At Maximum Fun, Jesse Thorn has built the world’s most unassuming media empire. He’s best known for his style blog Put This On and his radio show Bullseye, which was picked up by NPR earlier this month. But behind the scenes he’s founded a bicoastal festival of whimsy called MaxFunCon and taken over distribution for nine other podcasts (including, full disclosure, one with Polygon’s Justin & Griffin McElroy). We caught up with Thorn to talk about bossa nova and trying to promote a better world.
"I have a smartphone and everything, but I don't feel like it runs my life."
Where are you right now and what are you doing?
I'm at Maximum Fun World Headquarters in Los Angeles, and right before I picked up the phone I was reading an article in the Atlantic about the teen zombie movie that just came out.
Do you ever feel the need to disconnect or unplug?
I mostly live like a human being. I do spend a lot of time on the internet, and I have a smartphone and everything, but I don't feel like it runs my life. The one place where I have had to be careful is going onto the internet before I go to bed. Because I'm tired and I'm not ready to deal with things and something will agitate me and I never come out of that feeling good or ready to go to sleep. Although the alternative I've pursued lately is reading a collection of George Saunders short stories and reading The Watchmen, which have both been far more upsetting than anything on the internet.
What's your favorite cultural item that you've seen recently?
I've been listening to a lot of bossa nova lately. João Gilberto has this album from the early 70s. It's essentially just him singing and playing guitar, although there is a little bit of percussion. And it is everything that's good about bossa nova, in my mind. I wrote about it for an outshot segment recently for Bullseye. It is completely rhythmically driven, and in bossa nova that’s about cool, so it's not like he's Michael Jackson and he's saying "shamon" between lines. It's just the way he holds back a syllable or pushes forward a syllable or the guitar comes in half a second after you thought it would. It's just amazing.
"People who are 'talent' in the entertainment industry are taught not to be responsible for themselves."
There's something about Maximum Fun and your other outlets that feels like it's from another time, sincere in a way that feels rare in today's media climate. Do you think of what you're doing as an old-fashioned thing?
I don't think of myself as old-fashioned, but I have made careful choices about the things that I pursue, in the interest of wanting my work to… for lack of a better way of putting it, promote a better world. We're not buying heifers for families in India or anything like that, but I want my work to be a force for the good rather than the ill.
Both of my parents… my mother is a community college professor and my father has worked in the peace movement for most of his life. And so I think the legacy of that is that I think it's more important to maximize the good you're doing in the world than it is to maximize your income. The internet is a wonderful platform for that but I don't think it is always used that way. I'm not doing anything pious, none of my shows are about politics, none of my work is about feeding the poor, but on the other hand, I have chosen for example on Bullseye to focus on highlighting great artists' work and craft, and bringing more great art into people's lives, whether that's João Gilberto or, you know, Archer on FX which I think is hilarious.
"I've been a thrift-store shopper since I can remember."
How did you get involved distributing other people’s podcasts?
Well, I think that most people who are in the position of being "talent" in the entertainment industry are taught not to be responsible for themselves. And the internet has changed that equation because no longer do you have to convince a producer to give you money to make something, who then puts ten people in charge of putting an eye on you. Instead, especially with a medium like podcasting, or just being funny on Twitter, the costs are pretty modest, and I think people see me as someone who has always assumed that I would be responsible for my own shit.
All of our shows are owned by their creators and that's very important to me. Even Judge John Hodgman is a partnership between me and John. And there are reasons to want to just be the talent. I often, late at night, wonder why didn't I decide to just be the talent, but on the other hand, there are more important values than whether someone brings you all one color of M&Ms.
You talk a lot on Put This On about your love of vintage menswear and the process of thrifting. Does that inform your approach to web culture or culture in general? You're willing to wade through a lot of nonsense to find the one good thing.
I've been a thrift-store shopper since I can remember. My parents were, at times in my childhood, poor. And my mother in particular has exceptional taste. She used to work, when I was a kid, on Fillmore Street in San Francisco, as a clerk at an antique store. On Fillmore Street are some of the fanciest thrift stores in the country. So that's where a lot of my clothes used to come from. I was in High School when the swing revival happened, and I used to sell gabardine "ricky" jackets on eBay that I would buy at the Goodwill by my house.
"Walking into the media world in 2013 is like walking into a thrift store."
How'd you do?
I did very well, at least for a high school student. You don't see that stuff anymore, it's funny, they got used up mostly. But so that has always been part of my idea of dressing well and especially the part about it not having to cost a lot of money. Essentially what that's about is having taste. And I do value having taste. I mean, my wife will tell you that anyone who doesn't get the jokes on 30 Rock is someone that I'm not interested in talking to. [laughs] I'm not a snob at all, but I do care about what I put into my life. What I spend time with. And so, in that sense, I can see the connection.
It's something about giving a shit, in my mind. Walking into the media world in 2013 is like walking into a thrift store. There's a billion choices and if you don't have an eye, if you don't care, you end up just spending your time on whatever is presented to you. And in my mind, it's so worth spending a little bit of extra effort on the front end to get so much more reward on the back end.
photo credit: Noe Montes