Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Treatment


Vital stats:
Format: conversations with cinematic creators
Episode duration: ~30m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Before screenwriters write a screenplay, they often shop around what’s called a “treatment,” or “a concise overview of a screenplay.” This knocks against my own class of cinephilia as one of those Bad Hollywood Things, as yet another industry convention enabling the laziness and conventionality of mainstream cinema. You write yourself a treatment, then you slather some more words on top of it, then you slather some images and sounds on top of that, and bam: you got yourself a big slab of un-integrated nothin’ headed to a theater near you.

But though I pulled that definition above from the web site of The Treatment [RSS] [iTunes], the show has little business in that shallow end of film’s creative pool. The program doesn’t read treatments; it gives them. Administering said treatments, veteran film critic Elvis Mitchell engages a slew of directors, writers, actors, and others in conversation about their work. He knows that no treatment based upon a list of pre-written questions can succeed, and he knows that a truly effective treatment must reach well beyond the cultural area at hand. Mitchell’s guests make movies, but he knows better than to talk to them only about movies.

As a production of KCRW in Santa Monica, The Treatment thus stands in further evidence for that station’s spooky aptitude for one-on-one interview shows. Two years ago, I Podthought about KCRW’s Bookworm in this space, and the shows turn out to be counterparts. Both run for half an hour. Both deal in two-way dialogue, not simple (indeed, simplistic) extraction of answers. Both have hosts you’d want to hang out with. This quote from a Film.com interview with Mitchell sheds light on their common method:
[James Lipton] sits down with that stack of questions, and like a prosecutor he never asks a question that he doesn't know the answer to. And for me that's where it gets interesting, where I want to start is the question that I don't know the answer to and with any luck they don't know the answer either, and it becomes a conversation about that. You know, there's a kind of connection you make when people are just weighing things out. Sometimes it gets to be that moment when somebody says ‘I've never said this before,’ because in conversation we tend to not say that kind of thing. But, you know, that's the kind of thing that happens.
No knock against Lipton; Mitchell had Lipton on [MP3] and they made one of my favorite Treatments. He also had Werner Herzog on [MP3], which resulted in an interview I plan to listen to over and over until something goes wrong in my iPod. The man talks to Wayne Wang [MP3], he talks to Charles Burnett [MP3], he talks to Wes Anderson [MP3] [or previously] [or previously] [or previously] — he talks to everyone from whom all growing film geeks need to hear.

But here’s the thing: Mitchell also gives the treatment, without lowering the level of his discourse a hairsbreadth, to creators of movies film geeks might write off as, well, dumb. Your teen comedies. Your remakes of seventies television shows. Your Kevin Smith projects. Your Guy Ritchie adaptations of Sherlock Holmes. The Treatment’s hardest-core fans say that, if you didn’t like a movie, you need only listen to Elvis Mitchell draw out its director’s inner intelligence to convert your artistically inferior experience into, if not an artistically superior experience, then at least an artistically interesting one. They’re right.

[Podthinker Colin Marshall also happens to host and produce The Marketplace of Ideas [iTunes], a public radio show and podcast dedicated to in-depth cultural conversation that, this week, needs 196 new subscribers to survive the year.]

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Walking With Michelle


Vital stats:
Format: two comedians walking
Episode duration: 45-70m
Frequency: six-monthly-ish
Archive available on iTunes: all

New media give rise to new forms — or at least that’s the hope. Six-ish years after the invention of podcasting, a medium that strips nearly all conceivable restrictions from audio entertainment, most of its practitioners still pretty much work with modified and/or improved radio concepts. I don’t mean to knock podcasters who do that — I do it too — but it makes me value exercises in the truly new all the more. I consider Walking With Michelle [RSS] [iTunes] one such exercise.

And — prime the rimshot — I do mean exercise. At least I mean exercise if you happen to be one of those people who, having a spent an unusually large fraction of the day traveling on foot, declare yourself to have “gotten your exercise in.” Michelle Biloon and her guests two-birds-one-stone it by simultaneously getting their exercise in and their comedy on. No need to break a sweat, though, since both she and those with whom she walks have backgrounds in the stand-up comedic arts. Since all this walking needs places to happen, you might say the stone takes down a third bird as well: finally visiting popular attractions too tacky, dorky, or inconvenient to have approached under any other circumstances.

