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This American Life -180 Degrees

carter little tree before and after

A before and after shot of Carter

In a recent episode of Pete Holmes’s You Made it Weird, Holmes dismissed many NPR programs as not being podcasts. I disagree. Despite its growing popularity, the podcast delivery platform is relatively fringe. Holmes implied the podcast realm belonged solely to DIY endeavors, but that’s poppy cock. Johnny Ramone was never dismissive about established rock-n-roll archetypes. Nor should podcasters dismiss professionally produced programming. In fact, there are a lot of outfits out there that could learn a thing or two from public radio. That being said, I still consider This American Life a podcast, hence this week’s review:

Episode 527 is about philosophical seachanges, changes of heart that redefine people, and the complexities therein. Everyone knows someone who took a 180-degree turn on something they once saw as divine edict, basically turned their backs on what they once believed to be indisputable truth. In fact, I’m one of those people. But there was a segment in this episode that really makes you question the authenticity of these ‘about faces’. Anyone read the book “The Education of Little Tree”?

Published  in 1976, “The Education of Little Tree” was purported to be the real-life story of an orphan raised by Cherokee grandparents. It was initially promoted as an authentic autobiography recounting author Forrest Carter’s early years. It’s a beloved book and has been championed by many a civil rights advocates. But…

The author’s real name was  Asa Earl Carter, a white political activist from Alabama heavily involved in white supremacist causes before he launched his career as a novelist. Dude was a speechwriter and close friend of the infamous segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace. In fact, he wrote Wallace’s most acerbic, some say evil, speech. Get a load of this thing:

The episodes delves into the man behind the beloved and then maligned book. Were his motives just? Had he really changed as he’d said he had? Or was this a big PR hoax concocted and executed by a hateful but adept political strategist? (Carter got a deep tan, grew a moustache, and lost about 30 pounds before promoting the book.)

Really a bizarre story here. There have been many scholarly articles written about it, but TAL really cracks it open. Great episode.

This American Life – I Was So High

Episode 524 of This American Life, “I Was So High” was about drugs. Plain and simple.

There was some mention of cocaine, and mushrooms came up quite a bit, but other than that, lots of cannabis chatter. Glass even interviewed a famous podcaster about his marijuana years, which was strange because I kind of thought the podcaster in question was a coke and booze guy. And his story was about mushrooms and a Grateful Dead show, so…
tal i was so high

 

Anyway, it was a good show–especially the stats on how many of us are high at this very moment: Your waitress? Fifteen percent likelihood. Your co-workers? Depends on your vocation. Your aesthetician? Nine percent likelihood, higher than any other physician it seems. Fentanyl, a supercharged synthetic opioid, is their drug of choice.

If you work in construction or the restaurant industry, the odds you have worked or will work while under the influence are considerable–more considerable than any other field. No shocker there for me, but it’s nice to have your suspicions confirmed.

They played a few listener stories about funny things that happened during narcotic-addled situations, but one of TAL’s producers noted, the stories weren’t as funny as the person telling them had assumed. They were looking for things on the lighter side of the spectrum, but didn’t have any tonal restrictions, and apparently they got a lot of the darker stuff.

In many ways, this episode felt like a response to Freakonomics’ “It’s Fun to Smoke Marijuana.” Undoubtedly, a successful episode, the Freakonomics folks delved into what is becoming an increasingly not-so-contentious subject: marijuana legalization. TAL followed suit and commented on the inconsistencies surrounding federal and state laws, and touched on some of the lawmakers bickering about the topic; that part was kind of yawn inducing, but necessary to complete the arc.

Overall, a very engaging episode. Puff, puff, give.

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?