When it comes to acts of the bizarre, criminal, or downright unusual, we are legit mesmerized. From books and podcasts to threads on internet forums to entire TV channels like Investigation Discovery (ID), media on crime, murder, and other sensational behaviors is more popular than ever.
Last Podcast on the Left has been a go-to source for these horror stories – mostly real, some imagined — for nearly a decade. The three-man show features hosts Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski, who dive into the depths of topics that include murder, cults, conspiracies, and UFOs. So far, they've released nearly 400 episodes.
Not unlike some other crime-specific podcasts like My Favorite Murder, these dudes, whose have roots in sketch and stand-up comedy, pepper the show with jokes to make the edgy information as palatable as possible.
The crew is currently doing a live version of the show on Friday, August 17, at The Van Buren. New Times caught up with one member of the trio, Henry Zebrowski, to talk about a slew of things, including his team’s lifetime fascination with creepy subject matter, how he copes with life on a steady diet of murder, and what the future looks like for the popular show.
Your podcast evolved from a longtime friendship — what's the story?
It was pretty natural. We have been doing podcasts for a while, kind of before a lot of people were doing podcasts. I think WTF was already going and some other shows with comedians talking to comedians. We had a show called Round Table of Gentlemen that happened for a bit. We’d all met in the comedy world when Ben Kissel had moved in with my writing partner, Holden McNeely, into this little hole of an apartment. We sort of turned that into a rehearsal studio for our first sketch group, Murderfist. Ben and I were on a radio show that Marcus hosted and we all started hanging out.
And you all had an affinity for tales from the dark side of life?
We kind of bonded over watching the movie Cannibal Holocaust. We would just talk and laugh about it. Ben and Marcus started Last Podcast on the Left to review horror movies, and then after a couple of episodes, I invited myself on and suggested we talk about serial killers and then it went from there.
Can you recall when true crime became one of your interests?
With Ben and Marcus and I, we were all fascinated by true crime and serial killers as kids. I remember being in junior high with my little yellow encyclopedia of serial killers, and at the time I was going through my mini goth phase which featured me in black pants and a Texas Chainsaw Massacre T-shirt and people would be like, "Oh you read about serial killers, you want to be a serial killer?" And my canned response was, "You're gonna be my first victim,” which was just to be funny. I was into UFOs my whole life, which came from my mom, and I think it also for Kissel and I with being involved heavily in the Catholic Church as kids had a lot to do with how we are now.
You’re definitely not the first Catholic to end up on the opposite end of the spectrum.
As a kid, you walk into that fancy building and the first thing you see is a man nailed to a cross … and then there’s the hypocrisy. I was an altar boy on my way to becoming a priest and now I'm a Satanist, so I think all of that fed the interest.
One great thing about LPOTL is that you get into the roots and history of a subject. How much time goes into planning an episode?
We probably read about two books per episode; definitely a book a week. There’s at least 20 to 30 hours a week of prep that goes into one show. I think there’s a lot that gets thrown away in entertainment these days. For us, it’s important to put the time in. Getting deep into the details is what our audience has come to expect from us. We spend a lot of time thinking about each episode because we went the audience to get as high-quality of a show as possible.
The internet is forever. When we were doing this back in 2007, all this dumb shit we put out when we were kids, we weren't thinking about the fact that we were creating things that were gonna last for decades on the internet or at least until that solar flare comes and destroys the grid, which I think would actually be great for society (laughs).
How often is there a topic that you start off knowing little about that ends up with you completely obsessed?
All the time.
Any subject in particular that stands out?
Rasputin. We did a Rasputin episode, and well, I'd always heard about Rasputin and seen pictures, and heard about his huge penis, but otherwise didn't really know a lot. It was fascinating to find out about his history.
Sometimes we'll go deep into a story and realize all the most interesting stuff about the story is urban myth — and we do like to talk about myths as part of our show — but there's a point when you really get into something, after you've gone down a lot of roads, and find out it's not real and that can be very sad.
I would imagine in addition to general comments about the episodes, you have to get contacted by people with facts or information about the subjects.
Yes. We love it. When people have personal stories connected to these figures, it's so interesting. It drives home the point that all of our subjects, they're people — everyone has a story, everyone comes from somewhere and helps give context, which is really important.
Even with the humor, all the talk about horror — real or mythical — has to be draining at times.
