Around this time last year, we were still pre-vaccine and living in lockdown. Podcasts, a medium more primed for a pandemic than others because of their remote flexibility, continued to proliferate. And with that came an increased interest in the behind-the-scenes, the results of which varied. For shows like Reply All, it meant a reckoning; for producers, it meant some recognition; and for podcasts in general, it meant listenership remained on the rise. And all the while, comedy podcasts in particular kept creating an intimate bond between listener and podcaster, like in the case of Everyday Decisions With Jo Firestone, and offering endless positivity when we needed it most, like on Josh Gondelman’s Make My Day. Heck, they even continued hitting milestones.
So we continued on with our comedy-podcast recommendations, working our way through old and new favorites alike, finding comfort in the former and excitement in the latter during a time of isolation when both felt more challenging to come by. From column regulars like Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang’s Las Culturistas and Nicole Byer’s Why Won’t You Date Me? to new shows including Jamie Loftus’s Aack Cast, we turned to these podcasts to help us through even as we began to enter a post-vaccine world and podcasters began to consider live events again. And while the newfound freedom eventually led to some fond farewells, if history is any indication, podcasts will continue to prosper in their own peculiar way.
Lucky for you, as the comedy-podcast universe keeps expanding, our crack team of podcast enthusiasts and specialists and especially enthusiastic people will keep working to make it a bit smaller and a bit more manageable. And for those still processing a year with a distinct dividing line, don’t worry. We’ve got you covered with a look back at 2021 via our list of the best comedy podcasts of 2021 below. —Becca James
Poog (which, yes, is “Goop” spelled backwards) offers a humorous and incisive look into “self-care” culture and all its capitalist trappings. Launched at the end of 2020, the podcast started out as an invitation to live vicariously as hilarious hags Kate Berlant and Jacqueline Novak share their experiences with this life-changing kombucha, that trendy diet, and that other thing with antioxidants.
As Poog grew and blossomed in 2021, it proved itself to be more than just a simple wellness-review podcast. On the contrary, it pokes and prods at the very concept of “wellness,” exploring the highs, lows, and fears every human encounters on our endless quest to “fix ourselves” and our bodies. The podcast raises the question: In an industry that simultaneously warns of things like “carrageenans” and promises miracle cures to deliver us all from the existential dread of inhabiting a body, what can we trust? And, inundated by wellness messaging at every turn, how do we trust our overwhelmed selves to make sense of it all?
This is perhaps the most charming thing about Poog: For a “wellness-themed” podcast, it is unabashedly raw and neurotic. It doesn’t have all the answers, but it will bring you along on all manner of mental spirals as it attempts to find them. From the running theme of Berlant’s hypochondria in “Does Kate Have COVID?” to Novak’s adventures with soap brows in “A Mainstream Comedy That Delivers,” the hosts lay all their internal machinations and deepest insecurities on the table for our listening pleasure. Maybe you, like everyone else, have spent so much time thinking about your body that your mind has now wandered to what’s inside it. Maybe you need a refresher on the importance of flossing, or a reminder that no one else is doing it as frequently as they should. Or perhaps you’ve had enough, and you’d much rather astral project out of our current reality altogether. There’s something in the Poogiverse for everyone.
It’s hard to pick favorite episodes in a podcast that feels like a long, satisfying, ever-evolving, self-referential conversation with the best friend you aren’t afraid to discuss chin hair and underboob sweat with. So what are you waiting for? Put on an episode and tap in — it’ll probably clear your skin. —Akanksha Aurora
What a difference a year makes. Last year at this time, the Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Sean Hayes-hosted Smartless had been riding the podwaves for a modest six months. With only half a year under its belt then, 2021 was truly its year. Endlessly entertaining, with their “mystery guest” gimmick — like Tom Hanks, Jennifer Aniston, and George Clooney, to mention just a few who have been in the show’s red-carpet lineup — and friendly yet brutal repartee, this show seemed like a lark for the trio who were looking for something to pass the time on Zoom together during the pandemic lockdown. Rather than hang up their mics when they could leave their homes, however, in May 2021 the podcast signed with Creative Artists Agency for representation and, a month later, the agency represented them into a reported $60-80 million contract with Amazon. There are also already two documentary-style specials in the works, which will follow the Smartless gang on their six-city tour that kicks off in February 2022.
