Podthoughts

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: "Crap from the Past"

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Podthoughts has been one of my favorite features on MaximumFun.org, not least because I don't have to write it. Ian Brill has spent the last few months building a legacy as the greatest podcast reviewer of all time, but he's gotten a demanding full-time job as a comics editor, so he's had to resign his commission. Freelance journalist Colin Marshall will be picking up the column, and hopefully his insights will be just as valuable. And look out for Joe Coughlin, who will be contributing occaisional Vidthoughts on video podcasts. -- Jesse

At the tender age of eleven, Ron "Boogiemonster" Gerber began laboriously copying the chart positions of every single on the American Top 40 into a binder, genuflecting before the divine word of Casey Kasem. At the same time, he began regularly purchasing 45s of every top single he didn't already own. His enthusiasm for pop music has, in the ensuing three decades, evolved into Crap from the Past, where he's been behind the mic passing the love on to us for sixteen years now.

Gerber currently broadcasts out of KFAI in Minneapolis, with syndication in England and New Zealand. (Luckily for everyone who isn't a Kiwi, a Brit or Prince, there's a podcast feed.) If he were simply slapping a hodgepodge of pop tunes onto the turntables every week, his program would be no worse — and, let's admit it, probably better — than most of that which spews forth from community radio. But Crap from the Past is so much more; the Boogiemonster bills it as, in effect, "a graduate-level course in pop music," but it's even better than that, because he rarely if ever resorts to critical post-structuralist gender theory.

See, when Ron Gerber lays down a show on Tears for Fears, he doesn't spin "Everybody Wants to Rule the World" and call it a night. He spins "Everybody Wants to Run the World", which the band re-recorded from scratch as a charity single for some kind of benefit run, changing only one word. He spins "Victims of Fact", a single recorded by Neon, an early group comprising the members of what would become Tears for Fears and the members of what would become Naked Eyes. He spins a cut recorded for The Karate Kid Part II by Mancrab, a one-off outfit helmed by Tears for Fears' lead singer. And he digs out his 1980s issues of Billboard to read out the original reviews of these songs.

Similarly, a New-Kids-on-the-Block-themed program features Biscuit, the boy band's bodyguard-turned-rapper, the Perfect Gentlemen, an even younger boy band created by the New Kids' producer Maurice Starr, and the James Brown records off of which Starr bit to formulate that irresistible New Kids sound. Interwoven are interview excerpts from a New Kids concert VHS tape. (Imagine how full this guy's house is, and of what else.)

Gerber also conducts the occasional interview of his own: electronic pop pioneer Thomas Dolby, forgotten — and much Boogiemonster-championed — power-popper D.L. Byron and mayor of Funkytown Stephen Greenberg, to name only three.

Though Gerber introduces certain songs as, say, "atrocities," don't take the Crap in Crap from the Past too literally: the show's not some sort of kitschfest, but if it's necessary to play some kitsch, the Boogiemonster won't back down. (He may, however, talk over said kitsch or yank it off early.) As a man unashamed of his pop habits, I adore Crap from the Past. If you don't deign to enjoy pop yourself, prepare to be converted. It's a bit of a cliché to put it this way, but were you to give his show a listen, you'd almost certainly be infected with his near-obsessive — okay, obsessive — passion for well-crafted pop and all information relating to it.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail.]

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Stephen Fry's Podgrams"

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It's been a while since I've done one of this. It will be a lot longer until I do another. You see, I've taken a new job in L.A. that has kept me very busy. But I wanted to put in one last podcast review for you good MaximumFunsters.

Stephen Fry, the British actor/writer/raconteur, has delved into the world of podcasts. He calls them podgrams (iTunes), mind you. It makes sense that he would change the word a bit. The podcast form itself bends to Fry's will.

He promises us that every odd numbered show will be improvised, even numbers based off of written pieces. Or maybe it's the other way around. Quite honestly I can't tell the difference. All of his episodes sound like professional speeches. They are constantly witty, lively, full of insight. Fry is the kind of orator one would think we had lost due to a world where information has increasingly become bite-sized. Instead delivered every few weeks or so from an iTunes subscription is commentary that wouldn't be out of place in an intellectual salon.