So she and Jimmy Pardo drive around with a Map of the Stars’ Homes [MP3], she and Samm Levine go to the Getty Villa [MP3], she and Dave Holmes go to Universal Studios [MP3], and so on. All the while, they talk about life, they talk about careers, they talk about the crappiness of the Simpsons ride, and they talk about their compulsive peoplewatching — i.e., whether they should play a round of “retarded or ugly.” The ever-shifting geographical territories give rise to ever-shifting conversational territories, from Biloon and a reflective Tom Scharpling having an insightful lunch discussion about coming up in the comedy game to Biloon and Doug Benson, stoned (if you can believe it), gawping at a cluster of skimpily dressed seven-year-olds singing “Bad Girls” for Scientology.

For a cornucopia of reasons, this show could’ve only happened in podcasting. One is the legendary infrequency — eight episodes in over four years — which has become the first thing people mention about the show. Another is the content: few play “retarded or ugly” on the radio, and even fewer take pot pills on it. Yet another is the technology involved, which only in recent years began to offer the combined affordability, portability, and recording quality to record a couple of comedians wandering museums, miniature golf courses, and New Jersey all day long.

I gather the fruits of these recording sessions put the editor’s craft to the test; they must, since the resulting episodes tend to clock in at around one hour. From what I can tell, Biloon engages the services of an outside tradesman to cut the material into shape and separate its segments with one of those strummy musical micro-stings so fashionable in comedy podcasting. She even has a producer. What with a staff, practically, and all the travel required, Walking With Michelle really feels like some kinda production; no wonder we get one an average of every six months. Besides, I hear Biloon’s spending much of the year in Vienna these days, so that must throw a wrench into these things. Then again, I’d like to hear an episode recorded on those very cobblestones. I guess she’d just need to find an Austrian comedian for that. Are there such things as Austrian comedians?

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: FilmWeek

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Vital stats:
Format: multi-critic film discussion with occasional director interviews
Episode duration: 40-50m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: last 20

As one of film criticism’s hands beckons me forward, its other one pushes me away. For my money — or, these days, for my internet attention — film criticism can, at its best, be one of the most interesting forms going. The conversation around film criticism, a festival of anxious hand-wringing about the profession’s current relevance and/or prospects of future existence, offers far less. Hence film criticism fans’ desperate thirst for the work of engaged, conversational, non-academic critics for whom criticism is not a sideline to a sideline, a secret pursuit during office hours, or a way to notch a byline or journal article — critics who take movies as, shall we say, serious business.

On FilmWeek’s [RSS] [iTunes] rotating panels of critics, at least several members do seem to approach their craft that admirably. Each week, the show draws a few from a pool just large enough to keep me from really having gotten to know each one’s individual personality and preferences well, but exposure to such a wide, shifting range of cinematic judgment has its own advantages. These critics, who write for everything from national newspapers to web sites whose URLs are their own names, share their takes on and debate the merits of what’s new in theaters and on DVD, from the interesting (Somewhere, White Material) to the pretty interesting (Black Swan, The King’s Speech), to that which takes breath they’ll never get back (The Green Hornet, No Strings Attached).

You’ll have noticed the KPCC logo in the image above — nothing gets by a sharp reader like you — which explains why FilmWeek though distributed as a podcast as well as a broadcast, retains a much more public-radio-y sensibility than most film podcasts. In its original context, the program runs as but a weekly segment of the Southern Californian station’s flagship show AirTalk (MiddleCaps evidently being KPCC’s house titling style). Larry Mantle, one of those quick-on-his-feet public radio guys — and a veritable gold mine of moves to steal for an aspiring public radio superstar such as myself — hosts both AirTalk and FilmWeek with that particular brand of objective-type demeanor which allows guests’ opinions to soar proud and free. (Until shot down by other guests, that is.)

