When Ben Kissel, Marcus Parks, and Henry Zebrowski first premiered their darkly comic true crime and paranormal podcast, The Last Podcast on the Left, in 2011, pop culture was in a much different, perhaps less murder-y place. Landmark true crime podcast series Serial was still three years away, Netflix’s whodunnit Making a Murderer was four years out, and Ted Bundy was still a monster and not a charming antihero played by Zac Efron.
Yes, as is often the case for early podcast trailblazers, the rest of the world caught up. For Kissel, Parks, and Zebrowski, this meant suddenly living in an environment where their deathly niche interests had gone mainstream.
“We’ve always done this show because these are the things we’re interested in and these are the things we liked talking about,” Parks adds. “It actually makes life a little easier as people, because we used to get strange looks from people anytime we brought up serial killers in mixed company, and now people casually talk about Ted Bundy’s necrophilia.”
Now Parks, Kissel, and Zebrowski, are doing more than talking about serial killers in mixed company…they’ve written a whole book on the subject.
The Last Book on the Left (published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and released on April 7) is in some ways the trio’s dissertation on their most widely-covered topic: serial killers. While the crew covers all manner of crime, cryptids, and creeps on their twice-weekly podcast (Henry and Ben were a bastion of Joe Exotic coverage long before Netflix’s Tiger King premiered), it’s the psychology of serial killers that they excel at exploring the most.
The Last Book on the Left dives deep into the lives of nine famous serial killers, presenting their crimes in stark details, and exploring their psyches while never trying to explain away or excuse their actions. Parks, the team’s crack researcher and producer, pens the entire narrative of each killer, while comedians Zebrowski and Kissel occasionally chime in with their jokes and insights.
The end result is a book that mimics the experience of listening to the Last Podcast on the Left. We spoke with Parks, Kissel, and Zebrowski via email to discuss the release of their book, which serial killers didn’t make the final cut, and how they’re holding up in quarantine.
DEN OF GEEK: How did the book come about? Did publishers approach you or was this something you guys had always wanted to do?
HENRY ZEBROWSKI: We had a lunch with Kate Napolitano, our editor, and pitched just the general idea of a LPOTL book. It took all three of our brains to realize we wanted to do a serial killer encyclopedia, basically the same type of book that got all three of us into true crime. I didn’t know it was a dream of mine until it actually landed in our laps! We didn’t want the book to be about podcasters or just another item on our merch site, we wanted to contribute to the world of true crime books that inspired us as gross little boys.
BEN KISSEL: Growing up we all had a fascination with Mad Magazine and Fangoria so the idea of creating a book that might get a kid in trouble if he or she brought it to school was always something we wanted to create. With the help of our badass publishing team I think we achieved that.
You cover a lot of fun supernatural, true crime, and generally weird stuff on the podcast. What made you decide to focus on true crime and more specifically serial killers for the book?
HZ: True crime and the discussion of serial killers is what brought the three of us together so why not dedicate three years of writing to them?
MARCUS PARKS: Arguably, serial killers are what we know the most about. While we do love all of the supernatural topics and series surrounding events like Columbine and Oklahoma City, serial killers are still what we’ve devoted the most time to when it comes to subjects by far. Learning how to write a book is already hard enough, so we figured it would be better to write about what we already knew and expand that knowledge into something that hopefully adds to the true crime conversation in a meaningful way, while also allowing for jokes about Rusty Kuntz and disgusting swingers parties in 1960s Iowa.
BK: Personally, I love our ghost and UFO episodes but for the first book I think it’s awesome to go back to our roots and focus on horrible civil servants like BTK. Images of that man’s nasty penis will always be burnt into my mind.
Why nine serial killers? Who would have been a couple others that made the list had it expanded?
HZ: Carl Panzram was on the original list but had covered him fairly recently and we felt it was important to go over cases in the book that we covered early in the history of LPOTL now that our research and “comedy” are sharper.
MP: Zodiac was all slated to be the last chapter of the book but by then the book had become much more of an overview of these killers as people, really driving home the pathetic reality of each person. Unfortunately the Zodiac killer was never caught so it didn’t fit with all of the other chapters. I also don’t know if our brains could have handled a tenth.
BK: I would’ve liked to see us add heart disease to the list because that’s the ultimate silent killer!
I feel like the book does a good job of frequently clarifying that serial killers are not to be treated as celebrities or sympathized with. How important was it to make that an aspect of the book?
