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.
Every once in a while 99% Invisible takes its design premise and intersects it with the fact that it is by nature a public radio show. This episode is a fantastic example, as it focuses on trademarked sounds, of which there are actually less than 100 in existence. Within the first few moments, listeners will get treated to three of these inimitable sounds in a row, and what follows is the sort of episode that might overload ASMR lovers, but paint a thrilling soundscape for everyone else. The amount of time spent on fajita sizzle alone is rather interesting. The origin of the food is cynical, as it was a cheaply made and culturally generic food sold in massive numbers because of this sound. Yet, this contradiction spoken over the trademarked sound of onions burning will still seem enticing. As the story winds through the Mac start-up sound and the NBC chimes, it becomes clear why audio storytelling has survived far longer than many thought it would, enduring into the age of podcasting as many television institutions struggle for relevance. Producer Katie Mingle is especially adept at getting amazing pull quotes from her guests, including one about the amount of Chili’s fajitas sold in a year—the amount one would need to fill two nuclear submarines. It’s some silly hyperbole, but delivered by an expert in the field, it sounds like a signal that humans are sometimes completely overwhelmed by the sounds that drive marketing and brands.
Human Podcast Machine
Rob Van Dam
ECW Triple Crown Champion Taz joined the increasingly crowded pro-wrestling podcast fray promising a fresh perspective, and thus far he’s delivered. His refreshingly brief opening monologues and closing Taz Tale segments draw all of the listener’s attention to the featured interview. And his guests, like Rob Van Dam, play to his strengths as a veteran by being old school minds themselves. Van Dam is in good humor on the phone with Taz, talking through the benefits of enhancement talent and lamenting the death of living the gimmick. But the highlights of this interview, as anyone who follows Van Dam would guess, come when Taz drops the wrestling talk and prods Van Dam into spouting off his beliefs about Zen and marijuana. In particular, Van Dam’s essay-like explanation of how his spiritual vibration allows him to get to the airport 30 minutes before takeoff and still have time to visit the food court and the bathroom leaves even Taz wondering whether this guy is really just a kook or if he knows something everyone else doesn’t.
Before You Were Funny
Kyle Mooney, Alana Johnston, Anthony Gioe
It seemed this podcast was gone forever, but thank goodness it returned this week after a six-month hiatus. Comedians and writers bring in their old work for a live cold-reading that, despite being written “before they were funny,” always ends up being hilarious. In this episode, it’s especially satisfying to hear the torturous works of writers whose success we see come to fruition every week. If Kyle Mooney can be on Saturday Night Live after writing a sketch called “Queeftards,” surely everyone can make it. While the work itself is entertaining in the so-bad-it’s-good category, it’s the performances that turn entertaining into laugh-out-loud hilarious. Alana Johnston goes all-in as the character of a single dad for the sketch simply called “Single Dad” in which the words “single dad” are emotionally stated upwards of 15 times. The premise is ridiculous, the writing is hideous, but despite all that, Johnston is a star.
The Best Show
Fly Like An Eagle
Tom Scharpling took a week off from the relaunched The Best Show to grieve the loss of his father, but his return to the microphone exceeds all expectations for his level of grace and wisdom in the wreckage. A long and uproariously relatable anecdote about a too-mournful pizza delivery man and self-deprecating glorification of an Ikea table highlight a eulogy anyone would be proud to receive. And, while Scharpling expresses his gratitude for everyone who has credited The Best Show with supporting them through their own loss, his realization that “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s Broken Skull Challenge might be the closest thing he has to that relationship with media is equally hilarious and heartbreaking. Reverent callers line up to express their condolences, but this is Scharpling’s broadcast through and through—right down to a rare step out of the straight man seat to explain grunge music to a profoundly disinterested Mark “The Arm” Rample, star pitcher on Newbridge’s Miniature Rat Men pee wee baseball team.
The Cracked Podcast
Mind Blowing Movie Thought Experiments
At first glance, the idea that quantum physics can explain and fill movie plot holes seems absurd. For instance, it’s unlikely that Quentin Tarantino was thinking about the possibility of multiple universes when he was writing Pulp Fiction’s famous diner shootout scene. But on another level, the idea that pop culture—especially classic movies that inspire obsessive, close-watching from fans—might illuminate complex scientific principles speaks to just how rich the viewing experience can be. Hosts Jack O’Brien and Michael Swaim are joined by their fellow Cracked staffer and quantum physics buff Soren Bowie on this week’s episode. With Bowie taking the lead, the three walk listeners through famous thought experiments (some of which may be familiar, all of which are built around crazy premises) before illustrating the scientific concepts at play by delving into films like Pulp Fiction, Back To The Future, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly. It’s the sort of overstretching, pop philosophizing that’s reminiscent of late night dorm room conversations, filled with novel interpretations that, if not always persuasive, are intriguing thought experiments in their own right.
