There are regrettable times of day when I am required to disconnect myself from the internet and interact with human society for the purpose of maintaining things such as rent, social bonds, and the dog next to me (who is currently making unsubtle sad eyes about his unscratched ears). I imagine this experience would be a good deal more disturbing if I didn’t have a constant stream of voices winding their way into my ears, running the gamut from nebbish shut-ins discussing internet justice to nebbish shut ins discussing popular culture to throat spiders.
I’m here to bring the good news of podcasts, is what I’m saying. Not the Kevin Smith, ‘y’all should all get out and make a podcast because it’s creatively freeing and easy’ good news (though that’ll probably come up some day down the line), but the ‘why are people even bothering to listen to music when they could be taking in information and stories on almost anything.’ But then I realized that ‘almost anything’ is a pretty intimidating notion for anyone who’s never even bothered looking outside the music section of iTunes.
A podcast, for the uninitiated, is a downloadable audio file. That’s it, by its broadest parameters. The medium has its roots in radio (particularly talk radio, with Ricky Gervais being one of the earliest to put his show on the bandwagon), but nowadays a podcast can follow any format, subject, or approach and still find a niche group of fans. For the purpose of keeping things contained, we’ll take a look at three fairly broad subgroupings: Infotainment, BS, and Scripted.
[Note: while they’re a thriving entity, I’m avoiding talk of podcasts dedicated to specific shows: they tend to be both in the moment and even more niche than general subject podcasts, and I find they’re better found by being a fan of the show in question rather than just looking for a new podcast.]
And remember: this is only a beginning guide. There are all sorts of podcasts I’m discovering on a daily basis.
BS With Friends: The Original Podcast
Because the origins of podcasting grew largely out of an intertwining of blogging (Adam Curry, who started the first podcast network) and chat radio (putting aside digitized versions of radio programs, The Ricky Gervais Show was one of the first wildly popular podcasts), the general first impression of podcasts tends to be ‘a personable host has informal talks with friends (or guests, once Nerdist took off).’ It probably helps that this type of show resonates well with what has become the standard of internet stardom, focusing on the personalities involved rather than the particular subject matter (though a great many experts will tell you, rightly, that the key to a successful podcast of any nature are hosts that the audience wants to spend time with). It makes this the favored format of comedians: Ricky Gervais, as I said; Chris Hardwick, Kevin Smith, Greg Proops, Paul F Tompkins, and on until you run out of breath (and then some). These also tend to be the most difficult to recommend individual episodes of, since the majority of the appeal is in gradually warming to the hosts until you feel like you’re checking in with friends.
What: Director Kevin Smith discusses movies, sharks, and Canada with friend and producer Scott Mosier. They are utterly blazed, but that should be assumed. One of the longest running podcasts on iTunes.
Why: Famously the source of Smith’s latest film Tusk, the show benefits enormously from its two hosts longtime friendship, working history, ability to riff off of one another with basically no filter (but enough good sense that the show’s vulgarity never dips into cheap offensive shots), and an excellent knack for editing around any potholes. I confess to finding them at their best when bouncing off of several short-form topics (like their beloved @ScanBC) rather than getting lost in something longer form like a film summary, but there’s a personal ease to the show that basically every descendant in the medium has tried to capture.
Which: Try “The Walrus and the Carpenter (Podcast 259)” and “Emo-Kev and the 24 Karat Case of Love (Podcast 223).” I also have a personal fascination with “Go Fuck Yourself, Southwest Airlines (Podcast 106)” (the only thing keeping me from recommending Plus One, Smith’s podcast co-hosted with his wife, is its relatively defunct status).
The Flop House
What: Two Daily Show writers and their comedian friend sit down to watch a bad movie, then recap and mock it for their listening audience
Why: On a personal taste note, the show’s humor tends to naturally fall into the sometimes acerbic, sometimes out there snark the Daily Show is known for – no surprise, with its head writer on the couch. Seeing that wit applied to bad movies is draw enough for yours truly. But it’s also just damn fun to listen to funny people recount a bewildering movie they didn’t particularly like, a joy that quite neatly matches sitting in your kitchen while your drunk friend explains every beat of a movie they’ve already half forgotten. It gets the feel of group watching across without having to subject yourself to films that are more often benignly stupid than truly, disturbingly horrendous, and the weird side tangents can be their own reward.
The RoosterTeeth Podcast
What: Members of the comedian/machinima artist/let’s just call it entertainment group RoosterTeeth bullshit about the happenings of the week
Why: WOW has this one gone through a lot of changes. Formerly called “The Drunk Tank” and released as an audio-only podcast with about eight cast members, it’s now streamed video AND recorded audio with a rotating cast of around two dozen (and that’s just on screen people). RT has marked itself out from the early internet days as a very particular brand of shouty, argumentative, and cutting humor that can be somewhat polarizing from person to person (and despite seeming to be generally well meaning people…they’re not going to win any inclusive thoughtfulness awards). This is the place you go if you want more of Those Things You Liked That They Did.
