While 2020 forced some massive changes in media creation and consumption, podcasting remained steadfast. Benefiting from less demanding production requirements than, say, film or television, podcasting continued to thrive during the pandemic. An influx of new shows arrived, from intriguing pop-ups to coronavirus-focused podcasts (or sometimes both), with hosts often grabbing those nearest to them and whipping up what they could. In the case of stalwart podcaster Paul F. Tompkins, that meant a lot of “weekend water” with his wife Janie Haddad Tompkins on their “pandemical partnership” podcast, Stay F. Homekins.
Meanwhile, many mainstay shows moved from the studio to Zoom and started recording remotely, including ensemble comedy podcast Comedy Bang! Bang! Live shows became livestreams for the likes of How Did This Get Made? and others. Others found increasingly inventive workarounds, like Tom Scharpling conducting The Best Show with the assist of his car and a 25-foot sterilized microphone cable. Through all of the ups and downs, podcasters kept going, rapidly readjusting to each new obstacle 2020 presented. They met milestones — Never Not Funny hit 1,000 episodes. They made triumphant returns — George St. Geegland (John Mulaney) and Gil Faizon (Nick Kroll) were reincarnated in podcast form via Oh, Hello: The P’dcast. And some people even won whole-ass cars with their Get Rich Nick schemes.
Perhaps it’s podcasting’s perseverance that accounts for this year’s booming business, though it could be the medium’s peculiar history as the perpetual “next big thing.” Nevertheless, networks continued to make money moves, with Spotify leading the charge by buying up everything it could, including a podcast from former First Lady Michelle Obama. And there was even talk of podcasts getting their own Oscars, with an awards show set for early 2021.
Suffice it to say, the pool of potential favorites isn’t getting any smaller. But lucky for you, our crack team of podcast enthusiasts spent the year exploring the ever-expanding comedy-podcast universe, making it a bit smaller and a bit more manageable by recommending our favorites each week. And now we’ve rounded them all up and ranked them top-ten style to bring you the best comedy podcasts of 2020. —Becca James
10. Stay F. Homekins
Should we ever need a lighthearted time capsule for the year 2020, there is perhaps no relic better suited than the podcast Stay F. Homekins. Born out of the stay-at-home orders introduced at the beginning of the pandemic, this show, hosted by Paul F. Tompkins and his wife Janie Haddad Tompkins, documents the universal stages of quarantine, managing to channel the anger, frustration, and uncertainty of the world into hilarious banter that both entertains and makes listeners feel a little less alone. It’s no secret that Tompkins makes just about every podcast he’s a part of a little bit better, but the real joy of this show has been the chance to get to know and love Haddad Tompkins, who from the start charms with her southern drawl while sipping on her “weekend water.” Some of the series’s greatest moments are when Paul lets her take the driver’s seat to pitch a new game show, dissect the TV show The Affair in great detail, or ponder what her life in a cult might really be like, all the while with PFT’s signature off-mic laughter serving as the podcast’s unofficial score.
The production is refreshingly low budget — there is no theme song, no real structure, and even the ads are so perfectly on brand it feels as if they’re part of the conversation. The result is an intimate hour or so of podcasting that just happens to be hilarious. It never feels like the hosts are pushing too hard for a joke for the listener’s sake; they’re simply trying to keep each other sane as the world continues to spiral out of control. There are a few treats outside of the usual format though, including two watch-along specials to sync up with viewings of Interview With a Vampire and Urban Cowboy, giving a further glimpse into what a typical night in with these two is really like. Once you’re able to get past the innate jealousy of their seemingly ideal partnership, it’s easy to sink into their warm audio embrace and feel like part of the family. —Brianna Wellen
9. Double Threat
Double Threat was new in 2020, debuting just after quarantine started in March and bringing with it a fitting attitude of cheerful nihilism. It seemed like it didn’t matter if anyone was listening to the show. Hosts Julie Klausner and Tom Scharpling weren’t pandering for our downloads and shooting for a four-quadrant blockbuster (recurring references include Zeppo Marx and Orson Welles’s Croatian lover Oja Kodar), but built-in fans of Klausner’s How Was Your Week? and Scharpling’s The Best Show were listening from the very first episode.
