Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Planet Money

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Vital stats:
Format: probing of economic and financial issues
Duration: 15m-25m
Frequency: every 2-4 days
Archive available on iTunes: last 10

If, like me, you’re an enthusiastic This American Life listener, you’ve noticed a few trends on the show in recent years. One is that they’ve done more foreign stories, especially in the Middle East. I consider these episodes of a separate, slightly lesser series, which I call This American Foreign Policy. Another, more successful thread is their coverage of economic and financial issues. I, for one, never would have gone to a program like TAL to explain the health care industry’s structural problems — until, that is, they did it.

Those episodes were good in large part because they brought one of the show’s distinctive strengths to an issue that mainstream news usually covers. This strength is the understanding that the world’s problems are rarely, if ever, the fault of some shadowy individual or group, not can they usually be solved by some virtuous individual or group. This applies deeply to the parts of life that involve markets — and you could well argue that they all do — but most economic news doesn’t frame it that way. Most high-profile economic news is all about the finger-pointing, implicitly of explicitly. If any sector needed a This American Life-ing up, it’s that one.

Markets, of course, are just a whole bunch of individuals inadvertently working together through trade. Nobody controls them. (Unless you happen to be a conspiracy theorist, in which case, somebody controls them.) Most money-centric TAL episodes work from this premise, and they seem to all be co-productions with the show’s “friends at Planet Money.” It turns out that Planet Money [RSS] [iTunes] is also its own podcast, covering economic issues and economic issues alone. Sometimes it takes on the same broad subjects as its co-productions with Ira Glass’ team, but examine them more closely across a wider range of episodes.

You might expect Planet Money to play like a series of economically focused This American Life stories, but it’s pretty far from that. It’s more like those stories minus about half of their specifically TAL-esque qualities. While both shows do a great deal of field reporting and interviewing and (as I will be only the 256,395th public radio geek to point out) Alex Blumberg sounds like Ira Glass’ marginally reedier clone, PM goes much lighter on the narrative. This is actually a good thing, I would submit, since the reckless imposition of narrative renders most news reporting, and especially economic reporting, just this side of useless. Here, you get the facts and their relationship to one another, but it’s not typically hammered into the shape of a simple morality of the Hero’s Journey or whatever.

Planet Money’s chief value is in providing context. You hear this in microcosm every time, at the top of each episode, when a correspondent provides a certain economic indicator. This will be something like “$4.2 trillion,” “$128,000 per week,” or “seven.” Then the conversation that follows fills in the context behind the number, giving it meaning and relatability. The show touts itself as explaining economic issues in language anybody can understand, and for a long time that set off my intercranial alarm that warns of oversimplification ahead. But the program’s correspondents seem to know this, and will often acknowledge when they’re in danger of cranking down the complexity too far.

But by language anybody can understand, I think they really mean that they offer up a context that anybody can understand. A lot of reporting on the goings-on in the realm of money, even the high-quality stuff, takes so much context as assumed that it only seems linguistically impenetrable to the nonspecialist. Wags might question what something that comes from an entity like NPR, which seems to exist outside any structure you could call a traditional market, might know about buying and selling. A fair point, perhaps, but what are you going to listen to instead? Jim Cramer’s primal screams?

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Pop My Culture

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Vital stats:
Format: lightly comedic pop culture talk
Duration: 1h-1h15m
Frequency: “bi-weekly(ish)”
Archive available on iTunes: all

If podcasting has a dominant subject, it’s pop culture. Easy to see why: we’re all immersed in it, whether we want to be or not. Therefore, we can all talk about it. Any given developed-world citizen, if they strain hard enough, could slap together an opinion about, say, Justin Bieber’s hair. This makes for pretty thin conversational gruel, though it’s one everyone can eat. This is especially true in the realm of comedy: assemble a few comedians or public “personalities” of other stripes, get ‘em talking about reality TV, and bam, podcast.

That seems to be the thinking behind the uncommonly upfront Pop My Culture [RSS] [iTunes], a show about “movies, music, television, cebrity gossip, etc. without all those pesky ‘serious’ topics like politics, religion and the environment.” The hosts, SF Sketchfest co-founder Cole Stratton and actor/writer/comic Vanessa Ragland, go around to the houses of various pop-cultural figures from the last 30 years and chat with them about their own careers (about which they even quiz them) and whatever happens be in the zeitgeist at the moment. There’s a slant toward actors, though many of their guests (though, technically, Stratton and Ragland are guests in their guests’ houses) seem pulled from the Greater Southern California Comedians’ Podcasting Circuit: Mo Collins [MP3], Paul F. Tompkins [MP3], Chris Hardwick [MP3], and so on.

