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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Call Your Girlfriend
Ann Friedman and Aminatou Sow are your new best friends. Friedman is a regular contributor of hand-drawn pie charts to The Hairpin, and Sow is the founder of Tech LadyMafia, and now you can be a part of their long-distance lady friendship recorded in this podcast. They tackle a series of lighthearted and serious topics over the course of 45 minutes with a casual approach to feminism, focusing on some insightful conversations from the female perspective. This episode’s topics run the gamut from babies named Nutella and men in jeggings to the movie Girlhood and Lindy West’s confrontation of a particularly insensitive Internet troll. Want to delve further into everything discussed? These lovely ladies provide a reading list chock-full of helpful and entertaining links on their website. The episodes are also laced with songs worthy of your next mixtape. And who can dislike a podcast with a Robyn jam as a theme song? But a caution for the faint of heart: There’s lots of (hilarious) menstruation talk.
There are two types of wrestling podcasts: ones hosted by wrestlers, and ones hosted by fans. There’s no shortage of the former: Talk Is Jericho, The Steve Austin Show, and The Art Of Wrestling routinely offer a unique perspective and fascinating interviews with industry legends. But if you’re looking for real talk about the current state of the industry, you can’t do much better than Cheap Heat. The hosts are more than just lifelong WWE fans: Co-host David Shoemaker, a staff scribe with Grantland who writes under the pseudonym The Masked Man, is probably sports entertainment’s smartest and most inquisitive critic. Hot 97’s Peter Rosenberg serves as the Jerry Lawler to Shoemaker’s Jim Ross, his hardy, jovial countenance clashing nicely with Shoemaker’s more cerebral nature. As in every episode, this latest finds the duo dissecting the events of the past week, which, when factoring in Monday Night Raw, Smack Down, NXT, and monthly pay-per-views, turns out to be a lot. Still, every entry is economical in its analysis, and buoyed by both hosts’ familiarity with the wrestling trends of yore. And though Shoemaker and Rosenberg’s breakdowns are suited to diehards, Cheap Heat is also also a boon to more casual wrestling fans who simply can’t keep up with the WWE’s seemingly endless slate of programming.
The secret to Comedy Bang! Bang! gets revealed in a single key moment of What Winsome Said. Neil Campbell starts off the titular (never eponymous!) character as an ancient parody of Jewish comedians, musing about how he’s so old, he was friends with the dinosaurs. He then laughs pathetically at a Jurassic Park zinger, which Scott Aukerman mistakes for sobbing. “That had the wording of a joke,” he tells Winsome Prejudice, “but then you started crying after it.” Instead of disagreeing with him, Campbell runs with the newly-bestowed character trait, transforming Winsome from a cheesy comic into a vampiric pervert who gets off on slurping up his own tears and never letting his 22-year-old wife (played by Fran Gillespie) leave the house. Everyone on the show—Aukerman, Gillespie, and comedian guests Kyle Kinane and Matt Braunger (both playing the straight-man role)—stays onboard with the increasingly bizarre storyline without ever steering it off the rails, showing that Comedy Bang! Bang! is strongest when the performers embrace the podcast’s improv-friendly, anything-goes policy.
Death, Sex & Money
Real Love: A Valentine’s Special
This Valentine’s Day special is a collection of true stories about love (or lack thereof) from the likes of Jane Fonda, Dan Savage, and Chaz Ebert. Along with the tales of these famous folks, host Anna Sale tells her personal story about getting back together with her ex because of a phone call from former U.S. Senator Al Simpson. Hearing Sale discuss her own relationship with Simpson and his wife so candidly is heartwarming, especially when she reveals that she’ll be marrying her once-ex this summer. While the tales from the well-known guests are lovely to listen to—there has likely never been or ever will be a truer love than that of Chaz and Roger Ebert, Savage of course talks about sex, and Fonda knows now that she’s a more complete person single than she ever was married—the called-in anecdotes from listeners about love, loss, and infidelity are particularly comforting. When it comes to matters of the heart, there’s nothing better than realizing you’re not alone. The result is a comprehensive range of touching and thought-provoking stories about singledom, couplehood, and everything in between.
Less Than Live!