Fry's latest show, his third, communicated such a profound thought that I was truly thankful I downloaded this podcast. There are a lot of podcasts I'm entertained by but I don't think I've ever felt enriched like I was after listening to what Fry does with an Oscar Wilde quote. When asked why America is so violent Wilde replied "it is becuase your wallpaper is so ugly." It seems a flippant remark at first but Fry evolves it into an argument that the aesthetics one encounters throughout their lives can severely affect their behavior. The world is then no longer seen as "good" or "bad." Now you have to take into consideration how the world looks and feels and how being constantly exposed to industrialization has made us react. I have chewed on this mental nugget since I heard it last Friday.

It's not all profundity on Fry's Podgrams. A lot of it is simply cheery anecdotes. But when Fry starts an anecdote it can end up being a profound thought, as well as vice versa.


I want to thank Jesse for giving me this opportunity to sound off on podcasts every once in a while. Many thanks go out to those who read my posts, as well as those whom recommended podcasts. Thank you so much. This was a lot of fun.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Ask Mr. Biggs"

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If you, like Jordan Morris, takes comfort in the sounds of talk radio perhaps you'll be interested in Ask Mr. Biggs (iTunes link). The concept is that a team of audio experts take calls from actual radio shows, splice them up and play them on this fictional show hosted by Mr. Biggs, who sounds like The Thing looks.

On their description the team behind Ask Mr. Biggs say they're not going "for easy laughs, but rather for a more subtle, nuanced, character-driven humor." Listening to the show I got a sense that its all taking place in a small town full of strange people. Mr. Biggs talks about his restaurant Whiz Bangs which sounds like home grown version of Applebee's. He proudly tells of how they put on a Richard Greco look-a-like contest in hopes of getting Greco to show up to the restaurant (he didn't). Mr. Biggs's sidekick Roger sounds like the calm voice against his friend's bluster but he proves to be the type of person so bland it becomes disturbing. He loves learning and sharing stupid points of trivia and talks of his racist grandmother in ways that aren't entirely disapproving. This show clearly takes places in Anytown, USA and creates a strong sense of place with satirical wit.

I was surprised, given the premise of the show, is that the calls aren't particularly funny. The producers of the show usually take normal types of questions, people asking for technical or diet advice, and use that to spin Roger and Mr. Biggs into absurd debates. The comedy on the show ends up sounding like a lot of the low key humor a lot of improvisers practice. I'm thinking particular of the episode of Jordan Jesse Go! with invented presidential candidates. There are a few laugh out loud episodes. Show #0016 features Mr. Biggs talking down a disgruntled former Whiz Bangs employee that's a riot. But most of the time its just slight a glimpse into small town insanity.


We've got podcast review so why not podcasts news (becuase that's where you want to go for news, a guy who manages to write his column every two weeks with no set schedule). Former Never Not Funny co-host (and Jordan Jesse Go! guest) Mike Schmidt returns to the podcasting world with The 40 Year Old Boy. It will be on iTunes soon I hope but for right now Schmidtty's got all the info to load the first episode into your iPod. So far it's The Former Third Baseman in monologist mode. It's a bit different from NNF but Schmidt's such a classic storyteller that I think it's great stuff.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Never Not Funny Primo"

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It's rare that I write about a podcast that's new. It's even rarer that I write about a podcast that technically hasn't started yet. But Never Not Funny Primo is the new version of what I already consider the greatest podcast in existence. Now hosts Jimmy Pardo and Matt Belknap are asking for $19.99 for 26 weeks of material (or you can pay nothing and get the first 20 minutes of every episode free). This move could pay off for them or it could lose them a big chunk of their audience. I'm devoting this column to NNF because I believe that $19.99 for half a year of comedy is completely worth it. Here's why.

I got addicted to NNF as soon as I discovered it around episode 20. Waiting the whole week in-between episodes I decided to investigate the archives to hear what I’ve been missing. I have had the experience of watching episode after episode of a television show on DVD but had never done the equivalent with a podcast. That night I listened to episode after episode of Jimmy, Matt and then co-host Mike Schmidt speaking their mind about whatever. The show regular hits this sweet spot where it’s always something about new but done in a way you were familiar with. There are never any planned topics but the atmosphere is the same.

