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.
A Sweet Surprise Awaits You
99% Invisible tackles one of its most perfect alignments of common and mysterious bits of design in the fortune cookie. Its roots in American Chinese immigrant culture are a particularly poignant touchstone for those following the current debates over immigration reform. Traditional Chinese desserts in the 1920s didn’t offer a lot of variety, and the fortune cookie idea came entirely from immigrants inventing something that Americans eating the food might specifically be interested in. The podcast visits the warehouses where the fortunes and cookies are made, where the whirling machines in the background and the interviews with the fortune writers are a special kind of fascinating. There are “famous” failures in the world of fortunes that many listeners will have never heard of, and markers like smiley faces that can help you figure out who wrote and printed the fortune. So many of these interviews are with workers who came from other countries and built family businesses, the charm of their enthusiasm for their invented industry blending seamlessly with the upbeat nature of the fortunes themselves. The culture even traces back to origins such as a shrine in Kyoto, Japan, where the cookies existed decades before they made it to the states. It’s far more culture than most consumers will expect.
Stop Telling Women To Smile: Tatyana Fazlalizadeh
On this week’s episode of Another Round, Tracy Clayton quizzes Heben Nigatu on some of the lesser-known and stranger Southern phrases before reading a list of terms for men to use when referring to women instead of the dismissive phrase “females.” Highlights include “Destiny’s children” and “their name.” They also interview Tatyana Fazlalizadeh, the Brooklyn-based artist responsible for the street art project, “Stop Telling Women To Smile.” For the project, Fazlalizadeh wheat-pasted large hand-drawn portraits of women on city walls in Chicago, Los Angeles, Mexico City, and elsewhere with accompanying quotes from women. The quotes include, “Women are not outside for your entertainment,” and are meant for the men that catcall and harass women on the street. As with any street art featured prominently in a public space, other people have added to her project with their own quotes, or have unfortunately tried to deface it by ripping down the drawings or writing gendered insults shaming the featured women. Both Nigatu and Fazlalizadeh point out that these actions miss and highlight the point of the project simultaneously.
Boston Corbett - Live: Patton Oswalt
As it has been previously noted in this very feature, live episodes of The Dollop are the exclusive province of tales that represent the absolute cream of that crop known as batshit-crazy stories from American history. As surely as night follows day, this live episode represents one of the program’s more fruitful yields telling the tripartite, intertwining tales of Abraham Lincoln, John Wilkes Booth, and Tom “Boston” Corbett. That third name—mostly unknown by today’s audiences—is the subject of so much surprising hilarity that it would be criminal to reveal the details here, but suffice it to say that he backed his way into one of the biggest events in the country’s history. Special guest Patton Oswalt has a comic sensibility that meshes perfectly with hosts Dave Anthony and Gareth Reynolds, who are both in rare form with this episode. Anthony deserves special praise for his structuring of the tale, giving background on each of the figures separately, building suspense over how the three will interact despite the obvious outcomes for Lincoln and Booth. Reynolds shines as well, especially during a long patch where he improvises singing gospel songs whenever anyone curses around him. In all, a particularly outstanding episode of a program that has been on hot streak of late.
Starbucks: Joe Saunders
One of the best things about Doughboys—in which Comedy Bang! Bang!’s Nick Wiger and The Birthday Boys’ Mike Mitchell discuss chain restaurants with a guest—is how unapologetically and refreshingly free of irony it is. Wiger and Mitchell have a genuine affinity for a lot of the places they cover and an open heart (and stomach) for the ones they aren’t as familiar with. They never condescend to their subjects, and take their mission very seriously. There’s a wistful nostalgia to many episodes as well, as the hosts recall happy (or not so happy) childhood memories of eating at places like Domino’s and IHOP. Their episode about the beverage-driven chain Starbucks doesn’t have too much of that, but it is nonetheless one of the best episodes to date. Mitchell continues to bring ridiculous new elements to the show—new awards, factoids about his life, and Clinton and Reagan impressions—and his tension with guest Joe Saunders is hilarious throughout, while Wiger remains perfect both as his foil and in general. Doughboys is one of the best new podcasts around, and it’s only getting better each week.
Charming New York comedian Jo Firestone’s star has been on the rise in recent months, especially thanks to her prime time WFMU talk program Dr. Gameshow. With the assistance of her co-host Manolo Moreno, Firestone acts as the facilitator for other area funny people to play listener-submitted games for points—the listening audience is encouraged to play as well, with great prizes like magnets that are “as thin as a credit card” up for grabs if they can beat the celebrity contestants. Many of the submissions are compelling games in their own right, like this week’s titular Phone A Fake Friend, in which players answer trivia questions with each answer being worth one point regularly (no points if they miss) or two points if they “phone a friend” and do an impression that correctly answers it (though they’re docked two points if their friend gets it wrong). The Chris Gethard Show head writer Dru Johnston and The Best Show host Tom Scharpling—making his return to WFMU airwaves for the first time in a year and a half—take the guest seats for a predictably subdued episode with bursts of mirth anchored by Scharpling’s quiet competitiveness, Johnston’s absurdist wit, and Firestone’s skilled moderating.
