Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Hudson and Gaines"

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After absorbing punditry, be it on the radio, television or elsewhere, readers possessed of a sensibility like your Podthinker's come away with only one question: how on Earth could this be entertaining? Plopping down a couple heavy-handed political commentators and having them yammer back and forth about nothing seems to sell, but why and to whom? One could do the necessary research to answer that, but with a form so absurd, it's more effective to simply mock it. According to Hudson and Gaines [iTunes link], that's the way to make pundity entertaining.

Fictional podcasts are few and far between, and this one's conceit is especially amusing: in the tiny northern town of Great Haven, local community college adjunct professor and radio host Craig Gaines is joined by Mike Hudson, a hardware store monopolist who brings his sponsorship dollars to the table as long as he can co-host Gaines' program, providing what he believes to be the conservative yang to the professor's liberal yin. They bicker back and forth about the local issue of the day, be it the jocks pranking the nerds [MP3], the proposed construction of a tunnel under the city [MP3] or the results of Great Haven Community College's interdisciplinary panel on global warming [MP3]. They rarely agree, but when it comes to sniping at their arch-enemy Larry Forbes who more successfully broadcasts out of the hated Troutown, they're a thousand percent on the same page.

As a moderate centrist, your Podthinker finds all points on the political spectrum strident and risible. Hudson and Gaines shares that perspective. On the right, Hudson is a dim-witted blowhard asserting a suite of contradictory fixed ideas, a knee-jerk militarism and a Philistine disregard for art and culture. He also thinks playing in a marching band is a dead-on indicator of homosexuality. On the left, Gaines is a weenie who adheres to all the feel-good, recumbent-bicycle lifestyle stereotypes in the book, smugly spouting off about the bohemian enclave of Great Haven he calls home, running on mealy-mouthedly and at length about how army recruitment steals our children's "whimsy" and insisting that "Canadian bacon" be called "back bacon". In a typical episode, some new issue will look like good news for either Hudson or Gaines — an air show for the former, say, or a mandate for disabled stadium seating for the latter — but by the end of the program, new developments will have broken, tables will have turned and someone's joy will have been deflated. Each installment is its own little sitcom.

The interplay between Hudson and Gaines provides sustained chuckles, but it's in the production department that this podcast truly shines. Hudson and Gaines is one of the best-produced podcasts in existence: it superficially sounds like a real small-town AM talk show, yes, but it feels like a real small-town AM talk show as well. Whoever cuts this together apes the painfully dopey commercial radio aesthetic perfectly, from the ridiculously overblown bumper music to the consultant-imposed "weather checks" and "resets" to the jittery, maddening commercials to the maudlin, confusing Ad Council PSAs. How apropos that Jesse recently posted Mark Ramsey's presentation about how radio's got to get its act together. Listen to that alongside H&G, if possible; then you'll really get the message.

Vital stats:
Format: fake political talk
Running since: October 2006
Duration: 20m-30m
Frequency: trimonthly (yeah, seriously)
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Podthinker Colin Marshall once worked in commercial radio and there developed a proper loathing of the Ad Council. Get him at colinjmarshall at gmail, suggest a podcast for Podthoughts here, or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Paul Goebel Show"

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There was once a Comedy Central show called Beat the Geeks, where contestants from all walks of life would test their knowledge of popular culture against that of one music geek, one television geek and one movie geek, plus a fourth spot filled by a series of more specialized geeks. An imbalance resulted from the fact that Joe Average tends only to know one or two particular musical genres intimately and doesn't see many movies. What J.A. does think he knows, however, is television, given that he's been habitually devoting his evenings to it for ten, twenty, thirty years, and thus feels pretty secure in his televisual scholarship. Despite how frequently he was challenged, however, the TV geek still routinely laid the smack down with his vast knowledge of the vast wasteland.

That television geek's name? Paul Goebel. Though Beat the Geeks now sleeps with the Tituses, the self-described King of TV now rides high on his very own eponymous podcast [iTunes link]. The sound quality is iffy, but the setup is tried and true: using the standard format employed by Never Not Funny, among other shows, Goebel and his best bud Jim Bruce bring in a different guest (usually a comedian) every week and, together with this guest, be it Mike Schmidt, TV's Frank, Graham Ellwood or whomever, bullshit about culture. (For hardcore Podthinkers, yes, this makes the program a bona fide TFWGBAC, where the F is for fortysomething.)

Bullshit is the right word to use, too, because boy, these guys work blue. In the first handful of episodes I heard, Goebel and co. had rousing discussions about running away from a threesome while crying, how to most politely handle the situation when the girl you bring home turns out to be a man, and the joys of jumping to bed with 40-year-old women of various ethnicities after getting a vasectomy — or after telling them you've gotten a vasectomy, I'm not sure which. Its essentially a bunch of early-middle-aged guys — sometimes a woman shows up — hanging out, cursing like hobo sailors and accusing one another of homosexuality. A real lunchtime-at-the-job-site ethos, except sometimes Goebel's little kids will wander into the room and ask Dad when he's going to be done. Oh, and Goebel teaches Sunday school sometimes.

