TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Benny Safdie

Benny Safdie has done work on both sides of the camera. He’s starred in movies like Oppenheimer and co-written and directed films like Uncut Gems. Recently, he co-created and starred in a new series called The Curse. It’s a very intense show that runs from stomach-flipping cringe to stomach-flipping actual genuine terror. Benny joins us to talk about The Curse and how it all came together. Plus, we get into his time as a stand-up comedian.

Guests: Benny Safdie



Transition: Gentle, trilling music with a steady drumbeat plays under the dialogue.

Promo: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of and is distributed by NPR.

Music: “Huddle Formation” from the album Thunder, Lightning, Strike by The Go! Team—a fast, upbeat, peppy song. Music plays as Jesse speaks, then fades out.

Jesse Thorn: It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. You might have seen Benny Safdie in the movies. He was in Oppenheimer and Licorice Pizza. You might have seen the movies that he has made. He and his brother cowrote and directed Uncut Gems, among others. Safdie is full of a sort of irrepressible energy, but it’s not always happy, light-up-the-room energy. Sometimes it’s a kind of antsy, uncomfortable energy, or a quiet, almost threatening energy.

His show, The Curse, radiates vibes from the weirder, edgier end of that spectrum. Safdie created it with another master of the disquieting, Nathan Fielder. Basically, the emotional palette of The Curse runs from stomach-flipping cringe to stomach-flipping actual, genuine terror. It’s about a couple who do house flipping. It’s supposed to be ecofriendly, almost altruistic. And they’re trying to get a TV show off the ground about their work. So, they hire Safdie’s character, Dougie, to direct. The couple—they’re played by Fielder and Emma Stone—they’re already kind of an awkward fit. And Dougie is constantly poking the two of them, looking for drama.

In this scene, they’re all shooting the show within the show. An older lady named Yadira and her son Fernando are getting displaced by one of the big eco homes. But—good news—there’s a big emotional payoff. They’re giving the kid a new job.

Transition: Music swells then fades.


Dougie (The Curse): Fernando, can you tell your mom? Because I don’t think she understands. She looks very upset that you got the job, and that doesn’t make any sense.

Whitney: It’s okay. She’s doing great. You’re doing great.

Asher: I think she’s happy. It’s just how she expresses it. Yeah.

Dougie: Um, is it okay if I put some water in her eyes?

Fernando: You want to put water on her eyes?

Dougie: Yes. Esta bien?

Yadira: (Uncertainly.) Y-yes. Mm-hm. Esta bien.

Dougie: Okay? Yes, okay. I’m gonna get fresh water, not yucky, backwash stuff, okay? Great.

Transition: Music swells then fades.

Jesse Thorn: One other quick note before we get into it. You might have heard that Benny Safdie and his brother Josh recently shared that they are parting ways creatively. They’re not going to be making stuff together for a while. And we taped this before that became public. So, if you’re wondering why I didn’t ask him about that, that’s why.

Transition: Cheerful, chiming synth.

Jesse Thorn: Benny Safdie, welcome to Bullseye. I’m happy to have you on the show.

Benny Safdie: Thank you for having me. This is exciting.

Jesse Thorn: Do you watch reality television yourself?

Benny Safdie: I do. There’s something very inspiring about the characters in it. You know? You can go back to early Candid Camera, you know, or even Judge Judy stuff—you know, where you really—you’re seeing people perform, and their performance is an insight into who they are in a very interesting way, you know? And I think—yeah, it was funny, because Nathan and I always talk about the fact that like this extremely constructed platform is possibly a better insight into who somebody is than a straight-up documentary at times. You know, it’s weird how that works.

Jesse Thorn: A friend of mine, his former partner, was a—I guess a segment producer or a story producer on Judge Judy.

Benny Safdie: Wow! No way!

Jesse Thorn: And part of her job was to talk people into going into the studio after they realized what a mistake they’d made.

Benny Safdie: Oh no! Oh, so she was the one—she was the first line of person. So, they got there and were like, “This is a bad idea”? Oh no.

Jesse Thorn: Yeah, and—when I say realized—I mean, I’m sure for many people it’s not a mistake. I don’t mean to—but like when they felt as though they had made a mistake.

