pollak, Dave Foley, Anthony Jeselnik
Dave Foley can’t catch a break on Doug Loves Movies: After playing second fiddle to Jeff Garlin three weeks ago, he’s barely able to work with/around Kevin Pollak in this episode, taped in Austin during the South By Southwest. Unfortunately Pollak’s not as fun as Garlin was: His first lines are spoken in a British accent, he confronts overly silent Anthony Jeselnik over the way Jeselnik holds his microphone, and, naturally, tries out a Charlie Sheen impression. He was probably just sore because he wasn’t invited to do an episode of Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show at the festival; Foley, meanwhile, at least got to be on the subsequent Comedy Death-Ray Radio taping.

Firewall & Iceberg #65 
Sepinwall and Fienberg cover three distinct food-service programs: their mutual and growing love of Fox’s Bob’s Burgers, distaste for SyFy reality show Quantum Kitchen, and ambivalence toward the bloated HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Their conclusions: Eat at Bob’s, and if you want an Emmy-worthy performance by Kate Winslet as Mrs. Pierce, you’ll have to endure some unsettling ambience and a long wait.

Judge John Hodgman #17: Parents Just Don’t Understand
Judge Hodgman presides over an adorable conflict between a father who wants to expose his child to the classic-film curricula she doesn’t get at school and the 16-year-old girl who would rather be hanging out with friends or doing her homework. Amusingly, Hodgman seems inspired to impose his own canon on plaintiff and defendant—The Third Man and The Seven Samurai most prominently—but rightly concludes that the girl will probably be more inclined to seek out good films if her father isn’t forcing them on her. 

Nerdist #71: Brad Meltzer
Comedians and actors are Nerdist’s bread and butter, but every now and then, Hardwick And Co. switch it up with a guest who’s not necessarily funny by trade, such as novelist/comic-book writer/Decoded host Brad Meltzer. Meltzer may not be a professional funny guy, but he is most certainly a nerd, and holds his own against Hardwick and Mira (Ray is absent due to traffic), trading observations about Freemason conspiracies and Ricardo Montalban’s pecs in Wrath Of Kahn. (Meltzer thinks they’re fake; Mira believes they’re real.) Given Meltzer’s profession, however, a good chunk of the conversation is given over to the discipline of writing.

Never Not Funny #817: Pat Francis
After last week’s reverent episode about cock rock, frequent guest and Jimmy Pardo’s favorite punching bag Pat Francis returns to cleanse the palate for a loose conversation. There are a few stalls out of the gate, but as often the case with Never Not Funny’s riffing, things converge at the close, when Francis explains why an off-day trip to the NNF studios led to an FBI interrogation, and videographer Eliot Hochberg offers a new, Pardo-baiting segment, “Help Me Tell A Story.” Nothing spectacular, but a typically solid episode nonetheless.

Radiolab: Pass The Science
It’s the rare unfocused and pointless installment of Radiolab, as Robert Krulwich chats with Richard Holmes, author of the terrific book The Age Of Wonder, and the conversation never seems to reach any kind of deeper meaning, largely because there’s so little time. Hopefully, Holmes will return to illuminate more tales of the early days of scientific discovery and at greater length.

Savage Lovecast #231 
One of the dangers in listening to the Savage Lovecast is that everything can start sounding repetitive. Old-school listeners have heard a billion questions about getting into BDSM or anal for the first time, and this week’s podcast touched on both of those yet again. In that sense, it was status quo for Dan Savage, who once again dished out level-headed sex advice to even the most inane of Lovecast callers, including one guy who “has nothing against gay guys” and emphatically isn’t gay, but is totally into “blow and gos” from random dudes. 

The Sound Of Young America
Two quickies on TSOYA this week: First, comic and writer Craig Rowin provides a silly trifle of a joke asking various celebrities for a million dollars. Then Noz, curator of the blog Cocaine Blunts, discusses his favorite new hip-hop tracks, providing a welcome respite for a nation weary of its mandatory intake of the Black Eyed Peas.

Stuff You Missed In History Class
Dowdey and Chakraborty continue to explore the lesser-known corners of world history with “Lampert The Pretender, Irish-Crowned King” and “Who Is India’s Joan of Arc?” In “Lampert,” the hosts discuss events leading up to the Battle Of Stoke, the final confrontation of the War Of The Roses, and how aspirants to the throne of England used a 10-year-old boy to legitimize their less-than-solid claims. Out of all the historical players, Dowdey and Chakraborty have the most sympathy for Lampert himself, and do a good job explaining his unfortunate situation: a pawn manipulated by adults who would most likely have “disappeared” the kid if their plan succeeded. In “India’s Joan of Arc,” the hosts take a look at a far more proactive figure, Lakshmi Bai. The wife of the Maharajah of Jhansi, Bai fought against the British for control of her principality after her husband died in 1853. Dowdey and Chakraborty make good sense out of some complicated political maneuvering, and provide a fascinating tribute to a remarkable woman warrior. 

WTF With Marc Maron #159: Adam Carolla
Worlds, podcasts, and sensibilities collide as Marc Maron welcomes The Man Show alum and popular podcaster Adam Carolla to WTF for a frank conversation about politics, high school, radio, relationships, women, welfare, and their antithetical fan bases. Uncharacteristically for WTF, but characteristically for Carolla, the guest dominates this episode. Those with a high tolerance for Carolla’s affable ranting will be rewarded with a spirited, if occasionally one-sided, conversation between two very different men who discover they have a lot in common.