The best podcasts of 2010
When the iPod debuted in 2001, it promised to change the way people consume music, but few people inside or outside Apple’s Cupertino headquarters probably realized the device itself would become a medium. Like blogs, podcasts have become an indelible part of the media landscape over the past nine years, providing an easy creative outlet for anyone with a computer and a microphone. The A.V. Club listens to a ton of them, so we decided to round up the best we heard this year, excluding the ones that were basically podcast versions of radio shows. (We still love you, The Best Show On WFMU, This American Life, The Sound Of Young America, Sound Opinions, and Radiolab.) Cue these up—you may never listen to music on your iPod again.
The Pod F. Tompkast
One of the finest comedians working today, Paul F. Tompkins had a nice little racket with recurring appearances on podcasts like Doug Loves Movies and Comedy Death-Ray Radio, where he developed his hilariously over-the-top characterizations of the Cake Boss, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Ice-T, and others. When it finally came time to put together his own podcast—after promising to do one for a long time—Tompkins showed that he really considered the possibilities of the medium. Most podcasts, especially ones done by his peers, settle into the guys-with-mics-talking format, a quick and easy way to crank them out. But Tompkins set up a conceit—“It’s night-time on the Internet”—and organized his show in a way that keeps it from rambling too far afield. Each episode features an introduction by Tompkins (who talks over a classy-sounding musical bed by Eban Schletter, the aural equivalent of Tompkins’ signature suits), a bit featuring characters he developed on Comedy Death-Ray Radio, an interview with comedian Jen “Southie” Kirkman, a recorded sketch from Tompkins’ recurring live show in Los Angeles, and the sort of silly riffing that is Tompkins’ specialty.
Check out: The Pod F. Tompkast is only five episodes old, so you might as well start at the beginning, with Episode 1 from July 29. It won’t take long to catch up.
Nerds are obsessives by definition, and The Nerdist podcast embraces minutiae as it relates to comedy, film, television, the Internet, and other nerdy pop-culture pursuits. A freewheeling, hourlong conversation presided over by TV/stand-up vet Chris Hardwick, The Nerdist is more like a laid-back conversation with friends than an interview show—probably because most of the guests are Hardwick’s friends/acquaintances from the comedy world (though non-comic guests like Stan Lee, Ozzy Osbourne, and even the Muppets have also appeared). Consequently, conversations frequently delve deep into topics like creative process and comedic philosophy, which might be alienating if it weren’t so consistently fascinating. As host, Hardwicke straddles the line between fan and insider: He can sometimes be overly gushy toward his guests, but his questions are backed by a deep knowledge of pop culture and a sincere appreciation for the subject matter.
Check out: Comedy nerds would do well to seek out episodes 25 and 33, featuring Maria Bamford and Paul F. Tompkins, respectively, but the extra-long live episode featuring Mythbuster Adam Savage is an ideal hybrid of comedy and out-and-out nerdery.
Comedy Death-Ray Radio
Since it debuted last year on indie1031.com, Scott Aukerman’s Comedy Death-Ray Radio has followed in the taste-making footsteps of the beloved weekly UCB Theatre comedy show that spawned it. The podcast—now distributed by Aukerman and producer Jeff Ullrich’s Earwolf Podcasting Network—features the best names in comedy (as well as actors and other notables) every week for rambling, funny interviews, goofy improv games, and various comic shenanigans. The guests are top-notch (recent ones include Zach Galifianakis, Mike Birbiglia, Janeane Garofalo, and Paul Scheer), and the comedians who come in to do character work are usually hilarious. (Check out Paul F. Tompkins’ Cake Boss, Nick Kroll’s El Chupacabra, Seth Morris’ Bob Ducca, and all of James Adomian’s guises.) Aukerman keeps the format loose, with no tangent unexplored—which can be tedious, but Comedy Death-Ray Radio hits more than it misses.
Check out: Episode 55, from May 28. The guests are Natasha Leggero and Jason Mantzoukas, but the real star is Seth Morris as Bob Ducca, Aukerman’s sad-sack ex-stepfather. Not only does he read one of his now-famous lists (this one of “mostly unregistered, uncredited, self-proclaimed therapists”), but also a ridiculous seven-minute poem titled “A Ship Called Hope.”