The podcast’s best showcase for Mantle thus comes outside the critical segments, when he interviews filmmakers like David O. Russell and Sofia Coppola. (I’d link you up to those conversations, or to any of them, but they inexplicably go unmentioned in the RSS feed’s episode descriptions.) While somewhat rare and often way too short, they keep the criticism-centric rest of the show feeling fresh with their occasional doses of the creator’s perspective. Maybe this sounds a little daring for public radio at this moment, but let me pitch it: wouldn’t it sometimes be damn cool to hear the directors in conversation with the critics, too? I don’t mean to go all Godard on you, but the wall built between filmmaking and film criticism has come to bother me; I think it’s high time to knock some holes in it.

As film criticism on the radio goes, AirTalk delivers some of the most entertaining I’ve heard. The only qualm I can summon borders on philosophical: is it better to discuss movies systematically, criticizing everything that enters a certain width of release, or is it better to allot coverage as advocacy, devoting more time and attention to richer pictures, regardless of their public profile? This show tends to take the former route, talking about whatever’s coming out and in the zeitgeist. That can be to the good, but part of me will always wish for a radio show that doesn’t know Country Strong exists.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: World Book Club


Vital stats:
Format: long-form genre fiction writing advice
Episode duration: 53m or 27m, depending on what I don’t know
Frequency: monthly
Archive available on iTunes: last 36

When the BBC says “world”, they don’t kid around. Its World Service, so Wikipedia tells me, broadcasts in 32 languages to 188 million people. Its World Book Club [RSS] [iTunes] discusses work by authors as nationally varied as the English David Mitchell [MP3], the American Richard Ford [MP3], the Egyptan Nadaal el Sadaawi [MP3], the Nigerian Chinua Achebe [MP3], and the ostensibly French but seemingly stateless J.M.G. Le Clézio [MP3]. Its discussion questions come not just from the mouth of English host Harriett Gilbert, but from those of listeners in the England, the States, Canada, Australia, Greece, the Czech Republic, Zambia, Namibia... I could fill my word count with this. Point being, an agreeable sound for a would-be literary internationalist such as myself.

The words Book Club in the title strike me as a misnomer, but not in a bad way. Reaching for a greater formal interestingness, the broadcast hybridizes at least four breeds of literary event: the book club, sure, but also the interview, the live reading, and the audience Q&A. The BBC flies in a different writer each month and sits them down with Gilbert and an invited group of physically present listeners. Rather than talking about whatever the writer is currently promoting, the show usually focuses on something from their back pages, a well-known book many listeners will have already read. Gilbert asks the author questions about it, but she also has them read a passage or two, relays questions e-mailed in advance, or asks listeners on the phone or seated in the audience to fire off a question of their own.

Whether or not you’re read the volume under discussion — I usually haven’t — you can get a great deal of enjoyment out of these goings-on, mannered yet straight-to-the-point as they are in that very BBC sort of way. Since many questions from Gilbert and the audience alike deal with plot points, you may entertain concerns about the possibility of spoilers. I can assure you that you needn’t worry. Given world World Book Club’s selections, spoilers don’t matter; this show talks about actual books. If spoilers really and truly spoil a book, so my own handy rule goes, then that book must be nothing more than a spectacle, escapism, a jack-in-the-box — lousy, in short. As far as I can tell, not a single lousy book has refuge in this bunch.

Over and above that, I would argue that the talk on this show has less to do with characters, events, conflicts, false crises, and false dawns than it has to do with culture. Or, to make up a word that sounds like academic nails on an academic chalkboard, it has to do with interculturality. Fortunately, given the demands of holding a conversation across numerous cultures, things have to get down to their essences pretty quickly; not much room remains for the sort of theoretical fog that would give cover for a word like “interculturality” in the first place. World Book Club deals with active writers, active readers, and active texts (whatever that last means). When you’ve got, say, an Oxford-educated German novelist born in Morocco answering questions about his narrative that oscillates between 13th-century Kyoto and 23rd-century Johannesburg from an Azerbaijani caller listening in Brussels, you can’t help but let particularly refreshing gusts of fresh air blow in on the regular.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Writing Excuses


