The Jesse Thorn Interview: Somewhat Under Twenty Questions

Hey Chicagoans. I'm going to be on NPR on Sunday at 10 AM. Tune in at 91.5 to hear me talking about bloggy and writey things with very-funny Justin Kaufmann, or download it at your convenience.

So, speaking of people and the radio, that is a natural transition to my interview subject today. He hosts the public radio show and podcast "The Sound of Young America," who performs interviews with artists and writers and a lot of comics in a voice that makes him sound a lot older than his 26 years. He also hosts the show Jordan, Jesse GO! and performs in a sketch group called Prank the Dean.

Who are a few people you haven't interviewed but you want to?
There are so many people who I'd like to interview but haven't. Randy Newman and Bill Cosby come to mind. Bob Edwards told me of all the thousands of interviews he did for Morning Edition, Newman was his
favorite. Oh, and Paul Reubens. I would really love to interview Paul Reubens. Pee-Wee remains incredibly important to me.

Are there any comics out there, past or present, who have been lauded as geniuses but whose you just didn't get or couldn't get into?
It seems like Lenny Bruce was a very you-had-to-be-there thing. I've always respected George Carlin, but he's not one of my all-time favorites. I'd take the Cos over Carlin every day.

At what age do you think you'll finally escape the onerous "boy wonder" label?
I love the "boy wonder" label. I'm terrified of the day when I actually have to compete on equal ground with other actually successful people. I used to get National Geographic for Kids magazine, and there was a section called "Kids Did It." And Kids were always doing kind of lame stuff, like winning a lego championship or do a long swim or something. But because they were kids, that was really impressive. I feel like "I host a public radio show" isn't going to be impressive when I'm 35. By then, other people I meet will have done actual important things, like feeding homeless people or running businesses.

With the show's growing popularity, you must get a lot of lesser-known comics vetting you. How do you decide who gets on, and how do you let people know maybe right now they're not right for you?
Almost nobody ever pitches me, even now. I kind of wish they did, because I hate cold-calling publicists, but it's also kind of nice, because I rarely have to deal with stuff that just isn't appropriate for my show. Ultimately, it's tough for a publicist to know what works on my show, because I pick guests more or less based upon my own whims, rather than some target demographic or something.

What do you do when an interview subject is a dud?
I've had few duds. I usually pick guests who I think are amazing, and so many of them are performers anyway that they're rarely anything other than fascinating, at least to me. I worry that the audience might have a different perception, but that's a separate issue.

The only real challenge I face is the occasional slow talker. Comedian Todd Barry is a good example. He's one of the funniest guys in America, and he was one of the first guests on the show and has been back on several times, but he can be tough to interview because he speaks pretty slowly and plainly. Unless he's mocking you. In those situations, I try to play a lot of performance clips :).

This is a question I asked some comedian friends once and they seemed to have a lot to say on the subject. Is being an asshole a detriment in the comedy world, or it doesn't matter as long as you're funny and otherwise professional?
Well, my own professional comedy experience is mostly in the worlds of sketch and improv, where being an asshole certainly hurts. I think that in comedy, as in other professions, money talks. Club owners are
pretty mercenary, and at the end of the day, they book the acts that sell tickets. That said, I would imagine it's tougher for an asshole to climb the ladder without the hand up the nicer folks might get.

Honestly, I've had really good personal experiences with all the many comics I've dealt with. In my opinion, the sad clown theory of standup comedy is baloney. There are sad comics, asshole comics, neurotic comics, but only in the same sort of proportion there are sad, asshole and neurotic firefighters.

What's the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
I just got back from a great improv show. I think I laughed out loud at ten or fifteen things that Seth Morris said during the show -- he's a really gifted improviser.

The name of your show hearkens back to old tyme radio. Have you ever been a fan of old radio shows, and if so, which ones?
Nope. Booooooooooooooring.

Actually, now that I think about it, The Goon Show when I was a kid, but that's about it. Oh, and the BBC version of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy... though that was what, around 1980 or so? Does that
count as old?

For people starting out with their own podcasts, what would you say really makes one worth listening to?

Passion and a limited scope. I would say find something you know will be really useful or valuable to some group of people, something that you can really do a great job of, and do that. Don't try to be the next Howard Stern. Unless you're incredibly talented, then do whatever.

I was so glad you had Andre Royo and Wendell Pierce on an episode. Who are your favorite "Wire" characters?
Frank Subotka, maybe? Boy, I have so many favorites... I get so emotionally involved in that show it's absurd. Dookie, maybe? Brother Mouzone kind of broke the tone of the show, but in a really
awesome way. Man, it's tough to choose. So tough to choose. I mean seriously, Stringer? Avon? It's tough.

What'll be new for you and TSOYA in '08?
I have no idea. I really have a hard time

The comedian as sad clown: myth or fact?
It's silly. There are probably more unbalanced artists and performersthan regular folks in general, but I'd say that comedians are at least as happy, probably happier, than most, say, actors.

I'm a sucker obviously for talented yet nice people. Who have been some of the most talented people you've interviewed who've made you think "Even if he was an asshole I'd still love him, yet here he is, nice as can be"?
George Saunders comes to mind. Andy Daly. That's pretty much two of the world's nicest guys, who also happen to be among the top five or ten funny people I admire most. Actually, someone was making fun of
me the other day for saying multiple guests on my show were "the nicest guy in the world," but I just get really excited when someone I admire is nice. And I primarily admire people who are funny, so I
guess we have the same affliction.

"Prank the Dean" is performing as the lone sketch act in a lineup of standup comics. Do you go on first, in the middle, or last?
If it's a theater, last. If it's a club... uhm... is "not" an option?

Can you judge the vibe of an audience before you get on stage? And what can you do if it's just a shitty crowd?
I've never done standup. In sketch or improv, which I have done, you really need an audience that's engaged, the way a theater audience is. If you do sketch for a clubby audience, you're going to eat it nine
times out of ten, even if you're really funny. So that's what you're afraid of -- an audience that's ordering drinks or whatever. If you're a skilled standup, I think that can be worked around -- you can address and engage the audience directly.

You seem like you might actually have more experience than Christopher Hitchens to weigh in on this: are there any funny women out there?
Yes, of course! I just had Morgan Murphy on my live show in San Francisco this week, and she's hilarious. I think Sarah Silverman is brilliant. Rosanne Barr is one of the all-time greats, as is Ellen Degeneres. I think you'll find more men who are funny than women, probably for social reasons, but certainly there are many, many, many funny women who are every bit as funny as any man. I think that to some extent men and women, taken as a whole, may be interested in different kinds of funny, but that's just an impression I have, not any kind demonstrable anything.

When Elvis Costello requests that they "play one more" for you right now, assuming you're his radio sweetheart, what would you have the DJ spin?
"If You Want Me To Stay" by Sly & the Family Stone from Fresh

How does it feel to be the 197th person interviewed for
Like taking a bath in butter.