Ten years ago, some genius coined the word “podcast,” and to commemorate that moment, this week Slate has been going bananas, posting articles on intimacy and podcasting, depression and podcasting, and the rise of podcasting pastors. As part of all this coverage, rather than put together a list of the best podcasts out there, David Haglund and Rebecca Onion curated a list of the best podcast episodes. In a Slate Plus extra on this week’s Culture Gabfest, Haglund explained that the idea was to do something a little more surprising than one more list of great shows you’ve probably already listened to. The list of episodes is worth checking out; there were lots of shows included that I’d never even heard of, and some that I’ll definitely add to my ever-growing collection of podcasts. Podcasting is pretty widely recognized as one of our most intimate forms of entertainment. Intimacy isn’t just about proximity; it’s also personal. One man’s top podcast of all time is another’s nails-on-a-chalkboard. (I, for one, can’t deal with the sound of Mike Pesca’s voice, so The Gist will never make my podcast rotation, no matter how smart or insightful or funny it is.) The act of making any Top Whatever list is always going to incite reactions of “You didn’t include THIS?! You morons have no taste!” but my feelings about podcasts are probably stronger, even, than my feelings about movies and television—so it’s unsurprising that I found Haglund and Onion’s list lacking.
Here, then, are my picks for Best Podcast Episodes, Ever—with a caveat. Remember how I said taste in podcasts is personal? Well, this list is highly personal. First, I can’t listen to everything, so these episodes are selected from an admittedly small pool; I regularly check in with roughly thirty-five podcasts, which is an atom in a molecule in a drop in the podcasting bucket.
Second, there are things on here that tickle or move me that will probably leave others cold. There are episodes I find jaw-droppingly fascinating but will make other listeners yawn. But, for whatever reason, these are all episodes that I’ve actually saved and re-listened to, most of them more than once, because they speak to me. (Pun.)
Hopefully, though, the episodes I’ve picked will pique your interest enough to get you to check out one or two of these shows.
13. Doug Loves Movies – “Chris Evans, Leonard Maltin, and Adam Scott guest” Whether or not I like an episode of Doug Loves Movies hinges on who his guests are. Doug Benson gets a lot of comedy heavyweights to take the stage for a night of gametime, but the episode that features Adam Scott and Chris Evans holds a special place in my heart because it actually got me to like Chris Evans. Up till the day I listened to this episode, I didn’t give shit one about Mr. Blandy McOatmal Captain America, but on DLM he is utterly charming—and quite possibly drunk. It doesn’t hurt that Adam Scott is his usual Adam Scott self, or that the actual Leonard Maltin is present to play the Leonard Maltin game.
Hooked yet? If you listen to the episode and need more Doug, for my money, you cannot go wrong with any episode that includes Paul F. Tompkins as “Werner Herzog.”
12. The Truth – “Moon Graffiti” This is The Truth’s pilot episode and, as happens with a lot of pilot episodes, I didn’t know what to expect, going in. “Moon Graffiti” immediately sucks you in as a suspenseful and elegant piece of storytelling/radio drama, a fictionalized version of the first moon landing based on an actual speech written for Richard Nixon in the event that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin became stranded on the moon. I first listened to this episode with my mouth hanging open. (This image will be a recurring theme of this list.) Happily, The Truth’s pilot is no fluke; nearly every episode is as strong as this first one.
Hooked yet? Try “They’re Made Out of Meat,” a dramatic reading of a short story by Terry Bisson (accompanied by an interview with the author), or “Falling,” a play about a freak train accident that leads to romance.
11. We Hate Movies – “Dreamcatcher” We probably have Mystery Science Theatre 3000 to thank for the mind-boggling number of podcasts dedicated to making fun of movies. I listen to two: How Did This Get Made? (which is totally worth checking out even if it didn’t make the baker’s dozen), and We Hate Movies, hosted by a trio (occasionally a foursome) of guys who very clearly don’t hate movies at all but are reliably hilarious when hating on movies. “Dreamcatcher” finds them in top form and provides them with the opportunity to consider Stephen King’s ultimate contribution to the horror monster cannon: butt weasels. There’s also time for the guys’ Wilford Brimley impression (a recurring delight) and serious thought on the subject of whether one could ever successfully write a sad story about farting.
Hooked yet? I also have a fond place in my heart for the episodes about “The Good Son” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.” Often, the best parts of WHM involve the hosts improvising bizarre imagined scenarios about the actors or director involved in whatever movie they’re riffing on, and the best of these is probably Timid Tim Burton calling Johnny Depp in the “New Nightmare” episode.