The conversations tend to skitter across the surface of entertainment, media, and technology like a skipping stone. As much as I might have extolled pop culture’s accessibility two paragraphs ago, there turns out to be a lot to know even in such surface-y kind of talks. In an uncomfortable paradox, I found myself having to look up about three times as much as I do in an average prim, erudite BBC sort of thing. Crystal Bowersox, for instance. Had to Google her name once when the hosts brought her up, and again now to remember how to spell her name. And I stand on the humiliating precipice of needing to look up Brett Michaels a third time.

But if you know bout Bowersoxes from your Michaelses, perhaps this is the podcast you want. Perhaps it’s a sterling example of pop-cultural discourse. Yet I fear that the show’s most interesting episodes, to my mind, might constitute violations of the rules of pop culture talk. Matthew “Cereal Killer” Lillard [MP3] gets into some of the ambitious despair and oddly hopeful hopelessness of the modern acting industry, which I found quite interesting, though you can tell he felt apologetic about maybe getting too “heavy.” To be fair, Stratton and Ragland don’t discourage this kind of thing, though it happens less often than I’d like.

Almost all of Pop My Culture’s best moments come from going there, “there” being to that place where entertainment types take long, hard looks at themselves, brows furrowed. In the massive amounts of pop culture podcast-listening I do in this line, I routinely catch glimpses of a strange sort of self-loathing on the part of so many actors and comedians. I’d like to hear that self-loathing and its associated thoughts probed a little more deeply. Marc Maron’s WTF is probably the apex of this specifically for comedy, but there are so many more of entertainment’s sub-industries that I’d like to see get unflinchingly reflective. Maybe that really is too heavy for show like this, but it’d be a way through the thick, undifferentiated pop-culture-jokin’ fog.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: A History of the World in 100 Objects

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Vital stats:
Format: short ancient history documentaries framed by artifacts
Duration: ~15m
Frequency: every day or two or three
Archive available on iTunes: all (which, for the BBC, is astonishing)

We might divide the world of podcasts into two groups: those you have to pay a lot of attention to, and those you don’t have to pay a lot of attention to. My years of Podthinking have taught me that most podcasts are the latter. Most podcasts are driven by jokes, tone, personality, things like that; they’re more like content slurries, and thus don’t need you to follow them closely. The set of podcasts that demand the whole of your awareness is thinner on the ground and asks you to exert a more deliberate listening effort. But it repays that effort and then some; the best material in podcasting stands in those ranks. The BBC’s A History of the World in 100 Objects [RSS] [iTunes] is a prime example.

It will come as no surprise to hardened podcast-listeners that this show is a production of BBC’s Radio 4. No matter how atrocious, say, BBC TV gets, somehow Radio 4 keeps quietly chugging along untainted, putting out some of the finest radio (and thus finest podcasts) in the world. They’re best known (by me) for In Our Time, an academic roundtable on the history of ideas that ranks among my personal favorite things ever. A History of the World in 100 Objects is a shorter, more production-intensive affair, and presumably a limited edition: each day or three, it’s a nearly fifteen-minute documentary about a certain ancient artifact from the British Museum. The first was the Mummy of Hornedjitef [MP3]. Then you’ve got your bird-shaped pestle [MP3], your Mold gold cape [MP3], your Hoxne pepper pot [MP3], your Japanese bronze mirror [MP3], and so on and so forth.

That framing device is as fascinating as it sounds, and given the BBC’s resources, each episode reaches impressively far and wide for its voices. Any given object will bring together the show’s narrators, several experts on the object’s time and/or place, journalistic and institutional types who have encountered it, and “extras” like, for example, the people who first discovered the thing. They’re all united by a rich mix of music and sound effects which, though sometimes hokey — I swear I have heard a gong used to invoke things Asian multiple times — it gives the show an intriguing sonic depth, which you might say matches its informational depth.

