Friday, April 18, 2014

Interview: Jesse Thorn of Maximum Fun and "Bullseye"

If you're a pop culture and public radio fan like me, then you must check out "Bullseye", the "show about things that are awesome." Each week, host Jesse Thorn interviews artists and entertainers, and gets their perspectives their lives and careers, as well as about creating the music, art, movies, TV shows, and comedy that we all love. Jesse is also the creator of the great website Maximum Fun, a blog full of podcasts, events info, and forums that create a great community for all pop culture fans. You might call Jesse the great synthesizer of American pop culture.

Here in New York City, you can catch "Bullseye" on Saturdays at 1 PM on 820 AM and Sundays at 6 PM on 93.9 FM.

Jesse was kind enough to answer a few questions for Mr NYC readers about his show, his website, and what he loves about pop culture. 

What made you such a devoted pop culture junkie and how did it lead to the creation Maximum Fun? 

I've always loved culture - reading, movies, sports, television. Just as I was becoming a teenager, the Internet opened up a whole new world. Not just of culture to consumers, but of opportunities to discern or dive deep. Once upon a time you had a couple magazines and maybe your local alt-weekly, and all of a sudden you had access to everything. Think of how significant just IMDB's emergence is, or

So "Bullseye" (which used to be called "The Sound of Young America") grew up as a sort of celebration of stuff that I and we thought were great but weren't getting the attention they should. grew out of that. 

What inspired you to create your show Bullseye and how did you get it on the radio?

I heard someone on the college radio station, and thought they weren't doing that great of a job. I sort of figured, "I could do that." I went and did the station tour, and I was surprised that the equipment was so relatively uncomplicated. So I just signed up. You had to volunteer a certain number of hours and you had to take a class. Once I'd done that, I recruited my two funniest friends and started a show. It's gone through a few iterations, but it's been one, continuous almost-15-year evolution. 

Your show takes a very comprehensive look at "what's good in popular culture" -- what do you define as good? 

It's very subjective, and I don't pretend otherwise. All matters of taste are culturally relative, and our show is no different. But I do put a lot of effort into making the content on the show stuff that I think is recommendable, stuff that I believe in.

I try to focus on things that are intended as art, without necessarily being exclusive of commerce. And I try to give a little extra attention to things that are fun, because I think stuff that's enjoyable tends to be overlooked a bit by the people who give out seals of approval for "quality" culture. 

You seem especially interested in music and comedy.  Who and what are some of your favorite bands, artists, and comedians? 

Geez. Favorite music artists ever... let's say Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Nina Simone, Outkast, The Staple Singers. That's off the top of my head. Lately I've been listening to Steve Reich a lot, so maybe my tastes are about to take a turn for the white :).

In terms of stand-ups... I love Maria Bamford, Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Andy Kindler. A million others, but let's leave it there. I think Chris Rock's "Bring the Pain" and "Bigger and Blacker" and John Leguizamo's "Mambo Mouth" really affected me a lot as a kid. And Whoopi Goldberg's Broadway show, which I had recorded on cassette from a library LP.

And movies, TV shows, etc? 

Favorite movies ever are probably Rushmore, A Thousand Clowns and Pee-Wee's Big Adventure. That's sort of about where they caught me in life, I think. Pee-Wee was (and is) very important to me and my taste. The Simpsons, obviously. And Python - the movies especially because I'm too young to have watched the show on PBS like some folks did. In high school, Newsradio and Seinfeld. Later on, in college, Tenacious D and Mr. Show and The Larry Sanders Show. The Wire. 30 Rock. 

When you interview artists, you seem very interested in how their lives influenced and affected their careers but not in a gossipy way. What's the key to giving a respectful but revealing interview? 

I'm honestly not that interested in artist's personal lives, except as they intersect their work. They're on the show because their work is special. I invite people on the show because I care about and respect their work, and talk to them in a way that reflects that. But I do ask them about their work and life, and ask them real questions. So that hopefully leads to some insight.

You did a very profound interview with actor Rick Moranis last year about his career and his decision to leave show business to raise his family after his wife's death. How were you able to get him to talk to you? 

We asked. I mean, he had an album out, he did other interviews, as well.

Almost nobody goes into show business to be interviewed. Relatively few are genuine recluses, but most people would choose not to spend time doing press if they had the choice - why talk about your work when you can make it? But in this business, it's a trade - you do press, people hear about your thing, they check it out, you get paid to make more work. People offer me their time, I offer them a platform. Hopefully it's pleasant for all involved.

With Moranis, he choose to do much less work, for very admirable reasons - his wife died and he needed to raise his kids. So he wasn't avoiding being interviewed, he just didn't have stuff to promote, and thus had to reason to engage in that transaction. But he cut this record, and was proud of it, and wanted people to know about it.

The two people I've had on the show who genuinely were "gets," folks who don't do interviews, were the musicians Betty Davis and Bill Withers. Both had been burned pretty badly by the music industry, and had chosen to step away from it. Ms. Davis hadn't even gotten her ASCAP checks for many years until a fan tracked her down. Both were challenging interviews, but with great artists like that, it was an honor to get to talk to them.

Rick is a dad, you're a dad, I'm a dad: what insights did you get from that interview about work and family?  

It's OK to be a decent human being in the entertainment industry. You don't have to put yourself at the center of everything just because that's what the industry seems to ask you to do.

Are there any other interviews you've done that you're especially fond of or were surprising? 

One of the early visits with one of my all-time favorite guests, Andrew WK comes to mind. My youngest brother was about 8 or 9, and had started a band. Andrew listened to his song, and I remember he asked if it was OK with my brother if he (Andrew) learned something from him. It was really touching. Andrew's been on the show many times since, and came to MaxFunCon one year. He's just a really good-hearted guy who has worked his butt off to make his own crazy way of being in the world work for him as a life, and it's an inspiration to me.

Tell us, where do Bullseye and Maximum Fun go from here? 


Thanks Jesse!

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