Benny Safdie: Yeah. Well, it’s like, oh, they’re going in, and it’s not going to end well. They could already feel that. That’s a tough—that’s a tough position to be in to have to convince them. Oof.

Jesse Thorn: On The Curse, I feel like the camera very often has a kind of leering quality. You’re often shooting through, you know, windows or from behind cars that are—you know, where the car is in-between the camera and the subject. Was that an intentional choice?

Benny Safdie: Totally. You know, there’s—it was definitely—


It was something that… I think it differentiated it from what they’re shooting. You know? It just also—there’s an element to being where they can’t see, you know, that makes something feel different. You know? And it’s the same as when you’re watching Candid Camera. It adds to a sense of realism, you know. It’s playing with a different kind of technique, and it also just opens up the doors of like, who is filming, you know? Who is looking? And it forces you to ask questions about what you’re watching as you’re watching it. You know, I think it’s definitely—(chuckles) it was definitely a conscious thing, because we were always—it was almost like you’d walk into a scene and it would be like a heist scenario, where you’d look around and see where—you know, where everything could go. Like, okay, there’s a window over there. There’s one over here. That’s the 180. You put all that stuff together, and it kind of becomes fun.

But so, for that whole section, you’ve tuned your brain into kind of looking at how you can spy on people, you know, without—and it’s an interesting thing to act with too. Because when you’re in something like that, you don’t know where anybody is. So, you just kind of have to just be.

Jesse Thorn: I think that one of the things that people find most compelling about reality television, at least when I talk to people, is not just that they’re moved by the narrative, but they’re excited by the meta narrative in the same way that—you know, people often say, “Oh, everybody that loves professional wrestling is a dupe.” I don’t know. Everyone I’ve ever talked to who loves professional wrestling is obsessed with the meta narrative. And I think that that is something that it seems like you are engaged with in The Curse. Like, it sort of enlists the audience as complicit in the creation of the story.

Benny Safdie: That’s a very great way of putting it. And I’ll just—I kind of want to just let that stand. Because it is! That is part of it! You know, you have to be active. You have to be part of the process in order for you to kind of get the result that we were going for. And I think that’s the same in reality TV, like you’re saying, that part of the fun is kind of getting into it and going with it. And specifically, in this, there’s a lot that you could talk about as meta in the sense that here’s Nathan and Emma and I going into this real place, Española, New Mexico, setting up shop for essentially six to seven months, and making a movie or a TV show there and like for a long period of time. And you really ingratiate yourself with the community. We were casting people from the community. We were literally shooting in all of the places that we could get access to, because we really wanted it to be realistically portrayed within the show.

Like, we almost wanted it to be like hyper-local news that anybody who watched it from that area hopefully would say, “That’s a pretty good representation of who we are and what—a lot of the issues we have are kind of in the show.” So, because we kind of became obsessed with that, it added a level to the stuff that you’re seeing that they’re not doing on the show. And there is that level of meta narrative, because we are there. You know, we are making it. And it does—it plays with a lot of these kind of feelings as a viewer that you’re having. And maybe it bleeds into making you feel a specific way when something happens onscreen, you know?

Jesse Thorn: Did you settle on… you know, values that you wanted to reflect or things that you wanted to shoot for? Like, did you decide what truth you wanted or what feelings you wanted?

Benny Safdie: Yes, we did and very deliberately. You know, we had a lot of talk and discussion while we were writing it about how we wanted people to feel and what we wanted them to focus on. And I think somebody asked me at a Q&A what the politics of the show was. And I said, “I don’t want to answer that, because the moment you put a handle on something, people are going to use the handle, and they’re going to open it up, and then it’s over.” You know? You don’t necessarily want to make things easier. Because if your whole job is to open up a drawer, you know, you’re going to have to work harder to get it open if you don’t have a handle. And you’re going to learn a lot more about the process and how everything works by trying to get it open.

Jesse Thorn: So, you’re saying it’s secret?

