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.
The second hour of this week’s Best Show is a masterful exercise in tension and release: Playing into the common outsider criticism that he’s a bit of a grump, Tom Scharpling bets listeners $20 per infraction that they can’t goad him into complaining on the air. But after a half-baked referential troll/roast session in which Scharpling gets compared to “a mix between Mark Ruffalo and Bruce Vilanch,” deals with Skype-quality cell reception, and endures a late-game one-two punch from arch-nemeses Wally Wackiman and Vacation Jason, he’s a full two hundred bucks in the hole. The “cringe humor” that comes from Scharpling biting his tongue or gritting his teeth through Grateful Dead talk pays off with a legendary howl of relief upon crossing the finish line. From there, Scharpling channels his pent-up aggression into the long-awaited return of The Vance And Gary Show that marks Vance The Puppet’s first appearance on the Best Show revival. Add a charming early promotional call from his Monk coworker Andy Breckman, and it’s one for the ages. Scharpling knows how his bread is buttered, but there’s no better topping than when he throws it in the trash and bends convention.
Don't Get Me Started
Dead Moms: Anthony King, Will Hines, Kate Spencer
On the latest episode of Don’t Get Me Started, a show that usually takes on guest obsessions like They Might Be Giants or Muay Thai Fighting, hosts Anthony King and Will Hines are joined by King’s wife, Kate Spencer, to discuss something more personal: their dead moms. All three of them lost their mothers at a young age, and to call it an “obsession” might seem strange, but as they explain, something as life-changing as losing a parent can become exactly that. What could be a total bummer of an episode, is instead a truly interesting and magnetic conversation, because as Spencer mentions, ours is not a culture that talks about grief. In the episode, Hines jokes that he’s not sure if they should have gone through with the idea, but he should know that the result is an important episode for the podcasting format. If there ever were a platform to open up a dialogue about such a sensitive subject, it’s on a podcast where the people are not only funny and listenable, but also willing to be unapologetically open and vulnerable. The specifics they discuss about their mothers’ passing make it even more universally relatable, because they are evidence of real people that went through real things. They don’t shy away from the details that crushed them, but they also don’t ignore the absurd hilarity that death presents. It’s refreshing to hear such candid stories on what made them laugh, what they regret, and how the experience of losing your mother never really has an expiration date, as the relationship with death continues to evolve.
The Jackie And Laurie Show
Everyone Dies Now
Jackie Kashian and Laurie Kilmartin are both jaded by the entertainment industry that they simultaneously love, and that’s what makes their weekly conversations so fun to listen to. The Jackie And Laurie Show shines a light into the world of working comics, who are also women and also not millennials, putting it in the top tier of podcasts in the “comedians talking about comedy” genre. In this episode, Kilmartin voices her raw opinion on how newer female comedians are highlighted in the media more than others. “Everybody’s gotta be up-and-coming?” she asks, “How about the never-quits? How about the still-fucking-here’s? How about the didn’t-get-Letterman-because-the-Letterman-booker-wouldn’t-book-women?” It’s a valid opinion balanced with her acknowledgement of how grateful she is as a touring headliner and Conan writer. The conversation gets personal as they reach the topic of death and how the passing of loved ones has affected their lives. “Everyone dies now. I cannot have my phone on at night” Kashian says, “I turn my phone off because everyone will still be dead in the morning.” This fearless podcast doesn’t hold back, dives deep into complex territory, and always finds the punchline.
Jordan, Jesse GO!
The Hammer Principle: Ron Funches
Ron Funches is easily one of the most listenable comedians out there today, with a charm that is genuine, effortless, and consistently giggle-inducing. He’s like a ray of pure sunshine, but his positivity is never even slightly annoying or insincere. It just feels good to listen to Ron Funches talk, and podcast fans should jump on every guest appearance he has on any show, particularly when the hosts can play his game so well. Jordan Morris and Jesse Thorn are both, of course, very endearing hosts, and Funches’ lovable presence is infectious enough to somehow elevate the level of charm for everyone around him. On this week’s Jordan, Jesse Go!, the trio discusses many topics ripe with potential comedic gold, from today’s WWE status to how to approach an attractive Scientologist. But perhaps the peak of the show is when they all swap opinions on which rap rock and metal band members they would swipe right on: Fred Durst, Linkin Park, and Kid Rock included. Sprinkle in some hilariously lazy impressions from Ron Funches, and it’s hard not to listen without a silly smile throughout.