WTF With Marc Maron
This is the year WTF With Marc Maron became the comedy podcast of record. Maron’s interviews are poignant and revealing; he has a shared history with almost every working comic, and that rapport/respect is there from minute one. Thus, when there’s a rumor flying around the scene, Maron will address it on his podcast, and the comic feels at ease enough to chat about controversial subjects. Maron talked to Carlos Mencia about the many accusations of joke-stealing, and when he felt like Mencia was giving him the stock response, Maron gathered info from some of Mencia’s burn victims and brought him back for an unbelievable follow-up—some of the best comedy journalism out there. Same goes for notoriously polarizing comics like Dane Cook and indirect figures like Ira Glass: Maron always gives his subjects the benefit of the doubt, and is relentless in his pursuit of answers and interesting conversation. The best moments of WTF, though, come when Maron offers a peek behind the curtain; he’s not afraid to bring his own neuroses and insecurities into the podcast. In a two-part episode, he interviewed Louis C.K., with whom he shares a sticky past. They spent two hours talking about the good ol’ days, and in the process found moments of catharsis in their strained friendship. Maron is bold and unabashedly honest, with his podcast becoming an extension of his voracious curiosity and never-ending search for meaning through comedy.
Check out: Episodes 103-104, a two-part chat with Judd Apatow during which Maron covers the depths of Apatow’s comedy nerd-dom, including playing tapes of Apatow conducting interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno, and Garry Shandling when he was a teenager.
Never Not Funny
For Never Not Funny host Jimmy Pardo, 2010 was a year to be survived and endured, rather than enjoyed. The stand-up comic with the machine-gun patter and quick wit lost a brother-in-law when Andrew Koenig (best known as Boner on Growing Pains) first went missing, then was found dead from an apparent suicide. Then Pardo’s gig as the warm-up man for The Tonight Show With Conan O’Brien disappeared dramatically. Yet the long shadow of personal and professional tragedy didn’t keep Never Not Funny from milking big laughs and trenchant insights out of the mundane minutiae of everyday life. Never Not Funny is a podcast about nothing; Pardo, producer Matt Belknap, and their guests are just as engaging while talking about the chicken at Chipotle or unfashionable rock dinosaurs as they are discussing the ins and outs of the stand-up comedy world.
Check out: Season seven was strong from start to finish, especially episodes with such podcast all-stars as Paul F. Tompkins, Jesse Thorn, Jon Hamm, and Scott Aukerman, but none was as emotionally satisfying as episode 725, featuring Pardo’s wife, Danielle Koenig. After the couple’s tough year, the episode provided a much-needed element of closure while still being as fun and familiar as a long, rewarding conversation with an old friend.
The B.S. Report With Bill Simmons
As ESPN’s “The Sports Guy,” Bill Simmons can make a legitimate claim to changing the face of contemporary sportswriting more than any other columnist in the past 10 years, eschewing the ivory-tower contrarianism that increasingly characterizes newspaper sports reporters in favor of a refreshingly relatable (and exhaustively knowledgeable) fan’s perspective. But as compulsively readable as his columns are, Simmons is arguably even more enjoyable on his podcast, The B.S. Report With Bill Simmons, where his funny and insightful conversations with friends like Cousin Sal and Joe House, as well as more famous regulars such as Chuck Klosterman and Jon Hamm, frequently delve into the finer points of pop culture. On a recent two-part podcast with ESPN fantasy football expert (and former screenwriter) Matthew Berry, Simmons explored the history of Beverly Hills 90210 with the same obsessive enthusiasm he has for the NBA.
Check out: On May 24, Simmons devoted 90 minutes to dissecting the series finale of Lost with a panel of experts and friends that included Klosterman, TV critic Alan Sepinwall, and his buddy Gus. It’s basically the most extensive post-Lost recap ever, only not annoying or tiresome.
Slate’s Hang Up & Listen
An oasis of sanity and reason in a world of sports-talk bloviators, Hang Up & Listen has a format similar to ESPN’s Sports Reporters—regular panelists talking about the larger sports issues of the day—but it’s smarter, funnier, and features significantly less Mitch Albom. Host Josh Levin and his quick-witted guests, Stefan Fatsis and Mike Pesca, have a great, playful chemistry, and they consistently challenge the dubious assertions that pass for conventional wisdom in the sports world. They offer fresh insight into subjects that seem talked-to-death while searching the margins for quirkier stories that wouldn’t make SportsCenter on its slowest night. Add to that Pesca’s Google-resistant trivia questions and Fatsis’ glorious jihad against the “blue-blazered sport-o-crats” that lord over organizations like Olympics and FIFA, and the show is as entertaining as it is enlightening.
