Review: The Bugle (Podcast)

TimesOnlineComedians John Oliver and Andy Zalzman

With the Writers Guild of America still on strike, the absence of late-night commentary on politics has been missed. Though the quality of the commentary was rarely exceptionally high, late night comedians did provide a useful and informative diversion for those less tempted to read the papers (like myself, most of the times).

So while looking for new podcasts–something I do habitually–I noticed a a picture of The Daily Show‘s John Oliver, attached to a podcast called The Bugle, which calls itself “An audio newspaper for a visual world.”

Because it’s associated with The (London) Times, one of Rupert Murdoch’s many media properties, I was moderately fearful that The Bugle a would suffer from the same awkwardly conservative bent that doomed Fox New’s The 1/2 Hour News Hour to a lukewarm death.

Alas, such concerns were unmerited. The Bugle is a usually delightful, witty, and deadpan satire that has, since I discovered it, softened the blow caused by the absence of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert from the airwaves. The transatlantic chat show, with The Daily Show‘s John Oliver in New York and the new-to-America Andy Zaltzman from England, ranges all sorts of topics and is frequently full of biting dry wit that is unequaled in my recent memory.

As just one example Mr. Oliver, the Englishman living in America, ridicules Mr. Murdoch’s Fox News Channel saying about the recent California wildfires:

Now Fox News has speculated that there may even have been a terrorist link to this. You can now officially blame the terrorists for anything. Now I burnt my toast this morning, and I think that’s the terrorists at work. They must have broken into my apartment and turned the setting up half a notch. There’s no other explanation for this.

If you viewers have had anything happen to you that you’d like to blame on terrorism, please do email that in.

This is funny, but not The Bugle at its best. They easily venture into inanities discussed with a delightful seriousness. Mr. Zaltzman on the same topic:

But I think George W. Bush has to take a lot of blame for this because he’s been very weak with the environment this year. Now, traditionally, he’s always been heroically strong in the face of the threat the environment poses to the world, saying that we must stand up to the environment, we can’t negotiate with it because that would make us appear weak. But even he, this year, has given into the environment. He signed up to the G8’s non-binding verbal agreement to think about the environment at least once a week from now on. He does now have a picture of a tree on his desk, so it does appear that the leopard is now starting to show its spots. And it’s a snow leopord, so the joke stands.

As with all comedy (and especially satire), The Bugle is hit and miss. Some of their jokes are over-written, others feel like they would have been better if they’d been written at all. They repeat jokes to the point of meaninglessness. Their “audio cryptic crossword” is just one example of an interesting idea that has already gotten old over the mere five shows they’ve recorded.

They also seem to stretch the transatlantic connection a little past its breaking point. Their recurring–if chronically delayed–“Ask an American” segment isn’t without humor, but it tacks too close to stereotypes and sacrifices some great jokes in the process. Another of their favorite bits is to run down a current–but not well-known–event in British politics, and then ask the self-evident question “is it known in America?”

On the whole though, The Bugle is an admirable stand-in for those suffering from satire-about-current-events withdrawal. It is certainly funnier than any satire I’m either watching or not watching during the strike.


Review: The News from Lake Wobegon (Podcast)

First, you should probably know that beyond knowing who Garrison Keillor was, and having once or twice heard snippets of A Prairie Home Companion, I knew little before I decided to give this podcast a listen. It may also interest you that I’d never really liked NPR a lot, though I also didn’t hate it.

Having said that, I think that “The News from Lake Wobegon” (available here, free of course), a segment from A Praire Home Companion, is a great 10 to 15 minutes of radio. It’s good enough that I’m beginning to resent the fact that American Public Media doesn’t offer the entire show as a podcast. They do offer it online, and of course over traditional radio, but I desire the absolute convenience of the podcast.

Regardless, the magic of “The News from Lake Wobegon” is that it is soaked in the myth of the small town. The town, “out there on the edge of the prairie,” doesn’t actually exist, which allows Keillor all the freedom to fill it with dozens of interesting people and their stories.

The stories are as simple as they are quintessentially human. In a particularly memorable episode, for Memorial Day, Keillor tells us the story of the greatest speech ever given at Lake Wobegon’s Memorial Day festivities. But before he gets there, he tells us about the weather, the weekend, past Memorial Days and finally the story. This diversion doesn’t feel like it stalls too much or is heinously artificial, but rather that it is a natural and necessary to the fabric of the story. Don’t think that you’ll never wish it would hurry, but sometimes you think the same things in normal conversation.

The story of Clarence Bunson’s speech honoring the fallen dead begins with his words:

If there were a time when words were inappropriate, when silence was the most articulate speech, it would be here and now. Better than any oratory, better than any speech or poem for you and I to stand two minutes in silence and look out at those whom we know and those whom we do not know and think of all that they did for us.

The story ends with a revelation, at which you can guess, but would never have expected at the start.

The monologue is alway filled with magnificent stories of the average. The best kind of average that anyone can enjoy. The kind of average that constantly reminds us that we need not be famous or good looking to be interesting. To be real. To be human.

If you only listen to one podcast your whole life… no that’s too arbitrary a criteria. If you’re looking for a good podcast, I would offer that you should give this one a chance.