Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Amateur Scientist Podcast

Posted by Maximum Fun on 10th January 2010

(image posted twice to compensate for smallness)

The Amateur Scientist Podcast [RSS] [iTunes] is about the amateur practice of science in the same sense that the Museum of Jurassic Technology is about the technology of the Jurassic period. That is, it isn’t particularly about in, nor could it really be about it, but boy, it’s definitely one of the most interesting places in all of Los Angeles. That last part is where the analogy breaks down, but surely you get the drift.

A great many podcasts are too constrained by their formats, but this ain’t one of them. In fact, your Podthinker is having considerable trouble simply figuring out how to accurately describe it. The program has real interviews, including ones with the likes of The Mountain Goats/John Darnielle [MP3], The Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe ringleader Dr. Steven Novella [MP3] and a certain Jesse Thorn [MP3], but it’s not an interview show, exactly. It also has faux interviews, such as one on being a net meme with Caroline “Scandalishious” [MP3] — well, that one might actually be real, though others, like the one with labial surgeon Chip Dipson, are totally faux, probably — but it’s not a parodic interview show. It might have 1950s radio drama pastiches [MP3], but it’s not a 1950s radio drama pastiche show.

The podcast offers a lot of that sort of variety material, to be sure, but it all seems to constitute a sideshow to the main event, the main event being host host Brian Thompson reading off silly things in a serious tone. This, for those of you playing the Podthoughts Home Edition, is a gleaming example of Ridiculousness Uttered Flatly, a flavor of humor not invented but certainly power-bearhugged by many comedy podcasters. Thompson takes this sensibility just about as far as it can go, firing globs of often striking silliness like a straight-faced tennis ball machine. A few examples, picked at random, follow:

  • “What’s all this about [gay marriage’s] ‘violence against the institution of marriage?’ Surely [Mormon church higher-up Michael] Otterson wasn’t referencing the fact that these new laws prohibit people from barging into suburban homes during family dinners and mercilessly slaughtering married men and women in front of their catatonically horrified children.”
  • “[An XBox-based Bible application’s] players will be treated to a deluxe animated intro that leads to a fully searchable Holman Christian Standard version bible, which is a new translation in ‘modern youthful English’ that includes all the most extreme words, like ‘first-born’ and ‘slaughter’ and ‘LOL.’ Though if they really want some crossover success, the designers should really find a way to include a multiplayer component that encourages children to teabag their fallen foes while calling each other faggots.”
  • “Homepaths believe that by diluting a substance in water, the water’s magically imbued with the properties of that substance. Scientific testing, of course, says that this is all bunk, but, really, who listens to scientists? Especially since they all tell me my Pixy Stix-powered jetpack will never work. We’ll see who has the last laugh when I leave them in my delicious, delicious dust.”
  • “I know Christmas is a few days away, but I’m going to be talking a couple weeks off to spend some time with my family this holiday season, and by ‘family,’ of course, I mean my ‘vodka and tears.'”

As you can see, Thompson’s gags lean toward the evergreen politico-religio-scientific regions of the subject map. (Don’t worry — he periodically visits the realm of the politico-religio-scientifico-sexual as well.) Whether you’ll groan or guffaw at them depends entirely on the point of the Ridiculousness Uttered Flatly spectrum on which you reside. One side of this spectrum is labeled “super-subtle”; this podcast occupies the opposite side.

Giving a listen to the show’s back pages, your Podthinker can’t help but notice that The Amateur Scientist Podcast seems, over two-ish years, to have drifted somewhat from its original mandate of comedy’d-up skepticism. But it still does a job — albeit a strangely nuanced, hard-to-describe one with lots of pointy, irregular borders, which is not necessarily a bad thing — and does it well, often with surprisingly high podcast production value. Maybe it’s goofy, but hey, most skeptics are too dour anyway.

Vital stats:
Format: Ridiculous Uttered Flatly comedy with occasional interviews and stunty stuff
Duration: 20m-45m
Frequency: weekly, on average
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Got a podcast to suggest for Podthoughts coverage or any other sort of question and/or comment for Podthinker Colin Marshall? colinjmarshall at gmail.]