Oh, I'm in therapy! (Laughs) We all are. I've definitely experienced a great deal of paranoia. I remember when I first went into therapy, partly for insomnia, and my therapist asked me what I read before I go to bed and I was like "You know, stories about mayhem and murder," and we took it from there (laughs).
How do you relax?
My fiancé and I have our seven-pound dog that we really enjoy, and we watch a lot of HGTV at night. I almost don't want to talk about it and pop that bubble. For instance, I was watching an interview with Billy Corgan and he was saying how people are disappointed when they meet him and realize he's not actually a vampire (laughs). Unfortunately, though, we do have to watch shows about house-flippers sometimes, to clean the palate.
Has the show ever led to any creepy scenarios a la stalkers and such?
I wish. Our fans are pretty no weirder than I am as a human being. I’ve had people get a hold of my number or shit like that, but for the most part, people are pretty cool. In terms of investigating, nothing has really ever made us want to turn away from an idea … well, except a cartel -elated episode we were going to do. We figured we might not mess with that because the cartel kills podcasters. I’m just a comedian; at the core, I’m okay with not going after a cartel.
I would guess there are individuals and groups out there that don’t like what you do.
Absolutely. That's the nature of the show. Gallows humor about very intense subjects, that’s not for everyone. We believe in what we talk about it. I'm still like a 15-year-old child, but we have matured along with the show, so we do examine things that upset people. On the other side of that, if you choose to listen to a gallows-humor and crime-oriented podcast, there's going to be some things that might make you uncomfortable. What we hope happens is that the ways we find to laugh about some of these things also help relieve some of the tension.
We are listening to the universe and what's coming back to us. We try and follow what's working and examine what's not working. That's been part of our maturation process. We just want people to have fun and find some joy while learning about darker subject matter. The more you learn about something, the more you can gain control over the things that scare you — knowledge is power.
Do you follow any of the other crime-focused podcasts?
A part of the reason I don't is that I don't want to worry that I might be copying someone or letting something slide into my subconscious. I keep it separate. The stuff I listen to is like Dan Carlin's Hardcore History, Joe Rogan, anything Doug Stanhope does. I think My Favorite Murder is really good and they've helped us out by giving us shout-outs. [My Favorite Murder hosts] Georgia [Hardstark] and Karen [Kilgariff] are great.
Let’s talk about the live version of LPOTL: what it's like and why you do it.
It's a three-person stand-up show, basically. We do segments; we joke around. Kissel comes from the world of stand-up, I've been doing live comedy my whole life, and Marcus has been in many bands. Part of why we do it is that essentially it scratches our itch to perform in front of an audience. We never record the live shows to put out; I don't believe in doing live episodes of a podcast. The show should be something completely separate that you can only experience live. We have a lot of fun. We are doing the VIP meet-and-greet things, which is still very foreign to us. It's a really tight show. We work it out for about six to eight months before we go on the road.
Meet-and-greets certainly have become a thing.
Everyone is super-cool, it's just strange that people would pay to see us, so a part of it is our own disbelief that things are going well. But it's great meeting everyone. There's so many interesting people. One thing we really like is that a lot of our audience members are artists and people with creative leanings and that's fascinating to me — meeting visual artists or tattoo artists or other types of performers that are into it, and then you get to cross-pollinate ideas
Several years and hundreds of episodes in, your team's collective passion for the show seems to be going strong.
Yes. It's our lives. Obviously, there are parts of it that can be very overwhelming. We did it for so long and as it's grown, different responsibilities have come along with it. Maintaining the quality is so important. Basically, as the show has grown, we have too, as people — we are growing up with the show. We went from being total scumbags to being scumbags in our mid-30s with dogs. That means we've calmed down a bit and we're doing the show smarter. We owe it to our audience to be entertaining. My main thing is to not have a show that's boring. And if all that's going right, we can do the show another 20 years.
Could you see that happening?
As long as it's fun, that's really what it comes down to. It's still our passion and while that fire is there, we're hitting it with as much energy as we can.
Last Podcast on the Left featuring Henry Zebrowski, Marcus Parks and Ben Kissel happens at 8:30 p.m. on Friday, August 17, at The Van Buren, 401 West Van Buren Street. Visit thevanburenphx.com.
Keep Phoenix New Times Free... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Phoenix with no paywalls.