Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Vinyl Countdown

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Vital stats:
Format: Canadians talking about everything and nothing, continually ratcheting up the stakes of elaborately unappealing sex or general disgustingness, usually in public
Episode duration: 30m-1h30m
Frequency: 3-9 per month

“A bunch of guys get drunk at a bar, and some dickhead keeps recording it.” The prospect does not immediately appeal. Several of you may find the deal sweetened if I reveal the identity of that dickhead as Keith McNally, the podcast auteur behind XO, one of the shows I’ve respected the very most in all my years Podthinking. XO repays your listening time with both its high-caliber production — some of the most intricate craft I’ve heard in a podcast that doesn’t also air on the radio — and its seemingly untrammeled access to the psyche of one not-particularly-inhibited young man with a lot on his mind, a high-intensity way of saying it, and the inexplicable ability to combine those qualities without descending into obnoxiousness. A real marriage of the raw and the refined, you might say, which most conceptually strong podcasts officiate in one way or another.

The Vinyl Countdown [RSS] [iTunes], now. This show sits on the opposite end of the production spectrum from McNally’s other brainchild: a bunch of guys get drunk at a bar, and some dickhead keeps recording it. For half an hour, an hour, two hours, two and a half hours, you can hear McNally and a handful of dude- or lady-friends gross each other out; reminisce about antics past; swirl the ice in their glasses; and speculate about what, in a series of made-up realities, each with their own rigid rules, does or does not count as gay. His friends have names like “Robocop Craig” and “Mustard Mike.” When something or someone comes up a lot in these conversations, McNally will occasionally splice together an episode illustrating it, as when he made one out of Louis C.K.’s visits to Opie and Anthony [MP3] (hosts whose manner, worn to a featureless dun by years upon years of morning-zooishness, makes you especially grateful for a challengingly personal program like this one).

To think this began as a video game show. I hadn’t actually started listening back when — if — McNally and his coterie stuck to that agenda; when I first tuned in, things had clearly long fallen into the kind of free-for-all that, listened to from certain angles, almost sounds like chaste formalism. But catch me on a good day, and I just feel delighted at the very fact that, at the touch of a button, I can listen in on a couple hundred hours of some Canadians talking about everything and nothing, continually ratcheting up the stakes of elaborately unappealing sex or general disgustingness, usually in public. I tend to think that certain types of podcasts have grown popular because they give us a line to the sort of conversations that have fallen out of our lives; it certainly hasn’t fallen out of these guys’.

I’ve made this show sound simple, much simpler than it is. The dedicated Vinyl Countdown fan will discover a world of Tolkienesque complexity where countless threads of memory, story, inside joke, and life event link together all the episodes and everyone who has ever appeared in them, primary, secondary, and tertiary players alike. And that doesn’t even account for all of the connections and resonances between this and every other product of McNally’s shoestring internet empire, from XO to I Have a Ham Radio to Shitty Comics to his appearances on Keith and the Girl. The Robocop Craigs and Mustard Mikes of his world have tales to tell, sure, but McNally’s personality remains a presiding force of every minute of audio uploaded under his banner. It wouldn’t work for everybody, and maybe it won’t always work for him, but for that reason, I’ve always given his productions a chance.

We may just have to make peace, dear readers, with the fact that you’ll either find McNally inherently compelling or you won’t, and either way you can’t confidently pin down why. If you’ve never heard a show of his but read this review closely, you might ask, isn’t he base? Well, yes and no; he may compulsively return to base topics, but he doesn’t do it in a base way. If you’ve only heard the shows where he talks about not having a job and just looking at porn and hanging out with his pals all day, you might ask, isn’t he unambitious? Well, yes and no; just look at the volume of internet media he generates, which by almost any standard seems superhuman. If you’ve listened to his screeds du jour and read a few of his tweets, you might ask, isn’t he a troll? Well, yes and no; if he’s a troll, he’s one of those rare trolls who changes his mind a lot and listens to what other people have to say. I’ve dragged my feet on writing about The Vinyl Countdown because I assumed I couldn’t describe it accurately before hearing just a few more episodes, but these thoughts never resolved themselves into answers. And so you read the questions here today.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail or follow him on Twitter @colinmarshall.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: You Made it Weird

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Vital stats:
Format: one-on-one comedy/sex/God conversations
Episode duration: 50m-1h45m
Frequency: 3-7 per month

You’ve surely heard the name Pete Holmes resonating through the halls of alternative and/or podcast-y comedy lately. The words themselves could, by their broad pan-American nature, gain only the loosest purchase on anyone’s memory — far less than the evangelical fervor with which some speak them. Even if that piques your curiosity, casual investigation reveals only one more head in the endless perp walk of white, early-thirties, college improv-bred, sitcom-writing Los Angeles standup comics by way of New York. Yet everyone, as another noted comedy podcaster I recently interviewed put it, seems to be boarding the Pete Holmes bus.

