Tuesday, November 15, 2016

A Tale of Two Podcasts

A few weeks ago I decided to try listening to some podcasts instead of playing the Hamilton soundtrack for the 34,000th time (not that there's anything wrong with that). I'd never listened to podcasts before, mainly because I didn't think I could. I'm more of a visual person than an auditory one, and I've never done well with audiobooks because my mind wanders too much. But I'd heard about the Presidential podcast from the Washington Post, and I rarely pass up an opportunity to engage in presidential stuff. Obviously.

The Presidential podcast started back in January with the goal of exploring one president per week leading up to the election. Because I didn't start listening until September I had a lot of catching up to do, but thanks to a few long drives and a couple long flights, I finished just a few days before the election. Whew!

Presidential looks at each president in chronological order. I know of several people whose goal is to read a biography of every president, and I commend them for that because I could never do it. There are some presidents I just don't find interesting enough to devote that kind of time to (I'm looking at you, James Monroe). But I could easily and happily devote 45 minutes of drive-time to learning about them.

Host Lillian Cunningham interviews experts from the Library of Congress, award-winning biographers, journalists, staff members (for more recent presidents), and even some family members to help give listeners insight into the presidents' lives, their terms, and their legacies. Although the episodes are largely serious, they're not at all stodgy. I think the podcast would feel approachable to presidential history newcomers and long-term aficionados alike.

Best of all, the episodes I thought would be the most boring often turned out to be the most interesting, particularly the ones about William Henry Harrison and John Tyler.

As I said, I finished that podcast (other than the post-election wrap-up episode) just days before the election. After the election, I desperately needed something to cheer me up, and that's where the next podcast entered my life.

The DC Improv has a podcast called The Other Side, and one of their features this year is something called Headliner of State, a search for the funniest president of all time.

Like Presidential, Headliner of State devotes an episode to each president, but not in chronological order. There's actually not any order I can discern, but that's okay. I like mixing things up.

Despite being produced by a comedic entity, the episodes are educational and often serious, but with a good dose of humor thrown in. I especially like the formal introduction given to each president by the announcer, who plays it very straight. I laughed out loud several times and almost drove off the road during the William Howard Taft introduction.

The people interviewed for Headliner of State include a wide range of experts. Sometimes the host, Chris White, speaks with biographers or staff members at presidential sites. Sometimes he talks with television humor writers who devoted time to a particular president (like a writer for Futurama who spent a lot of time on Nixon jokes, or the woman who wrote the "William Henry Harrison" episode of Parks and Recreation). For the Chester Arthur episode, he interviews facial hair historian (there is such a thing). For more recent presidents, he interviews the presidents' official joke writers, a position I didn't even know existed and led me to wish I had taken a different path in life.

The episodes always give an overview of the presidents' lives and administrations in a scholarly way, but also spend a lot of time (as one might expect) looking at the lighter side of their personalities.

I'm only about halfway through the series right now and they're still working on more episodes, so I can't tell you yet who is eventually deemed the funniest president of all time. Lincoln certainly seems to be the frontrunner right now, and unless there's a huge upset somewhere, Andrew Johnson will likely be crowned least funny.

If you're looking for a great way to pass the time on a road trip or just running around town, I highly recommend both of these podcasts. If anyone has recommendations for other good ones, please let me know. I have no problem going back to Hamilton but I'd like some other options, too.

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