Vital stats:
Format: long-form genre fiction writing advice
Episode duration: ~15m
Frequency: five or so per month
Archive available on iTunes: last 35

Being deep in several writing and editing projects, I guess I sit in the prime seats for a podcast like Writing Excuses [RSS] [iTunes]. At first listen, it seems as if almost anyone into writing stands to gain from the show’s topics: getting the first paragraph right [MP3], avoiding melodrama, [MP3], writing what you don’t know [MP3]. These episodes offer deeply practical advice which no novelist in their right mind should ignore.

Notice I said “novelist.” When this podcast claims to be about writing, it means it’s about writing long-form fictional narratives. Something, probably insufficient research, led me to assume the show would focus on generally applicable principles and mechanics of English prose, but its mission turns out to be narrower. Perhaps hosts Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler, two novelists and a comic writer/artist, are simply sticking to their areas of expertise; for them, writing equals writing long-form fictional narratives. I can’t begrudge them that, since, for all the last couple centuries’ hand-wringing over its supposedly imminent demise, the long-form fictional narrative retains an unmatched power to enchant.

But listen longer and Writing Excuses purview shrinks further still. If you know Sanderson, Wells, and Tayler’s names, you probably know their work. If you don’t, no explanation I can offer will put you in its proximity. I’ve looked up their projects, but since my brain processes their titles as an endless procession of meaningless compounds, I’ll just make some up: HawkBane. Murdero. Brokenwind: Bringer of Eternality. Space-O-Crat. Killed By Darkest Death. SpellFelcher. Scratch “long-form fictional narrative” and make it “long-form genre fictional narrative” with heaping, melty scoopfuls of fantasy and science fiction on top.

You either like this stuff or you don’t. I myself tend to find most of what’s offered under the wide banner of “speculative fiction” brutally unappealing, which brings me to the first grand quotation of this review: “A book can either allow us to escape existence or show us how to endure it.” That’s Samuel Johnson, and I don’t think he’d look any too kindly on the heaving mountains of raw escapism fantasy and sci-fi presses pump out with the grim determination of juggernauts. The world-building inherent in these forms strikes me as somehow both pedantic and garish, and, worse, essentially in service of opiate production.

Not that fantasy and sci-fi serve uniquely anesthetic functions (in several senses of the word “anesthetic”); the problem lays in genre itself. Hence this review’s second grand quotation, from Walter Benjamin: “All great works of literature either dissolve a genre or invent one.” Writing Excuses admits no great works of literature. Willfully or not, the hosts and their guests display little engagement with any fiction outside genre. In the middle of each episode’s writing discussion comes a regular book-of-the-week feature. One recommendation shone amidst all the SkullWinds and Frustrumworlds. The book’s author? Dean Koontz.

In my defense, I’m not one of those cranks who insists all literature ought to proceed from The Unnamable. (But to look at the novelist primers I write for The Millions, I’m getting there.) I appreciate Sanderson, Wells, and Tayler’s obvious enthusiasm for and dedication to their craft. If you do the work of generalizing their recommendations out and away from their convention-bound home turf (in several senses of the word “convention”), you’ll find they know their game and then some. This emerges most clearly when they perform three-way line-edits on concrete examples of prose. Sure, they might well be editing prose about a dragon battling a pegasus, but in that context they’ve got what moves and what drags down cold. Sometimes they even show flashes of recognition that, really, you don’t need to write about a dragon and a pegasus at all. Ironically, that’s when you stop caring so much about all the dragons and pegasi.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The David Feldman Comedy Podcast


Vital stats:
Format: comedy, but mostly left-wing anger
Episode duration: 20m-40m
Frequency: every 3-7 days
Archive available on iTunes: last 10

Some will surely come away from The David Feldman Comedy Podcast [iTunes] [RSS] feeling as if they’ve been sold a bill of false goods. Might I suggest a retitling to The David Feldman Enervated Left-Wing Spitecast? A slightly mean way to open, I realize, but I feel the show pushed me to this point and beyond. I would’ve had the same reaction to chocolate-chip ice cream that called itself “chocolate.” The program most certainly contains comedy; that’s not in doubt. It just contains a lot more enervated left-wing spite.

