This year I’m pleased once again to share the top podcasts of the year as chosen by my esteemed colleagues, friends and podcast fanatics, Jenny Benevento and Kyle Riismandel.
Jenny is an information architect who lectures on branding, social media, musicians and pop culture. She is a taxonomy consultant to Etsy and also hosts a podcast with me. Kyle is a university lecturer in history at the New Jersey Institute of Technology, and he’s also my brother. Kyle has written several podcast reviews for us, and Jenny recently shared her recommendations for listeners going into Serial withdrawal.
Last year there was no overlap between their lists–and they didn’t even coordinate. This year there is only one show in common, but at opposite ends of their lists. If you’ve read any news about podcasting this year, I bet you can guess what it is.
But, enough spoilers. Here are the top five podcasts of 2015.
#5 – Jenny: Baby Geniuses from Maximum Fun
Baby Geniuses is not another formless comedy podcast where some comedian friends chitchat aimlessly. The hosts, comedian Emily Heller and cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt (BoJack Horseman), run a very structured comedy podcast. My favorite segment is “Wiki of the Week” where the hosts discuss a listener submitted Wikipedia entry that is unexpectedly weird or funny. In the main segment of the show, a guest expert answers questions on their areas of expertise. In the final segment a comedian pretends to be an expert on something they clearly know nothing about. It all wraps up with each person telling us one thing they learned. While the show is more comedy than informational, the format requires the hosts and guests to keep moving, as opposed to getting bogged down in a quagmire of in-jokes and tangents, which is the plight of many comedy two-handers. It’s nice to see a comedic podcast hosted by women that’s not focused on “women’s issues” or aimed at a mostly female audience (like Maximum Fun labelmates Throwing Shade, Lady to Lady, and One Bad Mother).
#5 – Kyle: Serial
Serial returned to the roots of radio storytelling by weaving a tale week by week. However, it was a true crime story and not The Shadow or The Goldbergs. The telling of a real story in all of its messiness managed the feat of creating an audience waiting each Thursday for the next edition. Despite the lack of closure, Serial managed to shine a light on so many of the issues (reliability of eyewitness testimony, prosecutorial discretion, profiling and the war on drugs) with the criminal justice system while reminding the audience of the stakes of that problematic system—the fates of multiple people in their late teens.
#4 – Jenny: You Are Not So Smart from Boing Boing
This is a podcast based the host David McRaney’s books You Are Not So Smart and You Are Now Less Dumb. It’s a psychology podcast that describes itself as “a celebration of self delusion that explores…cognitive biases and logical fallacies.” This may sound brainy (literally and figuratively!) and niche, but the host makes it really fun. There’s a cookie contest every episode in which he eats the winning recipe while discussing a scientific paper of the week in plain language. Though the show is mainly meant to be entertaining, it can also explain why we do dumb things because of our physiology and how to stop doing them. It also has the best theme song in the business.
#4 – Kyle: Never Not Funny from Earwolf
Podcast pioneers Jimmy Pardo and Matt Belknap had another great year. They sometimes get overlooked on these lists because they have been doing it so long and so well. Even I left them off last year. After 8 years, I still listen (or watch) every episode. They do three people shooting the shit better than anyone. Though that format is tired and lends itself to hacky premises, the NNF crew make it funny and fresh, in part because the humor comes out of the relationships between the hosts, crew, and guests. They genuinely like each other, making it possible for guests to feel comfortable and part of the team, instead of the asshole made to participate in some misogynistic “bit” just to promote their show.
Highlight Episode: #1512 Gary Gulman
#3 – Jenny: 99% Invisible (and its siblings at Radiotopia)
99% Invisible is a radio show, but its listeners asked for it to be longer and more frequent. It tells quirky little fascinating stories about the world around us—stories that will change how you see the world. I’ll never see the Chicago flag the same way, despite being a Chicago native. If you need good tidbits for cocktail parties or are addicted to that “aha” epiphany moment when you learn something fascinating about a thing you use every day, you will love this show. Essentially, 99% Invisible uncovers the recent history about buildings, landscapes, design, and the ways we construct our daily lives that have been lost to the annals of history. This is especially something Radiolab listeners would love. 99% Invisible has been around for a while, but, due to audience demand they’ve had a banner year. Their newly crowdsourced wealth began a likeminded podcasting network–Radiotopia–and, as stretch goals on their Kickstarter, added three more shows all with similar themes.