That informational depth is a great asset of this show, as it is of most any full-attention-needing podcast. It’s also a strange sort of liability since, well, it needs your full attention. While I’d never claim that asking for a listener’s full attention is in itself a bad thing, it does somewhat limit the settings in which you can enjoyably listen. I’ve lost track of the times I’ve had to restart an episode after needing to focus on something in the “real world” for a moment and later realizing that I don’t know who’s speaking or quite what they’re speaking about. What’s this about Vikings? The monument to the who now? Buried where? Maybe this is why the production is so dense: so you don’t mind re-listening to the first five, ten minutes over and over. You hear different stuff every time in those layers upon layers, even besides gongs.

I doubt this would happen in the don’t-need-much-attention podcasts. You could lose a few minutes in the middle of Never Not Funny, say, and still be just fine. Not so with anything Radio 4 puts out, or many of the most admirable shows I’ve covered in this column before. So where and when, then, should we listen to these tightly constructed, information-dense, miss-a-moment-and-you-miss-it-all sort of shows? I’ve had decent luck on buses and trains, or just before going to bed. But it’s still awfully limiting. Maybe it’s high time we all just went back to gathering ‘round the wireless, heads cocked in rapt attention at a speaker.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Saltcast

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Vital stats:
Format: listening to and dissection of Public Radio Documentaries
Duration: 9m-40m
Frequency: biweekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 10

“Narrative arc,” “payoff,” “emotional release” and “sound-richness”: these are among the qualities that public radio program directors put next to godliness. The whole list is kind of scary in its programmatic Robert McKee-ishness, and it’s maybe why the the current growth of public radio’s audience ticks some distance under explosive. The Saltcast [RSS] [iTunes] provides an important service in using terms like these in a substantially less robotic context. It’s all about picking apart public radio and public radio-style documentary pieces and seeing what makes them tick, whether or not they fulfill slot machine-y buzzwords.

It’s tempting to draw a This American Life comparison to the pieces the show examines, but it’s more accurate to say that they and TAL descend from a common ancestor. This is the Public Radio Documentary, a form whose U.S. origins lie somewhere in the hazy 1970s, when receptive broadcasting venues and reasonably usable recording and editing technologies collided. It weaves together narration, interviews, field recordings and music in the service of exploring some topic. At best, PRDs illuminate interesting corners of society with the degree of art and intimacy that only radio can deliver so well. At worst, they preach, talk down to their audiences, hold death grips on their own threadbare tropes or grind political axes.

Since most pieces discussed on The Saltcast come from students of the titular Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, they do all that stuff, good and bad. This makes the podcast as helpful for aspiring PRD producers as DVD commentaries are for aspiring filmmakers. Host and Salt instructor Rob Rosenthal also gets into PRDs of historical value or other lasting importance in the tradition, like David Isay’s 1993 Ghetto Life 101 [MP3].

It’s worth noting what else, in this context, jumps out as particularly intriguing. While Rosenthal doesn’t usually slide his own pieces under the Saltcast microscope, he discusses Nothing Predictable [MP3], a short documentary in which he kayaks up to an iceberg, because he feels it exemplifies narrative arc. Now, when I hear something “exemplifies narrative arc,” I start hovering my finger over STOP. But it turns out that Rosenthal’s piece applies the McKee stuff so lightly that it actually turns out excellent. It helps that it’s about something unusual (by public radio standards); better a kayak and an iceberg than foreign strife and sobbing oldsters, I suppose.

It’s especially telling that one of the show’s best recent pieces was one Rosenthal admits he thought wouldn’t work. In Just Another Fish Story [MP3], student Molly Menschel simply drove up to a town where a whale beached itself a decade ago and started asking around about it, tape recorder in hand. She wound up with a truly extraordinary collage which isn’t so much about the whale as it is about the nature of memory and the emergent nature of local history. By contrast, another piece about a family hacked up with machetes [MP3] just misses this boat. Hearing a quote late in the piece from the case’s judge, who saw herself as standing between the citizenry and pure evil, I thought, there’s the really fascinating stuff: a Hobbesian meditation. That may well have been more memorable than testimony about the (admittedly stiff) difficulty of being hacked up with machetes.