Dear Sugar Radio
Dear Sugar: I’m Addicted To Painkillers
The “Dear Sugar” column on The Rumpus was anonymously penned by Cheryl Strayed for years, but this week started the monthly podcast in which Strayed and the original (less successful) Sugar, Steve Almond, read letters from listeners and give advice. This particular episode sets a good tone for what to expect: thoughtful advice, insightful arguments between the advice givers, and a sense of humor about serious topics. At just 13 minutes long, the podcast is indicative of its name, remaining short, sweet, and satisfying. The inaugural topic is a tough one, and it’s pleasing to hear addiction looked at from so many angles instead of having a simple label slapped onto the problem. A mother and wife who is addicted to painkillers worries that without them, she’ll be withdrawn from her family and unable to care for her young child. Between Strayed’s history with substance abuse and Almond’s insistence on doing whatever it takes to be a good mom, there’s an interesting back and forth that doesn’t necessarily lead to a solid solution, but does open the doors to a new way of thinking about the issue.
The Flop House
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles LIVE
There are some entertainments that organically nurture strong fan communities and, for whatever reason, The Flop House is one of them—a combination of sheer quality and an uncommon over-the-air intimacy between hosts and listeners, perhaps. The show’s lively Facebook group makes this clear, but the gang’s first live taping—recently recorded at The Bell House in Brooklyn—offers more resonant proof. It’s frankly heartwarming hearing such a devoted group of likeminded people convene to enjoy their favorite podcast. It helps, too, that the show works better in a live format than one might anticipate—the crowd’s laughter doesn’t damage their dynamic, and there’s no audio glitches to speak of—and the Q&A at the end, complete with appearance by the Original Peaches’ nemesis David Kalan, is a nice touch. It may be lower key than most live podcast recordings, but it remains a resoundingly successful experiment, and ideally one that will be repeated in the future.
W. Kamau Bell
Open Mike Eagle, the host of Secret Skin, is exactly the kind of indifferently inventive mind that podcasting needs. At once a laid-back presence with an undertone of impish verve running throughout, Eagle sounds like he doesn’t need the audience to like him, even though he knows they will. As a member of the Los Angeles independent hip-hop scene Eagle has ways of elevating what could otherwise be standard podcast fare to a level of surreal art. Take, for instance, a listener email, asking about Eagle’s take on “life after rap.” Eagle liked the question enough to invite the listener to record themselves asking it, to be played on the podcast. Though, upon hearing it spoken aloud, Eagle has a change of heart and begins to hate the question, so he cuts up the recording and turns it into the beat for a song. The rest of the episode features an interesting, if slightly old, interview with W. Kamau Bell about life growing up, the decision to pursue comedy, getting and losing his talk show Totally Biased With W. Kamau Bell, as well as suffering from crippling depression. Bell’s story of finding his voice is enthralling, a call to action for those looking to take the plunge but that are afraid of failing.
Sex With Strangers
Sex With Age-Players
Upon first listen, one might peg Sex With Strangers as a podcast version of HBO’s Real Sex (now called SEX // Now), as both explore various sexual communities and subcultures throughout the world. But where as Real Sex remained somewhat objective, Sex With Strangers has an audience surrogate in the form of a consistent host, comedian Chris Sowa. The most recent episode not only explores the surprisingly diverse kink called age-play—any form of role-playing, sexual or non-sexual, where the participants play a different age—but also addresses Sowa’s (and listeners’) hangups and fascinations with the fetish. Even his interview subjects acknowledge that their lifestyle isn’t for everyone. For instance, one young man is perfectly okay with the fact that many of his partners have run for the hills after he’s revealed his love of changing diapers. On the flip side, many of them have been able to get into it, a duality that makes the podcast refreshingly accepting of sexual willingness as well as sexual reluctance.
About halfway through the latest episode of Strange Brews, hosts Alison Cuddy and Andrew Gill discuss an interview with Boston Beer Company founder and industry innovator Jim Koch. In it, Koch reveals how he and other veteran brewers feel the craft beer movement has outgrown them, the general consensus being that their brews are no better than a lukewarm Bud. It’s sad, but also true. Craft beer has become an institution, one that prides boldness and risk taking. That spirit thrives on Strange Brews, an excellent WBEZ podcast that routinely indulges in the most adventurous big- and small-batch brews. On this episode, the duo invites Todd Martens, a music journalist at L.A. Times, to sip on a brand new beer inspired by the 20th anniversary of Guided By Voices’ seminal Bee Thousand. Called “Beer Thousand,” the brew was released by Delaware’s Dogfish Head in conjunction with a vinyl release of a Guided By Voice’s live show, which the gang jams to as they drink. Martens provides background on the band, as well as some insightful thoughts on how Dogfish Head’s decision to make an imperial lager jibes with Guided By Voice’s decidedly domestic beer tastes. Cuddy and Gill cap off each episode with the kind of beer and bar recommendations that can only come from first-rate imbibers.
