The comedy podcast universe is ever expanding, not unlike the universe universe. We’re here to make it a bit smaller, a bit more manageable. There are a lot of great shows and each has a lot of great episodes, so we want to highlight the exceptional and the noteworthy. Each week our crack team of podcast enthusiasts and specialists and especially enthusiastic people will pick their favorites. We hope to have your ears permanently plugged with the best in aural comedy.
This week, our reviewers took a look back on some of the most memorable times their favorite comedy podcast episodes got dark and serious.
Alison Rosen Is Your New Best Friend — Tiffany Haddish
Leigh Cesiro: Tiffany Haddish and her comedy are a source of light in this world. The same cannot be said about her heartbreaking backstory. While the story of how she lived in her car while she was starting out in stand-up is something Haddish gets asked about in a lot of interviews and late-night shows, the full story of her childhood and marriage is a lot darker. As she recounts the horrifying details of her past, it’s hard to believe someone could tell these stories and still be funny and make jokes along the way. In addition to a bonus story about her friendship with Dane Cook, this conversation with Alison Rosen is a more digestible version of the one she had with Paul Gilmartin on Mental Illness Happy Hour and a must-listen for every Tiffany Haddish fan.
All Killa No Filla — Gary Ridgway, the Green River Killer, Parts 1 & 2
Marc Hershon: British comedians Rachel Fairburn and Kiri Pritchard-McLean sometimes will take a pass on dipping into the grittiest details surrounding the murders committed by the serial killers they profile on All Killa No Filla. That doesn’t make the subject matter covered any less dark nor, to their credit, any less comedic. Part one of their examination of Seattle’s Green River Killer a.k.a. Gary Ridgway is mostly spent delving into the man’s background: his upbringing, three odd marriages, predilection for the Bible, and love-kill fixation with sex workers. Things get increasingly grim in part 2 as the hosts chronicle the astonishingly long list of mostly teenaged female victims and the discovery of their grisly internment in “pods” of graves placed conveniently along the route to and from Ridgway’s job. The comedy touches offered by the hosts are never at the victims’ expense; they’re often at the killers’, but usually at the hosts’ own lives — and frequently about topics that are blissfully separate from the subject at hand.
Beautiful/Anonymous — The Whirlpool Galaxy
Mark Kramer: When Chris Gethard announced the end of The Chris Gethard Show on truTV, he mentioned how his career has evolved as he’s inched towards 40. Between the brilliant Career Suicide and the often moving Beautiful/Anonymous, his subject matter has leaned heavier, and perhaps connected to a larger audience than the wonderful but culty TCGS. The memorable “Whirlpool Galaxy” could be highlighted as a prime example of the exciting new direction his career is headed. Gethard patiently guides an astrophysicist through opening up about her horrific trauma, in a truly inspiring story with a kind touch few could pull off. The sporadic laughs are a cathartic release to an overwhelmingly dramatic tale of loss, family conflict, and resiliency in the face of darkness.
Call Chelsea Peretti — I.F.F.
L.C.: Back before murder podcasts were their own genre, there was the call-in show, Call Chelsea Peretti. As host Chelsea Peretti answered unscreened calls from strangers, she was usually on the hunt for a caller with a story about murder, bear attacks, or black mold — the more gruesome details, the better. The episode “I.F.F,” which stands for “I Feel Fat,” opens with the screeching strings of the Psycho score, followed by the greeting, “Eat shit and die, everybody.” As callers ramble on, excited to be talking to One of the Greats herself, Peretti quietly slips a simple “I feel fat” into the conversation, because, well, sometimes as all humans know, you just feel fat and it’s hard to concentrate on anything else. Sliding into what she refers to as “tantrum mode,” the “I feel fats” get bolder, faster, louder, and squeakier as the episode goes on. And each time she says it without listeners responding, it gets more and more satisfying. Whether they can’t hear it or they’re ignoring it is up for debate, but it doesn’t matter. The more uncomfortable it gets for callers, the funnier it gets for listeners. “I.F.F. eventually even went on to get its own filter in the Call Chelsea Peretti app.