What’s consistent is the rhythm of the show. Jimmy starts every episode trying to sound like Casey Kasem with a big professional opening but within seconds he’d sound like a guy sitting next to you at lunch, asking if you remember that one band from the ‘80s. Jimmy’s musical taste is a touchstone of the show. His earnest enjoyment of ‘80s stadium rock is endearing. It brings him to a lot of concerts where the crowd seems to have done nothing since that one great homecoming game. Jimmy can describe being in the middle of that chaos like Edward R. Murrow can describe London during World War II.

I was worried what the show would be like after Mike left but Matt stepped up and even though he’s not a comedian he holds his own against Jimmy and guests like Paul F. Tompkins and Maria Bamford. He’s still the understated producer but he gains a certain amount of power when he speaks because he is so easy going and nonchalant. When he says something that’s actually funny it hits you twice, the second time because you just weren’t expecting it to come from a low key guy.

There are a lot of podcasts where the idea is if you get a bunch of friends in front of a few microphones and have them talk about pop culture magic will happen. You have one or two guys who are cut ups and everyone else figures he should be world famous. I’ve listened to a few podcasts like that. Frankly a lot of people have overestimated how funny and fascinating their musings can be. Jimmy Pardo can pull this off, though. The man’s been a professional comedian for decades. He’s worked tough rooms. His act is 80% crowd work. He is comfortable going up in front of a group of strangers and acting chummy. There’s a certain mastery of tone and temperament that allows him to do that. Anyone can interest themselves talking about the stuff they like. Jimmy has the hosting skills to make he likes interesting to anyone else, even Chicago’s back catalog. Every turn leads into five different anecdotes. I signed up for primo because I don’t want to miss a one.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Never Not Funny Primo"

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It's rare that I write about a podcast that's new. It's even rarer that I write about a podcast that technically hasn't started yet. But Never Not Funny Primo is the new version of what I already consider the greatest podcast in existence. Now hosts Jimmy Pardo and Matt Belknap are asking for $19.99 for 26 weeks of material (or you can pay nothing and get the first 20 minutes of every episode free). This move could pay off for them, or it could lose them a big chunk of their audience. I'm devoting this column to NNF because I believe that $19.99 for half a year of comedy is worth it. Here's why.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "On the Page"

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So there I was checking out what listeners to Filmspotting and Creative Screenwriting also listen to. It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a podcast about movies. I didn’t want to do another show where two guys just go back and forth about what they've seen recently. I decide to check out On the Page (iTunes link). It’s about lessons in screenwriting. Good, something useful. I see the picture that displays Pilar Alessandra’s millionaire dollar smile. A female voice, that’s another positive sign. So I listen to an episode. Five seconds in I hear that sound. The familiar, rich tones of Matt Belknap the Producer’s voice. The man behind the greatest podcast on Earth, Never Not Funny was waiting for me as I embarked on a journey in screenwriting tips and exercises. Sometimes life just loves you.

The truth is of the all the podcasts Belknap produces On the Page is the one where he spends a lot of the time in the background. He may be silent for a lot of the show but you know he’s keeping those sound levels stable. No problem, Alessandra is a real fun host. She’s a screenwriting teacher who has taken her good advice to the world of podcasting. Each week she brings in at least one guest and together they’ll go over one aspect of the screenwriting craft and/or business. Writing competitions, writing for comedy and pitching a script (that comes up a lot) are tackled in a lively, informative manner. On the show Alessandra comes off as that one really cool teacher you had near the end of a school day whose class you really looked forward to. She sounds like she’s having a lot of fun and the feeling is damn infectious.

It’s refreshing to hear a screenwriting teacher who isn’t dogmatic in her lessons. Alessandra doesn’t spend a lot of time telling you exactly when X incident should occur on Y page. Instead we soak up the experiences of those who have gone before us, the show’s guests. For Never Not Funny fans some of the guests will be familiar. Pete Schwaba goes over what it’s like to create your own independent film. Pat Francis, Alessandra’s husband actually, tells his experience writing for reality television (oh yes, you have to listen to understand). On NNF Francis can be a little too schticky for my taste but as a guest on On the Page he’s great! Alessandra’s interview here and on other shows are knowledgeable and precise.