Check out: It’s advisable to just subscribe and dive right in, but for a good taste of what Hang Up & Listen has to offer, you can’t beat its World Cup coverage last summer with “The Mike Plays The Vuvuzela Edition” (June 14). Fatsis and Pesca were both in South Africa for the event, and they brought a nice balance between developments in the tournament and happenings in the culture surrounding it.
Doug Loves Movies
A midyear title change from I Love Movies to Doug Loves Movies illustrates why this podcast frequently yields the Internet’s funniest informal chit-chat about film: pot- and cinema-loving host Doug Benson. Although Benson always cedes the spotlight to his guests (this year, that included not only a who’s-who of Los Angeles comedy, but also “Weird Al” Yankovic, Leonard Maltin, and Benson’s old poker buddy, Jon Hamm), his amiable, herbally enhanced personality permeates the entire show. The loose nature of Doug Loves Movies also helps to derail any shilling by guests plugging a new release, as when Elisabeth Shue veered off the Piranha 3D path to relate her refusal of Paul Verhoeven’s entreaties to go topless in Hollow Man.
Check out: The Oct. 1 episode, in which Benson ends his nearly yearlong quest to book an appearance by actor John Lithgow. (Why Lithgow? Because he was in 2010: The Year We Make Contact, of course.) Lithgow is the perfect guest for the show: He’s a natural ham who launches into several hilarious stories—like being called an asshole for not introducing his musician son to Lou Reed—with little to no coaxing from Benson. Also, Lithgow has no qualms about trouncing fellow guests Jimmy Pardo and Paul F. Tompkins in a trivia game where the answers are all films drawn from his résumé.
Film podcasts come and go, but there’s a reason Filmspotting has been a podcast institution for more than half a decade. Each week is a virtual cornucopia of film discussion that includes reviews of current films, conversations with guests, top five lists and marathons, and extended looks at particular filmmakers, genres, or trends. Adam Kempenaar and Matty Robinson—who are, full disclosure, friends of The A.V. Club—serve as the show’s genial, sometimes fractious hosts, bringing their passion for film to every moment of the show.
Talking TV With Ryan And Ryan
AOL’s Maureen Ryan—also, full disclosure, a friend of The A.V. Club—and Boston-based TV critic Ryan McGee team up for a weekly discussion of what’s going on in television. Neither lets a passion for the medium obscure its faults, even when talking about favorite shows like Mad Men, and both know the behind-the-scenes players inside and out. They’re capable, for instance, of citing by name the writers of all the best episodes of Battlestar Galactica without glancing at IMDB.
Check out: “The State Of The Sitcom” from Oct. 20, in which the two Ryans examine television comedy at a time of transition.
Slate’s Culture Gabfest
The structure of Culture Gabfest falls in line with Slate’s other podcasts: three panelists, three segments, followed by a round of brief recommendations at the end. Structure is rare in the wild world of podcasting, and within those crisp, tightly orchestrated segments, host Stephen Metcalf and his regular gabbers, deputy editor Julia Turner and film critic Dana Stevens, consider the highs and lows of popular culture with intelligence and depth, and carry it across with warm camaraderie and a lightness of touch. (Maybe too much camaraderie: Metcalf’s occasional snobbery—like scoffing at the very idea that Quentin Tarantino’s movies can be considered seriously—begs for a stiffer challenge.) It’s a conversation among smart friends, ricocheting deftly from serious considerations of modern art exhibits or various cultural flashpoints to playful discussions on the latest Super Bowl ads—all aimed at a curious, engaged listenership.
Check out: “Naked Doorway Edition,” April 27. The show’s too consistent to spotlight any one episode, but segments on Marina Abramović’s startling MOMA exhibit (someone on the panel squeezed through a “naked” doorway), the 201st episode of South Park, and a new Jack Kevorkian biopic showcase the range of discussion.