The New Yorker: Politics And More
Ben Taub On The Case Against Assad
In an undisclosed location in Western Europe, about 150 people dubbed “truth smugglers” last year by The Guardian are trying to achieve what has so far alluded the non-Russian and non-Chinese world superpowers in the United Nations: criminal accountability for the systemic torture, persecution, and detention of protestors in Syria under president Bashar Al-Assad. With a grant from the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting, reporter Ben Taub has done some superb investigating in the past months about the Commission For International Justice And Accountability and the dangerous work it has undergone to secure 600,000 pages and counting of evidence against the regime. This week, for The New Yorker, Taub speaks with CIJA founder Bill Wiley and activist Mazen Al-Hamada about the practical challenges—checkpoints, suspicious neighbors, old ladies accidentally burning boxes for fuel—of hiding and transporting thousands of pounds of paper in a war zone. Hamada’s personal accounts of abuse and forced-confessions inside the notorious Military Hospital 601 is the Kafkaesque stuff of nightmares, but it’s a profoundly inspiring half-hour listen. If there’s a silver lining to be found in the Syrian crisis, it’s this anonymous team of rebels and lawyers doing the nonviolent, tedious dirty work it takes to make a murderer stand trial in court.
Early on in this hour-long conversation, Off Camera host Sam Jones praises his guest by saying that an overview of his career is like “the work of three men.” Without missing a beat, his guest playfully responds with “Yeah, but two of them are really not very good at what they do.” And while that might at first seem like self-deprecating humor from Bob Odenkirk (and it certainly is to some degree), it’s really more a statement of philosophy. As he makes pretty clear here, Odenkirk is the kind of person who is most relaxed when he’s distractedly busy, and he is happy to point out—with neither false modesty or annoying conceit—that when you produce that much, much of it just won’t come together very well and some of it will click in just the right way. He speaks of his 30-year career in show business with such a disarming lack of artifice that it’s easy to forget he co-created one of the most seminal sketch comedy shows of all time and is currently the lead of AMC’s critically acclaimed Better Call Saul. On that topic, an episode highlight comes when he takes a moment to indulge in some tantalizing speculation for future seasons.
Reality Bites Vs. Singles
Pop This! is a pop-culture centric podcast hosted by two women with passionate opinions on the subject. This week, hosts Lisa Christiansen, a journalist and broadcaster, and Andrea Warner, a music critic and author, take on a topic that strikes tangible fervor within them: What is the most ’90s movie ever? The ladies battle it out for their preferred film, with Christiansen defending the Cameron Crowe classic Singles, and Warner rooting for the artsy Winona Ryder movie Reality Bites. The hosts’ undeniable zeal over their selected film deserving the title is what makes the debate so much fun to listen to. Though they are clearly well-versed in all things pop culture, they are in no way pretentious and instead the episode becomes a sort of playful brawl as they attack the other’s film choice. Christiansen thinks Winona Ryder’s character in Reality Bites is whiny and untalented, while Warner declares that the central characters in Singles are boring. The no-holds-barred debate is even more fun if the listener has their own side to take. Christiansen and Warner can agree on one thing though: Ethan Hawke’s character in Reality Bites was indeed the worst.
Weezer “Summer Elaine And Drunk Dori”
Weezer frontman Rivers Cuomo has always been upfront about how meticulously he writes his songs, the path from brain to tape filled with spreadsheets, binders scrawled with other musicians’ chord progressions, and a Kubrickian number of takes in the studio. So while his episode of Song Exploder may not reveal anything hardcore fans don’t already know about his general process, it will take them into his head in a way that feels unprecedented. As Cuomo narrates the entire journey of penning “Summer Elaine And Drunk Dori” (one of the best tracks on this band’s current fourth self-titled album), it’s as if the listener is behind the square frames of his glasses, peering through their lenses at the two grade-school teachers who give the song its namesake, flipping to The Left Banke’s “Walk Away Renee” as a jumping-off point for the music, then putting it all in a blender for something that’s distinctly Weezerian. As effortless as the band makes their muscular power pop seem, Song Exploder proves that the process is anything but.
Steel Toes Required
Snake In The Mud: Kevin Banner
Perhaps in response to the first-wave podcasting style of a couple of guys shooting the breeze behind a microphone, Steel Toes Required throws its hard hat into the ring to ask Canadian comedians specifically about their day jobs in construction and manual labor. Of course, hosts James Kennedy, Ryan Williams, and Stefan MacNeil are fixtures of Vancouver, British Columbia’s bustling comedy scene, too, so the laughs come quick when they welcome Kevin Banner–himself a crowd favorite on Vancouver comedy podcast forefather Stop Podcasting Yourself. There’s a certain comfort in the way that the guys talk about their bosses and building codes, as if sitting in the other room while Dad and his work buddies have a few drinks. But STR takes it to the next level in a delightfully irreverent aside about where they were on 9/11, with Williams admitting that he was briefly “relieved” to hear the planes hit the World Trade Center because the only other explanation he had for hearing his mother scream from the next room was that she had discovered his masturbation ritual. The guys of Steel Toes Required yearn for the days they could “let one rip and not worry about where you are,” but their tongues are always set firmly in their cheeks.
