The Spirit of Podcasts 2021

by Michael Channing

The Spirit of Podcasts 2021

Dead Eyes

This podcast has an odd premise. The creator and host, Connor Ratliff, was once fired from a small role in the HBO miniseries Band of Brothers by Tom Hanks. He heard it through the grapevine that Hanks fired him because he had “dead eyes.” That was twenty years ago, and it apparently still sticks in his craw because the whole podcast is a journey to find out if that really was why he was fired. He talks to his agent, to other actors on that show (including the one who replaced him), and anyone he can contact who has even a tangential connection to the show or to Tom Hanks.

The podcast becomes an exploration of failure, how to recover from it, how it can gnaw at you, and how it can change your life in some interesting (and even positive) ways. Connor steered away from acting for years because of that incident, and he became a much better comedian. Being a good comedian led him to better acting roles. Even in the middle of what seems like a pretty good life, he wonders what it would have been like if he had made other decisions or gotten different breaks. The guests he interviews discuss how their lives were affected by their own failures and missteps. The podcast slips from being about that one incident into a contemplation of choice and random change. I, myself, often think about the many little doorways I could have slipped through on my way to here and now. Listening to someone else think those same thoughts was strange, but it’s nice to know I’m not the only one who does.

Dear Hank & John

Hank and John Green got famous on YouTube, back when it first started and the world was still figuring out what it wanted from that website. The Green brothers happened to figure it out before just about anyone else. They created VlogBrothers, a channel in which they make videos for each other, at first as a way to keep in touch, to challenge and encourage each other, then as a way to educate their audience on topics like science, literature, history, and current events. They built up a huge community of nerdy, creative, and swell-minded people, dubbed it Nerd Fighteria, and sold a metric ton of t-shirts and merchandise.

They spun their creative endeavors into a multitude of projects: educational video series, conventions for video creators, charities, and--I’m finally getting to it--podcasts. The one they do together is something of an extension of the videos they make on YouTube, in which they answer questions from their fans. They keep the YouTube Q&As pretty light, but on the podcast they often steer into bleak territory. So in addition to questions of how wi-fi works, is a cerberus one dog or three, and are clouds wet, they also discuss the inevitable death of everyone you love and how long until climate change draws the curtain on the whole show.

The brothers deliver their answers and dubious advice in a humorous, thoughtful way and never talk down to their audience. The podcast is at its best when their answers blossom into longer conversations and the two try to outdo, out-joke, or out-trivia each other. And at the end of every episode, they expound on their personal favorite topics. Hank gives us all the latest news from the planet Mars, and John keeps us up to date on the all-important news of the 3rd-or-4th-tier English football club, AFC Wimbledon. If you need more of either in your life, then you’ve come to the right place.

Retro Warriors

One day at work, I got to thinking about Infocom games. Infocom is my favorite game company. I love text adventure games, or interactive fiction as folks call them these days. I love the act of drawing a map on paper to keep track of the environment. I love the take-all-the-time-you-need pace of reading what the game presents to you and leaning back to consider your solution to the puzzle before typing in your response. Just thinking about the experience smooths out my nerves and gives me the warm and fuzzies.

So on one particularly tangled and sharp-edged day at work, I had the thought: Are there any podcasts about old games? Turns out there are. Thanks to a certain irate nerd, the video game nostalgia market is quite flush with competition. So I revised my search. I typed “Infocom” into the Spotify search bar, and the first podcast that came up was Retro Warriors. I had found my medicine.

Every week, the two hosts discuss all the latest video game franchises and company intrigue, which I skip right over to get to the good stuff, an in-depth review of a game, or system, or aspect of gaming from my childhood. The hosts are of different generations--one grew up with an NES, the other grew up with a Playstation--but their mutual love and respect for the old games cuts through. Whether it be Space Invaders, Zork, out the fan-splitting Zelda 2, they give every game its fair shake, not only in terms of gameplay, but also in how the titles affected gaming culture and the wider culture of the world as well. Tetris was not just a clever puzzle game. It converted millions of non-gamers into players and had a not-insignificant part in bridging the gap between two enemy countries.

Both hosts have their own take on each game, but of course my heart leans towards the elder. He and I experienced the Atari to NES to SNES to shift at the same time. We played a lot of the same games at their original release. I’m also jealous of him. His mom played Nintendo games with him. She got way into Dragon Warrior when she realized your character got stronger with experience, a novel thing at the time. She was the one who beat the game, waking her son up in the middle of the night so they could watch it together. Man, what I wouldn’t give if either of my parents had been that into my games. I’m sure I would have much stronger family ties now. As it is, I played alone and learned to be alone.

And now I listen alone and join vicariously as two friends discuss my favorite things. I tune in at my desk at work, and the harshness of life softens just a little, and I can almost recall the feeling of safety and control I derived from video games back in my basement room all those years ago.