Menshel’s case would seem to be one of learning the rules to better break them, which, in my humble opinion, is pretty much the only reason to learn the rules. Salt students seem like a hope for the future, a future where public radio docs evolve faster, break existing forms, and thereby reach a wider audience than, as Merlin Mann said when I interviewed him on my own public radio show, “middle-aged people in fleece who don’t have much of an emotional life.”

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to be the host and producer of public radio’s The Marketplace of Ideas, the blogger of The War on Mediocrity and the writer of The Ubuweb Experimental Video Project.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Spilled Milk

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Vital stats:
Format: ingredient-based food talk, with cooking
Duration: ~15m
Frequency: biweekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Could it really be that I’ve written this column for over two years, covering well over 100 podcasts, without once touching a show of the specifically culinary variety? I’ve reviewed comedycasts, I’ve reviewed gamecasts, I’ve reviewed filmcasts and I’ve reviewed bitchaboutHollywood’streatmentofBatmancasts, but it seems that no foodcast has yet gotten my attention. It’s not as if I’ve heard from any foodies about this, but the point is that I’d like to avoid hearing from any foodies about this — they just seem so unhappy on the inside. Here to launch the long, arduous task of rectification is Spilled Milk [RSS] [iTunes].

This is a foodcast where, every two weeks, two Seattle food critics chat about one sort of ingredient and usually cook a recipe using it. That sounds a little Iron Chef-esque, but the definition of “ingredient” seems to vary from episode to episode: rhubarb [MP3] and ham [MP3] you might expect, but I doubt Chairman Kaga ever unveiled “junk food” [MP3] or “mystery lunch” [MP3]. The hosts always have a number of experiences to share about the food of the day, usually have a variety of goofy jokes (often puns) to crack about it, and sometimes even offer a live segment where they cook with it or shop for it.

One of these hosts, Matthew Amster-Burton, wrote a book about getting his young daughter to eat foods other than the tremendously sucky ones (“chicken fingers”) society normally feeds its children, which sounds like no mean feat but a worthwile one indeed. (And though I wasn’t familiar with his written work, his name nonetheless drew me to the show because a favorite blogger type guy of mine has mentioned it a few times.) The other, Molly Wizenberg, wrote a memoir/cookbook and runs a pizza place. They’re pretty damned snappy on their mics — snappier than you’d expect from people doing a lot of ingredient-handling and, uh, ingredient-eating — but something tonal keeps me from being able to listen to their foodular discourse for too long in a sitting. I eventually get the phrase “this is Why They Hate Us” and that Katie Roiphe line about young male writers’ gelding by feminism running through my head.

But there’s only so much to listen to at a time. Clocking in around the vicinity of fifteen minutes, each episode rides the line between briskness and over-before-it-begins attenuation. Its crisp, minimalist production aesthetic manages to cram a lot into a short runtime, though, and I suspect the editor’s craft gets put to much more work than is obvious on the surface. Plus, Spilled Milk has gifted me with the image of a wad of ham being wedged into the center of a rice ball, and for that I am grateful.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also hosts the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas, which only a recent forum thread made it occur to him that he could link to here (because that's just the kind of high-powered self-promoter he is). Reach him at colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Too Much Information

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Vital stats:
Format: weirder, looser, more varied This American Life
Duration: ~55m
Frequency: erratic, unless I'm missing a pattern
Archive available on iTunes: last 20

This American Life, as this column's readers have surely wearied of hearing by now, has spawned a whole damn slew of imitators, in the form of "real" radio and podcasts alike. Each of these shows faces the challenge of distinguishing itself, a task second only in steepness to the same one confronting the even more teeming TTWGBAC stable. Debuting in 1995, TAL came of age before internet culture had quite formed into the shape we know and tolerate today. Too Much Information's [RSS] [iTunes] distinctions comes from its inseparability from the randomized, internetted-out world in which we find ourselves.

Need I say much more than that one episode [MP3] is a TAL-style fully soundtracked, multitude-of-voices exploration of ROFLcon, the convention dedicated solely to internet memes? The show gets the voice of the denim-shirted inventor of Rickrolling. It gets the voice of the dude who somehow monetized LOLcats. (And yes, the phrase "monetized LOLcats" alone begs me to reach for the razor.) It gets not only the voice of the snarky fellow who famously reviewed Three Wolf Moon, but the Bulgarian woman who designed it.

