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 email@example.com.
Milk Carton Kids: Bonnie Lohman
This week, 99% Invisible takes a look at something one doesn’t see anymore: pictures of missing children on milk cartons. It’s been 30 years since the first milk carton depicted two missing children abducted in Iowa, but despite the ubiquity of the image, the actual campaign lasted two years and wasn’t entirely successful. Of the 200 children featured on cartons, only two were ever found alive. After as many as 5 billion milk carton kids, dairy companies switched to plastic and no longer wanted to associate such a depressing message with their product. Where the campaign did succeed, however, was in spreading the word about missing children and educating kids about the concept of “stranger danger,” resulting in national laws and programs about missing children being improved and created. The episode ends with the incredible story of Bonnie Lohman, who was kidnapped as a child by her mother and stepfather and had no idea. She didn’t find out she was missing until she saw herself on a milk carton in a grocery store. Lohman credits the milk carton campaign for reuniting her with her father and enabling her to grow up to have a better life.
Ida Bae Wells: Gene Demby, Nikole Hannah-Jones
In this week’s episode, hosts Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu defend the reputation of pigeons, a bird that is “doper than most people know,” and introduce a brand new segment called Six Degrees Of Housing Separation, a mini-game show. Contestant Gene Demby of NPR’s Code Switch has 90 seconds to connect random topics like “the new pumpkin spice latte recipe” and “the pope visiting Philadelphia” to the issue of housing segregation. The game is inspired by Demby’s claim that housing segregation is responsible for almost every issue of racial disparity in the country. Later, they interview investigative reporter Nikole Hannah-Jones, who recently reported for the two-part This American Life episode “The Problem We All Live With” about using racial desegregation policies to improve education for minority children in failing school districts. Hannah-Jones benefited from desegregation policies as a child who was bussed to white schools outside of her district, and talks openly about the realities of racial inequality, objectivity in journalism, and her struggle to stay optimistic about education for children of color in America as the mother of a 5-year-old daughter starting school.
The Grease Knows Eggs Show: Jesse Thorn
Following his July 7 and August 11 appearances, Tom Scharpling presumably concludes a three-part arc on Hollywood Handbook by taking his rivalry with Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements to its natural conclusion: a concept episode in which Davenport coaches Scharpling and his new sidekick, Hollywood Handbook engineer Cody Skully (doing business as Greasenose), through a pilot episode of the drive time radio show formerly known as Eggs Florentine. The pilot of The Grease Knows Eggs Show manifests itself in the form of the trio—joined midway through by Bullseye’s Jesse Thorn—refining a 90-second intro for almost an hour. The bit doesn’t so much derail this episode, rather it fails to get on the rails, as Scharpling seethes over Skully’s deliberate blunders on the sound board, while Davenport and Thorn mercilessly interrupt each time the hosting duo achieves any semblance of momentum, which is rare. It’s a concept-breaking episode—indeed, Clements isn’t even a part of it—but the final payoff, when Skully sticks the existential landing, might be the purest distillation of Hollywood Handbook’s famous anti-humor to date.
The Podmass logline for Limetown was going to be “Serial meets The X-Files,” but an internet search proved that somebody else already made that connection. That’s still the best shorthand to describe this podcast, which is a high-production, limited-run mystery about the eponymous town. Check out the premiere episode, which lays the groundwork for a Roanoke-like mythology that picks up years after a colony of top scientists disappeared in an unexplained catastrophe. In ”Winona,” American Public Radio investigator Lia Haddock is contacted by a former resident of Limetown, who may have survived the purge physically intact but is far from emotionally whole. Her patchwork description of life before the disappearance and cryptic rules for the interview lead to more questions than answers. Without spoiling the story, Winona recounts witnessing ambiguous quasi-experiments reminiscent of Schrödinger’s cat and the mythology of half-life. If Limetown can be faulted for anything, it’s that the podcast occasionally reveals its seams—such when as “Winona” almost wraps up a little too neatly, with Haddock conveniently given a means for contacting the next survivor and getting the next piece of the puzzle. But an unplanned encounter suggests Haddock has even more connections to Limetown than previously thought.
