The world of true-crime media is booming like never before. Netflix series, internet forums, a seemingly endless sea of podcasts — the nation has gone nuts for madness and violence. But as comedian and actor Henry Zebrowski tells it, when he and his co-hosts launched Last Podcast on the Left back in 2011, the kind of show they wanted to do didn’t really exist yet.
“When we started this,” says Zebrowski, “there was not another serial-killer-jokin’-around show.”
Now, eight years and 350-plus episodes later, co-hosts Zebrowski, Ben Kissel and Marcus Parks occupy a special niche in the true-crime landscape, and they’ve got their process down to a science. Some weeks the trio riffs on paranormal phenomena and what’s known as “high strangeness” — X-Files-type stuff that lends itself to wacky ad-libbing. Other episodes, however, focus on truly sinister material, such as the work of sadistic SS officer and physician Josef Mengele, who was responsible for countless deaths.
On March 19, the trio will bring the Last Podcast live show to TPAC’s Polk Theater, where they’ll perform what Kissel refers to as “basically like a three-person stand-up” featuring “a good buffet of topics,” from aliens and cryptids (i.e., creatures like Bigfoot and chupacabra) to pro wrestling. Ahead of the show — which is now sold-out — the Scene spoke with all three hosts by phone.
Some Last Podcast episodes are five parts, some are stand-alone. But what would you say, on average, the research looks like for your standard episode? What’s that schedule like?
Marcus Parks: It all depends on how big the project is. If we’re doing something like, say, our Rasputin series or our Jonestown series, the research will begin sometimes months in advance — starting to read books, starting to see different perspectives on historical events. Then we usually choose one book as a main resource. Like, “This author has the best perspective on this and seems the most trustworthy.” And then we start reading it and seeing where the story takes us. We also have research assistants that will read some of the outside books to help flesh out the story a lot more. Sometimes we’ll have two or three books for one series, and then sometimes we’ll have one, like the one that we’re working on right now, the story of Joseph Kallinger, who was a serial killer out of Philadelphia back in the ’70s. There’s really only one book written about him, The Shoemaker. So it’s a single-source [episode] that can hopefully be added to from various other sources found on the internet.
Henry Zebrowski: The fun thing about it is that you can see other ways to attack the material. Like with Rasputin, it’s fun to watch [Disney’s] Anastasia and take in the way they viewed Rasputin. You start to create sort of a gigantic mosaic of these characters — I like that, I like going from reputable sources to nonreputable sources. Because sometimes you learn something about the thing you’re watching from something that’s not academic. All of a sudden you see, this is somebody else’s perspective on this topic, and it adds to the way you view it.
Ben Kissel: And with Fantasia, also, you can play a fun drinking game, “Find the Dick,” because Disney loves to hide a dick in there.
Some episode topics are lighter, but others — like the recent series on Josef Mengele — are pretty heavy. Is it tough to enter that kind of headspace for a matter of days or weeks, and how do you guys manage that?
HZ: It is absolutely brutal. I think we handle it by seeking mental health specialists — I know I speak to a therapist, I know Marcus does. A part of it is that. When we were doing Dr. Mengele, we were also going through the loss of a very close friend. There are periods of time where, as I look back on the episodes, I see these spots where you’re like, “Oh shit, that’s right! Not only was I going through some kind of depression, but I was also deep into some kind of serial killer.” It hurts you! Mengele was obviously one of the worst ones we’ve ever done in terms of, like, straight-up content and the darkness of it. And you do have to sit with Mengele. He’s in your head. Marcus gets it, obviously, much worse than me or Kissel. He has to live in the stories.
BK: That’s the one thing that Henry and I are always saying — we gotta monitor Marcus’ brain and make sure it doesn’t get too bad. That’s what we kind of try to do as well for, you know, personal sanity but also for the audience. So after Mengele, [the episode about the hub of paranormal activity] Skinwalker Ranch was such a fun story about aliens and these alien hunters and this dude Bigelow, who is just a total character. So we just add a little sugar in there, because Mengele, that was legitimately triggering and traumatizing, as horrible as Josef Mengele is. I think one of the important things with the research is that we don’t cover anything half-assed. It’s like, “This is what Mengele did,” and all these serial killers, there’s nothing that’s skirted around.
I wasn’t necessarily a true-crime fan before listening to Last Podcast. But I have friends who are fans and pointed out that Last Podcast is a way to process these sometimes-heavy topics while listening to like-minded people who can either mock the subject, if they’re deserving of it, or walk you through this stuff in a way that’s not just punishing.
HZ: We were all natural fans of this stuff. I’ve told this story before, but part of making Last Podcast on the Left was me realizing that my comedy career was not where I’d like it to be, I will never actually be in a Ghostbusters film, I want to be a real Ghostbuster. So it’s like a part of it is that we took it upon ourselves to become, over the years, these weird accidental experts in this material. And a part of it was creating a show that we wanted to see. … We realized that there was this opportunity here where it’s just like, we could be the freakin’ Cryptkeeper. We didn’t realize what it was going to do to our mental health, but I will say that it definitely — now shit’s looking good, but there were a couple years that were pretty touch-and-go.