Since this is the King of TV's podcast, it's only to be expected that the best and worst of lineups past and current come up frequently, but this is by no means a show primarily about television. Your Podthinker doesn't even own a television and can still find plenty to engage with. The guys toss around opinions about all forms of media, the Most Important Election EverTM, Bruce Willis' daughter, the term "butterface" and the vagaries of the comedy world. Whether a listener will like the show comes right down to whether they like Goebel and his coterie and consider their rough-hewn straight talk to be just what the world needs, or whether they think the crew's deeply unsavory and representative of everything wrong with the world. But either way, it's pretty hard to argue with how funny it is when Jim "mashes up" two pop culture concepts (e.g., the Monkees and Monk or American Idol and an actual car idling), acts out the combination and makes Paul and the guest guess what he's doing.

Vital stats:
Format: TFWGBAC
Running since: June 2006
Duration: 45m-1h45m
Frequency: just about weekly
Archive available on iTunes: way too little

[Freelance podthinker Colin Marshall asks if you've paid your respects to David Foster Wallace. If you ask him at colinjmarshall at gmail, he'll say he has. Suggest a podcast for Podthoughts here, or submit your own podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The 40 Year Old Boy"

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Developing Ghostbusters, Aykroyd and Reitman ran into trouble filling the role of Winston, the fourth Ghostbuster, which they wrote for Eddie Murphy. Beverly Hills Cop scuppered that plan, but that turns out to have been fortuitous: on the DVD commentary, the filmmakers admit that Murphy, for all his stunning accomplishments in laughmaking, would have pushed the viewing experience into comedian overload, with each comic/actor jockeying tiresomely for position. Now, there's a podcast that many Max Funsters love, most podcasters love, and many comedians secretly love, but it is a podcast that, alas, this particular Podthinker only likes. I hear snippets every few months, I have fun, I laugh, I think — but I'm not begging for more. The podcast I speak of is none other — here comes the heresy — than Never Not Funny. My problem? Comedian overload. Just an eensy bit too much comedian.

Mike Schmidt used to be part of of the NNF pack, but tensions arose and he rode into the sunset, memorably appearing on Jordan, Jesse Go! afterward to tell his most horrible gym stories. Listening to Schmidt paint a mental picture of middle-aged men swallowing pool water and aggressively deodorizing unspeakable body parts, I found myself wanting more. Nearly a year later, he answered my prayers with his very own podcast: The 40 Year Old Boy [iTunes link], inoculated against comedian overload by virtue of the fact that, behind the mic, it's Mike and Mike alone.

Mike Schmidt is one of those guys to whom a lot of stuff happens, and who does a lot of stuff to others. He's weighed 500 pounds. He's had surgery to lose those pounds. He's smashed a guy's face into the House of Blues' corrugated tin wall. He still hasn't graduated high school. He's blasted a six-year-old with a bag of bell peppers. He's helped a friend break the school ceiling. He's picked a fight with Rick James. He's visited a swinger's club with a buffet of deviled eggs. He's lost a photo of his wang in cyberspace. He's cut off communication with most of his brothers. He's crammed his mouth full of sushi only to spit it out in the bathroom. He's sung "Don't You Want Me?", badly, to a married crush 18 years his senior. In his fifth decade, he still lives like a thrillseeking kid: indeed, he's a 40-Year-Old Boy.

He tells these stories and many others, beginning with an assessment of some seemingly mundane recent life event and swerving, digressing, looping and doubling back to touch on a countless harrowing, horrifying, humiliating — and, to go for quadruple alliteration hat trick, hilarious — tales of his own existence and others'. Speaking of digressions, I've gone on a few too many myself lately, so I'll keep the Podthought short, savory and to the point: one man simply speaking into a microphone while his producer cracks up in the background, whether said producer is the angry-wife-having comedy nerd Eric of the early shows or the squealing burlesque dancer Lily of the newer ones, does not sound like an engaging format. But it is. Mike Schmidt is a master storyteller, and boy howdy does he have stories. In fact, I'd planned to review another podcast this week, but I was so rapt by Schmidt's storytelling skill — one nearly lost these days — that I just jumped the tracks and wrote up his. If that's not an endorsement, what is?

Vital stats:
Format: one comedian talkin'
Running since: April 2008
Duration: 20m-1h15m
Frequency: slightly more than weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

[Freelance podthinker Colin Marshall has a posse, 5'10", 150 lb. Also an e-mail: colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Cool as Hell Theatre Show"

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Loath as I am to admit this, dear Max Funsters, I dragged my feet a little on this one. Figuring it was high time to review a program covering the legitimate goings-on of the live stage, that theater of the mind and body, I picked a theater podcast. The Podthinker's is a two phase job: first comes "listening", then — and only then — comes "writing". I kept trying to start the listening phase this time around, but kept stepping back. My fear? Drama geeks.

