Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
We may earn a commission from links on this page.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Spontaneanation bids a fond farewell with Busy Philipps and a crop of improv all-stars

Photo: Paul F. Tompkins (Phillip Faraone/Getty Images), and Busy Philipps (Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic for HBO/Getty Images)
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Dark Tank
Dark Tank Live: Union Hall Tries Its Best

Dark Tank is precisely the comedy podcast America needs. Perched on the knife’s edge between hilarious and uncomfortable, it is one of the most deliciously daring shows of the moment. Built around the formula of the hit entrepreneurial television show Shark Tank, it instead convenes a panel of black writers and comedians—led by host and creator Yedoye Travis—who are pitched solutions to racism by a cavalcade of white people. These ideas, their presenters, and indeed the very concept of white fragility are all vivisected by the panel in comic fashion. This week’s episode is howlingly funny, and a standout example of the acerbic edge to the show’s social commentary. Travis is joined by Nore Davis, Marie Faustin, and Kenice Mobley, who bring a vibrant energy and a great deal of caustic humor to the event. While the presentations from the white “gentrepreneurs” get off to a somewhat inauspicious start, by the time comedian James Hamilton showcases his idea for the implementation of a “racist credit score,” the raucous affair has transcended into something spectacular, bringing the judges to their feet and reducing Brooklyn’s Union Hall to tears of laughter. A singularly necessary listen. [Ben Cannon]

David Tennant Does A Podcast With...
Olivia Colman

When inaugural guest Olivia Colman asks David Tennant why he’s doing a podcast, he says, laughingly, “A midlife crisis? I’m not sure!” That aimlessness works to both positive and negative effect through the hour-long episode, in which Tennant has a meandering conversation with Colman about her life, her work, her struggles with fame, and a very funny Broadchurch anecdote. Tennant and Colman—who call each other DT and Colly—worked together for three seasons of Broadchurch, and their affection for each other opens up some empathetic conversations, particularly about the ways in which the erasure of anonymity has been good for their careers and difficult for their personal lives. Colman has earned a following Stateside from dramas like Broadchurch (and soon to be The Crown) and the recent outstanding Yorgos Lanthimos film The Favourite, but she also has a strong background in comedy. Her comedic timing is delightful to witness: We hear her stirring her tea, and Tennant says, “I like that you’re using a Biro [ballpoint pen] to stir your tea.” Colman points out that there’s no spoon, and he responds, “I bet the Queen doesn’t do that.” Colman: “Oh, I bet she does.”

But their mutual familiarity also means that this isn’t by any means a hard-hitting interview—which isn’t really a problem if you’re fans of both host and interviewee, as many listeners will be. But it does raise questions about future interviewees and whether Tennant will find his voice as an interviewer, or whether he’ll use it as a platform for discussions with friends. The future guest list is impressive, with folks like Samantha Bee, Whoopi Goldberg, Krysten Ritter, and Jodie Whittaker already lined up. And frankly, given how charming Colman and Tennant are together, David Tennant Does A Podcast With His Friends could still up being a winning series. [Laura M. Browning]

Hollywood Handbook
The Masked Engineer, Our Masked Friend

Hollywood Handbook is on a roll recently. On both their regular Earwolf show and the paywall-protected Pro Version, hosts Sean Clements and Hayes Davenport have been in rare form, producing format-bending gut-busters like “Sean’s Leaked Saturday Night Live Audition” and the “Bandersnatch”­-inspired “Choose Your Own Adventure” episode. But this most recent release really takes the cake. Inspired by Fox’s bizarre new reality series The Masked Singer—a show that only one of them has seen—the host invite guest Shaun Diston on to help them identify three Earwolf engineers based solely on their singing voices (which, for some reason, are all being run through different voice modulators). There are so many unexpected twists, turns, and reveals in this episode that we’re tempted to just leave it at that and let listeners experience it on their own. We’ll just add that “The Masked Engineer” is truly a testament to the comedic ingenuity of the show’s two hosts and the versatility of Hollywood Handbook, a podcast that has admittedly never been able to stick with a single format or structure for very long. Also, it goes without saying that we stan the Centipede. [Dan Neilan]

La Mezcla
Spring Ines Peña Plays Professional Football

Adrian Burke, host of La Mezcla: Conversations With Mixed Race And First Generation Americans, is a New York–based actor/writer/comedian who is Peruvian American. As an actor, he shares a manager with Spring Ines Peña, a half-Korean, half-Honduran American whose parents both immigrated to the U.S. on music scholarships. Peña talks about growing up surrounded by random kids who her musician parents were teaching in private lessons, all the while working through I.B. academics and extracurriculars at her private prep school, explaining, “That’s what happens when you have an Asian mom.” This pressure to succeed academically is definitely a familiar experience for many children of immigrants, and hearing Peña talk about her journey as person of color who eventually found her way to a career in the performing arts is compelling to say the least. La Mezcla is a much needed look into the often overlooked experience of Americans and artists who are mixed race, and it succeeds in being real, relaxed, fun, and relatable. This is definitely a podcast that should be added to your listening queue. [Jose Nateras]

Nerd Poker

Nerd Poker has had a complicated history. Beginning with a promising start over on the Earwolf Network, Brian Posehn’s comedy-infused Dungeons & Dragons podcast struggled with consistency because various members of the core cast got too busy for regular recordings. A couple years later, the show was revived as an independent podcast recorded in Posehn’s living room and has since completed two season-long campaigns, garnering a thriving Patreon community along the way. This episode officially marks the beginning of season three, in which listeners are greeted by a whole new cast of characters on the never-before-seen continent of Cloddenheim. Comedian (and, full disclosure, former Onion Inc. staffer) Dan Telfer is once again at the helm as Dungeon Master, offering up deceptively simple mixology puzzles and eccentric NPCs with apocalyptic warnings. What exactly is in store for our adventurers—who range from brooding half-Drows to brightly plumed bird people—remains to be seen. But now is a good a time as any for new listeners to jump on board. At the very least, you’ll want to hear what great acts are coming up at Paladino’s (a running gag from last season that is, thankfully, going to continue). [Dan Neilan]