Which: I’m going to cheat. Because the podcast style is so free flowing and almost impossible to cordon off singular excellent episodes, I’m going to recommend some of the best pulled and animated segments instead. Try this, this, this, and this (alternately, if you like video format, here’s a sample of the similarly informal and chatty Let’s Play crew).
What: Three gamers-slash-media-critics (including Jim Sterling, hence the name) commiserate about games, game culture, and (usually) the continued campaign of awful that is Ubisoft
Why: There is something deeply comforting about listening to three well-spoken, funny people with various UK accents able to both intelligently deride the considerable flaws in modern gaming while also being equally earnest fans of the medium. This podcast sits somewhat on the cusp of this category and the next, but because it tends to be (thusfar) fairly a-structured in favor of good conversational flow, it ended up here.
Which: It’s quite new, so you might as well start with Podcast #1 and see how it treats you.
Infotainment: A Niche for Every Listener
Once people realized that podcasts were properly A Thing, it became something of a haven for people to get together to geek out about specific topics and to convey actual useful (or at least interesting) information without losing that informal, ‘omigod have you heard about this thing?’ vibe. It tends to be a bit more work to pick through these: this format lends itself to impassioned experts who truly want to share their interest but aren’t necessarily prepared to make a go of it in the long run, resulting in shows that peter off after a handful of episodes or suffer from unedited dead space. Still, when you find a good one it can be like finding a treasure trove of books you never knew you wanted to read.
Sawbones: A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine
What: Doctor Sydnee McElroy and her husband Justin tackle various subjects throughout medical history and the many, many times that humanity got it spectacularly wrong.
Why: This podcast sits in the best of all worlds for this kind of subject matter: Sydnee’s expertise and solid straight-man delivery is perfectly married to Justin’s doofus act and comedic improv chops, with the warmth of their relationship filling in a companionable and welcoming air. And I don’t know about you, but I’m completely fascinated by the weird, gross, and hilarious missteps that have pretty much always been (and will likely continue to be in retrospect) part of the imperative art of medicine.
Sex Nerd Sandra
What: Sex educator Sandra Daugherty sits down once a week with experts on various sexual techniques and subcultures, fellow educators, and shares some of her own adventures in sexual self-discovery.
Why: Sex is a tetchy subject, especially here in America. And while there’s plenty of shows in podcasting and out interested in exploring “weird” sex, there’s usually some degree of sideshow tourism going on that leaves a bad taste in one’s mouth. The refreshing thing is how intelligently inquisitive and genuinely respectful Sandra is with her guests. Her status not only as a professional but also as a queer, poly woman who’s not just Seeking Lots of Sex but trying to better understand herself and others makes it an honest, educational, personal journey without making ‘freaks’ out of people who are into anything besides monogamous hetero missionary sex. (Also it’s a great resource as a writer).
What: A weekly satirical look at the news by Daily Show alum (and host of Last Week Tonight) John Oliver and his friend, punmaster Andy Zaltzman.
Why: Your feelings on John Oliver are going to dictate entirely whether you’re interested in this show (for something in a similar vein with those still at the Daily Show, I recommend the once monthly The Daily Show Without Jon Stewart). If you’ve bought into the basic conceit of British satirists (the show was originally released under the banner of the The Times newspaper, which dropped them when they refused to pull their punches against said newspaper and owner Rupert Murdoch re: the phone hacking scandal of 2011. And that, friends, is awesome). Perhaps less focused than John’s efforts when joined with a whole team of writers, the show makes up for it with a full embrace of their independent status and the oddities of, say, someone drawing a 30 foot dick on their parents’ roof.
Judge John Hodgman
What: Deranged millionaire John Hodgman dispenses wisdom from his court of fake internet justice, overseeing cases ranging from ‘how often should I be required to shower’ to ‘can I train for this marathon even though I promised my partner I wouldn’t?’ to ‘are machine guns robots?.”
Why: This was something of a difficult one to place, standing somewhere between an emphasis on banter and actual concern for the cases under fake internet consideration. As previous commenters have pointed out (even the AV Club, who usually does an episode by episode essay for this particular show), Hodgman is fond of melodramatically declaring one guest a sinner and one a saint and mock them accordingly…only, more often than not, to switch sides by the end. Which makes it all the more surprisingly that Hodgman puts genuine consideration into his decisions and gives each side their fair due (most of the time, anyway). There’s genuine, carefully chosen wisdom in his advice when he gives it, and even under the mocking there’s almost always a sense of fondness and respect for the people who come before him. Quieter and drier in its wit than some of my other recommendations, maybe, but well worth your time.