Cast your mind, if you can, back to high school. (If you're currently in high school, great job.) Remember drama geeks? I hung tentatively around the edges of their scene, as it seemed to revolve around drama — onstage and off. From a safe distance, I watched them squabble, snipe, and — my hand casts about the air for the proper term — do each other. This goofy, Machiavellian, incestuous circle appeared to constitute the true drama geek's entire world; I'm not sure they realized there was anything outside it. I feared a theater podcast would cater exclusively to such inner circles, dropping references to obscure one-acts and constantly delivering nerdily cutting swipes that I'd feel dirty for either understanding or not understanding. A real no-win sitchyation.

Given these and other psychodramas, it's a miracle I ever hit the play button on The Cool as Hell Theatre [sic] Show [iTunes link] (or CASH, which acronym is, as it were, money). Evidently the creator, producer and host Michael Wayne Rice is a bit of a one-man show veteran, which I read as an additional danger sign. Now, I stopped watching Family Guy a long time ago, but when the show satirized one-man shows, it said it all:

Life sure was crazy growing up in Brooklyn. We had some real characters in my neighborhood, like Frank the Mailman. "Hey, Mark, the ants for your ant farm came today!" And my friend Lonny, that knucklehead. "Yo, Marky, let's play some b-ball." "B-ball." That's what we called it. B-ball. And my grandma. Boy! Was she something else!

So I'm fearful of anything to do with one-man shows that aren't Mike Daisey monologues. Fortunately, Rice steers just about as far as you can get from self-indulgent theater weeniedom. The show comes straight out of the San Francisco Bay Yay Area, where Rice plays roving interviewer, traveling all over the place and recording conversations with the writers, directors and actors of new surprising, innovative, hard-hitting — I'm trying to get through this column without using the word "edgy" — new productions. He's quite possibly the exact opposite of the aforementioned drama geek: laid back, animated without being show-offy, enthusiastic in all the right ways and eager to share the love with all the "ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, pimps, players and hustlers of the theater world." (Yes, direct quote.)

Rice chats with a wide range of today's Yay Area theater-makers; the projects include a "re-imagining" of Alfred Jarry's Ubu Roi with more thrown food [MP3], a white Jewish rapper's adaptation of a Jewish novelist's story of a fictitious white Jewish guy's journey to rapperhood [MP3], the work of something called a "male feminist" [MP3] and, of course, the antics of the good old Reduced Shakespeare Company [MP3]. The steady format is as follows: first, the guest gets thirty seconds — no more, no less — to describe the show they're putting on. Then Rice and the guest talk for a while. Then Rice demands that "all humility be sucked out of the room" and the guest sell their show hard. Roger Rees did that last bit the best: "Because I'm hot and my show could change your life." [MP3]

Anyone who's been to San Francisco knows that it's a cool place, but they also know that it's something of a double-edged sword: while the city is an absolute Large Hadron Collider of creative energy where one never quite knows what to expect even just walking down the street, it also doesn't seem to realize when it's become a parody of itself. (Good examples of this can even be found on the Board of Supervisors.) As with the city, so with its theater: listening to Cool as Hell, I found myself thinking I'd have to start hitting the skip button if one more guest started talking identity politics. Or any kind of politics, really, though I guess that's what you'd expect from people who produce shows with names like Corporations Stole My Gender, Amerikkka and Something About Iraq. (Okay, so I made those last three up, but they're not far from the truth.)

They don't often get too far into that, though, due to another double-edged sword: the podcast's extremely short length. At between seven and twenty minutes, the interviews don't have the chance to run badly off the rails, but they still feel like they've ended before they've begun. Conversation is an art form that benefits from breathing room, and I'd recommend Rice and make use of that. Otherwise, nice job; I can feel my dramaphobia receding already.

Vital stats:
Format: theater-centric cultural interviews
Running since: June 2005
Duration: 7m-20m (!)
Frequency: just about weekly
Archive available on iTunes: only the fifteen most recent; the rest are on the site

[Freelance podthinker Colin Marshall once played Dean McCutcheon in "Quimby Comes Across". Ask him about this experience at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Technology in the Arts

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I'm no fan of irony, but I find this one delicious: I loves me some media consumption, but I'm not the target audience of most of the media I consume. (Or maybe I am, which leaves open the question of why C-SPAN, Dwell magazine, Prime Minister's Questions, The New Criterion, Charlie Rose and The Economist are squandering so much time and money targeting 23-year-old essayists/podcasters.) Podcasts, however, don't tend to have target audiences — most seem content to define their demo as "whoever clicks the subscribe button" — but the one I'm covering this week does. It's Technology in the Arts [iTunes link], and if you run a small- to medium-size arts organization, you'd do well to give it a listen.

