Podmass’ best podcasts of 2011
When we wrote about our favorite podcasts for the first time last year, we kept it casual: A core of A.V. Club podcast fans collaborated on a list of some of the best ones in rotation on our iPods. With the debut of our Podmass feature in February, though, we now had a large group of contributors listening to upwards of 40 podcasts every week. So this year we made our best podcasts feature more formal: Like our best comedy albums story, those who voted had 50 points to dole out to five podcasts, with no podcast earning more than 15 points. We’ve tallied the votes and points below, including the percentage of time the podcast wound up in “The Best” in Podmass. We’ve also included everyone’s ballots, which feature additional commentary.
And considering we still have a couple of days in this, the season of giving, Podmass will make one of its occasional recommendations that you donate a couple of bucks to your favorite podcast to keep it going. Everyone on our “best of” list could use it.
10. Mike And Tom Eat Snacks (21 points, 3 votes, 93.8 percent “best” rate)
If you need proof that Michael Ian Black never runs out of silliness, behold his far-flung banter with co-host Tom Cavanagh on Mike And Tom Eat Snacks. They turn a podcast that’s ostensibly about reviewing snack foods into a free-for-all, spanning from acrobatically fictitious showbiz tales to a guest making them fresh guacamole “live” during recording. You’d think the subject matter would make MATES inane, but it’s the low stakes that make it so liberating. The wordplay does come around to the actual food at times, whether they’re musing on how Walkers Shortbread cookies are the “deep cut” of shortbread cookies, or waxing faux-weepy about how the Hershey’s Take 5 candy bar taught them an important lesson. Even in a strong field of comedy podcasts, it’s rare that anyone matches MATES’ pure and joyful absurdity.
Check out: MATES can be focused, with brilliant results, as #41: Very Cherry Jelly Belly Pudding Snacks proves. For once, Black and Cavanagh seem to feel some urgency about giving their opinion on a snack, in this case because it’s so disgusting—which breaks up their usual goofy reverie and makes them cruelly hilarious.
9. (tie) The Thrilling Adventure Hour (25 points, 2 votes)
Superego (25 votes, 2 points, 83.3 percent “best” rate)
The Tobolowsky Files (25 points, 2 votes, 85.7 percent “best” rate)
The Thrilling Adventure Hour operates on a can’t-miss premise: Comedic takes on pulpy serials from the Golden Age of radio, starring Los Angeles comedy vets (Paul F. Tompkins, Craig Cackowski), Hollywood ringers (Busy Philipps, Paget Brewster), versatile voiceover talent (James Urbaniak, John DiMaggio), and an eager stable of marquee guests. It’d be easy for writers-creators Ben Blacker and Ben Acker to reach regularly for the low-hanging fruit that premise implies—outdated slang, exaggeratedly purple prose, jabs at the quaintness of American culture in the 1930s and ’40s—but their obvious affection for their source material won’t allow such laziness. They’ve clearly done their research into the lantern-jawed heroes and tough-as-nails dames of yore, and The Thrilling Adventure’s sharply written dialogue, hilarious cast, and authentically realized musical and Foley elements make cheekily reverent segments like “Sparks Nevada, Marshal On Mars” and “The Cross-Time Adventures Of Colonel Tick-Tock” feel more fully realized than a lot of ongoing comedy programs with visuals. (Note: We didn’t include a “best” rate for Thrilling Adventure Hour because it’s too recent of an addition to Podmass.)
Check out: Any mention of The Thrilling Adventure Hour would be remiss to skip over “Beyond Belief,” a brilliant supernatural twist on The Thin Man featuring Tompkins and Brewster as Frank and Sadie Doyle, socialites who commune with as many spirits as they consume. The Doyles’ finest Thrilling Adventure Hour since the show was picked up by Nerdist Industries is episode #48, “Vampire Weekend,” where Sadie is aghast to discover she’s been turned into a vampire—and, by extension, required to buy a pair of comfortable shoes. The chemistry between Tompkins and Brewster and their vivacious banter as Frank and Sadie is always enough to recommend a “Beyond Belief” episode, but this particular installment pulls an additional innately funny duo into its orbit: Dave Foley and Bruce McCullough of The Kids In The Hall appear as fellow creatures of the night, and a flubbed line-reading from Foley displays that, for all the strengths of Acker and Blacker’s scripts, there are still a lot of laughs to be garnered from going off-book on The Thrilling Adventure Hour.