Double Threat is a little more accessible than their previous shows if you’re not already a fan but want to be. The arcane system of inside jokes is still there, but an innovative format leverages the community of listeners and keeps each episode anchored to one or two ridiculous current events. The listeners and producer Brett are always on the lookout for the next embarrassing thing a high-on-his-horse canceled celebrity or multinational corporation has said or done, and Tom and Julie listen to the sound bites for the first time during the recording. They learn about it when listeners do, which makes Double Threat feel more like a shared experience — the very thing we’ve all been lacking this year. Jump into any episode that sounds interesting, whether it’s something you’ve heard of before like Garth Brooks’s goth alter ego Chris Gaines, or something you’re never heard of like the 2005 straight-to-video Barbie cartoon My Scene Goes Hollywood featuring Harvey Weinstein. Rest assured, if they’re bringing it up, it deserves to be taken down a notch. —Kathryn Doyle
8. Yeah, But Still
While a lifetime of practicing at-home introversion prepared me to be a safe member of a pandemic-addled society, by summer’s end I had nostalgic pangs for the mundane: sinking into a friend of a friend’s dog-hair-strewn sofa or smelling the wet garbage scent that haunts the patio of the worst bar in my neighborhood. Eventually, I realized it wasn’t the ordinary settings I missed but the stories told in these lived-in dives by those who give big city life its character. Even before the pandemic hit, Jack Wagner and Brandon Wardell’s Yeah, But Still thrived on being a storytelling podcast, not in the overly rehearsed atmosphere of The Moth but in a more organic form that comes from friends hanging out and shooting the shit. And in 2020, YBS had a banner year, with a weekly lineup of guests that was truly unpredictable. One week featured actors Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Robert Iler talking about coming of age as Tony Soprano’s fictional children, whereas another week had the hosts grilling far-right con artist Jacob Wohl. One episode had comedian Whitmer Thomas discussing his brief childhood kidnapping, while another featured an interview with Dany Hellz Kitchen, who cooks gourmet cellblock meals out of his French prison cell.
No episodes better showcased YBS’s digital campfire vibe than those featuring the late Riley Gale, singer of hard-core thrash-metal band Power Trip, who unexpectedly died this year at 34, leaving behind a wealth of tributes from fellow musicians and unexpected comedian friends who lauded him for his humor, kindness, generosity, and ability to effortlessly spin a yarn. Gale made his first appearance in 2019, when the gentle Gentile shared a story about sneaking onto a Birthright Israel trip with a suitcase full of forgotten felony-grade fireworks. When Gale passed away in August 2020, Wagner unlocked a Patreon episode with Gale, who was as innately talented at telling stories as he was at conjuring mosh pits with a guttural roar. The stories flowed from both men, ranging from Wagner’s near-death experience during a polar vortex to the time Gale’s tour manager accidentally admitted to Ice-T’s son that the first time he jerked off was to his mom. It was the last conversation Gale and Wagner had in person, and it serves as a reminder of the simple communal events we’ve lost. While this year began with Americans discovering how fragile our nation’s supply chain was when it came to toilet paper and flour, I’m more worried about what happens to a country’s cultural storytelling supply when years worth of memories are wasted — responsibly, but nonetheless wasted — by a disease that prevents these stories from being born. —Pablo Goldstein
7. Scam Goddess
“SCAMS! CONS! ROBBERY! AND FRAUD!” This is what many of us have shouted at the news too often this year, and it’s also the (ultracatchy) theme song of Scam Goddess. Each week, actor and scam expert Laci Mosley explores an exhaustive menu of “true fun crime,” from multilevel-marketing schemes to dentistry fraud to many, many romance scams. Unlike typical true-crime podcasts, Mosley leads with a load of positivity, empathy, and, yes, excitement. She invites fellow comedians to revel in the bewilderment and brilliance of the scammers and pay them respect. That’s right: Mosley has your back, no matter how many robberies you’ve committed. Still, while she calls people who rat on scammers “haters,” her love for schemers is not unconditional; sometimes she’s on their side all the way up to the end, until she learns they’re legitimately abusive, and then she’ll laugh at their death.
Mosley is just as likely to challenge a guest who is quick to judge unhoused squatters as she is to roll her eyes at journalists who “dress up” a scammer’s actions instead of calling them like they are (crimes!). She’ll caution scammers against flaunting their well-documented capers on social media and, in the same breath, plead “but also please do, I love it.” Mosley truly loves the mess, and with 2020 winning the Messiest Year Ever award, it’s no wonder the Congregation (Scam Goddess’s loyal fan base) recently joined the ranks of Conan O’Brien’s podcast network. It’s a tough world out there, and if you can con yourself through it, then you’ll earn the Scam Goddess’s respect. If you aren’t already a fan, just imagine how satisfying it would be to listen to someone who understands that the system works against a lot of people. Mosley’s openness, pragmatism, and ability to find hilarity in the darkest of places made this podcast a particularly welcome escape this year. —Anna Marr
6. Urgent Care
The oft-repeated greeting “Mitra and Joel, Joel and Mitra, love you both equally” rang true through the podcast Urgent Care’s first full year on the air. Each week comedians Mitra Jouhari and Joel Kim Booster give advice to listeners who call in and email with their questions — typically, the pettier, the better. Throughout the past year they’ve given completely unqualified advice on everything from what to do if you’re a gay man secretly sleeping with two closeted brothers to how to handle finding out your therapist is a stand-up comic to the ethics of catfishing a celebrity. Things took on a new sense of, well, urgency when the continuing disasters of the year caused more and more people to be in peril and seek advice. Still, the duo never allowed the dark cloud of COVID to dim their infectious shine. Throughout the season, the hosts allowed themselves to be vulnerable and talk candidly about how their own mental health has been affected by the pandemic, plus the things they’ve been doing to cope (like lots and lots of pottery and Real Housewives).