The Flop House
Aside from actually listening to what The Flop House hosts say about a particular movie and making an educated guess based on that, the best indicator of whether what they’re covering will end up being judged as “good bad” or “bad bad” is the number of unrelated tangents that are explored throughout their discussion. In general, a bad bad movie is so boring and unmemorable that the trio will latch onto any possible distraction to entertain themselves and the audience, while a good bad movie has so much unbelievable shit going on in it that merely reliving the experience of watching it for their listeners is thoroughly entertaining. Thus, it says a lot about Fateful Findings that there are not many tangents during their dissection of it, and it says even more that despite the hosts staying uncharacteristically focused on recapping the events of the film as they happened, it’s still almost impossible to get a sense of what the hell the movie is actually about. Whether it’ll find The Room-like infamy remains to be seen, but it sure seems entirely possible.
How Did The Belt Win?
How much time is sufficient for picking out suspenders in the morning? Is it permissible to wear black suspenders with blue pants? Are suspenders supposed to match one’s shoes or socks? Odds are, you can’t answer these questions. That’s because the great battle for societal primacy between the belt and the suspender was waged a long time ago, and there was a clear winner: the belt. Sure, ’80s-era prop comics, saxophonists for ska bands, and slick-haired stock market traders have kept suspenders alive, but most people don’t own a pair of their own. Why is that? How did one perfectly functional sartorial accessory get so thoroughly edged out by a rival—arguably less-functional—one? Freakonomics host Stephen J. Dubner spends most this episode (aside from an abrupt and somewhat confusing diversion about children’s car seats toward the end) trying to figure that out through a series of interviews with experts on fashion history, orthopedic health, and vestiary entrepreneurship. The end result is considerably more interesting than an exposé on holding one’s pants up has any right to be.
“This is very instructive, not only linguistically, but culturally and politically.” Bob Garfield’s assessment of this week’s episode—an investigation into the etymology of a single word, “boondoggle”—could just as easily be the disclaimer for every installment of Lexicon Valley’s “LinguaFile” series. Special guest Ben Zimmer, lexicographer to the stars, giddily takes Garfield and co-host Mike Vuolo on a journey through the thorny politicized history of “boondoggle” and its ties to the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration. A word that was once a mere synonym to “doodad” or “thingamajig” took on a divisive populist connotation after WPA leader Robert Marshall admitted in 1935 to training his workers to make “boondoggles” by braiding leather strips together, for the pure act of giving these men meaningful (or not so meaningful) work. From there, the word’s fate was sealed: Poor boondoggle shall forever be saddled with the Merriam-Webster definition, “an expensive and wasteful project usually paid for with public money.”
Before there were podcasts, there was Ira Glass, cranking out episodes of This American Life for broadcast and inventing the style and structure that would become the standard for audio shows in the 2010s. Max Linsky interviews the pioneering radio storyteller about his early days in the medium, how he knows when he’s made a good episode, and what it’s like to have established an aesthetic high bar in the industry, from format to tone of voice. (This last point comes up twice, and Glass professes to not really notice that so many podcasters sound just like him these days.) The conversation takes a meta turn when Glass suggests an artful ending point to the interview—Linsky takes the opportunity to ask Glass about his own interview process and how he begins editing in real time. In a move that echoes This American Life’s honest and casual style, Linsky ends the interview on his own terms and then turns the recording equipment back on for more questions, saying that he thinks he was’t being a good enough listener the first time. In a few final reflections, Glass sums up his career and his thoughts on his successors thoughtfully enough to be part of a farewell tour (which, thankfully, it isn’t).
Never Not Funny
Pat Francis isn’t called “The Third Chair” on Never Not Funny for no reason—there was a time when he consistently appeared as a guest several times per season. He doesn’t show up nearly as often anymore (or at least not on the free feed of the show), but his return, in the form of a live taping at the L.A. Podfest, makes a strong case for him becoming a more regular guest again. He’s on the ball throughout the whole show, even to the end of a Donald Trump bit that seems to almost deliberately go nowhere. It helps, too, that the episode maintains the structure and vibe of a typical in-studio one than the average Never Not Funny live episode, as the energy of the show translates much better to a live situation with all those familiar mile markers along the way—going around the horn repeatedly, checking in with at The Familiare and sending Garon Cockrell out of the room to do dumb shit—than without them. The audience seems to love every second of it, and it ends up being one of the best live Never Not Funny episodes to date.
