TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Catherine O’Hara

Catherine O’Hara is a comedy legend. Her work embodies a particularly special brand of comic absurdity. She helped launch SCTV alongside other burgeoning comedy greats like John Candy and Eugene Levy. She went on to star in some huge blockbuster comedies: Beetlejuice. Home Alone. Best in Show. At the Emmy Awards a few weeks ago Schitt’s Creek swept the comedy category. Catherine won a much-deserved Emmy for her lead role on the show. We’re taking a moment to celebrate her Emmy win by revisiting our conversation from 2013. When Catherine joined us she talked to us about creating memorable characters with her longtime friend and collaborator Eugene Levy, and her own secret comedic formula.

Guests: Catherine O’Hara

Transcript

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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“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. I’m not gonna spend a lot of time introducing my guest. It’s Catherine O’Hara! You’ve seen her in Beetlejuice and Home Alone and pretty much every Christopher Guest movie. She is—and this is not an exaggeration—one of the funniest people alive. Recently, Catherine won a much-deserved Emmy for her lead role on the TV show Schitt’s Creek. That’s S-C-H-I-T-T, by the way. It’s a show about a wealthy family, the Roses, who are forced to relocate to a tiny, rural town after losing their entire fortune. For all of its six seasons, Catherine played Moira Rose—mother to David and Alexis, wife to Johnny Rose—played by Eugene Levy. She was, of course, terrific on the show.

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Johnny (Schitt’s Creek): Moira. [Moira moans softly.] Johnny: Moira! Moira: [Pathetically.] Oh nooo. I just finally cried myself to sleep! Johnny: The bed’s soaking wet! Moira: Is it—blood?! Johnny: No! There’s a—there’s a leak in the ceiling! [Moira begins screaming.] Johnny: There’s a brown, disgusting drip coming—! Look at—oh my god. Moira: I can’t do it. Johnny: This place is a dump! It’s a dump! Moira: I tried! Johnny: You know what? It’s a hellhole! Moira: [Yelling.] I tried, John, but I can’t!

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jesse

I talked with Catherine in 2013 and, as you’re about to hear, she really hit the ground running.

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jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest, Catherine O’Hara, has spent a career perfectly capturing the magic of the slightly cockeyed. [Catherine laughs.] From her work on SCTV to the improvised faux documentaries of—

catherine o’hara

[Laughing helplessly.] That’s not very nice!

jesse

—Christopher Guest. From—not physically! Like—for—with a cockeyed perspective!

catherine

Oh, nice way to start! Yeah, and you’re fat!

jesse

Let’s go—wait! [They laugh.] Listen, to—! Okay! Here we go! From her work on SCTV to the improvised, faux documentaries of Christopher Guest, she’s inhabited beautiful, confident characters—

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Catherine: Better. Jesse: —who are just slightly, perfectly, off.

jesse

And, of course, there’s also this. [Catherine laughs as music fades in.]

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Music: Ominous, orchestral music. Kate McCallister (Home Alone): [Screaming at the top of her lungs.] KEVIN!

jesse

[They laugh.] A leading role in Home Alone, which remains one of the biggest comedy hits of all time. Here she is with her former SCTV castmate, Eugene Levy, in a scene from Best in Show. She and Levy are hosting a birthday party for their Norwich Terrier, and they’re singing a little Norwich Terrier song. [Catherine laughs.]

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[Catherine laughs over the clip.] Gerry and Cookie (Best in Show): [Singing.] God loves a terrier. Yes, he does. God loves a terrier! That’s because small, sturdy, bright and true! They give their love to you! God didn’t miss a stitch. Be a dog or be a [censored]. When he made the Norwich merrier with its cute little derriere! Yes, God loves a terrier! [The crowd cheers.]

