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The Top Ten Podcasts of 2013

End-of-year lists are ubiquitous and easy. But I’m a hack, and these are podcasts, not Us Weekly’s  “Top Ten Celebrity Meltdowns.” There’s gravitas here.

Stitcher alone lists more than 20,000 podcasts in its catalog.  With each of these shows pumping out an average of two, hour-long episodes per week, you’re looking at some real volume. It’s kind of awe-inspiring. The podcast renaissance is peaking, and I have to revel in it a bit.

Some of the following are podcast platinum, plain and simple—just perfect content, soup to nuts. Others left an indelible impression on me, and require more subjectivity to appreciate. But all are noteworthy, and the list paints a flattering, but honest, picture of the year in podcasting.

The Top Ten Podcast Episodes of 2013 (in no particular order)

Freakonomics – Should Tipping be Banned?

For the best snow cones in the Valley.Should Tipping Be Banned? was a purebred, perfect in its design and execution. The episode focused on Cornell professor Mike Lynn, an expert on tipping and the social indications surrounding it. Every variable in your average tip was explored: religion and tipping, attractiveness of the server, waiters vs. waitresses, the too-common “squat next to the table” move, and even hair color.  And, yes, blondes get better tips. They covered it all.

As is the Freakonomics way, the idiosyncratic bits and pieces reveal much more about the human condition than one would expect, and the episode is wrapped up in well-produced if not open-ended bow. Truly a perfect example of great research in radio and storytelling.

WTF with Marc Maron – Iggy Pop

marc and iggyIggy Pop arrived at the cat ranch in his limo, chewed the fat with Maron for a few minutes, made his way to the garage, took off his shirt, and the rest is podcast history. Truth be told, I could’ve picked any one of a dozen WTF episodes for this list. But this one stood out.

Maron was giddy, clearly full of questions he’d had for decades. But he managed to extract from the sometimes nebulous Mr. Osterberg an hour of rich stories about life as a proto punk, his role in pop culture, and the world that produces a celebrated iconoclast.  Turns out it wasn’t so unusual. Mom was  a homemaker, dad was an English teacher. What this episode really did was embody what Maron does best: find the story, even when he’s about to fanboy all over himself.

The State We’re In – Episode 1 – Stuart Sharp

Hilversum20091030RNW , Engelse afdeling, Jonathan,I’m ashamed to admit The State We’re In came out of left field. It’s the kind of program I gravitate toward: compelling, unique stories told in intimate one-on-one vignettes. Well, the story I heard wasn’t short enough to be a vignette, but 28 minutes isn’t exactly War and Peace either.

I’ll cite episode one, simply because it was my introduction to Jonathan Groubert and his charming radio show turned podcast. In it, Stuart Sharp tells the story of how he composed a symphony following the death of his son—despite his inexperience with the craft. He says he was guided by angels or “snow people” in his endeavor. This episode landed a “driveway moment” if I’ve ever heard one.

 

Go Bayside – Episode 38 with Paul F Tompkins

10373119173_d497284a8f Go Bayside! is comedian April Richardson’s weekly critique of Saved by the Bell. She sits down with another comic and dissects the misadventures of Zack and the gang episode by episode. The concept is so unique and ostensibly narrow in its focus it had to make the list.

Richardson’s perfect guest proved to be Paul F. Tompkins. His palpable shock at the absence of quality this ’90s dram-com offered adolescent America every Saturday morning was beyond funny. Every other observation they make is chuckle worthy. The motive behind Go Bayside! is innocent snark, but the product is profoundly punk rock.

Nerdist – Episode 368 with Rick Moranis

Nerdist Rick MoranisSure, the Tom Hanks episode represented a shift in Hollywood’s perception of podcasts, but the one that really raised the bar in my opinion was number 368 with Rick Moranis, an actor who turned his back on show business decades ago. He revealed in this soulful interview that he is not the characters he made famous. He’s articulate, kind, and understandably disillusioned with certain aspects of his life.

There was one part that genuinely resonated with me: There were technical issues in the studio they were using, so the intro and the outro were done on a handheld device without a directional mic. You hear the audio quality transition. The formal interview ends, and Chris drops his burrito line, then the low-fi mic takes over. Moranis, seemingly unaware he is still being recorded, thanks Hardwick with more sincerity than I’m sure the host is used to. It catches the listener off-guard, happily off-guard.