Sometimes Too Much Information will have a boldly defined theme like that, and sometimes it seems like a bit of a hodepodge. Either way's good, really. The latest episode [MP3] includes a bizarre Wiretap-like phone conversation about an old man's suspicions of meth-addled neighbors, a girl's monologue about looking for a boyfriend among beer pong players — including a hilarious aside about the identical behind-tooth permanent wire retainers on suburban frat boys — and a monologue about Chatroulette.

That last one comes from the program's host, Benjamen [sic] Walker, who often contributes comic, slightly obsessive solo material. It's not initially clear who or what this guy is, but the overwhelming mental image is of an alternate universe wherein Ira Glass is younger-sounding and kind of nuts. It turns out Walker's radio career reaches surprisingly far back, to the beginning of the last decade. His curious touch has caressed the signals of WNYC, KUOW, WBEZ and WZBC. He and his brainchild have now alighted at New Jersey's WFMU, the most interesting professional freeform station this country has; or, if you prefer, its most professional interesting freeform station.

Still, it's surprising how close Too Much Information actually gets to the TAL aesthetic. Not necessarily in subject matter — this show's best moments come when it's covering stuff that show wouldn't touch with a ten-foot radio pole, which is fairly often — but its style. Startlingly often, its production values are indistinguishable from its presumptive inspiration's. Given the steepish per-episode production costs (by public radio standards) I've heard about TAL racking up, it's either very impressive or a little scary that Walker and his tiny crew somehow manage to produce something just as crafted-sounding on the regular.

I am a little pained that I seem to have to describe this show almost entirely in terms of its congruities with or divergences from another, more established public radio program, but the aesthetic similarities cannot be ignored. Think of it as a push on it's predecessor's boundaries: a little more eclectic, a little looser, a little more formally varied, a little weirder. Quite frankly, I'd like to see the same outward pressure applied to the entire medium.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your staff retreat? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Signal

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Vital stats:
Format: crafted, hosted, almost old-school hybridized electronica, freaky folk, avant-garde jazz, post-rock (and so on) music mixes
Duration: 1h
Frequency: every Thursday
Archive available on iTunes: all

Okay, full disclosure: I did once interview Laurie Brown and Andy Sheppard, host and producer, respectively, of CBC Radio 2's The Signal. But in my defense, I did it because I think the show is awesome, and thus it only stands to reason that I'd review the podcast version of the show once it inevitably emerged. Plus, as you've surely gathered from my previous reviews of Canadian podcasts, I am a stealth Canada fan — a traitor to mom and apple pie, practically.

The Signal Podcast [RSS] [MP3] is, just like the nightly "real" radio program that spawned it, a music show. But what kind of music are we talking about? Tricky question. That's actually part of the reason I invited the program's creators onto my own show; even after many hours of fandom-driven listening, I couldn't produce even a marginally descriptive answer. Here's what I got:
Laurie Brown: It's just as hard for us as it is for you. We've got lots of different names, and because we play so many genres of music, it's really easy to spout off a whole bunch of different things: "Oh, it's ambient, it's electronic, it's electronica, it's sort of freaky folk, it's avant-garde jazz, it's post-rock..." The thing that makes the most sense to me is, just think about late-night radio and think about the kind of music and the places you really want your brain to go at 10:00 through to midnight.

Andy Sheppard: We're programming a lot of music that exists at the intersection of different styles. We're not going to play straight folk music or straight singer-songwriter or neo-classical music but music where the lines cross. You'll have a classical musician paired with a DJ or a world musician and an electronic artist.
"Late-night radio" might not sound so descriptive as a musical aesthetic, but in this case it turns out to apply quite well. The Signal isn't exactly all about the music; it really is the sort of crafted, continuous-yet-discrete radio experience that's so awfully difficult to come by in this day and age. Each show begins with the most accessible edge of the particular sort of theme or subgenre or sensibility of hybridized electronica, freaky folk, avant-garde jazz, post-rock, etc. being explored, and then it gets deeper, obscurer and — natch — more interesting. In our interview, they liken it to first offering the gateway drugs, then sliding into the hard stuff.

Brown comes in between the tracks to talk a little about what's being spun, sure, but mostly to exist as the quintessential friendly, intimate, unconventionally and sometimes inexplicably cool DJ presence. Her persona is inseparable from the musical sensibility, and vice versa. Maybe I've simply been desensitized by all the — no kind way to put this — doofuses one finds announcing on mainstream music radio, but Brown just seems like this perpetual tidal wave of wit and urbanity in comparison.