The Talkhouse Film Podcast
Kid Cudi With Paul Reubens
It’s always great listening to two men love each other, and that’s exactly what you get in this edition of The Talkhouse, which brings musicians and filmmakers together in conversation. This episode features Paul Reubens and rap artist Kid Cudi, who’ve passed the awkward phase of Cudi’s intense fandom of Rubens’ groundbreaking Pee-wee’s Playhouse television series. “We didn’t have shit, but we had a TV.” Cudi says about growing up. “That helped us forget about what was going on. We didn’t have much but we had fuckin’ Pee-wee’s Playhouse, and that was cool.” They met at a Hollywood afterparty roughly five years ago, and we get to hear them further explore this friendship in a way that truly feels like eavesdropping. Reubens seems to ask Cudi new questions about his childhood, particularly on how his mother supported his music career, and Cudi is deeply interested in Reubens’ writing process. Cudi, who has been expanding his career from music to acting, opens up about a new project he’s writing and Reubens does the same. This podcast is audio proof that it is possible to start off as a fan and end up a friend.
Marc Maron’s 700th episode is an example of two vastly different kinds of interviews one might hear on WTF. First, there’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Since she and Maron have never had an in-depth conversation before, there’s the usual confessed admiration from both parties, followed by an easygoing exploration of the Veep star’s life and career. She recounts these experiences with an amused pragmatism that’s devoid of bitterness, even as she remembers feeling alienated by the dog-eat-dog and dog-snort-drug nature of Saturday Night Live. Maron seems smitten by her casual frankness, and if she ever returns to WTF (which it sounds like she will), she may have an interview more similar to Maron’s chat with Louis CK. Having appeared on the podcast several times, CK is able to bypass the getting-to-know you segment to get nitty-gritty about the making of his latest project, Horace And Pete. Over nearly two hours, he takes Maron from its genesis—more akin to the development of a stage play than a television series—all the way to its unconventional release. Along the way, there’s a determined courting of Edie Falco, cameos from Joe Pesci and Jack Nicholson (both of whom were up for the role played by Alan Alda), and the kind of juicy, sometimes awkward details usually saved for tell-all autobiographies. Notable among these is CK getting turned on while writing Laurie Metcalf’s nine-minute monologue about having sex with her husband’s 84-year-old father. By the end, the listener may feel like they’ve just listened to a one-man oral history about a TV show as opposed to an episode of a podcast.
What's The Point
Every Song Ever
One fascinating aspect of technological advancement is how it allows us to lament the romance-laden customs of an ideological past while simultaneously feeling acutely grateful for having survived through such an unendurable dark age. That’s the sort of the cognitive dissonance that listeners can expect to sustain while listening to this interview with Ben Ratliff, author of the new book Every Song Ever. In his conversation with 538’s What’s The Point host Jody Avirgan, the New York Times jazz and pop critic unspools the manifold ways in which quick, easy and affordable access to the vast majority of recorded music—programmed specifically for our ears by the most cutting-edge algorithms the world has ever seen—has spoiled the experience of accessing that seemingly endless cache of songs. And as much as his arguments sound like the kind of gripe that’s born of privilege, he does make some points that are worthy of serious consideration. Now that the hunt for a much-needed rarity amounts to little more than fine-tuning our Google search request, is the final reward as valuable as it used to be? And can a string of 20 or so songs tailored to our singular tastes ever be as exciting as a mix tape evangelically crafted by a friend?
“I feel like I remember a time period where he would just go to strip clubs and close them out! And sleep with all the strippers. And so I just feel like I gotta protect my temple.”—Ron Funches on why he won’t swipe right on Kid Rock, Jordan, Jesse, Go!
“Remove the documents, and then if you feel like doing it, set the place on fire and put it on YouTube.”—CIJA founder Bill Wiley advising Syrian rebels, The New Yorker: Politics And More
“This is the good stuff—stop. This is the stuff Capone can’t quit raving about—stop. This is the thing that you and your sweet gal will swing to all night—stop. This bit is being ran into the ground—please stop.”—Ryan Williams on bootlegging, Steel Toes Required
“Sometimes, somebody’s at a bar, and there’s people with them that are strangers, and they’ll go ‘Yeah, my dad raped me and now I work in finance,’ and people just kind of shrug. Because it’s anonymous. It’s not Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s Alcoholic Anonymous.”—Louis CK on why a bar is the perfect setting for a drama