Singing Praises: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn

For years now, podcasts have been my favorite source of entertainment. It started with NPR. In my attempt to get news from folks who weren’t yelling at their microphones, I stumbled upon the radio show This American Life. Once I got my first iPod and figured out that I could listen to this program anywhere, anytime, it was all over for me. Music took a back seat. All I wanted was the storytelling, witty banter, and intelligent discussions that belong to the world of podcasts.

If it made sense at all for radio hosts to have groupies, I’d be one. Given the choice between a dinner date with Ira Glass or Channing Tatum, I’d probably choose Ira.

Ira Glass Photo By Brighterorange (Taken by user (Tom Murphy VII).) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (, via Wikimedia Commons

Channing Tatum Photo By Gage Skidmore (Channing Tatum) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons; Source:

My knowledge of podcasting is minimal, but I assume that there are many busy little bees behind the scenes that contribute to a show’s success. Even so, the host can make or break a show. Of all the hosts I listen to, Jesse Thorn is my favorite. Please indulge me while I geek out about him and try to untangle what it is that makes him such a gifted interviewer.  According to Wikipedia, Jesse does lots of things, but I’m going to focus on his role as the producer and host of the radio show/podcast Bullseye with Jesse Thorn (formerly The Sound of Young America).

First of all, boy does his homework, and it shows in the depth of knowledge he brings with him to each interview. To hear him talk about films from the 70s, obscure comedy references, the history of hip hop or whathaveyou, you’d swear he was someone with a few more decades under his belt as opposed to a thirty-something whippersnapper.

But it’s not just that he knows the facts backwards and forwards, which he does; it’s also the level of insight that he adds to the discussion. He’s skilled at getting both the show’s guests and its listeners to look at a piece of art or cultural phenomenon in a new way. His guests make comments like, “You know, I never thought about it like that, but you’re right,” all the time. Don’t believe me? In no universe would I have the gumption to cull through a ton of old episodes to find examples. I’m a fan, but not that kind of fan. All I had to do was listen to a couple of recent episodes, and bam, the perfect example just fell into my lap.
From the interview with Paul Reubens (aka Pee-wee Herman):

Jesse:      I think one of the special things about Pee-wee as a character, especially for kids or for people who feel connected to their childhoods, is that Pee-wee is kind of a self-interested jerk a lot of the time, and he is also…an open-hearted, wonder-eyed dreamer of the absolute best kind. And that is kind of an essential quality of childhood that rarely gets recognized in children’s entertainment. If you’re lucky, you might get the wonder…

Paul:        I’m sorry, I have to interrupt you and just say one thing because I think you just clarified something for me that’s never really been clear before. People always go, “What do you think is the attraction of Pee-wee Herman? Why do people like Pee-wee Herman?” And I always say, “I have no idea,” which is true…I don’t want to think about that because it’s not fun for me. That takes all the fun out of what I do if I gotta dissect it very much…But I think you just came up with something very interesting that I never really thought about…I think most people have the same qualities you just discussed. Most people are dichotomies. Most people are really nice, good-hearted and snarky at the same time…And you’re absolutely right, I can’t argue at all against that Pee-wee Herman has this wonderful heart and is also totally snarky and selfish. And I wouldn’t disagree with you that those are…things that we can attribute to kids, but I would also certainly argue that…we don’t really grow out of that when we get older, when we become adults and even older adults. We still have all that. Maybe I’m not a good example because I’m Pee-wee Herman, but I find myself all the time as…my adult older self feeling really righteous and great and sweet and then on a dime, I’m a nightmare and feel snarky and angry and fed up with stuff. That may be what people like about Pee-wee Herman is that that’s sort of worn on the sleeve.

See how he got to the core of what makes Pee-wee Herman great, which then sparked a delightful series of observations from Pee-wee himself?  Jesse rules at this.  Also important, however, is the sincerity he shows when interviewing. With each and every interview, you get the impression that Jesse is a huge fan of his guests and their work. And it’s so lovely because you can tell that they feel it and appreciate it. I often picture them giving him a big hug when it’s over.

Which brings me to the final point I’d like to make about this show – its guests. Often my favorite episodes are those featuring people who aren’t on my radar. As with the interview with Paul Reubens, many of the guests are people you recognize but have only a limited idea of who they are or what they do. On the show, you get to see a whole new side of them and whatever it is that they’re passionate about. Two of my favorite episodes are:

1 – The interview with Bootsy Collins back when it was still The Sound of Young America. I can’t help but quote Bootsy a little bit to give you a taste of just how magnificent he is:

“I went out looking for two things…the star bass, which I call the Space Bass, and the star glasses…I used to draw ‘em all the time at school, star glasses on the stick man and he had a star guitar…I never knew that would wind up bein’ me, but…when George gave me opportunity to do a solo thing I was like, man I can’t look like anybody else…I wanna see through stars…I wanna not only see through stars, I wanna have star glasses on that are like mirrors so when the kids look at me in my face they see themselves. So this was a whole concept that I kinda had dreamed up.”

If that doesn’t make you fall in love with Bootsy, I suggest you get your heart examined. It appears to be defective.

Bootsy Collins

Bootsy Collins; By Juanbobadilla (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

2 – The interview with the man inside Big Bird, Caroll Spinney, and Dave LaMattina the co-director of I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story.

Big Bird

Photo By KUHT [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I’ll refrain from more quotes because I’ve gone on too long already. Why are you still reading this? Get thee to Bullseye:

And check out the other fabulous podcasts from Maximum Fun such as:

Judge John Hodgman

Jordan, Jessi, Go!

One Bad Mother

High five Jesse.

Source: Photo Credit: Alex Erde

By Alex Erde from London, United States [CC BY 2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons


Featured Image Bullseye logo; Source:


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