Feldman’s podcast shares content with his broadcast on Los Angeles’ KPFK, and I’ll get e-mails about how that should’ve been warning enough. I’ve heard plenty of neat shows on that station — why, just yesterday I was listening to something about African electronica — but heated agreement festivals about the endless humiliations of powerlessness and the countless evils of the Republican party run rampant on its schedule. Feldman and his variety of guests tend to cover the same ground. While unlikely ever to conclusively determine if the United Nations should try George W. Bush for war crimes or for a lot of war crimes, they do claim without hesitation the unparalleled presidential suitability of Dennis Kucinich, that “it’s axiomatic that supply-side economics doesn’t work” (a rare misunderstanding of the term “axiomatic” and probably of supply-side economics as well), and that taxing the rich more will obviously right the nation’s woes.

I didn’t mean to go so hard on this show, but it opens an old wound. Were I a conservative, a Republican, or what have you, we could chalk this up to a difference of opinion and move on. But I’m not! I’m just a guy who still resents having been told that the left would offer a thinking man’s sanctuary in the low-I.Q., high-volume arena of American politics — then getting mercilessly hailed with statements like those above. Feldman and his guests are right to criticize the flimsy, buffoonish generalizations and over-reductions spouted by the high-profile right, but must they respond in kind? Fighting fire with fire has a certain ring to it, granted, but allow me to suggest water.

Still, Feldman’s a comedy writer and performer, and he does deliver laughs. His funniest and/or most interesting moments, almost meta-comedy, deal the mechanics of his jokes, the nature of the comedy business, and his own long history in the business. While not an especially sterling example, I did like how he followed a joke about Larry King Live ending “after 50,000... soiled adult diapers” with a consideration of what other humorous things he could’ve gone through 50,000 of on television. One three-way conversation about the nature of sitcom writing versus other comedy writing sticks out as enlightening, and even a few minutes where Feldman and a colleague go one-for-one with their old Reagan jokes (yes, really) definitely didn’t sound like something I’d hear on the garden variety hosted-by-a-22-year-old comedy podcast.

But jeez, it always comes back to the politics. This happens so frequently and so gratingly that I eventually found sweet relief in Feldman’s bursts of bitterness that only have to do with his career-related disappointment. Why do I find the political talk so bothersome, you ask? Why can’t I just ignore it? Maybe it’s the same reason armchair quarterbacking frustrates me. You ain’t playin’ on the team. You sure ain’t coachin’ the team. In fact, you have no way to meaningfully affect the game. It won’t make much difference in your life — your actual, real, everyday life — if your guys win or if the other ones do, so why pretend? Why hasten your heart attack about it? Most armchair quarterbacks don’t have a lot else going on, so you can’t really blame them. But what conclusion to draw about armchair quarterbacks skilled and practiced enough to make you laugh out loud, if only they felt like it?

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Smartest Man in the World


Vital stats:
Format: live persona-based comedy
Episode duration: 1h-1h10m
Frequency: once or twice a month
Archive available on iTunes: all

I don’t have to tell anyone who hangs around this part of Internet that comedians and podcasting are the new peanut butter and chocolate. Sure, whenever we weren’t seeing them live, we got used to enjoying our comedians on talk show appearances, critically-acclaimed double albums, buddy comedies, and Private Joke Files, but this podcasting business is a whole other deal. It’s like it was crafted specifically suit the form of expression and the lifestyle of the modern man or woman of hilarity. They’re catching on to this quick, too. Does your favorite comedian not have a podcast? Wait a few weeks.