The Champs — Ms. Pat
Pablo Goldstein: There’s a moment in Ms. Pat’s astonishing interview with The Champs where she reveals that her ex-boyfriend — the same adult who began raping her when she was just 12 — once shot her in the back of the head. It’s notable not just for the shocking violence of it, but because Ms. Pat casually glides past the remark until hosts Neal Brennan and Moshe Kasher stop her to tell the exact details of her brush with death. Ms. Pat’s autobiographical stand-up is dark comedy personified, but the nonchalant manner in which she details her dismal upbringing that included crack dealing, forced abortion, and being shot twice — all before she turned 20! — adds another grimly comedic layer to this episode. Even the way she accidentally ended up pursuing stand-up comedy is darkly comedic: She told embellished sob stories that cracked up a welfare office worker, who then recommended that she watch some Richard Pryor. With a life like hers, it’s difficult to imagine what her exaggerations entailed.
A Funny Feeling — A Hag’s Visit With Aubrey Plaza
M.K.: It doesn’t get much darker than a podcast solely about real-life ghost stories. UCB L.A. regulars and paranormal enthusiasts Betsy Sodaro and Marcy Jarreau have been sharing spooky stories on A Funny Feeling for almost a year now, but this early episode with self-proclaimed “evil hag” Aubrey Plaza stands out as an unsettling ride through several encounters with the unknown. Plaza wastes no time sharing a terrifying incident inside her own haunted home that kind of explains her whole deal. Continue listening at your own risk, because her bone-chilling story about a “birthday ghost” in the Bahamas will prevent sleep for at least several days. Hopefully one day Plaza will return and update fans on any additional supernatural activity since this episode premiered last November. A Funny Feeling is easily the best podcast at recreating the feeling of sitting around a campfire at night, roasting marshmallows and trying to scare the living bejeezus out of your friends.
High & Mighty — Dead Dads
Tom Rainey: For a man who describes himself as the “number-one fucboi,” Jon Gabrus is more often than not self-aware, self-reflective, and insightful when talking about his own life. This standout episode from High & Mighty features Gabrus and longtime writing partner and best friend, Justin Tyler, talking about their deceased fathers. As members of the “Dead Dads Club,” Gabrus and Tyler talk about how difficult it can be to assume a new role within the family after a parent’s passing while also trying to focus on building a life and family of their own. All done through laughter, this conversation feels cleansing for the two comedians. Although there is no natural conclusion, both Gabrus and Tyler leave listeners with a sense of optimism by the end.
The Hilarious World of Depression — Maria Bamford Talks Bipolar II While Her Pugs Eat Nilla Wafers
Elizabeth Stamp: The Hilarious World of Depression host John Moe sits down with comedian and actress Maria Bamford and her pugs to talk about her long struggle with mental illness. Just as she is in her specials and her show Lady Dynamite, Bamford is brutally honest about everything she’s experienced, from sexual thoughts associated with OCD to her most manic period, during which she filmed holiday commercials for Target. She talks about what her hospitalizations were really like, as opposed to what was depicted in Lady Dynamite, and how she finally got a correct diagnosis of bipolar II and started taking the right medication, Depakote. She also describes her life now and how she stays healthy, from stipulating reasonable work hours in her contract to doing a strategic amount of touring.
Horny 4 Horror — Double Doll Interview
Kathryn Doyle: Horny 4 Horror isn’t particularly dark, but it is improvised horror. For episode 25, top-tier guests Nicole Byer and Drew Tarver play iconic horror dolls Annabelle and “Chunky,” a chubbier Chucky who is possessed by the spirit of serial killer Bob Costas. Mano, Betsy, and Adam learn that Chunky lives in a house full of moths and that Annabelle dated Flipper for six-and-a-half years and has killed every U.S. president. When you’re playing characters who are already made-up bad guys, plus they’re dolls, no jokes are off-limits, so yeah, slavery comes up. Also, there’s a last-minute reveal of whose soul is trapped in Annabelle. No spoilers, but let’s just say Herbert Hoover’s soul is trapped in Kylie Jenner’s body.
