Jesse Thorn picks his favorite episodes from his Maximum Fun empire

Jesse Thorn picks his favorite episodes from his Maximum Fun empire

Bestcasts asks podcasters to discuss the three most memorable episodes of their podcast.

The podcaster: Although Jesse Thorn is barely in his 30s, the podcaster, Maximum Fun maven, and raconteur (and friend of The A.V. Club) has managed to build an audio empire. Thorn began his podcast, The Sound Of Young America, while still in college at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Thorn continued the podcast after graduation, and in 2006 it was picked up both by New York’s WNYC and Public Radio International for syndication. Thorn also launched a podcast and radio-show network called Maximum Fun that has grown rapidly to include such popular podcasts as Jordan! Jesse! Go! (which re-teams him with comedian Jordan Morris, an early co-host of The Sound Of Young America); Judge John Hodgman (a vehicle for the droll bestselling author featuring Thorn as Hodgman’s bailiff); My Brother, My Brother And Me; and more. Since 2009, Maximum Fun has been throwing a convention called MaxFunCon, featuring favorites from the Maximum Fun universe, and will be launching its inaugural cruise, The Atlantic Ocean Comedy & Music Festival, this September. The cruise is set to feature appearances from the likes of John Hodgman, Maria Bamford, The Mountain Goats, and Marc Maron, whom Thorn semi-famously helped teach the technical basics of podcasting before Maron launched his own podcast, WTF. 

Jordan, Jesse, Go! #27: Sadcast (June 18, 2007)
Jesse Thorn: That was in the first year, maybe, of Jordan, Jesse, Go! I was surprised to see that it was episode 30 or something. We started Jordan, Jesse, Go! because I moved to Los Angeles, and Jordan [Morris] and I had worked together on The Sound Of Young America for years until he graduated from school and moved to L.A. to do entertainment-industry stuff. For a while he was a PA on what I believe was a Vietnamese game show or a variety show. He also worked on a show called Living With Fran that was originally a Jamie Kennedy project, about a period of time when Jamie Kennedy lived under the stairs in a friend’s house. But then Fran Drescher got cast in it, so it was a Jamie Kennedy-produced Fran Drescher vehicle. Yeah, [Jordan] was doing really weird stuff at the time.

AVC: That was an actual thing? That got picked up?

JT: Yeah, it was on for, like, 2 years on UPN or The WB, I don’t remember which.

AVC: It’s strange to think that in somebody’s mind, Jamie Kennedy and Fran Drescher are somewhat interchangeable. 

JT: I guess. I think what happened is somehow it came across Fran Drescher’s desk, and she liked it. They were so excited that an actual famous person wanted to be involved with The WB, just as they had been when Jamie Kennedy offered to produce the show. 

AVC: You don’t say no to Jamie Kennedy.

JT: Yeah, well, not if you’re The WB, and it’s 2006 and he’s almost-famous.

Anyway, the moral of the story is we were figuring out what the show was, and there weren’t a lot of shows out there at the time that were doing anything like what we were doing. In our world, there was Never Not Funny, and frankly, that was about it. I mean, Ricky Gervais began his podcast around then, and there were a few shows that had started podcasting right at the beginning of podcasting when I was doing The Sound Of Young America: Nobody Likes Onions and Keith And The Girl and Uhh Yeah, Dude. But I had never heard any of those shows. In fact, I still haven’t, except for Uhh Yeah, Dude, which is a very good show. But we were trying to figure out what the show was and [Jordan and I] had done some things. We had fans from The Sound Of Young America and we were doing all kinds of stuff. Bits and chat and we were doing a bracket to find out what the best animal was.

AVC: What was determined to be the best animal?

JT: I think monkey. If I remember correctly it was monkey.