What: Roosterteeth’s gaming news podcast. Gus Sorola and two other hosts (usually Meg, Ashley, or Ryan) talk about new releases, industry news, and internet happenings.
Why: Essentially the branch of RT podcasting for those who find the original too bro-tastic but still want that connection to the founding members of the group (and their founding interest in gaming rather than casual BSing). Gus excels at keeping things on topic while his cohosts keep the conversation loose and interesting with the occasional weird digression, and said cohosts are damn funny while also existing outside of the white dude gamer mentality that, whether they mean it to be harmful or not (I doubt they do, but there it is), is often the lens of the original podcast crew. And it doesn’t hurt that the news, particularly when Ashley’s around, remains on top of its sources before the discussion gets going.
Scripted Stories & Recorded Live Shows
Often the saving grace for those of us who live outside of LA and New York, and something of an extension of the comedy album in terms of recording style. While some shows actually attempt a purely audio experience, others are simply sound-only recordings of live shows that leave one guessing as to where some of the laughter is coming from. But considering it shares shows that might have otherwise been confined to the audience in the room at the time (which is its own argument for the intimacy of live comedy), and can provide the talents of excellent actors for no cost whatsoever, it’s hard to complain.
Welcome to Night Vale
What: The public radio station of the tiny desert town of Night Vale: where all conspiracies are true, time is of questionable functionality, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep.
Why: I would hope that all my readers are already familiar with this gem, and if not I would encourage you to rush out in search of it post-haste. The writing is elegant and dense with atmosphere, at turns chilling and darkly funny, and the town itself is a thriving, fully fleshed entity. And equally important is Cecil Baldwin’s remarkable voice work as Cecil Palmer (yes, a Twin Peaks reference), our guide to the town. Cecil is one of the best, most consistently written cases of an unreliable narrator that I’ve ever come across – charming and unknowable, exuberant and ominous by turns. And the cast that fills in around him, from boyfriend and visiting scientist Carlos (The Scientist) to Old Woman Josie and her Angels (which do not exist, and are all named Erika) to literal five headed dragon and mayoral candidate Hiram McDaniels are all wonderful in their own right.
Which: It would be a shame to start anywhere but “Pilot” and watch the town (and Cecil) grow for yourself, but if you really need a taste of what the show becomes before jumping in then “Cassette” is a must-listen.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour
What: A segmented stage show done in the style of old-timey radio programs: featuring a serial space western(/soap opera), two drunken married mediums reluctantly solving supernatural problems, an overzealous superhero voiced by Bender himself, the most British Brit solving time paradoxes across history, the secret adventures of Amelia Earhart, a billionaire searching for his hobo princess, and others.
Why: I’ve recommended this before, so I’ll keep it brief. It’s well written (and has shown a real pleasant evolution over the years, moving away from even the small amounts of homophobic humor and writing more parts for its very ,very talented female cast members), versatile in its segments, performed by a hell of a cast, and able to both be charming in small doses and endearing on a character level in the long run. The stage show might be ending, but I’d bet TAH will be worth following to whatever medium it pursues.
Which: Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars is serialized, so best to start from “Inside Out in Outer Space” (though Night Vale fans might enjoy sampling “Emperor of Mars”). For Beyond Belief, try “Teenagers of the Corn,” “Sarcophagus Now,” and “A Beyond Belief Valentine’s Day.” To get a feel for the middle segments, try “Paperback Fighter,” “A Hamlet,” “Vive la Reich?,” and “Horse Play.”
What: A weekly skewering of pop culture news, performed live at the Hollywood Improv by Kevin Smith and Ralph Garmin.
Why: As someone who enjoys mocking the stupidity that is rife within America’s celebrity culture but uncomfortable with the casual misogyny that tends to be inherent in it (because it’s easier to go with some variant of ‘she’s a fat ugly whore’ than come up with anything resembling a clever joke, so hey), this show is about as close to a balance of the subject as I can get. While Ralph’s angry drunk persona still dips into the bag of offensive/shock comedy more often than I’d like, he’s also quick on his feet and the structural backbone in putting the show together, and genuinely talented in musical skills and a host of impressions. And Kevin balances him out beautifully, playing up the cuddly stoner willing to see the good in everything (but not above some excellently cutting barbs when the subject is really the lowest of the low). They make for a marvelous duo, well-honed experts in performance.
Which: Jump in any time, or get a feel for the non-news-related bits with “121 – Secret Origins” and “125- Secret Origins 2.” Or, there’s their yearend show for 2013, “Babble-Eve Eve.” Or my personal initial jumping on point, the date of their curious theater jump – “Podcast 126.”