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WTF hits early highlight for the year with Paul Thomas Anderson

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
Penn Station Sucks

New York City’s Penn Station was once called an eighth wonder of the world and was a crowning achievement of architecture. But it was torn down as the result of a petty power play by another station’s owner and replaced with an unimpressive, overcrowded, and much-hated new Penn. This episode shares the story of the once great station and how it transformed from a testament of human wonder into a maligned destination mocked ruthlessly on Broad City. Reporter Ann Heppermann wants desperately to like something about the building, but learning its history does not help and neither does visiting the station, conducting interviews, or pursuing almost anything about it. The nostalgia for the original Penn Station is thick, and seeps through the episode promising an ideal that was both attainable and lost forever, before cutting immediately to stories of passengers feeling like someone is touching their ass at all times, the air thick with the moisture of strangers. Nothing can be done to save this building, but this is what 99% Invisible is so valuable for. The storytelling at work is powerful enough to create a vision that implies Western civilization is in some sort of decline.

Jenn Sterger & ME

I attended Florida State University at the same time as Jenn Sterger, who became somewhat famous around town for heading up the FSU Cowgirls, a group of young women known for wearing revealing clothing and cowboy hats at football games. A Playboy shoot soon followed, and Sterger eventually graduated to the world of sports journalism with stints at Sports Illustrated and Fuel TV. These days she’s trying to break into standup, but she remains most remembered for getting unsolicited dick-pics texted to her by Brett Favre while serving as a sideline reporter for the New York Jets. Although the scandal would have undoubtedly been the main topic of conversation on many other podcasts, Bertcast is hosted by Bert Kreischer, a fellow FSU alum who gained notoriety as Rolling Stone’s “top partier” back in 1997 and inspired National Lampoon’s Van Wilder. As he’s since become a successful comedian and family man, he’s well familiar with trying to break free of a hard-partying image, which makes his conversation with Sterger a decidedly empathetic one. Their memories of Tallahassee and the rest of their oh-so-weird home-state are amusing, but it’s their shared struggle to be taken seriously that proves most resonant, and, most importantly, forces listeners to consider the talent, intelligence, and humanity in someone who they once viewed as nothing more than a punchline.

The Heart

After a rush in critical acclaim hit the Audio Smut podcast, radio documentarian Kaitlin Prest went dark for four months so she could rebrand and, at last, relaunch her show as The Heart. But the “explicit and experimental sonic storytelling” that marks Prest’s style is as vivid as ever with her first subject, a young lesbian woman named Drew, anxiously recounting the first time she kissed her previously thought-to-be-heterosexual roommate Simone. Short, overlapping bursts of inner monologue obscured by rustling comforters and long, uncomfortable silences capture just a few moments of the narrator’s uncertainty and spit them out into a colossal theme. Because, where a weaker storyteller would leave the listener satisfied with a nine minute meet-cute—roll credits, fade to black—Prest forces her audience to leave the scene even more fidgety than they were while laying in the daybed with Drew. These people are still roommates, after all, and every first risks coming out on the other side a little worse off than before.

LIVE Xmas Special

Improv4Humans stands out by taking its cues from The Harold, a structure that’s become the foundation of long-form stage improv everywhere. Upright Citizens Brigade co-founder Matt Besser leads this more craft-conscious approach as he shoots the shit for a while with his guests, then has them dream up scenes inspired by the conversation. Unsurprisingly, it’s one of the few podcasts that actually benefits from being performed in front of a crowd, and the “Live Xmas special”—which has almost nothing to do with Christmas—earns howl after howl for its depravity, kicking off with Besser’s story of kinda-but-not-really losing his virginity. Without spoiling too much, it involves a lot of champagne and a girlfriend’s knee-crease. But guests Horatio Sanz, John Gemberling, and Matt Walsh add even further perversion with details that include a can of beans and two lovers actually eating crystal meth. Other than a grounded performance and serious discussion about hip-hop from rapper Open Mike Eagle, the insanity continues to heighten without ever getting out of control, cementing Improv4Humans as a podcast not only for improv fans, but for improv students as well.

