Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Totally Laime

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Vital stats:
Format: half-interview, half-goofaround with (primarily) Southern California comedians
Episode duration: 30m-1h
Frequency: weekly

Jen Kirkman. Patton Oswalt. Paul Scheer. Kyle Kinane. Jackie Kashian. Marc Maron. Paul F. Tompkins. These are just some of the names that, in my years of Podthinking, I’ve grown so very weary of typing — but not of hearing the voices that come out of the human beings with whom we associate those names! Despite my near-total ignorance of these comedians’ actual performances on stage and screen, I encounter them all the time through their appearances and productions in the comedy podcast world, which draws like a hopeless addict from the pool of personalities based or often found in Southern California. This familiarity certainly made it easy for me to plunder the archives of Totally Laime [RSS] [iTunes], one of the most Southern California comedian-having podcasts going.

If you want to start a Southern California comedian-having podcast — I’ll resist making up an awful abbreviation, for now — you can play it a few different ways. You might grab a buddy and simply goof around, maybe in segments, with a new Southern California comedian each week — but, let me assure you, you’ll be entering a damned crowded, damned top-of-the-bell-curve field. On the spectrum’s other end, you might bring your Southern California comedians on for straight-up one-on-one interviews — but, let me assure you, you do not want to go up against Marc Maron, the acknowledged master of that subform. A bunch of shows instead split the difference between those two extremes, and Totally Laime hits it just about dead center.

Elizabeth Laime, the program’s host, its namesake, and a young L.A. comedy-doer, shares the cockpit with her boyfriend. Or maybe they’re married; I haven’t quite figured that out yet. (You can help by leaving a comment telling me to “do my homework.”) Whatever their legal status, this couple most definitely likes puppies. They also rent what sounds like an awfully nice house in Silver Lake, since guests call attention to its niceness and Silver-Lakeiness with strange frequency. (I can understand it, though I’m a Koreatown man myself; too few mandu shacks in Silver Lake.) The Southern California comedians drive to Silver Lake — or, sure, already live there — drop by their home, and spend an hour or so discussing their careers, having some laughs, and talking about Oprah.

While by no means a super-segmented show — and, so my Podthinking experience has taught me, wisely not a super-segmented show — Totally Laime wields a secret weapon in the form of its “Oprah game.” Laime and her man ask the Southern California comedian of the week to pick a number between one and however many episodes of Oprah exist, and they they all discuss whatever subject Oprah and her guests did on the episode of Oprah that corresponds to the number. I actually really like this idea, but I can’t begin tell you why. Some Southern California comedians display a startling familiarity with Oprah’s oeuvre, but I guess that falls in line with the vast knowledge of reality and other “people with problems” television with which comics tend to keep surprising me. Did you know there’s even an animal channel now? I think it’s called “Animal Planet”.

Reflecting on it, I think I was slightly disingenuous in claiming such a lack of familiarity with the careers of Totally Laime’s guests. One of my very favorite of the show’s interviews features a certain Mr. Jesse Thorn [MP3], whose work I’d like to think I know quite well indeed. In that conversation, Jesse gets to reminiscing about his undergraduate days at UC Santa Cruz. This prompts Laime to mention her alma mater, UC Santa Barbara. Hey, I’m a Gaucho too! I hereby close this educational loop by reviewing her podcast. Us middle-tier University of California students gotta stick together.

[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: Mohr Stories

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Vital stats:
Format: conversations about the comedy business and Jay Mohr’s life in it
Episode duration: 1h30m-2h
Frequency: weekly

It must speak to the weirdness of celebrity in our time that I’ve long known of Jay Mohr without knowing him from anything. Saturday Night Live claimed him as a performer for a little while, but I’ve never watched it. I remember seeing him in promos for a show called Action back in I think 1999 which looked neat, but mostly because Illeana Douglas’ eyes seem to follow you no matter where you stand in the room. But the dude’s got a mile-long IMDb page! He had his own big-time sitcom recently! He played some sort of sleazy fellow in Jerry Maguire!

