This month’s top 10 list marks a full twelve months of creating them! Hurray! It’s sometimes a lot of work in the last few days as I try to remember what was so great about a particular episode, but overall I’m happy to be making these lists. They’ve always been a blend of my personal life and preferences with what are objectively big events or great episodes in the podcast world, but I’m pretty comfortable with that.
As always, I’m interested in hearing what other people listen to. What suits your fancy? I had a conversation with a new friend the other day where we shared what podcasts we loved. We only overlapped on one, even though we both loved storytelling and comedy. There’s so much out there worth hearing that I know my lists can’t fully capture.
Regardless, here’s what I enjoyed for this month of August, 2015:
It’s the beginning of year 4 of Welcome to Night Vale, and this episode is something of a thriller! A heist is planned to retrieve the episode’s namesake and destroy it, for perhaps obvious reasons. Cecil, the creepy desert town’s radio host, details the plan (but not too much!), which is a mix between Get Smart and Mission Impossible. Most memorable to me was the surprising ending, however. Night Vale has a lovely tendency to take the strange, weird events that transpire and couch them in a poignant message, and this was done more adeptly here than in any episode in recent memory. It stands alone, so feel free to enjoy it without having heard anything else.
Paul F. Tompkins is delightful. I’ve listened to him on The Thrilling Adventure Hour for years, and when he appears on comedy podcasts, especially to do improv, I listen immediately. While he’s on The Indoor Kids with Kumail Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, he reveals that he’s something of a gamer! The three of them chat about the new Batman game and Tompkins explains that while creating the television show Mr. Show, many cast/crew members played Goldeneye 007 during down time. He shares with glee the time he and his friends played 16-player Halo on 4 TVs. These are experiences very similar to my own, and yet we would have never known without this episode! Tompkins also discusses why he doesn’t share hobbies like this publicly very much, revealing some personal vulnerabilities. It’s a good, fun gaming time, but also one that is perfect for any Tompkins fans.
It was in early August that Jon Stewart left The Daily Show. What better time to have him on the podcast that is explicitly about the show behind the scenes without him? What’s so delightful about this episode is how nothing of true substance is really shared, but yet so much emotion is expressed. Stewart refuses to discuss anything except for food, but in the conversations about types of bread is a metaphor for the place the crew was in during the show’s long lifespan. Definitely worth hearing if you’re a fan, as I am.
This monthly hour-long radio show plays instrumental and surf rock selections, and some of the songs really stuck with me. One was “Sunset Beach” by The Gremmies, and another “Bock’s Car” (at 1:02:00) by Austin Transit Authority. So much of the second half of this really had me jazzed. Shivers, the host, always picks great tracks and records interesting interviews with musicians, painting the backdrop of the history and activity of this genre. I look forward to this hour at the start of each month.
This episode had an equally-important second part, as well.
TAL spends two full weeks exploring the education problem in the United States. The first hour concentrates on the struggles to improve performance in failing (predominantly black) schools. One community accidentally did the one thing that actually works: integrating schools. The community meeting in opposition to it is heart-wrenching in its subdued racism.
The second episode focuses on the opposite side of the equation: getting white students and families to come to predominantly black schools. It follows one woman recruiting families into this program by highlighting the many benefits yet never mentioning the true purpose.
On the whole, this was groundbreaking to me, utterly convincing, and very humanizing of every side. I highly encourage spending the time to learn about this important issue through TAL’s narrative lense.
If I tell you this episode is about concrete, you might skip down to the next one. But I promise this is fascinating! The hosts tackle a mentality as hard as the material itself: today, we hate concrete buildings. We find them oppressive, depressive, and annoying. The hosts walk through the history of the construction material being used and how, instead of being termed “brutalist”, it could perhaps better be thought of as “heroic”.
I am still loving Lauren Lapkus’ show, and this one with Pamela Murphy is especially funny. The gardening topic is hardly what’s interesting: it’s how hilariously the two comedians create contrasting personalities in their improvised scene. One of them is continually cast as the most pathetic, unlucky person to walk the Earth, while the other painfully elevates herself in comparison. The slow reveal of the depths of misery and success the two find is what makes this episode so amusing. Also, there are psychic readings of plants.
The Thrilling Adventure Hour is ending. If you’ve been a fan of the show, this is really, really sad. If you don’t know about TAH, then just know that this decade-long production of old-time radio serials has been wonderfully acted, brilliantly written, and exquisitely backed and performed for so many that it has a dedicated cult following.
This last episode of “Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars” rounds out the long story of Sparks and his friends with cheesiness, poignancy, and cleverness in equal measure. I already am so sad to see it go, but I look forward to reading the comics or anything else the writers and performers move on to in the future.
(If I had listened to a recent episode, I could have put star Paul F. Tompkins’ new podcast SPONTANEANATION on this list. Expect it next month for sure.)
While I didn’t listen to this episode on my Destin trip, I definitely had it in mind as I sat on the beach listening to the waves. Mike Rugnetta ponders what makes the beach such a popular destination, pointing to the soothing, noisy sounds of waves reaching shore. He speaks of the beachgoing experience in unusual ways, asking why everyone faces the water, for example. The answer is both obvious and yet… worth considering. My favorite line of his is that the ocean “doesn’t give a fuck” about you. And maybe that’s the appeal!
Reply All is nominally a show about the Internet, and in this episode, where PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman spend a busy, fun day running around New York, they actually very much fulfill that expectation without touching a computer. Geeks who love the Internet sometimes need to get away, need to go outside. Vogt hadn’t been to the Statue of Liberty before. The two of them go on adventures and do explicitly illegal (but harmless) things. They sing bad karaoke with their boss. All the while their chronicle is thrilling and fun, like you’re along for the ride.
SGU Premium #58
I can’t link this Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe bonus content to you because you have to be a paying subscriber to hear it. But this was undoubtedly my favorite piece of SGU content this month. It’s an informal chat and interview of the rogues (including the new Cara Santa Maria) with George Hrab (and Richard Saunders). The rogues, week after week, deliver science news or argue against pseudoscience or bad reporting. They do this tirelessly for years. This hour (which is only half of the full conversation) was full of personal stories, struggles, and tales of growth. It was the most engaging thing I heard on my trip down to Destin by far. If you care about the SGU, and hearing the hosts’ personal stories interests you, consider becoming a subscriber.
Reply All had a killer month in August, I feel. I would have included all three episodes they did in this post if it wouldn’t have seemed repetitive. This episode features the story of a comedian who goes on a quest to stop pedophiles illegally trading child pornography on the early Internet. He faces similarly baffling roadblocks as we see today on sites like Reddit. It’s a personal story of frustration, but ultimately success.
With TAH ending, I simply must throw in a second episode. This one is more of an exit interview with the two writers on the show as they reflect on the long history of The Thrilling Adventure Hour and dive deeply into the last show and how different stories closed. They also share how life post-TAH has been, since the last show was really performed back in April (the podcast is delayed). It’s these casual conversations that are serving as the soft landing at the end of this show’s run.
Now you know what was capturing my ears this month. What about you?