Stuff You Missed In History Class
The Dark Legacy Of Sea-Monkeys
Sea-Monkeys already make for an interesting topic for a deep dive of research, considering they are one of very few animals that have been sold en masse as a sort of kitschy toy to the American public (ants in ant farms being the only other that comes to mind). But Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey are for more ambitious than someone who might merely want to find the toy’s place in kitsch culture, and so they take the opportunity to delve just as deeply into the life of Sea-Monkey’s chief marketer and philosophical creator, Harold Von Braunhut. Braunhut started his career as a bit of a showman and seller of snake oil, but as he became more successful he experimented both with attending meetings of the Aryan Nation and the manufacturing of illegal hidden gun-based devices that lurked in the sleeves of thugs. If the shock of that juxtaposition isn’t enough, Braunhut also posed as a priest and attempted to hide his Jewish heritage when the media got hold of his activities. That all this ties together into one narrative with space-traveling brine shrimp is impressive and make this a hell of an episode.
A Taste Of The Past
Women Behind The Food Sections
To be a female journalist in mid-century America often meant writing for the local newspaper or glossy magazine food section, now seen as soft news barriers between women writers and front-page stories. The influence and precedent established by those early editors, a position many times held by the first woman in charge at a publication, however, shouldn’t be overlooked, according to guest Dr. Kimberly Wilmot Voss. The sprawling sections, sometimes up to 70 pages, connected communities, engaged readers directly in ways unseen ever before, and created something of a fandom. This week, during a chat about celebrity editors, host Linda Pelaccio gets especially taken with Voss’s term “culinary anthropology,” a concept that sums up her excellent weekly half-hour Heritage Radio Network show. Be it a conversation with a surviving relative of “Chef Boyardee” or an in-depth look at the advancements of cast iron over the centuries, Pelaccio extrapolates enlightening information about society, gender, and history from even the smallest stories and artifacts from the kitchen.
What's The Tee?
Clocking Overtime With Mariah Balenciaga
The most important news to come out of this especially dishy episode of RuPaul’s podcast is that styrofoam Ornacia heads—modeled after the one worn by RuPaul’s Drag Race season-six contestant Vivacious—are still available. (They didn’t sell out for Halloween.) After that revelation, Michelle Visage recalls her voguing days in the late-’80s New York drag-ball scene. So Madonna was right: Biological women can vogue too! We learn that in her earlier days, Visage turned down the advances of Swedish actor Dolph Lundgren, who was “such an asshole” when she and Ru interviewed him on the radio in 1996. This week’s guest, season three queen Mariah Paris Balenciaga, doesn’t add much aside from Southern charm, but Ru and Visage carry the show with gossip about the queens who join Visage on the Drag Stars At Sea cruise. (She calls out by name three “unprofessional” queens who didn’t show for the last cruise, and she tells us that only a few actually get off the boat to tour the exotic destinations.) The three finish the episode by speculating on where the most exciting drag scene is these days, which, somehow, happens to be Louisville.
Worst Episode Ever
“Bonfire Of The Manatees”
There is a notable community of people that gave up on The Simpsons around 2000 or 2001, content to let its legendary first eight seasons suffice in the face of so many diminishing returns. But that can create a nagging curiosity: How has it evolved since then? If the title didn’t make it obvious, Worst Episode Ever would argue “not so well.” Touting itself as “a podcast for people who love The Simpsons by people who love The Simpsons about how much we hate The Simpsons,” Worst Episode Ever hosts Dan Mulhall and Jack Picone seek to watch, dissect, and rank the animated sitcom’s most dire entries to discover which of the show’s staggering 563 episodes is its definitive worst. This latest edition of the podcast finds a strong contender in “Bonfire Of The Manatees,” an insane season 17 episode that sends the hosts into an apoplectic frenzy. Thankfully, Mulhall and Picone aren’t Comic Book Guy clones; you’ll find no snark in their banter. Rather, the duo uses the series’ golden era as a benchmark for what made The Simpsons an institution in the first place, then measures the tone and humor of these latter-day episodes against it. It’s a must-listen for superfans, but also for those who are curious what The Simpsons is up to these days.
“Someone created a Facebook page called ‘Sorry I can’t hear you over this Sun Chips bag,” and it got 40,000 likes and it became a national news story.” —Joel Beckerman, author of The Sonic Boom: How Sound Transforms The Way We Think, Feel, And Buy, 99% Invisible
“That’s what I want on my tombstone: We invented it, they ruined it.” —Tom Scharpling on podcasts, The Best Show
“The 420 comes in and you use that to tune the frequency of your spiritual vibration.” —Rob Van Dam justifying his “420 gimmick,” The Human Podcast Machine
“Of course, the coffee enemas really help.” —RuPaul on how he can handle crowds, What’s The Tee?
“Yeah, so Homer has to let the mob film a porno in his house…”
”Just hearing you say that, part of my childhood dies.” —Dan Mulhall and Jack Picone, Worst Episode Ever