Needless to say, I don't run a small- to medium-size arts organization — not since my atonal symphony orchestra, critical gender semiotic performance art theater and roving mime troupe all fell through. But no matter! As noted here before, I still draw massive quantities of enjoyment from listening to discussions from within subcultures I don't know much about; it's all kinds of fun to try to decipher what's being said, and to pick out the shiniest pearls of information that I wouldn't have gotten through my usual avenues.

Technology in the Arts is a production of Carnegie Mellon University's Institute for the Management of Creative Enterprises' Center for Arts Management and Technology, so there's some cachet here, and not just because of the length of the name. The CAMT, as it's called, has the mission to be:

an applied research center at Carnegie Mellon University that investigates ways technology can improve and enhance the practice of arts management and, when appropriate, develops technology solutions and services that meet critical needs in the field. We partner with nonprofit arts organizations from all artistic disciplines from around the country. In addition to online software tools, we provide consulting services, informational blog and podcast, and an annual conference. Our team is made up of geeky artists and arts enthusiasts with a passion for streamlining arts management processes through intelligent use of technology.

And even though I'm not currently a manager of the arts, that's right down my alley — and in this technology- and creativity-doused 21st century, whose alley isn't it down? Every two weeks, Pittsburgh-based hosts Brad Stephenson and Jason Hansen go around talking to people either residing at the center of the big art-tech convergence or making that convergence happen, occasionally taking the show on the road to interview other tech-using art people — and sometimes art-using tech people, from whom I'd like to hear more — at conventions held in far flung lands like Denver [MP3] and Waterloo [MP3].

One of my favorite aspects of podcasting is that it allows the listener to "meet" a wide range of new people doing neato projects who they wouldn't normally run into. Technology in the Arts serves up quite a few of those, from the founders of Artlog.com [MP3] to the president of the Association of Arts Administration Educators [MP3] to the co-director of the art-space Future Tenant [MP3]. But Brad and Jason also exchange words with a few people I'll bet you do know, like Max Fun pals Merlin Mann [MP3] and Jonathan Coulton [MP3], as well as Max Fun punchline Leo Laporte [MP3] — of Laporte on Computers.

Listening to these conversations, I find I've been picking up bits and pieces of information about a lot of cool stuff of which I hadn't previously been aware, like Bjork's ReacTable synthesizer, the handy-sounding Zoom A4 recorder and the old-time-radio-filled Archive.org. (Okay, I've known about Archive.org since its inception. But I like to hear it brought up.) I've also learned that I'm very glad that I don't have to manage technology for arts people. From what I've gleaned off this podcast alone, arts people sit, on the technophobia scale, somewhere between J.D. Salinger and the Unabomber. (I rarely meet tech people who seem artphobic, though — I wonder why that is.) So I guess I raise my Asahi to anyone man enough to unite art and tech, no matter the results.

The producers of Technology in the Arts fit into that group, and their podcast easily scores an A for concept. (I could go into my well-worn rant about how the convergence of art, technology, business and science — or perhaps exposure that the divisions between them were always artificial — is the most important phenomenon of our time, but I, uh, won't.) The conversations can be a little clunky and something has to be done about that synth-xylophone theme music, but hey, I'm not going to complain.

Vital stats:
Format: interviews and between-host commentary
Running since: October 2006
Duration: ~30m
Frequency: biweekly
Archive available on iTunes: most of it

[Freelance podthinker Colin Marshall soared like the glorious eagle to the top of the dog-eat-dog podcast-reviewing game, but blew his fortune on a series fix-and-flip scams, a brutal Elmer's-glue-sniffing habit and unslakable thirst for blonde Asian hookers, dying derelict in 1987. Reach him at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Filmschool"

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As noted here before, I'm an enthusiast of the cinema. Given my equal enthusiasm for podcasts, you'd think my iTunes subscription list would be loaded with movie-related shows; lord knows there are enough of them out there. Problem is, most film podcasts I sample — and here I've done more sampling than Gregg Gillis — fixate on the same topics: "Juno: Overrated or Very Overrated?", "Let's Talk All Seriously About a Superhero Adaptation", "Something About Seth Rogen". Maybe that's your bag, but it sure ain't mine, so I've spent a lot of time wandering through the harsh, unforgiving desert of flickcasts, searching in vain for a morsel of smart, engaging goodness flowering through the dry, dry movie-B.S. sand.

Fortunately, I've happened upon one such morsel. Now, it's not perfect or anything, but you seem pretty cool, so I think you'll like it. It's called Filmschool [iTunes link], and it comes from a proud broadcasting tradition: University of California Radio. You already know two distinguished alumni: myself, from KCSB, UC Santa Barbara's station, and of course Jesse, who developed The Sound on KZSC, UC Santa Cruz's station. While Jesse came up with hard-unicycling hippies and I came up with hard-drinking surfers, Filmschool comes to you from the hard-studying, lowered-Acura-driving milieu of UC Irvine and its station, KUCI. (The station looks cool, though I didn't even consider the school. For you non-Californians out there, the city of Irvine is actually a very large parking lot that, I believe, surrounds just one office building.)