Superego is one of the more conceptual podcasts in Podmass: Core members Matt Gourley and Jeremy Carter base it around a fictional psychiatric research lab/think tank where they analyze “case studies” of various personality disorders. Gourley and Carter improvise these highly dysfunctional cases along with “resident specialists” Mark McConville and Jeff Crocker and various members of the L.A. acting and comedy community, such as Paul F. Tompkins, Patton Oswalt, Andy Daly, and Rich Sommer. Each case study is improvised and exceptionally produced and recorded, and with episodes running under half an hour, there’s no room for mediocre sketches or subpar jokes.
Check out: #3:3 is a particularly well assembled episode that features a stand-out performance from Patton Oswalt as Leg-El, the court-appointed public defender of Superman’s General Zod.
There’s a certain amount of distanced, conscious self-awareness in the tales actor Stephen Tobolowsky (from Glee, Mississippi Burning, Memento, and more than 200 other shows and films at this point) tells on his periodic podcast about “life, love, and the entertainment industry.” He isn’t engaging in causal industry chat; he’s reading well-crafted, thought-through Stories On Stage-style pieces, arranged around a new theme each episode. Those pieces are sometimes light and funny, for instance when he talks about getting shit on by a bull on Deadwood, but they’re often deeply personal, as he dissects the relationship that consumed half his life before disintegrating. And even the stories that seem lightest tend to come back around at the end, as he pulls everything together. Entries in his podcast have become more sporadic—they depend on his work schedule, and he’s one hard-working actor—but they’re always worth the wait. They remain tender and insightful, with plenty of funny on-set and behind-the-scenes anecdotes underwritten by a deep well of emotion.
Check out: #45: “The Things I Never Learned In School,” in which Tobolowsky skips across more colorful events from his life than usual, illustrating why studying Shakespeare and Chekhov in college doesn’t prepare actors for the real world, where they’ll have to be upstaged by animals, simulate sex and death, and wear embarrassing, uncomfortable gear. He also describes the pain of being cast as “Buttcrack Plumber” and enduing a costume-fitting spent crouching so the costume designer could examine his visible crack at length and comment disparagingly on his lack of booty.
8. The Bugle (25 points, 3 votes, 66.7 percent “best” rate)
The biggest problem with satire is the potential for alienating an audience (usually the one sympathetic to whatever’s being mocked), but no one is safe from hosts John Oliver and Andy Zaltzman—including themselves. Their self-deprecation keeps The Bugle’s blend of sharp-witted satire, blunt-force puns, and potshots from being too pompous or cheap. The show has developed a loyal fan base since it debuted in 2007, and now that loyalty is being tested: Last week, The Bugle announced via Twitter that The Times—the London newspaper owned by Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp and The Bugle’s benefactor—had shut down the podcast. If The Bugle continues, fans will likely be subsidizing it.
Check Out: #169 Captain Crazy Corks It for a good example of the dichotomy between puns and high-minded political satire as well as a case study in the relationship between The Bugle and insane world leaders. Truly, Moammar Gadhafi was The Bugle’s favorite world leader, and his send-off is one of the most epic Bugle segments in the show’s history.
7. The Mental Illness Happy Hour (35 points, 3 votes, 86.2 percent “best” rate)
Fraught as it is with competition and warped egos, the comedy world is the last place you’d expect to find a sincere psychiatric companion. Indeed, host Paul Gilmartin warns listeners in each episode that he’s just “a jackass that tells dick jokes,” but he handles some of the most privileged information there is with professional-grade skill and tact. The Mental Illness Happy Hour asks comics and friends from other parts of his life to open up about not only romantic and familial struggles, but also childhood abuse, suicide attempts, and sexual assault. Gilmartin navigates those horrors with empathy, gentle coaxing, and crushing honesty. Most importantly, Gilmartin shares in his guests’ vulnerability and willingness to open up, turning what could be very lurid subject matter into a consistently disarming and comforting podcast.