I’ve learned a lot about all these elements of Jay Mohr’s career — and heard the promise of learning much more — from listening to the first five episodes of his joyfully conducted new podcast Mohr Stories [RSS] [iTunes]. Something tells me I wouldn’t have if I’d been following Jay Mohr-related buzz just a little more closely. He’s taken a beating lately, or so I gather from the talk on his show, for everything from his newly chunky weight to JPEGs of his wife’s oddly plastic-surgerized lips. No matter the work he puts into his comedy, a lot of comedy fans seem to write him off. Not long ago, Adam Carolla asked him the million-dollar-preventing question point-blank: why doesn’t anybody want to admit Jay Mohr is funny?

“I used to be a huge asshole,” Mohr said, and he says it again and again on Mohr Stories. If you believe his claims, he’s dedicated his show to pure honesty about his life and career, and even if I don’t know his career, I can always get down to hear anyone being completely upfront about anything. Mohr drops this honesty in the comfort of his own garage, surrounded by friends, fellow comics, his wife, his baby, and even his longtime manager. I won’t pretend they don’t spend lengthy stretches of the hour-and-a-half to two-hour episodes goofing around, but when they get into the nuts and bolts of the business of making people laugh — and the wider business of working with people who make people laugh — they reveal details I’ve heard nowhere else.

Sure, some of these details amount to nothing more than ways to trick the opener traveling the road with you to unsuspectingly gaze upon your exposed anus. (Mohr explains it better than I can.) Other times, he and his coterie talk about the intricate dynamics between a performer, his management, and the wider world, or the complicated and chancy means by which a young comic rises in The Industry. Still other times, he discusses how he came into possession of a story about smoking PCP with Tracy Morgan, how he gained that weight, what it’s like to work with Tom Cruise (“the sun,” Mohr calls him, though he also calls Chris Farley that), or how, exactly, Bobcat Goldthwait broke up with Mohr’s wife before she was Mohr’s wife. (Still no word on those lip injections, though.)

Given my lack of experience in the realm of comedy, I found special fascination in Mohr and co.’s disquisition on the specific joys of performing for black audiences [MP3]. They even go over all the intricate levels of black-people applause, some of which involve grabbing and shaking anyone close at hand, and others of which involve getting out of their seats and doing laps around the theater. Wait, should I call this racist? Should I call Mohr’s impressions of Tracy Morgan racist, even though I laugh at all of them? (But I assure you I laugh at the satire of Morgan’s spacily emphatic manner of speech, not his race.) Should I call the oft-recurring joke about what Florida black families sound like at the beach racist? (But I laugh reflexively at every joke containing the word “kingfish!”) Even Mohr himself has instituted a Mohr Stories drinking game whose sole rule dictates that you drink whenever a white guy does an impression of a black guy. I can’t actually tell what, if any racism all this involves, but I feel a little bad about how I feel bad about how I don’t feel all that bad about it.

(Man, all those cultural studies classes in college messed me up.)

[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 Anytime Show

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Vital stats:
Format: everyman and comedian interviews
Episode duration: 1h-1h15m
Frequency: 2-4 per month

We’ll have to dig our way out of a veritable labyrinth of Maximum Fun connections with this one. If you keep up with the offworld appearances of Max Fun personalities (like this forum thread does) you’ll have noticed that both Jordan and Jesse recently took the guest seat on something called The Anytime Show [RSS] [iTunes]. The truly astute Max Funster will realize that Dominic Dierkes, the program’s host, pulled up a similarly temporary chair on a JJGO in the not-too-distant past. On their Anytime sessions, Jordan discussed his theories about ass-stuffing parties in the approach of the Rapture and Jesse discussed his disappointment with his Alan Alda-free birthing classes — both of which they also cover on separate JJGO episodes. On his JJGO session, Dierkes gets involved in a conversation about “black Bart Simpson,” a subject which arises independently on his Anytime chat with Donald Glover [MP3] — who came on The Sound in 2009!