99% Invisible – I ♥ NY, TM

Screen-shot-2013-08-21-at-8.40.02-PM1-959x505According to 99% Invisible, the story is well known: It’s the mid ’70s. A man sitting in the backseat of a cab, sketches the letter “I”, then  a heart, an “N,” and of course a “Y.” He immediately realizes this is no ordinary doodle. Well, it was new to me.

Roman Mars’s increasingly popular podcast, 99% Invisible, sounds too NPR to be true. He  describes it as “a tiny radio show about design, architecture & the 99% invisible activity that shapes our world.” And that pretty much nails every episode he churns out.

The one in question profiled designer Milton Glaser, and the little logo/tagline that brought him notoriety. You hear about the litigiousness surrounding his creation and ultimately examine why  I ♥ NY holds the global community’s attention. Is it the city, or the universal malleability of this simple design? 99% is weird journalism, weird history, and the weird, sometimes mundane, stories behind the buildings, bridges, highways, and countless other overlooked “things” that surround us. Great podcast, great episode.

Radio Lab – Rodney Versus Death

WeirdTalesv28n3pg277_illustrationThere’s an exclusivity to episodes of Radio Lab you don’t find in the more prolific podcasts. They air few and far between, but when they do, they almost always leave an indelible impression. This one was most certainly memorable.

What do you do in the face of a monstrous disease with a 100% fatality rate? In Rodney Versus Death we learn about rabies, ugly, typically fatal rabies. Though short by podcast standards (30ish minutes), this one really packs a punch. Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich delve into the harsh reality of the virus, and invariably uncover interesting, little known facts: It seems the mania associated with being “rabid” exists for transmission purposes; and biting is a near-perfect delivery system. The afflicted also have a very difficult time swallowing, even a fear of water, making the host’s mouth a repository for the virus. So the whole slobbery biting thing is merely an evolutionary event that keeps the virus going.

I don’t want to spoil this one for you, as Radio Lab’s all about the twist. But there IS mention of “rooster’s anus cure.” I’ll leave you with that.

You Made it Weird – Episode #139: “Bert Kreischer”

Pete Holmes 01 - Mandee Johnson.jpgPete Holmes is one of those guys you wind up with at a party after everyone else has left, talking about your childhood, and all the people you’ve dated prior to the party in question. A Holmes interview, not dissimilar to the aforementioned conversation, can go from intimate, to inappropriate, to sweet, in a matter of seconds. This episode didn’t disappoint in that department.

Bert Kreischer, this episode’s guest, is a gifted comedian and podcaster in his own right. He is, after all, “the guy who National Lampoon’s Van Wilder was based on.” But what makes this episode stand out in the Holmes canon is the comedic sweet spot these two natural-born riffers find just seconds into the interview. They “ping and pong” with more ease and effortless levity than any other conversationally formatted show I’ve heard all year. And they do it for more than two hours. Truly exceptional pod.

 

How Was Your Week? episode 121, “Silver Dollar Pancakes”

julie_finThis may fall under the honorable mention category, but it’s such a good example of free association in an intro I had to put it in. Julie Klausner has a gift when it comes to non-linear riffing. Take episode 121, “Silver Dollar Pancakes”; when the monologue, by design, goes off the rails. One has no choice but to surrender to her lightening-speed transitions and circuitous segues. It’s simultaneously silly and remarkable. Here’s an example from episode 121, “Silver Dollar Pancakes” with Gillian Jacobs and Louis Virtel:

“Oh, I finally saw Cher on The Voice. I watched the clip online. She looked amazing, and she sort of also looked like a cockatoo. She kind of looked like Talkatoo Cockatoo from Zoobilee Zoo …

Zoobilee Zoo was a show on television, and it was shot in a studio that had literally nothing else in it besides these five actors or so that were just dressed up like these hideous amalgams of like people and animals … The weasel would act weasely and the cockatoo would just sort of act like Joan Cusack and Ben Verene was just… perfect.”

 This American Life  – # 507 Confessions

507_lgI’d be doing podcasting a disservice if I didn’t mention the show that started it all. Though its listenability has waned over the years, This American Life proved it still has a trick or two up its sleeve. I’m referring to episode 507 “Confessions.”