You Must Remember This

Remember last year when I told you about the first season of the new TCM podcast? That season focused on the film director Peter Bogdanovich. It was good but definitely a sausage fest. Well, somehow the podcast gods answered my unformed request and pointed me in the direction of Karina Longworth’s podcast about the history of Hollywood. It just so happened that she was running a podcast parallel to TCM’s, only hers was about Bogdanovich’s ex wife Polly Platt. Coincidence? I don’t see how it could be.

While TCM mentions Polly as a creative match for her ex, You Must Remember This unreels her whole life and all the movies she had a hand in making. There were many, and just about every one was gold. When she and Bogdanovich split, she kept producing good flicks, but Peter’s quality fell off almost immediately. This is a lesson that TCM edges around, but Karina Longworth nails home

Polly never got to direct, but her life in Hollywood was a rich one. She worked her way up to full producer, a credit few women got in her day, and changed Hollywood forever. And the woman could write. Longworth was granted access to Polly’s unpublished memoir, and we hear it read by Polly’s daughter. It is fantastic. Polly dishes the way you expect from that type of book, but her words cut deep. She was betrayed by many men, and she does not shy from scorching their names. I tuned in just for the memoir excerpts alone.

Longworth has been telling great stories for years. I’ve got so much to comb through, even as she posts more. There’s a great series on Song of the South, the one vaulted film Disney will never let see the light of day again. Interesting to learn that they kept releasing it over and over throughout the years. Interesting also to learn that it was a target of protest even from the beginning. Longworth discusses the film from several angles: the racism question, of course, but she also explores the fascinating life of one of its stars, Hattie McDaniel. If all you know of her is that was the first black person to win an Oscar, then buckle up for a captivating look at her long career.

Right now, I’m enchanted by Longworth’s look at the lives of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr., two men hampered to varying degrees by their ethnicities. Looking at these two ultra-manly men through feminist eyes is a fantastic way to learn their stories. This will be one of my favorite podcasts for years to come.

The Anthropocene Reviewed

This one caught me off guard. I can’t remember how I stumbled into it, but suddenly it was in my sights, and soon thereafter, in my heart. Before that, John Green was in my periphery. He’d shown up on a Lindsay Ellis video that was about, at least partially, his book, The Fault in Our Stars. I’ve seen that novel in bookstores everywhere, that blue cover with the two, overlapping clouds on it. I’d picked up a copy, read the glowing praise, and put it back down again knowing two things: One, this was a massively popular book from a beloved, important writer of my time who’s two entire years younger than me, and Two, that I was absolutely never going to read the thing.

I can be stubborn when it comes to pop culture. Tell me something is great, that I have to read/watch/hear it, and I refuse. Just to spite the recommendation. Well, if a friend tells me, I’ll usually take the advice. But this was the world at large telling me this guy was a big deal, and his book was super great, and stacks of it were in every store, words like “genius” and “fearless” emblazoned on every one. Jealous? Hey, what’s that over there?

Nevermind, it was just a cat dressed like a dog.

Anyway, John Green remained on the edge of my awareness, alongside the band Rammstein. And now here we are at the end of 2021, a year paved with razor blades, and I find myself turning to both of them for comfort more than I could have imagined possible.

John and Hank Green have built up a media empire large enough to show up on my radar more than once. They get mentioned on YouTube (of course), TikTok (again, of course, but I only know of it because it also bleeds into YouTube), in podcast suggestions, and in random internet searches. They’re everywhere, and somehow I got pointed in the direction of John’s solo podcast, The Anthropocene Reviewed. And I said, Okay, fine, I’ll listen.

Oh, man. You guys. Seriously. I wasn’t ready. I’m not taking anything away from The Memory Palace, which is still my favorite, but John’s blend of personal anecdotes, research, and philosophical musings is exactly the butter I want on my bread. Slather it on, lick it from the knife, ask for the recipe. The Memory Palace and The Anthropocene Reviewed aren’t that far apart, but John pulls his topics from his own life. He talks about his love for scratch-and-sniff stickers, Diet Dr Pepper, Mario Kart, the movie Harvey. I can listen all day to someone wax on about their personal passions if they do it well enough, and John knows how to write. He also knows how to read his own words. He gets emotional, he shares his fears and breakdowns, he hangs words like mobiles and dangles them in front of open windows. That’s what I want to do.

I bought the book the podcast became, and, yeah, I'll read The Fault in Our Stars. I can be jealous of John’s skills, but it’s impossible to cast any shade of ire against the guy. He wears his heart on his sleeve, and he’ll give you the shirt off his back. He encourages creators of all sorts, and he raises money to reduce mother and infant mortality in impoverished countries. He makes a damn fine podcast. A couple of them. He’s not a refutation of what I want to do, he’s proof I can do it. At least some of it.

Hope is Epidemic

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Chokes and Warbles
Now Available

Chokes and Warbles, a collection of essays and poems by Michael Channing

December 10, 2021