But we were experimenting with the question of, “What if this show has actual emotional content?” Because both of us were going through significant transitions in our lives, which is to say that we were both having to face up to the fact that we were grownups. And right around then my wife and I decided to adopt a dog, which was a very difficult decision for us. At the time—as I am now—I was working 60-plus hours a week, and my wife was in law school. I hadn’t had a dog since I was 5 or 6. And I wasn’t sure I wanted to be responsible for it. But I was also working from home by myself, working on The Sound Of Young America, and I was really lonely and sad. That’s one of the things about Los Angeles: It’s a little lonely and sad. So we adopted a dog named Woofy, and he completely changed our lives in the course of a couple of weeks. He was a wonderful dog and loved to sit on my lap while I was working. But it turned out that he had a neurological disease. He was having some problems, so we brought him to the vet. And the vet said, “Well, it could be this disease, but it’s very unlikely because it’s almost unheard of in the United States. Dogs get vaccinated for it.” But we didn’t know exactly where he came from. We thought maybe he had come from a puppy mill. Although, he was mixed-breed; he may have just been a street dog. 

Anyway, it turned out that he had canine distemper. It’s like encephalitis; it’s essentially a viral condition in the brain. In some cases, it can be stopped. But it can’t be cured in the sense that whatever damage it creates can’t roll back when you get control of it. So we were putting him through the treatment for it, and he was getting worse and worse. For a month, I was having to feed him by hand and cook food for him. It got to the point where he was only eating scrambled eggs that I would cook for him and feed him. He was just really sick and falling over and stuff. Finally, we knew that he wouldn’t be getting better, At a certain point, his quality of life was really poor so we had to put him down. And I wasn’t sure whether it was something I should talk about on the show because it’s a comedy show. Honestly, I wasn’t even sure I was going to talk about it when we started recording that particular episode. We had a couple of segments that weren’t related to my dog dying. I’m doing jokes, but I’m thinking, “Should I talk about this thing that happened?”

Finally, I just decided that part of what our show is about is our connection with the audience. I thought that I could talk about it in a way that that wouldn’t feel like I was exploiting this thing that happened and could be relatable and honest and sincere. So that’s what I tried to do. It was hard to talk about. But the reaction to that episode was part of what convinced me that doing Jordan, Jesse, Go! was a worthwhile endeavor outside of the stuff I was doing and outside of the part of it that’s about everybody getting a few laughs. When I hear from people for whom Jordan, Jesse, Go! is really significant, they often bring up that episode. Things have happened in my life that I haven’t talked about on the show, really significant things, but part of what Jordan, Jesse, Go! is about is us going through changes in our lives that reflect the changes in our audience’s lives. That’s why we do Momentous Occasions: Partly it’s because we want to hear about someone seeing a goat standing on top of a cow. But partly when we hear from somebody who is transgendered and just went out in public as the opposite gender for the first time, or when we hear from somebody who just had their first kid, it’s about things that happen in the game of life.

AVC: People inherently respond when you make yourself vulnerable, even if it’s on a comedy podcast that begins with a discussion of Tofutti Cuties. 

JT: I don’t want to make a spectacle of myself. This is something that I’ve thought a lot about lately, because my wife agreed to co-host a show about parenting with our friend, a comedian named Biz Ellis. So there was a lot of consideration between us about what is and isn’t appropriate to talk about publicly. With some of the early podcasters, part of the shtick was, “We will reveal everything about our lives.”

AVC: There was an element of emotional exhibitionism to it.

JT: Yeah. And I’m not really interested in that. I don’t know. I think emotional honesty is an important part of the connection that is special about podcasts. Podcasts are a very intimate medium, and there’s a certain amount of intimacy that I think is really valuable and special. The other reason I picked this episode is that not that long after we recorded this episode, I booked Ira Glass on The Sound Of Young America. At that point, I think I had met Ira really briefly while he was drunk at a party. It was a party for This American Life when they were in L.A., and John Hodgman invited me to it. And it was the first time I had ever been to a celebrity party, one of the few times in my life. I talked to Jack Black for 10 minutes and then I was like, “Whoa, I just talked to Jack Black for 10 minutes.”

AVC: I hear he’s a huge Ira Glass fan.