While some of the guests’ appearances seem to coincide with stuff they’re plugging (like Paul McCartney when his album McCartney III dropped last year), others pop up for no other reason than they’ve enjoyed hearing some of their contemporaries on the show. And it’s a real treat to hear from personalities that have not really made it a habit to guest on podcasts before, whether it’s a deep dive into acting technique from Jeff Daniels or learning about the schoolmate from whom Sean Penn lifted his Jeff Spicoli character for Fast Times at Ridgemont High.
Has fame gone to the famous hosts’ heads? Not at all. All three readily point out the lack of interview technique the others display. (Hayes’s nomination as Best Overall Host for iHeart Radio’s upcoming 2022 Podcast Awards incites a steady stream of derision from his two “snubbed” podcast partners pretty much every episode.) And their personal address books continue to bring in the best “gets” in Hollywood and beyond consistently, week after week. —Marc Hershon
Add to Cart
In a year of too many variants, one bright constant was newcomer Add to Cart, a podcast about “the things we buy and buy into and what it says about who we are.” For a year now, comedian, writer, and director Kulap Vilaysack and veteran journalist SuChin Pak have gone beyond basic consumerism into ideologies and “unhinged” rituals, disappointments and loud celebrations, glass teeth and glass hair. Often what they and their guests add to their carts each week are ideas and experiences, like a loaf of bread made by a friend, a walk through the woods in your bathrobe, and family. (They also remove stuff from their carts, like FOMO, a miserable marriage, and, oh yeah, family.)
Paramount to the show’s humor, though, are Vilaysack and Pak and the roles they play in their friendship — Ku, a (nondenominational) Christmas enthusiast who indulges in all things matte black, and Su, the “last true hermit” who dresses for warmth and proudly wears hiking socks to bed. They refuse to apologize for what they love and balance each other out perfectly. The show’s universe also features a growing cast of recurring characters, including Dr. MD Majandra Delfino (not a real doctor), Santa Paul Scheer, and Christmas-decorating co-conspirator Casey Wilson. On top of that, Vilaysack and Pak are ultradeft in weaving in the best and worst of pop culture each week, all through a much-needed perspective in the comedy-podcast space.
As Vilaysack notes, reviewing products is “truly a reflection of the lives” she and Pak lead and how the world impacts them as Asian American women. In 2021, they dedicated multiple episodes to address hate against Asian Americans and other people of color, celebrated AAPI Heritage Month, and shouted out AAPI- and women-owned businesses. Guests like Phoebe Robinson, Bridger Winegar, and Jackie Johnson grace some classic episodes. But take extra-special note of ATC’s wholly entertaining themed episodes, like SuChin’s Paris trip recap, resources for how to save your marriage, and an epic two-part shower-routine series for some of their silliest yet most practical content. Vilaysack and Pak love to describe these episodes as deranged, and I agree — if by “deranged” they mean “relatable.” For what is 2021 if not deranged? —Anna Marr
Between sci-fi movies and conspiracy theories, people have many different ideas about what extraterrestrial life is. Regardless of whether you believe aliens exist, it’s difficult to believe that humans are the only intelligent life in the universe. As people grow and evolve, there are common themes to the human experience that remain a central part of life. But if humans were to share life on Earth to aliens, would we want to share the good and bad of humanity, or just the cool stuff like a hearty bowl of soup and French fries?
On their podcast Keeping Records, comedians and former roommates Caleb Hearon and Shelby Wolstein give their guests a chance to share what they think deserves to be remembered for years to come. Guests describe what they’d put on their Golden Records, inspired by the 1977 Voyager trip that included two “Golden Records” of contemporary life on Earth. What goes into a Golden Record has no limitations: Feelings, aromas, sensations, traditions, and multisensory experiences are all on the table for heading up to space.