Since this podcaster said that in response to my own salvo of Pete Holmes-related evangelization, perhaps I can offer some explanation. To truly “get” Pete Holmes, I submit that you must see Pete Holmes, like I did at a live Risk! taping. In the aftermath of his punchlines, watch the man twist his open, wholesome features — his name made flesh — into those of a lower-tier Midwestern politician on the brink of a flop sweat, the pressure from a desperate tap just inches too far down into his well of theatrical affability forcing open the stress fractures that will hasten his undoing. A subtle element of Holmes’ performance, yet a harrowing one; it would surprise me if even he fully understands how or why he pulls it off.

Then again, as his podcast You Made it Weird [RSS] [iTunes] reveals, I may vastly underestimate his capacity for (or compulsion toward) self-scrutiny. The show’s simple format drops Holmes into one-on-one conversations with friends, colleagues, and friend-colleagues, like a WTF without the confrontation. The resemblance between the two podcasts actually runs deep enough so as to get tough to explain; suffice it to say that, when Holmes brings Marc Maron on [MP3], the resulting episode could have fit just as well into one show’s feed as the other’s.

I want to say that You Made it Weird has more of a defined premise than does WTF, and I feel like I’ve even heard Holmes lay out that premise a few times, but far be it from me to remember it. Holmes’ interviews, which usually happen on the back of such a pre-existing rapport that they turn immediately into full-blown, two-way conversations (as interviews should), supposedly have a mandate to make the guests talk about subjects including but not limited to comedy, sex, and God — the subjects that, when broached in everyday chat, “make it weird.” This would indeed make weird an interview program with, say, airline executives, but I feel like a lot of these comedian guests, a lot of these Sarah Silvermans [MP3] and Doug Bensons [MP3] and Moshe Kashers [MP3], would’ve gone there anyway.

Hence the show’s greater interestingness — hence most comedic productions’ greater interestingness — during the times it moves away from direct joke-making to discuss the logic, psychology, and pathology of joke-making from oblique angles. I’ve especially relished the times when Holmes and his guests don’t really talk about joke-making at all. The Pete Holmes neophyte finds out sooner or later that, in addition to using his standup to make people laugh, Holmes has drawn New Yorker cartoons to make people laugh — or whatever people do when they express appreciation for New Yorker cartoons. Allow me to express my own great appreciation here for his recording of a three-way commiseration [MP3] about the brutal mechanics of submitting New Yorker cartoons with fellow cartoonists Matt Diffee and Alex Gregory.

And then we have the fact that Pete Holmes asking about God means something different than a “normal” alt-comic asking about God. While not a Christian in the sense we coastals understand the concept from the Huffington Post reblogs we forward, he seems to have grown up immersed and deeply shaped by that distinctively American subculture of guitar-strumming, promise bracelet-exchanging, youth group-going Bible-readers who, given the chance, will totally invite you to the beach barbecue. Large fragments of the “Sparky” demeanor you’d expect from such an upbringing still glint in his comedic persona, but he’s left that world behind. He hasn’t gone totally apostate, but nor has he not gone apostate. He doesn’t bemoan the vestigial prudishness that has left his bedpost with so few notches, but nor does he not bemoan it.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect this struggle within the soul of a modern comedian, least of all on a podcast. But then, would you expect the strongest jokes to come straight out of the very topics these conversations reach when steering away from comedy? As Holmes quotes himself as saying, “Expectation is the enemy of comedy,” a line that swiftly crystallizes every reason I’ve ever folded my arms and harrumphed at the mere idea standup, sitcoms, or one-liners. It also explains why my very being gives way to unstoppable chuckling at discussions of, as you’ll hear on You Made it Weird, theology, brain hemorrhages, sexual guilt, and Full House. As the hale green shoot sprouts from the stale muck, so the funny rises from the comedically intert.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall, formerly of the public radio program The Marketplace of Ideas, now hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes]. Contact him at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Point of Inquiry

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with bigtime skeptics
Episode duration: 30m-1h
Frequency: weekly

“In-KWAI-ree.” That’s how the hosts of Point of Inquiry [RSS] [iTunes] pronounce, sometimes with great deliberateness, the final word of their program’s title. Does this sound strange? Not terribly. Is it even not the standard pronunciation? Admittedly, I don’t know. But at certain moments, the word as uttered on this podcast sounds saturated with the sterile moisture of pedantry. Most of the time, I feel comforted to hear the speaker taking such pains. But other times — few times, but telling ones — I feel a flood of desire to shake him down for his lunch money.

