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 email@example.com.
Podcasting as a medium is now fully ensconced in the era of the prestige investigational show. Programs such as Serial, Missing Richard Simmons, and—as of tomorrow—S-Town are among the most talked-about shows of the last few years. There is one show, however, that has escaped notice within this larger conversation. One that is doing impressive, important, and perhaps even dangerous work. That podcast is Whatever Happened To Pizza At McDonald’s?, and it’s time to correct the record. The fruit of host Brian Thompson’s labors, Whatever Happened To Pizza At McDonald’s? is a doggedly single-minded quest to find out why the world’s second-largest restaurant chain both started and, shortly afterwards, stopped selling pizza.
What makes the show enjoyable is sometimes hard to quantify because it’s a continual treasure trove of surprises; it plays like a nervy and hilarious send-up of these sorts of podcasts, keenly walking the line by injecting genuine stakes. Thompson plays a fictionalized version of himself, a persistent and somewhat simple-minded investigative journalist who believes that there is a vast conspiracy underpinning McDonald’s decision to stop serving pizza. Each week’s central component consists of Thompson’s actual telephone calls to various unsuspecting establishments in his attempt to ferret out the truth. The episodes are all exceptionally short (very few go past 10-15 minutes). At its heart there is a real beauty to Thompson’s comedy. It is achingly funny, yes, but in a thoroughly unassuming fashion; gentle like that of stand-up comic Joe Pera, yet more erudite and serpentine at the same time. As a result, it feels almost Brechtian in its approach. While it is clearly comedy, there is no winking at the audience or even a sense that Thompson is enjoying himself.
Last month, after producing 31 episodes, Thompson brought the show to what appeared to be its logical conclusion, but the very next week returned with a startling new development spurring on the development of a second season. Without giving anything away, this new season’s aim appears to be making excellent sport of Serial’s sophomore slump while also ramping up Thompson’s propensity for cringe-inducing moments of comedic wonder. This is a show unlike any other and definitely worth starting from the beginning.
Breakdown, a long-form investigative podcast from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, has explored in previous seasons issues of wrongful prosecution and infanticide. Now, the podcast trains its eye on Dr. Narendra K. Gupta, a hypertension specialist who continued to practice medicine after 18 different female patients accused him of sexual assault. This initial episode lays out the entire season’s thesis, which promises a larger exploration of sexual assault as it can manifest in the doctor-patient relationship, wherein issues of self-doubt and justification color what would otherwise be a clear violation. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution also supplies a year’s worth of investigation into similar cases, exploring the effect these crimes have on the victims and how often their predators go unpunished. Dr. Gupta’s case is among the most egregious, and it’s hard not to feel a risible anger while hearing his victims discuss their experiences and the complicated sense of violation that comes with being handled in such a way in an ostensible safe space. Most of all, Breakdown aims to dissect the way cases such as these are covered by the media, even going so far as to criticize its own organization for not reporting enough on Dr. Gupta’s trial.
Bret Easton Ellis Podcast
This week on his show, American Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis discusses the socio-political elements of horror films with director Mick Garris, who hosts a series of his own on the Podcast One network. They touch on Night Of The Living Dead and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre as reactions to the political landscapes of the ’60s and ’70s, respectively, and how the recent horror hit Get Out will potentially be considered a classic of the Trump era. For all the political talk on the episode, though, the most controversial opinion presented is that Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining is not deserving of its superlative status. Garris has the distinction of helming the most Stephen King adaptations for the screen, including the 1997 miniseries of The Shining, and he and Ellis recall the anticipation leading up to the 1980 film and the subsequent disappointment. Kubrick got the adaptation wrong, they say, with an overall cold style and the decision to “cast the ending” by selecting Jack Nicholson to play the lead.
Dead Pilots Society
Big Written By Mike Royce & Kevin Biegel
While some episodes of this podcast recount the struggles of getting a network on board with an original idea, this month Mike Royce and Kevin Biegel recount the difficulties of recreating a beloved classic for television. It was the success and innovation of the series Fargo that ultimately convinced the pair this was actually a viable idea, inspiring them to pitch an anthology rather than a multi-season story of a young boy trapped in a grown man’s body. As with most pilots presented on this podcast, after the table read it seems unfathomable that a network wouldn’t pick up this show. The script is clever and sweet; Jason Ritter is hilarious as the dorky, boyish Will Danger who turns “big,” and Steve Agee, despite his age, plays the main character’s 12-year-old best friend Kyle with such charm and authenticity that it’s clear Agee is actually just a child at heart.
Dear Sugar Radio
Haunted By Ghosting
Cheryl Strayed and Steve Almond’s warm, empathetic advice podcast tackles a topic that, by their own admission, is a rather new concept to them: ghosting. Ghosting, the art of digitally disengaging from a friend or lover, is a thoroughly modern phenomenon, but Strayed and Almond kick things off by discussing what it looked like before everyone had a smartphone. “The internet has changed our perception of what people owe us,” Strayed notes, a statement that Almond soon counterbalances by describing the “modern anxiety of being accessible all the time.” With these ideas in mind, the duo explores both the “ghoster” and the “ghostee” through letters that grapple with both sides of the equation. Strayed and Almond aren’t fans of the practice, their reasoning being that ghosting has a unique way of igniting the worst qualities of one’s imagination, the stories we create for why we’re not good enough. “The meanest thing you can do to someone is ignore them,” they conclude, a sentiment that’s as simple as it is easy to overlook. Here’s hoping such frankness can convert a chronic ghoster or 10.