Before we’ve officially started shooting an Oliver Stone movie about this (a phenomenon I think I remember hearing come up on Dierkes’ JJGO), let me give you the basics on what goes on with The Anytime Show: Dierkes, one-third of the sketch group Derrick, gets up live onstage at Kevin Smith’s SModcastle and talks to people. These people include, of course, the aforementioned Jordan, the aforementioned Jesse, and the aforementioned Donald Glover, but also other comedic and/or podcast-y types you can find around L.A.: his fellow Derricker D.C. Pierson [MP3], say, or the Upright Citizens Brigade’s Matt Walsh [MP3]. Hence the promise of a heapin’ helpin’ of laffs every time.

If you don’t believe me, well, it’s a live show — just listen for the chortles in the background! You’ll hear about a dozen. I wouldn’t normally comment on a thing like low turnout — on a podcast, the relevant audience unit numbers exactly one — but I feel like every other episode I hear references the audience’s thinness. I can’t quite tell what’s going wrong, but maybe Dierkes just hasn’t built up quite the name recognition needed to fill 50 seats on the regular, a task I’m sure turns out to be far stiffer than it sounds. Still, he brings his interviewing and joke-cracking game in full, no matter the attendance, displaying a work ethic that, yes, he talked about on JJGO. And speaking of, man, do Jordan and Dierkes have moments where they sound alike. You wouldn’t mistake one for the other purely on tone, and you wouldn’t mistake one for the other purely on cadence, but their speech resembles each other’s just enough in both dimensions to make me periodically think, hey, these guys related? Comedically, perhaps.

I’m sure only time separates The Anytime Show from a regularly packed SModcastle, especially if its guests stay well-known. Paradoxically, minimizing the well-knownness of certain guests might help too. For the show’s first segment, Dierkes often brings up a member of the audience and interviews them, figuring out on the fly what might prove interesting to ask them about: their tuba-playing, the origami they’ve folded and then burnt, their opinion on the Kobe Bryant rape case. I quite like the idea of pairing interviews with non-well-known non-comedians with interviews with well-known comedians. In fact, I don’t even need Dierkes to make actual jokes during the former; I take all the amusement I need from the contrast.

[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: Litopia

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Vital stats:
Format: writing-related interviews, panel discussions, and word games
Episode duration: 45m-1h30m
Frequency: unpredictable, but often enough

The U.K. has really gotten on board with this podcasting thing. Not only do I usually find the U.K.-based guests on my own show Skype-ready and raring to go, but most of the U.K.-based podcasts I’ve listened to lately have an uncommonly polished, “professional” feel. I still don’t know what to call the form of podcasting where you connect a bunch of panelists from all over the world, talk in defined segments with actual recorded bumpers (as they say in, to bust out the scare quotes again, “real” radio), stream it all live, and incorporate synchronous feedback from listeners, but if you like that sort of thing and also have an interest in writing and publishing, then hey, check out Litopia [RSS] [iTunes].

I admit to a slight confusion about what to call this podcast: iTunes calls it Litopia, the web site calls it Radio Litopia, and something called the “Litopia Writers’ Colony” produces the whole shebang. Not only that, but the podcast feed actually contains episodes of distinct shows, each with a different title. You’ve got Between the Lines, an interview program featuring authors like sci-fi eminence Ben Bova [MP3], intellectual gatecrasher Geoff Dyer [MP3], and guru-of-human-endeavor Seth Godin [MP3]. (Having interviewed those latter two myself, I had to scope out the competition.) You’ve got The Debriefer, an ongoing discussion about writing-relevant legal matters such as (U.K.) copyright and libel law. You’ve got Open House, which seems to involve a lot of word games. And finally, you’ve got Litopia After Dark, recommendations of which brought me here in the first place.

In the host or co-host seat of all these programs sits Peter Cox, literary agent, prominent vegan, and thread uniting all corners of the Litopian world. Having held a fairly high media profile on the other side of the pond for decades, he displays an impressive suite of hosting skills, and Litopia After Dark finds him at his most host-ish. Bear in mind, though, that he still presides over a British show, which means that all its moments of highly articulate perceptiveness must ultimately be balanced out by the kind of lazy penile humo(u)r that wouldn’t have flown in third grade. People will feel varying comfort levels with this traditional union of the refined and the sophomoric, but Cox adroitly rides his panels’ highest moments and suffers their lowest with grumblingly good nature.