She’s Got Issues
Where Do Thoughts And Prayers Go? Part 1

A Catholic, a Southern Baptist, a Muslim, and a Jew walk onto a podcast. The host looks at her guests and says, “What is this? A roundtable discussion of how faith factors into the lives of disparate groups of people in America today?” The guests then spend about an hour sharing the parts of their lives that are usually reserved for them and their personal idea of a higher being. That might not be funny, but the podcast actually is. Hosted by comedian Vicky Kuperman, She’s Got Issues is a weekly discussion of timely national and global issues between professional funny people and plain old professionals. For this episode, Kuperman reached into her bag of comedy acquaintances to assemble a multi-faith panel willing to discuss those twin abused and often maligned sentiments: thoughts and prayers. Among her guests are John Fugelsang, representing the Papistry, and Khalid Latif, Imam for the Islamic Center at New York University. The episode (the first of two parts) likely holds more value for the religiously inclined, but nonbelievers shouldn’t feel too excluded. It’s not a particularly judgey conversation. [Dennis DiClaudio]

Charleston, South Carolina

Six years ago, comedian Paul F. Tompkins retired his short-lived, critically acclaimed podcast, The Pod F. Tompkast. These were the halcyon days of the medium, when very few people were launching shows and even fewer were choosing to end them. Needless to say, the burgeoning podcast fan community was crushed. So, when Tompkins announced in 2015 that he’d be starting a new, improv-based show, anticipation was high. Especially because Spontaneanation, or “Spont” as it would come to be called, contained the familiar staples of Tompkins’ other podcasting work. Namely, the opening free-association ramble and the piano stylings of one Eban Schletter. Now, that show, too, has come to an end. But it’s a fitting and joyous end to one of the more delightful podcasts in recent memory. Five-time guest Busy Phillips returns for the opening interview, which unsurprisingly turns to the topic of nachos. Then, a cavalcade of Spontaneanation all-stars arrives for a raucous narrative improv set in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s everything you’d want in an episode of Spont, a show that has routinely stood out in the crowded field of improvised podcasts. As sad as we are to see it go, we’re just as excited to see what Tompkins comes up with next. [Dan Neilan]

The Land Of Desire
The Mysterious Life Of Jeanne Calment

For those unfamiliar with the life of Jeanne Calment, consider this podcast an essential summary of the rich French woman who sold art supplies to Vincent van Gogh in her youth and then lived long enough to become the oldest documented person ever before dying in 1997 at age 122. Or did she? A recent paper by Russian mathematician Nikolay Zak posits the old woman was actually Calment’s daughter, who assumed Jeanne’s identity upon her death decades earlier to avoid inheritance taxes. What makes this episode great is that host Diana doesn’t parrot Zak’s findings, she critiques them. There are elements she concedes are suggestive, but not enough to overlook the fact that this guy isn’t a gerontologist and didn’t publish a rigorous peer-reviewed study, he just uploaded a PDF onto a research forum. His motives, Diana speculates, have to do with a long-standing, juicy feud between Russian and French researchers, as well as a whole bunch of political bullshit about each country’s life expectancy. As sassy as the cigarette-smoking, chocolate-chomping, bike-riding granny Calment was, it’s this fascinating controversy that gives the story its real legs, and Diana tells it masterfully. [Zach Brooke]

The New Yorker Radio Hour
Accusing R. Kelly, And The Fall Of A Chinese Pop Star 

Two singers encounter life-altering backlash for very different reasons. Denise Ho was a massively popular Cantopop star in China before an urge to use her celebrity for more than personal wealth bent her toward activism. She came out as a lesbian, released an album sympathetic to social outcasts called Ten Days In The Madhouse, and joined the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, which led to her arrest and banishment from China’s entertainment landscape. All this is recounted as prelude to her reinvention as an underground protest singer. Compare her path to R. Kelly’s, whose transgressions need little retelling, thanks in large part to Dream Hampton’s just-aired Surviving R. Kelly documentary. Hampton reflects on the series that has accelerated the musician’s public reckoning, particularly with his core fan base. She confesses the program was her attempt to atone for a positive profile she gave R. Kelly in Vibe the month before the first accusations against him surfaced in 2000. While she calls the investigation the hardest year of her life, she seems at peace with its testimony. Moving forward, she hopes R. Kelly meets “social death” where audiences abandon him en masse in addition to any potential criminal justice outcome. [Zach Brooke]

Wheels Off With Rhett Miller
Rosanne Cash, Fred Armisen, Rob Thomas

As a singer, songwriter, and dreamboat frontman of Old 97’s, Rhett Miller been baring his soul through song since the ’90s. Now, like most of his peers (as he jokes in the premiere episode), Miller has launched his own podcast, even if he scoffs at the term. Wheels Off is going to feature conversations, Miller explains, that are very philosophical in nature about the creative process and the creative life. There are already three episodes available featuring Miller chatting with friends and creative types Rosanne Cash, Fred Armisen, and Matchbox Twenty’s Rob Thomas. The chats are insightful and funny, and also beautifully brisk. Cash explores the differences between the process of writing songs in general and writing songs for the musical she’s currently working on; Armisen explains how rock clubs represent the best of America; and Thomas reckons with how the music industry has changed since he and Miller were making their bones in the late ’90s. Miller is an affable, curious, and extraordinarily honest host, which should come as no surprise for fans of his own songwriting. [Mike Vanderbilt]