This week, special guest Joshua Malina—of the lamented Thrilling Adventure Hour podcast and ABC’s Scandal—puts listeners in their places with his family’s dark secret: They bought an extra freezer to hoard 3-gallon drums of seasonally available Baskin Robbins eggnog-flavor ice cream. So strong and infectious is Malina’s obsession for ice cream, that the topic pervades the subsequent introductions with Paul F. Tompkins’ improv guests, which include Jessica Chaffin, Chris Tallman, and Hal Lublin. Perhaps trying to purge the topic, Malina’s given setting for the long-form improv is the 10th circle of hell. (Take that, Dante’s Inferno.) While Tallman deprives listeners of his arrestingly perfect Nick Nolte impression, Lublin capably steps up as Golgotha, a misunderstood female demon tasked with overseeing a group of infernal residents. When the crew escapes the underworld, they take Spontaneanation to an inevitable destination, as the improvisers play the part of (much less talented) improvisors. Podcast listeners who abstain from improv-themed podcasts are encouraged to give Spontaneanation a pardon for two special reasons: Tompkins’ opening riffs, which rival his stand-up work and his mid-show advertiser plugs, which are arguably the most enjoyable commercials in any medium.
Summer is officially over and no one is more aware of this changing of the seasons than Maureen O’Connor, Allison P. Davis, and David Wallace-Wells of the New York Magazine’s Sex Lives podcast. This episode opens with an impassioned debate over whether fall is the best season to get laid, inspired by The Hairpin essay, “Towards A Theory Of Fall Fuckability.” Davis agrees that fall is the best time of year to get it on after an entire summer of feeling sweaty and gross, but O’Connor is firmly in the summer camp. Also up for debate is the exact size of the ideal penis, thanks to a recent study where researchers used 3-D printers to create dick models for women to hold while they answered questions about the sizes they’d most like to see on a one-night stand versus in an actual partner. Lastly, the hosts discuss the man in Mexico with world’s largest penis—a whopping 18.9 inches—and our culture’s history and fascination with having sex with robots, a field known as “Teledildonics.” As technology gets more advanced and intimate, it raises the question: In the future, will we be having more sex with humans or robots? Only time will tell.
Turned Out A Punk
Fred Armisen (Portlandia, SNL, Trenchmouth)
Before he joined the cast of Saturday Night Live and created Portlandia, Fred Armisen played drums in the Chicago post-hardcore band Trenchmouth, an outfit that never found the level of success it deserved. While Armisen is best known for his comedy, Damian Abraham is much more interested in Armisen’s past as a Long Island hardcore kid; his interview with Armisen, recorded on the Portlandia set, goes deep into this first act of Armisen’s creative life. Armisen talks about how he quickly became a hardcore devotee after being turned on to it by a friend. What follows is a history of New York hardcore by way of a personal interview, as Armisen talks about going to shows and starting his first band, The KGB (a moment that reveals a rare gap in Abraham’s seemingly bottomless knowledge of punk). As the conversation shifts to the ways punk continues to be central to Armisen’s comedy, Abraham, in the episode’s best moment, brings up the legendary Crisis Of Conformity sketch. A brilliant marriage of punk-rock excess and comedy. Armisen’s explanation of why he’s so proud of this sketch—he calls it the most personal piece he wrote while at SNL—stands out as a perfect example of how central punk rock is to everything he does.
Until I Lose Interest
Refugee, Feat: Haiti: Jean Yves Joseph
With the soul-crushingly horrific stories of refugees that are currently dominating today’s headlines, the idea of voluntarily pumping an hour-long personal account of surviving attempted murder, forced emigration, and poverty and disease directly into one’s ears might not seem particularly appealing. However, Jean Yves Joseph’s recounting of his life—before and after he and his family were forced to leave their homes in Jean-Claude “Bébé Doc” Duvalier’s Haiti—to podcast host David Taylor feel less like the dispiriting details of a evacuee’s chronicle than it does the picaresque plot points of epic novel. The life of this L.A.-based stand-up comedian (who performs under the stage name “Haiti”) very casually drops a seemingly unending stream of myth-like remembrances that he swears to be true. Did his philandering father really fall down dead the day after a voodoo priest purportedly cured him of AIDS? Did a three-week blind spell miraculously come to an end just in time for an 8-year-old Joseph to witness his mother accepting a bribe from the father of the boy who took his sight? Who knows, but these dark but never bleak stories are certainly true enough to the now-adult Joseph.