Though Litopia’s broad scope of content would seem to cast it as one of those programs “for everyone who reads,” I’ve come to think of that as, for all the hand-wringing about the reader’s imminent extinction, a hopelessly large audience to actually satisfy. You’d do much better to think of these shows as intended partially for readers, but mostly for writers. This sensibility provides both an injection of specificity, which keeps things interesting, but also an injection of a certain sourness. I say this as someone who does much with the written word myself, but you’ll find few people as unhappy as writers, especially now that the internet has Chicken Littled so many of them into a permanent mode of bitter, amorphous head-clutching grievance. I periodically sense this feeling of the world having failed writers arising on Litopia After Dark discussions, but because they at least take the relevant industrial questions head-on, they don’t just feel like whinefests. It helps that you also get publishing gallows humor, word games, and — sure, they have some value — a dash of penile joking along the way.

[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: Startalk

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Vital stats:
Format: comedic-scientific interviews within scientific-comedic studio banter
Episode duration: 47m
Frequency: 2-4 per month

I’ve somehow heard Neil deGrasse Tyson’s name pop up for years without directly experiencing any of his media projects. In addition to directing the Hayden Planetarium (a planetarium I have certainly heard of) and doing research at the American Museum of Natural History, he hosts a newsy version of PBS’ NOVA (so that is still running!), turns up on numerous talk shows, does a lot of public speaking, says things about atheism and wine, and helms Startalk [iTunes].

Not until I knew about the wine thing did I start paying attention to Tyson’s doings. Here we have a celebrated astrophysicist, a man who can educate us about the secrets of the cosmos, and only his oenophilia turns my head? Back on the playground, I did find myself the only kid who looked up to the stars and failed to feel raptures of wonder. At all my friends who couldn’t stop yammering about space colonies and terraforming and lunar probes, I looked askance; “But guys,” I kept insisting, “all the video games are down here. (As, later, were the girls.) Needless to say, I never really pursued astronomy in school, let alone astrophysics, so I can benefit from exposure to the enthusiasm of someone who did.

You might expect Startalk to operate under an all-astronomy-all-the-time mandate, but no; its selection of topics swerves all around the scientific map, from pursuits highly related to outer space to pursuits that present... more of a reach. Of course Tyson and his guests talk about what astronauts eat [MP3], the Mars Exploration Rover [MP3, and even the aesthetic design of shows like Star Trek [MP3], but they also get around to human self-destruction [MP3], the heart [MP3] — and, yes, wine [MP3].

And Startalk knows you like talk; that’s why they put talk in their talk, so you can hear talk while you hear talk. On most episodes, Tyson not only interviews an expert about the subject of the day — an architect, an astronaut currently on the International Space Station, John Hodgman — but simultaneously talks about the interview with a comedic co-host or two. So you hear a few minutes of Tyson with Jon Stewart or Joan Rivers or Bill Nye or whomever, then you hear a few minutes of commentary back in the studio from Tyson and a comedic scientist or Tyson and a scientific comedian. As a hybrid of the interview and the two-hosts-bantering format, it works surprisingly well.

Much of the pulling-off of this trick owes to Tyson’s personality, which he must have spent all these years honing into advanced media-versatility. Not to say he’s bland — he isn’t — but he seems able to move smoothly between the worlds of science and comedy without sacrificing one to the other, kind of like Elvis Mitchell of The Treatment can move between film and other types of popular culture (which, in fact, I’d like to hear him do that more often!). The similarities between Tyson and Mitchell’s on-air style don’t end there, actually; they also both sometimes extend the last syllables of their sentences for two or three seconds longer than normal. A controversial vocal technique, perhaps, but I’m a big fan.