Benny Safdie: It’s not secret! It’s in there. And if you look at it, you’ll see it. It’s just the question is—


Every once in a while, if you verbalize it, then you don’t have to do the searching, you know? And if you say it out loud, it hurts the fact that two people could be looking at exactly the same thing and coming to different conclusions about who that person is or what they’re doing. The motive—like, for example, if—let’s say you have two people. One person—they’re both giving—let’s say they’re both giving all of their cans to a soup kitchen. Okay? One person is giving their cans to the soup kitchen because they want to help hunger, you know, and people who don’t have that. The other person is doing it because they want the person who they give it to to smile at them and like them. The initial action is exactly the same, but the motivation changes how you view that deed. And I think that that’s important, that you need to be able to kind of look at it and try and understand what that motivation is.

And that changes based on who’s around, you know? And I think that’s part of the show. Part of the fun of the show is seeing these things and trying to kind of come to those conclusions. And it can be fun to kind of hear it and move on, but I don’t necessarily want to do that just yet. You know, ‘cause we’re still halfway through.

Jesse Thorn: (Chuckles.) So, it’s secret.

Benny Safdie: (Giggling.) It’s not secret. It’s definitely—if you look, you can see it.

Jesse Thorn: Your character on The Curse is the filmmaker or the TV maker who is creating the show with the with the two stars of the show. And they’re sort of the central figures of The Curse, the television show that we watch. What is the role of your character in the story? Like, why is your guy there?

Benny Safdie: Well, it’s—he’s there for a lot of reasons. He’s there because he’s done this before. So, he actually knows how to make a reality TV show. And he’s also there to kind of get the truth out of people, you know. Or at least poke them enough to get what he thinks is the truth. You know? He’s so confident in his beliefs. And I think he’s also just—he’s so shameless that in a weird way, it’s almost nice to see. You know? (Chuckles.) It’s strange because you’re just like, “I don’t like this guy, but at least he’s not lying to me. You know? Or at least that’s how I think I feel.” You know, so he’s a complicated figure, because you have these three people who are acting in very different ways. And part of what Dougie’s there for is you can’t necessarily judge people.

You know, you see him and immediately you feel like you know exactly who he is and what he stands for. And especially after what he does in that first episode, you think you have a specific idea of who he is. And then you see him crying in episode three, and it’s intense because it’s unexpected. Well, I guess now it’s expected, but you don’t know when it’s going to happen in the show. So, if you haven’t watched it, when you see it it’s almost like that’s a real sadness. That’s a deep pain that he has that nobody should see. And yet you’re seeing it. And what does that do to you and your view of Dougie? Because it’s going to change it. You know, it has to. And I think that that’s part of what he’s doing is that he’s almost like a live wire in a lot of ways, and he isn’t necessarily thinking about his emotions and his feelings all the time. And it allows you to access that, you know?

Jesse Thorn: The female lead in the show, Emma Stone’s character Whitney—

Benny Safdie: Unbelievable.

Jesse Thorn: She really is amazing on the show—is a character who feels like she is just in a perpetual state of first week of college. Which is like—(chuckles) which is not to say like binge drinking but instead like looking at every person within her field of vision and trying to figure out how to represent herself to that person.

Benny Safdie: Yes. It’s amazing, because like as we were having discussions with Emma about it, it became clear how hard that part is to play. Because you have to seem entirely truthful to the person in front of you at all times, and then that changes depending on who’s in front of you, who’s behind you, who’s next up. So, it really is a person who’s always on and always changing. And to keep that stratified in your brain is so hard! And as you know, that’s why that time in your life is so disgusting in a lot of ways is because you don’t know who you are! You know who you want to be.


And then you’re thinking about different ways to show that. You know? I think with Whitney and the way that Emma plays it—which is so amazing—is you’re watching her struggle with understanding who she is. And that arc is, for her, so interesting. Because you’re so convinced, specifically with Whitney, that you know exactly who she is. More so than Dougie. It’s—one of my favorite things to watch is how she goes through the arc. You know, and the next episode in particular is specifically kind of exciting. And then even after that, it really is building on that idea. You know?

And something that I found really interesting about television is you can really live with characters for a very long period of time. And when a show does that and actually shows not necessarily people changing but understanding of people change, I think that’s so rewarding. You know? And it happens in the best movies, you know, how you kind of deeply understand certain characters to a place where you didn’t expect in the beginning, where you kind of came to a conclusion and then it doesn’t subvert it, but it deepens it. You know?

Jesse Thorn: We’ve got even more to get into with Benny Safdie. Stick around, it’s Bullseye from and NPR.

