true crime

The Last Podcast on the Left Hosts Break Down the Art of True-Crime Comedy

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

Before Serial and Criminal and other more serious, journalistic true-crime podcasts came to dominate the conversation, there was The Last Podcast on the Left.

Since launching their comedic, murder-obsessed podcast in 2011, Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski have gone from three dudes in Brooklyn huddled around a bong affectionately named Butterball, bonding over Sasha Grey and Cannibal Holocaust, to entrepreneurs with an entire podcast network, merchandise, worldwide tours — and now a book from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Last Book on the Left. As of January 2020, their flagship podcast is getting 2.75 million downloads per week and 11 million downloads a month, with over 12,000 supporters on Patreon.

LPotL sits firmly in the true-crime comedy genre as each week, they summarize websites, books, documentaries, and other media to examine the gruesome crimes they discuss each week. The book follows suit: The Last Book on the Left, which hits shelves today, is an illustrated guide to nine of the most notorious serial killers in history — in LPotL parlance, “gold star” killers who are infamous for the sorts of acts that make the back of one’s throat pucker. The book comes complete with funny illustrations by Tom Neely (of Henry and Glenn Forever renown), Zebrowski and Kissel’s signature gallows’ humor patter, and Parks’s deeply researched writing.

Of course, the podcast remains the engine behind it all. What began as a way to talk about anything macabre or weird that caught their fancy — chaos magic, aliens, horror movies, government conspiracies, John “Papa John” Schnatter’s personal life — has turned into something the guys take very seriously, even if they don’t take themselves very seriously at all. We talked to the gang about the podcast, their new book, and the evolution of their process.

You guys have always been very clear about the fact that you’re not making fun of victims and you’re not glorifying murderers on your podcast, but that can be a tricky line to walk. Are you ever concerned that joking might make it seem to an outsider that you are making light of the whole thing?

Henry Zebrowski: We’re pretty blatantly true-crime and macabre comedy, so if you’re coming to look for this type of content, you found it. It’s what we do. Our philosophy is that we tell a story with humor and we try to find the human characteristics of things that we’re covering in order to poke fun at it and roast from the inside out.

I think that it’s not a very nuanced view to think that just doing comedy about true crime props it up. I think it’s the same thing as saying Marilyn Manson caused school shooters in the mid-’90s. This is our visceral reaction to these stories: comedy. It’s how we always talked about it as friends. That’s where this show came from; it was a natural extension of our conversations … I think it helps to see that other people deal with dark material in this same way that many people do, which is joking about it.

Ben Kissel: Henry mentioned Columbine, and we grew up [in that era] … The way that the media handled that, it was so horrible, saying that Eric [Harris] and Dylan [Klebold] were bullied, they were victims and this was revenge on the jocks and all this bullshit … That did a massive disservice to the way that we cover crime nationally in mainstream media, so I think we actually handle these stories with a lot more sensitivity than most. Like when it comes to Ted Bundy and the Ted Bundy Tapes documentary [Netflix’s Conversations With a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes], that’s just a blow job to Ted Bundy; he would have loved that documentary. They made him look someone who doesn’t just have sex with corpses. The man was disgusting, and he’s not smart, he’s a failure at everything, and I think mainstream media glorifies these people in a way that we don’t. We defang them, we stare in their faces, we laugh at how pathetic they are. And I think that’s what people love about it.

You guys mentioned at one point that you, specifically Marcus, you became more involved in researching and reading books. What sparked that?

Marcus Parks: As we started doing the show more, we got more interested in the psychology behind these things and the reasons why, and in order to really answer those questions that we ourselves had, we had to do a lot more research, and we had to dig a lot deeper. It also comes down to the listeners. The listeners responded a lot more when we had something that was a true deep dive. And we also like to give our own perspectives on things. When you just read a Wikipedia page, you only get straight facts and you can’t really form an opinion or a point of view from that. So in order to really form some sort of point of view, we all had to up our game when it came to research.

Zebrowski: Also, man, there’s something [helpful for fans] knowing that we do give it 110 percent, which is a thing that we talked about behind the scenes, about our show — we work too hard putting together our show where I make a lot of fart noises. My fart noises are built on about 40 hours of work a week, so these are really highly researched fart noises that I’m making, and I want people to understand that.

