Interview with Jesse Thorn

Jesse Thorn is a business owner, fashion blogger, radio host, and podcast Bailiff laying down fake internet justice. Thorn began his career as a broadcaster on UC Santa Cruz’s college radio station, KZSC. On KZSC Thorn hosted “Sound of Young America” with his friend Jordan Morris. “Sound of Young America” eventually morphed into “Bullseye with Jesse Thorn” which is distributed by National Public Radio. On “Bullseye,” Thorn has had the opportunity to interview some of the greatest creative minds pop culture has had to offer including: Lin-Manuel Miranda, John Waters, and Chris Rock. 

On top of hosting, Thorn is also the founder and owner of MaximumFun.org, one of the first ever podcasting networks. Alongside Jesse’s own projects, “Bullseye” and “Jordan, Jesse, Go,” MaxFun also produces shows such as “The Adventure Zone,” “Heat Rocks,” and “One Bad Mother.”  

Thorn currently resides in Los Angeles with his wife, the equally talented author and host Theresa Thorn, and family. He was kind enough to conduct an interview with KCR via email, the transcript of which can be found below:  

You grew up in San Francisco and have lived much of your professional life in Los Angeles. How do you think these two places have shaped your creative process? Growing up who were the people you took inspiration from? 

I heard the director Marielle Heller the other day explaining why growing up in the Bay was important to her. To boil it down: she always felt like the expectation was that she would be different. Not just that difference would be tolerated, but expected. I feel really strongly that growing up in San Francisco made me feel like I had full permission to do something interesting, and in fact if I failed to do so, it would be a disappointment.
Los Angeles, well… that’s where the entertainment industry is. It’s wild to think that I could be out to dinner with four different comedy geniuses every week. Of course, like most Angelenos, I don’t ever leave the house.
As far as people I took inspiration from – my parents, obviously. Both of them went to graduate school when I was a kid, neither of them had any problem with doing important work even if it meant not making much money. Both are totally brilliant geniuses who transcended abusive homes.  

You began your broadcasting career while attending the University of California, Santa Cruz. Can you tell me what your experience at KZSC was like and what compelled you to join? What skills did you learn in college broadcasting that you took with you into your professional career?

KZSC was and still is an incredible place. It’s a real radio station – with a pretty big transmitter that covers a lot of people. So if you do a good job, there are actually people listening. It’s also deeply dedicated to diversity of all kinds. There were four or five different types of reggae shows. I didn’t get a lot of training there, but they really let us do whatever we wanted, and that was a real thrill. 

Jordan Morris has been your collaborator since you were both at UCSC. How has your creative partnership evolved over the years and what do you believe is the secret to the chemistry between you and Morris?

Jordan is a genius. I mean, he is a real genius. He’s the funniest guy I’ve ever known, and I’ve known a lot of really funny people. He’s also a very committed good dude. In a lot of ways, he and I are very different, but I think what’s held us together is that we are the kinds of guys who show up and take care of business. So I know I can rely on him being there and doing his best and vice-versa. We’re also both profoundly conflict avoidant in very different but oddly complimentary ways. That helps, too. 

I know you taught a radio course at UCSC for awhile. What were some of the skills that you tried to impart to your students?

The journalism program was being shut down, and there was no radio or broadcasting program, so it was really the most basic basics. Ones I’d essentially taught myself. I used the This American Life comic book as a text, and just taught people how to gather tape, the basics of writing for radio, and got them on air every week. I was only a few months ahead of them in my own radio experience, so we just did what we could. 

You’ve interviewed some of the greatest minds of pop culture through your show, Bullseye. Which guest has impressed you the most and why?

There’s a thousand ways I could answer this, but I’ll go with recently: Rosie Perez. I didn’t know her life story until I booked her on the show – I just loved her work. She grew up in a group home and an orphanage and went through incredible challenges as a child. But she’s so irrepressibly brilliant you can’t imagine she’d be anything other than a great artist. Her passion is so deep and clear.

What was the original vision behind Maximum Fun? Was it difficult making the transition from radio personality to owner of a company?  

The original vision was “Jesse doesn’t get another secretary job when he moves to Los Angeles.” Advertising was a zero at the time in podcasting, so I thought I’d build it like a public radio station or a non-profit. Every day it is immensely hard for me. Running a business isn’t necessarily my personality type. But I do what I can because I actually do believe in it.  

