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Thursday, January 2nd, 2014

The Year in Comedy Podcasts

It's been a few years since the big comedy podcast boom of 2009/2010, but the medium is continuing to be popular. 2013 was a year that saw the number of new shows declining a bit as most comedians were already hosting shows at the top of the year, and it's also a year that saw some well-known podcasters (Marc Maron, Pete Holmes, Chris Hardwick, Nikki Glaser & Sara Schaefer) getting their own TV shows off their success in the medium, but the big story in the podcast world this year was host Tom Scharpling ending The Best Show on WFMU after 13 years (although it may continue in some form).

On top of all that, Welcome to Night Vale, which launched in 2012, took off in a big way in 2013, becoming a massive phenomenon; comedians Todd Barry, Kurt Braunohler, Jen Kirkman, Matt Braunger, Jeff Garlin, Sean Clements & Hayes Davenport, and Michael Ian Black & Michael Showalter all launched new shows; Earwolf opened its TV production wing; and the Video Podcast Network launched, featuring video versions of new and existing shows, including Earwolf podcasts and one hosted by Norm Macdonald that disappeared by June.

Now, let's look back on the year in podcasts as our team of contributors (credited with initials) hands out accolades in a bunch of made up categories to some of the best shows going:

Best Weak-Premised Podcast Not To Exhaust its Premise: Topics with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter

For the second year in a row, a Michael Ian Black podcast has won this made-up category. Though Mike and Tom Eat Snacks is nowhere to be seen (more on that later), Black and his perpetual comedy partner Michael Showalter have stretched another shaky podcast premise through the second half of 2013 – and it looks like they can keep going ad infinitum. The stated premise of Topics with Michael Ian Black and Michael Showalter is two comedians having an intense, earnest conversation about a topic, which the two will purportedly cover 80% of by the end of a show. The real premise of the podcast? Showalter and Ian Black can bullshit about anything with a straight face – basically playing characters who know little to nothing about the world, but think that they’re having super profound discussions when they’re actually either completely wrong or saying something so cliché it either makes you cringe or laugh out loud. Whether that kind of humor is your cup of tea or not, what’s impressive is the duo’s ability to record hours of these conversations while simultaneously keeping them entertaining and bone-dry. It looks like Black and Showalter’s deadpan is bottomless. [R.S.]

Best Final Year: The Best Show on WFMU

In October, Tom Scharpling announced that his cult hit comedy program, The Best Show on WFMU, would be ending after 13 years. After the announcement, Best Show had an excellent, hilarious, and heartfelt run of final shows that saw it in better shape than ever and a fitting end to the program's comedy legacy as Scharpling's comedy partner Jon Wurster appeared out of character for the first time and Scharpling closed things out with an ultimate, touching speech and a funny Tom Waits fake-out. Scharpling has said some version of the show will be back in some form this year, and hopefully, we won't have to wait too long for it. [B.E.]

Best Last Interview with a LegendOverview with Rick Overton w/ Jonathan Winters

Comedian/actor Rick Overton kicked off his Overview podcast a little over a year ago on the Sideshow Network. His guest for the fourth episode was comedy legend Jonathan Winters, whose health issues had made him a somewhat elusive figure in recent years. His main asset – his razor-sharp mind – is very much on display in this interview which proved to be the comedian’s last, as he passed away on April 11th of last year. From recounting his earliest days as a radio DJ up through his last TV appearance on Paul Provenza’s The Green Room in 2012, his ability to remember incredible details of events is warmly brought out by Overton. [M.H.]

Catchiest Theme Song: Hollywood Handbook

"Meg Ryan. Richard Gere. Michelle Pfeiffer. Rupert Grint. Small small small. Here comes Hayes and Sean." In just 30 seconds, the theme song for Hollywood Handbook reveals all you need to know about the podcast universe Hayes Davenport and Sean Clement inhabit: Meg Ryan and Rupert Grint, the two biggest movie stars who ever lived, are chump change compared to the big dick swangin' Hollywood power players behind this podcast. In the world of Hollywood Handbook, Ari Emmanuel waits three days for Hayes & Sean to return his call, Nelson Mandela was mummified after his death, and The Mimby Project is returning for its 10th season. If you're fresh off the bus from Kansas and trying to figure out how to break into the 'biz, the only thing you need is the Handbook. [P.G.]