Transition: Cheerful, chiming synth.

Jesse Thorn: Welcome back to Bullseye, I’m Jesse Thorn. If you’re just joining us, my guest is Benny Safdie. He’s the co-creator and star of the new Showtime series, The Curse, which also stars Emma Stone and Nathan Fielder. With his brother Josh, Safdie directed the movies Daddy Long Legs, Good Time, and Uncut Gems. Let’s get back into our conversation.

I read that when your father got a video camera, he made films and videos starring you and your brother. And in the like four sentences or two sentences that I read about this in Kelefa Sanneh’s New Yorker profile of the two of you, I was like it basically sounds like he was making reality television programs starring the two of you. (Chuckling.) Like, there’s just a brief allusion to skiing too fast or something.

Benny Safdie: Well, yes, basically he put—whatever was on the camera, he put over us in a lot of ways. Perfect example, it was a double black diamond that I was going down in Killington, Vermont, and he chose to ski down before me and then catch my whole trip down. And of course, literally the whole—I was so upset. You can probably see I’m screaming. “It’s all ice. This is going to be terrible.”

“It’s going to be fine.”

He skis down, and then he zooms all the way into me up at the top, and he’s like, “Go!” And the first move I make, ski flies off, and I just rocket down this mountain. And I’m scared! Because I could hit something and die, you know? (Chuckles.) I was going so fast, I was trying to stop the snow, the snow was going all over me, and I couldn’t see. Every once in a while, I’d get a slight glimpse, and I could turn myself away from like one of those ski poles. You know, for the lift. And he just panned with me as I fell down the mountain! Even after I got up, he didn’t even say anything. The whole chairlift is cheering.

And in a way it was like I have this moment of this fun kind of crazy thing. Nothing bad happened to me. You know, that’s the key. So, I can look back on that and say that’s great. But (chuckles) all I know is that like if I saw my son flying down the mountain and fell, I’d be running up the mountain, you know, to try and stop him!

Jesse Thorn: It’s almost too on the nose, this idea of your dad putting you and your brother in thrilling situations that live on the edge of truth and fiction.

Benny Safdie: I know. It definitely wasn’t—the thing that’s strange is it wasn’t like… there were just no rules, I think, is more about what it was. So, it was like—it was almost like there was a documentation of that. And that has an effect on you. You know, that definitely builds your idea and your imagination and stuff like that. But again, I think that you need to balance that with understanding. You know? Because a lot of people have great and crazy experiences, but if you don’t work through it or understand it, you’re not going to—you can’t learn anything from it, you know? Yeah, and I guess it’s just a matter of trying to understand the moment in front of you or—I don’t know, when you watch a performance and it’s not working, why?


You know, it’s very—you can’t—you could say, “Oh, that wasn’t realistic,” but what does that mean? You know? You have to be able to pinpoint when somebody forgets about themselves, you know?

Jesse Thorn: When I read about your working process when you make films with your brother, one of the things that was described was—you guys also work with this guy, Ronald Braunstein, who is—he’s been an actor in your films but also a producer and a writer, mostly.

Benny Safdie: We made an amazing movie, Frownland, if anybody wants to check that out. It’s crazy. Unbelievable.

Jesse Thorn: And as I read it, I think he mentioned offhandedly like, “Yeah, I write with Josh. Josh and Benny direct, and then Josh”—and he’s like—”there’s like a little story, and then Josh and Benny edit.” And I thought—the thing that occurred to me was what is the difference between a person whose role in the story comes before it’s shot in the writing and a person whose role in the story comes after it’s shot in the editing? Do you think you’re an editing guy?

Benny Safdie: Uuuh. Well, no, I definitely—I like editing. You know, that’s part of one of the things that I love doing. But then when you’re directing—it’s almost like each part of the process has to be kept alive, you know. You don’t want anything to feel stale or dead. And each part of that process is its own thing. You know, while you’re writing it, you’re coming up with the reasons to be excited to go and make it. Then when you’re making it, you got to come up with a whole new playbook, because things might change. Actors might not be able to deliver those lines. You have to change them. All of that is all in the service of trying to keep it alive. And then when you have the footage, I find no fun in just putting it together exactly as you had it set up, because then that’s not a process that’s alive. You have to kind of start as if you’re making a documentary with real footage. You know, that’s how I approach it.