Hysteria — Supreme Headache
Anna Marr: Hysteria originated this summer out of the current chaotic state of our country, so honestly, any of its episodes satisfy an itch for dark comedy. Its hosts are comedians, journalists, and activists, striking an entertaining tone that balances depressing realities and intelligent jokes. This episode in particular is the show’s first recorded after Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination, a key moment in the state of women’s reproductive rights — something a bit important to host Erin Ryan and this episode’s co-hosts Ziwe Fumudoh and Blair Imani, two of Ryan’s rotating squad of co-hosts, all of whom are women. At the same time, they’re able to laugh off an anti-abortion Roe v. Wade movie currently being made. Most notably, this episode births the show’s favorite portmanteau, “sad-gressive: when something is progressive yet sad that it even needed to happen.” Like always, their segments are a satisfying mix of ironic, thoughtful, and weird, as they use their expertise in apologizing to judge “The Week in Sorry” and end with the silly and strange “hills they’ll die on.” Truly, every episode of Hysteria features clever and blunt jokes and new catchphrases to educate and motivate you through your week, even on a second listen.
Last Podcast on the Left — Jonestown series
K.D.: For a seminal arc from episode 300 to 304, LPOL tackles the white whale of the serial killer/conspiracy theory/murderous cult oeuvre: Jonestown. You can tell they were saving this topic for a special occasion. It’s a five-part deep dive into the life and mind of Jim Jones, the cult leader who, in 1978, was responsible for the deaths of over 900 people (who were murdered, NB — manipulation into killing yourself is not suicide). Ben, Marcus, and Henry piece together hours of research, interviews with experts, and recordings of Jones himself to trace how Jim’s rhetorical style changed over time (by the last hour he starts to sound like a deranged Al Sharpton/Porky Pig) and his political similarities to Roy Moore. It’s put together with care and feels like a special anniversary gift for listeners. LPOL isn’t for everyone, but these episodes should be enjoyable for all due to the way it plumbs the depths of what humanity is capable of, and how easily white Americans from Indiana can become jungle people through the power of suggestion.
Lou Reads the Internet for You — Porn Fan Chats from Brazzers’ Forum
P.G.: If you thought porn video comments sections were the rendezvous point for the saddest men our society has to offer, then you’ve never spent time on a porn message board. Thankfully you don’t have to actually log on, since Lou Reads the Internet for You host Lou Fernandez does the heavy lifting in this 2014 episode by reading, verbatim, the dark thoughts found on Brazzers’ official message boards. To enjoy this episode, you have to be somewhat okay with laughing at people and not with them. But as you hear chillingly fanatical porn fans complain about loudmouth camera operators and praise white performers who refuse to do interracial scenes, just remind yourself that these posters now likely spend their days administrating men’s-rights subreddits.
Mental Illness Happy Hour — Rob Delaney
K.D.: If you’ve seen Rob Delaney on shows like Catastrophe or in movies like Deadpool 2, you’ve seen him play broad, absurd characters with a healthy dose of empathy. His body seems to always be on the line, like he’d be game to shatter himself for a joke. And if you’ve heard him speak seriously about his real life, you know he had one of the hardest rock-bottoms of any comedian who’s even gone on a podcast to describe their rock bottom, and his body really did shatter: He got blackout drunk, drove his car into the Department of Water and Power building, and woke up in a jail cell in a wheelchair he kept sliding out of with two broken arms. He rebounded into one of the funniest people working today, using surgical skill at joke writing and an innate understanding of the nature of Twitter to slingshot himself to fame. There’s no need to perpetuate the trite idea that “comedy comes from tragedy” and “most comedians have a fucked-up past,” because it doesn’t always and many don’t. But this is a standout episode of Mental Illness Happy Hour regardless, and there’s more than enough for a full Vulture write-up. This 2012 episode is only available at Stitcher Premium, but there’s a full transcript on the MIHH website.
My Favorite Murder — Golden State Killer Caught!