Greg Proops got with the program, as it were, in October. Remembering him as surely one of my top 25 favorite Loveline guests of all time — though I couldn’t quite remember why — I hopped immediately on his podcast, The Smartest Man in the World [iTunes]. Then I had to wait a few months for a substantial episode stock to build up, since he only puts out one or two a month. But they’re elaborate! You get over an hour! Recorded live! Audience Q&A and everything! The show, you see, takes on a form that’s recently gained a lot of traction in the podcasting comedian community: the recorded live show. As near as I can figure, Proops puts on a live show in L.A. every few weeks, records it as what he calls a “Proopcast”, then releases it to his worldwide Proops nation using the magic of the internet. Straightforward stuff, but with Proops, the personality delivers the complexity. Or I guess I should say the persona delivers the complexity, since it’s hard to imagine him going around like this all the time in real life.

From his Loveline appearances, I’d remembered Proops as funny and crisply well-spoken, but not wildly out of the ordinary. Either I’ve misremembered him or he’s ramped it way up in the intervening years, because — jeez, how do I even describe his demeanor? He holds court with a manner of speaking that’s part old-school cartoon Englishman, part gay caricature, part regular Joe’s impression of an egghead, and part stoned Southern California surfer. He combines surprising-in-a-comedy-context historical references with impressively well-remembered quotations with deliberate malapropisms with pop-culture name checking that’s much more obscurantist in tone than in content.

You’re probably either thinking this sounds grippingly fascinating or deeply insufferable. You are right and wrong, all at once. I’m no comedy nerd, but it seems to me that much of the way Proops performs exists outside the normal spectrum of comedic expectations. He walks the thinnest imaginable like between irony and sincerity; sometimes blasting the audience with a thick, gooey spray of vaguely multisyllabic adjectives, deadly maladies of centuries past, and lines from Antony and Cleopatra; sometimes simply connecting with a story or an opinion that’s cleanly, uncomplicatedly his own and doesn’t need the extra layers of delivery flavor.

But it’s not always easy to tell which is which! At any given point in a Smarest Man in the World episode, you’re hearing, I suspect, a certain percentage Greg Proops the made-up character and a certain percent the genuine dude. Never is he 100 percent one and zero percent the other. As an audience for comedy, confusion isn’t a terrible state of mind to be in, but I have to say I come down solidly in favor of real Proops rather than crazy Proops. It’s best, I suppose, when the he cuts the former a little bit with the latter, but he risks a style takeover by his worst tendencies. It’s like, dude, I don’t much admire George Bush or Dick Cheney either, but those unhinged Mr. Hyde screeds aren’t doing either of us any favors. There are superlatives that apply to the sort of people who make a habit of those, but “smartest” isn’t one of them.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: The Legacy Music Hour


Vital stats:
Format: 8- and 16-bit video game music showcase
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

When I first heard about The Legacy Music Hour [iTunes], a (a) podcast (b) devoted to video games but (c) mostly 20-year-old ones and (d) entirely to their music, I said the idea was so geeky that it almost comes around the other side to normal. But listening, I realized that, insanely geeky or just pretty geeky, it’s just the show me and the other members of a certain specific generational subgroup have been waiting for.

The program hosts, Brent Weinbach and Rob F., spend each hour trading off selections of video game music they’ve found particularly interesting in the past week. They will have spent that week searching for tracks from the games of certain developers, like role-playing titan Square [MP3]; certain composer, like Mari Yamaguchi [MP3] or Junko Tamiya [MP3] or “elevator” music [MP3]. And it's not just any old video game music; everything comes from what these guys consider "the golden age of video game music," the time of 8-bit and 16-bit consoles, roughly 1985 to 1995. (Golden age of video games themselves, if you ask me.)

The elevator music episode really started me thinking. Like so many Americans in their mid-twenties, I got into music itself by way of the music that happened to play in the video games I loved. This happened, of course, during Brent and Rob's golden age. Back then, game developers couldn’t just hire “real” musicians to record “real” music; their composers had to work with within very — often very, very — specific hardware constraints, resulting in a wide array of highly distinctive sounds and styles that are only now coming into real fashion. Except for the hosts’ voices, there’s absolutely nothing recorded with a microphone on The Legacy Music Hour: it’s all the razor-sharp arpeggios of the NES; the compressed yet sweeping samples of the Super NES; the forceful thumps and buzzes of the Genesis; the gritty washes of the Turbografx-16.