The show belongs to the genre of podcasts on skepticism, one which took off with surprising force early in the medium’s emergence. Its name, despite my complicated feelings about how announcers say it, strikes me as a paragon of dignity compared with those its swarm of brethren have taken up: Skepticality, Skeptiko, Skeptoid, Skepchick. Truth to tell, had Point of Inquiry’s sponsoring organization the Center for Inquiry called it, say, Skeptacular or Stupid SkepTricks, you probably wouldn’t be reading a Podthought about it. But by today, skepticism shows have multiplied to the extent that no pun, no matter how goofy, can set a show apart.

Point of Inquiry’s form also exhibits an uncommon poise. Many skepticism podcasts divide themselves into a distracting array of segments, compulsively gin up uncomfortable confrontations with suspiciously dopey adversaries, or loose slightly-too-large casts of panelists into a frenzy over the delusion of the week like bored jungle cats upon a limping wildebeest. This one has evolved into straightforward interviews with luminaries who have carved out careers staring down particular skeptical bugaboos: Brendan Nyhan on political spin in the media [MP3], Michael Shermer on evidence-free beliefs [MP3], Steven Pinker on traditional notions of human nature [MP3], Jonathan Kay on 9/11 “Truthers” [MP3], the late Christopher Hitchens on God [MP3]. Somebody behind these scenes wields wide-ranging connections, slick booking skills, or both; no skeptical podcast I know gets consistently heavier hitters on the phone.

Few passive pursuits feel as satisfying to me as absorbing the authoritative tones of these famously rigorous thinkers on the page or through the earbud. I fall into the habit of considering it a sort of cognitive sanitation, of mental housecleaning that might blow a cobweb or two of nonsense out of my consciousness. I soon grow convinced that nobody could ever reasonably object to my engagement in this. These skeptics have all devoted their lives to perceiving the truth, thinking about the truth, and snatching the truth from the clutches of liars. And truth equals good, doesn’t? If we don’t operate from the axiom that truth equals good, what do we have in this world?

And yet, for all the sensations of pleasure and ever-swelling moral rightness I draw from the skeptical conversation, sooner or later I get overwhelmed by a kind of defeat. This all starts to feel like masturbation, especially in its ultimate effects on my actual world. I suppose the mental stimulation from listening to somebody smart argue against psychics or religion or conspiracy theories is nothing to scoff at, but I wasn’t particularly concerned with psychics or religion or conspiracy theories before, and I’m not going to do anything different today because I’ve heard what I’ve heard. Truth for truth’s sake seems like a noble enough thing to seek, but take it too far and, paradoxically, you start to look nuts; one day you just want to hear spoon-bending debunked, and the next you’re going to library-basement meetings in your sweatpants.

But if you can bear these dangers in mind, you’ll find few classier sources of skeptical listening material than Point of Inquiry. Its hosts get right to the heart of these issues with public intellectuals you’d be embarrassed not to know about, and its archives go back years and years. Just make sure you have another hobby, too. Dance the tango or butcher your own beef or join a roller derby league. Don’t turn into a weenie.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture [iTunes], which is now Kickstarting its first season.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Roderick on the Line

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Vital stats:
Format: Skype conversations between Merlin Mann and John Roderick
Episode duration: 50m-1h30m
Frequency: weekly

Time was, Merlin Mann’s followers — a square-framed group in which I count myself — suffered a perpetual drought. You’d get your luminary’s guest appearances on podcasts now and again or, on extra-special days, recordings of his speeches at tech industry conferences and company retreats. Though half of these would slice off into the rough of open-source application minutia or techniques for executing semi-documented five-keystroke Mac OS commands, Mann would still work in incisive and eerily useful observations about life, work, and the overlap between them. These came propelled by his rocket-fueled Gen-X wit, guided by cultural landmarks on maps printed by independent record labels of the early nineties. Out its back blew a noxious vapor trail meant to cloud and choke the forces of internet-enabled hucksterism and complacency. To what scraps we received, we paid the attention of Talmudic scholars.

Now, even the most compulsive admirers surely struggle to keep up with more Merlin Mann media than they can handle. Those who always approached his output buffet-style, paying attention to his indictments of certain things and ignoring his indictments of others, must see this as a boon. Those who desire only his thoughts about using your mind to create things that actually matter in a less twitchy, fearful manner can stick to Back to Work with Dan Benjamin. Those who prefer Mann’s rapid-fire cracks — not fully orchestrated jokes, exactly, but something subtler, more tonal, and further askew — about German sex tourism, fruit cocktails, John Wayne Gacy, and insistently ragtag but highly educated guitar bands hailing from the first Bush administration — now have something to download as well.