[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: Saturn Scene

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Vital stats:
Format: astrologically flavored long-form comedian interviews
Episode duration: 45m-1h15m
Frequency: 1-4 per month

For the purposes of this review’s first five paragraphs, let us assume that astrology works. Don’t question it — just roll with it. So we have this fully effective system based upon the positions of the planets that, when applied to our personalities and others’, reveals the hidden mechanics of these personalities. It “gets inside heads,” you might say. As an interviewer myself, I notice that interviewing has pretty much the same aim: to probe a person’s intracranial workings, to learn about their ideas, desires, and bêtes noires — to find out, in short, what makes ‘em tick. Bringing interviewing and astrology together thus only makes good peanut-butter-and-chocolate sense.

Brian Palmer, host of Saturn Scene [RSS] [iTunes], has done this in podcast form, creating what he calls “an astrological look at pop culture.” I have many friends who would groan at the word “astrological,” but over three years of Podthinking have redirected all my own groans toward “pop culture,” a subject whose moratorium among new podcasters remains long overdue. In this case, though, the use turns out to be relatively benign; it just means Palmer has called in his entertainment-journalism connections to snag guests like Michael Cera [MP3], Jen Kirkman [MP3], and Paul F. Tompkins [MP3].

If Palmer just horsed around with these comedic visitors, this would stay pretty garden-variety. Luckily for us, the astrological angle forces him to give his show the kind of direction most comedian-having pop-cultural podcasts lack. He sits down with these people ostensibly to give them an astrological consultation; using something called a “birth chart,” he tells his guests about themselves based on his calculations about the locations of certain planets at the moment they were born. Apparently This American Life contributor Starlee Kine [MP3] — who, for the last decade, I just realized I’d been wrongly calling Starlee Kline — fits the archetypal profile of an Aries. Similarly, my more granola friends have informed me that I’m a “classic Scorpio.”

But if I’ve taken one fact about astrology — which we’ve assumed, remember, works — away from this podcast, I’ve taken the fact that none of that hey-baby-what’s-your-sign talk means anything. Knowing just that one sign, the “sun sign,” tells you nothing; you’ve got to know where all the planets were on your original birthday. Palmer seems to mention most of them during the course of each interview, and which “house” they fall into for each interviewee. We here, alas, hit the limits of my astrological knowledge, but he talks a lot about which particular planet resides in each guest’s “eighth house,” a topic I find oddly comforting to hear about.

But know that near-ignorance of astrology, be it yours or mine, doesn’t really matter! While Saturn Scene’s conversations periodically find their way back to astrology, most of their content has no direct relation to the stuff. Palmer uses it as a jumping-off point to get Cera talking about his time in an intensive meditation retreat, to get Tompkins talking about his view of collaboration as the one true way to make art, or to get Kine talking about the old Ukrainian woman who wouldn’t stop accusing her of selling drugs. Through the terms of astrology, Palmer finds an angle that gets his guests, none of whom profess an astrological bent of their own, to open right up.

Since you’re probably still wondering: yes, this show is seriously, unironically, about astrology. (The end of each episode lets you know how to book your own consultation.) But in another, equally meaningful way, this show departs early and often from the astrological hardline. All the talk of Geminis and Venuses and houses and retrogrades — and you actually won’t hear that much of it — simply gives rise to the kind of long-form (the Tompkins interview runs two hours over two parts), substantial, yet laid-back interview program of which we could always use more. To that end, astrology does work.

[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.]

Podhoughts by Colin Marshall: Seminars About Long-Term Thinking

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Vital stats:
Format: lectures and debates to do with long-term thinking
Episode duration: 20m-2h
Frequency: usually monthly, though some months have their own miniseries

It always comes back to Brian Eno, doesn’t it? I mean, everything in my life does; I’ve got no reason to assume yours is any different. Rarely do I pick up an interest without soon finding out that Eno — music producer, visual artist, oblique strategist, public intellectual about the very basis of culture, and author of my favorite book, A Year With Swollen Appendices — got there first. This has reached the point where, instead of looking for new things to get interested in, I just look up what he likes at the moment and get interested in that. Easier that way.