E.S.: Comedians Karen Kilgariff and Georgia Hardstark created a phenomenon and developed a dedicated legion of fans (a.k.a. Murderinos) with their podcast My Favorite Murder. Ordinarily, they research and present years-old crimes for each episode, but the capture of the Golden State Killer in April gave them an opportunity to discuss the culmination of a famous case in real time. The show’s fascination with the Golden State Killer dates back to the very first episode, when they discussed the East Side Rapist, which was his name in the Sacramento area. They go through the evidence and talk about what is still unknown. Investigative journalist Billy Jensen, who helped finish Michelle McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark after her death, calls in to give his reactions and theories.
Queery — Evan Rachel Wood
A.M.: Almost a year before comedian Cameron Esposito raised over $65,000 (and growing) for RAINN this year with Rape Jokes, her new hour-long stand-up special focused on sexual assault from a survivor’s perspective, she sat down to an interview with Evan Rachel Wood. Queery is a podcast designed to meet people where they are and celebrate commonality, so after Wood candidly details her own experience coming out about her sexual assault, Esposito makes the choice to join the conversation. It’s a powerful moment within an already rich exchange about gender and sexual identity. Throughout, Esposito’s signature swagger — a loud yet welcoming flair that effortlessly balances humor and hard truths — is present. Also, the street on which they’re recording is literally on fire. With foreshadowing of her future special — “No topics are off-limits, but, like, the jokes have to be good. And the thing that is being taken down has to be the power structure” — it’s clear she was already using comedy as a weapon. For Esposito’s take on this episode, listen to Good One: A Podcast About Jokes.
Suicide Buddies — Jeanne Weber
M.K.: Almost any episode of stand-up comedians Hampton Yount and Dave Ross’s consistently hilarious Suicide Buddies could go in this slot, but this one about serial killer Jeanne Weber hits the exact sweet spot of laughter and misery. Unfortunately nicknamed “The Ogress,” Jeanne Weber was known in early 1900s France as the babysitter who broke the glass ceiling and then used the remaining shards to murder a handful of children. Even before they dive into Weber’s insane story, Yount and Ross seamlessly riff on everything from Flo’s politics (hint: They’re progressive) to Ku Klux Klan horses to law enforcement’s insidious YouTube presence. As Dave Ross points out, repetition is part of comedy’s master formula, and that’s exactly how this woman’s path to suicide played out. Weber left a wake of asphyxiated child after asphyxiated child that she was entrusted to nanny for three years straight. It sounds disturbing, and it certainly is, but by murder number three (rule of threes I guess), listeners will not be able to contain their laughter at the unbelievable details of the multiple trials and investigations. Suicide Buddies takes suicide seriously, but comedy even more so.
This Sounds Serious — The Case of Daniel Bronstadt Mini-series
M.H.: This wonderfully crafted true-crime podcast parody is an easy binge, and I was sad to get to the end. The mystery that starts with a frantic 911 call in 2007 and concludes with, first, the prime suspect commandeering the podcast, and then investigative podcaster Gwen reclaiming her show and solving the decade-old murder case of Orlando TV weatherman Chuck Bronstadt, nails the tropes that have given so many true-crime shows their flavor. The original phone call of Daniel Bronstadt finding the body of his twin brother, audio news snippets from various time periods, interviews with quirky witnesses, the podcaster becoming part of the story they’re trying to cover — it’s all there. Particularly wonderful are clips from a fictional investigative-style TV show from the turn of the (21st) century trying to track down the infamous Weatherman Strangler. The production team of Kelly & Kelly really have an ear for parody (last year they brought us Dexter Guff Is Smarter Than You, ten episodes of a pompous motivational speaker who implodes delightfully as the series progresses) and they’ve done it again here. Narrated by Carly Pope (Arrow, Suits), the cast includes some familiar faces and voices, such as Peter Oldring (longtime Kelly & Kelly collaborator), Lauren Ash (Superstore), George Basil (Crashing), Gary Anthony Williams (Curb Your Enthusiasm), and Paul F. Tompkins (Spontaneanation).