Pop Culture Happy Hour
Billed as a cocktail hour where the conversation is real but the cocktails are imaginary, NPR’s weekly Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast regularly features four NPR writers blithely chattering about pop-culture events. There isn’t much structure, beyond recurring features like “Regrettable Television Pop Quiz” and “What’s making you happy this week?” but the foursome doesn’t need it. Host Linda Holmes (whose NPR blog, Monkey See, is required reading), NPR.org arts editor Trey Graham, book/comics blogger Glen Weldon, and NPR Music Editor (and A.V. Club founder) Stephen Thompson talk like old friends, trading hilarious quips and cracking each other up, all with striking, surgical precision. Part of the fun is how easily and smoothly they interrupt one another with trenchant insights or just wise-ass needling without breaking up the flow. The podcast is more personal than comprehensive or up-to-the-minute on pop culture; in one terrific episode, Thompson’s happy-making thing of the week is a game his son invented, essentially creating Dungeons And Dragons from scratch, and inventing a chicken/octopus crossbreed called Chicktopus. But the happy-hour title is apt; listening to these conversations is precisely akin to eavesdropping on some playful, familiar, blisteringly smart friends at a bar as they check in for the week and chat about whatever’s on their minds, from Conan’s new show to flirting with Tom Wopat.
Check out: PCHH launched in July 2010, so the backlog is manageable. The episodes are best listened to in order from the beginning, given the development of running gags and the follow-ups to past installments. Start at the July 16 launch episode, which introduces the players and the regular features, then go forward from there, as comfort with the format lets them get even more playful and discursive.
Sex-advice guru Dan Savage has been podcasting a call-in version of his weekly column since 2006, and it remains essential listening for the sexually (dys)functional and emotional voyeurs alike. Savage has reached the point where he’s heard it all, but he hasn’t gotten complacent, still happily stirring up shit with his old foes—Republicans and angry lesbians—and dishing out advice that’s compassionate, forceful, or snarky, as the situation warrants. His pre-show commentaries got particularly impassioned/exasperated this year with the rash of gay-teen suicides (which sparked the “It Gets Better” project) and midterm-election tomfoolery, respectively, and even coined a new Savage Neologism to join DTMFA, “pegging,” and “Santorum”: “lifting luggage,” inspired by the George Rekers rent-boy allegations.
Check out: Episode 195 from July 13 is one of Savage’s occasional themed episodes featuring a special guest, in this case, Planned Parenthood’s Dr. Anna Kaminski, who teams up with Dan to answer a bounty of questions about HPV and herpes. It’s surprisingly light, incredibly informative, and makes a virus that afflicts up to 80 percent of the adult population seem not so scary.
The Moth open mic and StorySlam have been kicking around in various cities for more than a decade, with thousands of storytellers bringing their true individual tales—told without notes—to the mic over the years. With that sort of proliferation, there’s bound to be a lot of chaff among the wheat, but The Moth podcast picks out the gems and podcasts original, engaging stories every week. Participants this year ranged from seasoned storytellers (The New Yorker’s Malcolm Gladwell, This American Life’s Starlee Kine, Sam Shepard) to unexpected celebrities (former Blues Clues host Steve Burns, Kimya Dawson) to regular folks with a yarn to spin. Regardless of profession or pedigree, the storytellers featured on The Moth podcast consistently bring first-rate drama, humor, and excitement to our earbuds each week. With each episode rarely going longer than 15 minutes, it isn’t a big time investment, either.
Check out: Deborah Scaling Kiley’s “Lost At Sea” from March 22, a nail-biting account of a doomed sailing trip that found her adrift in a raft, battling the elements and hungry sharks.
Stuff You Should Know
Discovery’s HowStuffWorks.com offers a repository of interesting articles, videos, and podcasts for the curious, but the one that strikes the best entertaining/enlightening balance is Charles Bryant and Josh Clark’s Stuff You Should Know. At first glance, some of the topics may not seem grabby (“How Freemasons Work”), but Clark and Bryant make them interesting, and their chemistry keep the podcasts lively. The overall voice of the podcast resembles Mythbusters, another Discovery production, and probably not by accident.
Check out: “How Cremation Works” from Aug. 31, which hits the podcast’s sweet spot of irreverent yet really informative. And slightly gross.