Alessandra and Belknap keep the shows to about thirty to forty minutes. That’s about the perfect running time for most podcasts. In that space you get a lesson, a ten minute exercises for your own screenplay and some listener mail is answered. With its fast pace On the Page is an educational podcast that’s funnier than a lot of comedy podcasts out there.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Skeptoid"

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It disturbs me that in this day and age, when Charles Darwin and Stephen Jay Gould are hallowed names in academia, there are still forces in our country and beyond that have as much a grasp on science as people in the dark ages did, forces that seem to reside in the White House amongst other important areas. We all benefit from scientific advances but the scientific mind, one that demands firm evidence behind arguments, feels like it is in the minority. A nice breath of fresh air is Skeptoid (iTunes link), a critical analysis podcast. Host Brian Dunning takes ten to fifteen minutes outs of your day to turn a skeptical eye towards the ideas whizzing around our culture that compensate their lack of sense with sensationalism.

The first two episodes of Skeptoid I'd recommend anyone listen to is Dunning's two-part examination of logical fallacies that he did on Nov. 5th and 11th. Dunning refers back to these items in all his other shows, discrediting illogical theories by pointing to the non sequiturs and conflicting facts their proponents employ. Dunning's Dec. 17th show devoted to the stories about Area 51 and Roswell is one example of how he proves his points with cold hard logic. The recollections of one witness, which the Area 51 believers have based most of their conclusions on, are systemically rendered suspect when Dunning gives exact dates that prove the witness has his timeline jumbled, as well as concrete proof that contradicts the more outrageous claims made.

I do wish Dunning's podcast was longer. The issues he is tackling deserve more than half the running time of a prime-time sitcom. Imagine the case for science that Dunning could make if he delivered his arguments in greater detail. I would also like it if Dunning had his sources a bit more upfront, as people could be skeptical towards his skepticism. I was glad to hear that end of the Area 51 show the government documents that Dunning drew from were mentioned. I would prefer if all shows had "audio footnotes." That may sounds like I'm asking too much but the tendency for so much literature on the Internet to be sketchy when it comes revealing the origin of their findings is the reason why skepticism is so important in the first place.

If you're a fan of the urban legend busters Snopes.com, Penn & Teller's Bullshit or just plain sick of getting chain e-mails from your parents that tell you how dangerous microwaves are (Dunning has a whole show on that one, too) then give Skeptoid a try.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "Midwest Teen Sex Show"

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At this point there are plenty of places to find advice on sex and love (including Dan Savage’s Savage Lovecast which I profiled). But where, you might ask, can I find good sex ed for teens combined with irreveant sketch comedy? Friends, I direct you to The Midwest Teen Sex Show (iTunes link).

This is a video podcast, with each episode lasting somewhere between three to four and a half minutes long. Topics covered so far include female masturbation, male masturbation, syphilis and, perhaps scariest of all, parents (dealing with them, not becoming them). All are directed by Guy Clark. He keeps the show fast as it switches between information from host Nikol, described as a “former expert practitioner of teen promiscuity,” and other host Britney who plays various different characters in sketches illustrating that particular episode’s theme.

Nikol’s advice is a bit simpler than what someone like Dan Savage brings you but the show, as it says in the name, is for a younger audience. The real advice is laid out perfectly clear. Everything is made easy to absorb, important for young people nervous and inexperienced about sex (don’t worry kids, all those nerves and lack of experience will soon be replaced with jadedness and depression within a few short years). Nikol isn’t afraid to be sarcastic with her information. I laughed real hard at her advice against teenage girls dating adult males: “I know, you met on the Internet and he understands you and guys your age are so immature. The good news: girls mature faster than boys, so start dating girls.” When I first started watching this podcast I couldn’t quite place what so “Midwest” about it. Soon I realized that the show’s humor, especially Nikol’s charisma, shares the dry charm and sardonic wits of Midwestern stalwarts David Letterman and Kurt Vonnegut.

