Week of March 3-9

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

“When you work on Chekhov in college, you never think you’re preparing to play Butt-crack Plumber.” —Stephen Tobolowsky, The Tobolowsky Files

THE BEST
The Adam Carolla Show
It’s remarkable how the Ace show can avoid the topic at hand: During his interview with comedian/actor/author Michael Showalter, Carolla does most of the talking, and the pair manages to avoid discussing Showalter’s new memoir, Mr. Funny Pants, or his work on The State. Instead, they spend most of the time playing the Made Up Movie game, improvising plots for listener-suggested movie titles like The Pole—starring Natalie Portman as a Polish woman who emigrates to Las Vegas to become a stripper, but winds up a NASCAR driver. Otherwise, the riffs and interviews are keepers this week: Prison Break alumni Nick Santora and Dan Dratch talk about their new show, Breakout Kings; actor Jerry O’Connell has a long, filler-free conversation about Stand By Me, childhood obesity, and parenting; Mr. Skin talks about the modern-day golden age of celebrity nudity; Hollywood mogul Peter Guber (Batman, Rain Man) plugs his new successmanship manifesto Tell To Win. (But first, Guber has to endure Ace’s intriguing pitch for a dramatic Harlem Globetrotters movie.) 

Comedy Death-Ray Radio #95: Natasha Leggero, Harris Wittels, Matt Besser
What kind of week did Comedy Death-Ray have? The kind that has comedian Natasha Leggero saying “I have a narrow, shallow, wet pussy” four minutes into an 84-minute episode. To be fair, the blame for that rests on Martin Lawrence, with whom Leggero had the misfortune of performing recently. (Turns out he has a lot of “dry pussy” jokes.) The rest of the episode isn’t nearly as filthy, even though Matt Besser tells some dirty jokes under the guise of King George VI, a.k.a. Colin Firth’s character in The King’s Speech. Besser plays the king as a wannabe stand-up, stammering his way through ribald jokes to hilarious (and possibly guilt-inducing) effect. Another good segment finds Harris Wittels trying (and failing) to convince Scott Aukerman and Leggero that Phish is a good band via some song excerpts. “Most people who know you are surprised that you like something so shitty,” Aukerman says. (For the record, Aukerman’s favorite songs: “Batdance,” “Octopus’ Garden,” “Do The Bartman.”)

Culture Gabfest: #129 How Does That Make You Feel Edition
Let’s talk about something we fire up podcasts to escape: the letter-writers. Yes, those who’ve retained their old-fashioned sentence-forming abilities, but waste them on pompously bungling complaints to newspapers, magazines, and, in this case, NPR. This week’s Gabfest begins with Slate writer Farhad Manjoo discussing his recent takedown of the fuddiest, duddiest, scoldiest, home-bodiest listener complaints that get aired aloud on such shows as All Things Considered. Another guest, NPR reporter Mike Pesca, joins the discussion and furthers the impression that NPR is a salve of sanity, even as it repeatedly comes under attack. “There is a sort of listener who… the demographer… called ‘the monks,’” Pesca says. This particularly lively Gabfest episode proceeds to pick apart a recent diatribe against foodies in The Atlantic and dissect how co-host Stephen Metcalf has an amazing ability to put his therapists to sleep. The customary endorsements at the end include the WTF With Marc Maron podcast and Trick Daddy’s “Sugar,” so this episode in itself is sure to get quills scratching and thesaurus pages flipping in the highbrow quarters.

Firewall & Iceberg #63
TV critics Alan Sepinwall and Dan Fienberg concentrate on the return of The Event, the end of Greek, and the surprising stability of American Idol. Fienberg will miss Greek (it’s “a genial, likeable show that was simply no longer trashy enough for what ABC Family was doing”), and neither is sure why he’s still considering The [Non] Event. As Sepinwall says, “It seemed to me like it combined all the worst elements of Lost and 24. It was just this big shell game. It wasn’t about anything. There weren’t any interesting characters. The entire plot was completely dependent on people doing the stupidest thing possible at every moment.”

Hang Up And Listen: The Sex And Basketball Edition
Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca have a habit of challenging conventional wisdom, and true to form, this week’s terrific episode sets about upending common assumptions on all three segments. The sports press has been kind to Brigham Young University for standing by its strict code of conduct and booting Brandon Davies from its high-ranked basketball team for engaging in premarital sex, even though it’ll almost certainly cost them a shot at the NCAA title. But Fatsis and Pesca poke holes in the wisdom of the school’s policy and the manner in which it’s been applied historically, particularly toward the school’s (very few) black athletes, who have been punished disproportionately. The second segment questions the knee-jerk vilification of NFL owners in their current labor dispute with the players—Fatsis lambasts the caricature in this piece by the Washington Post’s Sally Jenkins, a columnist the trio has admired greatly in the past—and the third contrasts European professional leagues and their American counterparts, coming out mostly for the good ol’ U.S. of A. Stick around for the “Afterball” segment: Levin finds a sexy scandal brewing in the world of badminton. 

