Jesse Thorn is a busy guy. He hosts two wildly popular podcasts (one of which is syndicated nationally on public radio), runs his own podcasting network, maintains an incredibly successful men’s style blog, and curates a hip yearly summer camp for grownups. He’ll be stopping by Chicago with the live iterations of his two podcasts, The Sound Of Young America and Jordan, Jesse, Go! at The Second City Theater on Wednesday, April 13 and Sunday, April 17. The A.V. Club managed to secure a few minutes to talk to him, Random Roles-style, about the many balls he may have in the air at any given time.
The Sound Of Young America
Jesse Thorn: We [Thorn and cohost Jordan Morris] started The Sound Of Young America when I was a sophomore in college at U.C. Santa Cruz. I knew that to get onto the college radio station, we had to be providing some kind of content that wasn’t already available—that was the rule of the station. Our initial plan was to do a show that had elements of talk radio and elements of the pre-produced segments of This American Life, but then we realized how hard it was to do that, and how hard it was even just to talk for an hour.
We ended up interviewing people largely out of laziness. An interview could fill up half of our show, so if we booked two interviews, we didn’t have to think of topics to talk about. Everything that I’ve ever done in my career essentially stems out of that interest in avoiding work when I was nineteen. [Laughs.]
The A.V. Club: The Sound Of Young America podcast could be described as a loose collection of things that you find interesting. In a week, there could be comedy sketches, a discussion about new hip-hop, or straightforward interviews with an author. How do you think of the show as it stands today?
JT: I think at the heart of it is an arts and culture interview show, which is a pretty traditional format for public radio. We try and cover a breadth of culture and focus on things that are actually good. How famous someone is is a huge part of the equation in most interview shows, but it’s not really part of it for us. We try to pick out the best of culture and showcase it however we can.
The Sound Of Young America’s roots were, in part, as a comedy show. We want the show to feel fun. I don’t feel like boring should be part-and-parcel with intelligent or interesting. So we have comedy in the show, and the interviews are in-depth, but they’re also fun and funny. That’s what I really care about—I’m a guy who loves to hear about how people create their art, but I don’t think that necessarily has to be dry or dull.
Jordan, Jesse, Go!
JT: When I was still doing The Sound Of Young America with Jordan, he graduated from school and moved to Southern California to work in the entertainment industry. About four years ago, I moved down to L.A. to make it easier to do The Sound Of Young America. We realized we were back in the same place and could do a show together again.
We wanted to do a comedy show, getting back to those things we wanted to do when we first started The Sound Of Young America. We didn’t hate the idea of radio talk shows, we just hated the actual radio talk shows that were available for us to listen to. [Laughs.] I have no objection to people talking about their lives and popular culture, I would just like for those people not to be spectacularly dumb.
There’s this guy that reviews podcasts for our website named Colin Marshall, and he made up this acronym—TTWGBAC—that’s short for Two Twenty/Thirtysomething White Guys/Girls Bullshitting About Culture, which he sees as the dominant podcast form. I think that we try and be a little bit different from that.
This show is about our lives and things you go through in life, more than it is about what movies came out this week. I think that while we are very vulgar and profane, we try not to be, in the parlance of our times, snarky. I think it’s so tired, the world just doesn’t need it any more. Where others try and be snarky, we try to be ridiculous.
AVC: I think that…
JT: We also talk about our dicks a lot. That’s the main thing that happens on the show.
AVC: That’s what is so interesting about the difference between The Sound Of Young America and Jordan, Jesse, Go!. The Sound Of Young America is formal while still being fun, while Jordan, Jesse, Go! is more unhinged and loose. They’re different enough while remaining two sides of the same coin.
JT: There’s a format for public radio that is very specific. I think it’s wonderful, and I’m excited that I get to do it on The Sound Of Young America. There’s other stuff that is just as real and actual that you can’t talk about on the radio. We’ve thought about trying to put together Jordan, Jesse, Go! specials for public radio, but I think it would be nearly impossible for us to edit a clean version of the show.
It’s not because we’re Andrew Dice Clay, either. I don’t think our show is offensive at all, it’s just the way people interact with each other… Or at least, the way Jordan and I actually interact with each other.
Put This On
JT: Clothes and style are subjects that I’ve always been interested in, and I’ve always thought it’d be cool to do a show about them. But my expertise is in audio production, and I didn’t think that I would ever be able to produce something that would look good enough to support the aesthetic part of style.
I met Adam Lisagor through Jordan, Jesse, Go!. He’s one of the podcasters behind this really brilliant comedy podcast called You Look Nice Today. His job at the time was as a commercial editor and effects guy. He and I became friends hanging out at the dog park, and soon after, he quit his job to start doing independent stuff. I had seen his work, and it was so beautiful and funny, a very rare combination. Even though he wasn’t necessarily personally invested in the style world, he would be the perfect person to make this with me. That’s where Put This On started, as a video series.
In order to support the video series, we thought we should have a blog so we’d have some audience before we launched our first video. The videos were very successful, and the blog was even more successful, which was unexpected. At this point, the blog does a lot of traffic, somewhere between a quarter and half a million hits a month. I think we really struck a nerve. We were trying to make something good, but I don’t think we expected this kind of response.
Our goal was to make something that was about style that would be of interest to people who already care about style, but wouldn’t alienate people who didn’t. We wanted to focus on things that men like, without that “this is for guys’ guys” attitude that a lot of fashion magazines have.