Of course another sign of the show’s Midwestern origins appear when Britney uses a cow udder to model the different types of male masturbation techniques there are. The characters Britney play in her sketches, occasionally aided by other actors, tend to be examples of teens who don’t take Nikol’s advice. Their misfortunes are taken to comic extremes such as one of the girls offering her opinion on why she had sex for the first time: “I have a really amazing vagina and I felt selfish not sharing it with the world.” There are also the bits that are just bizarre, helping to create the overall feel of the show. The inaugural episode featured Britney offering the advice that if you’re masturbating while going through the drive-thru at a fast food place, you better make your order complicated to grant yourself a lot more time.

When I was a teen all we had was Loveline on the radio. Do kids still listen to the radio (I ask on the blog of a PRI program)? I don’t know but I do know they waste a lot of time on this here Internet. I can only hope they come across the Midwest Teen Sex Show and pick up a few lessons.

Also, this is my last column for the year. I want thank Jesse for asking me to do this as well as Tim the former intern for helping out in the beginning. I’ve exposed myself to a lot of great content I wouldn’t have found anywhere else. This column got me interested in blogging again, which inspired me to reignite my own blog. A big thank you to all of you readers as well. I hope I turned you on to some good shows.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: The Podcast Travels of Paul F. Tompkins

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The alternative comedy scene in L.A., centered around the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, is rich with creative people trying new things. I’ve noticed the amazing amount of podcasts that seem to come from people associated with UCB and/or the invaluable website aspecialthing.com. Instead of just cataloging a series of shows for you I decided to weave them together with a common thread. You might know Paul F. Tompkins (the F. stands for “hilarious”) from his appearances on VH1’s Best Week Ever or his recent appearance on The Sound of Young America to promote his excellent stand-up album Impersonal (available here). The man has the wonderful ability to enter into any situation and make it funny. He can get people laughing with a pop culture reference, observation or just a silly tone of voice. It’s the reason why he’s so great on podcasts and probably the reason why he’s been on so many of them. Let’s follow Tompkins’s various appearances to discover so many of the shows recording from L.A.

A lot of Tompkins’s appearance date back to 2006 and actually can’t be found anymore. He appeared a few times on Guys With Feelings (iTunes Link), where hosts Jason Nash and Jeff Bumgarner share personal stories and get as personal with their guests. This can cause some friction with the guests and I remember Nash talking about a falling out with Tompkins, although I believe their relationship has repaired a bit. I looked around the archives on the GWF page and their iTunes page but the best I found was the Jan. 2nd, 2007 show where during the award show “The Feelies” (co-hosted by Jen Kirkman and Tami Sagher) the interview that caused all the drama is discussed.

One of Tompkins podcast appearances of 2006 that is readily available is his interview of AST Radio (iTunes Link), which as you probably guessed is the podcast spin-off of aspecialthing.com. The interview is from May 22nd, 2006 and it’s a great career spanning interview from Matt Belknap a.k.a. In Search of Sasquatch a.k.a. Isos. It’s over an hour and a half and features Tompkins explaining his approach to comedy as well his growth as a comedian. Tompkins has another great appearance on AST Radio. Doug Benson usually hosts a show called The Doug Benson Interruption where he interacts with comics while they perform their acts. The August 8th, 2006 show features Tompkins taking over the Benson role, working with Kirkman, Chris Hardwick, Eugene Mirman and Graham Elwood. Belknap and Tompkins play clips from that show and offer lots of commentaries. That’s another mammoth show but it’s funny as Hell.

Tompkins has lent his presence to two spin-offs of AST Radio. Michelle Biloon’s Walking With Michelle (iTunes Link only) started as a segment on AST Radio but has since posted three shows of its own for October 2007. Biloon visits a different Southern California tourist attraction and bring her funny friends with her. Belknap and Tompkins join her on a trip to Disneyland (apparently Tompkins has connections, being friends with the Mayor of Disneyland). Not unlike the Tompkins Interruption episode of AST Radio this show featured clips of the three walking around the amusement park cut with after-the-fact commentary. The best bit has Biloon and Tompkins discussing the situation in Darfur while riding on Splash Mountain. It’s absolutely brilliant.