So what does Filmschool get right that most cinemacasts flub up? It's not sound quality; guests sometimes phone in from iffy, low-fidelity locations (e.g., Switzerland), and I could swear — though not wager any significant cash amount — that a few of the interviews have that telltale harsh Skype sound. And it's not really the quality of the conversations; hosts Nathan Callahan and Mike Kaspar do a decent, workmanlike job, though sometimes a slightly awkward one. And it's certainly not the editing; the show sounds sloppily cut together, with a Max Headroom-like cut-and-paste flow where words and sentences begin and/or end in midstream.

But the program makes up for everything with its guest selection, the Achilles' heel of other reelcasts. Filmschool tends to eschew conversations with actors, which scores big points with me. I mean, you need actors to make movies and all, but they have so little to say — so little that you want to hear, anyway. And have you heard some of the wacky stuff actors believe? Tom Cruise is the tip of the iceberg, my friends. No, on this show, you get the truly fascinating men and women of film: the directors. And not just the ones who seemingly live at the press junket. Callahan and Kaspar talk to the very filmmakers that I want to hear from — and, if you've read this far, you want to hear from — such as Charles Burnett, auteur of the newly-rereleased 70s and 80s Los Angeles classics Killer of Sheep and My Brother's Wedding [MP3]; prolific documentarian of American institutions like High School and Public Housing Frederick Wiseman [MP3]; grand old man of teen squalor Larry Clark [MP3] and today's most brain-burstingly creative silent film visionary, Guy Maddin [MP3].

Filmschool may lack polish, sure, but few motionpicturecasts don't. What's important here is the content, and boy, have they got it. Show me another program that would bring on both revered Grey Gardens documentarian Albert Maysles [MP3] and Gen-X master of nihilistic, dead-eyed, gross-out anomie Harmony Korine [MP3] and I'll stop insisting that this is just about the best thing going in talkiecasts. The only serious shortcoming is, well, the shortness; the interviews are about a quarter the length I'd like. But I suppose I've just got to deal with that, since the alternative seems to be the echo chamber of "Indiana Jones 4: Triumph or Travesty?"

Vital stats:
Format: film interviews
Running since: June 2006
Duration: 15m to 30m (c'mon guys, step it up!)
Frequency: weekly

[Reach freelance Podthinker Colin Marshall's secretary at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature)

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Entitled Opinions contains unadulterated, unusually concentrated intellectual substance. It should be avoided by anyone who does not have a very high tolerance for thinking. If you are allergic to the exchange of ideas, if you are deficient in curiosity, if you suffer from anti-intellectualism, then please, tune out now. This show offers the narcotic of intelligent conversation; it takes us into the garden, and seats us at the banquet of ideas, where we feast on the bread of angels. There's plenty of room at the table, and everyone is welcome, but be warned: the bread of angels is not your ordinary snack. It may set your head spinning and give you a high.

Thus speaks host Robert Harrison in the opening of one episode of his show, Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature) [iTunes link], in which he engages Albert Guérard Professor in Literature Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht in an hour-long conversation about Robert Musil's unfinished early-20th-century Austrian epic The Man Without Qualities [MP3].

An hour-long conversation about The Man Without Qualities. That pretty much says it all, doesn't it? That says it all about why Entitled Opinions is an excellent show — do let me know when Fresh Air taps a vein that rich — but it also says it all about why I've devoted a sizable chunk of my life to all things podcasting: making podcasts, listening to podcasts, writing about podcasts. Podcasting has opened the floodgates for every kind of program imaginable, especially those whose audiences would have been too small or too geographically dispersed to make them viable on nationwide "terrestrial radio". There are undoubtedly millions of people in the world dying for a smart, intimate, literate, conversational, program just like this one, and only in the mid-2000s can they finally quench their thirst. This is exactly why I never fetishize the past; the past doesn't have podcasts.

