Back in the Habit: The Last Podcast on the Left Live in London

There’s a message on my phone, from me to a friend, that reads: “Going to see Last Podcast on the Left live tonight. Not really sure how that works.” As a long-term listener to the now twice-weekly show focusing on the macabre, the murderous, the magickal and the metaphysical, I found it difficult to imagine how its hosts – bookish Texan Marcus Parks, queasy Wisconsinite Ben Kissell, and lairy Floridian Henry Zebrowski – could bring what is essentially three silly men talking at length about aliens and serial killers to a London stage.

Because I have young children and time with books or documentaries is hard to come by, I find podcasts to be an excellent way to take on knowledge as I cook or clean at the end of the day.  I have been a true crime nerd since I was a teenager and, until popular TV series such as Making a Murderer, The Jinx, Conversations with a Killer et al made bloody death an acceptable topic of everyday conversation, raising the subject of Jeffrey Dahmer’s shrine, for example, was a major no-no on date night. What I found as much as anything in the company of the LPOTL guys was a comforting sense that I was among friends; not only do Parks, Kissell and Zebrowski have an insatiable thirst for information wherever the esoteric is concerned, they are geeks and outcasts in their own right – hearing them discuss Aum Shinrikyo for several hours, say, or Richard Kuklinski, or any of the other outré tales they’ve relayed across almost 400 episodes, is equal parts fascinating, reassuring and – the key – frequently hilarious.

But that doesn’t necessarily translate onto stage and, as I drive down to London after work that night, and catch a train to Shepherd’s Bush Empire, I can’t imagine I’m going to see what would be, for all intents and purposes, a lecture. But nor can I think I’m going to watch stand-up – for although the three presenters are definitely funny, and Zebrowski in particular has made a half-decent career out of being loud and offensive (not to mention showing up in The Wolf of Wall Street), the podcast in its current iteration is weighted far more heavily on the side of solidly structured, well researched and expertly delivered information than it is the half-drunk, semi-stoned hoot-fest it could be in its early days. When I alight at Shepherd’s Bush and get lost for ten minutes on the busy high street, I’m still no closer to working out what the hell it is I’m about to witness.

The lights dim and the LPOTL theme tune buzzes in almost as soon as I enter the theatre, and people are on their feet as the three hosts take their places onstage, buckets of Bud Light and Irn Bru to hand.  My friend, a fully paid-up member of the podcast’s Patreon campaign, has snagged us VIP tickets, meaning we’re only two rows back from the stage and we get the full blast of the chaotic early scenes, which are made up largely of various reminiscences of life on the British road and, from somewhere, the suggestion Zebrowski was once penetrated anally by Hugh Jackman. The pattern is set early, with chief researcher Parks slinking back into the shadow of the video screen and Zebrowski reacting manically to Kissel’s straight-man riffing up front. It’s loud, like shouting-over-each-other loud, and not always intelligible (that might just be my SSD), but the gathered masses are already on their feet with the sheer joy of being in the guys’ presence.

It’s not long before the screen shows the subject of the night’s first topic and the structure of the show is revealed. All three presenters will open before each takes a hit at a story relevant to their interests: Zebrowski discusses his MUFON membership, Kissel dissects the politics behind Bruiser Brody’s murder, and Parks takes on the touted conspiracy behind the death of The Mamas and the Papas’ Cass Elliot. To start, we’re going to take a look at the phenomenon of Dogmen, a supposed cryptid with ties to the better-known Sasquatch (we learn at one point that a “Type-3” Dogman is actually not canine but simian), and by “take a look” I mean kind of squint at some fuzzy photographs from the revered dogmanencounters.com. This is LPOTL in roast mode, taking absolutely none of it seriously and zooming in on already blurry images until all that’s visible are sketched outlines of puppies. As ridiculous as the subject is, it is nonetheless handled with affection – everyone in that room, brought up as impressionable members of the X-Files generation, will at one point in their lives been sucked in by similarly hokey ideas.  The digs are aimed at one another as much as the Dogman believers.

Which brings us to Henry’s current day affiliations. A quick change from floral shirt into official MUFON polo ($33) and cap ($22), and he’s ready to launch a breakdown of how he, as a paid-up volunteer Field Investigator (c$600) for the Mutual UFO Network, has been trained (manual, x2 because he lost one, $210) to handle reported sightings. Zebrowski is shown no mercy for his gullibility but his passion for the subject is hard to deny; the fact stands that he is one of the most reasonable and convincing voices on the subject extraterrestrial visitors that I, as a sceptic, have ever listened to, not to mention one of the best read.

Ben Kissel’s role on the podcast has been questioned often, being that his knowledge of most of the topics covered is minimal and he freely admits to neglecting to research. More and more his shtick has played on his apparent ignorance and only when things become political does he really come into his own, thanks to his work as a pundit for CNN, Fox News and HLN as well as his own Abe Lincoln’s Top Hat podcast. Ben is also a huge wrestling fan, which makes Bruiser Brody’s murder the perfect case for him – by the end he is up front and centre pumping his fist and pointing his finger campaigning for improved rights for wrestlers, and it’s easy to see why he has found success as an activist and saw fit to run for office in Brooklyn. Surprisingly, his segment is the best structured and most rousing of the night.

Perhaps more surprising is Marcus Parks’ ramble through the Mama Cass affair, which loses its way and ends up tangled. The pitch is that it happened locally (Cass died in a London apartment) but the fact it was a) so long ago (1974) and b) not particularly grisly (heart attack) means it’s quite a stretch to make a connection. So Parks drags on his conspiracy hat, taking us through the ham sandwich myth via FBI assassination plots, MK Ultra, Jim Morrison and Charles Manson. It’s knotty and confusing and actually kind of boring, not helped by the other hosts chipping in and derailing its flow. Parks is a fine researcher, the backbone of the podcast and the one I identify with most, but he is not as well suited to the live format as the others – that he is the drummer for a band is telling, being that he works so well as the podcast’s beat-keeper too, allowing the others to riff over and around him as opposed to pulling focus on himself.  His bit in London is as close to a lecture as the evening gets, which would be fine were the story not quite so turgid.

Things wind down with some gruesome video clips before the curtains fall and the majority filters out into the night. For us VIPs there’s one more thing to do – our lanyards, which we wear with as much pride as Henry does his MUFON hat, entitle us to a brief meet-and-greet, which is kind of weird considering we’re all in our late thirties. Queuing for a photograph with the three hosts (it takes a while – I hear one punter saying they “don’t feel very ‘V’ or ‘I'”) does provide the opportunity to reflect on the evening and look beyond the fact we’ve just spent a couple of hours watching grown men get excited about some really nerdy stuff.  I realise, as I look around at the others in attendance – all tattoos, obscure band shirts and discussions about “favourite” serial killers – that it’s a long time since I’ve felt so comfortable in my own being. I’m among my people, I think, with whom its absolutely fine to bring up Jeffrey Dahmer’s shrine or mention the UFO conference I attended near Bradford when I was a sixteen-year-old X-Files fanatic.

And now I realise that this is why I travelled 3 hours on a Friday night direct from work – not because I wanted necessarily to laugh or get grossed out or be exposed to some kind of deep state revelation, but because I wanted reassurance. Reassurance that there were others just like me out there, and plentiful, and friendly, and kind of normal looking. When I head back to the station I do so with pride and courage; I blend back into my surroundings wondering where I’ll display my signed poster, no doubt destined in twenty years’ time to fill the same sooty recess in my personal history as the insurance against alien abduction I bought in 1996 (c£20).