Why did you make the decision to make MaxFun listener supported rather than relying exclusively on advertising revenue?

As I mentioned, in 2007 there was almost no ad money in podcasting. Besides that, I didn’t want to be making phone calls trying to sell ads.  So if I was going to do it for a living, I had to find another way. My dad worked in non-profits and organizing his whole life, and my roots were in community and public radio, so member-supported always made sense to me. 

You have another life as a men’s fashion blogger on your site, putthison.com. What is the source of your passion for menswear and what can the average college student do improve their wardrobe? 

It’s always been something I’ve loved. When the internet hit, it was something I could share with other people, both as a learner and a teacher. It started as a video project, and the blog took off immediately, so I kept it up.
As far as what a college student can do – I’d say simplify. Don’t get involved in the churn of fast fashion. Buy simple stuff – good jeans, good chinos, good t-shirts, some good oxford shirts – that fits you. And build the rest very slowly over time. 

 What are you currently watching, reading, and listening to? 

I just started watching The Mandalorian. It’s a blast. I’ve been watching Fleabag, which is amazing. I’m really excited about the return of Joe Pera Talks to You, which is a really special show. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of 70s New York salsa music – Fania Records stuff. And classic country music, I really love George Jones and I just got to interview Tanya Tucker. I’m reading the comic book Black Hammer, and The Power Broker when I’m feeling more serious.   

What advice do you have for young people interested in new media?

Make something, take a look at it, think about how it could be better, go again. 

You’re a proponent of something called “New Sincerity.” Can you explain what that is and how it relates to the world we presently live in?

It was a sort of philosophy made up as a goof when I was in college. Named by a friend who was frustrated she could never tell if I was joking. The basic principle is a rejection of irony as a lifestyle that still allows for an embrace of the grand and ridiculous. Dolly Parton is a great example.
Obama was Old Sincerity. Trump might be New Sincerity, though I can’t say he was what I was thinking of when I made it up. 

You’re the co-host (or should I say, Bailiff) on Judge John Hodgman. How did your relationship with Hodgman begin, who first had the idea to lay down “internet justice,” and what is your favorite case thus far?

I interviewed Hodgman about his first book, before he was on TV, and we hit it off. I just thought he’d be some McSweeney’s guy (which would have been fine), but he really blew me away. And he liked me! Then he got famous, somewhat unexpectedly, but we maintained our relationship.
When I started doing Jordan Jesse Go years ago, we had Hodgman come on for fake court segments about real stuff. I think the first might have been about whether chili was a soup (it’s a stew). It was his idea to turn it into a stand-alone show. He’s the main creative force behind it, I’m sort of like an executive producer, and Jennifer Marmor runs it on a day-to-day basis.
I think a lot about the Bat Brothers, two guys in Kansas who bought a house to save money (which is a thing in Kansas, I guess). The bathroom had a hole in the wall, and bats were getting in. One brother wanted to patch the hole. The other brother thought that was too expensive, and wanted to put a phone book by the toilet so you could smash the bats if they bothered you. It was wild. 

What has been your favorite fan interaction while touring? 

I really like meeting kids. These sweet little precocious dorkwads who are sometimes kind of shaking and they stick their hand out to meet you, it’s amazing. My own kids have mixed feelings about me ;).

You have pursued a creatively rewarding, yet unorthodox career while also raising a family. How do you balance those two things while being true to yourself?

It’s really hard. I have an amazing partner, my wife Theresa. We’ve been together for more than 20 years, over half our lives. That helps. But every day it’s really hard. You just kind of muddle through. 

Thank you once again to Jesse Thorn for his time and generosity. Be sure to visit MaximumFun.org and listen to Judge John Hodgman, Jordan, Jesse, Go and of course, Bullseye with Jesse Thorn.

Dreams From The Stars: Cult of Personality

In this edition, Ahmad Dixon witnesses the origins of a cult revolving around his friend. This isn’t a dream. It’s an absolute nightmare!

My friend Sam is a peculiar person. We became friends about a year ago, right before college, and since then we’ve become relatively close. However, things between us have become pretty strained because of an incident that happened recently. We were walking around Kensington when I noticed a team of bald men in robes trailing behind us. At first I tried to ignore them, initially writing them off as local town color, but then I noticed that they had Sam’s dumb face embroidered on their chest. “Hey Sam, what’s up with those guys?” I asked before we turned a corner.

