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Podcast Showdown: Entertainment For The Post-Holiday
Credit Crunch

Now that the holidays are over, you’ll find yourself in the same position as just about everybody: flat broke.  Podcasts a terrific way to enjoy programming at a time when the need for entertainment (in the post-Christmas winter blahs) is paramount but funds are non-existent.  Here’s a round-up of my favourites.

Old-time radio programs are gems, but the public-domain mire means that good ones are hard to find as most of them are dated and boring.  Two programs that provide me with consistent entertainment, however, are The Jack Benny Program, the precursor to his wonderful television show and proof of his quality as an artist, and Our Miss Brooks, also a television precursor that is a treat for anyone who enjoys its innocent but sassy humour.

As I am comfortably situated in the world of film appreciation, cinema-themed podcasts are naturally going to be clear on my radar.  I’ve tried a huge range of them, but two review shows have pleased me enough to stay regulars on my iPhone.  The Guardian’s film podcast with Xan Brooks, who recently took over for Jason Solomons and, while not nearly as sycophantic a kiss-ass as his predecessor was, needs a little more practice before finding the charming rhythm he had when appearing as Solomons’ weekly guest.  Far superior is the BBC’s Film Programme, featuring the sweet-like-honey voice of Francine Stock, whose intelligent and warm personality elicits a particular level of ease from her high-ranking subjects; you’ve never heard a better interview with Woody Allen ever conducted.

The funniest of all film fan podcasts is How Did This Get Made, a round-table discussion by film actors Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas (and the occasional guest), who watch an abysmal Hollywood monstrosity every month and rip it a new asshole:  the recent episode on John Frankenheimer’s Reindeer Games had me laughing insanely in public.  Lighter in tone and closer to home is Rewatchability, featuring Rob LaRonde, J.M.  McNab and Blain Watters, who take a second look at childhood favourites (from the big screen or small) and sees if they hold up to present-day standards.  Of course, the conceit is limited to their generation (they frequently discuss films that I saw because I drove myself to the theatre), but their camaraderie and snappy commentary  (“Do you think a grown up Kevin McAlister would be more weird or less weird than the actual grown up Macaulay Culkin?”) easily override the occasional lack of preparedness or unnecessary tangent in the conversation.  Start with their episode on Air Force One.

For comedy, the CBC offers three programs that guarantee a stream of yuks, including Laugh Out Loud, which expertly culls together sets by stand-up comedians performing throughout the country (you only need hear Dana Alexander once to stay a subscriber).  The Irrelevant Show is put on by a sketch troupe in Edmonton and is easily one of the funniest shows you can experience without your eyes involved, while This Is That, which in its third year still has angry callers believing it is real, continues its reign as Canada’s superb answer to The Onion.  Judge John Hodgman, which airs on Max Fun, is an hour of social commentary that combines This American Life with Judge Judy, but the show would be a little less annoying if his guests didn’t spend half the time giggling at his jokes before their anodyne responses.

Two news quiz shows mirror each other culturally, and it is difficult to decide which is better.  NPR’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me is so funny you’ll wait for it all week, particularly for the marvelous interviews it has with celebrities stepping outside their comfort zone (hearing Jane Goodall express sympathy for Nicolas Cage is unforgettable), whilethe BBC Friday Night Comedy Podcast features, among the three shows it broadcasts, The News Quiz with Sandy Toksvig.  Even if you don’t know anything about the politics that is being satirized on their show, you’ll still find it incredibly funny (the other two are Chain Reaction and The Now Show).

Smart comedy is what the BBC does best, so when you want some edification with your laughs, check out The Infinite Monkey Cage, where scientists Robin Ince and Brian Cox take on scientific subjects but, with the help of a revolving panel, always make sure that the process is a treat; start with Patrick Stewart’s delightful guest spot.   On the scientific front, you could probably do no better than the exceptional Skeptics Guide to The Universe , an easily spent eighty minutes of juicy information that debunks the rampantly erroneous state of science reporting in the media; step right in and join their deservedly huge fan base.

The BBC’s exquisite Great Lives, hosted by Matthew Parris, is a marvelous half-hour episode of information that picks a subject and brings on an expert on that figure and, when available, a guest who knew the subject.  The Oscar Wilde episode is a delight, while the Edith Wharton entry is one of the very best yet.  Again from the BBC is the podcast version of the second-longest running radio show of all time, Desert Island Discs; although the music selections have to be shortened for copyright reasons, the full effect can be experienced as their archives are now online going back to the fifties.  Start with Joanna Lumley’s second appearance on the show, she’s a born storyteller.

Another a superb program for getting intimate with artists is CBC’s Writers & Company, in which Eleanor Wachtel gives authors a full hour to tell readers about the lives from which their works spring.  Wachtel wisely avoids any kind of academic analyzing of their work; hearing Philip Roth talk about being a member of the “funeral of the month” club is far more memorable than any kind of guesswork he can do as to the themes of Portnoy’s Complaint (that episode was so good I listened to it twice).

For current events you can hardly do better  than CBC’s Day 6, a weekly roundup of news events that gets in-depth interviews from qualified informants on news both soft and hard.  Issues cover the roughest topics, including an impressively quick response to the Sandy Hook massacre, to lighter fare such as movie releases (sometimes with a darker edge, including the “yellowface” outrage engendered by the release of Cloud Atlas).

This brings us (finally) to the piece de resistance and the masterpiece among this whole group. 
There is no podcast I look forward to more than Throwing Shade, a weekly coffee-clatch between former Current TV stars Erin Gibson and Bryan Safi, that gives current issues “affecting ladies and gays” a hysterical but never light, sassy but never disrespectful airing.  Take your favourite straight woman-gay man best friend combo, add intelligence to the silliest, dirtiest, no-holds-barred repartee and you have two people who can reduce you to tears with the simplest of expressions (or impressions, such as when Gibson’s Victoria Jackson monologue actually made me fall off my chair laughing).  Gibson previously hosted Modern Woman and Safi the That’s Gay segments for Current and they were some of the smartest video segments ever put on the web: he was incisive at taking the media to task for reinforcing gay men and women as second class citizens, but always with an ironic (and sometimes self-reflexive) tone.  Their videos were the most effective kind of activism, angry voices airing rage through humour without ever smothering or dismissing it.  I realize I’m being ridiculously hyperbolic in saying this, but I genuinely believe that their frank, funny and surprisingly honest conversations actually make the world a better place.

All the above podcasts are available on Itunes and from their individual websites.