It’s 2012, I’m newly single and I’m working at a sleazy “small business financing” company which I am coming to learn feels more like a loan shark than a lender. After working in a gaming startup, the Midtown office seems decidedly Dilbertesque with the cubicles, buzzwords and business wear I had convinced myself I’d never have to experience. I’m at least a decade younger than anyone else in the office, not that see much of anyone on an average day since I’m the only person in my department. I spend a hearty portion of my day wondering how my life went so wrong — I certainly have the time, this office moves more like a glacier slowly crushing my concept of life planning.
But my day has one saving grace: I can put in my earbuds and be somewhere else for a while. A place where I’m surrounded with the sparkling and witty conversation I remember from before my friends chose to stay in Upstate New York. A place where my creativity is stimulated and I’m filled with a sense of infinite potential. Podcasting, I realize, is a world where you can make people happy with only a USB microphone and engaging banter. The flaking cubicle ceiling has been lifted and I can see a wild blue yonder for the first time in a longer than I’ve cared to keep track of.
Today, things are much better for me. I have a good job back in the gaming world and a happy home with the woman I love. While I’ve still only dipped my toe in podcasting waters myself, I haven’t lost my reverence or undying enthusiasm for the medium that helped me through one of the worst chapters of my life. That’s why I want to share a small sampling of my favorite podcasts which I consume voraciously and have helped shape the kind of podcast I hope to make. And for those of you surrounded by darkness, maybe podcasts like these will be a light for you as they have been for me.
Are you a fan of the Stephen Fry’s trivia panel show, QI? Then you’re already a fan of No Such Thing As a Fish, the show’s official podcast. Featuring a returning group of QI Elves (researchers), in every episode the group shares their 4 favorite facts from the week. Most are new, though you might remember an odd one here or there from the show. I’ve learned to question conventional wisdom and become insufferable during small talk. As a quick note, it should be said the podcast hosts lack some of the personality of the television show’s presenter and panelists but are still a very pleasant bunch.
Before there was Comedy Bang! Bang! on IFC, there was Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast. And in the interest of accuracy, before Comedy Bang! Bang! the podcast there was Comedy Death Ray but let’s not get into that right now. What you need to know is that Scott Aukerman is a very funny and gifted improviser who is apparently friends with every great performer in the greater Los Angeles area. The strength of CBB lies in it’s cavalcade of characters, the best of whom are voiced by Paul F. Tompkins, James Adomian, Nick Kroll and Lauren Lapkus.
The United States and United Kingdom have long been inseparable allies. Until now. This joint US-UK audio panel “game show”, hosted by the silver-tongued Dave Holmes, pits American and British comedians against each other in stories about current events and popular culture. Points are awarded for correct OR funny answers, and they manage to get some great talent in the contestant seats. While our cultures are very similar, you get a really interesting sense of the differences between American and British entertainment industries and national senses of humor. And humour.
When Dan Harmon was fired as showrunner from Community, the show he created, he took it hard. Not a fan of therapy, he took to the stage as a way to express himself and expunge his inner demons. Harmontown is a live show that, like Dan himself lacks structure but is incredibly funny and engaging.
But that’s not what I love about it. It’s greatest strength is easily the candor Dan shares with the audience, to the point where I feel as if I know him personally. I wasn’t exaggerating when I said this is his therapy alternative. There are no borders in Harmontown, and it often feels like sitting in on one of those really deep and completely pointless conversations you at 3 AM in college. For a in-depth look into what this podcast is all about, check out the documentary Harmontown, now on Netflix.
Jesse Thorn and Jordan Morris have been friends since college and the bond between them is evident the moment you hear the perfect fluidity of their conversation. JJGo is among the lowest-energy podcasts on the list, but there’s something disarmingly comfortable about their conversation. It really is like being part of a conversation with an old friend. A very funny conversation. Jordan, who is a writer for @Midnight, is an incredibly underrated talent and is bolstered by Jesse’s [relative] straightness. A lot of the series is based around living in LA which at first glance seems like a flaw but the show is so inviting that you begin to feel like you’re living the “Industry” life too.
Factor in the stream of super-talented guests from the world of stand-up, film & TV and music and you have an amazing chance to feel like you’re where the action is.
Well met, traveler. Yes, the Dungeons & Dragons podcast is a bit of a trope now, especially comedic ones. And yes, Adventure Zone isn’t the only podcast on this list involving playing D&D (Harmontown features that segment). But this one features the McElroy brothers (more below) and their father in a tongue-bloodily-poking-through-cheek series of mini campaigns. This has got to be the most accessible fantasy podcast out there, and the character work Dungeon Master Griffin puts in makes it feel more like a funny story than a heavily-regimented game.