In the intro, Father Thomas Santa describes a condition called scrupulosity — a psychological disorder wherein moral questions can bring on guilt so intense a sufferer’s life can grind to halt. Yes, they had me at scrupulosity.

The episode succeeded because TAL revisited the recipe that made it the public radio Goliath it is today: relateable diverse segments that encapsulate an all-too-human theme, however icky it may be. In the case of “Confessions” the question worth answering was: What should a person suspected of murder say?

 

April Richardson – Go Bayside! Q & A

As a regular on the Chelsea Lately round table, April Richardson is quickly establishing herself as an immensely capable comedian. But when she was in high school, her goals weren’t quite as lofty. Whose were?

In the mid-’90s, Saved by the Bell (SBTB) came on TV multiple times a day.  You could check in with Zack, Slater, Kelly, and Screech just about any time you wanted, and Richardson did just that. She committed every formulaic story arc that took place at Bayside High to memory, and though she claims to sometimes forget family members’ birthdays, she has no trouble telling you Zack got a 1502 on his SATs.

Her podcast, Go Bayside!, is a weekly critique of SBTB, where Richardson sits down with another comic and dissects the misadventures of Zack and the gang episode by episode.

Richardson with comedian Paul F. Tompkins breaking down an episode of SBTB

Richardson with comedian Paul F. Tompkins breaking down an episode of SBTB

An Interview with Go Bayside! Host and Creator, April Richardson

  • When the move out West and why comedy?

I moved here almost eight years ago, first with the intention to get a job at a magazine since I had a journalism degree. Very luckily I did just that, and then soon after that got a job as a copy editor at MTV News, which was amazing, and then I started doing stand-up at night. I actually moved here to be able to SEE stand-up more often — I read stuff on comedy nerd message boards (shout out to aspecialthing.com) about people seeing the likes of BOB ODENKIRK performing around town, and I lost my damn mind.

I was ready to move here just for the chance of seeing him live! I always, always had a secret dream of doing stand-up comedy (I’ve been the “class clown” smart-ass type since I could talk), but after living here a couple years and seeing amazing shows almost nightly, I felt simultaneously inspired and defeated, like, “I HAVE to do this, but these people are SO GOOD, why even bother?”

But when I got laid off from the magazine job, and before I landed the MTV gig, I had plenty of time on my hands, and it was a real “what do you have to lose?” situation, and I decided I absolutely HAD to try, or I’d be disappointed in myself forever, so I went to my first open mic and was instantly in love.

  • How’d you wind up working on Chelsea Lately?

All thanks be to Jen Kirkman for that one! She and I were friendly even before I started doing comedy, because I was a fan of hers and we share a mutual love of Morrissey, and I had seen her at Morrissey shows in L.A. and would talk to her about him after seeing her perform at the UCB Theatre and stuff. Anyway, when I was then laid off from MTV, I sent out an e-mail to various friends asking for help, just like, “I’m looking for anything, let me know if you have any leads,” not even specifying I’d like to work in comedy.

Jen wrote back immediately and let me know of the open writers’ assistant position here, and I answered so quickly that I think mine was the first resume they saw! So I was called in for an interview and then another where Chelsea sized me up and decided I was apparently just weird enough to join her crew, and here I am, three years later. It’s been pretty awesome.

  • There’s a generation of us who embraced TBS syndication. What about SBTB attracted you? Was it just because it was on at the right time, or was there more to it?

I can’t say initially, really — I do remember watching it on Saturday mornings when I was really young, but I didn’t super duper start paying attention until it was on in that four-episode block in middle and high school. I’m sure it was that it was on at that perfect time, just in time for this latchkey kid to sit and watch, fresh home from school, snack in hand.

And I totally thought Zack was hot, of course, and I think I just loved the goofiness of it all, being someone who spent a great deal of time in my early youth watching cartoons — I mean, the show is cartoons starring humans.

I’m sure a part of me that watched it in middle school probably thought that it was really showing what high school would be like, until grim reality set in and I had to face facts in ninth grade that no dude in my school was nearly as cool as Zack Morris. (Sidenote: I published a zine all about SBTB in college for a journalism class, and got an A. Of course.)

  • What drove the decision to develop a podcast around it?