Buried In Blue Earth
“Buried In Blue Earth” is the latest installment in Reveal’s Left For Dead podcast series that looks into cases of unidentified victims across the country—many of which never get solved. This episode focuses on the personal mission of Deb Anderson, who lives in rural Minnesota, to identify the body of an 18-year-old woman who in 1980 was strangled, left in a drainage ditch, and later buried in a small cemetery nearby. Her killer, a state trooper named Robert Leroy Nelson, confessed to the crime years ago and is still in jail for her murder, but because he never knew her name, no one else did either, until 35 years after her death, when Anderson’s determination resulted in the exhumation of the body and a DNA match with a family in a federal missing persons database. Her name was Michelle Busha, and because unidentified victims are often considered “the bottom of the food chain” for law enforcement, her identity may have never been discovered without Anderson’s 15-year effort to find answers for the family.
Stuff You Missed In History Class
Imagine a grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother on her feet shrieking in libidinous ecstasy in the direction of an alluring, long-haired musician who is banging ferociously on his instrument before a raucous throng of devotees. It’s a concept that’s not particularly easy to hold in our heads. Partially because it’s somewhat uncomfortable to be reminded that the conservative and prudent elders of society were once capable of as much youthful stupidity as we are, and that this world was once theirs. That world didn’t have The Beatles or New Kids On The Block or One Direction, but it did have Hungarian composer and virtuoso pianist Franz Liszt. On this week’s Stuff You Missed in History Class, co-hosts Tracy V. Wilson and Holly Frey recount the phenomenon that a Munich newspaper described as “a contagion that breaks out in every city [Liszt] visits, and which neither age nor wisdom can protect.” Readers of European descent should probably assume that their ancestors were among the afflicted.
Stuff You Should Know
How Cult Deprogramming Works
The part of cults that is so sexy to the media is their victims’ descent into madness. The less-explored story is how cult survivors find their identities again. Hosts Josh Clark and Chuck Bryant have plenty of experience discussing the admission process of cults, specific cults, and various other topics, so their skepticism makes the conversation about whether redemption is even possible all the more dark and bracing. Starting with the generational gap that occurred in the ’60s and ’70s, they dissect the modern cult as blossoming and coming in to its own with the lost youth culture and offshoots of Christianity. This helped bring to life groups like the Cult Awareness Network, some of which are more paranoid about kidnapping and brainwashing than others. The episode as a whole blurs the lines in every direction, making it clear that concepts like cults and brainwashing are much more a series of difficult choices and situations than anything easily definable. The culture that has sprung up around this paranoia is as interesting as any story about dramatic cult implosive violence that one might find on the local news.
This American Life
What’s Going On In There?
This This American Life episode opens with a mystery about a strange tunnel found in Canada and closes with a story about a father and son who haven’t had a conventional conversation in 20 years because they speak different languages. They’re finally able to connect in real-time during the episode with the help of a translator, and it’s incredible. But the highlight of the episode is ““I Can Explain,” a radio story made by 17-year-old Rainey about her abusive relationship with her on-and-off, much older boyfriend. At the beginning, Rainey is on track to graduate high school but falls behind when she misses school for months at a time, pressured by her boyfriend to stay home. With self-aware and often self-deprecating narration, Rainey is open about her struggle: She knows she should leave, but is unable to cut ties with her boyfriend. This episode is a must-listen for anyone familiar with abuse, and even more so for anyone who has found themselves judging victims for staying with their abusers. She knows what everyone on the outside is thinking about her—and with her story, she shows just how wrong they are.
A $75,000 Smile
Universe City, a series billed as “three comedians talking about science,” took a turn for the social sciences this week as the gang dissected a notable 2010 paper analyzing a Gallup poll on happiness and its relationship to one’s salary. Though stand-up comic Joe Zimmerman often leans on his scientist co-hosts Jono Zalay and Raj Sivaraman to analyze the findings, “A $75,000 Smile” allows for more of Zimmerman’s anecdotal conjecture and conversational segues than, say, Kepler 452b provided in a previous episode. And unlike the pop-science articles that initially reported on this famous study, the hosts are careful to deconstruct “happiness” as one’s emotional well-being versus their life evaluation, a complication that frankly makes the whole thing a lot more interesting—and, somehow, allows the triumvirate to circle back around to their favorite tangent: the NBA.
“Fashion is and always has been about much more than function.”—Valerie Steele, director of the Museum At The Fashion Institute Of Technology, Freakonomics
“When a tragedy happens, we just want to look the other way, we want to run from it, when really, to honor the person who suffered it, you should find out exactly what they went through.”—Marla Busha, Reveal
“So, basically, people have been pathologizing young women being really excited about music for almost 175 years. That wasn’t new with The Beatles, and it was not new with any boy band since then.”—Holly Frey, Stuff You Missed In History Class