MP: Yeah, we’ve had some rough ones over the years. The show has evolved a lot over the years. We’ve done 354 episodes now, I think, and for the longest time it was — because the research thing was somewhat accidental. It was just going and finding fun stories and fun things to talk about, and going on the internet and going on all sorts of sites with black backgrounds and green text, finding things. But as we did the show longer and longer, we discovered that we really like telling the stories, and we like telling the full stories. We like telling the whole thing beginning to end, because really with us, as far as a comedy show goes, the comedy is always in the details. The comedy is always in the small things that don’t necessarily get talked about a whole lot in a 45-minute A&E documentary. But in order to talk about the details, you’ve gotta tell the whole story. And if you don’t tell the whole story, the details don’t make any sense. So that’s how we ended up more with the long-form thing now, but we also found that we really enjoy telling the story.
BK: And the details are also where you can also discover what lame, pathetic pieces of garbage these serial killers are. It’s those details.
Oh, like the Canadian killer you guys covered just a few weeks ago—
MP: Twitchell. Mark Twitchell.
HZ: What a fucking loser! What I’m really excited for — I hope, because we’ve only had it happen once before — but I really hope that Twitchell hears that we did that episode on him and that he can listen to it. … There was a rather famous serial killer that is still alive that heard our coverage of him on one of our episodes, and he tried to sue us. He basically tried to make us take the episode down for defamation of character. I don’t like naming who it is.
MP: It’s a well-known serial killer who is still alive. He wanted to sue us for defamation of character, but no one would take his case pro bono, because he doesn’t have any money, because he’s a serial killer.
HZ: But that’s where we’re trying to go, that’s definitely part of our goal now. There are so many different serial-killer shows — now there’s so much true-crime content, that really part of it is really trying to figure out what are funny, idiosyncratic stories that only we’re discovering and talking about. What can we find that’s really a surprise? And Mark Twitchell ended up being a very surprising story, because it’s that perfect mixture of — you start it, and you’re like, “Oh shit, this guy is like the biggest Coen brothers, like, rube dude you could have" — it’s perfect for our voice.
Do you each have a favorite topic you’ve covered, or is asking that like asking you to pick your favorite child? Do you have something you’ve really enjoyed or that stands out?
BK: I like when Henry does the alien episodes, which are super, super fun. I’m way into that. And then the serial-killer stuff is always great. I think cults — I think we’ve done a really good job on cults, also, because those seem to be constantly in and out of vogue in mainstream culture. I think that’s been really illuminating, the thought process of people who are victim to them and how that works in a group context.
HZ: For me, it’s the stories that end up being wildly surprising. … Like the Donner Party. We did a series on the Donner Party, and it ended up being, like, what a fucked-up story it ended up being, and it’s so great. I love that thing where you see the picture in the museum of the Donner Party, and it looks very dry. It’s something that you just think is a boring part of history — you’ve heard about the cannibalism and blah blah blah, but you never really dive into it. And there was this whole kind of kickback against the obsession with the cannibalism with the Donner Party that then happened, where [critics] were like: “Oh, people only ever want to talk about how they ate people, but these people struggled.” And you’re like, “Well, yeah, of course everyone wants to talk about the cannibalism, it’s the best part of the story.” But the Donner Party [episode] just ended up being so good. … Marcus is rubbing off on me. I’m becoming more of a history nerd as we go.
MP: The historical ones are always my favorites. I love any sort of story we can delve into the history of the time and to see how an environment can really shape a story, and how historical events can shape a story, because you find out really strange little things. Like we found out when we were doing [an episode on serial killer] Peter Kurten not too long ago, we found out that Weimar Germany — like, pre-Nazi Germany, when fascism was rising in their country — we found that they also had an obsession with true crime, just like America has an obsession with true crime right now. So weird little things that you discover about history. What is it that Twain said? “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.” When you discover those sorts of things, it’s rewarding, and it just makes it that much more fun.
What do you guys do for the live shows that’s different from standard studio episodes?
HZ: It is way more just a good time than informational. This time, I actually think we’re going to be putting a little more information into this iteration of the show. We basically have, like, four versions of our live show, where essentially we write an hour-and-a-half, we perfect it, then we scrap it because we like to hurt ourselves and we work too hard. So now what we’re doing is the same thing, where we’re in the middle of writing our new show, and it is a little more informational, but mostly we just like to fuckin’, like — Kissel did stand-up for many years, I was a sketch comedian for 15 years, so this is like our opportunity to go fuckin’ have a good live show in front of a bunch of people.
MP: We tried once to release a live show, and it didn’t translate well at all. We want to give people something that’s special, that exists right there in front of their eyes, and it also gives us the opportunity to do a lot more visual stuff, whereas in podcasting you can’t do that. There are so many jokes that we have when we’re writing an episode or researching an episode that can’t be done on the podcast because it’s a 100 percent audio medium. I’m not the comedian, the other two guys are, but they can really exercise those comedic muscles in a different way that doesn’t necessarily get done in the podcast.
It seems like Henry is shirtless for a good portion of the recording from what I understand.
BK: Oh yes, it’s a problem. That is a problem. But he knows to keep his shirt on for the most part during the live performances. I think I’ve only seen his bare body once or twice.
HZ: I’ll do whatever it takes to get a laugh. I’m not a proud man. I’m not one of these new intellectual comedians. I’m someone who is like, “Please give me the validation I crave so that one day I can stop and go into a casket.”