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'Ocean's Eleven' Meets '30 Rock' In The Queer-Centric Podcast 'Hot White Heist'


This is FRESH AIR. When we think of a heist thriller, we may think of a ragtag crew stealing precious jewels or a safe full of cash. But "Hot White Heist," the new comedy fiction podcast from Audible and Lorne Michaels' production company, centers on the theft of something else entirely. It showcases "Saturday Night Live's" Bowen Yang and an all-star queer cast and a sound design that's as daring as its subject. Podcast critic Nick Quah has this review.

NICK QUAH, BYLINE: What's being stolen in "Hot White Heist" is a little racy to describe on the air, so I'm going to focus on the plot instead. In this new comedic fiction podcast released on Audible this month, a fortune teller named Judy Fink, played by "Saturday Night Live's" Bowen Yang, is recruited by his estranged aunt to steal samples from a secret government bunker that's housing the country's archival sperm bank. Judy reluctantly agrees but on the condition that he gets to assemble his own team of friends to do the job.


BOWEN YANG: (As Judy) We're only recruiting queers for this.

CYNTHIA NIXON: (As Kate) OK, but...

YANG: (As Judy) It's not negotiable. They're the only people I trust.

NIXON: (As Kate) Sure. But how are you going to know that everyone we're talking to is queer?

YANG: (As Judy) They're also the only people I know, so.

NIXON: (As Kate) I respect that.

QUAH: Consider "Hot White Heist," a queer-centric cross between "Ocean's Eleven" and "30 Rock." The show possesses the zany cartoonishness of Tina Fey's beloved sitcom as Judy cobbles together a team played by a star studded cast including "Pose's" M.J. Rodriguez, the drag queen Bianca Del Rio and "Broad City's" Abbi Jacobson. Suffice to say, high jinks ensue as Judy's motley crew stumbles through various misadventures as they try to pull off the heist.

On its surface, the celebrity-heavy cast might make it seem like yet another Hollywood cash grab in the podcast world. Combine celebrity A with unproduced script (ph) B, flip it into a podcast and then hope it becomes a TV show later. I find most of those projects cynical, meant to market test new intellectual property that can later be adapted into more profitable mediums. The resulting podcasts are mostly pedestrian. And while there have been a few solid listening experiences, like the first season of Gimlet Media's "Homecoming" and Radiotopia's "Passenger List," even those can feel like a prototype for the TV adaptation.

"Hot White Heist" transcends this trend simply by embracing what it is and having a great time with it. The show is genuinely funny, drawing up lively performances from an expansive voice cast, which also includes Shannon Woodward, Jane Lynch, Cynthia Nixon and Alan Cumming. Bowen Yang in particular is a sensational anchor throughout the caper. Already a strong presence whenever he appears in an "SNL" sketch, Yang is also a veteran personality behind a mic, making up one half of the "Las Culturistas" podcast with Matt Rogers. His experience as both a comedic performer and a podcaster shines through here, a voice you simply can't take your ears off.

What really sets "Hot White Heist" apart, though, is how playful it is in its production. Comedy is mostly about timing. But creator-producer Adam Goldman, best known for his Vimeo series "The Outs," also understands that when it comes to longer form comedic pieces, pacing matters just as much. The series moves through scenes and situations and set pieces seamlessly even as it piles on the jokes and sonic gags with such density, you're almost certainly going to miss something on a first listen.

The sound design is equally impressive. Jeremy Bloom provides listeners a strong sense of place to contextualize the business of the plot. Coherent sound design is important for any audio fiction, but it's even more vital in "Hot White Heist," which contains an unexpected amount of physical comedy and action sequences for what is literally a nonvisual show. "Hot White Heights" repeatedly leans on the fourth wall, drawing attention to the artifice typically involved in audio dramas trying to convey changes in times and locations. Where some podcasts would often rely on a character verbalizing how long it's been since the last scene, the show plays with this, using an amusing device that involves the playwright Tony Kushner, who is deployed to fill the space of academic babble as a way to mark a big time jump in the story.


TONY KUSHNER: Hi. It's Tony Kushner. They've asked me to step in here as a kind of narrator because at this point, there's a six-month time jump in the story, and the writer and director and the producers probably got anxious that they couldn't address the time jump with, you know, exposition in the dialogue, which, by the way, I'm sure they could have managed. But they didn't ask me for advice. They asked me to narrate. So here I am. I'm your narrator. And before I...

QUAH: These are bits of technical playfulness that poke fun at how fiction podcasting as a genre still has to solve some problems that film and television have long figured out. It's no innovation, of course. Such fourth-wall referencing moves aren't necessarily available to use by other fiction podcasts that aren't as mischievous with its form. But as Judy learns throughout his journey, you make the best with what you've got. And "Hot White Heist" certainly does just that.

DAVIES: Nick Quah is podcast critic for New York Magazine and Vulture. He also writes the Hot Pod Newsletter. On tomorrow's show, writer Amy Sohn talks about a turning point in the fight for women's reproductive rights. The 1873 Comstock Act virtually outlawed contraception. She'll talk about the man behind the law, anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, and the women prosecuted under that statute. Sohn's book is the man who hated women. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support from Charlie Kaier. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley, Kayla Lattimore and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF ANAT COHEN'S "HAPPY SONG") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Nick Quah