Hearon and Wolstein challenge their guests to come up with what should be remembered and what humanity should obliterate. They argue to delete anything from low-calorie ice cream (it’s not comparable to regular ice cream!) to social-media posts starting with “sometimes” and ending with “rant over.” The duo has welcomed the likes of Chris Gethard, Meg Stalter, and even the co-creator of the original Voyager Golden Record Jon Lomberg, who all offer sage advice like “Stay in your lane.” The hosts create their own language for listeners and little freaks alike; with inside jokes and recurring expressions like “No free clout for the girlies,” they invite a friendly sleepoverlike banter between close friends (or lovers, if you dare to acknowledge the palpable sexual tension between the two). Keeping Records is so messy, lighthearted, and endearing that it welcomes you “bark” every week. —Alejandra Gularte
It seems kind of trivial to say that Las Culturistas was better than ever this year, because for the past five-plus years, the show has continued to improve upon itself. If I may be so bold and quote Christina Aguilera, it just keeps gettin’ better. If 2020 was about figuring out how the show works with its hosts Matt Rogers and Bowen Yang on opposite coasts, 2021 proved they’ve not only figured it out but excelled at it.
There were more frequent Matt and Bowen solo episodes and culture catch-ups to look forward to. Whether it was a new Taylor Swift album, Britney Spears, or House of Gucci, if anything notable happened in pop culture, readers could rely on a deep dive from the culturistas themselves. While these episodes assure us Matt and Bowen have their fingers on the pulse of pop culture, it’s the evolution of friendship that’s the beating heart of Las Culturistas. Sure, they teach us a lot about what’s going on with the Real Housewives, but they teach us even more about what it looks like (because podcasts are a visual medium) to be a good, supportive friend. Alongside their catch-ups, they haven’t strayed from the format of inviting guests to ask them the question: What was the culture that made you say culture was for you? Standouts from this past year include Cecily Strong, BD Wong, Busy Philipps, and Rose Dommu.
And of course, this year brought us “the most ambitious event in Las Cultch history,” the Culture Awards. With categories like Best Flavor of Them All, Biggest Jester Flop, and the Brenda Award for Name That No One Gets Named Now or Going Forward, this three-episode journey that began in July was pure joy to listen to. Publicists from all over the globe got to work campaigning for their clients, highlighting that the community of readers Matt and Bowen have fostered is not only kind and thoughtful, but also pretty darn hilarious in their own right. When I thought nothing could possibly be funnier than the episode where they announced the categories and the episode with more categories, they went ahead and one-upped themselves with the episode where they announced the nominees. Matt’s reading of the Best News We Heard — whose nominees were Beautiful Weather for the Labor Day Weekend, Big Little Lies Season Two, and There Is a Big Sale at Our Favorite Store — remains one of the funniest pieces of comedy from the entire year across any medium. While the recent announcement that the awards won’t actually happen was devastating, we don’t need winners to be declared to know this was an event that will surely rank as the 201st Top Moment in culture history. —Leigh Cesiro
The Flagrant Ones Universe
Hayes Davenport and Sean Clements of Hollywood Handbook joined Yo, Is This Racist? and Off Book in late 2020 to shock the comedy-podcasting world when they left their contracts with Earwolf and bet on themselves through a Patreon model that now nets them a cool half a million dollars per year. In exchange, they’ve spent the year producing near-daily content spread between the flagship show, their established premium extra The Pro Version, premier basketball podcast The Flagrant Ones, the third season of Sean’s beloved spinoff Hollywood Masterclass, and Carl Calls His Cousin, a free-flowing conversation between Carl Tart and Ahsohn Williams that occasionally touches on mature subjects.
With only the main feed available for free, Sean and Hayes joke that it’s the “loss leader” for the network (who would have thought the famously alienating Hollywood Handbook would become the figurehead for a wildly successful brand?), but they’ve hustled hard to reel subscribers in through classic episodes including welcoming their first-ever guest Jake Johnson back for their soft reset, dumbfounding Clark Duke in the year’s topmost offering of jokes per minute, making Tawny Newsome call her dad on speakerphone to pitch him their New Yorker comic ideas, and creating a sprawling radio drama with all of their heavy-hitting favorite guests in their Podcaster’s Promise miniseries. It’s an excellent advertisement for their varied Patreon tiers, with the $7 monthly bundle being an incredible value.