Those who ask questions often expect to receive a range of advice. For example, Mitra might suggest calmly talking through a problem while Joel lays out plans for very complicated revenge. But the greatest conflict — and in many cases, the greatest laughs — comes from the duo’s process giving advice seekers made-up names to keep them anonymous. The hosts often crack themselves up as they each take the longest walks possible to land on pun-filled names like “Bisexually Spears,” or sometimes something much less eloquent, such as “Countess Lu-Man Clean Up Your Sh*t: Joel Kim Booster’s Ode to Mitra.” It’s a delicate balance to both offer sound words of wisdom regarding sometimes quite serious issues and maintain the pure silliness of a kid laughing at a fart joke for the first time, but it’s a balance that Mitra and Joel have perfected. —Brianna Wellen
5. A Funny Feeling
If 2020 proved anything, it’s that a podcast covering bone-chilling paranormal experiences can serve as a good refuge from the day-to-day horrors of our daily existence. Prior to this year, I would turn to A Funny Feeling for a fun scare when things felt a bit bland. Throughout 2020, however, I would listen for the exact opposite reason: escapism from this grim reality while seeking comfort in another grim, more fantastical reality.
When the world shut down at the end of March, hosts of A Funny Feeling, Betsy Sodaro and Marcy Jarreau, had to adapt. While other podcasts continued to welcome guests virtually, Sodaro and Jarreau opted out of their weekly guest format and doubled down on an already fun portion of the show: listener-submitted ghost stories. In listening to terrifying tales directly from the fans, a great sense of community started to form. Just when I thought the show hit full stride in late May, listeners began submitting paranormal experiences during quarantine. We all know the bleakness of isolation during quarantine. Now imagine that experience, but doing it in a haunted house. Yikes! Whether it be a story about a creepy farmhouse in Wisconsin or the retelling of an exorcism in the Philippines, I can’t count the number of times I would squirm and get chills while listening. Fortunately, just when things would get a bit too scary, Sodoro and Jarreau would always break the tension with a great joke. With horror-comedy being an already popular subgenre in TV, film, and podcasting, I can’t think of anyone out there tackling the subject better than these two. Now tune in and get ready to be scared silly! —Tom Rainey
In a year when worrisome news was especially unavoidable, Kurt Braunohler and Scotty Landes’s odd-news podcast offered a welcome respite. With a focus on “strange, fascinating, and just plain bananas news from around the world,” Bananas makes wonderful use of the comedians’ wit and the world’s most hilarious headlines. Relying on a tight structure, the hosts take turns each week opening with a shocking headline like “This Man Is Controlling a Robot With His Butthole,” “Here is a turtle that pees through its mouth,” and “Man digs a big hole in his garden, gets in, refuses to get out,” spurring the response, “That’s bananas!” A slapping theme song immediately follows this excited intro. Created by Kayhan Ahmadi, the ’80s-tinged tune is definitely danceable and sets the tone for what’s to come: “the funnest little strange news podcast you ever did hear.”
Sidestepping an aimless chat session in favor of bringing their guests into the fold from the get-go, the hosts maintain this high energy. While a comedian often joins them, they’ve also welcomed the likes of activist Erin Brockovich, musician Phoebe Bridgers, and ornithologist Corina Newsome. No matter who they’re casually interviewing, an absolute riff-fest is sure to ensue. Funny from start to finish and incredibly visual (thanks to those always bonkers headlines), Bananas lets listeners press pause on their lives and settle into a humorous but thoughtful discussion about the news. Oscillating between comedic commentary and concern, Braunohler and Landes provide a spirit-raising, must-listen podcast for 2020 and beyond. —Becca James
There’s a faction in the podcast community that is pretty antagonistic toward classic “celebrities” — TV and movie actors, mainly — horning in on the podcast business. I don’t know that I share that enmity, but I think it should be suspended for 2020. With so many Hollywood folks sidelined due to production shutdowns during the pandemic, podcasting is one of the only performance-art forms left to turn to, so why grouse about it? An outstanding case in point is Smartless, an effort directly borne of COVID-19’s effect on showbiz. It brought together a trio of heavy hitters — Jason Bateman, Sean Hayes, and Will Arnett — as a kind of three-headed host with a different guest each week, along with a gimmick to go with it: Each of the hosts invites a guest on, and the other two don’t find out who until the guest’s camera turns on in the Zoom chat that serves as their studio.