Parks: We always like to say: This is what we think, this is our opinion on this. We always encourage people to go out and do their own research and to form their own opinions on things, because we are not experts. Well, we’re accidental experts, but we didn’t go to school for this. We are not academics. I have a degree in creative writing, Henry has one in theater, and Ben has one in political science. We don’t have master’s degrees here; these are still just our opinions.

I was listening to the episode of Jensen and Holes: The Murder Squad that you were on, Henry, and you mentioned that as part of Last Podcast on the Left’s deal with Spotify, they have no say in your content. Was there there any significant pushback on any content in your book from the publisher?

Zebrowski: The book is a decidedly different tone than a lot of the show … It is pretty immature. But Marcus does a lot of good work on the prose section of the book. I want to say that they only pushed back on one thing — I think they pushed back on [one of my suggested illustrations].

Parks: As far as writing goes, they did not push back on anything as far as the graphic [details] or as far as really getting into the details —

Zebrowski: This is gold-star material. [Episodes denoted as “gold star” mean they are incredibly gruesome and not for the faint of heart.]

Parks: Yeah, the book gets into the details very heavily at quite a few points, and they did not flinch once. HMH was great. I have nothing but nice things to say about them or our editor, who taught me how to write a book.

There are a lot of people who are super into the true-crime genre but aren’t always fans of horror movies, and I think that’s such an interesting dichotomy. Do you guys, as dabblers in both fields, have any theories as to why that may be? 

Zebrowski: I remember back in the day on, they said there were two questions that divided relationships more than anything else … Do you like the taste of beer or do you like horror movies? So I think it’s not about the true crime, I think it’s about the horror movie. I think horror movies, to some people, are highly divisive … I’m not going to go so far as to say, so you’ll watch a thing about real serial killers fucking hacking up people but you can’t see it in a movie when it’s done as art, you know what I mean? But I do understand that seeing it for some people is quite a bit, where reading about it, you can create images in your own mind of whatever your [tolerance] level is, where sometimes a horror movie will ruin your night, which I totally understand.

Kissel: [True crime is] more research-based, it’s more sociological and anthropological in a lot of ways, learning about the study of how humans act in the worst kind of ways … Horror is entertainment, so it’s a bit of a different thing. So if you don’t get your entertainment by watching people suffering through a maze by someone who wants to teach you a lesson like Jigsaw, and you’d rather watch 50 First Dates, that makes a lot of sense to me … I don’t think that they necessarily need to be intertwined.

For me, horror can be so immersive that it becomes overwhelming, whereas if I’m reading it or listening to it, I can control the images. But it’s visceral in a different way. I’ve noticed that my horror tolerance has wildly changed since I’ve gotten older.

Zebrowski: Oh, that’s for certain. I feel like we’ve all talked about this, about how for some reason the vulnerability has increased as I’ve gotten older. I wonder if it’s because you realize that there’s so much to lose in life, and when you’re younger, you’re less in touch with your mortality, and as you get older, you’re like, “Man, I don’t want to be taught a lesson by Jigsaw tonight.”

Personally, I started listening to you guys at a pretty rough time, and it was weirdly soothing, which I think is the case for a lot of listeners. What’s your guys’ typical relationship with your fans?

Zebrowski: I will say it does not stop being an overwhelming experience knowing that our idiocy can help. It really is, and I think it’s awesome, because a lot of times, I do it to help me. Joking on my end helps me get through rough times, so I’m just so glad that anybody can get anything remotely positive from the horrible things that come out of my mouth.

Parks: One of the things that I know I’ve personally heard from a lot of people over the years is that being open about mental illness and being open about all that sort of stuff and approaching some of these people from a human perspective helped them out a lot and helped them to accept their own problems and get help for them. And it feels great. Especially when we see people face-to-face, during tours and during meet and greets and all that. It feels good that this weird thing that we started so many years ago actually helps people through hard times.

Zebrowski: But don’t worry; our mental illnesses will make sure that we don’t feel too good.

Parks: Our neuroses will always propel us forward.

The Last Podcast on the Left on the Art of True-Crime Comedy