Those who make their way through that paywall are treated to up to an hour of the Boys a day, with Sean teaching Bang Rodgman music on this season of Hollywood Masterclass in a whirlwind showcase of Brett Morris — himself also a newly former Earwolf employee — and his instrumental stylings and The Flagrant Ones becoming more and more of a site for exclusive stories from the hosts’ past. While this network of Hayes and Sean’s programs has underscored the work they’ve put in for the past decade on their unique lore and relationships to their collaborators, special recognition for the year goes to Carl and Ahsohn’s twice-weekly talks on Carl Calls His Cousin, though. Still just wrapping up its rookie year, Carl Calls His Cousin is the Patreon’s secret weapon, tackling real issues in the Zeitgeist like Henry Ruggs III’s drunk-driving crash and the Kyle Rittenhouse trial verdict with the same fascinating sociological lens that they somehow manage to apply to garlic Parmesan and Ritz crackers apple pie. —Noah Jacobs
My Neighbors Are Dead
Movies are an exercise in making you feel for someone else. They put viewers in the protagonist’s shoes as they stumble or strut through life or, in the case of horror films, sprint for their life. Sure, the cast is completed with supporting characters, but inherently, they are not the main attraction. And in horror films especially, those supporting characters are often nothing more than soon-to-be-dead bread crumbs leading an evil entity to its desired mark. But what about everyone else in these movies — the characters that fall outside the hunter-and-the-hunted dynamic? Not the prey, but the periphery. What would they have to say, for example, about Damien Thorn’s (The Omen franchise) infamous fifth-birthday party if given the opportunity?
Adam Peacock is here to figure that out. With his podcast My Neighbors Are Dead, he talks to the unknown characters — so unknown they’re made up — from the scary movies you love the most. Peacock splits the podcast into two segments. The first sees Peacock’s friends — often from the worlds of comedy and horror, or both — discuss their connection to the genre, and in the second, those same people improvise an uncredited role. The fiction of horror, a genre where anything can happen even outside the bounds of reality, lends itself well to character fabrication, providing endless humor.
While the podcast has been going strong for years, examples from 2021 were so honed that they consistently caught our attention and tickled our funny bone. Take the two members of Canoes With No Oars, the indie-folk rock band that opened for Low Shoulder the night of the tragic events at Devil’s Kettle (Jennifer’s Body), who stopped by and did a hilarious set. Or the owner and proprietor of the Pine Tree Manor, the top-shelf competition to the Overlook Hotel (The Shining), who also had our sides splitting. With comedy like that, it’s clear that My Neighbors Are Dead is a must-listen with as much staying power as the likes of Michael Myers and Jason Voorhees. —Becca James
The Sloppy Boys
Writing comedy and writing music have a lot in common, and it’s not just that they’re both really hard to do well. There’s the meticulous penning of the words and the balancing of quiet and loud moments. Then there’s the beats. Oh, don’t get me started on the freaking beats! But one of the key ingredients a funny song needs to elicit the desired emotion — busting both guts and moves — from your audience is specificity. It’s what makes This Is Spinal Tap, CB4, and Walk Hard so rewatchable and what makes the Sloppy Boys, an L.A.–based party-rock band, so relistenable.
Comprising Tim Kalpakis, Mike Hanford, and Jefferson Dutton, the power trio quickly gets in and out of each song with precise premises, which you’d expect from three members of the cult sketch-comedy group the Birthday Boys. There’s stylistic parodies like “College Night,” a late-’90s alt-rock lament on graduating with panged regrets about missed wing nights and uncashed meal plans. And there’s band parodies like “Classic New York Night,” a nod to the epic storytelling of ’70s Springsteen which takes the Boys from NYC to Orlando by the end of its seven-minute run time. Other songs like “Tonight,” a disco tune about going to bed early, or “I’m Taken,” a rocking anthem where the sole married member of the group warns groupies to back off, don’t riff off of established musical bedrocks but are instead jokes amplified by riffs.