Though I didn’t realize it at the time, the only music I liked as a little kid was video game music. I usually latched onto the kind of tracks Brent and Rob discuss in their surprisingly insightful breakdown of what constitutes the much-maligned “elevator” style. I’d never thought it about it before, but this show made me understand: I never played video games to win; I played almost purely for the aesthetic experience. It was about the graphics, the design, the sound effects, but most importantly, the music. I suspect a bunch of us 8- and 16-bit habitués have come to realize the same thing.

So it makes sense that I’d fall right into The Legacy Music Hour’s target demographic, but I insist there are also widely fascinating issues at work here about the interaction between aesthetics and technology, between compositional creativity and electronic limitations. Brent and Rob know this, and you can hear it when they occasionally find their way into serious examinations of what, musicologically, makes these tracks tick. I wish they’d do it for every piece they play, even if it means they have to play fewer of them. After all, these compositions, once largely written off as a bunch of childish bleeps and bloops, shaped a big part of this generation’s musical Weltanschauung. I know it shaped mine.

(And yes, JJGO listeners, they play stuff from Herzog Zwei.)

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Life Lessons with Jim Carolla


Vital stats:
Format: psychotheraputic and meditational explorations
Duration: 25m-50m
Frequency: weekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

Followers of Adam Carolla’s major radio and podcast enterprises haven’t gotten a particularly positive image of his father, Jim Carolla. According to Carolla fils’ memories, Carolla père was always too busy with divorce, depression, cheapskatery, and an overwhelming tendency against activity of any kind to be much of a dad. Even today, the elder seems unable to remember or even acknowledge the accomplishments of the younger. (Offered a $10,000 check for a correct answer, he couldn’t spell or cite the dial position of the station that carried Loveline.) Having established his own content-hungry podcasting network, Adam nevertheless gave Jim the opportunity to host a show of his own.

Even as a reasonably enthusiastic Adam Carolla fan, saying I didn’t know what to expect from Life Lessons with Jim Carolla [RSS] [iTunes] puts it mildly. I’d heard Adam mention that Jim was some sort of psychoanalyst, so I figured that would influence the show’s content. I guess I was aware that he also played the trumpet professionally, but hearing him bust it out here came as a surprise. As for his soaringly comedic lounge singing and the presence of Adam’s high school buddy Ray Oldhafer... well, some things are unforeseeable.

Those same Carolla fans who’ve built up strong advance suspicion about Jim can’t be much more charitably inclined toward Ray. In the vast majority of Adam’s many, many tales of adolescent and adult tomfoolery with his “idiot buddies from the Valley,” Ray comes off as the maniac among maniacs. And to be a clear as possible about the context, we’re talking about a bunch of dudes who didn’t think twice about urinating on one another in the car. (More recently, and for reasons that remain oblique, he put a turd in Jimmy Kimmel’s desk.) Perhaps he’s just the sort of troubled soul who’d have spent the past fifteen years undergoing therapy sessions with — you guessed it — Jim Carolla. Doubling his role as Jim’s real-life patient, Ray does the job of his co-host on the podcast.

The complicating factor is that, on Life Lessons, neither of these guys come off as dumb or even very weird. One is a middle-age builder from a chaotic immigrant family, plagued by a weakness for beer and cigarettes, and can’t quite get out of his own way; the other is a near-octogenarian therapist from a chaotic immigrant family who’s found a means of holding it all down, in his way, with heavy doses of reflection and meditation. A larger discussion about the struggles of existence they have in common runs through the episodes, framed by terms like “the power of attention” [MP3], “the archaeology of the self” [MP3], and “a higher level of consciousness” [MP3]. Knowing only what Adam’s said about Jim and Ray, it’s hard not to come away favorably impressed with their calm articulacy and good humor (even if Jim often fails to get Ray’s jokes).