Longtime Podthoughts readers will remember when my esteemed predecessor Ian Brill reviewed BBC Radio 4's In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, which is quite possibly my favorite podcast thing of any kind. Entitled Opinions is, in several important ways, the United States' equivalent of In Our Time: each show presents a conversation — sometimes weighty, sometimes jovial, sometimes playfully argumentative, usually a mixture of the three — about one chapter in the infinite, ever-expanding history of ideas. Where Bragg brings on Oxbridge academics, Harrison, a Stanford professor of Italian literature who broadcasts from the campus-based KZSU, has access to his own university's finest, though he seems to prefer one-on-one talk to the multi-way intellectual tug-of-war that is Bragg's specialty. Representative topics include:

  • Mimetic desire [MP3]
  • Proust [MP3]
  • The inflationary universe [MP3]
  • 1910 [MP3]
  • American writers in Paris [MP3]
  • The history of the book [MP3]

And in the show with philosopher Michael Serres, Harrison actually conducts the whole thing in French [MP3], first telling the listener that, even if they don't understand French, they should stay tuned anyway, because Serres' French sounds good. Now that's what I call hardcore. Though humanities professors are not known for their hosting abilities, Harrison does an excellent job, if an eccentric one. In his relaxed professorial voice, which is just perfect for the setting, he begins each episode with a five-to-ten-minute monologue, some of which seem entirely disconnected from the subject at hand. Before his talk with the late Richard Rorty [MP3], he goes on about birds for quite some time, and you start thinking, "I know Rorty's work, and Rorty's work has nothing to do with seagulls." Then he ties it in by mentioning, at the very end, that Rorty is an avid birdwatcher. Ah, yes, I see.

Harrison occasionally indulges in a few other bad humanities academic habits — wringing his hands about globalization, using the word hermeneutic — but to focus on those would be to nitpick, because his show is unfailingly entertaining, engaging and and informative. And he's a cool guy. To those who don't believe me, I submit as evidence the fact that he audibly pops open a single-malt scotch to share with his guest during the above-linked conversation about Proust. To those who still don't believe me, I submit his hair. Can't argue with that, can you?

Vital stats:
Format: cultural interviews, with occasional monologues
Running since: September 2005
Duration: 45m to 1h
Frequency: weekly, but currently on hiatus until late September (so it's the perfect time to catch up)

[Freelance Podthinker Colin Marshall sends you thought-provoking e-mails from colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "The Bat Segundo Show"

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First, three overarching questions: why isn't this show huge? Why isn't it in the pantheon of podcasts to which everyone insists you must listen? Why isn't its creator a big star?

The Bat Segundo Show [iTunes link] is an interview program where "young roving correspondent" Ed Champion, creator of the litblog whose current iteration is called Reluctant Habits, roams New York with a portable recording studio and converses with authors of all stripes. He talks to them in diners, in lobbies, in apartments, wherever. Champion's pure hustling ability impresses me; he not only keeps tabs on where authors will turn up in the city, but also goes to them, lugging recording gear all the way, which on the subway must be no mean logistical feat.

A focus on literary fiction means that the show's guests tend to be writers of it. Some favorites include Cynthia Ozick (who seems like such a delightful old lady) [MP3], Nam Le (whose sheer coolness convinced me to read his work) [MP3], William T. Vollman (the intensity of whose writing and life is matched only by the laid-backness of his demeanor) [MP3, first appearance] [MP3, second appearance], and John Updike (who probably needs no parenthetical detail) [MP3].

And since it's the Max Funsters I serve, I'd be remiss in not highlighting a few of the Maximum Fun-y ("Maximum Funny"?) Segundo guests as well: you've got your Amy Sedaris [MP3], your Neal Pollack [MP3], your Austin Grossman [MP3], your George Saunders [MP3], your David Hajdu [MP3], and your Grandmaster Flash [MP3].

Plus, there are the wild cards: eccentric filmmaker David Lynch [MP3], world's best documentarian Errol Morris [MP3], semi-relevant but entertainingly outspoken Senator Mike Gravel [MP3], and crackpots like Naomi Klein [MP3] and Nicholson Baker (who became one so gradually, I didn't even notice) [MP3].

But enough with the linking; how's the podcast itself? When introducing The Bat Segundo Show to friends, I always find myself using the construction "As soon as you get used to x, you'll like it", where x is almost any element of the program. The host, for instance. Champion asks detailed, probing, observation-laden questions — that, unlike those of certain very-long-time public radio interviewers who shall remain nameless, indicate he's actually read the book in question — and sometimes takes his guests to the mat when he disagrees — which indicates that he, unlike some very-long-time public radio interviewers who shall remain nameless, knows that conversation is a two-player game. But he does this sincere questioning with oddly insincere-sounding inflection, the kind you usually only use while nudging your interlocutor in the ribs; he's a cross between Bookworm's Michael Silverblatt and a deep-cable game show host.

For another instance, well, you're probably wondering why it's called The Bat Segundo Show. Until recently, almost every interview was introduced by the titular character, a washed-up, tequila-swilling radio DJ played by none other than Champion himself, doing a voice simultaneously sleazy, bombastic, and somewhat effete. He'd introduce the "young roving correspondent" only after first being introduced himself (in what one iTunes reviewer called a "Spanish shouting theme tune that almost defies the listener to keep listening despite its glass-shards-in-the-eardrums assault") and giving a short monologue about his recent activities, such as being arrested for masturbating in a video store or desperately trying to arrange a tryst with his ex-wife. Yeah.