This new arrival, Roderick on the Line [RSS] [iTunes], presents a weekly Skype conversation between Mann and his longtime pal John Roderick. You might know Roderick from The Long Winters, the rock band he leads, or from his time playing with Harvey Danger, or from — and here I lean on Wikipedia — his musical associations with the likes of Death Cab for Cutie and Maximum Fun favorite Jonathan Coulton. I understand he has also made his presence felt at MaxFunCon, so I’d have personally known his raw charisma by now, had I but managed to scrape together the price of admission. I recognize him from something infinitely cheaper: his occasional contributions to the Seattle Weekly, the paper I read when I grew up near that city.

A Seattleite by birth and current residence with a mother lode of stories about his Anchorage adolescence, Roderick sits dead-center in the “Northwest People” circle of my social brain’s Venn diagram. I’ve somehow placed Mann, who connects with Roderick from his San Francisco home and matches him spiky-reminiscence-for-spiky-reminiscence with tales of Ohio and Florida, in the same circle. Maybe, to a defector to central Los Angeles such as myself, San Francisco simply counts as the Northwest. But as Roderick on the Line explicitly reveals, both men share a well-considered yet faintly savage distaste for such classically Northwesterly compulsions as fleece, metallically iconic architecture, Gore-Tex, and a brand of easy superciliousness I’ll call Whole Foods Liberalism.

Having grown up in that region, I can’t stop my mind from resonating on these same frequencies. Nor can I suppress my instinctual reaction to the “cool guy older than you” vibe from these two fellows, born about sixteen years before me and possessed of such immediate knowledge about (and given to such a rushing current of references to) the legitimately alternative young adult’s zeitgeist that prevailed throughout my childhood. When they get together, the conversational energy between them encourages a sort of cultural criticism. Roderick in particular goes on jags that, at first, wouldn’t sound out of place coming out of the mouth of a conservative AM-talk host, but soon take on a life all their own. His early lament about how Americans have become, in their own minds, “300 million of the most important people who have ever lived,” or how we’ve accidentally thrown out the rules that kept society running because we got our panties in a twist junking everything originally imposed by colonialists and/or dead white men, would strike a chord with me anyway. But few, I wager, would predict how Roderick fills out his theses.

Mann, naturally, summons his usual withering glare at the meaningless ephemerality of an era fixated on social-media fame. Without hesitation, he commiserates with Roderick about the distrust and disgust he feels in a world where you don’t know if the last good thing you read came from someone who genuinely wanted to write something good, or who just wrote something pseudo-good to drive you to a Tumblblog full of ads. What’s worse — I rush to explain after quoting the man I once demanded explain why I don’t have any money — we twentysomethings don’t even want to pull that kind of crap. We loathe ourselves for it, but we see no other option. We feel deep, gnawing fear. Besides, it’s that or a day job.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall just quit hosting and producing The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Intelligence Squared

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Vital stats:
Format: Oxford-style debates, lectures, and interviews
Episode duration: 15m-2h
Frequency: erratic

I’ve found interesting podcasts by simply typing the names of personalities I enjoy into the iTunes search box. I’m no logician, but I any podcast that’s recorded with one of my guests of choice will have recorded with other people who fascinate, even if I don’t know who they are yet. After pulling a few of my old P.J. O’Rourke books off the shelf — for enlivening the fifteen-minute breaks I spent in the humor section of Borders back when I worked at the Gap in high school (and back when there were Borders), he forever earned my gratitude and disciplehood — I figured I’d check if he’d made the podcast rounds. Yes, I know I can hear him on Wait Wait... Don’t Tell Me; he makes much of his anointment as the program’s designated conservative. But what’s this? Here he is on a show called Intelligence Squared [iTunes]. “P.J. O’Rourke: The funniest man in America,” so they’d titled his episode.

Of course, since Intelligence Squared comes out of England, “the funniest man in America” probably sounds as meaningful as “the tallest midget.” Many consider the traditions of English humo(u)r the finest in the world, not without cause, and I doubt you can gin up much respect for Yank comedic journalists if you came up over there. But the live forum where the show recorded O’Rourke gave him an hour and a half of what sounded like solid attention and a series of non-cranky, actual-question questions at the end. It brought out the best and most thoughtful in him, while momentarily relieving him of his worst impulses — his current worst impulse being to dilute his humor with half-hearted one-liners about “Obamacare” and “Obamamobiles” in an attempt, I suspect, to please what he sees as his Republican reader base.

How excited I felt, perusing the archives further, to find talks like Clive James on the city of Florence, Edward Tufte on information design, Iain Sinclair on “grand” urban redevelopment projects, and Stephen Bayley on object design. Even an conversation, if a slightly muffled one, with subject-independent literary auteur (and one of my own favorite people to interview) Geoff Dyer! A playlist almost tailor-made for a certain subset of my own interests, and you’ll know how jazzed it got me if you happen to share them. Even the lectures not aimed directly at my own taste seemed awfully promising. I don’t hold strong opinions either way on Bernard-Henri Levy, Slavoj Žižek, or Niall Ferguson, but I looked forward to listening to them discuss the state of the left, ideological symbolism in last year’s Oscar winners, and the six, respectively, to maybe learn why others do.

