In the first edition of the Favorite Podcasts series, posted last week, I wrote about my picks for the top three podcasts (that I listen to).
This time, I’m going into the second tier. At times I prefer shows in this section to This American Life, Fresh Air, and Savage Love, especially when they are brand new to me and exciting. But because I haven’t listened to them as long, they haven’t made it into my personal pantheon of favorites quite yet. As I’ve learned over the years I’ve been a podcast listener, sometimes shows that have a ton of promise can unfortunately burn out quickly and disappear without a trace, or the schedule becomes irregular. Or I just have gotten my fill and lose interest.
Among the five selections are a couple of new favorites plus a classic staple or two. These are in order of which I discovered first to which one I started listening to most recently.
The Moth is probably the best source on the internet for consistently high quality, intriguing nonfiction stories told aloud besides This American Life. It’s probably not a coincidence that some of the stories which gain notoriety on The Moth eventually graduate to being replayed on This American Life, and I think the reverse might also be true. The concept is that this nonprofit organization hosts “story slams” across the country, and the best ones eventually make it to the podcast.
I have been to a Moth event at the Bell House in Brooklyn, and it was a great time. I got a sense of the range of quality Moth storytellers have: you have your very polished raconteurs who tell their stories time and time again, and have many stories to tell — they have a certain level of charisma that the audience responds to — but then you also have one-timers who are not the typical storytelling type but have a life story so amazing that they had to tell it. I love that The Moth has both. This is definitely the “second tier” podcast that is most likely to graduate to the pantheon.
Coincidentally, I’ve also seen a Harmontown show at the Bell House, as part of their “Harmon Country” tour. I’m having trouble thinking of how to describe it, since it is all manner of things. To the layman who stumbles into a random episode where the mood is dark (which it often can be), it can come off as a rant outlet for comedians Dan Harmon and Jeff Davis. But they take it to alternately thought-provoking and levels, and I would wager that Harmontown has given me the most genuine laughs of any podcast. They have great regular guests like Spencer the Dungeonmaster, Erin McGathy (Dan’s fiance), and Kumail Nanjiani, and running gags abound. Over the show’s history, there have been prank calls to Chevy Chase, dozens of Your Mama raps, conversations about race, discussions of how often showers are necessary, and conspiracy theories.
Harmontown is not for everyone, but try giving a listen to two or three episodes before you make a final decision about it. Initially I despised it. As Harmon himself will admit, he comes off as vain and narcissistic at times. But then, somehow or other, I became addicted and have never looked back. Now this show that started off with episodes just over an hour flirts with the two hour mark all the time, but you really don’t notice it.
WTF with Marc Maron
WTF, like Harmontown, is another love-it-or-hate-it show. Sometimes when Maron goes on a long whiny rant about his anxieties or things or people he’s sworn off, I consider deleting the show and being done with it. Also, I can’t stand his opening greetings to fans. He talks about cutting that out, and I really wish he would. But back to his reflections on his own life, sometimes they do become interesting and thought-provoking, and I do admire his willingness to truly bare all for his listeners.
I don’t think there is a podcaster (that’s not on the radio) who puts more blood, sweat, and tears into his product than Marc Maron. You really have to respect his dedication to putting out 2-3 new shows a week with some of the biggest stars in the business. Just in the last few months his guests have included Andy Samberg, Will Ferrell, Elijah Wood, and Dan Savage. Maron is really a top notch interviewer, and the stories he gets out of his guests are amazing. Not quite Howard Stern amazing, but still amazing. Sometimes you see who the guest of the episode is, and it’s someone you’ve never heard of in your life, but then what follows is one of the most interesting interviews in podcastland of that month.
I started out listening to this podcast with Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas based on a recommendation from a friend of mine, a fellow movie lover who said she had just started listening to it. HDTGM is a show that will entertain you with hilarious critiques of the movies you have heard of, and for awhile you think those are going to be the only episodes you listen to. But then you get sucked into listening to every single episode they came out with because they dissect every little implausibility in ways that will have you laughing wherever you are. My favorite episode — and other listeners I’ve spoken to seem to agree with me — is the one on Will Smith’s After Earth. I actually saw it in theater, and it was really gratifying to hear it be skewered, and to have critiques I had thought in my head come out of another person’s mouth.
Comedy Bang! Bang!
Like HDTGM, Comedy Bang! Bang! is a hilarious show on the Earwolf podcast network. It is actually the most recently added subscription for me, and it’s become a fast favorite. Scott Aukerman and a regular stable of guests talk about anything and everything. This show is a must-listen for fans of the ironic and tongue-in-cheek. Since I’ve dutifully listened to every single episode (84 episodes adds up to a lot of your life!), Harmontown certainly holds the crown for most laughs from me overall, but I would wager that CBB has more laughs per episode.
There is usually a guest on the show who, without being introduced as his or her true self (but you can see who it actually is in the podcast description), sustains a celebrity impression for the full length of the show, while Aukerman plays the straight man. My favorite impression that I’ve heard so far is James Adomian as Jesse Ventura. Horatio Sanz is brilliant in a whole range of roles. Sometimes the impressions get tiresome when they’re not really working, but those performances are in the minority. And really, it’s no surprise when you consider a comic is essentially doing audio improv for an hour or more. I also love when they play “Would You Rather?”