So that's hugely divisive, which might explain the character's recent "disappearance". I've heard that Champion has pitched the show not-quite-successfully to radio stations, and while I'm not totally against Bat Segundo himself — hell, I just friended his Facebook page the other day — I wouldn't be surprised if he's what's been holding the program back. In his absence, other goofy (though, admittedly, well-produced) introductions have occupied his stead, but they still feel a tad out of place. This might be a case where less is more; some people get by just fine with "Welcome to the broadcast."

But my point is this: Ed Champion should be on public radio. He finds stellar guests, and his interviewing skills are on the top tier of the podcasting world. For me The Bat Segundo Show comes second only to The Sound when I've got the interview podcast jones. And since the show has been in a spot of trouble lately, it needs your fandom. That is, if it's the sort of thing of which you're a fan.

I will now do the program the ultimate honor of making it a drinking game:

  • When Bat Segundo references a sexual misadventure, drink
  • When Champion starts an interview with the word "okay", drink
  • When a guest breaks down and admits they "don't understand the question", drink
  • When Champion bases a question on an assumption about the author's intention and the author flatly denies having that intention, drink
  • When you hear a cement truck, a cop car, gunfire, or a Top 40 song in the background, drink
  • When Champion bases an entire question on a single written word, drink
  • When a waiter comes to the table and diverts the guest from the interview, drink
  • When a guest shows surprise at the fact that Champion has done, like, research, drink

Vital stats:
Format: cultural interviews
Running since: October 2004
Duration: 30m to 1h15m
Frequency: slightly more than weekly, but may go monthly

[Freelance Podthinker Colin Marshall accepts all his 419 scams at colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Podcasts by Maximum Funsters II: The Revenge

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From Max Funsters irondavy, Chris Eckert, and one more (who never identified themselves but whose name I will add to this post if he contacts me) comes Funnybook Babylon [iTunes link] — great title — the show that informs me that there are guys who take comics more seriously than I will ever be able to, even if I suspend all other projects, bathing included, and devote my remaining waking hours to the study of the comicular arts.

I hate to generalize, but my experience shows that, besides podcasts, Max Funsters like basically three things: comedy, movies, and comic books. While I do know a thing or two about the cinema, I'm more or less the Man who Fell to Earth when it comes to stand-up and superheroes. You might think this would make a podcast where a bunch of dudes heatedly discuss the merits of one X-Men writer versus another a total snooze. On the contrary; it's actually big fun to be able to listen in to the talk of a subculture that's passionate about their art form of choice. It's a bit like visiting a foreign country, except I can put off getting a passport one more year.

Since I'm something of a film geek, I can tune in to Battleship Pretension and know exactly what they're talking about, at all times, no exceptions. Listening to Funnybook Babylon, I recognize maybe — maybe — thirty percent of what they reference. But that's the fun! It's like how novels set in elaborate fantasy or sci-fi worlds intrigue you by hinting at the existence of so much more than you're given the details of at any one time. Going in, I didn't know my pull list from my laundry list, my Vertigo from my Wendigo, my New Avengers from my New Adventures of Beans Baxter. But, with each episode listened to, I'm getting there. I especially like that they cover both the art and the industry of comics; there's a lot more Machiavellian maneuvering going on in there than I'd ever suspected. It's a sector of the economy that's seen better (and worse) days, which makes for rich discussion about how and why the situation might be turned around.

Plus, the crew are pretty funny guys. Not only do NYC's Joseph, Pedro, Jamaal, Chris, and whoever else they happen to bring on board all have distinctive enough voices to easily tell apart — thanks for that, guys — but they sound like they'd have a good time discussing most anything. They just happen to be talking about comic books. Over time, I've learned to much from them that I've begun to laugh not only at their general-interest jokes, but some of their comic-book-insider jokes as well. I'm sure loads of their discourse is still flying over my head, but I'm going to keep listening; the passion these guys show for comic books makes me want to read more of them myself.

Vital stats:
Format: cultural panel discussion
Running since: February 2007
Duration: 1h to 1h30m
Frequency: semi-regular, sometimes slightly more than weekly, sometimes less


From Max Funster s-quotes comes Square Quotes [iTunes link], a slick arts-and-culture program from Montreal. The show scores three big points with me immediately by (a) being geographically grounded in a kinda-sorta unusual location, (b) covering rarities of cultural experience, and (c) seriously bringin' the production value. The episodes sound legitimately well-funded-public-radio-quality, although with perspective sufficiently off-kilter that you know it wasn't beamed down by the NPR mothership.

Square Quotes' composition is a little hard to get a bead on, but it's early days and clearly the cement hasn't quite dried. From what I've heard, the core content is hosts Alexander Buckiewicz-Smith and Jay Watts' conversations with local creative types: musicians, dancers, cartoonists, cosmologists, sculptors and a guy who displayed his dead cat as an art installation. (You probably want a direct link to the [MP3] of that one.) Each episode also contains a handful of tracks that play between the verbal segments, though these selections can be a little — how to put this — strange. Then again, I consider any band that isn't The Whispers "a little strange," so don't listen to me.

