Each Monday we’ll bring you our take on the most notable and best podcasts of the past week.
BEST IN SHOW
Born with a unique form of autism, Mark Utter spent the first 30 years of his life unable to communicate through speech. He could only watch and observe as others talked to him, often down to him, or more often ignored him. Then he was introduced to supported typing by Emily Anderson and the world of communication was opened up to him. The two later collaborated on the 2014 documentary film I am in Here. For this episode, host Erica Heilman takes the listener first through a sample of the real-time pace of a conversation with Utter (which is slow and even difficult to follow) and then the sped-up, more palatable version of his part in the conversation. Not only does Utter offer insight that only someone in his particular situation could give—the real preciousness of words and time, the anger and frustration of being locked inside, the simple longing for good conversation—but he also makes the listener come to terms with the dangerous vulnerability not having a voice can cause. In any interview-style audio experience, the listener craves a moment that transcends the form, something real that subverts our expectations. Not only does Heilman guide Utter to this space, but he pushes her there, too–and the results are beautiful.
Outside of the nefarious leaders we’ve come to loathe—Hitler and Doctor Evil come to mind—it’s hard to find people with a decades-long track record of malevolence. Consider, however, Thomas Midgley, Jr., the subject of “Butterflies.” Although he was no rogue state dictator, he did manage to pollute the planet in incalculable ways while filling out his lab coat. Whether this was intentional or not is not necessarily the business of this week’s episode of The Memory Palace. Instead, host Nate DiMeo uses the scraps of history you remember from PBS documentaries and the lifeless prose of textbooks and crystallizes them with narrative. He seeks the Dickensian foibles of his subjects. Often poetic, and always sincere, DiMeo takes the story of a man who devoted his life to toxic chemicals and somehow makes it heartbreaking and beautiful.
Lois Gibson has a unique skill: she can draw a face from someone else’s memory. As a forensic artist, she has put this skill to practical use over the past thirty years, helping to solve more than 1,200 cases. Though it’s fascinating to hear how she pulls the details of these faces out of victims who swear they don’t remember, what’s even more compelling is learning how she carved out this career. Every step of Gibson’s life added a skill or motivation for her to become a forensic artist, including surviving a brutal attack in Los Angeles and later drawing thousands of faces for tourists in San Antonio. Eagles’ guitarist Joe Walsh once said, “As you live your life, it appears to be anarchy and chaos, and random events, non-related events, smashing into each other and causing this situation or that situation… Later, when you look back at it, it looks like a finely crafted novel.” Hearing Gibson string the details of her life together into a coherent narrative, a listener can’t help but think she’s arrived at exactly where she was always headed.
The names Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland are synonymous with Hollywood legend and personal tragedy. Long before they became famous for their silver screen performances and respective pill addictions, the two were childhood best friends. Signed as kids to MGM in the early 1930s when child actors were still a relatively new idea, they dazzled on screen together and grew into Tinseltown darlings before they were old enough to drive. What host Karina Longworth does so well is trace the steps between when the two were first lighting up the big screen to when their personal lives later trainwrecked. On You Must Remember This, actors and actresses are never reduced to their most famous roles and infamous mistakes, but are instead flesh-and-blood humans with heartbreaks, insecurities, and axes to grind. Even if you never thought you cared about the lives of these two MGM child stars, you will after excavating their histories with Longworth.
If you’ve ever been to a gem store, chances are you’ve seen dinosaur bones for sale for as little as a buck, and you’ve probably wondered how anyone managed to arrive at such a price tag. This week’s Planet Money tackles this topic, though it focuses on the high-end, deluxe prize pieces of the paleontological playground: bones of the Tyrannosaurus rex. It’s easy to quietly assume that governments regulate such wonders of the world, as they do national parks and Egyptian marble. But the sale of Jurassic bones is open to private parties. Bones go to the highest bidder, and digging on someone’s land is handled a bit like oil and gas arrangements, less like the dream of a Michael Crichton novel. If you have nostalgia about the Jurassic Park series, a utilitarian spirit, or a soul, you will cringe at the low-budget circumstances in which museums and scientists operate, often losing auctions and opportunities for scientific advancement. “The T-Rex in My Backyard” puts us right in the shoes of the modern day digger, too, leaving us to wonder, perhaps forever, if the T-rex may have had horns.
Peter Bresnan is on a quest to become a standup comedian–and he’s bringing us along for the ride. Presented as a serialized audio journal, Tell Me I’m Funny shows Bresnan as he fumbles on stage at open mic nights and frets about his performance on the subway afterward. Right out of the gates he makes the stakes clear and puts us in the red hot glow of the spotlight, and we can’t help but sweat along with him as he auditions new material. The truth is that Bresnan isn’t that funny–yet–but he’s intelligent and self-aware and totally likable. You want to root for him. Everything feels a little amateur–the four-minute sets, the nervous confessionals, the production level–but it’s this greenhorn quality that gives the show such an authentic feel. It’s unclear yet whether Bresnan’s career as a comedian will take off, but there’s enough personal material in Tell Me I’m Funny that we’ll happily follow him even if he bombs on stage.
“Why Don’t They Let Sharkey on the Radio?” chooses an unlikely conduit, a musically trained seal, through which to understand a seminal moment in the evolution of radio. Starting in January 1941, broadcasters boycotted an exorbitant raise in song royalties and, by doing so, altered the course of popular music. The episode does an excellent job of drawing out a long chain of events that started with the earliest days of songwriting and then drops you off comfortably in 2015. As a series of audio documentaries on the music industry, Between the Linear Notes is taking shape as a project that burns the midnight oil researching its material. It calls to mind the research put into podcasts like You Must Remember This, Memory Palace, and Lore—lofty company, to be sure. Like those podcasts, BLTN dares to be epic when other franchises are content to skew slice-of-life.
Max Ritvo is a happily married poet, philosopher, and Columbia writing instructor who doesn’t want to spend his remaining life talking about the elephant in the room. At 24, Max has an aggressive form of cancer with a shaky prognosis. Only Human finds an unlikely hero in Ritvo, a man who is somehow genuinely humble and also has an opinion on everything. For a podcast, though, it goes down like a stiff drink. You’ll feel good, but you might get a little emotional. Ritvo knows better than to steer the conversation maudlin, so he instead relishes the dark humor of it all, as in a bedside moment when he hands off a vial of sperm to his mother before chemo makes him sterile. The podcast turns into something akin to the best wake you ever attended, if only the deceased were still alive and attending the festivities. It will all make sense when you listen.