Production values in podcasting—like editing, theme songs, or generally following an outline—are often an afterthought, so when a show focuses on these elements, it can be a genuine thrill. It makes sense then that a writer and illustrator of sequential art helms one of the best-produced podcasts in recent memory, as the muscles are largely the same. Less Than Live!, a show about loving and making comics, could be described as aggressively cute, but certainly not pejoratively. Host Kate Leth–the pseudonymous Kate Or Die–and her crew have created lovely interstitial songs that add fanfare to every segment, like a musical splash page for listeners’ ears. Leth invites Chip Zdarsky, illustrator of Image’s Sex Criminals, on the show to talk with her and her mother, an avowed Sex Criminals fan. Zdarsky is easily one of the comic book industry’s funniest, most ribald personalities—“the Internet’s swarthy lothario” according to Leth—and he is in great form during the interview, flirting openly with Leth’s mother, whom he insists on calling “mommy” to hilarious effect. The interview also covers great ground for the artistically inclined, highlighting the importance of launching new projects without fear of failure. In all it’s a fun, inclusive romp befitting Leth’s personality and work.
No Such Thing As A Fish
No Such Thing As A Travelator In Ancient Rome
Special guest and BBC Historian Greg Jenner proves to be an especially chatty guest on No Such Thing As A Fish with tons of information delivered with frenetic enthusiasm. Some time zone/time travel research from Jenner leads things off, immediately breathing life into the panel in lieu of regular host Dan Schreiber. Turns out that an ancestor of Coldplay’s Chris Martin is actually responsible for the existence of daylight saving time, and anyone who thinks things are complicated now would dread how many time zones there once were. There’s a slew of odd facts about the shelled creatures known as limpets, and the panelists delight in the ridiculous anal electricity experiments of Von Humboldt and the practice of making horses seem more attractive by inserting electric eels into their equine anuses. It’s as ridiculous as any episode, yet the panelists have been taking turns filling in for Schreiber these last few weeks so each of the last few episodes has also felt experimental in format to an extent. This week is finally Anna Ptaszynski’s turn. Often one of the driest and sharpest of the group, she keeps things especially quick and clever this week. She does not flinch when being teased for segueing into pygmy sperm whales, instead speaking to the syrupy things they shoot from their anus with the sweet, sincere, and intelligent affection that any stand-up comic would envy.
Back End Trouble
Some of the best storytelling about the Internet is happening on Reply All, the somewhat-new podcast from two guys who previously hosted an Internet-themed podcast for WNYC. Alex Goldman and P.J. Vogt find compelling perspectives on this broad topic and construct metaphors that bring their subjects to life. The metaphor in this episode, which focuses on the system admin who prepared Paper magazine to host Internet-breaking Kim Kardashian photos, is all about bees and machine guns and butts. The job of systems administration has never sounded so much like an art form. In the second half of the show, the guys dissect a cryptic tweet that requires knowledge of multiple Internet phenomena. “If Holden Caulfield had watched a bunch of Mystery Science Theater and opened a Twitter account,” that’s Weird Twitter, they explain. Weird Twitter is also “Internet teamsters” and “the meat of Twitter.” Playful and awkwardly enigmatic, Goldman and Vogt dip their toes into the inscrutable subcultures that they explore, reporting back in a manner that lets listeners in on the joke without dumbing things down.
Should I Worry About This?
Should I Worry About… Bed Bugs?
The bedbugs episode of Should I Worry About This?—a newish podcast that tells you how to fret about things in the most logical manner possible—won’t tell you anything about the nocturnal pests that isn’t already on Wikipedia. But just hearing self-described professional worriers Cat Oddy and Eden Robbins talk about the critters will help keep paranoia at bay, especially if you’ve had bedbugs before and are worried it’ll happen again. The hosts gets more jovial as they delve further into insectual lore and science, emitting gross-out laughter at the mention of the male bugs’ hypodermic genitalia, shuddering at their maroon-colored fecal stains, and pondering the possibilities of them nestling in the spines of library books. Yes, bedbugs are rather frightening. Yes, bedbugs are gross, and yes, you should definitely worry about them if they’re seeking warmth, shelter, and blood-meals in the crevices of your mattress. But as Should I Worry About This? proves, the more you know about them, the less you worry, and the less power they have over your everyday life.