But Intelligence Squared hasn’t made its name on lectures. Its producing organization gained prominence as the premiere presenter of something called “Oxford-style debates,” which involve putting a “motion” out there and letting a couple luminaries lay out the arguments for and against it, with rebuttals. The podcast feed features debates both high- and low-profile, from celebrity debaters in before large audiences to a couple of semi-knowns duking it out over Skype. I actually gave the NPR version of Intelligence Squared debates a shot a few years ago, but their production sounded suspiciously busy and its topics strangely inconsequential. The original opts for a rougher-and-readier style, zeroing in on motions whose very descriptions entertained me: “Enough money has been spent saving Venice,” “Long live Tesco,” “Children deserve better than Harry Potter,” “Prince Charles was right.”

User reviews on iTunes complain about the sound quality, and they’ve got a point. Some podcasts here sound just fine, while others, like the Geoff Dyer interview, sound incorrectly mic’ed, and others, like too many of the Skype debates, sound irritatingly glitchy. The enjoyment and intellectual stimulation come primarily as a function of who the speakers/debaters/participants are. I’ll always want to hear, say, Will Self speak, even if through a layer of pops and buzzes. An inconclusive debate about the social effects of Twitter or the repercussions of Lady Gaga on the very concept of feminism... perhaps less so. No matter the issue, one person stating their opinion on it, another stating their counter-opinion on it, the first stating their counter-counter opinion on it, and the second stating their counter-counter-counter opinion on it inevitably leaves a “So what?” feeling behind. Part of me itches for an answer. Perhaps that sounds so very American of me, but hey, I already pretty much admitted that your guys’ jokes are funnier.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall just quit hosting and producing The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Partially Examined Life

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Vital stats:
Format: philosophical “book club”
Episode duration: 40m-2h
Frequency: 1-2 per month

Take it as a heartening by-product of the march of technology or a sad sign o’ the socially atomized times, but podcasting has caught on by offering the lively, informed conversations to which listeners have lost real-life access. Sure, podcasting replaces it with only partial access, the kind that lets you listen all you please without meaningfully contributing, but whatever your area of enthusiasm, you can probably find a dozen long-running podcast discussions going on about it right now. In the same way a show like Battleship Pretension (reviewed by esteemed predecessor Ian Brill here) states its aim to conduct the kind of wisecracking, bullshitting, yet subject-engaged and intellectually fired-up conversations film students have, The Partially Examined Life [RSS] [iTunes] wants to re-create the atmosphere that arises when a few friends get together over a pitcher of beer after a philosophy seminar.

The show’s hosts know that environment well, having met as graduate students in the University of Texas at Austin’s philosophy department. But they didn’t stick around; having each ditched philosophy years ago to go his own way — to cities like Madison and Boston — they now reunite over Skype to revisit classic philosophical texts as non-required reading. You might call it a philosophy “book club”: they’ll convene to discuss Descartes’ Meditations [MP3] on one day, Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals [MP3] on another, Montaigne’s Essays [MP3] on another. Read the texts yourself in advance, and you’re effectively playing the home game.

Not that you absolutely need to. The podcast’s three self-imposed rules dictate that (1) the hosts shall not assume any knowledge of the text on the part of the audience, (2) the hosts shall make arguments directly rather than simply citing the arguments of other philosophers, and (3) the hosts shall maintain as high a standard of rigor and exactitude as entertainment value allows. While these rules theoretically make for maximum accessibility for anyone interested in tuning in, I imagine they also render the resulting conversations less, not more, like what you’d overhear from a huddle of T.A.s taking a break from grading at the university pub. Not that you’ll long for the fog of inside-baseball name-dropping or laments over undergraduate sloth, but The Partially Examined Life’s discussions take on a more straitlaced form than its attitude would have you expect.

I’ll venture to say that you’ll need to pay closer, more constant attention to this show than you would to anything said in a college-town tavern or graduate lounge. While the hosts often begin episodes navigating by some broad question relevant to the text at hand — “What can we know?”, “What is justice?” — they tend eventually to get into three-way exegeses. This turns trickier in philosophy-geek conversations that it does in, say, film-geek discussions. People have a pretty consistent innate understanding of what film is, but what, to put as philosophically as possible, is philosophy? I personally navigate the cultural world by considering philosophy to be the practice of describing how we think, communicate, and experience as clearly and as precisely as possible using natural language.