The guests have ranged from expected pals like Jennifer Aniston and Conan O’Brien to unexpected delights like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Kamala Harris (on the show literally less than 24 hours before she seized the nomination for vice-president). But the real treat of this weekly show is the interplay between the three hosts. Clearly friends for a long time (Bateman and Arnett were co-stars for years on Arrested Development, a show that Hayes swears he has yet to watch a single episode of), they have great fun mocking each other relentlessly. Oftentimes they gang up on each other, with each guy taking his turn in the hot seat. The comedic pummeling gets so crazy that the guest invariably jumps in to side with the odd man out. —Marc Hershon
At the start of this year, not many people could have foreseen that we’d find ourselves in a time made for trudging our way through movies we’d never seen before. And while 2020 was the worst on all other fronts, it did turn out to be the perfect time for the Newcomers podcast to land in our ears. Hosted by titans of comedy podcasting Nicole Byer and Lauren Lapkus — who, as of this writing, host a collective 600 podcasts between them — Newcomers took on the Herculean task of watching every single Star Wars film in season one, and then all Lord of the Rings movies in the second season, for the very first time. Each week they’re joined by a devoted fan to help them make sense of what they just saw. Even though they’re watching the films for the first time, it’s impossible not to have a basic working knowledge of these franchises, so it’s consistently a treat to hear them learn the meanings of things they thought they knew — like Byer’s realization she’s gotten a character’s name wrong and subsequent commitment to calling the character Hans, as in Hans Olo.
As a listener who’s also never seen a single one of these movies, the one thing I know about their fan bases is that they’re not known for being the most welcoming, open, good-humored bunch. But with Lapkus and Byer at the helm with their fresh-eyed perspective, and the longtime devoted fan POV of their guests, they managed to create a space that’s not just free from the fandom’s signature toxicity, but one that’s filled with hilarious and oftentimes endearing conversations about these two juggernauts of pop culture and why they mean so much to so many people. For as much as there is to make fun of about these movies — and Byer and Lapkus do plenty of that — it is nothing short of delightful hearing both sides come together and share in the joy. The episode where Mary Holland talks passionately about The Lord of the Rings is a standout. Discovering the Star Wars Holiday Special with Oscar Montoya is a must-listen. And any of the fanfiction episodes are not to be missed. While 2020 may have been the perfect year for me to finally watch these movies, Newcomers has done all the heavy lifting, and now I’ll never have to. —Leigh Cesiro
1. Las Culturistas
Network change, hosts on separate coasts, and pandemic be damned — Las Culturistas is better than ever. In addition to navigating us through the biggest cultural moments, “iconique” comedians Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang keep proving that podcasts can get better with age. This year’s guests have been next level (Will Ferrell, Bob the Drag Queen, and, of course, Survivor’s Parvati), but it’s Matt and Bowen’s solo episodes that land the pod at the top of this list. These intimate, experimental editions have been an integral way to process the past eight months and, at times, virtuosic in their own goof-a-loof way. Matt and Bowen sang the entirety of “Light My Candle.” They got “too high” (twice). They performed an old sketch they wrote titled “Show Email,” a satire of a long, earnest email read over Switchfoot’s “Dare You to Move.” And, famously, they celebrated their 200th episode by publishing “The Top 200 Moments in Culture History,” a chaotic three-part series that captured every emotion of the summer and cemented the trilogy itself as a top moment in podcast history.
In a year where mainstream “culture” became a mixture of Real Housewives of New York City and transforming NYC’s criminal-justice system, Matt and Bowen enthusiastically celebrated culture’s weird and beautiful moments while also leaving ample space to process and confront real, relevant shit and hold themselves accountable. And to think that in their first episode of the year, they teased this new app called Quibi … Much has changed, but the joy of Matt and Bowen’s friendship has not. It’s time to put together everything I’ve learned from them this year: “I don’t know my words, but I do know my heart,” and I know that Las Culturistas is cathartic, destabilizing, and both an actress and a star. Gonna have to be definitive on that one. —Anna Marr
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