Great shows for thinkers and one that will crack you up
Once more, dear friends, into the breach: Here are five more recommended podcasts for the discerning listener. As always, those who may listen in the presence of wee ones will want to watch for an “Explicit” warning – marked with a red “E” – when downloading individual episodes.
‘Stuff You Should Know’
One of the first podcasts to break through into mainstream success – and still one of the best – “Stuff You Should Know” (“SYSK”) is a twice-weekly discussion of anything and everything under the sun. (And beyond it. And inside it, actually.)
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Hosts Chuck Bryant and Josh Clark, writers from the “How Stuff Works” online empire, happily hold forth on whatever topic rolls around – science, literature, history, society and occasional flights into obscure corners of pop culture. The format is simple: Each researches the topic independently, then they get together and compare notes on the fly. “SYSK” regularly tops the podcast charts and has even spun off a touring live show, which came to Durham this summer.
It all plays out like an evening hanging out with two of your smartest friends. The “SYSK” guys have developed a style all their own, funny and articulate, and fueled by a genuine curiosity that can’t be faked. It’s family-friendly, too – load up your older kids’ iPods and phones with this stuff and cut them loose.
‘The Bowery Boys: New York City History’
New York City is so packed with history and weirdness that you could spend a lifetime just learning about Gotham’s past. That’s what amateur historians Thomas Meyers and Gregory Young evidently intend to do with their terrific travel and history podcast.
Like SYSK, “The Bowery Boys” takes place as a rolling conversation, with each host bringing his own research to the table and riffing off one another. Especially rewarding are the multi-part series in which the Boys tackle a particularly rich vein of NYC’s past – the history of public transportation, for instance. The city’s famed subway system, it turns out, is the result of a long process of trial and often fatal error.
Launched in 2007, the podcast has more than 175 episodes in the archives now. The annual Halloween episodes are fun – New York has plenty of good ghost stories – and keep an ear out for the true crime sagas. New York has had some dastardly criminals, too.
Produced by public radio veterans Alix Spiegel and Lulu Miller, “Invisibilia” is highly recommended for anyone already hooked on marquee NPR shows like “This American Life” or “Radiolab.” As a matter of fact, Spiegel and Miller are former staffers on those programs, and “Invisibilia” takes things in an interesting sideways direction.
Latin for “invisible things,” “Invisibilia” is themed to those powerful but elusive intangibles that drive human history and endeavor – thoughts, beliefs and ideas. The show takes a generally psychological slant on things, but the spirit of inquiry is always honored and nothing is off limits.
The program’s first six-episode season tackled big-picture themes like fear (and whether we need it anymore, species-wise), plus fascinating diversions into more obscure psychological notions like synesthesia. Everything is centered on people and their stories, well-told.
‘How Did This Get Made?’
If you’re in the market for a lighter and funnier podcast habit, consider browsing through the episode list of “How Did This Get Made?” The podcast is built around that singularly weird pleasure of watching, and making brutal fun of, bad movies. Think: “Spice World,” “Hudson Hawk,” “Xanadu” – these sorts of films.
Comics Paul Scheer, June Diane Raphael and Jason Mantzoukas anchor the production, along with a rotating roster of show business friends. Previous guests include professional funny people such as Amy Schumer, Rob Corddry, Nick Kroll and Kristen Schaal.
The best way to get introduced to the podcast is to browse the episode archives, find a movie you love to hate, then grab up both the preview “minisode” and after-screening discussion.
For you word freaks out there, “The Allusionist” is a great new podcast on language and etymology from London-based linguist Helen Zaltzman. Episodes are released every other week and clock in at a digestible 15 or 20 minutes.
Episodes are themed to a particularly interesting word or category – the prefix “step” in family relations, for instance. Zaltzman provides snippets of discussions with other word scholars, along with personal stories about how language winds its way around and through our lives and society. If, like me, you’re a hopeless nerd for this kind of thing, “The Allusionist” is one you’ll want to put into rotation straight away.