Podcast That Best Deserves to Be A TV Show: Welcome to Night Vale

In 2013, no podcast matched the skyrocketing popularity of Welcome to Night Vale. In just 18 months, the independent production went to #1 in the iTunes charts, branched off into a live tour, and is now becoming a novel. And no other podcast is more easily adaptable to a television show than this bimonthly NPR-meets-Twin Peaks creation of Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor. It has everything you need in turning an original piece of work into an hour-long black comedy: An enthralling setting, eccentric characters, a fully-fleshed yet constantly-expanding universe with its own set of rules, and a fervent fanbase the likes of which are normally reserved for superhero movies. It even has a protagonist, Carlos the "perfect, beautiful" scientist investigating the phenomena of Night Vale, who would serve as the audience surrogate in discovering the weird ways of this desert town. Frankly, I'd be shocked if creative executives/agents hadn't already flown in the creators of WTNV for meetings. [P.G.]

Best Podcast with Five Different Formats: The K-Ohle with Kurt Braunohler

The K-Ohle (pronounced “K-hole”) launched in April 2013 with an epsiode titled "The Boat Show" featuring Paul F. Tompkins. Braunohler and Tompkins improvised a 30-minute podcast about boats. Boats. It was ridiculous and hilarious and, I thought, the weirdest possible format for a podcast. The next episode was called "Pet-O-Philia" and was nearly 45 minutes about pets and animals, including the game “Indie Band Name or Pet Name." Getting weirder. Next up, in "Get Lost," Braunohler blindfolds musician Nick Thorburn and drives him to a combo graveyard/art museum, where Thorburn now has to figure out where he is and how to get back. This pattern continued, three weird formats, one podcast, for months, and it never got stale. But just when you think you’ve got it figured out, along comes format number four: Fact Time. Matt Oberg joins as a co-host and the two men apply rigorous scientific inquiry to improvised stories from Paul F. Tompkins. Four formats. Four times the fun. Certainly, this is enough for Braunohler, right? You couldn’t be more wrong! Just under the wire of the new year, Braunohler managed to slip in a fifth podcast format, "Killer Rips with Kurty B," shattering all previously known podcast format records. In "Killer Rips," Braunohler takes Shelby Fero surfing. We don’t hear any of the surfing, so it could all be an elaborate ruse. But they definitely drive to and from somewhere, and between the LA freeway and the mighty Pacific, the listeners get treated to what is definitely the most dangerous comedy podcast in history. [S.R.]

Most Anticipated Return of a Podcast That Never Did: The Pod F. Tompkast

Just as spring was returning this year, after a long, Tompkast-less winter, Paul F. Tompkins released an “extrasode” of his amazing Pod F. Tompkast. The short bonus episode had a sketch from his live show, but more importantly, it featured Tompkins saying that season three of the Tompkast was being prepared, “for sure and for real, for good and for true, for once and for all.” And then we waited – and waited – and the year is now over, with no new Pod F. Tompkast: No phone calls with Jen Kirkman, no multi-character radio play, and no one to tell us not to get drunk and fight each other. To be sure, Paul F. Tompkins has been busy. Once again in 2013, Tompkins is one of the most podcastable comedians, appearing in pretty much everything, and he’s got two other awesome shows to produce in his web series Speakeasy and No, You Shut Up on Fusion TV. Maybe he’s grown out of it, maybe Eban Schletter’s been too busy with his own podcast, or maybe writing and recording a new “Great Undiscovered Project” is too intensive, given Tompkin’s other commitments. I, for one, would be happy with shorter, easier-to-produce episodes – even if it only included his piano-accompanied comedy-type ramblings, without the bitlets – as long as 2014 isn’t devoid of nighttime on the internet. [R.S.]