Also wedged in here and there are little semi-comedic interstitial bits, which are awkward and quickly scrapped in most podcasts that try them but work well here. My favorite has to be the series of phone calls made to psychics in order to contact the spirit of enigmatic jazzman Sun Ra. [MP3] Good stuff. If us Gen-Yers took over public radio tomorrow — and, if all goes well, we will — we'd do well to give Square Quotes a prime time slot.

Vital stats:
Format: interviews, music, etc.
Running since: June 2008
Duration: 40m to 1h30m
Frequency: semi-regular, every 3-15 days

[Peelance Frodthinker Colin Marshall sometimes checks colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: the BenHeck.com podcast

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Last time, we ended up in Wisconsin with The Internet's Maximum Potential. I've decided to stay another week in the forgotten America where people work hard and play by the rules, thinking about one of the net's best-known Wisconsinites, Mr. Benjamin J. Heckendorn.

Heckendorn, better known as "Ben Heck", is revered as a Godhead in the classic video gaming community for his superhuman ability to build portable versions of vintage consoles. He first gained celebrity with a portable Atari 2600, but he's since portablized a Jaguar, an an Atari 7800, a Colecovision, an NES, a Super NES, a Nintendo 64, a Wii, a Genesis, a Playstation, a Playstation 2, a Neo Geo and an XBox 360. For my money, his neatest achievement is the Atari 800 computer he made into a laptop:

Sah-weet. I'd love to play me some M.U.L.E. on that. Now, if only he would build me a portable Turbografx-16. Oh wait.

Being a man of several awesomenesses, Ben Heck also makes neato movies that you can download for free and watch on your computer or iPod, the newest of which is the "action-adventure epic romantic comedy" Port Washington. But this isn't Filmthoughts, nor is it Oldvideogamethoughts; it's Podthoughts, so the Ben Heck joint we'll focus on today is the BenHeck.com podcast [iTunes link].

In the BenHeck.com podcast, Ben Heck and his buddy Jason Jones talk about many things, almost never including console portablization and rarely including filmmaking. Rather, they turn their attention instead to movies, music, technology, video games; the stuff of our culture. Which, devoted Podthinkers will note, makes this a TTWGBAC. It's no biggie that Ben and Jason are two thirtysomething white guys rather than two twentysomething white guys; while that makes for ever-so-slightly different content, it leaves the abbreviation untouched. In addition to how much they love WALL-E, how disappointed they were by the new Indiana Jones, how much Ben hates the Wii, how Blu-Ray smacked down HD-DVD, and the relative merits of Guitar Hero versus Rock Band, they also discuss conspiracy theories, Egypt, outer space and aerosol cheese. As a bonus for the listener, some episodes begin with elaborate spoof movie or game trailers (the Oblivion "Writer's Guild Expansion Pack" being particularly inspired), and others, such as their trip to the 2008 Midwest Gaming Classic [MP4], go out in glorious video.

This being a Wisconsin podcast, you can once again keep the hosts' voices straight by remembering which one sounds more like Mark Borchardt. In this case, it's Jason: he clocks in at about .65 Borchardt Units (BUs) to Ben's .2. He's also kind of an odd dude, admitting both to believing there was a conspiracy to kill JFK and to having flown on an airplane only twice in his life. There's an ever-so-subtle shade of a Ricky Gervais/Karl Pilkington relationship between Ben and Jason, though it's not as if Jason theorizes that Chinese people age overnight like pears, nor does Ben ridicule him for having a perfectly round head. Not that it wouldn't be beyond hilarious to hear that exact schtick played out in the accents of America's Dairyland.

I poke fun, but I actually prefer my podcasts to be grounded in whatever makes them unusual, be it geographically, temperamentally, intellectually, or experientially. Quite frankly, I wish the guys would talk more about local Wisconsin things, or that Ben would speak more from his unique perspective as a top-tier electronics hacker and independent filmmaker, or that Jason would reveal more things that he believes or hasn't done. Nevertheless, I've enjoyed listening in on Ben and Jason's chats — especially when I disagree with them, as when they dismissed the unimpeachable greatness of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner — but I do admit to wearying of the open-ended TTWGBAC genre. So next week I'll change it up.

Vital stats:
Format: TTWGBAC
Running since: August 2006
Duration: ~1h5m
Frequency: semi-regular, every 1-2.5 weeks

[The best thing about being freelance Podthinker Colin Marshall isn't thinking about the podcasts, it's showing everyone online he did. Reach him colinjmarshall at gmail. Discuss Podthoughts here, or submit your podcast for the next by-Max-Funsters column here.]

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