Though us non-Canadians wouldn't necessarily know it, she's a veteran of the Great White North's art media business: she's hosted a bunch of shows and put in her time, I believe, as a DJ on that country's equivalent of MTV. This storied life has given her much to talk about; when she's not discussing the emotional nuances of the experimental cut just played, she's delivering one in her seemingly bottomless barrel of quirky personal anecdotes.

While I've essentially been describing The Signal in its traditional broadcast incarnation — which, as a southern California resident well out of the CBC's range, I routinely stream on Internet — the podcast is more or less exactly a shorter, "podsafer" version of it. The songs it features are of the very same barely-describable flavor, though there presumably the ones that happen to have been authorized past all that nasty copyright business. But frankly, I'm just biding my time until the creaky apparatus of intellectual property law comes crashing down, bringing us all a music podcast paradise. At least that's what I think Cory Doctorow promised me. He's Canadian, right? He knows about this stuff.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your frosh mixer? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: WTF

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Vital stats:
Format: monologues and conversational (yet "serious") interviews
Duration: ~1h
Frequency: every 2-4 days
Archive available on iTunes: all

I know pathetically little about standup comedy, but podcasting has given me the priceless gift of being able to fake it. Anyone who listens to a lot of podcasts — especially those orbiting the vast podcasting universe's Maximum Fun cluster — knows that, as guests, comics pop up more frequently than anything else. Or at least a subset of comics do; I often write here about inadvertently coming to know intimately a certain dozen Los Angeles comedians, despite having never seen their acts.

Marc Maron is one such comedian. Though I only became aware of him via his delightful appearances on Jordan, Jesse, Go!, Adam Carolla and so on, it turns out that he's got quite a storied past: he's made specials and albums and killed on the talk shows and hosted Comedy Central's now-whispered-about Short Attention Span Theater and run a bunch of his very own "real" radio shows. But while those definitely had their oddities that set them apart from the mainstream, his podcast WTF (link to the handheld version, since the regular site's irritatingly Flash'd-up, if that's not a tautology) [RSS] [iTunes] may well be the most form-breaking of them all, and for a personality like Maron's, that's exactly as it should be.

The most aggressively, feverishly podcast-touring comedians will oftentimes get the itch to start their own podcast. The lazy way to scratch it is just to stage a weekly recorded hangout with a rotating handful of one's best buddies — or least-hostile mortal enemies, as I understand the social mechanics of comicdom — and hope for the best. Nothing led me to expect, before researching the guy, that Maron would do any different. But his episode list came scattered with pleasant surprises. Underbelly-of-entertainment-society memoirist and novelist Jerry Stahl? [MP3] Cultural critic James Wolcott and satirical fictionalist Sam Lipsyte? [MP3] Clearly, Maron's drummer is even more blessedly different than I'd thought.

That's not to say that WTF — referred to in-show, incidentally, in full — isn't both a comedian's show and a comedians' show. Most of Maron's guests are other comedians. The difference here is that his interviews go deeper and get more revealing — psychologically speaking, not so much dishing-dirt-ologically speaking — than in other comedians-with-comedians programs. At a certain point, they're not exactly interviews; Maron does tend to steer more on the conversational side of broadcasting's road, which is always welcome. But neither do he and his visitors just horse around, trying to crack- and one-up each other.

Almost everything I've learned about the comedy game I've had to glean from what slips through the cracks of the usual neurotic/manic/real/pretend/who knows verbal and gestural farrago that bubbles up when its practitioners get together on podcasts. But Maron actually gets real, man, with his colleagues about their craft, their profession — their way of life, for better for worse. One of his more incisive, in-depth, upfront examinations of comedy itself comes in the form of two much-discussed recent episodes about the comedy nerd-reviled Carlos Mencia: one an interview with the man himself [MP3], and one a series of conversations with those who know him [MP3].