JT: Dude, Jack Black is a class act. He is a great guy. But I had a Tenacious D T-shirt that you had to send a check to The Actors’ Gang to get before the first Tenacious D album even came out. So that was a significant moment for me. But I had booked Ira on the show. I don’t do the same thing that Ira Glass does, but I don’t think that precludes him from being my public-radio hero. I think there are very few people my age in public radio who aren’t, at least in part, influenced by Ira Glass and This American Life. So it was a really a big deal for me to interview him and a little bit scary, even though he’s a very nice man. When we got on the line, he told me that he’d been listening to Jordan, Jesse, Go! and how much he enjoyed the episode where I talked about Woofy. It would have been one thing if he had said he’d listened to The Sound of Young America. I was on the radio in New York, where he lives, so I can imagine that. Once in a while, it will come up and it will wow me. Like, one time Sarah Vowell told me she listens to it while she makes spaghetti and I’m like, “Wow, Sarah Vowell listens to my show while she makes spaghetti.” But to have Ira say something complimentary about something that was so personal and that I imagine going out to a group of a few thousand podcast fans, was a really powerful moment for me. And sort of an affirmation that maybe I actually was doing something right.

AVC: Do you think you ultimately chose to talk about Woofy on the podcast because you felt that to not address it in some way would be disingenuous?

JT: Yeah, especially because I had spent five or six weeks essentially caring for the dog all day, every day. Like he couldn’t go up and down stairs toward the end. It just seemed important. Our show was about what was happening in our lives. Woofy wasn’t just a dog that I had loved, but he was also the first time in my life that I had taken full responsibility for another living thing. I wasn’t even married yet. It was a really important thing in my life. It just seemed like to leave it out would be… I just couldn’t imagine a world where I exclusively talked about Tofutti Cuties when this thing had just happened in my life.

And the other thing about it is, a lot of times when something like this comes up in your life, you have to be very careful about how what you say might affect other people. So, if my mother-in-law were to pass away—and she’s very much alive and healthy. [Laughs.] I don’t expect this to happen for a long time—but if my mother-in-law were to pass away, I would feel uncomfortable talking about that on the show because of the way it would affect my family. In this case, it was something where I felt like I could talk about it without hurting anyone around me in a way that was genuinely honest.

The Sound Of Young America: Bill Withers, Soul Legend (July 6, 2009)
JT: I had tried to book Bill Withers on the show before. He stopped recording in the early ’80s, and had essentially done no press since then. I remember he did an interview on a morning show somewhere, where he had just ran into the people that did it, and they talked him into coming on. But essentially, he had just not really done interviews.

AVC: He’s a bit of a recluse, it seems.

JT: I don’t think he was a recluse, I just think he was genuinely retired. When he left the record industry, he said, “Okay, I’m done with this.” He hadn’t played any shows or anything. I interviewed Betty Davis a couple years before this—the singer, not the actress—

AVC: I was going to be very impressed if you had interviewed Bette Davis.

JT: [Betty Davis] was a genuine recluse. She only agreed to do one interview to promote her album, and she only agreed to do it by phone and only if she called the label and then the label called me and patched her through. She didn’t want people to know where she lived. Bill Withers was just living somewhere in Rancho Palos Verdes, taking care of his kids and living off the fact that he wrote a few of the greatest songs of the 1970s. I think if you wrote “Lean On Me,” you’re not sweating it. You know what I mean. If you have the publishing to that song, you’re all right. 

We had never even been able to find a way to get in touch with him. Then this movie came out, Soul Power, which was a documentary about the concerts surrounding The Rumble In The Jungle [the legendary fight between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman].

AVC: It was sort of a companion film to When We Were Kings.

JT: Exactly, and an amazing, wonderful film. And I got a press release for it saying there was a press day featuring the director [Jeff Levy-Hinte] and an artist from the film, Bill Withers. And I thought, “What? What are you talking about?” And it was from a publicist that I had worked with before. Film publicists often, especially then, just didn’t have the time of day for us. But this was a very small film. And the publicist represented very small films. So I called her and I said, “Are you really having Bill Withers there?” And she said, “Yeah, why?” She didn’t know that it was a big deal. And I didn’t want to lose the opportunity, so I didn’t want to tell her it was a big deal. So we booked this interview.