Check out: The contrast between how Eddie Pepitone expresses his twisted soul in his comedy and how he examines it in #29 highlights Gilmartin’s skill in putting his guests at ease. It’s not even the darkest or nastiest stuff you’ll hear on Mental Illness, but that makes it a good place to start.
6. This American Life (35 points, 4 votes, 30.3 percent “best” rate)
This American Life started on public radio’s WBEZ long before podcasts came on the scene, but its format—which undoubtedly influenced many podcasts—fits the medium perfectly. Over the years, host Ira Glass and his crew of reporters and producers have covered everything from huge, universal stories (such as the series of reports on the economic crisis that started with “The Giant Pool Of Money”) to singular subjects and annual themed episodes like “Poultry Slam.” At its best, This American Life combines those universal stories and one-offs into one strong episode that delivers on its theme. The show has mutated over time, spawning a Showtime series and several films, including The Informant! and, um, Unaccompanied Minors (an adaption of 2005’s “Heretics” is also in the works), sometimes to its detriment. Since the Showtime series—which was canceled after two seasons—This American Life has had a frustrating habit of relying too much on reruns (often marginally “updated”) in lieu of new episodes. Here’s hoping that abates in 2012.
Check out: Much like #168: The Fix Is In—which inspired The Informant! — #441: When Patents Attack! gives flair and drama to what could otherwise seem like a ho-hum subject: the world of patents. The episode looks at so-called “patent trolls,” which are corporations that buy patents issued for common Internet tools (such as store locators on websites), and then sue anyone using them. The This American Life team spent months reporting for it, and the episode unfolds dramatically.
5. Nerdist (37 points, 3 votes, 40 percent “best” rate)
In a time when cynicism and snarkiness can dominate discourse, Chris Hardwick’s enthusiasm offers a welcome change of tone. Hardwick, who hosts Nerdist alongside companions Jonah Ray and Matt Mira, brings not only knowledge of a variety of subjects but also passion for those subjects. The array of guests Nerdist has hosted is impressive, spanning several genres—actors, musicians, writers, etc.—and Hardwick interacts well with all of them, his friendly, genuine demeanor putting guests at ease and frequently teasing out some anecdotes and discussions that go beyond typical interview banter. While the navel-gazing that occurs, particularly on the guestless “hostful” episodes, can be cloying, the rapport between Hardwick and his co-hosts buoys the conversation.
Check out: #119 with Bryan Cranston is the quintessential Nerdist episode: a fun, rollicking discussion that takes typical interview questions deeper. It also helps that Cranston had a fantastic year with Breaking Bad and roles in Drive and Contagion. There’s plenty of silliness, serious talk about craft, and even a drop-in visit from Rainn Wilson and vigilante Phoenix Jones.
4. The Best Show On WFMU (40 points, 3 votes, 71.4 percent “best” rate)
It’s difficult to explain The Best Show to someone who hasn’t experienced it. It’s a comedy show that (for the most part) writes itself as it goes along, thanks to the call and (usually sour) response between callers and host Tom Scharpling. It’s a cult show for people who collected punk records growing up, and each episode has a moment where it appears the show will collapse into a big, glorious mess that includes dozens of terrible calls and Scharpling ranting about everything from bizarre Byrds songs to fat New Jersey governors. Add in a weekly call from Jon Wurster as one of dozens of cretins from Newbridge, New Jersey, and you have the podcasting world’s most entertaining three hours of mirth, music, and mayhem. If three hours is too much of a commitment, check out Best Show Gems, which collects Scharpling and Wurster’s best interactions.
Check out: The August 9 episode where Scharpling goes off the rails and literally bans every “regular” caller.