Following the release of their third album, the group launched The Sloppy Boys podcast in late 2020, a weekly show devoted to the libations they love drinking to get sloppy, sloshed, plastered, loaded, and just plain drunk. In each episode, the guys make a new drink, ranging from timeless IBA-official cocktails to trendy drinks of today like the espresso martini, and let the buzz take them through stories of drunken escapades, showbiz shenanigans, nerdy music deep dives, and much more from three buds whose decades-long friendship goes back to their dorm rooms at Ithaca College. With its goofy laid-back energy, the show’s weekly Friday drop is often a soothing digestif to the workweek, a refreshing aperitif to kick off the weekend, or a shotgun of your favorite cheap beer if you just quit your job in order to spend more time listening to podcasts. —Pablo Goldstein
Why Won’t You Date Me?
Why Won’t You Date Me? has a simple premise. Hosted by comedian Nicole Byer, the podcast, which debuted in 2017, is dedicated to discovering why she is single. As Byer puts it, she’s “smart, funny, has a fat ass, and loves giving blowjobs,” so why is she without a significant other? To help her find answers, Byer invites guests — most are comedians, but surprisingly and enjoyably, some are exes — on the show to swap stories about their dating lives and push past the titular question and into the hilarious depths of human connection.
Now, almost five years into the podcast, Byer’s energy, openness, and performance prowess have never faltered, which encourages guests to rise to her level as she shares her personal experience with “the troubles of dating as a comedian, as a Black woman, and as a fat lady.” Coupled with Byer’s bawdy anecdotes, Why Won’t You Date Me? never fails to elicit astute and amusing discussions about modern-day dating. And we’re not the only ones who noticed. Byer also caught Conan O’Brien’s ear, and in January, Why Won’t You Date Me? joined the Team Coco network, kicking off a run at its new home with the former late-night host as its first guest. The two discussed “big dick energy,” with Byer at one point hilariously pleading with O’Brien to set her up with one of his brothers. Fortunately for listeners, he didn’t acquiesce, leaving the podcast’s premise intact.
Other standout episodes from the year include Ziwe’s and London Hughes’s. The former sees two comedians riff on sleeping with their Uber drivers, while the latter is a relatable meditation on dating during a pandemic from two of the funniest women on TV today. Both indicate Byer’s abilities, which gracefully alternate from silly to serious. And while the podcast places listeners between a rock and a hard place — rooting for the affable Byer, but also hoping she remains single for the sake of the show — the perfection of it all makes it clear there’s nowhere better to be. —Becca James
Did you know that “Cathy,” the newspaper comic, had long-form, serialized character arcs and was a pioneering text in second-wave feminism? It’s a story Jamie Loftus was born to tell: She’s been a bit of a cult hero in podcasting ever since she splashed onto the scene in 2016 with The Bechdel Cast, a weekly show that analyzes popular media through an equally era-appropriate feminist lens. But Loftus honed her game even further when she “infiltrated” the extremely fragile, masculine world of Mensa for her first limited series in 2020, a three-parter exploring the alienation that came part and parcel to her experience in that world. Her middle child, last year’s Lolita Podcast, used Dolores Haze to center the experience of survivors of child sexual abuse and pedophilia in a decidedly less comedic outing.
Aack Cast is the culmination of these years of Loftus’s work. Yes, Aack Cast, a show about the cartoon woman who is most remembered (unfairly) for screaming that she wishes she had chocolate. Because, Loftus explains, cartooning was a man’s world before “Cathy” “infiltrated.” Not only that, but Cathy was willing and able to bring issues like workplace sexual harassment into the funny pages 40 years ago through a story line with Mr. Pinkley, her boss and a man with tremendous power over her. To really drive home how Cathy shaped the world Loftus works in, it even had multiple female characters regularly talking to each other about things other than men.
Excellent voice-acting interpretations of select strips are interspersed between Loftus’s tireless research into the societal conditions that “Cathy” was written under, and it ensures that the eight-part exploration flies by. The show’s initial few episodes feature extended, exclusive interviews with Cathy Guisewite herself, but later went on to pay it forward by highlighting a number of comics for whom “Cathy” was a motivating inspiration. Loftus could have written a book about Cathy — though her upcoming “complete taxonomy of the hot dog” will certainly be just as thrilling — but for whatever reason, she chose podcasts. It is impossible to overstate how much stronger the medium is becoming because of her unique vision, and hopefully we can celebrate that contemporaneously. But when all is said and done, we won’t say no to a podcast about her one day, either. —Noah Jacobs
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