In the last few months, I’ve become slightly (and my family will tell you alarmingly) obsessed with listening to podcasts on my phone. When I try to talk to my contemporaries about them, most give me a puzzled look and wonder how I find the time.
I listen when walking the dog, walking home from the train station, and cleaning up the house. I used to get so irritable when faced with unloading the dishwasher (the most banal, odious house tasks of all) or weeding ill-fitting clothes from my kids’ closets — but now I attack such chores with glee because I’m learning something while I work.
Most people in the pop-culture-know have heard of the smash podcast hit Serial on PBS. I listened to that crime story with my family on a few road trips and was fascinated, but there’s so much more out there. What I like about the podcasts I’ve been listening to is they’re an uninterrupted hour-plus with a person or story that interests me and teaches me something. Whether it’s the common emotional experience I recognize in a story on The Moth, or Dustin Hoffman talking to Alec Baldwin about what it was like to film The Graduate, it’s all thought-provoking and often inspiring.
If you liked Serial, or you’re just intrigued by people and why they do the things they do, you’ll like the tales told on The Moth and This American Life. They run the gamut of topics and experiences, and hearing people’s voices whispering stories into your ears creates a compelling, intimate feeling.
Then, my friend, Julie, recommended I listen to my writing hero Lena Dunham on actor/comedian Jeff Garlin’s podcast, By the Way, In Conversation. It sounds melodramatic to say it was life changing, right? Let’s just say I’ve been listening to an average of 3-4 podcasts a week ever since.
Discovering Garlin’s podcast was, perhaps, like anything amazing you try for the first time– salted caramel ice cream, riding a perfect wave in the ocean, sleeping at a fancy hotel– it’s so good, nothing else quite compares. I find Garlin extremely entertaining. He’s smart, irreverent, and curious about everything from life’s big questions (“Are you scared of death?”) to the mundane (“How many times a week do you do pilates?’)
But he doesn’t suffer fools, and he’s not into promoting crap, so he only brings on guests he likes, either personally or respects professionally. He’s been in comedy for decades, from standup to TV, to movies so listening to him talk to his buddies like Conan O’Brien or Bob Odenkirk about the old days is like a master class in comedy. (Other great episodes include Larry David, Will Ferrell, Amy Poehler, and Judd Apatow.)
I’m pretty sure I’ve listened to every single By the Way available, and sadly Garlin stopped recording them to star in his TV comedy, The Goldbergs, so I had to move on. One great episode of BTW featured comedian and fellow podcaster, Marc Maron. Unofficially the grandaddy of podcasters, Maron’s WTF (yes, it stands for what you think) started back in 2009 in his garage.
Maron still often broadcasts from his garage, hosting many comedians but also musicians, actors, and newsmakers. I started binge listening to WTF but found Maron a mixed bag. He gets groovy guests (his podcast made news last week when President Obama spoke frankly about racism on his show, ) he’s naturally curious and asks digging questions. His disarming, self-deprecating nature allows guests to go deep.
But he’s extremely neurotic, sometimes seems to do very little research on his guests, and often spends the first 20 minutes on a personal rant about things not usually of interest to me. BUT, there have been several fascinating hours of conversation so if he has a guest I like, it’s usually a good listen. Slate named Maron’s two-part episode with his friend Louis CK the best podcast ever and I highly recommend it. The two used to be friends but jealousy and uneven success tangled their relationship over many years. It’s like being a fly on the wall in a really funny session of couple’s therapy. For other great Maron episodes click here.
After picking through Maron’s list, I heard about Alec Baldwin’s online interviews on WNYC’s Here’s the Thing. Baldwin’s podcast has quickly become my favorite (after exhausting all the BTWs) because he’s an excellent interviewer and gets an impressive potpourri of guests, most of whom I’d love to interview myself. He’s an active listener, asks great follow ups, and he’s funny and deferential– not a side of him seen often in public.
Great gets like David Letterman, Lorne Michaels, and Dick Cavett tell Baldwin stories I haven’t heard before on every practiced talk show appearance. It’s interesting to hear two actors talking about their craft, but Baldwin also gets notables from the world of sports, politics, books, and media. I highly recommend his chats with Billy Joel, John McEnroe, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Jerry Seinfeld.
As a writer, I love hearing about how other writers and artists create. I’ve been on a recent bender soaking up Brian Koppleman’s The Moment podcasts, which focus on people who’ve done incredible things in their respective fields, and the time in their lives when everything changed and led to their ultimate success.
Koppelman– a successful screenwriter and producer– seems to be friends with everyone who’s anyone in movies, music, comedy, books, media, and even food on both coasts. He lures them in to his confessional recording booth to reflect on the dark moments that came before the spotlight, or the epiphany that drove them to achieve. While Koppelman has an exuberant tendency to talk over his guests, he hosts a richly diverse cast of characters who come ready to talk, no matter where he pushes them to go. I recommend his lively chats with Amy Schumer, Killer Mike, and Ellen Barkin.
I’ve tried a few other podcasts, but none have kept my attention as much as the ones above. A few people recommended Bill Simmons’ BS Report on Grantland but now that he lost his deal with ESPN, his podcast has no home. If you like sports, you can still go back and listen to past guests. Simmons is a sharp guy and I enjoyed some of his interviews with celebrities. I’ll even admit getting sucked into a few episodes about the NBA– despite my lack of knowledge and interest– because he’s that good at what he does. I’m sure he’ll end up somewhere soon.
I’m presently hooked on all the above, but there’s always room for more, so please send suggestions my way in the comments. Happy listening!