10. Slate Spoiler Special – “Sunshine” I have a lot to say about Sunshine, probably one of Danny Boyle’s least-known films. A lot. So every time I queue up Slate’s Spoiler Special on this movie, in which Dana Stevens and John Swansburg discuss every turn in the film’s plot, I find myself talking out loud, as if Dana and John can hear my contribution to the conversation. Sometimes I listen to this episode of the Spoiler Special just because I’m in the mood to watch Sunshine but don’t have the time. Really, I’m ranking this at #10 because I want you to go watch Sunshine. But also because I giggle every time Dana or John refers to the film’s boogeyman as “Roasty-Toasty.”
Hooked yet? If you love talking about movies you’ve seen, really every episode of the Spoiler Special is worth listening to. But, for real, it’s a Spoiler Special, so keep that in mind.
9. This American Life – “The Radio Drama Episode” Yes, technically This American Life (and Fresh Air, which I’ll get to later) is produced for radio. But I primarily listen to it in podcast form. “The Radio Drama Episode” is one of TAL’s live shows and it’s also a foray from the show’s usual format; this time, instead of choosing a theme and telling stories on that theme, Ira Glass and his crew revisit some old stories and tell some new one. But rather than merely reporting on each story, they’ve gotten professional Broadway singers, writers, composers, and (not that it matters for an audio podcast) choreographers to stage musical interpretations of those stories. It’s a ton of fun, and I apologize in advance for the earworm you will contract (“What the heck I got to do-oo-oo to be with you”) after you listen to this episode.
Hooked yet? I mean, it’s This American Life. Just listen to any old episode. But, in honor of the holidays, you could start with “Lights, Camera, Christmas!”
8. Criminal – “Call Your Mom” Criminal is a fairly young podcast, and I only recently discovered it. “Call Your Mom” was, I think, the second episode I ever listened to, and it was another jaw-dropper. Host Phoebe Judge talks with mother-daughter coroners Kathleen Vernon and Linda Vernon. It’s an intimate look at a job few people know (or want to know) about, and both Vernon women are fascinating interviewees.
Hooked yet? “Animal Instincts” made me late for work, I was so invested in hearing about a man convicted of murder when the real killer may have been…an owl.
7. Death, Sex, and Money – “Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on Survival” Do you know anything about Ellen Burstyn’s life? I didn’t before I listened to this episode of Death, Sex, and Money, which finds host Anna Sale talking each week with a guest about exactly those three things. Actress Ellen Burstyn is candid and unaffected as she tells Sale about having an abortion, being in an abusive marriage, and being taken for granted as a woman. Unexpectedly, the episode has a postscript when Burstyn invites Sale back to her apartment to re-answer a question she feels she didn’t initially give enough thought to. The conversation is intimate, honest, and charming. And now I know what a “should-less day” is.
Hooked yet? “This Senator Saved My Love Life” is how I discovered the podcast and tells Sale’s own story of relationships and politics. The recent “College Sweethearts: Transformed” talks with a straight woman and a trans man in a queer relationship that started in college.
6. Fresh Air – “Fresh Air Remembers Author Maurice Sendak” “Oh, god, there are so many beautiful things in the world which I will have to leave when I die! But I’m ready, I’m ready, I’m ready.” Shit, man, I can’t even type those words without tearing up. This episode combines four interviews Terry Gross did with author Maurice Sendak over the years, culminating in their final interview in 2011, a year before he died. As Sendak says to Gross in this episode, she brings something out in him that he doesn’t give up to any other interviewer. The first time I listened to the final interview, I had to leave my desk at work and go to the bathroom to pull myself together. Sendak speaks about the end of his own life with such eloquence and bravery, his voice cracking as he tells Terry, “Almost certainly, I’ll go before you go, so I won’t have to miss you,” and Terry is audibly moved…holy fuck, I need to go cry for half an hour.
Hooked yet? As with TAL, if you’re not listening to Fresh Air, it’s probably because you don’t want to. But if you love it as much as I do and want another entry from the “Terry Makes Jamey Cry” cannon (and if you loved David Rakoff), download “David Rakoff: ‘There Is No Answer as to Why Me,’” grab some Kleenex, and have yourself a listen.