A Very Fatal Murder — A Perfect Murder
E.D.: The Onion’s A Very Fatal Murder is a pitch-perfect parody of true-crime podcasts, from the suspicious piano theme to the host’s creepy excitement at mining a family’s traumatic event for content. The first episode skewers the exploitative quality of these shows as host David Pascall searches for the perfect, culturally relevant crime with the help of E.T.H.L (Extremely Timely Homicide Locator). After years of false starts, they finally find the ideal hot white dead girl, Haley Price, a 17-year-old whose case commented on everything from the gig economy to intersectional feminism. Pascall heads to the small town of Bluff Springs, Nebraska, where the citizens aren’t used to murder or podcast hosts. After speaking with Haley’s parents — and having them do an ad read for sponsor Box Box — Pascal knows what he has to do: make the best, most-downloaded podcast ever.
Welcome to Night Vale — A Matter of Blood, Parts 1-3
M.H.: Defining its own corner of the dark comedy universe since it started in 2012, Welcome to Night Vale is a peek into the goings-on of a typical American small town if that burg had been co-conceived by H.P. Lovecraft, Philip K. Dick, Ayn Rand, and whomever else would come up with a dystopian present. “A Matter of Blood” is a three-episode arc that originally dropped in April and May of this year, featuring the logline, “The battle for the soul of Dana Cardinal.” Elected as mayor, she’s determined to try and make some sense of the craziness by transferring much of the power in the town away from the town council, the sheriff, and his Secret Police, and put it all under control of the mayor’s office. That happens, after which Cardinal goes into hiding because it seems the Powers That Were are not happy with the change. During an earlier Night Vale event where clones of people began appearing in town, Cardinal killed an exact duplicate of herself, which is revealed in a running monologue the character has during this episode. But in the aftermath of that murder, she is no longer sure if she herself is the original Cardinal or the duplicate. The weather is also weird in Night Vale, and a “blood matter storm” sweeps in, drenching the town in gouts of blood. With the storm also comes another copy of Dana Cardinal, sent by all the other versions of her from all the other multi-dimensions, to deliver justice for killing the first duplicate. By the third installment, Ms. Cardinal is squaring off against, essentially, herself on a street that is literally running red with blood. Told you it was dark. Spoiler alert: One of the Danas wins.
WTF with Marc Maron — Todd Hanson
P.G.: At the top of this essential episode of WTF, Marc Maron reads a question from a listener who’s just starting comedy: “Do I need to be fucked up to be funny?” Maron responds that misery is not needed to be funny, but if you’re able to get past your demons, it will certainly help. It’s an honest response to one of comedy’s oldest tropes, the Sad Clown. But it’s merely a setup to the interview that follows with veteran Onion writer Todd Hanson, who contributed to one of the darkest pieces of comedy ever written: The Onion’s post-9/11 issue. In a candid and emotional discussion about comedians and depression, Hanson reveals that he attempted suicide two years earlier by mixing 60 Xanax tablets and a bottle of booze. Miraculously, this deadly cocktail did not end his life, allowing Hanson to begin the long road to recovery since the dark day he now calls his “second birthday.” The episode struck such a chord with listeners that medical schools asked Maron if they could use it as an example on how to speak with depressed patients.
You Made It Weird — Harris Wittels Returns
T.R.: If you’re a fan of comedy podcasts, chances are you’ve heard of Harris Wittels. Tragically, Wittels passed away from a heroin overdose in 2015. The only thing bigger than his lasting legacy is the permanent hole he left in the comedy community following his death. Three months prior to his passing, Wittels sat down with Pete Holmes and had one of the most harrowing, hilarious, and heart-wrenching conversations in podcasting history. Wittels had a knack for being extremely candid. His open and honest demeanor, especially when it came to his shortcomings, broke down barriers between himself and the listener. This interview is no different. While talking about his struggles with addiction, he was also quick to break the tension with a joke — usually at his own expense. After sharing a detailed account of using heroin after being robbed at knife-point, he ended the show on a relatively positive note and expressed hope for his future sobriety. This episode of YMIW is just the tip of the iceberg as to why the world is better place because of Harris Wittels.