Judge John Hodgman: #15 Sesame Street Justice
The case: The complainant, Chris, a substitute teacher and youth-group leader, owns a life-sized Ernie doll. (The podcast page has a picture of Chris rapturously embracing this strange, plush creature as Exhibit A.) The defendant, Ben, is one of three students who “kidnapped” the Ernie doll as a prank, with the intention of “pimping it out.” No, wait, it gets weirder: When it came time to end the prank, the thieves were themselves thieved, as some central Pennsylvanian Omar Little stole Ernie out of Ben’s truck. And this is to say nothing of the nonsensical “clues” the kidnappers sent Chris as part of the prank, including such red herrings as a hand-drawn picture of a blinged-out pig. (Hodgman: “I feel like I’m watching the videotape in The Ring. It’s this completely weird array of disconnected stimuli that just serves to make me sicker and sicker and more confused and scared. What’s going on?”) “Sesame Street Justice” is an odd, surreal, hilarious episode—with a touching Maximum Fun pledge-time plea from Hodgman squeezed in the middle—and it also allows Hodgman to channel his inner Judge Wapner when Ben refuses to take responsibility for his crime. 

The Pod F. Tompkast #8: Horseknees: The Envy Of All Mammals!
Delayed a week due to schedule constraints, The Pod F. Tompkast returns with a typically strong episode that lives up to its “comedy-type ramblings” introduction. As a performer, Tompkins is never afraid to explore tangents: In the opening of episode eight, a bit about being jealous of horses’ ability to sleep while standing ends up with Tompkins imagining heaven as a place where you make out with God. It’s a testament to his ability that the improvisation regularly provides some of the episodes’ funniest moments. Each element of the show is strong this week, from the Great Undiscovered Project (with Ice-T, Garry Marshall, and Andrew Lloyd Webber on a conference call) to Jen Kirkman’s bizarre story about briefly working for a fraudulent magazine to the live sketch with Donald Glover and Justin Kirk from Weeds. At the end of the episode, Tompkins says, “Folks, that concludes this edition,” but goes on for another 10 minutes. That’s his style, and no one’s complaining.

Radiolab: Help!
NPR’s Radiolab doles out new episodes at a glacial pace—this is the first new one since January—but the installments are almost always worth the wait. “Help!” isn’t the show at its absolute peak—that would apply to December’s season première, “The Good Show”—but it’s full of so many fascinating odds and ends that listeners won’t mind. Even weaker Radiolabs are sort of like digging through a giant trunk of weird stuff kept in your grandparents’ attic. While the segments are tenuously linked in for “Help!”—which deals with people tricking themselves into overcoming some crippling deficiency, from serious addiction to writers’ block—there’s still plenty of room for such oddities as Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat Pray Love) discussing how Tom Waits has loud arguments with the muses when writing a song, a reporter’s journey to Russia to learn about an alcohol cure that might kill you, and plenty of arguments between hosts Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich.

The Sound Of Young America/Jordan, Jesse, Go!
Maximum Fun podcasts went into warp speed this week as part of its pledge drive. Jesse Thorn speaks with Scott Thompson about his journey from getting kicked out of theater school to joining The Kids In The Hall, touching on the controversy in the gay community over his character Buddy Cole and chatting about the creation of straight-man character Danny Husk, now the basis of the graphic novel Hollow Planet. Then Thorn interviews Saturday Night Live cast member Bill Hader about his acting career and many SNL impressions, rightfully spending a healthy amount of time discussing nightlife expert Stefon. Phil Collins drops in on for the “Song That Changed My Life” feature, a tiny nugget of a podcast, but still satisfying. And the always-entertaining, elastic-voiced Maria Bamford sits in with Jordan, Jesse, Go! to discuss reality TV and weddings.

Sound Opinions: Jac Holzman
The Sound Opinions guys continue their recent trend of examining music-industry trends of the ’60s and ’70s by interviewing one of the great unsung heroes of rock ’n’ roll, Jac Holzman. While Clive Davis never misses an opportunity to be lionized for the role he played shepherding artists to great commercial success—he’s the one who hooked Santana up with Rob Thomas!—Holzman keeps the focus in this interview on the scores of legendary artists he worked with as the founder of Elektra Records. One of the great independent labels, Elektra was responsible for exposing the world to The Stooges, The Doors, Love, MC5, Tim Buckley, and many others. Holzman is charmingly humble throughout, admitting that he was initially resistant to sign The Stooges, but did it anyway because he trusted his employees’ tastes. “It’s like someone talking you into buying a fine painting, only you didn’t know it was a fine painting at the time,” he says. 