The Secret History Of Thoughts

A new hour-long offering from NPR, Invisibilia is a show about “the intangible forces that shape human behavior.” In their opening episode, cohosts Alix Spiegel (one of the original producers for This American Life) and Lulu Miller (a Radiolab veteran) examine how humans think about their thoughts, taking listeners through an abridged history of psychotherapy as it relates to the nagging negative things that we tell ourselves. First they discuss a surfer whose thoughts one day suddenly took a dark turn—for instance, he kept picturing himself murdering his wife—and how he found help with an approach that didn’t involve analyzing the thoughts themselves. In the second half of the show, listeners hear about a young man who became cut off from the world by a debilitating illness, which left him alone with his thoughts for eight years as everyone around him assumed he was a vegetable with the mental capacity of an infant. The second story is an odd choice—it’s the kind of heart-wrenching “miracle” tale that wouldn’t be out of place as a Dateline NBC special. Invisibilia emulates NPR favorites This American Life and Radiolab, but an overproduced style and overdramatic tone make this debut episode feel a bit manipulative.

No Such Thing As A Fish
No Such Thing As Unbroadcastable Material

This is No Such Thing As A Fish’s first outtakes episode (it’s also its first year in existence), and if it had escaped the attention of listeners before it now appears that the podcast is heavily edited for time. Much of the material here is extra filthy, extra silly, and extra bizarre. While it still resembles the proper Q.I panel show that spawned it, the podcast here sounds almost more like a typical American podcast in how the dialogue and screw-ups dominate the running time. The segue music even occasionally swells and takes over just as they are getting to the point. The result is an episode that for all practical reasons has no need to attempt any coherence. Phones interrupt, the segments end just as someone shouts a non-sequitur swear word, and bloopers dominate. Music comes in more than usual, which can be a bit of overkill. (It feels a bit like the same 23-minute song is playing continuously in the background.) But the episode is so supremely amusing that it is easy to forgive its faults. The research topics are as valuable as the ones in a full episode, from stories of Welsh yetis and astronauts whose sense of humor exceeded their other qualifications.

The Right Reasons

There’s two types of reality TV: the kind that’s okay to like (Top Chef, Project Runway, Rupaul’s Drag Race) and the kind that’s, well, not. The Right Reasons focuses almost exclusively on the latter, and does so with intelligence, hyperbole, and not a single ounce of shame. Grantland staffers Juliet Litman and David Jacoby bring a tween-like sense of exuberance to each episode, wherein they’ll often indulge their inner “bitches” (some serious shade is thrown) and gush over their latest inappropriate reality TV crushes. (Litman’s enduring love for the doltish Thomas from Real World: Ex-Plosion is especially amusing.) But The Right Reasons is no mere gabfest: Litman and Jacoby are hilarious, whip-smart, and deeply self-aware critics who can’t help but dissect exactly why they’re drawn to the denizens of these undoubtedly lowbrow series. This week’s episode is especially meaty (“this is our playoffs,” Jacoby declares at the outset), as it covers the season premieres of show stalwarts The Bachelor and The Challenge, as well as current episodes of Real World and Vanderpump Rules. As in most episodes, the duo’s analysis is fortified by reads of contestants’ Twitter accounts and any gossip rag that’s even remotely reputable. Love for this kind of “trash” is bound to draw judgment from your more cosmopolitan colleagues, but Litman and Jacoby have no time for haters. A guilty pleasure this is not.

Stuff You Should Know
How Online Gambling Works

The episode doesn’t just focus on the literal “how it works” in a rule sense; it focuses more on the legal hoops that online gambling destinations must jump through, how and when it is legal in spite of in-person gambling being illegal in most places, and how the legal battles involved mirror the net neutrality movement. Contradictions in law are everywhere: more than 40 states have state lotteries despite the online gambling laws, and the World Trade Organization has ruled against American companies who have taken advantage of the international community. And the tide has been turning in America as of late. It was the Obama administration, not a conservative one, that started relaxing online gambling laws. Not particularly excited by gambling, hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant navigate objectivity on the subject well, demonizing no one and expressing sincere alarm at how little thought seems to be put into any regulation. The episode should resonate with most people on the same level—almost anyone has heard of someone who “made a living” gambling online. This episode explains how this is barely, yet very, possible. There are almost no ways to follow the money moving around except by changing privacy laws, and if there is ever true online gambling reform it seems it will come at the expense of something far greater.