Munch Madness 2017 moves into the semifinals this week as Mike Mitchell, Nick Wiger, and returning guest Armen Weitzman must determine whose chicken reigns supreme in a battle between McDonald’s and Popeyes. Weitzman is a devoted Chicken McNuggets fan, and his love for the product and characteristic willingness to be achingly sincere makes this his most enjoyable appearance yet. The crux of the episode is when it comes time for the pivotal vote and Mitchell decides to wreak havoc on the process by using his “switch” to flip the game, which only instigates Wiger to fight back with his own—because what’s a Tournament Of Chompions without a little chaos? Weitzman is the perfect guest to witness these moments, because he’s so distraught in the face of conflict and can be heard desperately trying to placate others. Somehow the episode devolves into a hilarious and heartwarming speech by Weitzman reminding Mitchell and Wiger that they’re great friends who love each other, and by the end of his spiel he is so overwhelmed he’s in tears. Weitzman brings a balancing energy to Wiger and Mitchell’s antagonistic dynamic in an episode that will not soon be forgotten.
Hannibal Buress: Handsome Rambler
Hannibal And Tony Talk To Andrew Barber
The true beauty of hip-hop is found in its regional varieties, where local culture informs both sound and lyrical content, providing a vibrant antidote to the homogeneity of mainstream music. There is a great deal of that civic pride at play on this week’s episode of Hannibal Buress’ delightful podcast as he and co-host Tony Trimm are joined by legendary Chicago hip-hop blogger Andrew Barber of Fake Shore Drive. Because Barber, Buress, and Trimm are all connected to the city of Chicago, their conversation is full of local references and humor, underlining the necessity of investing in one’s own local culture. The episode is full to bursting with amazing and hilarious anecdotes, largely surrounding the world of rap music and its personalities. Since Barber’s blog began in the infancy of social media, his stories about artists’ skepticism of his approach demonstrate how radically our media landscape has shifted in the last decade. The episode highlight is a surprising story from Barber involving Bill Murray, the World Series, rapper G Herbo, and the movie Flubber. To say more would spoil the fun.
The Horror Show With Brian Keene
Flying solo this week, noted author Brian Keene delves into the merits of Wattpad—the online storytelling community—as well as discussing some new developments with horror-genre mainstay Dread Central, particularly the website’s recent financial woes. In the absence of both his usual co-host, Dave Thomas, and his son and frequent guest host, Dungeonmaster 77.1, Keene has to describe his and Dungeonmaster 77.1’s impressions of Kong: Skull Island by himself. The majority of the episode is focused around a recording of an impromptu chat with Ashes co-author Ralph Bieber, who had unexpectedly dropped in on Keene and crew at a panel event. Keene and Bieber share their experiences as horror authors, including Bieber’s less than conventional origins as a novelist—most don’t get their start by connecting with their writing partner in a Star Trek chat room. Bieber had no literary aspirations prior to the writing of his first book, and he goes on to discuss his eventual hiatus from (and subsequent return to) writing following a particularly scathing review from a literary critic.
Improv Nerd With Jimmy Carrane
This week, Jimmy Carrane is joined by the wildly talented Shantira Jackson, currently a member of the Second City Mainstage and performing with 3Peat, one of Chicago’s most popular improv teams. Her confidence drives the conversation forward as they discuss Jackson’s love of telling stories, her competitive streak, and what it’s like to be a woman of color in the comedy scene. With her honesty and commanding presence, she reveals the pressure she feels to be great at projecting her voice in a community that doesn’t write for her, while also acknowledging the value of every improviser’s unique perspective and life story. Carrane understands that Jackson’s an open book and reaps the benefits as she casually offers one profound sentiment after another, telling stories of her life as an artist, and emphasizing her need to push forward to the next thing. The two explore an important and inspiring dialogue followed by an audience Q&A and a hilariously gentle improv scene.
Missing Richard Simmons
A Day At The Beach
As much as Dan Taberski hoped his “grand gesture” of a podcast would coax Richard Simmons out of hiding, odds were always high that the now reclusive fitness icon would remain sequestered. In the series finale of Missing Richard Simmons, Taberski reaches that inevitability, but with some peace of mind. That comes from three places: word from numerous sources that Simmons’ longtime housekeeper, Teresa Reveles, was taking care of him and is not, in fact, a witch; an LAPD detective who performed a new wellness check on Simmons and reported to Taberski that Simmons is totally fine; and Simmons’ manager, Michael Catalano, who gave Taberski an interview after rebuffing him numerous times. It would feel pretty anticlimactic, but Taberski finds perspective in it—about Simmons and himself, which probably reflects some of the heat Missing Richard Simmons has taken. In a way, it’s just as satisfying that Simmons never indulged Taberski, even if his disappearance feels less mysterious than it did in episode one. Some questions just don’t get answered.
Sooo Many White Guys
Phoebe and Bassem Youssef Complain About Everything
This week’s non-white guy guest is often referred to as the Egyptian Jon Stewart: Bassem Youssef. Before becoming a comedian, he was a doctor in Egypt, where he ended up providing aid to protesters during the Egyptian revolution. Youssef puts things in perspective as he jokingly tells host Phoebe Robinson that Trump is like a hippie liberal compared to the dictators he’s dealt with in his life. The juxtaposition in the conversation is fascinating: Robinson’s casual, silly demeanor paired with Youssef’s calm, intellectual responses while they talk about dictatorships, satirical media, and Islamophobia provides entry points to the episode for people who might not normally listen. Youssef candidly talks about the time he was arrested and interrogated as a journalist, and the difficulty of fighting the urge to make jokes throughout the entire process. Satire, Youssef explains, is always the first thing to be targeted by tyrants because you can’t be afraid of something that makes you laugh. Sound familiar?