It’s a truly selfish endeavor, because I simply love talking about the show. Period. In high school, I remember talking about it pretty often with friends of mine, trying to stump each other with obscure trivia questions, reciting entire episodes verbatim, etc. We just always got a kick out of picking it apart, and one night after watching some of the episodes on my own in my own adult apartment in my early 30s like a sad shell of a person, I posted something on Facebook about the episode I was currently watching, like being serious and applying adult logic to it, and my friend Josh Levesque was like, “You should do a podcast about this.”

It kind of didn’t even occur to me that anyone other than close friends (and maybe not even them, ha!) would want to listen to my ramblings, but then I thought, what if I get a different guest for each episode with a fresh perspective, so it won’t just be me yammering on the whole time, and I did some research to make sure that a similar podcast didn’t exist.

I sort of felt like I was ripping off How Did This Get Made? on Earwolf, which I love, but they do a different movie each time, and I didn’t find a podcast dissecting a particular show, and certainly not this one. And thus, Go Bayside! was born.

  • Forgive me if you’ve covered this, but were Good Morning, Miss Bliss episodes deconstructed in the podcast or just the SBTB incarnation?

Naw, no Good Morning, Miss Bliss OR New Class OR College Years — I am only doing original recipe, and perhaps the two movies, Hawaiian Style and Zack & Kelly’s Vegas Wedding (or whatever it’s called). I have yet to decide the format of the movies, as they are longer than normal eps, so I might have to do two-parters. We shall see!

  • Did you know Mr. Belding played a Cool Whip test-kitchen scientist on an episode of Mad Men last year?

I did! I shouted at the TV, “MR. BELDING!”

  • What happens when you’ve burned through all (six?) seasons of SBTB? The College Years?

I’ll sit back and admire my legacy. HAR! No, I don’t know — I might start another thing, but there isn’t another show that I know as intimately as this one, that I nearly have memorized from start to finish. I have other podcast ideas (who doesn’t?), but they don’t focus on television. But who knows?

Having these wonderful people come over to my place and sit with me on my couch to talk for a couple of hours is the most fun thing ever. I might have to pick apart another show just to be able to do that again.

  • I’ve spoken with comedians who find catharsis in the podcasting process. How about you? Is it therapeutic?

It’s pretty great. As much as I love the show and love clowning on it, my favorite moments are when show plot points lead the guests down memory lane and I get to hear real stories from their time in high school, or when I get to tell crazy stories from my school days. It’s fun to bond over that stuff, and also equally as fun to hear out-there stories that are a million miles away from my own high school experience. I love it. And the e-mails I get rule!

I get wonderful and even educational e-mails, most kind and complimentary, some schooling me on how things go at other high schools, and even some from current teachers and principals reacting to stuff the adults do and say on SBTB! It’s so awesome!

  • Monetization of podcasting is big topic these days. Are sponsors warming to Go Bayside?

I have had some interest from some sponsors and networks, and I’m certainly not against that stuff AT ALL, but for now, I like that I do everything myself (with the exception of sound editing by my dear friend David Hornbuckle), and it’s literally just someone coming over to my apartment and sitting on my couch in my living room and I am simply recording us on my mics on my desktop, you know? It’s very DIY.

Maybe I’ll take it to a network soon to open up listenership, but I’m still kind of learning about the medium and enjoying the absolute freedom that comes with just recording this thing myself and being responsible for all aspects of putting it out there in the world. I came up in the zine/punk rock community as a teenager, and published my own zine, and to me, right now, it feels like I am doing the audio equivalent of that, as corny as that sounds.

  • I recognize two posters on the wall behind you and your guest on your Tumblr as Peter Buck and Mike Mills, and the Shoplifters of the World Unite album cover. But what’s the one on the far left. Is that a movie poster?

HAHA! Oh man, my apartment in present day looks exactly like my room in my parents’ house when I was like, 15. The posters you can see above my couch are, from left, a poster for the Pulp album “Different Class,” a poster advertising the Smiths single “Shoplifters of the World Unite,” and a poster of R.E.M. circa “Document.” All three of those things remain close to my heart, even now, in space year 2013.

  • What’s on the docket for you for 2014?

More podcasts! I have like 50 episodes to go! More comedy shows! I am a regular on the Chelsea Lately round table (check local listings, etc), and will perform stand-up comedy anywhere that will have me.

You can follow April on Twitter @Apey

And check out the Go Bayside!Tumblr Page