“Oh them?” he said unenthusiastically, “They’re just my cult.”

Out of all my friends I would have thought Sam would be the least likely to form a cult of personality. Once while working at coffee bean he was almost kidnapped and sold into slavery by pirates because he messed up an order. Although in hindsight it was kind of obvious. We visited a fortune teller once and she said that Sam was the reincarnation of Charlemagne, Ramses II, and a Manager of a Fort Lauderdale Best Buy. She told me that I was going to get crushed by an elephant. I usually don’t put much stock in fortune telling, past lives, and the like, but I was indeed crushed by an elephant a week later, which lead me to believe that that particular fortune teller was on the up and up.

Footage of Me Being Crushed

Since that day in Kensington, I never saw Sam unless his cult was somewhere near by. It began with three, middle aged, bald men, but then it grew and they added four, young, bald women. Then it was 15 bald men, women, and children. And finally it escalated to a crowd of around 35 people following around my friend during his day to day activities. They’d throw flower petals in the space directly in front of his feet, they’d venerate his trash as sacred artifacts (ever see an apple core in a gold plated box?), and I think one of them learned how to play lute in order to write songs in his honor. The songs were mostly just popular tunes with the word “baby” taken out and replaced with the name Sam.

Sam seemed utterly disinterested in this development in his life. I asked him how he felt about being a living god and he just shrugged and said, “them’s the brakes.” After he said that the cult would sometimes chant “them’s the brakes” for hours on end in a hypnotic meditation.

I tried not to talk to members of the cult due to the fact they all gave me the heeby jeebies but curiosity got the better of me and I asked one of them what they saw in Sam as a spiritual leader. They said, “The Sam is the bringer of happiness and salvation, without The Sam there would be no sunrise, no morning dew on the flowers, no order to the universe. The Sam is a being of infinite compassion and infinite wisdom.” I looked over to Sam to see that he was on the verge of tears due to being unable to open a jar of peanut butter. He pulled out his pocket knife and somehow cut himself flipping it open. Cult members almost trampled each other trying to catch his blood as it dripped from his finger. I heard later that this event is one of the more important parables in the Book of Sam.

I went over to Sam’s house in City Heights to return some books and things had obviously changed since the last time I was there. Outside the walls were covered in murals depicting Sam slaying dragons and the cosmos being born out of his mind. I like to believe reality existed before Sam was born but I have no proof to the contrary so I felt it was not my place to argue. Inside there were masses of people, of various nationalities, on their knees chanting and praying. Some were in tears because of their proximity to the so called creator of the universe. Sam was in his pajamas playing his Nintendo Switch.

I went up to my friend and asked how long he thought this could possibly continue. He said when he got tired of all the positive attention he was getting and when they stopped giving him fruit offerings on command. I said “you know you’re not actually a god right.” I regretted this outburst almost immediately because everyone in the house stopped chanting and looked at me. A hundred hands reached out to grab me and before I could realize what was happening I was in a cage. Sam continued to play Zelda as this was happening. I yelled at Sam to let me out but he again said, “them’s the brakes” and went about his day.

I’m not the type of person who likes to be confined for extended periods of time. Especially when I’m in spaces that aren’t big enough for me to sit down in. I survived on nothing but the stale bread and dirty water I was given twice a day. What felt like months passed and I began to have strange visions. Dancing colors of light, geometric shapes, vibrating amorphous blobs. My beard grew down to my chest. I was losing my mind.

One day Sam came to the front of the cage, drinking a cup of coffee. I didn’t respond because I thought it was another hallucination. He said I could come out, and I just looked straight ahead. He then opened the cage and I collapsed. “You know the door wasn’t locked right?” I would have been enraged if I wasn’t exhausted. “I don’t know why you decided to stand in there for three hours, you look awful.” He said between sips of coffee. I didn’t speak. “Oh and you don’t have to worry about that cult anymore, we were out on a hike and they saw an interesting rock. They decided to worship that instead.”

My relationship with Sam became pretty strained after I broke a chair over his head.          

Dreams From The Stars: They Are Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!! Ahhhh!

In this edition, Ahmad Dixon walks us through his Halloween influenced dream of fatherhood and success.

I hate money and respect from my elders, so I’ve always been more of a humanities person than a STEM person. Unfortunately, due to California State University General Education requirements, I’ve had to take a handful of science classes here and there if I want to graduate. This eventually lead me to a class called “BIOL. 436. Human Reanimation.” Truth be told, I mostly signed up for the course because I thought it was an art class; however, it was radically different than anything I could have predicted.