3. Comedy Bang Bang (55 points, 5 votes, 70 percent “best” rate)
Other comedy podcasts may be more theatrical (Thrilling Adventure Hour), singularly focused (Pod F. Tompkast, The Smartest Man In The World), sketch-based (Superego), or interview-heavy (WTF, You Made It Weird), but Comedy Bang-Bang has the best balance of them all. It’s theoretically an interview show, but the guests usually become collaborators in the silliness that overtakes each episode. The guests are routinely top-notch, the show has a de facto company of ace improvisers enlivening each episode, and Scott Aukerman is a gleefully indulgent host, encouraging tangents and occasionally wrecking the show’s “Yes and” flow just to see what happens. Comedy and anti-comedy find a welcoming home on Comedy Bang Bang, and the way the show frequently takes apart the mechanics of humor is fascinating and often hilarious. For comedy fans, Comedy Bang Bang is essential listening.
Check out: #120, “Farts And Procreation,” is Comedy Bang Bang at its Comedy Bang Bang-iest. It has killer guests (Parks And Recreation’s Adam Scott, Harris Wittels, and Chelsea Peretti) and, as Peretti notes at the beginning of the episode, a nearly lethal bit-saturation level. It’s meta, it’s bizarre, and it’s completely hilarious.
2. The Pod F. Tompkast (60 points, 6 votes, 100 percent “best” rate)
Although it practically disappeared for the second half of the year—to date, only one full episode has posted since June 30—The Pod F. Tompkast is so reliably great that the scheduling vicissitudes of host Paul F. Tompkins and producer/musical coordinator Eban Schletter are worth enduring. Tompkins ended his first “season” at the end of June and took a break and re-emerged (briefly) a few months later with a slightly retooled version of the show, though because nearly four months have passed since then, we barely remember what changed. Regardless, the basics remain rock-solid: Tompkins’ freewheeling riffing, excellent recorded segments from his live show, funny stories from friend Jen Kirkman, Schletter’s perfectly reactionary musical accompaniment—it all works. Tompkins raises the quality on all of the many podcasts where he guests, but he shines brightest on his own. Now if only he’d get back to a posting it on a regular schedule.
Check out: #12. Tompkins closed out the first year of his podcast with an extra-long episode recorded live at LA’s Largo. Each part of the multilayered podcast was recorded live onstage (save for some of the voices in the Great Undiscovered Project), which is impressive on its own. As usual, Tompkins seems to work best when he goes off-script, as he does in a long opening riff about the word “knucklehead.”
1. WTF With Marc Maron (76 points, 8 votes, 68.3 percent “best” rate)
Thanks in part to an influential New York Times profile, professional neurotic Marc Maron became the furry, bespectacled, and unlikely face of podcasting in 2011. Although spunky/melancholy newcomer The Mental Illness Happy Hour poses a threat in the guest-candor department, WTF remains the preeminent place in pop-culture for comedians and, increasingly, other famous people to bare their souls. In 2011, Maron got under the skin of mega-stars like Chris Rock and Conan O’Brien, but the year’s most memorable episodes trafficked in WTF’s signature wrenching despair. Kids In The Hall’s Dave Foley and The Onion’s Todd Hanson shared heartbreaking stories of suicidal depression while reviled prop comedian Gallagher famously recorded part of an interview before storming out on spurious grounds. WTF was the podcast everyone was talking about this year. That doesn’t look to change anytime soon, especially after some episodes were syndicated on public radio.
1. The Pod F. Tompkast (5)
2. Comedy Bang Bang (5)
3. Thrilling Adventure Hour (15)
4. Superego (15)
5. RadioLab (10)
Honorable mention for willingness to experiment: Doug Loves Movies, which varied up the tried-and-true format of moderately-amusing-to-uproariously-funny banter and games about movies with episodes from the road, minisodes recorded in hotel rooms and rental cars, and the high-stakes second edition of The Leonard Maltin Game Tournament Of Championships. Not all of these experiments were successful—particularly those conducted in locations with a more active, concentrated stoner culture than DLM’s regular L.A. stomping grounds—but like all good comedy conceived and performed on the spot, when it hit, it hit. Speaking of which…
The year’s single-funniest moment in podcasting: The “four-star movie” theme improvised during the “The Leonard Maltin Game Tournament Of Champions 2” episode of Doug Loves Movies, which begins as Benson singing “Stars And Stripes Forever” before contestants Scott Aukerman and Paul F. Tompkins pick up his lead, ad libbing a faux-John Philip Sousa that collapses into a Universal Monsters fantasia (“I am a mummy!” “I’m a vampire with a gun!” “Why do you have it? We should be friends!”) and Tompkins’ infectious, breathless guffawing.