Brian Eno counts long-term thinking among his interests. He counts it so hard that he, along with other perpetually fascinating thinkers like Stewart Brand, sits on the board of The Long Now Foundation, an organization founded to further the cause of long-term thinking. Long Now people, so I gather, think of us as sitting smack in the middle of a 20,000-year story of human civilization, and if we want to do a better job in the next 10,000 years than we did in the first 10,000 years, so the logic goes, we’d better consider our actions in the context of all the rest of the story. The Long Now Foundation encourages this with a variety of projects, most iconically a 10,000-year clock, but most directly a lecture series, hosted by Brand, conveniently available as a podcast: Seminars About Long-Term Thinking [RSS] [iTunes].

If you have any familiarity at all with what I think of as TED culture, you’ll know many of the Long Now lecturers. The group boasts heavyweight names like Lera Boroditsky [MP3], Paul Romer [MP3], Michael Pollan [MP3], Craig Venter [MP3], and Nassim Taleb [MP3]. Sometimes these luminaries give straight-up lectures, perhaps with a Q&A session following. Other times, the events take on more unusual forms, like debates structured into a series of rounds where, not only does each participant state their case and respond to the others’, but each participant also explains the opposing point of view. In lots of venues, debates can wind up as time-wasting shams; performed Long Now-style, they achieve actual engagement between the ideas involved — a rare thing — pretty much every time.

Unlike the TEDs of the world, The Long Now Foundation doesn’t just bring people in to flog their pet theories. When they announce a Seminar About Long-Term Thinking, it stays about long-term thinking. So these guests from myriad different domains — astrophysicists, historians, engineers, writers, politicians, “technologists” — all have to consider and explain their own ideas within the frame of the next 10,000 years, the last 10,000 years, or preferably both. Some of the seminars get quite creative to work within this frame, as when PC game designer Will Wright and Brian Eno get together [MP3] to talk about the common long-term-y elements of their separate work with generative systems. Eno has built generative music systems that can crank out single pieces that last thousands of years; Wright has built games that simulate thousands of years of evolution.

Seriously, guys. This podcast has a good deal Brian Eno in it. How much more do I really need to tell you?

[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: My History Can Beat Up Your Politics

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Vital stats:
Format: one guy talking about the history of political issues
Episode duration: 15-40m
Frequency: 3-4 per month

I tire of nothing quite so quickly as political arguments, especially ones about the blood-angrying issues of the moment. Paul Graham wrote sagely about what makes these so tiresome to hear, or worse, participate in:
I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people's identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that's part of their identity. By definition they're partisan.

Which topics engage people's identity depends on the people, not the topic. For example, a discussion about a battle that included citizens of one or more of the countries involved would probably degenerate into a political argument. But a discussion today about a battle that took place in the Bronze Age probably wouldn't. No one would know what side to be on.
Bruce Carlson, host of My History Can Beat Up Your Politics [iTunes], knows this. The historical lens glimmers as one of our last hopes for a way to talk about politics, a reasonable-izing agent, a technique that neutralizes the way politics can get so, well, political, and so he uses to look at current political questions. You might say that he either approaches history through politics or approaches politics through history — both seem true enough. Does the politics spice up the history, or does the history temper the politics? Does the history offer a way to understand the politics, or does the politics offer a way to understand the history? Does it matter?

The show uses the blessedly simple form so many popular history podcasts have settled on: one guy talking for a while. Carlson starts talking about an topic of long relevance to American politics — unions, social security, rights — or one that’s gained particular currency in the day’s news — gas prices, secret anti-terror operations, filibustering. He then lectures on the history of that topic, usually focusing on echoes of today’s concerns throughout the United States’ lifetime. Students of ancient and world history know there’s not much new under the sun in the public forum, but Carlson shows you don’t even have to go far back or far afield to understand that.

Despite his attempts to use history at the anti-politics, I’m sure people still accuse Carlson of political bias every so often. Putting out episodes called “The Dark Side of Rights” [MP3] or ambivalent assessments of unions [MP3] surely draws charges of crypto-conservatism, and — as I have learned from my peer group — conservative is the worst thing you can be. Then again, I’ve heard quite a few moments on the show when Carlson declares that conservatives won’t like what he’s about to show history revealing, and iTunes suggests Best of the Left as a show to which My History Can Beat Up Your Politics listeners also subscribe.