Best Podcast to Pull a Vanishing ActMike and Tom Eat Snacks

August 19th, 2013. A day that used to be known across America as simply John Stamos's birthday now lives in infamy as the last known audio recording of Mike and Tom Eat Snacks. For the uninitiated, Mike and Tom Eat Snacks, or "Mates" as it was lovingly referred to by its fervent fanbase, was a podcast hosted by intrepid snackers Michael Ian Black ("Magic") and Tom Cavanagh ("Tom"). To say that these two were firmly cemented on top of the snacking totem pole would be a reckless disservice to snacking, podcasts, totem poles and sentences. Mike and Tom didn't just dominate the audio snacking game, they irrevocably changed the audio snacking game forever. It's been a shade over four months since the listeners of MATES nibbled on the verbal dexterity and snacking acumen of Mike and Tom. Michael Ian Black has moved on to other podcasting ventures, while Tom Cavanagh continues to act in various television and film projects. Will Mike and Tom Eat Snacks return? I'd like to think so. Every now and again, maybe in jest or perhaps out of guilt, Mike and Tom offer a morsel of snack advice for us to munch on via Twitter. On that faithful August 19th, 2013 episode Mike and Tom ended their show with the phrase, "See you next week." Fans of MATES would settle for, "We'll see you next year." [J.S.]


Best Episodes of the Year:

Nerd Poker #18 with musical guest Patton Oswalt

Most listeners in the podcast realm are likely not into Dungeons & Dragons or any of the many other fantasy role-playing games that have been around since the early 1980s. Sadly for them, they may never decide to listen in on a session of comedian Brian Poeshn’s Nerd Poker, which is a clever euphemism for D&D. The host, along with his friends Blaine Capatch, Ken Daly, Gerry Duggan and Sarah Guzzardo, march into danger each week under the storytelling influence of Dungeon Master Scott Robinson. Each episode is filled with interesting moments but former D&D’er Patton Oswalt dropped in to regale his former gaming circle with a lusty tribute song to all of the characters, delivered in the style of one of the drunken dwarven characters he used to famously play. He’s threatened to return to perform an update now that the adventure has advanced. [M.H.]

You Made it Weird #173 – Chris Gethard

2013 was definitely a breakout year for Pete Holmes, culminating with him getting a talk show on TBS weekdays after Conan. Fans of his know that the You Made it Weird podcast played a major role in that success, which made it all the more intriguing when Chris Gethard (The Chris Gethard Show, UCB) came to the podcast and told the story of how he was on the Conaco radar as well. The two friends talked about that and about the alternate realities where Gethard, a steadfast New Yorker, might have been the one hosting a talk show if he’d moved to LA. I love this episode for the deep look into Gethard’s psyche. Gethard is an absolute hero to thousands of budding comedians, and yet he feels like he is always working to gain the respect he craves and not just be “the UCB kid”. He talks about advice given to him by Conan O’Brien and Jeff Ross that has led him to stay in New York and keep doing his show in his punk-rock way, advice which is that much more sage considering the recent announcement that Comedy Central is taking TCGS out for a test-drive. They talk about Gethard being Holmes’s improv teacher during Holmes’s divorce and get some insight into how Gethard’s approach to improv, almost religious, has colored Holmes’s reverence for comedy as a form of ministry. Oh, and all of that comes before we hear about Gethard’s adventures meeting a man with no face, visiting a haunted graveyard, facing death with Katie Dippold in an abandoned mental hospital, and having a shotgun pointed at his head while on assignment for Weird NJ magazine. The sheer volume of content these two manage to cram into less than two and a half hours is staggering, and makes this an episode worth several re-listens. [S.R.]

Smodcast #259 – The Walrus and The Carpenter

There aren’t a lot of podcast episodes that get spun into movies, but there aren’t a lot of podcasters with Bob Weinstein on speed-dial. That’s the remarkable thing about “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” an episode of Smodcast with Kevin Smith and Scott Mosier from June that Smith ended up turning into a low-budget horror flick that’s slated for release in 2014. The shape of this episode isn’t any different from other Smodcasts: Smith takes a weird news article or other piece of internet minutiae, and he and Mosier spend an hour amusing themselves dreaming up absurd scenarios and dialogue. But the premise of this particular episode was especially good. Smith found an advertisement for free room and board by an eccentric homeowner who said he missed his friend “Gregory,” with whom he’d spent the best three years of his life, on an island, alone. The homeowner wanted the potential lodger to dress up as Gregory and hang out for a couple hours a day, once a day, as his only form of payment. Oh, and Gregory was a walrus – a handmade walrus suit was at the ready for the lodger. Needless to say, this ridiculous and creepy premise led to a hilarious episode full of Smith and Mosier’s brand of giggly theater of the mind. But as they went along, Smith started to imagine their tall tales in the context of a claustrophobic psychological thriller – something like a cross between Human Centipede and a movie with a good plot, character, and dialogue. You could hear the gears in motion as Smith became more consumed with the idea that this could actually work. By the end of the episode, he asked the audience to tweet their votes, up or down, on whether Smith should proceed. Now the horror movie Tusk exists. It’s the utmost example of the potential podcasting still holds for both creator and audience: it’s a low-barrier creative outlet for comedians and others who want to refine their craft and test concepts, and for audiences, it’s a window into the places where characters, stories, shows, and other ideas (that you might later find in the mainstream) are born. [R.S.]