The class was being held on the first floor of the Physics building and the first thing I noticed when I got there was the faint presence of electricity in the air which made my arm hair stand up. The last time something like that had happened to me was when I was struck by lightning after someone had left their Tesla Coil on indoors; so as you might imagine I have been pretty cautious from that point on. After scanning the room, nothing abnormal seemed to  stick out to me, so I took my seat next to a woman playing Clash of Clans on her iPhone. The hair on her head was also starting to stand up.

The professor for the class was a grad student named Frank. Frank was a rather tall, thin man, with sunken in eyes and white hair that seemed extremely premature for someone his age. He was an all round good teacher. His quizzes were easy, he’d keep consistent office hours, and he was understanding if you needed to miss class for whatever reason. The only negative thing I can think of was that in the middle of lecture he would sometimes start crying and saying how this class was an abomination and that we were playing God. Once when he was explaining how to reattach nerve endings in decaying tissue, he suddenly stopped talking and screamed something incomprehensible, and then jumped out the window. I was glad to get out of class early that day; the farmers market had a french toast stand that I was meaning to try. I always wondered why Frank chose his line of work, though I never asked because I didn’t feel like hearing an hour long, existential speech about mortality and morality.

A week after that episode of defenestration, Frank told us to go gather corpses for our final project. I was going to object to a request as heinous as that but then I realized that the syllabus did say that at some point I would have to do some heavy duty grave robbing and if I had a problem with it I should have said something at the beginning of the semester rather than at the end.

So the rest of the class and I got to work finding human remains. This project was pretty tricky because I had to find one of every human organ, muscle, and tooth. The first place I searched was my local cemetery. I got a usable pair of arms but after getting covered in dirt and having three or four splinters thrust into me by the shovel I was using I realized the bodies there were a bit too decomposed for my needs. Plus a grieving widow threw a vase at my head while I was trying to harvest her husband. Some people can be so rude and overprotective of their belongings. I did find a fellow who was buried alive though. He was so grateful he told me I could have one of his kidneys and a chunk of his liver for my assignment.

Next I hit up Alvarado Hospital for more fresh produce. The funny thing about San Diego hospitals, and hospitals in general, is that as long as you wear a lab coat and stare down at a clipboard, no one will question why you’re wandering the halls restricted to staff and patients. I  dropped into the morgue and started putting some stuff in my cooler. At one point a security guard asked what I was doing and I just said, “official hospital business.” That explanation was good enough for him, leaving me free to claw out a pair of pale blue eyes with an ice cream scoop.

That trip to the morgue was pretty productive but I lacked one more item, a human heart. After scouring the city for an afternoon I decided I was just going to ask the shady butcher shop down the street from my house if they had one. After waiting ten minutes my number was called and the man behind the counter said he sold the last human heart to a woman playing Clash of Clans. I asked if he had anything similar and he dropped a chimpanzee heart into into my arms. I think the deli was closed by the health inspector a little while after I got there.           

I spent about four hours stitching together a meat puppet Sunday night. The small intestine proved to be unruly but I eventually got it to fit in the abdomen. The next monday the class had to present their hard work. Frank came out to look over the crimes against nature we had all created and had a look on his face that said he regretted all of his life decisions up to that point. He turned to look at me and muttered, “Welp, let’s see if you followed instructions.” He plugged in a little machine in the corner, put it on the chest of my homemade cadaver and flipped a little switch that sent an inconceivable amount of electricity through it. It was at that moment my meat puppet became a person, and that person became my daughter. I never thought I’d become a parent so early in life, or that my child would be the product of lab I had to take in college, but gosh darn am I proud of my pumpkin. She may not be the prettiest girl in kindergarten but she’s got character. The other kids bully her about her green skin and the fact I accidentally sewed her left ear a bit lower than her right but she’s a tough little zombie so not much gets to her. So that’s the story of how I passed BIOL. 436 and how I became the world’s greatest Dad to Mary, the undead little girl. I’m signing her up for ballet next week — hopefully those stitches survive all that bending! The Chimp heart is good for endurance though.        

Dreams From The Stars: Apocalypse How

In this series, we expose the dreams written by our wonderful KCR members. Today, Ahmad Dixon takes us through his post-apocalyptic nightmare.