So, in that sense, you’re always trying to kind of keep it fresh and never let it just kind of settle. And that was a process that worked, you know, while we were—on those movies we were doing. You know, it’s not necessarily something that will stay the same. You know? Because I don’t necessarily think that that’s a great way of moving—like, once you figure something out, you don’t just stick with it and go on forever. But it is always—you know, the thing that we always kind of—there is always cross pollination between them. You know, you’re not—everybody’s always involved at some point, because you do need to be aware of everything as it’s changing and moving.

So, you know with Ronnie, the fact that he was a writer and then we would be editing together meant there was a lot of leeway, because, hey, you could change things! You know, because you were in control. You weren’t in deference to anything else. You know? So, the editing really is alive and exciting, and it is places where you can change things. And I don’t know if that’s always the case, because sometimes things are placed and put together really quickly, because that person has a very good idea of what they want. And that’s fine! You know, I’m not saying one’s better than the other; it’s just a different process.

Jesse Thorn: You suggested that you don’t want any piece of the process to feel too settled. And you know, it makes sense coming from you, having seen your work. Uh, I will say that like there are some for whom storytelling is essentially a settling process. (Chuckling.) Like, it’s a way of making the scary things of the world make sense, not a way of introducing new discomforts.

Benny Safdie: Well, the thing is, is by putting yourself in those positions, you learn about how you respond. And I think that you learn about the world in a completely new way. So, I think that like part of the comfort that you were just saying prevents people from actually accessing things that they would never access. I think that by pushing people—because the aim isn’t to make people uncomfortable or anxious; it’s just to try and get at something, you know, to try and understand a character. And I texted Emma the other day, just like thinking about Whitney being like, “This is the craziest real fake person I’ve ever seen.” You know, it felt so alive on the screen. And it’s not real! You know, it’s fully constructed. And yet, there’s something about that that does make people feel potentially uncomfortable.

The word cringe is used a lot. I think it’s because once you’re seeing something that you kind of can understand and identify with that maybe you didn’t want to, that does tell you something though about who you are and how we exist in society.


You know, there’s the—when you walk through the world, you’re making judgments all the time. And maybe you don’t want to be called out on that or you don’t want to be aware of that. That’s also fine, but I think that it’s healthy to be aware of these things and to keep the process alive does that, you know?

Jesse Thorn: It’s too bad, Benny, that your goal is not to make people uncomfortable and anxious. ‘Cause if it were, I could tell ya, for at least one guy, The Curse was an unequivocal success! (Laughs.)

Benny Safdie: That’s great! Maybe there’s a—what you feel as uncomfortable isn’t the same as for me? You know? Um, I think that’s it is, is there’s a level at which—you know, Nathan and I were looking at stuff that maybe is reflective of how we see the world that when you put somebody in that position—woah! It’s almost like They Live. You know, when you put on the sunglasses, and you see the world. It’s not a nice—sometimes it’s not a nice thing to see those faces staring back at you. But there is an element to—you don’t necessarily—I don’t know—

That’s where I’m like you’re not barreling forward with that as the intention. But if that’s what happens, that’s what happens. (Chuckles.) You know?

Jesse Thorn: We’ll finish up with Benny Safdie after the break. Stay with us, it’s Bullseye from and NPR.


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Transition: Thumpy synth with a syncopated beat.

Jesse Thorn: It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. I’m talking with Benny Safdie. He stars in The Curse, which is streaming now on Showtime.

You had a career as a standup comedian who essentially only exists to not do comedy. (Chuckles.)

Benny Safdie: Well, it’s interesting, because I realized recently how crazy it must have seemed. Because I would—I was doing it a lot in high school. You know, I created this character whose whole thing was he didn’t realize his life was sad and really upsetting. And he saw people going up on stage and making jokes about their life that was also kind of upsetting and sad, but he didn’t know the level of sadness that he was kind of holding inside. So, he would get up on stage, and he’d make a fool of himself. You know, he’d go out there and he’d talk about going paintballing with his friends.

