Jesse Thorn, 'America's Radio Sweetheart,' Finally Comes To L.A.'s Airwaves
In a lot of ways, Jesse Thorn's radio show "Bullseye" is pretty straightforward: it's a pop culture show on public radio that features interviews with many of the most interesting people in music, movies and comedy. The curation of Thorn and his guests is thoughtful and sometimes offbeat but there's no hipster sneer. Its cultural picks skew younger than "Fresh Air." There are personal, confessional moments and the interviews don't feel slick, but it's not the raw, therapy session that is "WTF With Marc Maron" (a fellow comedian and podcaster).
The show's office is in Macarthur Park, and you would think the show, which was first picked up by WNYC in 2006, would be a local hit but until this summer Angelenos couldn't listen to the show on their radio dial (wtf, indeed?). Now that America's Sweetheart local airwaves, we asked him a few questions about how the long-running show he started his sophomore year of college has changed over time. He even curated a few culture picks from around town.
How did you end up in L.A.?
I grew up in the Mission, in San Francisco, and I started the show at UC Santa Cruz, but about seven years ago, I got serious about the making the show for a living at the same time my wife was accepted to Loyola Law School, and we decided to head south. The truth is that as wonderful a city as San Francisco is, it's not a good place to try and launch a show business career. Even if we're expanding the definition of show business to include public radio and the far reaches of cable TV.
And how come it took so long for an L.A. station to pick up your show?
Every public radio station makes their own decisions about what programs to carry, and there are a lot more disincentives to change than their are incentives. Radio's ruled by habit, and public radio's supported by the donations of the faithful, so between those two things, it's tough to change a station's schedule. KPCC has made a lot of changes lately trying to broaden their already really large audience, which I think is really brave. We were part of a larger weekend schedule change that included some other cool new shows, like Ask Me Another and The TED Radio Hour. I'm just really happy I won't have to explain what a podcast is to people at parties anymore. Or dentists.
Your show started out on college radio—how has the show evolved over time?
When we started the show, we did everything under the sun. We wrote radio plays, sketches, took calls, did interviews. My co-hosts, Jordan and Gene, graduated and moved to L.A. to become comedy writers (which they are still), and I was sort of left behind by myself. I had guest co-hosts for a few months—actually Al Madrigal from "The Daily Show" and W. Kamau Bell from "Totally Biased" were among them and are still friends—but I ended up settling into interviews. There's something deeply unnerving about doing comedy by yourself in a soundproof booth. With interviews, at least you have someone to talk to.
I did the show entirely myself for three or four years, and then I started to be able to scrape together the money to hire some production help. A year and a half or so ago, I'd built the staff to two part-timers, and I hired my friend Roman Mars, who produces an amazing show called 99% Invisible and helped start NPR's Snap Judgement, to come and consult with us. We changed the name of the show, and reformatted to focus on what was special about our show: that it was essentially curated recommendations. Most folks in public radio come from a news background, and so most arts and culture coverage is sort of a survey, or focuses on who has a great backstory. We try to talk to people who make amazing work.
These days, the show's essentially made by three part-timers, including me, which is a comically small staff for a national show. But it's a much more polished operation than when I was doing it on a 30-year-old analog console in the second studio of a college radio station, and reading public service announcements for butterfly viewings in Monterey.
How do you choose your guests? What makes an ideal "Bullseye" guest?
Our old slogan was "A Public Radio Show About Things That Are Awesome." That's sort of what we're shooting for—the best of popular culture, with a focus on things that are fun and fascinating. We also like creators—we're big on directors and writers along with our comics and musicians and so forth. We don't consciously pick guests who wouldn't be elsewhere on public radio, but I'm the oldest person on staff at 32, and I think our perspective is a bit different than other shows. I'm comfortable talking to Patton Oswalt or Big Boi or Susan Orlean.
Once in a while someone in public radio gets confused—"if it's a show for young people, why did you interview Bootsy Collins?" Frankly, if you had the opportunity to interview Bootsy Collins and you failed to do so, your radio license should be revoked.
I read your post on New Sincerity from 2006, and even though it wasn't that long ago, that really was another era: Bush was president, it hadn't been so long since 9/11 and the so-called "death of irony" and the economy hadn't yet tanked. How has the cultural landscape you described shifted since that post?
I think the recession cleared out some of the Vice Magazine-ish reflexive sourness and nastiness that was one of the big currents of hipsterdom in the early 2000s. It's been replaced by an earnestness that can be twee and exhausting, but ultimately I think is a pretty good thing. I get why people are tired of beards and artisinal everything, but frankly, artisanship is a wonderful thing, and I'm glad there's a place for it to be celebrated. And I don't usually find it to be humorless, which is kind of the danger with that sort of thing. At least if you're me, and jokes take up about 80 percent of your brain real estate at any given time.
As far as "the death of irony" goes, I don't think it ever happened, and I never liked how the people who talked about it in magazine think pieces even defined irony. They seemed to think that "irony" means "jokes." The same way people say "satire" when they mean "jokes that I, a person who has a subscription to Harper's, allow myself to enjoy."
Do you have a few local cultural recommendations? Anything: comedy shows, bands, museums, some particularly profound graffiti on the side of the freeway, etc.
The Museum of Jurassic Technology is one of the most amazing places in the world, and I say that without reservation. If you've never been, clear out half a day and go now. It is so spectacularly beautiful and fascinating and wonderful I can't even begin to describe it. That's the one place I insist visitors go if I'm asked. It's genuinely magical.
It's obvious, but Jonathan Gold is a treasure. I love listening to him on Good Food and reading his writing in the paper. He was a guest on our show not all that long ago, and he's the perfect guide to a place where without a guide you'll never get to know anything about anything. And speaking of food, our office is on Macarthur Park, and Langer's Delicatessen is the best in the world. Bar none.
I suppose everyone knows this now, but the Upright Citizens Brigade Theater is a really special place as well. There are other theaters in L.A. with great comedy, and other great comedy shows—IO West and Tiger Lily, for example—but the UCB is king. I'm so proud my old sketch group was invited to perform in its first month in LA, before we even lived down here. That's something I'll be telling my kids one day. If you haven't taken the time to see truly exception improvisation, like Asssscat or the amazing group Convoy, you should really make the time. And the standup! Not just seeing Louis CK for five bucks, but Maria Bamford, or Andy Kindler or Brent Weinbach. Masters at work! For peanuts.
On the music side...well my producer Julia is from Long Beach, and her folks had a pizzeria there. One day she came into the office and told me that a rapper and his manager were regular customers, but maybe I'd never heard of him, she wasn't really sure if he was a thing or not. So I asked who it was, and she told me: Suga Free. I was practically jumping around the room. He's from Pomona, I don't know if that counts, and I guess he lives in Long Beach or something, but one of the all-time underappreciated greats. (And also stunningly misogynistic, so, you know, be prepared for that.) And I'll throw in Flying Lotus and Aimee Mann and Eleni Mandell and how about Paul F. Tompkins when he sings at the Paul F. Tompkins show?
You can tune in to "Bullseye" Saturday afternoons at 3 p.m. on 89.3 KPCC. If you miss it on the air, new episodes of "Bullseye" appear every week at MaximumFun.org and iTunes. You can also follow the show on Facebook and Twitter. Jesse Thorn will host "Bullseye LIVE" this October 25 at KPCC’s Crawford Family Forum. You can find more information and tickets here.