AVC: You didn’t want to let her know exactly what she had.

JT: Exactly. When I went in there—we did the interview at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills—we had to wait for him to be interviewed by Pasadena magazine. [Laughs.] And no offense to Pasadena magazine, but this was basically his first public comments since he retired from music in the early ’80s and it was for Pasadena magazine. We got an hour with him, and I was just terrified. Now that Curtis Mayfield is dead, there’s no musical artist alive whose music has meant more to me than Bill Withers, emotionally. I only book people on the show whose work I like and admire. I’ve also been doing this show for 12 or 13 years, and it’s rare for me to come upon a situation where I’m intimidated by the person I am interviewing. But this was such a case, because Bill Withers was so personally important to me. And he lived up to his billing in every way. I mean, you heard it, and that’s a slightly edited version. He’s a brilliant artist and a guy who quit the music industry because he felt he was being exploited. He simply left it behind, which is a pretty remarkable thing. 

Since he quit, he wrote a song for his friend George Benson in the late ’90s, and I think he wrote a song for Jimmy Buffett at some point. But he really has stayed quit. He’s a guy who was already an adult when he started his music career. He was 30-ish when he got his first record deal. He had already been in the Navy, and he was someone who grew up when racism, especially in the entertainment industry, wasn’t something you had to look for. It was something punching you in the gut. In the interview was a man who was sensitive to all of those things. It was still very vivid for him. 

He really put me through my paces. I would say something like he was standoffish or ornery, but all of those adjectives imply a sort of unreasonable-ness. The fact is that Bill Withers had been through horrible experiences in the music industry, had quit, and didn’t need me. [Laughs.] He was really just doing a favor for this movie, and he tested me. Pretty hard. It was scary and difficult for me, but I think I passed. Bill Withers’ music is as important to me as any other in the world. So when I sat down with him and it was clear that he was going to push me, I was afraid. But I was very happy that I was able to stand up and essentially earn his respect. I never ever do this—in fact this is the only time in my whole career that I did this—but I brought an album for him to sign. I thought, “I’ll just keep it in my bag and if it doesn’t feel right, I just won’t do it. But at the end of it I thought, “You know what? I think I can ask for this.” So I said, “Mr. Withers, I hope you’ll understand that I’m sincere when I say that your music has been really important to me in my life. I brought an album and I wonder if you can sign it.” I’m looking at it right now, it’s on my wall here. He signed it, “Jesse, thank you for your time and thanks for listening.” I have tears in the corner of my eyes right now. It was an amazing experience.

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AVC: I think people are intrigued when someone walks away from enormous professional success because doing so goes against the grain of what our society is about. 

JT: The thing about Bill Withers is that when he entered the music industry at the beginning of the 1970s, he was a 30-year-old man. He worked in the factory when he recorded his first album. He went through this period of time when, especially for a black man, the music industry was set up to take as much out of you as it could and give as little back as possible. The thing about his music is, it takes the power of soul music and brings it to a personal place that soul music had very rarely been before, at least outside of fucking. It takes all of the power of Aretha Franklin singing about God, and puts it in the context of a father holding a child. That is just the person that he is. Even now, or at least, a few years ago, this is a man who is as big as I am, and I’m a big person, and is as self-possessed as anyone I have ever met. I think at some point he made what must have been a very painful decision, which was to say, my life is going to be my life. I don’t remember if he used these words, but I think he might have: He wasn’t going to be anybody’s monkey.

The entertainment industry was about meeting other people’s goals, and he wanted to live his life and give his children a good life and be a human being. You can actually see it in Soul Power. You can see the difference between Bill Withers and the people on that tour that he was hanging out with. I mean, obviously, he had tremendous interest in, and respect for, people like James Brown and Muhammad Ali, but I remember there’s a scene in the movie, and they are sitting at a cafeteria table in Africa and James Brown is there. There’s a couple of The Spinners there, Muhammad Ali is sitting there, and Bill Withers is sitting there. And Bill Withers is quietly eating his lunch while Muhammad Ali sits next to him being Muhammad Ali. [Laughs.] You can just see that’s not who Bill Withers is. Then he goes out and he sings, I think it’s “Wouldn’t She Be Happier,” and it’s absolutely heart-rending. It’s pretty amazing.