HZ: That’s the main thrust of the serial killer coverage on LPOTL, we remind you that these guys are first and foremost losers.
BK: Yeah, we’re trying to reverse decades of mischaracterization of these corpse-fuckers! Ted Bundy is about as smooth as a Mars crater. The dude literally had sex with rotting corpses so we try to focus on that and not his hipster sweaters.
Having said that…who is each of your “favorite” serial killers from the book or to put it more delicately: which one fascinates each of you the most?
HZ: Richard Chase fascinates me because you can’t reason with him, he has a “idiosyncratic” set of rules that only he knows about. (Andrei) Chikatilo was eye-opening because of the context of what his life was like living in the Soviet Union during that time period.
MP: Unfortunately Dennis Rader. Maybe it’s that I have a general fascination with the things I hate the most but the idea that a serial killer can essentially create himself without any real outside influences that we know of is beyond interesting. Usually, serial killers have some outside influence that pushes them towards the choices they make, but Dennis Rader had nothing of the sort. Ed Gein has also been a particular point of fascination for me for years, obviously, because seeing mental illness externalized like that, what with the skin-suits and skull bean-bowls, simultaneously answers questions about what was going on in his head while introducing a whole slew of new ones. We’ll never fully know what was going on there but it’s terribly interesting to ponder.
BK: This is hard! I don’t really like the word “favorite”, I tend to reserve that for discussions on why the Taco Bell Chalupa is possibly the best fast food treat ever created. But John Wayne Gacy is pretty interesting. It’s weird to think that someone could create so much violence all while sounding like George Wendt in the SNL “Da Bears” sketch.
Can you discuss a little what it was like to get Tom Neely aboard to do the art? How important were the visuals to the flow of the book?
BK: TOM IS AMAZING AND I WANNA THANK HIM FOR ALL THE INCREDIBLE ARTWORK SO I DON’T NEED TO READ AS MUCH!
HZ: From the very beginning we wanted the book to be like an old school underground comic, like an evil Mad Magazine. I had read Henry and Glenn Forever & Ever a while ago and LOVED it. Tom has the perfect mix of comic sensibility and artistic versatility to create all the characters we proposed and mimic many styles of comics for different jokes.
MP: We spent a lot of time looking at a lot of different artists but when Tom was put forth as a suggestion and we took another look at his entire body of work, it was just like, “Well, obviously this is our guy.” Since podcasting is obviously an audio medium, we wanted to take advantage of the opportunity to really externalize jokes and bring a visual element to our comedy which is something we really only get to do in live shows. Henry and Tom worked extensively on the ideas for each illustration and I think they nailed it.
This is for Henry and Ben. Should there be another Last Book on the Left, which topics do you think you would be best at being the primary researchers and storytellers?
HZ: I will one day contribute to a book about aliens and UFOs. I will, I promise!
BK: I wanna cover the fronts and butts of serial killers in a coffee table book format!
You guys were pretty close to being on the ground floor for our culture’s latest true crime renaissance. What has it been like to watch your interests go from the niche to more mainstream?
HZ: I always knew everybody was interested in serial killers, now it’s out in the open.
BK: I’ll be fine when the fad dies and we can go back to being basement dwelling nerds with a bunch of weed and stolen whiskey! But I guess until then it’s cool to have all the handsome people into true crime as well.
MP: Once things started really kicking off with the true crime boom, we were already about six years into the podcast. We’ve always done this show because these are the things we’re interested in and these are the things we liked talking about. It actually makes life a little easier as people, because we used to get strange looks from people anytime we brought up serial killers in mixed company, and now people casually talk about Ted Bundy’s necrophilia. It certainly takes off the pressure to talk about sports.
How are you all holding up during quarantine? What’s it like to be producing podcasts and releasing your first book during this very strange time?
HZ: We are chugging along, we know this is a time when we can provide some normalcy and comfort just by us being our dumb selves and trying to “edutain” as much as our stubby digits will allow.
MP: Yeah, we’re just trying to do what we’ve always done while staying healthy and safe. While we of course would have liked our book to have been released during more normal times, we still wrote and released a fucking book. That’s an enormous achievement all on its own, something I always dreamed of but never thought possible. It also gives us comfort to know that the book being released at this time is helping people through their time in quarantine, so while the release is about the furthest thing from what we expected when we started writing, it’s still satisfying to know it’s doing some good.
BK: Just taking it a day at a time and remembering the people who are struggling. I basically find a new charity everyday and send them money. But we all feel extremely fortunate to be able to help people cope during this time.