Tompkins has been a guest three times on the other AST Radio spin-off. Never Not Funny (iTunes Link). As I’m writing this I’ve found NNF has been chosen by iTunes as one of the best podcasts of 2007. I know I consider it the greatest podcast being produced. Belknap and comedian Jimmy Pardo, along with Michael Schmidt for the first season, create these sprawling conversations that feel like verbal pinball. Stories of life on the stand-up circuit rub up against references to ‘80s hair metal, reality TV and anything else Pardo’s hair trigger mind can come up with. Tompkins appeared on the twenty-eighth episode of the first season, all of which is now available for purchase (that’s $19.99 for over sixty hours of entertainment). He fits right in with the rhythm of the show. Tompkins’s work on the short-lived sitcom DAG is discussed as well as his love of all things Hollywood. Tompkins has appeared twice on the second season of the show, 202 and 214. Both episodes are great. I especially love the conversation in 214 about viewing “Faces of Death.” To learn from Pardo that Gary Coleman has a collection of gruesome videos astounded me.

Tompkins has appeared with his girlfriend Janine on The Shit Parade Show (iTunes Link), hosted by Joel Church-Cooper, Erin Gibson and Blake Walker. It’s not too different from the conversational shows like Never Not Funny or Guys With Feelings but this one concentrates on discussions of music. The two episodes Tompkins did, Sept. 26th and Oct. 3rd of 2007, only deal with music for a little bit. There’s plenty of talk of The Wire, which is of course the best show on TV, as well as the eccentrics found in drama school. Janine actually steals the show with a story about a “bird-man.”

For more Tompkins goodness I recommend the Comedy Death Ray CD from Comedy Central Records and his HBO Workshop special Driven to Drink which I believe can be found with HBO On Demand. Keep your eyes on his MySpace page and his own thread on aspecialthing.com to see when Tompkins is coming to your town.

Podthoughts by Ian Brill: "The Bugle"

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During this WGA strike you’re probably jonesing for some of that Daily Show/Colbert Report goodness. Unfortunately Jon Stewart hasn’t started a podcast yet but for fans of The Daily Show’s British correspondent John Oliver you'll be happy to know he's still putting out great material available every week. He and his comedy partner Andy Zaltzman give us The Bugle – Audio Newspaper for a Visual World, from Times Online (iTunes Link).

The subtitle gives you an idea of what The Bugle is about. It’s not too different from The Daily Show, only from a British perspective (although Oliver does his contributions from New York). Each show has a main story that Oliver and Zaltzman attack with a real satirical bite, be it the unrest in Pakistan or OPEC summits. After that the smaller sections like sports and editorial are introduced. The show is committed to the idea of being an audio newspaper, starting off with sections that go straight into the bin (or "trash can" as we Americans would say). Zatlzman even has a crossword puzzle clue for each show. The very fact that he sticks with this, offering listeners a vague phrase every week followed by how many letters are in the answer and which direction it goes in, is very funny.

The Bugle has actually made me laugh more than any other podcast. It’s the first time I’ve ever actually had to hit pause on my iPod because I was laughing so hard and didn’t want miss what was next. I was floored, in a good way, to hear Oliver say “guns scare the British. The last time we were allowed to have guns we conquered 2/3rds of the world and induced slavery. Hand on heart, if given back guns I can’t say we wouldn’t try it again.” I was unfamiliar with Zaltzman before listening to The Bugle but I’m happy to report that he’s just as funny and quick as Oliver. “OPEC meetings are like buses. You wait forever for one and they’re useless without fuel,” might be favorite line of his.

If you’re worried about the show being too full of British and international references don’t let that stop you. There’s nothing here that a reasonably well informed American would be thrown off by. The show centered around immigration in Britain gave me some trouble (I had to look up whoever the Hell Enoch Powell was) but that was a rare occurrence. There are plenty of references to American politics and media. It’s funny to hear to British people take about baseball even if it is only because they love the name of St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols. They occasionally have a segment entitled “Ask an American” where a New Jersey native answers listener questions in a hilariously arrogant way. Could that be the Trenton-raised Jon Stewart doing the voice?

Oliver and Zalztman prepare most of their pieces but are comfortable ad-libbing with each other, often making the other laugh and break their news presenter facade. When the show hits those notes it comes across as The Daily Show meets Never Not Funny, which is a bit like saying “that one awesome things meets that totally awesome other thing.”

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