Listening to those, I went through a few stages. First, "What's the big deal about Carlos Mencia, anyway?" Maron, harboring the same sentiment, produced the episode to find out himself. Then, "Hey, this Carlos Mencia isn't such a bad guy!" But wait: "Something's not quite right about him." Then, "Could Carlos Mencia be a bad guy after all? Does he see how others perceive him? Can he? What does is mean to be a 'bad guy' in the comedy sphere, anyway? Can the comedy sphere perceive itself with any clarity? Should it?" Never have I given quite so much thought to a field I'd never considered participating in as professional or spectator. (Besides its obvious "get" value, Maron's hour with Robin Williams [MP3] proved, for me, equally insightful.)

This represents an abiding quality of WTF — I guess "complexity" is a good enough word for it. Maron's interested in the most gritty, gristly, vertiginous, confusing elements of human existence, and no matter if it's in his show's dialogues or monologues, he can rarely stay away from probing them for long. Like anyone for whom "bleakness" has become a sensibility, he does tend toward the mistake of generalizing from his own life's darkest, most chaotic times, and I fear he's never more than a twitch away from launching into one of those berzerk fugues about how the world's problems all stem from public ignorance of Noam Chomsky. But that's a smallish concern, since his podcast remains as rich and black as (I assume) the brand of coffee that sponsors it.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your school dance? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Kevin Pollak's Chat Show

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Vital stats:
Format: interviews, usually showbiz-centric
Duration: 50m-3h23m
Frequency: weekly, pretty much
Archive available on iTunes: all

Kevin Pollak's is a name I've long recognized, but before this week it was only as one of the supporting cast in End of Days. I think he was maybe a cop? I seem to remember his character having come to a grim end, possibly at the talons of some sort of beelzebub. But of course, one glance down his IMDb page reveals that this is a guy who's truly gotten hisself around: The Usual Suspects, Tropic Thunder, Willow, Wayne's World 2, Buffalo '66, The Santa Clause 3. Consequently, he probably knows a lot of people. Good to keep in mind in case he ever needs chat show guests.

Fortunately, Kevin Pollak does need chat show guests, given that he's helming Kevin Pollak's Chat Show [RSS] [iTunes], a weekly conversational program that's a pretty thick technical cut above most of its closest relatives in podcasting. I've linked to the audio-only feeds — this being a column on "traditional" podcasting, such as it is, that feels like the right thing to do — but it's also available as a video podcast and a life, audience-participatory stream. As a visual program, it looks a little — well, a lot — like Charlie Rose, but hey, if you're gonna lift, lift from the best.

Now, we all acknowledge that Charlie's black-backgrounded set is perfection, and thus it's expected that Pollak and his team would imitate it. But they've also learned another of the interviewing veteran's lessons, one that's less obvious and that much more valuable for it: go long form. I can't tell you how delighted I am that Pollak and company evidently realize that twenty-minute "conversations" usually aren't worth the effort they take to record. Like the best of Charlie Rose, several KPCS interviews go for about an hour: the premiere with LeVar "Reading Rainbow Burton [MP3], for instance, or an illuminating sit-down with Adam Carolla [MP3].

But Charlie Rose's medium and means of distribution puts a serious cramp on it to which podcasts aren't subject. None of Rose's conversations, for instance, can pass the hour mark. Pollak, however, is not so leashed. One hour? Psh. Mere frippery. Try 90-ish minutes with screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie [MP3] or director Jane Campion [MP3]. Still too insubstantial for you? Pollak does two-hour stretches with the likes of Rob Corddry [MP3] and Seth MacFarlane [MP3]. But c'mon. I want real talk, not that birdseed. Give me two and a half hours with Dave Coulier [MP3], best known as Uncle Joey from Full House and as the dude Alanis Morissette was screeching about.

The guest list is, as yet, heavily informed by who Pollak happens to have encountered in his career, and as such the talk can get pretty showbiz insider-y. But I've got to admit that he and whoever helps him pick out interlocutors show an uncommonly strong nose for interestingness. But then again, if you're intellectually probing someone for hour after hour and you focus on always-fascinating topics like how they got their start and built their artistic identities, how could the conversation avoid interestingness? As an interviewer, it almost brings a tear to my eye.

None of this would work, it goes without saying, if Pollak didn't have the interviewing chops. I've come to learn that he's a lot more than a doomed guy in a Schwarzenegger movie: he's a comedian, a possessor of a flatly sardonic sense of humor and a hell of an impressionist. I didn't even know people were impressionists anymore. This can get tiresome, sure, but it's worth it for the epic bravura moments like when he and Coulier, an even higher-level imitator of famous voices, improvise their way through a conversation between Albert Brooks (Pollak) and Bob Einstein (an uncanny Coulier). (There's another tear brought to my eye.)