The Tobolowsky Files: The Things I Never Learned In School
Stephen Tobolowsky’s tales of making his way through Hollywood and the personal travails that accompanied his professional uncertainty make for surprisingly fascinating podcasting, even in episodes that have less thematic coherence, like this one. It swirls around the basic idea that nothing Tobolowsky learned in college—where he spent lots of time studying the greats of the dramatic stage—could have prepared him for working bit parts in movies like the sixth Beethoven film. Tobolowsky can strain too hard for profundity from time to time, but “The Things I Never Learned In School” is mostly one funny story after another, beginning with a chaotic Californication shoot where a monkey sitting on Fisher Stevens’ shoulder affected everything he and the other actors planned to try. It continues through the surprising secret of looking passionate in a sex scene, the lesson in finding dignity in a role named “Butt-crack Plumber,” and the story of realizing when a trio of St. Bernards has more star power than you do. Tobolowsky is darkly funny, and all these segments are packed with big laughs.

WTF With Marc Maron #155: Dino Stamatopoulos
Maron promises at the very beginning of his podcast with Dino Stamatopoulos that things are going to get dark. Considering the show’s default tone is evisceratingly dark and uncomfortably intimate, that’s saying an awful lot. While Maron’s typically candid conversation with Stamatopoulos delves into sadomasochism, childhood traumas, and adult dysfunction, it’s characterized more by tenderness than rage. The imposing, impressive Stamatopoulos, who has worked on at least one show you love (The Ben Stiller Show, Mr. Show, Moral Oral, and now Community) comes off as a fundamentally sweet man who has found a way to channel his neuroses and angst into subversive comedy. Maron clearly welcomes the opportunity to talk to someone whose issues and insecurities dwarf his own. Like many of the best episodes of WTF, this podcast sometimes feels like therapy: Stamatopoulos plunges deep into his past to try to figure out his present, with Maron ably occupying the role of the armchair therapist. 

THE REST
All Songs Considered: SXSW 2011 Preview
The All Songs Considered band of music fans claimed to have listened to 1,273 songs in preparation for this special podcast previewing next week’s South By Southwest festival. That may or may not be true, but this is still a handy primer for a small handful of worthy unknowns that will be playing around Austin. It obviously won’t be as useful to those not headed down to SXSW—in fact, it might just make you feel like you’re missing out. 

The B.S. Report
Simmons starts the week finishing up his discussion with Chuck Klosterman, which touches more on the NBA’s labor situation and their new pop-culture website. Then it’s a week of hoops as he talks with former BYU Cougar and Celtic Michael Smith about the recent BYU honor-code controversy, and later in the week with former Michigan star Jalen Rose about his career. And sandwiched in between is a visit from Chris Nowinski of the Sports Legacy Institute, with whom Simmons talks concussions, head trauma, and players’ health in sports.

Best Show Gems: Augie Richards Takes The Batter Butler On The Road
Best Show Gems somewhat bewilderingly features the second half of a two-part bit that casts Jon Wurster as a restaurant proprietor with a business model as shady as it is impractical. The bit didn’t rank among the duo’s best to begin with, and featuring only the second half further weakens it. 

Doug Loves Movies: Garfunkel And Oates and Samm Levine
If you find the audience at the UCB Theater to be an unnecessary distraction, you’ll love this episode of Doug Loves Movies, taped in the Never Not Funny studios. If you think Doug Benson sounds unnecessarily distracted when hosting The Leonard Maltin Game, you’ll also like Samm Levine (Freaks And Geeks, Inglourious Basterds) helming it with excerpts chosen before the show—something Benson has apparently never considered. Otherwise, you might think there’s a particular spark missing from this episode. Garfunkel And Oates’ Riki Lindhome and Kate Micucci are charming as ever, though, and Micucci flukes her way into the Leonard Maltin Game Tournament Of Championships by knowing Cradle Will Rock starred John Turturro and 22 other notable actors.

Extra Hot Great: #21 Game Time For The Masses
Great, Podmass decides to cover this pop-culture podcast, and it takes the week off. But co-host David T. Cole, unwilling to let it pass completely, offers a fun “Game Time” quiz for listeners: Guess 25 popular film scores based on sound clips, which seems easy enough, except the clips are about a second long. It’s like an especially sadistic game of “Name That Tune.” 

The Moth: Walter Mosley: Triumph Of Love
The prolific crime novelist shares a personal story of trying to elicit affection from a mother who loves him but can’t say it until dementia begins to rob her of her mental faculties. It’s a touching, relatable story, but Mosley’s polished, somewhat removed delivery saps it of some emotional heft. 

