but this place is just right.
The idea of a daily news podcast is intuitively appealing. With all the information floating around out there, who doesn’t want a calm, professional adult with a smooth voice to adroitly sift through all the news in ten minutes? Sure, but, like, there are newspapers and websites, and you could definitely just read those, the non-daily-podcast-listeners say, to which the daily-podcast-listeners respond, There’s too much stuff on those damn websites! Plus, don’t you know the only time I have to consume news is while driving my car/riding my bike/rowing my boat to work/school/home? The invective with which the daily-podcast-listeners offer this retort is palpable, delivering it without so much as taking their AirPods out of their ears. Each side has a fair point here, and I do not wish to wade into that particular debate.
However, even if we allow that such daily news podcasts — think Up First from NPR, The Journal from the Wall Street Journal, and the granddaddy of them all, New York Times’s The Daily — are useful to enough people to justify their continued existence, these same podcasts are goofy as hell. Their segments, however in-depth, tend to sacrifice context for brevity, and bake their parent outlets’ worldviews into the presentation of each story even more seamlessly than the regular news does. And no matter how hard their production team works, it’s all but guaranteed that a large portion of their listeners aren’t actually listening as much as they’re just putting it on so that they can have a human voice drone on in the background while they’re doing whatever it they’re doing.
The people behind The Topical, The Onion’s most recent podcast offering, itself a play on the daily podcast format, are very much aware of the roles that such shows play in our lives, and do everything they can to play with these unspoken conventions. The second segment in the show’s February 21 episode, for example, consists of a single, five-minute joke in which the host informs listeners of a new study which found that “listening to podcasts causes irreversible hearing loss in 95 percent of users,” only for the voices of the host and his guest correspondent to slowly fade out until they’re inaudible, replaced by a harsh beeping sound that, for the show’s final 150 seconds, is the only thing you can hear. Absentmindedly listening to the episode off my iPhone speaker as I did the dishes one night, I initially thought something was wrong with my phone, and then my hearing, before rewinding the episode enough to realize they were fucking with me. In another, from January 30, the host tells the listener, “Here’s what else you need to know today, at least on a surface level so that you don’t look like a dumbass if they come up in conversation”; during the March 2 episode, he says, “Well there’s the analysis and takes on today’s top stories that you can vomit back at your peers later tonight like they’re your own.”
These three modes of listening — not actually paying attention until you’ve missed the most important, trying to stay up to date on stuff you don’t care about, and mining for opinions you can pretend are your own — are perhaps the most dominant ways we engage with podcasts. The show appears to be sponsored by Square’s Cash App, but with every ad read he does, the show’s fake host Leslie Price seems to loathe it more and more. (“Jesus, get a brain, learn to think for yourself, people,” he says mid-ad during one late-February episode.) A word to podcasters all throughout the land: if you’ve got to have ads on your show, and if you’ve got to read them yourself, you owe it to your audience to show open contempt for the product you’re supposed to be pushing.
Given that it’s a podcast from The Onion, many of The Topical’s episodes function as straight parodies of news stories, the same type of thing you see on its website, but for your ears. The show mocked the Democrats’ habit of capitulating to the unreasonable demands of the Republican party in a segment praising Nancy Pelosi’s agreement to cancel the 2020 election in the face of Republican cries that the election was “a partisan witch hunt orchestrated by Democrats to unseat president Trump.” The Topical translated The Onion’s famous “Area Man”-style stories into a bit about “a young man in his 20s who was so rebellious that he was actually walking down the street with his hair dyed blue.” And it gamed out former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s (failed) campaign strategy of flooding the airwaves with ads with a story announcing he’d booked a 30-episode ad on CBS.
These jokes translate from the written headline to the spoken word by dint of the sheer credulity with which they’re delivered: to Leslie Price and The Topical’s correspondents, this is all normal, always, even when they’re chittering about how Tinder’s decided to no longer exclusively match singles with their relatives, or that Home Depot stock is “on the rise after the home-improvement retailer introduced a new 100-pound bag of mulch for fucking up your back.” In a world where Twitch streamers accidentally shoot their computer monitors and rich people use AI to stalk the poor, The Topical has a lot of leeway when it comes to coloring within the lines of the plausible.
This isn’t the first podcast The Onion has created; both seasons of its show A Very Fatal Murder, a take on longform true-crime podcasts, are among the funniest things I’ve ever listened to. Even so, I’m always astounded by how thorough its podcast team is. It’d be easy to just have a voice actor read some Onion stories into a mic and call it a podcast, but The Topical takes the time to get it right, from the bleepy intro music to its correspondents’ clueless self-importance to its host’s jaunty vocal register. It all comes together to create my favorite sort of joke, the type where if you’re not paying close enough attention, you just might confuse it for the real thing.