I never would have suspected Pollak of being the future of interviewing, and it must be said that he wastes a fair amount of the show's beginning and end time on extraneous non-interviewing business. (There's a regular segment about doing bad imitations of Larry King, for example, that gets old with surprising haste.) But hey, I guess he's just an all-around surprising fellow.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your company barbecue? colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Comedy Film Nerds

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Vital stats:
Format: jokey movie talk
Duration: 50m-1h10m
Frequency: one per month to one per week
Archive available on iTunes: all

Depending upon where you put the emphasis, that title could mean a few different things. Emphasis on Comedy? Then it's a show that strings jokes along the clothesline of film nerdery. Film? Then it's a show that has a laugh, spiced occasionally by the nasal snort of the overenthusiast, while it bears down on things cinematic. Nerds? Then it's a show about the things engineered to get overenthusiastic about, with wisecracks thrown in for levity and a film slant for some focus. All of these setups have potential.

And Comedy Film Nerds [RSS] [iTunes] is, to varying degrees at various times, all of them. But it's never totally any one of those things. Its feed description, "Movie reviews by stand-up comics and filmmakers Graham Ellwood and Chris Mancini," also gets at a certain, prominent aspect of the podcast, yet it's only one aspect. The most evocative way I can describe the show is to declare it the most even confluence yet of two pounding, volumnious currents in podcasting: programs driven by comedy and programs driven by movies. This is what it's like when worlds collide.

More specifically, one of these colliding worlds is actually that of Southern California comedy podcasting, which, as my time in the Podthinking trenches continues to reveal, is just barely a subset of comedy podcasting as a whole. Without being particularly experienced in the Southern California comedy scene(s), I've somehow gotten dozens of names of performers, venues and events lodged in my mind that have no associations besides my having heard them mentioned over and over again on podcasts. And not just ostensible comedy podcasts! Graham Ellwood's is a name I've heard endlessly, to the point where it would always ring a loud, clear bell in my head, yet that ring would never resonate in any way. Now I can at least think, "Yeah, one of the Comedy Film Nerds dudes."

To pile even more specificity atop that specificity, the other world that collides with the world of Southern California comedy podcasting is populated not so much by the I-love-film breed as the whoa-there-I-don't-like-film-I-like-movies one. A subtle distinction, perhaps, but surely you can appreciate it. The "film nerds" portion of the title starts to feel somewhat disingenuous when you realize just how much time Mancini, Ellwood and their guests spend discussing pure cultural detritus like Bounty Hunter, the Clash of the Titans remake, Cop Out, It's Complicated, Alice in Wonderland 3D or Avatar. At first, this doesn't make sense, just as it doesn't on other shows that try to get comedy podcasting in their film podcasting, or vice versa. But I think I've finally figured it out.

Comedy, by its very nature, requires a steady stream of jokes. While these don't necessarily need to be so classically formed as two rabbis walking into a bar or what have you, they should be somehow crafted to provoke laughter. While it's possible to fire off killer lines about masterpieces of cinema, it's unnatural enough to be difficult to keep them flying at a standard comedy-podcast rate. It's a hell of a lot easier to get the big yuks by ridiculing crap. Hence all the talk about movie ephemera on this comedy-film podcast hybrid and others: sure, the subjects of the jokes themselves will be forgotten by the Thursday after next, but they present awfully target-rich environments, as they say in the military. When the specter of quality arises, as when one of the hosts attempts to discuss Jacques Audiard's A Prophet, he gets partially buried under half-assed wisecracks. It's kind of a no-win situation.

But it's really hard to argue that Comedy Film Nerds won't be okay. Mancini and Ellwood bring in beloved Southern California comedy guests like Mike Schmidt [MP3], Jackie Kashian [MP3MP3]. They keep the energy up. They have a good time. And hey, if you happen to actually be interested in hearing about something like Kick-Ass, boy, have I got a podcast for you.

[Want to hire Podthinker Colin Marshall to Podthink at your slumber party? colinjmarshall at gmail.]
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