But regardless, doesn’t the one-guy-talking format sound... flat? People who’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to get into history podcasts again and again think so. I find that Carlson improves it with each program, sounding slightly more conversational and slightly less scripted. (Though you can still hear him turning the pages of his notes.) Listen to the older episodes he occasionally re-runs and, though the content holds up, you hear a farrago of strangely choppy editing, dropping out in mid-sentence, dropping in in mid-word, suddenly jumping back a sentence or to, repeating sonically identical parts of an intake of breath four or five times. The show can still sound a little glitchy, but it’s made much progress — something that, if you listen to enough of these talks, you’ll wonder if the American political process has ever made.

[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: JapanesePod101

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Vital stats:
Format: Japanese-learning skits and conversations
Episode duration: 5m-20m
Frequency: every 1-4 days

An interviewer recently asked me what forms of podcast I’ve found make for the most brain-jazzing listening. In the middle of my spiel about how tired I’ve grown of hearing pairs of twentysomething white guys bullshitting about pop culture, I suddenly realized that, sure, I listen to a few choice comedy and culture podcasts each week, but I listen to at least three language-learning podcasts each day. If I’m going to Podthink honestly, I have to reveal these preferences.

All podcasts exist in a lawless, Wild West-y landscape: unable to tell the good from the bad from the ugly at a distance, you’ve got to spend hours and hours getting to know them individually. For podcasts built around cores of Labyrinth jokes, hey, fine, whatever. If they suck — and they usually do — move on. But you theoretically trust language podcasts to accurately and effectively teach you how to communicate with real human beings who live in other places. If their creators slack off, your embarrass yourself — in front of wise foreigners!

I thus urge you not to try learning languages from the ground up by podcasts. You’ll navigate this world infinitely better with bit of grounding, no matter how meager, in the language you want to learn. Common sense says a legitimate academic course or just talking to foreign friend work best for this, but if you don’t like leaving the house, a diversified portfolio of language-learning YouTube videos and sketchily-HTML’ed language-learning sites await you. So if you want to learn, say, Japanese, find a way to get a grasp on the mechanics of the language, even a loose one — then fire up JapanesePod101 [RSS] [iTunes].

Spanish has so many speakers and students across the world that high-quality internet ways to learn it grow like mushrooms. (I previously Podthought about Coffee Break Spanish, though I personally listen to the higher-level Show Time Spanish.) Korean has few enough speakers and students that, when the internet does offer a way to learn it, it turns out pretty solid. Japanese, though; we’re talking thousands upon thousands of aspiring speakers all over the place, yes, but so have made themselves undiscriminating, their minds addled by glue inhaled from Gundam models, their bodies in shambles from weeks on end spent hunched before erotic Naruto fan fiction.

At first sight, JapanesePod101 looks confusing enough that I’d wondered if it would repay the trouble. It seems to have duplicate pages in the iTunes directory, some updated and some not, and the episodes come in a wonky order: after a linear series of “Introduction” shows comes “Beginner Lesson #38”, then “Beginner Lesson #41”, and shortly thereafter comes “Lower Intermediate Lesson #18”, after which you soon find “Intermediate Lesson #75”. When you actually listen, they all sound different. Um, zuh?

Your mileage may vary, but I’ve adopted the strategy of listening to all the episodes in whatever order they arrive: if I listen to an intricate conversational episode way over my head followed by a “Newbie Lesson” telling me how to introduce myself followed by a lesson about mildly complex expressions pitched right at my level, so be it. I’ve realized that JapanesePod101 and podcasts like it serve one purpose above all: to provide an opportunity to hear and attempt to understand a foreign language every day — or just about. No matter what else you do to study and practice, hearing it on the regular is the sine qua non. (From what I hear, you can get more material from this show by some “freemium” means, but I’ve never looked into it.)

