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. 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.
Ira Glass’ This American Life is a cornerstone in the world of podcasting. It’s an incredibly long-running radio series and it perfectly blends investigative reporting, education and in-depth storytelling. Episodes generally have multiple stories which follow a theme, though some are devoted to single stories. Personally, those are my favorite because they tend to have something very important to say. It’s incredibly well produced, well sourced and in some cases has been societally important (like in the case of the ProPublica/This American Life collaborative episode breaking secret recording from the Federal Reserve that showed complacency.)
A bit of self-promotion here but, hey, it’s good to be proud of your work. My college friends Cory, Matt and I are in our late-late twenties and coming to terms with that. Each episode, we look at another aspect of growing up like vacations, holidays, fashion and food. We discuss our own childhood experiences, our present situations and how we predict for the future. It’s a hilarious look at how we all come to be adults and how we can be functional members of society without having to “grow up.”
This is a relatively new podcast, and one I’ve only just started listening, but I got hooked from the start. Story Break is a podcast where three writers have one hour to write a movie based on a premise or existing universe (e.g. video games, Clippy, garlic salt). It’s a funny look into the process behind screenwriting, from selling a movie based on trending issues to designing characters and a 5 act plot structure. Exploring the most bizarre and difficult premises highlights the skill in making a movie work.
Graham Clark and Dave Shumka of Stop Podcasting Yourself (further down this list) produced this spin-off music comedy podcast around the premise of writing a serious (no sillier than Ween) song in an hour each week. Getting some laughs and hearing the process that goes into making a song should be credit enough for the show, but what really makes this pop is how good the songs wind up being. And hearing them from conception to execution in the studio makes these already great songs even more powerful and meaningful, like you were part of the process yourself.
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 right 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.
“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.
Raised By TV is a new podcast by two seasoned podcasting professionals who you might already recognize from next-on-the-list Comedy Bang Bang, Lauren Lapkus and Jon Gabrus. The show is a nostalgic reflection on the TV we grew up watching, which is by no means a new basis for a podcast, but what makes this show work is precisely why I recommend the first episode: Lauren and Jon’s shared chemistry.
The hosts are funny, certainly, but more importantly they’re super enthusiastic about TV and have some amazing stories to share having been both fans and in the industry. They have an energy that is infectious and they play off each other in a way that always keeps the show buzzing along.
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.
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.
Thrilling Adventure Hour was a unique LA-based (though they went on tour quite a bit) comedy/music variety show modeled on old-timey radio which features all your favorite sketch and improv actors. Rather than following a single narrative, episodes will often feature segments of 2 or more separate shows so I need to qualify my recommendation here a bit; I know this will get me a lot of flack, but there are entire sub-shows I haven’t listened to. What I’m recommending here is first and foremost Beyond Belief, followed by Sparks Nevada: Marshall on Mars.
Beyond Belief stars perennial podcast favorite Paul F. Tompkins and Paget Brewster in a supernatural spin on The Thin Man films. The episodes are self-contained, wittily written adventures offering one of the most charming relationships I’ve ever seen acted on stage or screen. The marriage portrayed in this series might just make you believe in love again.
Sparks Nevada: Marshall on Mars is a linear series, so it’s much more of an investment. It’s not as punchy as Beyond Belief, and it takes a little more getting into, but it offers an ensemble performance chock full of guest stars and gives you real, fleshed-out characters with arcs. There’s more of it to sink your teeth into, and it does a much better job world-building than Beyond Belief. I”m a fan, but I wouldn’t blame you if it wasn’t what you’re looking for.
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.
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 whose credits include @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.
Nothing brings people together like a shared ordeal, and for hosts Nick Wiger (former @midnight and Comedy Bang Bang writer) and Mike Mitchell (The Birthday Boys, Netflix’s Love), each episode is an ordeal. From the inadvertent health effects of making a weekly podcast where they review chain restaurants, to their binary warm friendship/bitter animosity towards each other, Doughboys reminds me of the struggles and close bonds fostered when I joined a fraternity.
The show is great as a food review show, and while they’ve managed to avoid episodes devoted to major players like McDonalds, they strike a good mix between well known national chains and regional offerings I’ve never heard of. Perhaps the most embarrassing thing about this show is how, despite the fact that it’s not meant to be educational, I do kind of feel like I’ve learned something after each episode. It might be about the history of a restaurant, or just what to get there, but in the age of the viral recipe video I think shows like Doughboys help make it ok to be obsessed with food.
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.
Cool Games Inc. walks a very tricky line. While I think it is approachable for anyone, it is probably the most niche of any of the podcasts on this list. As part of the video game website Polygon, hosts Griffin and Nick drop a lot of obscure video game references in their weekly quest to brainstorm profitable games. But since the goal is to innovate everything we know about gaming, more often than not they’re able to throw away the playbook and work with concepts that are universal. A game that blackmails you with your darkest secrets? A game that makes you spend more time with your Grandma? No matter your level of gaming proficiency, there’s always a vein of humor you can cling to.
The best part of Cool Game Inc.’s core conceit is that they pull their ideas from a weekly contest thread on the /r/CoolGamesInc subreddit. Users can vote on the ideas they want to hear played around with as well as submit their own, which is a level of interaction that few podcasts (which are already very personal affairs) can only dream of reaching.
Note: The podcast was ended after it came to light that Nick Robinson was engaged in sexual misconduct, the extent of which was professionally ruinous and possibly criminal. I don’t condone this behavior in any way, and many people have voiced a concern for this podcast remaining on the list. It is my personal belief that art should be considered without the context of the people who make it, so long as you aren’t providing material support for unacceptable actors. It is also important to note that a podcast like CGI is the result of two hosts, editors, and a large fan base who created amazing games. I do not believe it is right to disregard the work of everyone else to spite one horrible person. For this reason, I will continue to suggest this podcast, but will understand if you choose not to listen.
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.
There was a time when podcasting was a wide-open frontier. Comedians Dave Shumka and Graham Clark from from Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada braced the rough and barren podcast landscape of 6 years ago to plant their flag with a loose-format chat show. Today it may not sound like much of a gimmick, but these are innovators we’re talking about and it shows.
Not only am I unable express how funny and personable these two are together, the show also features guests. There have been a fair share of big name guests: Paul F. Tompkins is a “bumper” (fan of the show) who has been on many episodes, as has Moshe Kasher, Baron Vaughn, Jimmy Pardo, Debra DiGiovanni and Kyle Kinane.) But what makes this show so great isn’t the star power of the guests. I have learned more about the Canadian standup scene from this show than I ever thought I had the mental capacity to contain. I have fallen in love with a roster of amazingly talented people who regrettably do not have the level of fame they deserve, people like Alicia Tobin, Charlie Demers, Ryan Beil and Erica Sigurdson.
When I first approached the show I was hesitant because I didn’t recognize anyone associated with it, but that was almost the biggest mistake of my podcast-listening life. Dave and Graham are the perfect comedy sherpas for introducing you to a whole new world of laughs (and Graham certainly has the beard for it).
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.
An interesting note, Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda is a huge fan of the podcast. He’s been on the show as a “guest-pert” (as has Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert), routinely posts on the Facebook fan group, and even snuck a reference to the show into one of the musical’s iconic songs.
The charm of the podcast also easily translates over to their new Seeso series. You can (and should) check out the first episode on YouTube here.
What else should I have put on the list? Tell me in the comments.