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jesse

[They laugh.] Catherine O’Hara, welcome to Bullseye. I’m so excited to have you on the show.

catherine

Thank you! I’m scared.

jesse

I wanna play a clip of you on SCTV. This is a sketch that I read you wrote. Uh—

catherine

[Laughs.] “I read you wrote.”

jesse

I read that you wrote it! It’s always difficult to attribute sketches on sketch TV shows, because—

catherine

Hi Q? Is it Hi Q? [Jesse confirms.] Yeah, I did write that.

jesse

Okay, great.

catherine

Although, it had to be edited by others. But yes.

jesse

In this scene, you are a contestant on a high school quiz bowl type show. And the host is played by Eugene Levy.

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Host (SCTV): Now let’s start the game! The first question worth 20 points and the subject is authors. [A buzzer.] Host: Margaret Meehan, Parkdale. [The audience laughs.] Margaret: Henry Miller? Host: I’m sorry Margaret. Let me please finish the question, first. Alright? What famous— [A buzzer. The audience laughs. Scattered applause.] Host: Margaret Meehan, Parkdale. Margaret: Victor Hugo? Host: I’m sorry Margaret. If you just let me finish the question first, see how it works. Okay! What famous humorist— [Two buzzers. The audience laughs.] Host: Margaret Meehan. Parkdale. Margaret: Jerry Lewis? Host: Margaret, I’ll have to ask you to please let me finish the question before answering, because that answer was extremely wrong. The question is: I want the name of the famous humorist and author who wrote The Adventures of Huckleberry[A bell. The audience laughs.] Host: St. Anthony’s. Leonard Mandel. Leonard: Finn.

catherine

[They both laugh, struggling to pull themselves together.] Ooh, we had fun.

jesse

The bit—[laughs] the bit that’s missing from the audio of that is you pulling this face that is— [They laugh.] Like, this combination of enthusiasm, consternation, and idiocy that is just unparalleled. I mean, just untouchable. Just a gorgeous [laughs] take.

catherine

Aw, thanks. Now it makes me think that she would be somebody who would have—get that reaction from people all the time. [They laugh.] People are always telling her, “Shut up. Wait. Stop talking.” But she cannot stop herself. Ever.

jesse

And that’s a wonderful thing to watch.

catherine

Oh, I don’t think you can lose with—and I’m not saying that’s totally in that character, that—I mean, in that category, that character—but you can’t lose with stupid and cocky. I mean, you look at The Jerk—Steve Martin in The Jerk or [inaudible].

jesse

Will Ferrell’s entire oeuvre.

catherine

Oh! Definitely! Or Steve Carell in The Office. Or Ricky Gervais in The Office. It’s just people who are totally oblivious to the impression they’re making on others. Or the original, um—Barney Fife. You know? Something to brag about, something to say. [Chuckles.] And no idea what other people are thinking. You can rarely go wrong with that.

jesse

What was it like being on the show—especially at the beginning, when you had this—you had a male dominated cast. There was two women in the cast of the show. Both really brilliant, but all of these dudes and—did you have to sort of say, like, “Hey! We get to do something here, too!”

catherine

Yeah! All the time. All the time. And for a long time, when I first started writing on the show, I would tell my idea to Dave Thomas and then he would say it out loud. And I’d be mad that he got a laugh. Like, [laughs], that’s mine! Then I’d say, “That was my idea!” Just sad. You know? And also, they—Andrea and I—I keep saying this, the producer hates this. But it’s true! We got paid less, as writers. We all came from Second City Theater where we all wrote the material, but somehow the two women were paid less than the men. For a while. I mean, we finally got—you know—equity, later on. But it was pretty early in—you know, women’s liberation, I guess. Women’s lib talk. Really women were still fighting for it. And—you know, it’s sad. I mean, they’re still at Vanity Fair writing—well, not Vanity Fair, generally. But they let that poor fella write that article about women not being funny. And I remember, at the time, somebody had written in a Toronto paper a story about how women aren’t funny and one of the guys put it up on the board and they would point—Andrea and I would get an idea [laughing] and they’d point to that article and say, “Oh, you.”

jesse

Jeez Louise!

catherine

It was a different time! It really was.

jesse

Did you have to change the way that you approached working on the show because of that? Did you have to think about what you were doing differently? Like, learn to be the person that says your idea so no one else can take credit for it? And—?

