A Shamelessly Subjective List of Essential Podcast Episodes
This isn’t a best of list. It’s somewhere between a personal favourites and an introduction to podcasts for the uninitiated. Despite podcasts having been a big business for a few years now, for every avid listener I meet, I seem to run into a dozen people who either don’t know how to listen, don’t know where to start, or just have no idea what a podcast is. So here’s a crash course. Podcasts 101.
Some online dictionary defines “podcast” thusly:
“A digital audio file made available on the Internet for downloading to a computer or portable media player, typically available as a series, new instalments of which can be received by subscribers automatically.”
So, it’s an audio file. And within that limitation, it can literally be anything. The most common seems to be interviews, followed by a group dudes (it is usually dudes), sitting around, talking about whatever. But there are a lot of different kinds, and I’ll take you through a few here.
To overcome one of the biggest obstacles I hear from non-listeners – “how do I listen?” – think about how you listen to music. There are lots of ways. You can download or stream from iTunes, Soundcloud, etc. Even less official sources like fan-uploads on Youtube don’t seem as illegitimate on account of podcasts generally being free (the trade-off being that most of the bigger podcasts have a bunch of ads in ‘em). I guess the main difference between podcasts and music is that some software like iTunes has a “Subscribe” button, so you automatically download new episodes as they release.
Here are a few starters to get you going.
The Worst Idea Of All Time
To be honest, choosing a favourite episode of The Worst Idea Of All Time sort of misses the point, as the show’s strength lies in sheer, oppressive volume. The self-destructive premise is two guys watch the same terrible film every week for a year, and review/debrief/descend into a personal hell for your amusement. The worsening mental state of both hosts is compounded by each weekly revisiting of Grown Ups 2 (season one), Sex And The City 2 (season two) or, coming soon, We Are Your Friends (season three). But here, have this snapshot from mid-season one, where the regular hosts Tim Batt and Guy Montgomery are joined by journalist, news presenter and Tickled director David Farrier.
Listen to The Worst Idea Of All Time Season 1 #39:
Season 1 #29 : The notoriously sub-sober Prawn Salad episode.
Season 2 #39 : Southern, featuring a particularly revealing look into the hosts’ mental decline.
Season 1 #16 : Knife, which introduces a semi-regular inanimate host.
The Joe Rogan Experience
I found this conversation with trophy hunter Corey Knowlton pretty confronting, and not just for the daunting run time of two-and-a-half hours. As a card holding left-leaning-pinko-sometimes-vegetarian hippy, I was expecting to be constantly disgusted and outraged listening to the Texan who paid $350,000 to kill an endangered black rhino. Upon listening, I was surprised with how sound his argument was for doing what he does.
Host Joe Rogan is pretty clearly on his side, in that he’s not outright antagonistic, but doesn’t pull any punches, asking the right questions for Corey to explain his views and actions. I’m not an expert – I still don’t know who’s right when it comes to “should we shoot beautiful creatures in their faces?”, but I was at least stopped in my tracks and forced to recognise that he has some good points based on solid facts, and at least appears to believe he’s doing the right thing.
In this current culture of being outraged on the internet about everything, I think it’s healthy to stop and consider the opinions of the people you disagree with (I’m looking at you, both sides of Gamergate). And, if you’re the more bloodthirsty type who are more sympathetic to the idea of trophy kills, it’s just a real good talk about hunting and whatnot.
#651: Jordan Gilbert (c9n0thing) You might not expect an almost-three-hour talk with a professional Counter Strike player to be terribly interesting, but you might just be wrong. I don’t play CS, or any FPS really, and still found this conversation entertaining enough to talk me through several commutes to work.
#528: Michael Stevens Host of Youtube series Vsauce, Michael is a bit of a geek hero. Like many on this list, this interview is compelling simply for being a good, long chat with a smart and passionate human, and Michael Stevens is smarter and more passionate than most.
WTF with Marc Maron
Of course a WTF episode had to feature somewhere here. While Marc Maron’s stand up comedy career never quite hit the big time, he’s become a podcast sensation. If you instantly think “they’re just long interviews right?” when you hear about podcasts, this show’s success is the reason. Long-form conversational interviews have boomed in WTF’s wake. And sure, countless A-list celebrities and even President Barack Obama’s been interviewed on the show, but the episode I want to share with you is Jason Segel. He may not be the biggest star, and he doesn’t have the most glamourous or hard-knock life story. But he shares very honestly about his getting back on the horse after struggling with addiction and a lack of drive. If you consider yourself a “creative” person, but frustrate yourself with an unshakable relationship with laziness or addiction to a certain substance or time-wasting habit, et cetera, you may just find some solidarity listening to this chat.
Listen to WTF with Marc Maron #623: Jason Segel
#111 and #112: Louis CK part 1 and part 2 Comedians Louis and Marc have had a long and complicated friendship. Peppered with moments of genuine emotion, this is a pretty beautiful record of guy love between two guys.
#684: William Friedkin Hearing a true genius talk about their craft is always a treat, and the director of The Exorcist doesn’t do interviews as a rule, making this episode a particularly unique gem. His supernatural encounter with the Shroud of Turin is the cherry on top.