Surprisingly greater creative-despair-per-minute ratio than WTF With Marc Maron: The Mental Illness Happy Hour
Special achievement in fruitless endeavors: Earwolf Presents: Analyze Phish, in which Harris Wittels will most likely never convince Aukerman (or the skeptics in the show’s audience) to enjoy the music of Phish.
1. The Best Show On WFMU (15)
2. How Was Your Week? (15)
3. Comedy Bang Bang (10)
4. The Bugle (5)
5. This American Life (5)
1. Firewall & Iceberg (10)
2. This American Life (10)
3. WTF With Marc Maron (10)
4. Nerdist (10)
5. The Mental Illness Happy Hour (10)
1. Nerdist (12)
2. This American Life (12)
3. The B.S. Report (10)
Yes, ESPN’s Bill Simmons can be grating in the way he forces the mix of pop culture and sports—listeners can only take so many references to Teen Wolf, after all—and an episode can hinge on the quality of the guest, but The B.S. Report remains the best sports podcast being produced. Witness his frisky conversation with NBA commissioner David Stern earlier this year over the league’s labor crisis; Simmons can be cloying and occasionally too inside-jokey, but he can also be entertaining as hell.
4. Fresh Air (8)
Like its public-radio counterpart, This American Life, Fresh Air continues to churn out fantastic episodes and interviews even as its longevity makes it easy to overlook.
5. The Smartest Man In The World (8)
While some episodes suffer when Greg Proops’ tangents wind on too long, it’s hard to hold it against him. Every week brings an hour of new material performed in front of a live audience, with Proops pontificating on both history and current events. And when he gets on a roll, which he does at least once an episode, the results can be sublime.
1. Who Charted? (15)
2. The Smartest Man In The World (10)
3. Dork Forest (10)
4. The Bugle (10)
5. The Earwolf Challenge (5 points for being different)
1. WTF With Marc Maron (15)
2. Doug Loves Movies (10)
3. Mike And Tom Eat Snacks (10)
4. The Pod F. Tompkast (10)
5. Pop Culture Happy Hour (5)
1. The Best Show On WFMU (15)
2. WTF With Marc Maron (12)
3. This American Life (8)
4. Sound Opinions (8)
5. RISK! (7)
1. Walking The Room (10)
2. Professor Blastoff (10)
3. Never Not Funny (10)
A frequent complaint about Never Not Funny is that it’s one of the few podcasts that charges, and the free 20 minutes that open each episode don’t convince some listeners of its worth. Instead of a sampling of the week’s guest, that portion typically consists of Jimmy Pardo rambling about mundane things like the weather in L.A. or a band of has-beens you couldn’t possibly care about. I was no different; that is, until Never Not Funny released February’s episode with Conan O’Brien for free in its entirety. An instant convert, I bought the season and soon realized that Pardo wasn’t talking about Kiss or obscure baseball players from the ’70s to be self-indulgent; he was crafting, creating opportunities for banter and wordplay, and setting markers for callbacks along the way. In the mind of Pardo (often credited as the fastest in comedy), any bit on the cutting-room floor can be swept up and rearranged as he sees fit, giving potentially rote material a visceral sense of anticipation and ensuring most episodes share a similar feel. A chat-show format, guests who have ample room and time to find their voice, a simple conceit that almost always pays off—even some of the best episodes start out with a stumble. All of this is to say that a random 20 minutes of Never Not Funny may not make you laugh harder than one line from Cake Boss (“Cake Boss!”), but its consistency in living up to its name—and frequently transcending it—has rightfully made it one of the most influential comedy podcasts there is, and, if my math is correct, probably worth 40 cents an hour. (Best episodes: #811 Conan O’Brien, #920 Jesse Thorn, #904 Wil Anderson)
4. Sklarbro Country (10)
5. Mike Detective (10)
Funniest description of Walking The Room: Even before Dave Anthony gets to #69’s weekly comparison of WTR to something disturbingly squalid, his patter with Greg Behrendt finds them at their petulant, dismissive best. Then Anthony refers to a guy who hangs out in the bowels of a Porta Potti as a “gentleman,” Kyle Kinane draws him as a silk-and-top-hat-wearing dandy, and it’s off to the races.