Therein lies the trouble — or, if you prefer, the joy. At least three hosts at a time trying to interpret, in their own natural and thus imprecise language, a philosophical text itself composed in its own natural and thus imprecise language, opens up infinite opportunity for purely semantic argument. The show’s discussions, as with so many philosophical discussions in life, sometimes careen inexorably toward thickets of seemingly endless loops circling around what the words being used could or should mean. (See the episodes on Wittgenstein [MP3] [MP3], though that should surprise absolutely nobody with philosophy-geek bona fides.)

Don’t feel too bad if you lose the thread — especially if you listen, as I do, while performing entirely non-philosophical database work. But you’ll find fascination and even intellectual beauty in hearing human minds collectively grapple with concepts even as the concepts crumble under scrutiny. The hosts’ lives since dropping out of U of T seem to have imbued them with the distance needed to laugh at this, and even to avoid it entirely now and then. Their conversations illustrate both why philosophy remains compelling despite all this, and why they felt the need to get while the gettin’ was good.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Gentlemen's Club

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews with comedians, media figures, and pornstars
Episode duration: 20m-1h20m
Frequency: weekly

Put the question of what men like to me, and I doubt I’d come back with much of a list; outside of certain biological details, we menfolk may not really have all that much in common. Some ambitious podcasts take on the mandate of exploring the whole what-men-like territory, and most of those, like Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy turn into their own, more specific thing along the way. Caleb Bacon’s The Gentlemen’s Club [RSS] [iTunes], however, has stuck to manly enthusiasms for 127 episodes now — or at least it’s stuck to manly enthusiasms by the specifics of its definition of manly enthusiasms, which mainly include comedy, the media, and porn.

Since Bacon runs a Los Angeles-based podcast, the comedy thing comes almost as a no-brainer. I’ve begun to think it’s more natural, if you live in L.A., to run a comedian-interviewing podcast than not to. (Having recently moved to L.A. myself, I feel certain my podcasting efforts will shift inexorably that way in due time.) The Gentlemen’s Club has thus gathered such fruit of the old Southern California Comedic Podcasting circuit as Never Not Funny’s Matt Belknap [MP3], Low Budget FM’s Mike Cioffi [MP3], and everyone from The Biggest Mistake [MP3]. Not only can you hear Bacon interview those guys, but you can hear Bacon interview a handful of specifically Maximum Fun-relevant guys as well, like Jordan [MP3], Jesse (whose episode I actually can’t find in full), and Adam “Lonely Sandwich” Lisagor [MP3]. Any Max Funster — and I believe Bacon counts himself among our numbers — will find much to download right away.

Bacon’s interviewing style defies easy description, in large part because he interviews different types of guests in different ways. With comedians and those comedy-adjacent, he aims for the humor of deliberate awkwardness and discomfort, using sudden waves of vulgarity, repeated callbacks to bizarrely minor things, and questions that border on nonsensical. His insistence on making half-jokes about the prefix “poly” actually gets Mike Schmidt [MP3] angry — yet it also gets him to say lots of interesting things! Admittedly, I can produce no evidence that all the poly-ing led Schmidt to the stories he would tell later in the interview, but it probably didn’t hurt much. Some listeners will need time to get used to this style of conversation; Bacon may not put a premium on smoothness in these cases, but he eventually gets the verbal goods.

When not interviewing comedy people, Bacon gets deeper into the nuts and bolts of his guests’ work and the paths their careers have taken. This proves especially interesting when he invites one of those media personalities you’ve seen host three dozen different minor cable shows, four of which you really liked, all of which you find yourself inexplicably interested in behind-the-scenes dirt about. Not bad for a host who, like me, doesn’t even own a television. They usually have inventive reactions when confronted with a random topic pulled out of what’s called the “gentlemen sack” (yes, really) and words of wisdom when Bacon confronts them with the tradition of giving his audience one important piece of life advice.

Some of the most unconventional of these pieces come from, as you might have suspected, the pornstars. The Gentlemen’s Club sets itself immediately apart from most podcasts, even most male-oriented Los Angeles interview podcasts, with a pornstar every five or so episodes. I admit I dragged my feet on listening to these, since pornstars aren’t generally known for their articulacy or variety of interests. (Occasionally an semi-exception like Sasha Grey draws a lot of press, but even within her I sense a howling void, as it were.) Yet Bacon, whether by native interest in the porn business or by effective interest drawn from interviewing so many of its performers, knows what to ask of them. Sure, some of them come off like the kind of Loveline callers Adam Carolla would say “don’t track,” but others, like the Belgian Eva Karera [MP3], reveal a perspective on this most common entertainment that you couldn’t get except from the inside. And her piece of live advice tells the ladies who happen to be listening how best to prepare for double penetration, so hey.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume

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Vital stats:
Format: long-form phone-style conversations, often in extended cycles
Episode duration: 10m-3h45m
Frequency: 5-10 per month

Each podcast has its own ideal listening strategy. You Podthink about a different podcast every week, you learn that. Sometimes you listen new episodes to old episodes, sometimes old to new, sometimes at random, and sometimes with an eye toward maximizing variety. But A Bit of a Chat with Ken Plume [iTunes] gave me trouble. So many guests! So many conversations! So many hours! What sample of all this talk could give the Podthinking mill just the right grist? No organizing principle seemed forthcoming, but then one appeared as if by providence: D.C. Pierson.