“A Marital Tour of Misguided Medicine” is how Justin and actual, factual Dr. Sydnee McElroy brand their show and I struggle to phrase it any better. There’s a maxim about of comedy that says it’s a mixture of tragedy and time. And boy howdy, the history of medical science is filled with a lot of tragedy.
Medical science has come a long way and Sydnee does a good job of explaining complex topics in a way that’s easy to digest. Justin, on the other hand, plays the idiot perfectly. They’re funny independently but they make an even better comedy duo. In lesser hands this series could have wound up boring and pedantic but the couple make it a continuous delight.
As a topical news show, just listen to the latest episode.
If you like John Oliver on the Daily Show or Last Week Tonght, wait until you see him in his element. Joined by longtime friend and equally funny comedian Andy Zaltzman, the pair break down the week’s news with the same mocking wit and temple-rubbing frustration you would expect. Without the guise of reportage, you can listen to them really tear some new assholes.
What I found most illuminating when I first discovered the Bugle is how much of the show is actually carried by Andy. I had never heard of him before subscribing but throughout the episodes (and having seen him live) I can say that Andy Zaltzman is one of the cleverest comics I’ve ever met. Even if he uses too many puns. The back-and-forth between he and John about John’s prodigious and fruitful acting career shouldn’t be missed. Unlike John’s films — The Smurfs, The Love Guru — which should be.
Look around you. All the things you take for granted, from the shape of your city to the shape of your pen was painstakingly designed by someone. This serious, narrated by the silky-voiced Roman Mars, explores the honest-to-God fascinating world of architecture and design. But it’s more than that. It’s a study of why things are the way they are.
Confused? 99% Invisible plunges into the stories behind the design things great and small like the wife of an undertaker who saved her husband’s business from an unscrupulous competitor and wound up inventing the modern telephone system. Or the lawyers who fought for the write to make truly horrible television ads. You’ll find the topics are eye-opening and the production value (voice over, background music, editing) absolutely phenomenal.
Radiolab, the podcast of the WNYC radio show by the same name, is one of the most interesting podcasts I’ve come across yet. At first glance I’d describe it as a science podcast, but it’s so much more. Perhaps it would be more fitting to say that Radiolab covers the human side of physical and sociological science & discovery. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich discuss scientific breakthroughs and human achievement with in-depth interviews and some narrative detective work.
Consistently rated as the best-produced podcast, Radiolab finds the human interest in topics that in lesser hands could seem dry. Here’s an example: instead of simply explaining the Heimlich Maneuver to you, they interview the man himself in a piece that tackles what may well be his growing mental instability, strong allegations of quackery and leads us to question whether it should be named after him at all. Radiolab is a hard-hitting, mind-expanding podcast that finds drama in places you never even knew existed.
In 1999, Baltimore high school senior Adnan Syed was arrested for the murder of his ex-girlfriend Hae Min Lee. He was swiftly convicted by the state of Maryland and sentenced to life in prison. Only he may be innocent.
This groundbreaking series from the people behind This American Life differs from its parent podcast in that it follows the same story from the same reporter (Sarah Koening), serially, tracking the story and sharing their current feelings about it. Yes, it blurs the line of journalistic objectivity a little but it’s some serious reporting and it’s damn compelling. It should also be noted that despite being a very recent phenomenon, Serial helped put podcasts on the map.
The Flop House is one of the funniest podcasts I’ve heard, and when you find out who it stars you won’t be surprised. Elliot Kalan (former head writer of The Daily Show) and Dan McCoy (Daily Show staff writer) are joined by the equally funny Stuart Wellington in what might be the original bad movie podcast since it’s over 7 years old and still the best one out there.
What sets The Flop House apart from other bad-movie podcasts like How Did This Get Made? is that where the latter would just comment about how absurd something is (Jason Mantzoukas, I’m looking at you) the Floppers do their own improv comedy riff off of it. They’re more inventive, much funnier, and infectiously addicting. Shout out to Elliot for his wonderfully annoying songs.
I’ll be the first to admit that My Brother, My Brother and Me seems to be a love-it-or-hate-it experience. Me? I love these brothers. Every week, Justin, Travis and Griffin McElroy take your questions and turn them alchemy-like into wisdom (along with…unfortunate questions from the Yahoo! Answers service). I cannot count the times I’ve risked getting fired cracking up while listening to this in the office. Individually they are each gifted (Justin and Griffin were founders at Polygon, Travis works in theater) but together they play off each other in a way that is so creative and organic that it makes it look easy. Hopefully not deceptively so, because they are my inspiration for trying out my own podcast.
There are 2 kinds of people in the world: people who like to hear other people laugh and people who don’t. The McElroys like to laugh, and if that’s going to put you off well, you’re missing out. Their off-the-cuff ‘goofsmithing’ will change the way you think improv and might just inspire you to take a swing at punching up your own conversations.
What else should I have put on the list? Tell me in the comments.