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Bowen Yang’s Big Heist (and 2 More Podcasts Worth Trying)

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Hot White Heist


Here’s the shorthand I’ve been using to pitch Hot White Heist, a fantastic six-part Audible show that drops tomorrow: It’s a cartoonish cross between a queer Ocean’s Eleven and 30 Rock. Oh, and it’s headlined by Las Culturistas’ Bowen Yang.

But let’s say you want a better sense of the plot. Well, I’d reply, it’s sort of besides the point, but here goes: Judy Fink, a New York City fortune-teller played by Yang, is recruited by his estranged aunt to carry out a big ol’ heist to steal samples from a secret government bunker housing what could be described as the Presidential Sperm Bank on behalf of her commune, which might be a cult, so they can broker an exchange with the Russians for huge sums of cash with which they can build a much bigger commune, which, again, might be a cult. Fink agrees, but on the condition he gets to assemble his own team. “We’re only recruiting queers for this,” Fink tells his commune handler, played by Shannon Woodward, noting that they’re the only people he trusts. “They’re also the only people I know,” he adds. High jinks ensue.

Hot White Heist is an utter delight. It is, of course, very funny, and it features excellent performances from its expansive cast, which includes, among others, Mj Rodriguez, Bianca Del Rio, Jane Lynch, Abbi Jacobson, Alan Cumming, and Cheyenne Jackson. But what’s particularly striking about the production is the sheer dexterity of its technical competence. This thing moves, zipping through a thicket of jokes and aural gags so dense it’s almost relentless — 30 Rock was evoked at the top of this blurb for a reason, and it shouldn’t surprise you that this is a Broadway Video production — though without ever being so chaotic that you, the listener, would lose track of what’s going on. Such coherence is important for any piece of plot-heavy fictional audio, but it’s even more necessary in Hot White Heist, which contains an unexpected amount of physical slapstick for a literally nonvisual show. If that notion seems hard to wrap your head around, that’s because it is. It’s also a testament to the show’s direction, led by creator-writer-producer Adam Goldman, who is perhaps most known for his digital-video series The Outs. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Welcome to Night Vale: “Listeners”

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Welcome to Night Vale, the foundational institution of the fiction-podcast genre, turned nine years old yesterday — practically golden-aged, in podcast years — and the team celebrated the occasion with a lovely, lovely special episode that fans of both the show and the medium shouldn’t miss.

“Listeners” is a collage of sorts, bringing together almost two dozen different podcasts to perform little Night Valean reads that are plugged into the storied desert-town universe, where every conspiracy theory is true. The pool of participants is wide and varied, from Criminal to Comedy Bang! Bang! to Underunderstood to Hidden Brain to Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s? Want to hear You’re Wrong About’s Sarah Marshall and Michael Hobbes briefly talk about something called the “Mudstone Abyss”? It’s your lucky day.

The episode embodies something I’ve long admired about Night Vale creators Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, along with their team: in addition to fantastic makers of fine audio products, they’re true curators and advocates of the community they came up in and, in so many ways, helped shape over the past decade. Happy birthday, Night Vale. Here’s to nine more years.

Day X

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There’s a sequence deep into the opening chapter of Day X that, frankly, got me a bit nervous.

Katrin Bennhold, the New York Times’ Berlin bureau chief who leads this limited-run audio documentary, and her collaborating team of producers meet with an anonymous source to talk through the ideology held by the subject of their investigation: a network of far-right extremists that appears to be growing within the ranks of Germany’s police and security forces. The meeting takes place in the privacy of a car, with a translator serving as the voice of the source.

Though obviously not one-to-one, the scenario brought to mind the instigating scene in Caliphate, the Times’ other limited-run audio documentary series about extremists, which was critically acclaimed (including by myself) until it crumbled into controversy when a key source in that story, who had portrayed himself as a former ISIS member, was arrested by Canadian authorities for having lied about his identity.

The parallel, along with the memory of that scandal, is a little hard to shake, but of course this is unfair to Bennhold and her crew. In any case, Day X is a solid, gripping documentary, training its attention on the resurgent far right in Germany, which, of course, is not entirely disconnected from similar strains of extremism that exist here in the United States, with a growing constellation of militias fomenting at the increasingly thinning fringes.

Day X largely operates as an expansion of an earlier 2020 investigation that Bennhold wrote for the paper, which centered on a German officer named Franco A. who had posed as a refugee with the intent to commit terrorism. He would later be charged with plotting a violent act endangering the state, asylum fraud, and illegal possession of weapons and ammunition, all in the name of causing a level of chaos that would lead to a breakdown of the social order. The series begins with Franco A.’s story, before pulling back the scope to more deeply tackle other historical and narrative threads that lay present in the piece.

Of particular note is “In the Stomach,” the second episode, which dives into the country’s history and presses the inquiry toward the direction of cultural analysis: Germany is often framed as a model European nation, one that some observers are wont to psychoanalyze as compensating for its atrocities in World War II. But as Bennhold and Day X emphasize, for every action, there’s a great reaction, and as the country pushed hard toward the direction of order, pluralism, and collaborative global participation, it provoked the development of the exact opposite — an extreme ideology that advocates for chaos, ethnic nationalism, and insularity. Sounds familiar.

And that’s a wrap for 1.5x Speed! Hope you enjoyed it. We’re back next week, but in the meantime: Send podcast recommendations, feedback, or just say hello at nicholas.quah@vulture.com.

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Bowen Yang’s Big Heist (and 2 More Podcasts Worth Trying)