 

I remember waking up last Wednesday and everything felt just a bit off. I really can’t properly describe what I felt but it was a more… crispy version of the normal existential dread you feel on a weekday. I initially blamed the spicy food I ate the previous night and went through my normal routine. I made myself a bowl of oatmeal, poured some orange juice, and switched on the local news. I thought it was peculiar that the anchors were either throwing up, crying, or both but I continued to watch because I wanted to catch the weather report to see if I needed a jacket. After one of the anchors pulled themselves together I learned that while I was asleep World War Three had apparently declared and the United States was fighting a brutal battle against all its enemies from all sides.

I can’t say that I was surprised by this new development but as a bleeding heart liberal I was pretty disappointed that my country was fighting another pointless war to preserve freedom or something. I tried to figure out what the war was about but at that point the newscasters were mumbling incoherently before cutting to commercial. I think the war was either about oil, Russian aggression in Ukraine, the South China Sea, Syria, a used car tent sale, or Eggo Homestyle Waffles. I was really hoping that it was about waffles, because that’s a cause I’ve always been willing to fight and die for.

I flicked off the television and contemplated my next move. I did the first rational thing that came to mind and checked my email. Apparently class hadn’t be cancelled due to Armageddon, and I needed the participation points, so I decided to go to school. I grabbed a coat out the closet (the forecast called for nuclear winter), put on my trusty gas mask, and got into the car.

My commute was fairly quick; on the freeway everyone was going the other way to try and get out of the city, but I kept having the swerve to avoid landmines. I accidentally hit one but thankfully it was a dud. That’s Russian manufacturing for you, or maybe we were fighting the Chinese? North Koreans? Honestly we could have been fighting the British for all I know, I wasn’t really paying attention. While in the car I was listening to NPR and it appeared that the Washington D.C. office had been taken over by a group of far-left communists, either that or they were just playing their normal morning programming. Again, not really paying attention.

When I finally did get to school the entire parking structure was empty, so the day wasn’t a total loss. I had parked up front on the first floor of parking structure three when suddenly, a sniper shot out both my front tires. I was fairly offended by this because it was obvious that they weren’t trying to kill me, just annoy me. As I walked away they shot out one of my headlights, jerk.

As I made my way through campus, I looked around and took stock of my environment. Graffiti was everywhere (“the end is nigh,” “God have mercy on our souls,” “help!”), there weren’t many students around but the few that were seemed to be in the midst of a severe mental breakdown, many of the windows were broken, and there was trash everywhere. So really a normal day at San Diego State University, I felt kinda silly wearing my gas mask.

Picture from: The Union Tribune

Over at East Commons the only people in the lecture hall were me and my Professor, who was banging her head against the whiteboard and didn’t notice me come in. I watched her do this for a good fifteen minutes, I felt it was rude to interrupt. She eventually turned around and asked why I was there.

“I’m on the border between an A and a B. I need as many participation points as possible to maintain my GPA.” I said as I took out a pencil to take notes.

“Oh dear God! Who cares about grades it’s the end of the world!”

“Yeah well, try telling that to my parents. They were pretty cross when I didn’t get on the Dean’s list last semester.

“Listen, the only reason I’m here is because my house got shelled and I have literally no where else to go. I am not in the mood to give a lecture, especially when you’re the only person in the room.”

I snapped.

“You should have said something on Blackboard.”

“Okay, please leave…

If tomorrow ever comes I’ll give you and everyone else in the class an A. Just don’t come back.”

 

My professor turned around and started banging her head against the wall again. Mom and Dad will be so proud that I’m doing so well this semester.

After I went back outside, I noticed that the sky had turned a sickly orange and kinda looked like it was on fire. A couple of seconds later the sun disappeared and black rain began to fall, covering the concrete in a tar like substance. Usually, I try to catch rain on my tongue, but that seemed like a pretty awful idea today. I decided to skip the other class I had that day and started texting my friends to ask if any of them had access to a bomb shelter. I didn’t get any responses immediately so I found a nice spot to get away from the rain, sat down, and waited.

The rain eventually stopped, so I started to emerge from my nook when I noticed the fire had spread to our library. As I watched our library burn down, I began whistling the national anthem. Suddenly, I got a text telling me to head east to get to the community civil defense shelter. I mentally prepared myself to spend a long period of time underground and walked down the street totally alone.

Dreamed by: Ahmad Dixon