catherine

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, Dave was helping out by repeating the line. I guess he got the material on the air, sometimes. But… yeah. Eventually, I got stronger and stronger and realized, “Wait, this wasn’t right. What am I being so wimpy about? And I’ve got some material, here. I’ve got ideas! Like everyone else!” It’s just not—you know. It’s so sad to be self-conscious or insecure. It just gets in the way of life.

jesse

You left SCTV before it was finished. Why did you decide to leave?

catherine

I swear it was to try to meet somebody and maybe get married. [Laugh.] [Jesse reacts in surprise.] At the time. Yeah. That or maybe I’m just lazy. It was too much work. I don’t know. No, I did feel that way at the time. I remember, really. By that time, Andrea was married and had kids and the guys were, I think, most of them were married and that was my life. I just—that’s all I did. And I guess it hit me or slowly hit me. Slowly smacked me, the fact that, “Okay, and then what? And then what are you doing? This is gonna end at some point. What are you going to do?”

jesse

I can only imagine how all-consuming it was. I mean, I—you know what I mean?

catherine

It was all consuming. But it was great. And at that age? I’ve often thought since that that early 20s is just a perfect age to be doing that kind of material. You’re not—for the most part you’re not married. You don’t have kids. You have all the time in the world to devote to that. I mean, it’s perfect as a job. As a boss, to hire people that age, too. Right? And you’re also young enough that you are… cocky. Really cocky. Um. And you believe you can do the world better. Do everything better [laughing] and smarter. And that you have a great take on why things are ridiculous and—you know, it’s just a great, cocky, fun time to be able to do that kind of work.

jesse

Usually when people leave a job like that, they leave it because they think they’re gonna be a star. Right? Am I mistaken in thinking that?

catherine

I think they do, probably. Yeah. They think, “This is holding me back.” No. “Well, it’s lame.” But, like, the next—after I quit, I went to a party at Marty Short’s and he put together, like, a reel for me. And started showing it at the party and all I did was weep. It just made me cry forever, like, that I’d left this and it was my—that was my life and I’d dared to leave it and now they were showing me that I’d made a mistake. [Laughing.] I don’t—it was such a weird, emotional time for me. Yeah, I really wondered where my life was going, I think.

jesse

In between when you left SCTV and Beetlejuice—which is, like, 1988 or something like that. That sounds about right to me.

catherine

Yeah. Is that right? Wow.

jesse

In between those two things, you did two movies.

catherine

Yeah, I did After Hours in there, didn’t I?

jesse

After Hours—which is an amazing—if anybody hasn’t seen After Hours, it’s a really wonderful, hilarious, amazing movie.

catherine

Yeah, Scorsese.

jesse

With Martin Scorsese! And you did another movie directed by Mike Nichols.

catherine

Heartburn, yeah. You know, I should be so lucky. I know!

jesse

Right! I mean—it’s a remarkable thing to think you weren’t working a lot, but you did take an opportunity to work with Mike Nichols.

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Jesse: And Martin Scorsese. Catherine: [Laughing.] And Martin Scorsese! Yeah. Poor me! “Okay, I’ll leave the house and work with them. Who are they? Alright.”

jesse

Even more with Catherine O’Hara still to come. Don’t go anywhere. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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Music: Upbeat guitar music. Lisa Hagen: There are these networks of staunchly pro-gun groups, on Facebook. And one of them is run by these three brothers, the Dorr brothers. It turns out, they don’t just do guns. The Dorr family name has been attached to other causes. Speaker: Their goal is to eliminate public education and to replace it with Christian schooling. Lisa: The roots of the Dorr family on the No Compromise podcast from NPR. [Music fades out.]