We Got This!
Best Classic Movie Monster Live At Dragon Con: Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, Bill Corbett
The “Best Classic Movie Monster” episode is a congenial discussion, nearly decided before it begins. Joining Mark Gagliardi and Hal Lublin on stage are Mystery Science Theater 3000 alums Trace Beaulieu, Frank Conniff, and Bill Corbett, who know a thing or two about what makes movies great or horrible. From the outset, Gagliardi and Lublinl lay down ground rules limiting consideration to classic movie monsters, which means no Freddy Kruger and invalidating King Kong by association. What remains is a discussion about the golden age of Universal’s monster movies. With all due respect to fans of modern horror, the panel offers a compelling lamentation over the loss of the sympathetic beast with a point of view. The notion that modern retellings have to be either tongue-in-cheek or creaky attempts at prestige pictures is also called into question. Universal films were expertly made, superbly performed, and supported by audiences that took them seriously—decades before they became Halloween costumes and Pez dispensers. But because this heady discussion is from the minds behind MST3K and RiffTrax, we learn that Cocoon-era Wilford Brimley is about the same age as Tom Cruise is now, and are reminded of their showdown is the climactic action sequence of 1993’s The Firm. The winner of the Best Classic Movie Monster designation, comes from an amicable and nearly unanimous decision.
Who Stole What?
How The Beatles Stole Rock ’N’ Roll
A heavy Beatles phase at some point in one’s life is practically a rite of passage for serious music consumers. However, the cloying praise for the band in popular culture can get somewhat off-putting at times, and the rarefied air of rock ’n’ roll divinity has an asphyxiating affect on even the greatest musicians. So, it’s sometimes useful to remind ourselves that John, Paul, George, and Ringo did not in fact invent modern pop rock music. In many cases—as co-hosts Tristan and Rory Shields point out in the newest Who Stole What? episode—they plucked pre-existing tunes and riffs from lesser known artists and repackaged them as their own. Take, for example, Bobby Parker’s 1961 R&B single “Watch Your Step” and pay particular attention to the underlying guitar riff that serves as its backbone. Sound at all familiar? It should to anyone even vaguely familiar with The Beatles. Continue this sort of education by checking out Shields Brothers’ minor deflation of Bob Dylan’s similarly swollen legacy.
You've Got It All Wrong
Paradoxes - Infinite Oranges, Paradise Trunk
Brothers Chad and Paco Allen and Mark Sanders are only a handful of episodes in to their new “philosophy podcast for handsome people like you,” but they’ve already been impressive in how they manage to discuss heady theoretics in an understandable way, often by working against intuition and diverting the conversation toward other proofs and premises to provide the listener with a base perspective. Look no further than this week’s episode on mathematical paradoxes to find out how Greek philosopher Zeno proved that no one else can prove they would beat a tortoise in a footrace as far as math is concerned; how Eubulides Of Miletus’ “sōritēs paradox” demonstrates that one always has a heap of sand even when one has no sand; and, through a barber, how Bertrand Russell redefined 30 years of set theory. The more contemporary and famous “Monty Hall problem,” which supposes a contestant on Let’s Make A Deal should always switch their choice, also gets a thorough explanation. Math is uncharted territory for the You’ve Got It All Wrong philosophers, but Sanders and the Paco brothers have such a good time explaining math concepts that it’s sure to become a recurring treat.
“Pigeon lives matter! If you hate pigeons but you love doves, you might be racist.”—Tracy Clayton, Another Round
“Oh I wish there was some way to find out information about Hitler… is there anything online? I haven’t checked the ‘Hitler Wiki’”—Paul F. Tompkins on the subject of “war crimers,” Spontaneanation
“I’d rather have a disembodied penis than a Jude Law sex robot.”—Allison P. Davis, Sex Lives
“Before AA came along, the only way people stopped drinking was if they saw a monster.” Frank Conniff, explaining the subgenre of monster movies known as “meteors crashing just outside of town,” We Got This