The Nerdist #66 (Nerd Clusters) & #67 (Danny Pudi)
The Nerdist’s experiment with once-a-week “hostful” episodes is already showing signs of fatigue in its second month, with this week’s guest-free episode feeling even more rambling and inane than usual, though Chris, Matt, and Jonah characteristically get in a few good zingers. (“Noodle story!”) Episode 67 features the fourth member of Community to do the podcast, Danny Pudi, and is a much more engaging listen, especially Pudi’s impression of his overbearing childhood Polish dance instructor, Pon Richard.

Never Not Funny: #815 Rich Sommer
Rich Sommer (Mad Men’s Harry Crane) returns for his second appearance on Never Not Funny and keeps pace with great riffs on disaster movies, dim-witted pre-meds, and why NNF intern Danny Katz has “get up for work” written on his hand. Sommer gets the formalities out of the way early, vaguely revealing details about Mad Men’s uncertain future (he doesn’t expect the show to return until next year), and after much Oscar-bashing, the episode ends on a poignant note as the crew squirms in their collective seat about the premise of Hall Pass.

The Savage Lovecast #229
It’s always obvious and annoying when Lovecast callers write down their questions in advance, then read them when they leave their voicemails. Still, people do it constantly, in spite of Dan Savage’s gentle chiding. This week, he answers a couple of those calls with remarkable restraint, including one about a girlfriend who’s just dying to give her resistant boyfriend a blowjob. He also rails against Mike Huckabee’s recent assertion that what goes on in gay bedrooms is icky by listing a bunch of incredibly icky scenarios that could potentially be going on in Huckabee’s bedroom. Later, a nurse calls in with a helpful hint about how to get blood out of sheets.

Pop Culture Happy Hour: Set Apart From A Sentence By An Exclamation Point
This week’s PCHH briefly touches on the Oscars awards ceremony—it’s dismissed as “terrible,” though the participants note that they’re taping it on Monday, and by the time the episode airs on Friday, public opinion may have altered to openly favor “James Franco’s glassy-eyed charm coupled with Anne Hathaway’s terrified-rabbit enthusiasm.” (It didn’t.) But this is mostly a special theme episode, in honor of sometime-participant and soon-to-be-mom Barrie Hardymon; this week, the hosts ditch the usual segments in order to discuss their most recommended pop culture for children, from Schoolhouse Rock to The Cunning Little Vixen to Owly comics to Tom Lehrer, and much more.

Sklarbro Country #32: Greg Behrendt, Dave Antony, Chris Cox
The hardest-working identical twins in the podcasting business go international to talk to fellow podcasters/Walking The Room hosts Dave Anthony and Greg Behrendt about rugby, music, and the indignity of losing one’s finger on a barbed-wire fence. Then Chris Cox shows up as Charlie Sheen; the last thing the world needs right now is another Sheen impersonation, but Cox does a damn fine job with the most overexposed figure of the moment (and possibly the entire history of the universe). 

Stuff You Missed In History Class
There’s drunken revelry and drunken beatings in the last two entries of History Class. In The Best Mardi Gras Ever, Dowdey and Chakraborty tell some of the facts behind Fat Tuesday, leading into a description of a New Orleans police strike in the late ’70s that effectively cancelled the town’s Mardi Gras celebrations. And in The Riotous Life Of Carvaggio, the ladies look into the life and death of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, an Italian painter from the late 16th/early 17th century who killed a man, pissed off the Pope, and heavily influenced the Baroque school of painting. 

Stuff You Should Know
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin Delano issued Executive Order 9066, ushering in one of the more shameful chapters in American military history. In Were U.S. Citizens In Japanese Interment Camps?, Clark and Bryant investigate, explaining how the camps were formed, the tenuous reasoning behind them, and their ultimate cost. In the much cheerier episode How Fossils Work, the two give listeners a solid foundation in how dinosaur bones become monuments to the past. 

This American Life #428: Oh You Shouldn’t Have
Nancy Updike guest-hosts this week’s episode, which looks at the intentions and unexpected consequences of gift-giving. Allison Silverman examines a few uncomfortable episodes of This Is Your Life involving survivors of the Holocaust and of the bombing of Hiroshima, and the episode closes with a strong piece of short fiction about a magical goldfish.

WTF With Marc Maron #154: Amy Schumer 
Maron has set the bar so high for unwise candor that Amy Schumer’s tales of collegiate debauchery, her shoplifting arrest at age 21, and insecurity-fueled promiscuity feel relatively tame rather than shocking. Thankfully, Schumer is a funny, raw comedian with plenty of amusing anecdotes to share, including one that involves her distant cousin Senator Charles Schumer.

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