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jesse

Welcome back to Bullseye. I’m Jesse thorn. My guest is Catherine O’Hara. She’s a comedy legend. She starred in classics like A Mighty Wind and Waiting for Guffman. Had unforgettable parts in Home Alone and Beetlejuice. For the last six or so years, she’s starred on the sitcom Schitt’s Creek. That’s S-C-H-I-T-T. At the Emmy Awards, a few weeks ago, the show swept the comedy category, including a much-deserved award for Catherine herself. Let’s get back into my 2013 conversation with Catherine O’Hara. In a pretty narrow period of time, you were in Beetlejuice and Home Alone. And Beetlejuice was a big hit. Home Alone, at the time, was the biggest hit in comedy history.

catherine

That’s the biggest thing I’ve ever been in, yeah.

jesse

What was it like to be in that? Did you think, “Oh, now I’m gonna—now I should be a movie star of giant—the next Home Alone like thing?”

catherine

You would think. No, I don’t! I can’t—I don’t know. I can’t think that way. I told you—

jesse

Did you pull back from it? Did you think, like, [uncertainly] “Ooh, I’m—mmm. Uuuh…”

catherine

I never—I never felt it had that much to do with me. You know? I was in the movie. And I played the mom. And that was great. But it was about Macaulay and it was about the writing and the directing and it was just about the whole thing. You know? And I was proud to be part of it, definitely. ‘Cause not only was it a big money maker and still plays, but it’s a good movie to work with.

jesse

Did you ever want to be a “movie star” movie star?

catherine

Um, I would like good roles, whether—yeah. I would like good roles.

jesse

Was there—but I mean, was there—was—

catherine

But I—do I need more fame? No. I get just enough, thanks. Really.

jesse

The reason—the reason I ask is because I think of that time in your life and I can think of few people as—this will sound like some kind of ridiculous flattery. [Catherine laughs.] But who are as funny as you are and as—and as good looking. And I think—and I think it had to be a choice not to pursue that. Not to want to be front and center, in stuff—in stuff.

catherine

It was either a choice or just ignorance or I was being guided. Um. I’m happy where I’m at now! [Chuckles.] And I’m lucky to still work. And so, it worked out! But I definitely, you know, blew off a lot of opportunities. You know. Agents that I would meet—I mean, really big agents who [laughs] represent really high priority people! And I would look at them and just, “[Clicks teeth.] I don’t know if I like that shirt he’s wearing.” [Jesse laughs.] You know, just—[sighs] stupid. Just—

jesse

To be fair, I mean, really high-powered agents who represent really important, powerful people are often creepy, weird dudes that you wouldn’t wanna talk to. [Catherine laughs.] That’s one of the things that makes them so successful, right?

catherine

Isn’t that funny?

jesse

They’re weird [laughing] sociopaths.

catherine

But they’re good people. They’re—I apologized to one years later. I did at a party. At a Vanity Fair party. I went, “Okay. You wanted to represent me. I just wanna say I’m sorry.” [They laugh.] “I didn’t understand who you were or what you were doing, okay? I just wanna say now, thank you for caring and trying to represent me.”

jesse

One of the—one of the really wonderful things in your career, I think, is that you got to be in these—in this series of Christopher Guest movies. [Catherine agrees.] Along with, among others, Eugene Levy—who you’d worked with for so many bajillions of years. [Catherine laughs and agrees.] And all of the other—and all of the other amazing people in those films. When Waiting for Guffman came up, how did it—how did it come up to you? Did, like, Chris Guest just call you and say, like, “Hey, I somehow got $2,000,000.” Or whatever it was. “And we’re gonna make a movie.”

catherine

No, he didn’t call. It was all through the agent and I resisted forever.

jesse

Did you know it?

catherine

Yes, I’d met him! Oh, I liked him! Yeah. I just didn’t get… I’m not that bright, obviously. [Laughs.] I didn’t get what he was going for. And I guess there was no real script to—there was no script, at the time. See? I think I’m guided more than [laughing] it has anything to do with my brains.

jesse

You got a couple of really wonderful scenes in the movie, which is obviously a big ensemble piece, if folks haven’t seen it. I feel bad for you, ‘cause it’s real funny. But it’s a big ensemble piece and one of the scenes—probably your biggest, most crucial scene, I can’t play on the radio. [Catherine cackles.] So, I’m going to play—I’m going to play this other scene, which is also wonderful. The movie is about a small-town amateur theatre production and this is you and your husband in the film—played by Fred Willard—auditioning for it.