You may know D.C Pierson as a two-time guest on JJGO!, or maybe you’ve heard him on Get Up on This, or maybe you’ve heard him The Anytime Show, the podcast of his Derrick Comedy-, Mystery Team-, and room-mate Dominic Dierkes. Even without a podcast of his own, D.C. Pierson shows up on iTunes as having appeared on no fewer than fifteen different shows — many of which I happen to have downloaded — and that’s just the ones that spell his name right.

But whereas listening to D.C. Pierson on any of those other shows might take an hour two or three over a couple episodes, listening to D.C. Pierson on A Bit of a Chat demands nearly ten hours over four episodes. The format stays pretty rigorous that whole time, too: host Ken Plume calls up the actor/comedian/novelist on Skype and they talk about old-time radio announcers, Snood, box-set rock-rarity compilations, grandparental high school theater attendance, the difficulties of imitating everybody except Rip Torn, F for Fake, early Nickelodeon programming, the myriad disappointments of NYU, the myriad disappointments of the more recent Star Wars films, existentialist Pokémon, and Ed Wynn.

Ignore all the podcast trappings, and you soon realize that Plume and D.C. Pierson are doing exactly what you do on two- to three-hour phone conversations with your friends: tellin’ tales, crackin’ wise, brainstormin’ ideas. In other words, bullshittin’. The inherently voyeuristic quality of this kind of listening separates this show from others in the one-on-one conversation category, and the fact that certain guests reappear so often and at such length almost makes it feel like it has a different form entirely. If you like Paul F. Tompkins, you can get an hour of him and Ken Plume in January 2009, another hour in August 2010, and another hour on top of that from last month. Or maybe your poison’s Tom Scharpling? In that case, get ready to hear over five hours of him talking to Ken Plume over the past couple years.

Listen to the guests that turn up most often — five visits from Molly Lewis, four from Cassie St. Onge, four from Mike Phirman, four from Rebecca Watson — and you develop an ear for the particular shapes, patterns, and themes that recur in their conversations. Ken Plume’s talks with D.C. Pierson, for example, tend to inevitably work they way back to the stories of D.C.’s high school relationships that went awry. But since you get different details, jokes, and fanciful tangents about these failed young courtships every time, you kind of start to feel like those proverbial blind men collectively feeling out the shape of an elephant, but through earbuds.

So who is Ken Plume, anyway? I still don’t really know. I gather that he produces SModcast — one of those shows that hasn’t featured D.C. Pierson — that he’s probably in his mid-thirties, and that he has no inhibitions about displaying his thorough knowledge of wonky details about mainstream movies, music, and television of the late seventies and early eighties. (You may have encountered this type of personality in podcasting before.) If you want to hear his skills put up against longtime celebrities, why not listen to his less epic one-offs with guests like Ricky Gervais [MP3], Paul Feig [MP3], and Ernest Borgnine [MP3]? Is it realistic expect Ernest Borgnine to return to A Bit of a Chat several more times and gradually pour his heart out by way of ill-fated dating stories? Yes it is.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: How to Do Everything

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Vital stats:
Format: expert, semi-expert, etc. consultation about all matters doing-related
Episode duration: 12-20 m
Frequency: weekly

Every episode of How to Do Everything [RSS] [iTunes] runs within the range of 12 and 20 minutes. In the studio, its hosts have an almost unnaturally snappy, overlapping- and interruption-free way of bantering with each other — yes, legitimately bantering. Outside of the studio, they go around and produce actual field pieces. The show sticks unfailingly to short segments that allow no possibility for extended tangents. Neatly edited-in music cues keep the pace up. In short, what kind of podcast is this?

I initially picked up the same vibe of suspicious professionalism from hosts Ian Chillag and Mike Danforth that I picked up from The Dinner Party Download’s Rico Gagliano and Brendan Francis Newnam. That show — though it’s really more of a segment itself — airs on “real” public radio, but I don’t think How to Do Everything does... yet. The plot thickened when I realized that every e-mail address I heard announced on the show ends in “npr.org,” so I bet the hosts have the connections to do it. Why, I even saw Peter Sagal plug the show on his Twitter feed. “@waitwait producers Chillag and Danforth,” eh? That means these guys... these guys are insiders!