5. Serial – Episodes 1 (“The Alibi”), 2 (“The Breakup”), and 3 (“Leakin Park”) Oh, Serial’s a good podcast, huh? SHOCKING REVALATION, JAMEY. I know, I’m not telling anyone anything new here. But Serial makes the list mostly because of how I was introduced to it—not episode by episode but in a binge-listen that took place on a long drive for a work trip I was dreading. I chose Serial because I’d downloaded three episodes, which meant I could keep my eyes on the road and not have to search for something new to listen to when an episode ended. I thought I was just choosing something entertaining; I didn’t know that I was exposing myself to what would become the podcast obsession of the year. I was halfway through “Leakin Park” when I arrived at my destination, and the frustration and anticipation I felt when I couldn’t finish listening right that second would wash over me again and again for the next several weeks, every time I finished a new episode of Serial.
Hooked yet? If you’re not, then you never will be, is my guess. Serial just concluded its first season and will return with a second sometime in the near future.
4. Radiolab – “The Ring and I” Just as my Doug Loves Movies pick made me care about Chris Evans, Radiolab’s “The Ring and I” made me care about opera, which may be an even more impressive feat. Host Jad Abumrad devotes the entire hour to an exploration of Wagner’s Ring Cycle, exploring the opera through history, food, pop culture, and—obviously—music. The episode is a departure from the show’s usual science(ish) focus but it uses Radiolab’s method of coming at a single subject from multiple angles to uncover why, exactly, so many people are obsessed with this opera.
Hooked yet? “Musical Language” is a more traditional Radiolab episode still concerned with music, while “War of the Worlds” is the podcast’s first live show, complete with Robert Krulwich at his hammiest.
3. Pop Culture Happy Hour – “This Craziness with Vampires and Foreheads” Much as I love Linda Holmes (and want her job) and Stephen Thompson, if Glen Weldon ever bails from PCHH, I may not be able to listen ever again. Come to PCHH for the pop culture discussions; stay for the Weldon Rant. This episode gives Glen an opportunity to hold forth on his initial disdain for Buffy the Vampire Slayer when the crew talks about things they were initially wrong about. But the real reason this episode is #3 is Charles Grodin Man. I’m not going to say anything else, other than listening to Glen describe CGM (and to Stephen’s reaction) while driving nearly made me run off the road, so hard was I laughing.
Hooked yet? In “Warrior Women and Movies That Call to Us” the PCHH team has a truly fascinating discussion about female warriors in pop culture, while “Profanity in Pop Culture and Outdated Tech” gives NPR producers a workout with the censor button.
2. Professor Blastoff – Episode 82, “Voice (w/ Lake Bell)” Here’s another podcast that I listen to for the sole purpose of cheering myself up by making myself laugh uncontrollably. I have probably played the first twelve minutes of “Voice” a good thirty or forty times, and it still cracks me up. Tig Notaro, David Huntsberger, and Kyle Dunnigan usually begin each episode by catching each other up on what’s going on in their lives, riffing, and doing bits. But Kyle highjacks the episode immediately when he launches into his Del La Rue character, only to be driven to the point of exasperation when Tig and David won’t let him break character. The rest of the episode is worth listening to, too, as Lake Bell leads the Blastronauts through voice exercises. But between Kyle’s Del stories and Tig and David’s giggling, this is still my go-to episode when I need a good laugh.
Hooked yet? PB is, admittedly, a very weird podcast. After “Voice,” start with “Sensory Science (w/ Corey Beilstein)” for actual science, then listen to “Live in New York (w/ Ira Glass)” for a truly surreal interaction between the gang and the TAL host.
1. Extra Hot Great – “Your Tiger Cub” My love for Extra Hot Great is well-known and everlasting. Though the show has changed some since its move away from film to focus on television, I still tune in eagerly every week. But I will always hold dear the earliest episodes of EHG because they made me feel like I had friends to visit and talk with at a time in my life when I lived far away from all of my actual, non-imaginary friends. Like PB’s “Voice,” I have listened to “Your Tiger Cub” so many times I can actually quote from it. From Joe’s rundown of his Halloween movie marathon, to Adam Sternbergh’s submission of Police Squad to The Cannon, this is EHG at its goofiest and best.
Hooked yet? I’m honestly not sure if you can still access EHG Mark 1, but if you can, “Most Regrettably Dingle” is worth listening to because it exists in a time before we all realized just how great Bob’s Burgers was going to be. With EHG Mark 2, the gang no longer talks about movies, but “Canna-Vale of Tears” features Sarah D. Bunting delivering the exact rant I would have given had I been able to find the words through my rage after Bobby Cannavale stole Mandy Patinkin’s Emmy. (I’m still mad.)