28 Plays Later: Pixels
I don’t listen to a lot of gaming podcasts, but I really like 28 Plays Later. As a general rule the Venn diagram of people who understand games and people who sound interesting when they talk about games is just two separate circles. These guys are among the few exceptions. Hosts Kris and Paul are very honest – they don’t pretend they’re more knowledgeable or more nerdy than they actually are. They didn’t hesitate to confess having played on Arkham Knight’s easy mode to simply get through the story while low on time – even encouraging listeners to do the same if they wanted to avoid having the ending ruined by the inevitable deluge of “turns out the Arkham Knight is actually ____” spoilers.
The episode I’ve chosen is a bit different – with one of the usual two hosts absent, Paul is joined by the Kiwi lads from The Worst Idea Of All Time (see above/below) to review/grieve watching the nightmarishly bad Adam Sandler childhood destroyer Pixels. A very satisfying and accessible listen, because who doesn’t enjoy hearing funny folks shitting on something objectively terrible for an hour?
Listen to 28 Plays Later #53: Pixels
#23: The One Where Kris And Paul Get A Room The main discussion here is the character Quiet from Metal Gear Solid V, and whether she is, broadly speaking, a sexist character design. If you flinched or rolled your eyes at that sentence, maybe this would be a good listen for you. At one point toward the end of the episode, there’s the sentence, “people get offended by the fact that you and I are even having this conversation.” It’s honestly uncomfortable being part of the gamer community while being a feminist, and it’s comforting that these guys at least talk it out.
#36: The One With Harrison Ford Christmas. Star Wars. Harrison Ford. Those three ingredients surely couldn’t mean anything but a winner, right ?
Not the only podcast listed here that is unadvisable to listen to just one episode. Serial’s tag line is “one story told week by week” so that’s a clue to just listen to the whole thing. I chose the episode Escaping from season two for a few reasons. Firstly, it’s a detailed account of a POW escaping his captors in a mountainous region of Pakistan and finding his way around the wilderness. Secondly, the second season didn’t get a lot of love from some fans of the first one. If you’re someone on the edge about committing your time when you’ve heard it’s not as good, I think this episode covers a lot of ground to pull you into the story without spending too much time in minor details that are really more geared toward the already committed, less fair-weather listeners.
Listen to Serial Season 2 #3: Eascaping
Season 1 #1 The Alibi. It’s 1999. A girl is dead. Strangled. Her boyfriend did it. Or did he? Start right here at the beginning.
The Dollop will learn ya history – but with episodes like “American Vampire Panic”, “Octopus Wrestling” and “Syphilis in America”, this ain’t your granddaddy’s history. Well, I guess point is, it actually is, but it’s not the one he told you. This episode delivers a strangely hilarious, grippingly narrated retelling of a 30,000ft high fight scene that involves claw hammers to the face, fishing spears and barrel rolls. This graphic episode is a perfectly accessible entry point into maybe the most entertaining and horrifying history lessons.
This episode delivers a strangely hilarious, grippingly narrated retelling of a 30,000ft high fight scene that involves claw hammers to the face, fishing spears and barrel rolls. This graphic episode is a perfectly accessible entry point into maybe the most entertaining and horrifying history lessons. The Dollop will learn ya history – but with episodes like “American Vampire Panic”, “Octopus Wrestling” and “Syphilis in America”, this ain’t your granddaddy’s history. Well, I guess point is, it actually is, but it’s not the one he told you.
#5: Hugh Glass Yes, the same Hugh Glass who Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his Oscar playing in The Revenant. If you want to hear the story without the Hollywood embellishments, here ya go. Turns out fact is still stranger than fiction.
#8: The Dolphin Scientist administers hallucinogens to dolphins for science. It gets pretty weird from there.
#31: Jack Parsons Between illegal rocket building, sex cults, a cameo from Scientologist founder L Ron Hubbard and the contents of a little black box in the closing minutes of the tale, this could be my personal favourite episode of any media I’ve consumed.
#139: The Story of Atari Ok, one for the geeks. You probably know this story at least in part, especially if you followed the story of the terrible ET Atari game (and, if not, definitely also watch the Atari: Game Over documentary on Netflix.), but it’s always a pleasure hearing a bizarre true story as told by these top class comedians.
This show breaks the very important rule of having a title that is easy to say, spell or even hear clearly. But then you listen and discover that they’re not really trying to appease a broad audience anyway. Hosted by podcast/showbiz busyman Paul F. Tompkins, Spontaneanation is an improv sketch show. The premise is that at the end of each episode, the guest suggests the setting that the guests of the following episode much use as a launching point to begin their improvised play.
The concept sounds a little high-school-drama-exercise, but when the guests deliver (pretty much always), it’s bloody funny stuff. The episode I’ve listed features Orange Is The New Black’s Lauren Lapkus, alongside – and I’m really wearing my obsessions on my sleeve by now – Tim and Guy from The Worst Idea Of All Time, again.
Listen to Spontaneanation #38: Beautiful, Fancy Apartment in NYC.