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Music: Piano plays. Ron (Waiting for Guffman): Ding dong! Sheila: [In a transatlantic accent.] Oh! I wonder who knows I’m vacationing here at the Oasis? Ron: Am I late? Sheila: [Gasps.] You! Ron: Surprised? Sheila: How did you find me? Ron: I have my ways. Sheila: Would you like to come in for coffee? [Breaking into song.] You don’t need to answer! There’s no need to speak. I’ll be your belly dancer.

jesse

One of the things that I love about your character during this movie is—you know, Fred Willard is bloviating in just full force. Like, gale force winds, while you just sit next to him and make [laughing] these little faces the whole time.

catherine

[Laughs.] What choice do you have, next to Fred Willard? [Jesse chuckles.] He said, “We have to wear those sweatsuits,” that we’re wearing in that? Oh, those horrible… um, exercise suits?

jesse

Just grotesque, like, warmup suits. Yeah. [Catherine agrees.] They’re, like, purple. And turquoise.

catherine

And I said, “Fred! No! Come on! We can wear something—” You know, I’m thinking something attractive! And you know—funny but slightly attractive?! “No, no,” he would say. Then I would just finally go, “Yeah. You’re right. Okay.” Like, just don’t do what you would normally do. Don’t make your own choices. It was really fun to go along with him.

jesse

I’m gonna now allude to something that is slightly adult in subject matter—a scene in this film. So, if you have kids, uh… you know.

catherine

Let them hear this. [Jesse laughs.] And hopefully they’ll go into comedy someday. Look, smart. Smart dirty is okay. [Jesse agrees.] I’d rather have my kid watch Trailer Park Boys than… Barney. That scary, scary show of the automaton kids.

jesse

Now, granted, your… your kids are teenagers. So, it makes more sense—[laughs].

catherine

No, but even when they were younger! [Laughs.]

crosstalk

Catherine: It’s a little—[stuttering through laughter]. It’s a little scary! Jesse: —for them to watch the Trailer Park Boys. Catherine: I would have said this years ago, too.

jesse

In your—so, there’s this—there’s this sort of climactic scene for your character, which is you’ve been sort of—your character is very beaten down by Fred Willard’s character. And you sit down—you sit down to a couple’s dinner with [chuckling] Eugene Levy’s character and his wife.

catherine

Linda Kash.

jesse

And you—and you get drunk. [Catherine confirms.] And start…

catherine

I think I woke up drunk, that day. [They laugh.]

jesse

Yes. And start spewing a combination of anti-Semitism and intimate details about what we’ll call a gentleman’s reduction surgery. [Catherine confirms.] That is just stunning. Was it—which—I—now I know those movies have kind of outlines.

catherine

Yeah. All the dialogue is improvised.

jesse

That Chris Guest and Eugene Levy write together. Was that scene in—

catherine

No. It wasn’t. That was—I think it was… Fred or Eugene’s idea, that they should have a double date. I think it was Fred’s maybe. And then Eugene suggested the night before, this Chinese restaurant or something. And they got it. They got the—you know. They rented it or whatever to use for a few hours. And I think I may have asked Chris—‘cause you normally wouldn’t run anything by him, but it was a… pretty obvious thing [laughs] to not be able to hide. So, I asked him—I think I asked him if I could play drunk. And he said, “Yeeeah, sure.” ‘Cause he always said yes. For the most part. I can’t tell when he said no to me [laughing]—on second. I—[pulling herself together] never mind. Oh, I’m so sorry. Never mind. Okay. Okay! So, yeah. I think I asked the night before if I could be drunk. Another was—no, none of it was in the outline. You know.

jesse

It’s something—it’s a really wonderful character moment for your character.

crosstalk

Catherine: It’s really fun. Jesse: Because as much as she is saying hooorrible things, it is also her, like—it’s her great moment to be herself.

