In Podmass, The A.V. Club sifts through the ever-expanding world of podcasts and recommends the previous week’s best episodes. Have your own favorite? Let us know in the comments or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
A Podmass series spotlight
Big Grande’s The Teacher’s Lounge
What often makes a comedy podcast special is its skill in constructing a fully realized world, and season two of Big Grande’s The Teachers Lounge pulls this off with remarkable flair. The show is a behind-the-scenes look at the fictional Hamilton High School as told by four of its teachers: Bill Cravy (Drew Tarver), Howard Levi’s (Jon Mackey), Todd Padre (Dan Lippert), and Sam Weatherman (Ryan Rosenberg). This season picks up after they’ve all been fired from their respective teaching jobs and are trying—and utterly failing—to get their lives back on track.
There’s an almost competitive nature to the group’s improv work, but this way of playing off each other does a lot to propel the show forward. Their enthusiasm to get the joke out or spearhead a new bit makes an episode go from zero to 60 with hilarious urgency, each cast member seamlessly folding new information into the conceit. There’s a clear understanding between the improvisers that would-be mistakes are fertile ground; if a word is mispronounced or a reference is offhandedly thrown in, these elements are just one more opportunity to flesh out a particular character or storyline. Nothing is off-limits when it comes to pulling listeners even deeper into the wild world they’ve created.
And it is a wild world: Mr. Cravy disguises a cheetah as a Jewish student named Cheetahman to lead the track team to victory; Mr. Levi somehow gets involved with notorious drug lord El Chapo; Mr. Weatherman inadvertently destroys the Louvre via motivational speaking; and Mr. Padre gets it into his head that the best way to be a feminist is to get engaged to a mute masseuse named Steve. All of this just scratches the surface. Despite the show’s many notable guest appearances, the true delight is in the core four and the joy they bring to these troubled, complicated, outrageous characters who are all, in their own way, earnestly trying to do better. The season ends in inevitable, thrilling chaos, and it’s impossible not to feverishly wonder how they’ll get out of this mess. Here’s to season three.
Buffering The Vampire Slayer
This week, Jenny Owen Youngs and Kristin Russo are joined by Vanity Fair writer and Buffy superfan Joanna Robinson to discuss the pivotal season-two episode “Innocence.” The famous second installment of the two-part storyline in which Buffy loses her virginity to Angel—who subsequently loses his soul—is a particularly poignant moment for fans of the show. And yet, even with such an emotionally weighty chapter, the three have so much fun discussing every aspect of the faithfully rewatched episode. It’s refreshing to look at the show through their eyes as they laugh about Buffy’s giraffe pants, obsess over the claddagh ring, and point out minute details like the shot of the Quest For Camelot poster in the mall scene. Robinson has an effortless chemistry with the hosts, bringing a perspective that rounds out a solid trio. There’s a natural ease to their conversation that feels like everyone is a teen again, chatting about Buffy as if at a slumber party. It’s a relatability that, much like Buffy itself, makes a listener feel like an active (albeit silent) part of the show.
Edward Clarke Vs. Girls
In 1841, Edward Hammond Clarke overcame chronic bowel issues to graduate first in his class from Harvard and go on to become a respected ear doctor. So far, so good. But then, to the detriment of humanity—and one gender in particular—he devoted himself to preventing women from entering higher education. Hosts Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds are equal parts aggrieved and amused as they rehash the enormously condescending arguments laid out in the unflinching yet discreet prose of Clarke’s magnum opus, Sex In Education: Or, A Fair Chance For The Girls. The crux of his arguments appears to be that if women take to higher learning, they will render themselves infertile by diverting blood from their wombs to their brains, on top of which they’ll stop paying attention to their hygiene during their menstrual cycles and contract diseases of the reproductive system, which Clarke hilariously refers to as a women’s “organization.” This Freudian fodder depressingly proved to be a publishing hit, forcing leading scientists of the day to forego serious research and focus on refuting Clarke’s arguments.
Every Little Thing
The Hide Rug Of The Plant World
Life is chock-full of details too trivial for the average person to notice, but reporter Flora Lichtman is definitely not one of those people. As the host of the recently launched Gimlet podcast Every Little Thing—a sort of butterfly form of the caterpillar that was Gimlet’s departed Surprisingly Awesome—Lichtman is intent on looking deep into life’s minutiae, providing listeners with all of the unexplored and fascinating details. This week’s topic could scarcely be more of an afterthought in day-to-day life: the stories behind office plants. Tackling this subject, however, yields stories that range from a man in Chicago who acts as a sort of “Planta Claus” by rescuing and rehoming discarded foliage, to the interior landscapers who analyze various workspaces in order to match different plants to their discrete personalities. Perhaps most captivating are the glimpses into the history of interior plants and the way modern life has shifted their status. This is highlighted particularly well with the Australian Kentia Palm, once only available to British aristocracy but just another piece of office decoration today.