Bullseye: Bob Newhart And The Directors Of Mister Rogers And Me (August 13, 2012)
JT: That was one of the episodes where I was scared because I didn’t know what it would be. And it was one that we did out of the studio. Usually people come to the studio. For most of the years of the show, that has meant my house. But in this case, we agreed to go to Bob Newhart’s office in Bel Air. In his house. [Laughs.] He lives in a house that is exactly the house you would imagine Bob Newhart lives in. It’s like a Hollywood Tudor, a Tudor ranch house in Bel Air. We went in and met his personal secretary/assistant. She sort of sat us down in his office, which is like your grandpa’s office, you know, in his den? Except that it’s like your grandpa’s office if he had a picture of himself with every president on the wall. There was a picture of Bob Newhart on a Friar’s Club golf outing in maybe the early ’70s, and it is literally every famous comedian in the world from the early ’70s, all hanging out in ridiculous early-’70s Caddyshack-style golf clothes. [Laughs.] Red Skelton is making a funny face. 

That was one of those interviews where Bob Newhart was every bit the man I had hoped he would be. I’m sure that there’s a dark side to him. You would probably have to ask his best friend, Don Rickles. But he was as warm and kind and hilarious and generous as you could ever hope someone would be, and it was exactly a reflection of the performer you see onstage. He wanted to talk to be about Bob [Elliott] and Ray [Goulding], and it was just everything you could have hoped. My producers, Nick and Julia, and I left there and we were on cloud nine. We all wanted to give each other hugs and draft Bob Newhart into our families. I had that same experience the other day. We had Lily Tomlin in. That show I think it will come out in a week or two. It was exactly the same experience. Lily Tomlin was so vibrant and funny and pleasant and amazing. Newhart’s in his 80s now, and Lily Tomlin is 73 or something. To say she’s gorgeous and to say that she’s spry… We have a coin-operated rocket ship, like a children’s ride, in our office, and she got into and out of it, which I don’t think I can do. She did it easily by flipping her leg over the handlebars. She’s amazing. But it was just a wonderful, warm experience that just made me think, “Man, what a great job I have! I just hung out with Bob Newhart. He was nice to me.”

AVC: I think that comes through in the podcast, the joy you get in learning from the elders of comedy and entertainment. 

JT: I did sketch comedy for a long time, and Bob Newhart was always a hero of mine, not just for being a great stand-up, but for being the greatest straight man I’d ever seen. My favorite show as a teenager was NewsRadio, and I think Dave Foley very much follows in Bob Newhart’s footsteps. But there is something truly special about a straight man who gets laughs. And that’s what Bob Newhart did with all of his shows. I once had Andy Daly on the show, who I think is one of the funniest people in the world. And he was telling me when he was on MADtv, the only way to get on was to do a character who was crazier than the last. Apparently the MADtv studio audience was literally teenagers bussed in from local high schools. Andy Daly ended up being the straight man in every sketch. And in his second or third season, he said his greatest moment on the show was he got on this sketch that was a VH1 Behind The Music-style biography of the greatest straight man of all time, but no one had ever heard of him. [Laughs.] I think that there is something so amazing about that skill. It’s not showy. In fact, it’s definitionally the opposite of showy. And it is absolutely magical. It’s an amazing thing. 

You’re right, part of what The Sound Of Young America and now Bullseye are about is, at some point early on in the development of the show, I decided… frankly, it was after we did this interview with Screech from Saved By The Bell and Screech was such an asshole. We had him on the show because he was going to be in Santa Cruz; this was when we were still in college, and we thought, “We might as well have this guy on the show. We can talk to him about what was it actually like to be on Saved By The Bell.” And he was just an asshole, and he told street jokes about disabled people. And I thought, “You know what? Maybe I should use my time on the air, the hour a week, to learn more about things that are good.” I think sometimes people misinterpret me as being undiscerning because I’m generally very positive about the things that are on my show. But that’s because I'm very careful about what we have on the show. I think that the show is partly about a universe of things that I appreciate and recommend.