Still, you can’t deny that Ray is a bit of a screw-up and Jim a bit of a goof. Ray openly acknowledges his screw-uppiness, though — that’s why he’s on this couch in the first place — and Jim embraces his own persona, which allows for the use of words like “podcasters” (meaning the podcast’s listening audience) and “computerize” (meaning to send an e-mail). Combine this with all the Freudian-type talk about concepts whose very names sound discredited and you get a hard affair to take seriously. But like those times David Lynch starts going on about transcendence, it’s also hard to take unseriously. Ray’s probably right to seek out solutions to both his self-destructive impulses and his irritating minor twitches; Jim’s probably right to raise his awareness to help him find them. We’re lucky they’ve chosen to do this on one of the most interestingly bizarre podcasts I’ve ever heard.

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

Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: Freakonomics Radio


Vital stats:
Format: Freakonomic investigations
Duration: 5m-40m
Frequency: biweekly
Archive available on iTunes: all

It’s about time for a Freakonomics podcast, fans of the book might grumble. I won’t call the complaint invalid; Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner’s bestseller came out half a decade ago, and even then podcasting was a thing. A podcast feels like a natural outgrowth of the Freakonomics brand, which has already racked up years in, for example, the blogosphere. I read Freakonomics back when it hit (though I haven’t made it around to the sequel, Superfreakonomics) and found myself pretty damned entertained by journalist Dubner’s description of the economist Levitt’s investigations into human behavior in such exotic, data-rich settings as sumo tournaments, Israeli daycares, and crack dealers’ moms’ apartments. So why not try out Freakonomics Radio [RSS] [iTunes]?

I recall a bunch of the grumpier economics bloggers giving Freakonomics a hard time, even going so far as to accuse it of having nothing much to do with economics. Despite having cultivated an interest in the subject, I was never quite able to figure out whether that charge stuck. (I admit that Levitt’s title, “Rogue Economist”, may oversell his distance from the mainstream.) A similar backlash met Freakonomics Radio’s debut earlier this year, though it was less about the proper rigors of social science than the proper regularity of podcast production. To their credit, Levitt and Dubner took to the mics and addressed these issues in an episode [MP3], promising more and better.

They have indeed gone on to deliver some and good. With a huge-name, massively-downloaded podcast like this, I’ve been conditioned to expect a rigid regularity of format. There’s not a lot of that here; episodes vary between a few minutes of Levitt and Dubner talking about what’s to be learned by applying the Freakonomic method to the World Cup [MP3] and a big, rich, This American Life-type documentary thing on the similarities between the suckiness of public schools and the suckiness of commercial radio stations [MP3]. They even do two-parters, including a recent one on the challenges facing a saving-incentivizing type of bank account which works like a “no-lose lottery” [MP3] [MP3]. This sometimes elaborate sound richness (as they call it in public radio) surprised me at first, but then I found out that the show isn’t just any old podcast. It’s actually an agglomeration of Freakonomically literate audio entertainments, some of which air on “real” radio — shows like Marketplace — all co-produced with WNYC, the public radio station of choice for many a public radio geek. No surprise this all took so long to come around, then.

One of the complaints Steven and Stephen quoted asked for “more Levitt, less Dubner.” Some of the the aforementioned econ bloggers have said the same. I myself have never known quite how to feel about the journalist-presents-researcher format, tried and true on the bestseller list and ridden even harder in the popular economics book boom that was Freakonomics’ aftermath. Part of me wants more direct access to a mind like Levitt’s; part of me is happy not to have it. There was a particularly fascinating 19th-century sense in which Dubner presented Levitt as something of a freak show — as it were — who finds even freakier things under the socioeconomic logs he overturns himself. The book form worked well enough for this sort of thing, but what I’ve heard so far makes me think the podcast/radio form could work even better. It grants the right kind of directness: you get to hear from the actual economic actors involved in these situations, plus you get both Levitt and Dubner’s voices discretely. Dubner was servicable as Levitt’s P.T. Barnum, but he’s better as his interlocutor.

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