catherine

Yeah, some people have to get loaded to let the truth come out. And it’s not a truth you [laughing] necessarily wanna hear. Listen, it—it wasn’t anti-Semitic, though. It was just ignorant. Wasn’t it? Well, I guess—

jesse

Yeah, it was—yeah. Anti-Semitic is probably stretching it. [Catherine agrees.] She starts talking about what she calls “Jew Stuff”. [Catherine laughs.] I really like the way that each of those films… really looks at couple relationships. I think that’s sort of at the center of them. And, in fact, when, in A Mighty Wind, where you’re paired with Eugene Levy, your character barely has any jokes. It’s really—that storyline is a relationships storyline.

catherine

Yeeeah. Yeah, I was worried about that at the beginning. Yeah, there’s no… she’s not a funny character. My—Mickey, yeah.

jesse

Did you think about this—obviously not romantic, but this sort of long, fruitful relationship you’d had with Eugene Levy?

catherine

Oh, you can’t—I don’t think you can help but draw on it. Whether it’s consciously or unconsciously or subconsciously. Yeah. Unconsciously, probably. Um. No, you can’t help it. I mean, that’s lovely! I mean, you have—and it—I think it even worked more so for anyone in the audience who knew that Eugene and I had known each other that long.

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[The sounds of a large crowd of people talking and interacting with one another. Muffled sounds of drunken singing.] Mickey (A Mighty Wind): Being onstage again with Mitch was a great thing. Oh boy, I never thought it was possible. And there we were. [Beat.] I just wish he didn’t take things so seriously. You know. That damn kiss! My sister—well, they were all at the show. But my sister, Jocelyn, said, “You led him on. You shouldn’t have kissed him if you didn’t wanna go all the way.”

catherine

And one great thing about improvising these kind of movies is you really help create each other. You know? By the way—by the way you treat each other and by what you say about each other. It’s like… you know, in my mind, I went, “Oooh, that’s who—yeah! Oh, so I’m that person!” [Laughs.] “Oh! I did that kind of thing? Okay, that changes who I was thinking of.” Do you know what I mean? You really can affect each other that way. And yeah, when Eugene started shooting, he got real nervous about… how he was playing it. I think he really got into it. So, it made him feel ungrounded, in a way. This idea that he was just beautifully talented but had some demons or angels who were confusing him.

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[Muffled birdsong in the background.] Mitch: I’ve never been in better headspace… uh, I’m writing poetry again. I’m going through a very, uh, prolific phase.

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jesse

A little Brian Wilson-y.

catherine

There you go! Yeah. But he got really nervous and I think that’s where I would say our old friendship came up—that I had the ability and nerve to say, “Eugene, no. You’re—no, this is beautiful. Don’t be afraid. Just stay with this, here. It’s so—and I’m—” And was like I was there as Mickey. “I’m with you. I’m so with you, right now.” You know? So, I guess that’s where it came in more. Our friendship.

jesse

Well, Catherine O’Hara, I sure appreciate you making the time to be on Bullseye. [Music fades in.]

catherine

Oh, I’m sorry for my looong answers!

jesse

Oh! Not at all! It was—it was a—it was an honor to get to talk to you.

catherine

Oh no, for me. Thank you.

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Light, gentle music with soft vocalizations.

jesse

Catherine O’Hara. She’s the greatest. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the Emmy winning Schitt’s Creek—again, S-C-H-I-T-T, and yes we have to spell it out for legal reasons—the first five seasons are streaming on Netflix and a bunch of other platforms, as well. [Music fades out.]

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Thumpy, brassy transition music.

jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is produced out of the homes of me and the staff of Maximum Fun, in and around greater Los Angeles, California—where my six year old son is running approximately 40% rate of, upon completing talking to me and turning around to walk away, letting loose wind. The children, they are our future. The show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio and Jordan Kauwling are our associate producers. We get help from Casey O’Brien, as well. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song is by The Go! Team. Thanks to them and their label, Memphis Industries, for letting us use it. You can also keep up with the show on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Just search for Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. And I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature sign off.

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Speaker: Bullseye with Jesse Thorn is a production of MaximumFun.org and is distributed by NPR. [Music fades out.]

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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