AVC: You were ahead of the curve in being a student of the craft of comedy, before the WTFs and the You Made It Weirds of the world.

JT: Now everyone is. I will certainly take credit for that. I don’t think I can take credit necessarily for precipitating the boom of it in the last four or five years, but I can take credit for anticipating it. When we were doing interviews with Matt Walsh and Matt Besser when the Upright Citizens Brigade television show was on and talking to them about what the Harold was, the legendary improv form. I literally knew of no other source for that. It turns out that Judd Apatow was also doing that on his high-school radio show 10 years earlier. But no one else was interviewing comedians about their work. If they were interviewing comedians, it was essentially a performance by the comedian. Then there was that series of stand-up-comedian interview CDs. There’s that one with Jerry Seinfeld, and one with George Carlin. I’ve never actually heard those. I’ve heard they’re a mixed bag. But I was vaguely aware those existed. At some point Naomi Odenkirk’s book about Mr. Show came out in 2005 or something.

AVC: Now it seems like a huge part of the entertainment industry is devoted to exploring the dysfunctional psyches of funny people.

JT: Jordan, our friend Gene, who co-hosted the show with us, and I had bootleg VHS tapes of Larry Sanders, Mr. Show, and Tenacious D. And a kid that lived down our hall had The State book and I used to visit aspecialthing.com, Matt Belknap’s website, just to find out what it was like to go to a show in Los Angeles that Paul F. Tompkins was on.

My wife went to college at Sarah Lawrence and I would fly out to visit her and we would go to the UCB. This was when it was in the obstructed view, 10-foot-wide, 75-foot-deep space that it was in originally. I remember seeing Seth Morris improvise. When I first met Seth Morris in L.A., I was like, “I saw you performing doing improvised movies in the UCB, the one that used to be a strip club.” He couldn’t believe that. And now it’s everywhere. Frankly, I think that’s wonderful. As someone who loves comedy, I really appreciate that it’s something that so many more people are considering worth their time. 

The only part of it that I’m not that into is, I feel like there’s still a pervasive sad-clown myth, which, granted, Marc Maron, who is my friend and colleague, he’s a little bit of a sad clown. [Laughs.] However, the one thing that I’m very proud of about my show is that my show is about people’s work. I think it’s still tough, even for people who are willing to listen to Robin Williams talk about his depression, there are still less people who want to hear Louis C.K. talk about his work than might want to hear Philip Roth talk about his work, or whoever else.

AVC: It seems like comedy is being taken more seriously as an art form now than at any point in time. 

JT: Actually, there’s a lot of cool stuff happening. I just watched a Birthday Boy sketch on the web, and they’ve got a show coming out on IFC where Bob Odenkirk is the executive producer. I think they, and a lot of folks who are around my age, are so silly. I think right now the cutting edge of alternative comedy is still what you might call the Mr. Show generation.

AVC: Do you think of Mr. Show like The Sex Pistols of comedy, in that not that many people were into them but the ones that were, were all inspired by them?

JT: Absolutely. I think that the people who are 30ish and below are as inspired by people like Pee-wee Herman. There is a generation of comedy, especially in the sketch world, that is less punk-rock and more silly and absurd. A little bit more Python-y and a little more Simpson-y, and that is really a fun breath of fresh air, not that I have beef with the other kind. The sketch that I watched on The Birthday Boys was called “Ham Hat,” and basically the premise of the sketch is a guy says, “I’m right, or else you’ll have to eat your hat.” And the other guy says, “Well, that’s okay,” and it turns out his hat is made of ham. [Laughs.] And then there’s a five-minute party sequence, a behind-the scenes “we nailed it” sequence for that one-joke sketch. That’s so silly. I don’t know how you could ever take that seriously.

AVC: Todd Glass embodies that unapologetic silliness as a podcaster. He’s also a big fan of Mister Rogers, who dominates the later part of the episode. Could you talk about what Mister Rogers means to you? 