Throwing Shade
Single Man, Married Man, My Husband’s Not Gay, Best Movies of 2015

There is an ouroboros moment in this week’s Throwing Shade when co-host Bryan Safi expresses dissatisfaction over TLC’s much-maligned gay-Mormons-in-straight-marriages reality special My Husband’s Not Gay, saying that TLC will likely deliver a quirky treatment of a serious topic. This is wheels within wheels, as Throwing Shade precisely describes itself as a show covering big issues “with much less respect than they deserve,” so it seems like a bit of a glass house situation. The complaint is minor, since Safi later goes deep on the history of the Mormon church’s reversal of its stance on homosexuality. The show’s strength lies in how funny it is while discussing these serious issues. Safi and co-host Erin Gibson posses a collective wit which makes them feel like a two-person Vicious Circle, gleefully vulgar, and stricken with ADD. Also, this week the pair discusses the forthcoming sexist book Single Man, Married Man—written by eight men—which seeks to instruct women on behavior they should follow in order to get or stay married. Along the way an impressive array of disparate topics are also riffed on, whether it be Agatha Christie’s Marple, rat kings, masturbating to Peaky Blinders, suicide sandwiches, rusted bitches, or a 76-year-old man cumming for the first time in his life.

The Story of u/youngluck (Dante Orpilla)

For more blogs than would care to admit, Reddit.com is not just “the front page of the Internet,” as the user-submission site brands itself, but a content-rich early edition where fresh images and stories are ripe for plucking and repackaging. Many of the site’s entries, from viral videos to substantive conversations with public figures like Gwen Ifill or Bill Gates, circulate around the web to a wider audience, but most of the threads and backstories that make Reddit so engaging and democratic remain buried in niche-driven “subreddits.” Co-founder Alexis Ohanian sets out to highlight some of the more unique characters and nonfiction stories that pop up in various “/r/’s” in his new podcast, and the first episode shows promise. In 2010, musician and illustrator Dante Orpilla participated in an Ask Me Anything before facing up to 10 years in prison on a drug charge. With Ohanian, Orpilla discusses his life leading up to the trial, the impact engagement with fellow /r/favors page posters had on his artistic and personal life, and his current life as a free man and graphic designer for the site. The This American Life vibe isn’t subtle, nor are Ohanian’s affectation or sound cues, but as any lurker will confirm, there are plenty of stories on the site worth spotlighting, and the producers are at least taking feedback with open arms.

Paul Thomas Anderson

“Geniuses aren’t supposed to be that affable,” Marc Maron says after his interview with Paul Thomas Anderson, whose breezy, genial countenance across the episode’s two hours belies the weightiness of the filmmaker’s oeuvre. After a routine exploration of Anderson’s childhood in the San Fernando Valley, Maron abandons his typical freewheeling approach by individually focusing on each of filmmaker’s opuses, from Hard Eight to his labyrinthian adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s Inherent Vice, currently in theaters. As with most artists, Anderson doesn’t have much to say about each film’s raison d’être—he leaves that to Maron, who has great fun deconstructing them—but he does offer a plethora of behind-the-scenes anecdotes and some gorgeous thoughts on his relationship to actors. There’s some topics he sidesteps: He grimaces when discussing Hard Eight’s troubled journey to distribution, squirms when asked about his relationship with Pynchon, and altogether avoids discussing the details of frequent collaborator Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death. (Though, he does say it was “love at first sight” when he saw Hoffman in Scent Of A Woman.) Geniuses are still human, after all, and when Anderson compares There Will Be Blood to a Tom And Jerry cartoon, listeners might wonder if this is another one of Maron’s comedian interviews. What it actually is, though, is the best episode Maron’s cranked out over the last year.

You Must Remember This
Bette Davis And The Hollywood Canteen

From an outside perspective it can often be hard to imagine to totality of life in America during World War II. There are tent pole things that seem to always crop up, from rationing of everyday goods to government propaganda meant to sell war bonds and keep the national spirit high. There are also those elements that, despite their past importance, are now all but forgotten. This week’s episode of You Must Remember This explores one of those as host Karina Longworth sheds light on the Hollywood Canteen, a place to celebrate enlisted soldiers heading off to the pacific theater, staffed by contract actors from all the major studios of the day. Far from being another run-of-the-mill history podcast, Longworth’s deep knowledge and acute storytelling ability make this a fascinating tale, weaving in threads of tendentious racial integration, the Red Scare, and even scheming public relations that make for a multilayered tapestry. The episode also tells a truncated history of Bette Davis’ rise to stardom, beset by trouble at every turn, and how it influenced her to help found and tirelessly run the Hollywood Canteen. Also of note, the podcast includes a full bibliography on its website.

We see what you said there

“I’ll do whatever, as long as there’s beans involved.”—John Gemberling on his sex quirks, Improv4Humans

“Can I just do something about haunted genitals?”—Andrew Murray on some questionable medical literature, No Such Thing As a Fish

“It’s way too fucking long.”—Paul Thomas Anderson on Magnolia, WTF