Inside the 'Criminal' mind

Andy Downing
Phoebe Judge during a live showing of "Criminal"

The true crime genre has taken off in recent years, much of it focused on more sordid cases, including grisly unsolved murders and mysterious missing person accounts. But the long-running “Criminal” podcast, now in its fifth year of taping in Durham, North Carolina, casts a wider net, investigating the odd genre-standard case alongside historical deep dives and more offbeat, sometimes humorous turns.

Witness the 2016 episode “Pappy,” which included a crime tale but dealt more with Pappy Van Winkle and bourbon culture, in general. The episode also featured a memorable tidbit about a bar in Louisville receiving death threats for making Jell-O shots with Pappy. “And how could you not do a story about that?” said host Phoebe Judge recently by phone.

“When we started, we wanted to make a show that covered a broad definition of crime. Crime can be funny, and the line between legal and illegal, and what’s right and wrong [can be thin]. It’s funny. You can step over into this world so easy,” said Judge, who will join co-creator Lauren Spohrer for a live staging of “Criminal” at the Athenaeum Theatre on Thursday, Sept. 19. “I think our curiosity in 2014 [when we started the podcast] was very broad and odd, and even now we still sit around and talk about story ideas that are strange and different. … I think people trust us to bring them interesting stories, and there’s never that sense of, ‘OK, I’m on to them. Here’s what’s coming now.’”

Oh, what I need is a good defense, ’cause I’m feeling like a criminal. And I need to be redeemed to the one I’ve sinned against, because he’s all I ever knew of love. Sign up for our daily newsletter

Part of the drive behind launching the podcast was a deep, ingrained interest in human motivation, the duo continually returning to the question: “Why is it that criminals do what they do?” But more than 100 episodes and five years in, the answer remains as elusive as ever to the host.

“I think I’m more confused by human nature now than when we started the show,” said Judge, whose background includes 30 months working as the Gulf Coast reporter for Mississippi Public Broadcasting and a stretch serving as the producer and guest host of “The Story” with Dick Gordon. “We just did a show about Toby, who worked with prison dogs, and then all of a sudden she’s smuggling a prisoner out of prison in a dog crate. This was a woman who’d never had a parking ticket, who still to this day says, ‘I must have lost my mind.’

“I think that, at the end of the day, all any of us is trying to do is be OK and get through it. Bad things happen, but one thing I’ve learned in the last five years is the incredible resilience people have to move on. Some of the stories we tell, I would have thought these people would be on the ground. How do you survive seeing something like that? But the joy people can find in life after going through the worst is incredibly heartening.”

Judge said she believes part of the allure of true crime is its taboo nature. “We want to know about situations that we never want to find ourselves in,” she said. But there’s also a built-in narrative arc to the cases explored on “Criminal,” which tend to center on stories that have a clear beginning, middle and end, because, as Judge put it, “People love stories with a resolution, whatever that resolution might be.” This narrative aspect is likely part of what attracted AMC, which optioned “Criminal” for TV and is in the midst of developing a pilot with the duo, though nothing has been filmed as of yet.

Whatever form the show takes, assuming the pilot is picked up by the network, Judge doesn’t envision it straying far from the established template. “We’ve never been influenced by what other people do, or what’s ‘hip’ or ‘new,’” she said. “We’ve always stayed true to what we wanted to do when the whole thing began.”

The Athenaeum Theatre

6:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 19

32 N. Fourth St., Downtown

"Criminal" podcast live show