Stuff You Should Know
How Ice Cream Works
Stuff You Should Know has many topics that it has barreled through over the years, the most popular being the many subtopics of death and food. Perhaps no food is a better combination of unusual and popular than ice cream, and so the science is especially delightful to unpack on the podcast (if a little unseasonal in the middle of a hostile winter for most of the country). The definition of the substance known as ice cream is actually “colloidal foam,” and it’s a foam that cohost Chuck Bryant adores year-round yet can’t digest properly due to his lactose intolerance. Bryant actually goes on quite a long riff about what Ben & Jerry’s does to his digestive system, or as he succinctly puts it, it gives him a “poopy butt.” Until around 1800, ice cream was mostly for the wealthier class in the U.S., but as shipping and homogenization began to develop, its fascinating history begins. The only thing missing from the episode is a proper cure for brain freeze, which the hosts dismiss as the result of a mistake only gluttonous children make. According to research, 87 percent of Americans have ice cream in their fridge right now, so listening to a loose history of soda jerks and salty sugar from Josh Clark and Bryant ought to be the perfect companion to shoveling it into one’s maw at 2 a.m.
This American Life
William S. Burroughs has grown into a mythic figure, the bad influence that looms over American literature who continues to inspire generations of artists, musicians, writers, and outcasts. On the occasion of Burroughs’s 101st birthday, This American Life broadcasts the BBC’s 2014 documentary that explores all aspects of the author’s life. Burroughs was viewed as many things during his life: the greatest writer of his generation, a lowly junkie, a homosexual, a gun nut, a murderer (depending on who you talk to), a lover of cats. Archival records of Burroughs reading his work and interviews with friends and devotees like John Waters work through all of these aspects to interrogate his life, legacy, and legend. Brought together with incredible narration by Iggy Pop, the documentary deconstructs the cult of personality that has formed around Burroughs and his work to present a nuanced and truthful portrait of a talented but deeply flawed and sad man. For anyone who knows Burroughs by reputation only and has never really got what the fuss is about (a camp that included Ira Glass), this is a deeply rewarding listen about one of the seminal literary figures of the last hundred years.
On The map
The Urbanist is another effort that continually hints at levels of quality above and beyond that of the podcast status quo. It comes from the fusty-sounding Monocle, a publication focused on old-world class and capital-C culture, filtered through the gaze of a younger generation. The podcast is cut from much the same cloth, but with a special desire to highlight life, in all its endless variations, in the major cities of the world. This show ought to carry a warning about its potential to cause wanderlust in listeners, as it pinballs around the globe, stopping in over eight countries in a scant hour. This week focuses on maps and their unseen power. Maps act as communication tools, spinning narratives of both place and creator, especially in the details they choose to leave out. Stories of this are told from Buenos Aires to Beirut, Vienna to Hong Kong, and several other places in between. One true oddity comes from Melbourne, Australia, where the city’s urban forest has been mapped and each tree given an email address so that citizens can write missives to their favorites.
When WTF host Marc Maron started his show some five or so years ago, his aim was simple: to grant listeners an unvarnished look into the lives and minds of comedians, showing the real emotional truths of this largely misunderstood group of individuals. That aim remains the same, for the most part, but after nearly 600 episodes, the selection of unturned stones has diminished. So Maron has branched out, interviewing musicians and directors along the way, but when the show looks further back, WTF’s aim becomes transcendent. Maron welcomes 92 year-old, still-working comedian Marty Allen to The Cat Ranch, and what proceeds is a far-ranging story from a consummate, once-prominent entertainer mostly forgotten today. Allen starts by talking about his uncynical love for creating happiness, a quality that clearly resonated throughout his career. Allen is sprightly, recounting surprising stories of his jocular interactions with Elvis and The Beatles, as well as detailing the comedy landscape of postwar America. Within these episodes with comedians from a bygone era, the show achieves a higher level of significance. Inadvertently Maron has become the podcasting equivalent of Tom Shales, creating an omnibus oral history of American comedy, making interviews like this week’s particularly important.
“There are some lines I would draw, but I don’t really mind talking about my uterine lining.”—Ann Friedman on appropriate discussion, Call Your Girlfriend
“Winsome’s birth-certificate is a cave painting.”—Fran Gillespie as a young wife on her husband, the prehistoric Winsome Prejudice, Comedy Bang! Bang!
“He’s very easy to live with. It’s like living with a girlfriend who loves sex.”—Jane Fonda on her current boyfriend Richard Perry, Death, Sex & Money
“There is a profound and nerdy satisfaction in saying, ‘This is a big problem, I know how to solve it, I can do it in a very short amount of time by myself.’ And then 15 minutes later you think, ‘Oh shit, what have I done?’”—Greg Knauss, Paper Magazine server architect during #BreakTheInternet, Reply All
“The thing about bedbugs is there’s nothing that they do that’s not disgusting.”—Cat Oddy on the horrors of bedbugs, Should I Worry About This?