There’s a false dichotomy in fashion, sort of like the premise behind Queer Eye For The Straight Guy, which is that there’s two choices: being effeminate or being a total disgusting slob. There are actually people who are neither of those things, and that’s who we made Put This On for.
AVC: It seems like you’re pretty good at finding and fulfilling needs in web culture.
JT: I describe myself as a backwards entrepreneur. A successful businessman is defined by seeing a need in the marketplace and then filling that need. My business model has always been thinking about what I’d want to spend my time doing and then frantically making plans to support myself by doing that thing. [Laughs.]
I certainly saw what was missing from the men’s style media landscape, but then I also just wanted to do a show about outfits, because I’m into outfits. So, my business acumen is both acute and incredibly foolish.
Prank The Dean
JT: When we were doing The Sound Of Young America at the very end of our college days, we invited this sketch comedy group called Kasper Hauser onto the show. They’re based in San Francisco; we’d gone to see them there and were totally blown away. In between segments of the interview we did with them, we played some bits we’d made for The Sound Of Young America, like fake commercials and PSAs. They enjoyed them and asked if we did sketch comedy, and Jordan said yes. We didn’t, at the time. The Kasper Hauser guys said they could get us some gigs in San Francisco, and we said, “Great, we’ll bring our sketch comedy group that we definitely have!”
So we set out to create a sketch comedy group to perform at these gigs that they were going to get us. We asked our friends Jim Real and Lauren Pasternak to join us, wrote a bunch of material, and did a show in San Francisco, and it went well. We ended up doing festivals all over the country for three years until eventually Jordan and Lauren’s work schedules precluded us from planning any performances, and that was the end of that.
There’s this group of sketch comedy groups like Kasper Hauser, Elephant Larry out of New York, and Derrick Comedy here in L.A. who perform at these sketch festivals and make viral videos; it’s a really wonderful community to be a part of. For both me and Jordan, especially, when we were doing these festivals with the best sketch comedy groups in the country and we were holding our own, we realized we can make something and have it be a success.
JT: I always felt like The Sound Of Young America was about the intersection between fun, humor, thinking, and caring about things. I knew that show wasn’t the only way that I could express that spirit. I was thinking about the way that we could bring that thing that The Sound Of Young America was about into the real world. I thought it’d be great if there was a place that people could go to revel in this community that we had, so we created MaxFunCon.
Essentially, it’s a weekend at this mountain resort here in California where we have big blowout shows at night, and during the day, we have seminars and classes. It was a big risk for us; it cost a lot of money to put on, but it turned out to be this orgy of friendship. People were so happy and so kind.
We had these wonderful performers, just so many brilliant comics—Maria Bamford, Marc Maron, all of my favorite comedians have agreed to perform at this. We’ve also had these amazing speakers, like Jad Abumrad from Radiolab and Andrew WK, a personal hero of mine.
You’d think that when you’re bringing all these awesome people here, that it’s about those awesome performers, the way that Coachella is about the lineup, but what it’s really about is that it’s this place for people that believe in this thing that I also believe in to get together and get to know each other. That’s a really amazing thing.
JT: I’m on the board of the Jhai Foundation. My dad is a veteran of the Navy; he served early in the Vietnam war, and when he came back from the war, he was deeply engaged in the peace movement and the veteran’s movement.
When I was about fourteen, he decided to go to Vietnam and Laos, specifically to the places where the aircraft carrier that he had worked on had bombed. When he went, he worked to incorporate what he knew about community organizing from the peace movement into international NGO work.
The Jhai Foundation is based on the idea that you can create sustainable development if you’re serving as an expert who can help drive the efforts of the communities that you’re serving. It started out with internet centers in rural places in Laos. It’s important having communications; when you’re a subsistence farmer, [communication] means that you can get more money for your crops from the middlemen who are buying commodities.
That has grown into something that has enriched the lives of workers all over the world. The latest projects have been everywhere from rural India to Navajo reservations here in the U.S., with these communication systems that allow people to talk to expatriate family members, as well as other small business owners.
The Sound Of Young America/Jordan, Jesse, Go! live at Second City
JT: What we’re bringing to Chicago is our road show. We’re doing two shows: I’m doing The Sound Of Young America with Peter Sagal from Wait Wait… Don’t Tell Me!—he’s one of my favorite Chicagoans.
We’ve also got this guy, Colt Cabana, who e-mailed me out of the blue about the Chicago show. He said, “I’m an improviser, stand-up comedian, and also a professional wrestler.” He’s the champion of… I think it’s called the WCW? He’s the champion of something. How could I not book the world’s only comedian/professional wrestler on The Sound Of Young America?
A few days later, we’re doing Jordan, Jesse, Go!, which is just crazy nonsense onstage. The show we’ll be doing is with My Brother, My Brother, And Me, a brand new Maximum Fun show. They’re these three brothers from all over the country who give people advice. Sometimes it’s good advice, and sometimes it’s bad advice, but it’s almost always funny advice. It’s their first-ever live show, and it’s the first time they’ve ever done the show with the three of them all in the same place.
It’s these two big, blowout, extravaganza shows that we’re trying to do on the cheap. It’s only 12 bucks a ticket, so I don’t really think there’s any excuse for people not to go—that’s what I say. [Laughs.] Unless Grandma’s in the hospital. Actually, just bring her, we’ll string up the IV bags.