JT: I didn’t have cable as a kid. I grew up watching PBS. I was born in 1981, so I missed the Shining Time Station/Barney era of mind-numbing children’s programming. So I really grew up watching Sesame Street and Mister Rogers. And like anyone who grew up watching it, I have been watching Mister Rogers with my son, who is coming up on 2, and I think it’s amazing even to him. And he can barely follow what’s happening. But I got an email from the guy who directed this movie, Mister Rogers & Me. He said, “Hey, I’m a listener to your show, and I made this movie about Mister Rogers. I had met him as a kid. I made this documentary about his significance.” And I emailed him back and wrote, “Great, we’ll have you on the show.” Which basically never happens. We almost never respond to a cold call. I can’t even think of single other instance in which I booked someone without seeing the thing that we were talking about. Not that I didn’t watch it before we did the interview. 

One of the interesting things to me about it is, the guy who directed this movie, who I’ve come to know, is also the head of MTV News. That’s kind of an amazing thing. I don’t think the thing that’s amazing about it is that MTV News is some kind of unalloyed evil. MTV News does some real special stuff that nobody else in commercial media does. 

But really I wanted a chance to talk about Mister Rogers. When public media was created and when the corporation for public broadcasting was set up, when bits of the spectrum were reserved by Congress and the Johnson administration, the reason they did it was because they saw that the marketplace could provide certain things. But advertiser-supported media was not representing the fullness of what media were capable of. Obviously, news and information were part of that, and arts programming was part of that. All the things that public radio does now were a part of that, and children’s programming was part of that. One of the reasons that I have chosen to make my career in public media, even though my podcast network has no government support, it’s nevertheless listener-supported. It’s a for-profit entity, but it’s listener-supported, because frankly that is the place where I have found my personal values reflected. 

I think that you would be hard-pressed to find a broadcaster of any kind whose values are more consistent and beautiful than Mister Rogers’. That speech that he made before Congress was given when there was some question as to whether the Corporation For Public Broadcasting would be defunded is one of the most powerful arguments for media that is not a tool to sell things that I have ever seen in my life. It made me cry on air, and I had heard it before. I’m not one to trump up tears, it just so happens that two of these shows feature me crying, but I think it’s the only two times I’ve ever cried on air in my life. It was sincere, because Mister Rogers is a person who as much as anyone else as I have ever known about, dedicated his life to loving others and specifically to loving children. That is something that is not especially useful to someone who wants to sell toothpaste, but is essentially useful to human beings.

With the work I’ve done, I’ve never done anything for children and I am not half the man that Mr. Rogers was, but I have always made choices with the question in my head, which of these is a better choice? Not the one that is going to be the most successful or even reach the most people or make the most money or whatever. I don’t believe that that means you have to do documentaries about AIDS in Africa, though there are certainly wonderful people doing wonderful work in that area. Jordan, Jesse, Go! is mostly dick jokes, and Bullseye is interviews with comedians and rappers and stuff. But I think what we do is something that has values at the heart of it. Especially with Jordan, Jesse, Go! It can be hard to explain to people what the difference is between our show and, I don't know, something else that is vulgar, Opie And Anthony or something. I have no beef with them or [Howard] Stern or anyone else. Sometimes we’re pretty brutal, especially in our vulgarity, but we are very sincerely interested in being good people and making the world a better place. Even if we’re doing that thing where you make an okay sign with one hand and with the other hand, you make it a point, then you pretend it’s a penis going into a vagina. Even then. 

My father is a veteran and spent his life working in the peace movement. More recently he spent the last 15-20 years running an NGO that did development work in the third world, specifically focusing on the parts of the world that the aircraft carrier that he was on destroyed. My mom went to graduate school when she was in her 40s after barely graduating from college when she was in her 20s. And her parents didn’t speak to her the entire time she was going to college even though she was living in their house. She became a junior college professor because she was inspired by the experience of Rigoberta Menchú, the Guatemalan activist and indigenous leader. So it feels very important to me to reflect value in my work, even if my work is going to be making jokes or interviewing rappers.

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