I am so very happy we have John Oliver.
The British satirist recently scored his own HBO show, Last Week Tonight, and from what I've seen of it, it's just masterful. I felt a fist-sized lump in my throat when he covered mass incarceration in America—nailing every point I've been trying to prove during the last 10 years—with the help of Sesame Street-style puppets. Never in a million sweeps weeks would I have imagined that an 18-minute YouTube clip about private prisons and the Prison Rape Elimination Act would rack up more than 3.3 million views. It's not just comedy; it's a service in the public interest.
But no great deed comes without cost. With Last Week Tonight, the sacrifice is borne by myself and every other fan of John Oliver's podcast, The Bugle, which has been on "Summer Break" throughout the season. As Oliver's co-host Andy Zaltzman says:
"I hope you're managing to cope with the heartrending void in which the Bugle break has cast the universe for which we can only apologize. I can also apologize to anyone whose lives and livelihoods have been adversely affected by the leaders and powerbrokers of the world not being adequately satirized during our absence."
Apology accepted, and I'm glad that Oliver and Zaltzman didn't leave us totally in the lurch. During the interim, they've been keeping us fed on old sketches from their comedy show, Political Animal, circa 2006-2008. Nevertheless, since I'm suffering from an untreated audio-dependency, I've found myself searching the iTunes store for replacement therapy.
For the second year in a row, here's a list of what was in my podcast queue this summer:
The Daily Show Podcast Without Jon Stewart: It's almost as if The Daily Show team is exacting revenge on Oliver for leaving the cast: "You're getting an HBO show? Well, up yours, Brit-face, we're going to get our own podcast." While other behind-the-scenes podcasts are little more than forced banter, this one goes the extra effort, with thoughtfully and hilariously crafted segments and interviews illustrating the challenges of running what has inadvertently become one of America's top news sources. They're only two episodes into this 30-minute podcast, so who knows if it will last.
Welcome to Night Vale: About 10 years ago, I discovered a cure for insomnia: radio theater in my earbuds at bedtime. It serves as an imagination booster, helping me drift seamlessly into the dreamiverse. The problem is, since I have to sleep every night, I burn through programs relatively quickly. Enter Welcome to Night Vale, a podcast presented in the format of a low-budget community-news program, the kind where a volunteer tries really hard to sound like an NPR announcer while reading off meeting minutes and public announcements from the police department. Except, in Night Vale, there's only the Sheriff's Secret Police, because, as the show's creator has explained, Night Vale is a desert town where all the conspiracies are real—from hooded figures gathering in the forbidden dog park to an omnipotent cloud taking over the minds of the city council. This podcast reportedly hit No. 1 on iTunes in summer 2013, but I was too caught up in political programs to notice. That's all the better, since now I've got 53 episodes to work through.
Comedy Bang Bang: This is a podcast that I discovered only through the TV-show spin-off on IFC that I discovered through Netflix. How's that for a maze of telecommunications? And how's that for me being significantly behind the times? This is a talk show in which Scott Aukerman, in his delightfully oblivious persona, interviews guest comedians and other comedians performing in character (as, say, Andrew Lloyd Webber or George Zimmer from Men's Wearhouse) for about an hour-and-a-half. One of my favorite frequent characters is Traci Rearden, a Claire's Boutique piercer with a deformed ear and a speech impediment who lives with her dead grandmother's corpse. She's voiced by Lauren Lapkus, who also plays a naïve prison guard on Orange is the New Black.
Serial: I'd be negligent not to consult CityBeat's prescient arts and culture editor, Kinsee Morlan, who owes me a crop-circle-size told-ya-so over the future of podcasts. Coming up this fall, she says she's very excited for Serial, a new podcast from a crew of This American Life veterans, all women: Sarah Koenig, Julie Snyder, Dana Chivvis and Emily Condon. As Koenig writes to members of the show's mailing list: "I wanted to follow one big story, over time. So you'd get to come back week after week, and get all caught up in the world of it, and really get to know the characters."