Plus, I’ve come to love the anti-dramatics of language-learning programs. Like most of these shows, JapanesePod101 delivers lessons by way of skits and conversations about those skits between affable native Japanese speakers and a range of affable English-speaking hosts including a girl from Australia and an American fellow with an accent of undiscernible origin. Goofier than most, this program comes up with sketches to do with, among other things, animal noises, three-seated bicycles, and boisterious grandpas. And you need to fill your actual-Japanese-hearing experience out beyond that, hey, there’s always Yan-san.

[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 Mental Illness Happy Hour

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Vital stats:
Format: mental illness-centric interviews with comedians, podcasters, and podcasting comedians
Episode duration: 50m-1h20m
Frequency: weekly

You hear cracks about how only the mentally ill would seek a fame-propelled career: in movies, in broadcasting, in writing, in the media, in comedy, in what have you. I’ve chuckled at these before, but always in a hollow, not-quite-comprehending kind of way. Most of the people I admire, after all, have these careers, and lacking any directly marketable skills, I have no hope but to obtain one myself. Sure, given greater sanity, maybe we’d land steady jobs as systems analysts and build stable family lives or something. But c’mon — can we all really suffer from malfunctioning brains?

Listening to Paul Gilmartin’s Mental Illness Happy Hour [RSS] [iTunes], I get the sense that... maybe we do, though to varying degrees. Gilmartin himself seems to have endured an especially nasty streak of mental illness; I don’t know the full story, but he hints at troubling enough aspects of it in this show that maybe I’d rather not get the whole picture. He certainly didn’t reveal it on Dinner and a Movie, the film-with-interstitial-cooking program he hosted from 1996 until nowish on TBS. I remember enjoying it as a kid, but I had no idea the man showing me how to prepare a Short Circuit-themed casserole struggled with such fiery personal demons.

The freedom to lead a less Road House chicken bake-oriented life has, for Gilmartin, meant the freedom to come forward about mental health, his own and others’. Running The Mental Illness Happy Hour as a straightfoward interview show, he brings on friends and acquaintances from “The Industry”, broadly defined, to talk about how they’ve coped with the conditions afflicting themselves and those close to them. Having built his career on speaking comedically about his many issues, Marc Maron makes an appearance [M4A] that, while you’d perhaps expect it, turns out no less rich and funny for it. When Gilmartin talks to Adam Carolla [MP3], he asks not just about the’ crushing depression of Carolla’s hippie parents, a fount of stories belovedly familiar to all Carolla fans, but his own illness/superpower of “hypervigilance” as well.

In fact, if we can go by this show’s first eight episodes, mental illness affects most high-profile members of the comedy podcasting community, or at least enough people near them that they can talk incisively about it. Jimmy Pardo [M4A], for instance, would seem like the picture of mental health. And he may be, but that doesn’t stop he and Gilmartin from digging deep into the motivations that can simultaneously fire up and shut down a comedian. Battleship Pretension (esteemed predecessor Ian Brill’s review here) host Tyler Smith [M4A] has a conversation with Gilmartin about his depression that both reveals specifics the condition I didn’t know about and lays out certain details that feel discomfitingly familiar to me. All that self-loathing... that’s — that’s not normal?

Gilmartin has points to make with The Mental Illness Happy Hour, but he comes right out and makes them explicitly, and they don’t seem particularly bothersome, as points go. I mainly notice him making the point that, if you think you need some meds, see a professional about getting some meds. I have no skin in this psychopharmacological argument, but his viewpoint seems sound. More broadly, he announces on the regular his one main Michael Jacksonian message to the listener: “You are not alone.”

This strikes me as healthy, whatever the context; if I suffered from full-blown depression, compulsive competitiveness, bad parenting cycles, anxiety, panic attacks, or hypervigilance, I’d rejoice at hearing from successful people who’d labored under the very same crap. As it is, I recognize elements of my own tics, twitches, and unhelpful impulses in Gilmartin and his guests’ bigger problems, and I’m glad I do. You could treat this as a plain old interview program featuring more-personal-than-usual examinations of all your favorite podcast-y and comedy types, but you’ll get much more out of it if you face the fact that, hey, we’re all at least a little mentally ill.

[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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