Doodie Calls – Anthony Atamanuik

I listened to hundreds of podcast episodes this year, but there was never a doubt in my mind about my favorite. No podcast makes me laugh out loud harder than Doodie Calls and one episode in particular was so hilarious that I've lost count as to how many times I listened to it in 2013. Anthony Atamanuik's episode of the show contains not one, but six different anecdotes of the UCB performer shitting himself. Atamanuik's stories span the entire range of his life, from 5th grade to his 30s and can be compared to some of Western Civilization's best coming-of-age tales like The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man… if that young man could not stop crapping his pants. The settings vary from a hippie-dippie elementary school, a Times Square pizza place, and a fancy Montreal hotel room, but Atamanuik is such a vivid storyteller that he makes everything seem connected. Atamanuik starts his episode by saying that shitting his pants was the best thing that ever happened to him because it made him realize he could conquer the ultimate fear. Well, I hope he continues to conquer that fear over and over again so he can return to Doug Mand and Jack Dolgen's celebration of embarrassment, anxiety, and gastrointestinal problems on a regular basis. [P.G.]

Writers' Bloc #29 – Travon Free

A lot of interviews with TV writers follow the same origin story: Nerdy and awkward kid barely survives junior high, becomes influenced by Comedian X, graduates from Emerson, and struggles for years before getting his big break. But the life story of Daily Show writer Travon Free is unmistakably different. For one, Free grew up in Compton, CA, and thought basketball would be his exit from a neighborhood teeming with gangs. In fact, he was good enough (and tall enough) to have been high school teammates with future pros like Tyson Chandler and Tayshaun Prince. But as he tells fellow TDS writer J.R. Havlan, a knee injury in college fatefully resulted in him taking a standup comedy class and discovering his true calling. Free's story is too good to reveal in full, but it involves taking the SAT for current NBA players, Twitter networking, and a prank by Jon Stewart. For showing the hiring process of a comedy institution and revealing probably the most intriguing backstory of any person in any writing room this season, episode #29 of Writers' Bloc is one of the year's best. [P.G.]

Comedy Bang! Bang! #235 – Paul F. Tompkins, Doug Benson

2013 was a good year for Scott Aukerman. The Comedy Bang! Bang! LIVE Tour played to sold-out venues across the country, season three of the CBB television show was picked up by IFC before the second season completed its broadcast, and the flagship weekly podcast kept getting stronger and funnier going into its fifth year of existence. My pick for its best episode of the year, "Concert Buddies" with Doug Benson and Andrew Lloyd Webber, is a less obvious choice compared to a more ludicrous installment like "Time Bobby 2." But it is the earnest revealing of Aukerman and Benson's early years that make this episode so gratifying. The old pals reminisce about memories like their first conversation, Mario Kart 64 marathons at Brian Posehn's house, and the performance that got Aukerman hired by Bob Odenkirk. The nostalgia trip ends when The Lord Lloyd-Webber enters the studio, but the second half of the episode showcases the comedic sensibility of Aukerman and co. that both influences so much of today's comedy and brought the trio together as friends in the first place. [P.G.]


Pablo Goldstein is a writer from Los Angeles, CA.

Marc Hershon is host of Succotash, the Comedy Podcast Podcast and author of I Hate People!

Scott Reynolds is a comedian and writer in Brooklyn, NY.

Rob Schoon lives in Brooklyn and writes about tech, media, comedy and culture.

Josh Sorokach is a comedy writer living in NYC who was once referred to as a "Poor Man's Joshua Jackson" while on a date.