This goes some way toward explaining why, according to my wild-@$$ guess, this show works like it does: Chillag and Danforth hold the keys to the cabinets. This must make it easier for them to produce a program where they regularly consult a public radio-grade little black book of experts, semi-experts, and all but irrelevant quirksters who happen to have a lot of availability — everyone from Padma Lakshmi to an eccentric spider dude. Our intrepid hosts either ring these people up with their gleaming public radio telehybrid boxes or check out a hefty public radio field production package and record on their turf, putting the questions of the day to them: How to I stop a charging rhino? How do I tell which subway door will open? How do I tame a beard itch? How do I walk across America? What does “goodbye” mean? What is hockey?

The show’s answers, taken as a whole, deliver one part genuinely useful information, one part genuine but practically useless information, and one part pure yuks. I would have expected Chillag and Danforth to use the answering-questions framework as a point of departure for conversation, but they don’t really allow themselves enough time in the show to get into a conversation. But if their designs for the podcast include turning it into a widely distributed public radio segment, maybe they’ve got the right idea; it already sounds, if relatively tame in sensibility by podcast standards, dangerously irreverent by the standards of the average public radio program director.

While I wouldn’t quite say “Go listen to this podcast, it sounds really professional,” I will say that, whenever I listen to a regular public radio program, I constantly think it could use some of the spirit of podcasting, and whenever I listen to a podcast-y podcast, I constantly think it could use some of the spirit of public radio. So I guess my question to Chillag and Danforth goes as follows: how do I combine the best worlds into one production? I’ve been knocking my head against that question without Padma Lakshmi’s advice for far too long.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: On Cinema

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Vital stats:
Format: film podcast satire
Episode duration: 2-5m
Frequency: 3-5 per month

“Hey, welcome back, we’re talking On Cinema. I’m Tim Heidecker, your host. We are talking and celebrating the twentieth anniversary of Ghostbusters. With me is film buff Gregg Turkington. Gregg, thanks for being on the show.”

“Thank you, it’s great to be here.”

“So, Ghostbusters. Ivan Reitman, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd...”

“Yeah, that film’s a classic, by the way.”

“Yeah, I mean, it hits all the notes: it hits comedy, it hits sci-fi, it hits adventure... it’s a landmark film. It’s one of the great films of the eighties, in terms of comedies.”

“And a lot of people don’t realize how popular it was, ’cause it was just that popular.”

“You know, I watched it recently and was struck by how funny it is, and also how original it was, because there wasn’t a lot of movies like that at the time.”

“That was the first movie like that, and there was a sequel, but other than that, there’s never been anything like it.”

“Alright, well, any Academy Awards for that? I don’t think it won any, but that’s not...”

“The Academy, you know, sometimes they make the wrong decisions.”

“Right, well, thanks for joining me, and we’ll see you next time.”

And there you have a complete transcription of the first episode of On Cinema [RSS] [iTunes], the new film podcast hosted by Tim and Eric’s Tim Heidecker and perpetual guest and “film buff” Gregg Turkington. From there, these two cinephiles have gone on to hold very similar discussions about movies like The Shining, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, Carlito’s Way, and Run Lola Run. That last one comes live from Oktoberfest.

Anyone expecting in-depth, rigorously researched cinema talk might have certain objections to Heidecker and Turkington’s production sensibilities: their compulsion to bring up the Academy Awards without knowing which movies won them, their inability to determine whether Run Lola Run came out in 1999 or 2004 (it came out in 1998), or Turkington’s insistence that Carlito’s Way “didn’t come out on video” or that Star Trek II is “the one in San Francisco.” Also, none of their conversations has yet run even five minutes long.

So On Cinema sounds like an entertainingly goofy conceptual stunt, sure, but extreme brevity aside, how far does this apple really fall from the tree of “real” film podcasts? Now, I love film podcasts. Some of the most important elements of my listening life have been film podcasts. But, perhaps alongside the almighty Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys/Girls Bullshitting About Culture, the genre produces some of the laziest, least engaging shows imaginable. If Podthinking my way through iTunes “Film and Television” directory in search of the diamonds in the rough has taught me anything, it’s taught me that the world teems with guys who own microphones, have a couple buddies, have seen a few movies, and will tell you what they think of them when they feel like it.

Again, I hesitate to single out film podcasts, some of which have given us so much, but the lesser among them represent a broad area of podcasting where empty opinion meets aggressive trivia-jockeying meets general ignorance. From their repeated use of howlingly empty proclamations like “great” and “classic” to their obscurantism-flavored bickering over obvious nonsense to their unrepentant judgments rendered from at best threadbare knowledge, Heidecker and Turkington nail this area with a satire that borders on savage. Are they shooting fish in a barrel? Maybe, but after all these years of Podthinking, I feel relieved to see a few fish shot.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation. Please hire him for something.]
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