And he’d be like, “Oh my god, I’m on the—I got on the bus, and I was so excited that I was just like—I was so ready to get these guys. You know, hour and a half, we drove, we got there. We ran into the woods. I had my paintball gun. I was just—I ran as fast as I could, and I jumped behind the first tree I could find, and I was ready. You know, I was ready to get them. And an hour went by, and I was like, oh, this is gonna be great; I can’t wait to get these guys. You know, another 30 minutes, still so excited. And then maybe about two hours went by, and then I realized I didn’t have any friends!” That was Zach Moulden. That was Zach Moulden.

And so, then you have—so, then that was the guy who I was doing in high school. And then I went to college, and then I created this guy, Ralph Handel. I appreciate you saying it was a career. Because it was a short period of my life that I did actually take very seriously. And I would actually send these things into like—I thought it was the greatest thing! You know, I was like this is so awesome! I’m creating this guy, and everybody thinks he’s real! How awesome is that? You know? I was very specific about going to the clubs and being the person, talking to the other comedians and being the guy. And I didn’t want any cracks of me being aware of what I was doing, because that would ruin it. Because then everybody could laugh at him. You know? And I didn’t want that. I want—

What ended up happening is there was kind of this like—after seven minutes and you realize this guy’s not changing. I can’t heckle him, because if I heckle him he just answers me and it’s great. Ralph Handel is—his thing is he goes to work downtown. He’s not necessarily living the most interesting life. But again, he sees standup comedy as a way of making his life interesting.

Transition: Music swells then fades.


Ralph Handel: Went shopping yesterday. How many of you guys like shopping? Okay—

(Scattered applause.)


What did I buy? A 24-pack of toilet paper and a frozen pizza. What else? A pack of gum at the checkout aisle. Uh, just—anyway, how much do you think it costs to run a full-page ad in the New York Times? It’s around $1,500. Anyway, speaking of ads, how long do you think it takes to get a six pack at the gym? Anybody? It’s around 40 repetitions of 30 crunches over 30 minutes.

Transition: Music swells then fades.

Benny Safdie: That goes on, and as you realize, “Oh, wow, he’s just telling me his life. I don’t know how to respond to that, because it’s not funny. He believes it. He thinks it’s funny, and that’s not funny. That’s a little sad. So, if I laugh or heckle, then that’s mean. I don’t want to be mean.” But at some point, something takes over and everybody started laughing. It was like a weird black hole of comedy. When you suck all the comedy out of a room, eventually people will laugh, because there’s nothing else to do. (Giggles.)

Jesse Thorn: I enjoyed Ralph Handel’s joke, “Who’s Bill Clinton’s favorite author? Dan Brown.”

Benny Safdie: Yes, that’s a great one.

Jesse Thorn: Thought that was a pretty good gag.

Benny Safdie: Yeah, “Who’s Bill Clinton’s favorite author? Anybody? Dan Brown. How do I know? I looked it up online.”

Jesse Thorn: Well, Benny Safdie, I sure appreciate your time. Thank you for taking the time to talk to me.

Benny Safdie: This was great, thank you.

Jesse Thorn: Benny Safdie. You can stream The Curse on Paramount+ and Showtime. It is very, very intense. (Chuckles.) It starts intense and gets intense-er.

Transition: Cheerful piano.

Jesse Thorn: That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is created from the homes of me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California. Here at my house, I missed garbage pickup day, and so my Christmas tree will live for one extra week.

The show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our senior producer is Kevin Ferguson. Our producers are Jesus Ambrosio and Richard Robey. Our production fellow at Maximum Fun is Bryanna Paz. We get booking help from Mara Davis. Our interstitial music is by DJW, Dan Wally. Our theme song is called “Huddle Formation”. It was written and recorded by The Go! Team. Our thanks to them and to their label, Memphis Industries.

Bullseye is on Instagram, @BullseyeWithJesseThorn. We are also on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. And I think that’s about it, just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature signoff.

Promo: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of and is distributed by NPR.

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About the show

Bullseye is a celebration of the best of arts and culture in public radio form. Host Jesse Thorn sifts the wheat from the chaff to bring you in-depth interviews with the most revered and revolutionary minds in our culture.

Bullseye has been featured in Time, The New York Times, GQ and McSweeney’s, which called it “the kind of show people listen to in a more perfect world.” Since April 2013, the show has been distributed by NPR.

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