Lately, a certain part of my routine has become devoted to downloading recordings of comedians interviewing and riffing at each other. I then listen to those recordings, which cause me to chuckle audibly on BART until the person next to me moves. Then, hey, great, seat to myself.
My podcast obsession started with Doug Loves Movies, Comedy Bang Bang, and the poignant and insightful WTF with Marc Maron. Eventually I branched out into more unusual fare. If you’re ready to venture away from the homogenous comfort zone of the LA comedy scene, here is a list of six podcasts I feel are under-appreciated, all of which are available on iTunes.
Welcome to Night Vale professes to be a broadcast news report from a town, like Twin Peaks, in which things are often not quite right. “Several Night Vale residents are complaining about extremely noisy sunsets,” mellifluous-voiced reporter / narrator Cecil intones in one characteristically surreal segment. The “weather report” in each episode is just a haunting song by a different musician. Welcome to Night Vale is alternately hilarious, genuinely spooky, and poetic, and an atmosphere of supernatural menace pervades it.
Key Quote: “In light of the ever-declining sales of newspapers and the rise of competition from digital media, the Nightvale Daily Journal announced that it has developed a new business model. Their new mission as a newspaper is to kill news bloggers with hatchets.”
This podcast is similarly adept at creating a world of its own. Here, comedian and musician Gregg Turkington assumes his frequently-corny, often-antagonistic stage persona, Neil Hamburger, and brings you a new year every week or so. From “Hollywood Times Square,” Hamburger and his co-host, fellow alt comedian Major Entertainer Mike H, conduct fake interviews with found audio and play cheesy, wah-and-synth heavy songs until the final countdown.
Key Quote: “Mike, good to see you on this most holy of holidays.”
McSweeney’s contributor and indisputable hero of Twitter John Moe hosts this charming, aptly-named public radio show / podcast, which features guests like John Hodgman, Neil Gaiman and Maria Bamford for skits, songs and interviews. Here, Henry Rollins and singer Lissie preview coming attractions:
You might know John Hodgman from those old Mac ads, or from The Daily Show. He’s a brilliant humorist and each episode of his podcast consists of a mock trial. Hodgman rules on minor social matters, from how often it’s acceptable to text in front of someone (“Antisocial Networking”) to whether a couple should raise their kids to believe in Santa (“Probable Claus”). His Judge Judy-ish brusque persona seems to be a goof, but his advice is clearly genuine. I went to the Judge John Hodgman SF Sketchfest show, and at one point there was a puppy on stage, John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats appeared as a musical guest and expert witness in a tarot-related case, and I had so much fun that I chose to miss the last train to the East Bay rather than leave early.
Key Quote: “You have part of my attention, you have the minimum amount. The rest of my attention is back in my chambers, where Bailiff Jesse and I are doing things that no one in this room, including Mike and Lauren, are intellectually or creatively capable of doing. Which is to say we’re in there shutting pieholes. Bailiff Jesse, swear them in.”
When I classify The Best Show as underrated, it’s not because the show doesn’t have a substantial and avid following -- it does. I say it’s underrated because The Best Show is one of my favorite things that exists, up there with the short stories of John Cheever, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and complaining. The podcast is a recording of Tom Scharpling's free-form radio show, in which he holds court on pop culture and takes calls from the likes of Todd Barry, Ted Leo, and a slew of bizarre and unfriendly characters played by Scharpling’s comedic partner Jon Wurster. He plays the song “Bad Company” over boring callers. Recently Scharpling had callers help him outline a script for the upcoming Entourage movie over the air. The Best Show Gems podcast posts clips from the show, mostly calls from Wurster.
Key Quote: “Can you imagine? That guy [Kelsey Grammer.] Handcuffed to that guy. I’d be like, meh, you know what? My right arm’s not that good. Y’know what I mean? Me and my right arm had a good run. Time to say goodbye to ya, buddy. You’re going to live with Kelsey Grammer now.”
Also worth mentioning:
How Was Your Week with Julie Klausner (The opening monologue in the recent Episode “Heavy Things Onto Stages” tackles topics ranging from the death of a friend to the new season of Smash, and is one of the funniest, most heartbreaking things I’ve ever heard).