Favorite Punching Bags: Harris Wittels, Pat Francis
1. The Mental Illness Happy Hour (15)
2. Comedy Bang Bang (15)
3. Sklarbro Country (10)
4. The Pod F. Tompkast (5)
5. WTF With Marc Maron (5)
Most infectious laugh in podcasting: Tie: Paul F. Tompkins, the Sklar Brothers.
Most welcome and ubiquitous guest: Patton Oswalt. Is there any podcast he hasn’t done multiple times? It’s inhuman! The man must be cloning himself, Multiplicity-style.
1. Pop Culture Happy Hour (15)
2. The Tobolowsky Files (10)
3. WTF with Marc Maron (9)
4. FourCast (8)
5. Filmspotting (8)
Best non-2011 podcast episode discovered in 2011: Stephen King On His Longest Novels, a half-hour 2009 conversation King did with Time magazine. Essentially, this is a take on the Random Roles model, where the interviewer just gives King the title of one of his books, and then lets him talk about it for several minutes. Given how rarely King gives interviews, and how rarely, when he does, he gets this kind of space to just be candid and say whatever he likes, this is a real treasure trove for King fans, full of fascinating trivia, little revelations, and a sense that King would be a fun guy to chat with over coffee.
Biggest fire hose of information award: The Tech News Today podcast records five days a week, and it feels like an NPR radio show with a sense of humor, like Car Talk for the early-adopter gadget-head set. But keeping up with it is like trying to read a daily edition of The Economist; there’s so much to digest in every episode, it feels like they must be living in the future, because surely there can’t be this many new tech-related issues and discussion topics in the present.
Smut and nothing but: Short of Kevin Smith, is any celebrity producing a more candid, graphic, “Gee, I’m naughty”-themed podcast than The Kids In The Hall’s Scott Thompson? His anarchic Scott Free Podcast brings in Canadian comedians as guests, but spends as much time talking about Thompson’s feelings on circumcision, drinking, tour sex, and threesomes as it does on anything the guest has to say. Thompson’s distinctive voice and personality make this infrequent broadcast a hoot, but unlike King, he doesn’t seem like someone to talk to over coffee so much as someone to dish with over about a gallon of alcohol. Not that he needs it to be uninhibited.
1. Comedy Bang Bang (15)
2. The Pod F. Tompkast (15)
3. WTF With Marc Maron (10)
4. Mike And Tom Eat Snacks (6)
5. The Moth (4)
Points for ambition: Earwolf Media, Scott Aukerman and Jeff Ullrich’s company that produces Comedy Bang Bang, Who Charted?, Sklarbro Country, How Did This Get Made?, The Apple Sisters, and many other of our favored podcasts, went all-out this year. There was Eardrop, a daily podcast where comedians and friends called and left voicemails. The network attempted the first ever reality competition for podcasts with The Earwolf Challenge. It’s experimented with goofy stuff like Analyze Phish and, in general, provided a place for some of the comedy world’s best and brightest. Now, if only they were making lots of money off of them…
Gathering storm for future comedy podcasting world dominance: Earwolf Media Vs. Nerdist Industries.
1. Superego (10)
2. Doug Loves Movies (10)
3. Nerdist (15)
4. Comedy Bang Bang (10)
5. Who Charted? (5)
1. WTF With Marc Maron (10)
2. The Best Show On WFMU (10)
3. Hang Up And Listen (10)
4. The Bugle (10)
5. Filmspotting (10)
1. The Tobolowsky Files (15)
2. RadioLab (10)
3. Memory Palace (10)
4. Extra Hot Great (10)
5. WTF With Marc Maron (5)
1. How Was Your Week? (5)
2. The Sound Of Young America (5)
3. Sound Opinions (13)
4. The Pod F. Tompkast (15)
5. Savage Love (12)