#3 – Kyle: Superego
An improvised sketch comedy podcast featuring lavish postproduction, Superego nearly defies description. I came to it late thinking it too cute by half. However, it is hysterically funny. The production adds to the humor creating a sense of place grounding the sometimes silly premises and even adding a few extra jokes. This year they continued expanding the worlds of beloved recurring characters H.R. Giger (creator of the Alien in the movie Alien), Reverend Parsimony (stammering hammer of God), and Shunt McGuppin (outlaw country legend singing about the darker side of life) while adding new, ridiculous, and exceptionally funny characters to their repertoire. Beyond being funny, the four doctors of the Superego Institute demonstrate pure joy in creating their comedy that makes it the most fun 30 minute listen in podcasting.
Highlight Episodes: season 4 #1 and season 4 #3
#2 – Jenny: Worst Idea of All Time
This is the podcast I have suggested most this year. It’s a simple idea: two new friends and comedians from New Zealand decide to watch the same terrible movie every week for a year. Unfortunately they chose Grownups 2. The hosts insist you should not watch Grownups 2 but instead listen to dozens of hours of their reactions to it and the deep depression and madness it leads to. This sounds like just dumb fun, but an odd side effect of the wacky premise is the hosts’ commentary on American culture as portrayed by Adam Sandler films, for example: a lengthy argument about whether Connecticut is a city in New York. It’s a celebration of the failure of rich comedians phoning it in, but in the greatest possible way.
#2 – Kyle: Comedy Bang Bang / U Talking U2 to Me? from Earwolf
The Scott Aukerman comedy empire is vast and expanding and we are lucky for it. There are so many hilarious characters (J.W. Stillwater, fanboat vigilante) and great musical guests (Tears for Fears!) on CBB that it is easy to overlook Aukerman. He manages to keep shows moving forward while still peering into the nooks and crannies of characters whose dark and twisted tales only Aukerman can tease out. Similarly, UTU2M succeeds because of his insistently silly and explorative tone that co-host Adam Scott ably aids and abets. Frankly, I don’t care one bit about U2 but I listened to every episode. Is there better endorsement than that? Together, these shows provide hours of consistently hilarious entertainment not to be missed.
Highlight Episode: #313 Gumbo Challenge
#1 – Jenny: Serial
This is the obvious number one this year. Even if you’re not a fan, you’ve heard of it. Suddenly your friends who hear the Charlie Brown teacher voice when you talk about podcasts are asking you what podcast app you use and it’s because they want to download Serial. It spawned several podcasts to discuss what was happening on it, and is the first “addictive” and “binge” podcast. At this point I am recommending it because it’s become part of the popular culture and if you haven’t heard it you’re missing what everyone else is discussing. If you told me last year a podcast would be parodied on SNL, I would have laughed. So love it, hate it, or have moral issues with it, Serial was the break in podcasting that podcast nerds have been expecting.
#1 – Kyle: How Did This Get Made? from Earwolf
This show follows in the great legacy of Mystery Science Theater 3000 in not just mocking, but celebrating and dissecting the most baffling movies made. Where it can be easy for the hosts, Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael, and Jason Mantzoukas, to snark on bad movies and belittle their creators, they try to answer the titular question. Beyond that, they look for great performances in the worst of movies (Dolly Parton in Rhinestone) and ask questions about logic and ethics about a movie as odd as George Romero’s Monkey Shines. Their love and interest in figuring the motivations of the filmmakers yields some of the funniest riffing and banter on the internet as questions no on thought to ask while making these movies get answered in hilarious fashion by the hosts and their guests.
Highlight Episode: Monkey Shines