The Actual Science Behind Outlandish Deaths
It might say something about the state of the world today that a half-hour conversation about grotesque and/or preposterous death scenarios can so easily serve as a lighthearted distraction from the day’s headlines. Somehow, this episode of Inquiring Minds does just that. Co-host Kishore Hari talks to Exploratorium Museum’s senior staff scientist Paul Doherty about his new book And Then You’re Dead, which comprehensively and giddily delves into gruesome yet fascinating details about how a person would give up the ghost in any number of strange fatalities. Some of it is deeply rooted in reality, such as the specifics surrounding a trip over Niagara Falls in a barrel. Other parts are a bit more fanciful, like the finer points of death by black hole or how your physical personage would instantaneously be rendered into a plasma state where it caught in the magnetic field of a neutron star. All of it is exhaustively researched and in check with our freshest scientific knowledge. Doherty sounds like he’s having a ball, and his cheerful attitude toward such potential bummers is infectious.
Allen Ginsberg And Langston Hughes
In their unending quest to learn more about their respective Black and Jewish cultures, hosts Lorraine DeGraffenreidt and Sarah Isaacson delve into the realm of poetry on Learnt Up this week. Isaacson discusses an interaction with her acupuncturist—another Jewish woman—who has an array of antiquated (and low-key racist) perspectives on traditionally Jewish food and Ebonics. This segues into DeGraffenreidt’s discussion on the work of Langston Hughes and his efforts to focus on real people and their lives: a fixture of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes both democratized black vernacular and changed the way people thought about poetry that involved it. Both Isaacson and DeGraffenreidt confront how they don’t consider themselves “poetry people,” specifically their notion that poetry seems to be more or less an antiquated art form. While they can say that poetry is not their medium of choice, their homework for this episode—investigating the works of both Hughes and the Beat Generation’s Allen Ginsberg—gives them an appreciation for all that these poets accomplished. Isaacson is particularly blown away by Ginsberg’s activism, including his launching of the “Flower Power” method of protest.
In A Small Bag
People aren’t perfect. It’s something we all understand on an abstract intellectual level, but flaws have a way of surprising us anyway, manifesting themselves in relationships as gigantic forks in the road. Faced with such challenges, some romances will deepen in response while others only grow apart. In this episode, a couple with a 22-year age difference slams into a gut check moment when the elder partner, Tim, suffers a heart attack while they are having sex. He survives to write a beautiful essay (read here by Harry Lennix of The Blacklist) in which he admits to feeling an indifference with life during the emergency, and a certain acceptance of the looming finality of death. But watching his partner, Sarah, pack a bag for his prolonged hospital stay impresses upon him not only his love for her but his responsibility to pull through. Now, years later, the couple stops by to talk about their life after the essay stops, how their relationship progressed to marriage, and how they are preparing to confront aging and death in an intergenerational relationship.
Rookie’s host, Tavi Gevinson, has had a long documented fandom for Winona Ryder, from running a tribute to the actor when Rookie launched in 2011 to more recently speaking with her for Interview magazine’s “The Beloved: Winona Ryder” as part of its Queens Of Cool feature. That fondness for the “champion of outsiderness” remains evident throughout their chat, as Gevinson allows Ryder to wax poetic on everything from J.D. Salinger to (even if it seems completely misguided) her hopes for a Heathers sequel, with Gevinson peppering in short onomatopoeias of encouragement. They end on a high note with Ryder discussing one of her own fandoms, citing Ruth Gordon as an early inspiration. Rookie wraps up with its Ask A Grown feature, which finds “real-life grownups” to answer questions. However, this episode’s question and answer are applicable to listeners of any age: How do people feel about white writers writing about people of color without being one? Ashley C. Ford, a senior features writer at Refinery29, responds poignantly: “People who are trying tell stories that are in any way reflective of the real world have to have people of color in them.”
This Is About
This standout episode of the Australian podcast This Is About is one of the most compelling stories maybe ever told on a podcast. Forgive the hyperbole, but it really is something singular. In a way, it feels like a tale that wouldn’t be out of place in a Charlie Kaufman film, profiling a man who spent the better part of his life recording a radio show that never really existed. Starting in 1974, Second Side Up With Mark Talbot was a program that recorded weekly even though it wasn’t broadcast. Talbot only ever recorded Second Side Up directly to tape, and at the show’s height it enjoyed a circulation of just 40 people. Talbot’s drive to produce the show balances on a knife edge of totally amazing and completely bonkers, but showcases the antecedents to podcasting that existed for decades before the medium was even dreamt up. It is surprising to learn that only through a bit of kismet did radio producer David Waters discover Talbot’s work, but the world feels a better place for it.