TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: David Simon

TV writer and producer David Simon is our guest this week. Simon is the force behind some of television’s most compelling and critically acclaimed series such as The Wire, Treme and The Deuce. He joins us to talk about his new HBO series, The Plot Against America.

Guests: David Simon

Transcript

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Jesse Thorn: [Somber] Hi. It's Jesse, the founder of MaxFun, coming to you from the microphone at my home office, where I am socially segregating. So, we promised you a MaxFunDrive this week, but things... [suppressing a grim chuckle] haven't exactly gone how we expected. So given the pandemic, we're gonna postpone this year's Drive. Events are still fluid, so we're hesitant to give you specifics about new dates. Right now, we have late April penciled into our calendars. We'll keep you posted about that. As it stands, a lot of our Drive machinery was already cranked up. So, for one thing you might hear a reference or two to the Drive in our shows, which might have been recorded before we made this decision. And here is some good news: there's a bunch of great bonus content available for all of our MaxFun members. If you're a member and you missed the email with instructions on how to listen, check your spam folder or log in at MaximumFun.org/manage. Also, at MaximumFun.org/manage, you can change your membership if your circumstances have changed. We know this is a tough time for a lot of people, and we understand. You can also go to MaximumFun.org/join at any time if you'd like to become a member. During the next couple weeks, what would have been the Drive, we are going to do our best to be extra available to you. We've got some streaming events planned, some social media stuff. We know a lot of folks are isolated right now, and we wanna help provide comfort in the best ways that we know how. You can follow us on social media, and we'll let you know what's up. During this tough time, I have been feeling really grateful for my community of colleagues here at MaxFun. And for you, the folks who make our work possible. Goofy as that work may sometimes be. Stay safe out there. We're thinking of you.

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

jesse thorn

I’m Jesse Thorn. It’s Bullseye.

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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

Before we get into our next interview, a quick warning: there is some talk in it about antisemitism and we wanted to give you a heads up about that, now. Towards the end of his career, Philip Roth—the novelist—wrote a book called The Plot Against America. It was set in the beginning of the 1940s. [Music ends.] The world is in turmoil, the holocaust is getting into full swing in Europe. Japan has invaded China. And the United States is about to pick a president. Franklin D Roosevelt is seeking an unprecedented third term. But he's facing a real threat. Charles Lindbergh—the famed aviator and outspoken isolationist—is in Roth’s narrative, making a play for the White House. He’s dropping antisemitic dog whistles and his pitch against war in Europe is starting to resonate. The book was praised when it was released. In part because, in it, Roth tells mostly small stories. He talks about families, their jobs, how people get by, how their relationships with their neighbors change—sometimes for the better, some for the much, much worse. The flag doesn’t change into a swastika. There aren’t any Jewish concentration camps on American soil. Roth’s point was, I guess, that things don’t need to change that much for the world to change a lot. So, HBO just launched a TV show based on the book. And they found maybe the perfect showrunner for it: my guest, David Simon. And small moments, small stories, like in the book, are Simon’s bread and butter. Simon is, of course, the creator of The Wire—one of the greatest TV shows of all time. He also made Treme, Show Me a Hero, The Deuce, and he wrote for Homicide: Life on the Street. All of those shows tell stories about people and the dysfunctional systems in which they work. I wanna play a little bit from The Plot Against America, before we get into our interview. This scene features one of the main characters: a Jewish American man, named Herman Levin, played by Morgan Spector. Herman’s talking to a friend in a movie theater about the news.

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(I’m not sure which one of them is Herman, and I don’t know what the name of his friend is. I labeled it as though Herman was the first to talk but I’m not sure if that’s correct.) [The rhythmic click of a movie projector.] Herman: I still can’t get over the fact that France fell apart in only six weeks. Friend: Germans know how to make war. [The sound of a switch being flipped. The projector spins to a stop.] Herman: You read The Star Ledger today? Friend: About Wheeler and the Republicans recruiting Lindbergh to run? Herman: Yeah. [Hollow, metallic sounds as film reels are put back into their tins.] Friend:  He’s tapped into something. Maybe not around here, but among the goyim? [Beat.] Did you read their Roper poll? 39% say Jews are like other people. 53% say we’re different and should be, quote, “restricted”, unquote. Herman: [In disbelief.] That much? Friend: 10% say we should be deported. And that, my friend, is a lot of kindling. Lindbergh if he runs could be the spark.

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jesse

David Simon, welcome to Bullseye. I’m so happy to have you on the show!

david simon

Thank you for having me.

jesse

I’m gonna start with a broad question, but I couldn’t figure out how to ask it more specifically. What is your relationship to your Judaism?

david

[Chuckles.] Well, I’m… mostly secular. But I’m familiar with the religious observances. If I find myself in a shul, I know the liturgy. I was bar mitzvahed. My kids are bar mitzvahed. You know, I… I don’t believe in God. I’m, you know, I’m more of one of those Jews who are locked in because of ancestor worship. Mostly my life is very secular.

jesse

Why did you make sure to bar mitzvah your kids if you don’t believe in God? What was the meaning for you? And for your kids, for that matter?

david

Peoplehood. Ancestor worship. I did this. My father did this. His father did this. You know, it’s… a lot of this is, I think, rooted in a sense of the world wanting us not to be around. It’s not a very good reason to continue, I know—is to be arguing the negative—but, you know, when I was—I grew up in the wake of the Holocaust, and it was often said, not to give Hitler any posthumous victories, that—you know—to walk away from the faith or from the—or from the peoplehood aspect of being Jewish was an affront, historically. That it not end with the generation of which you are a part. I’m not sure that conveys, over time. I’m not sure that without some other, greater sense of Jewish identity, I have the right recipe for [chuckles] Judaism. I—in fact I’m pretty sure I don’t. But I’ve had a hard time with the idea of God or—and certainly of chosen-ness. I’m definitely with Spinoza. You know. You’d have to, you know—you’d have to get the same Bathinda to excommunicate me, if you’re gonna—if you’re gonna hang me up on chosen-ness. So, [chuckles] a lot of the—a lot of the aspects of—you know, I—you know, I don’t keep kosher. I don’t, you know—I’m probably not so good at keeping the sabbath. But I do feel very Jewish.

jesse

What are the things that you like about being Jewish?

david

I like the… I like the levels of tolerance. And the capacity for dissent, within the faith. You don’t have to believe in God to be Jewish, in my estimation. Obviously, you have to do a lot of things to be Jewish in an orthodox estimation. And I could get in any number of arguments with the orthodox, and I probably would if they wanted to bother with me. But, to them, I’m probably not Jewish. But to other Jews and to, you know, the people who I regard as my… my co-religious, in conservative Judaism or reformed Judaism—all of my—all of my falling away, all of my lapses, all of my questioning of the deist aspect of the relationship—of Judaism—you know, of the man and God thing—doesn’t necessarily kick me out of the—kick me out of the tribe. I think, you know—I really enjoy the capacity for argument and debate and rhetoric that Jews bring to the world. And then there’s the humor. Which, you know, we do pretty well. And then it’s the familial stories, you know? It’s… it’s the things I remember my father and my grandparents, and—you know—peoplehood.

jesse

You were born in 1960. How did the folks in your family who were alive in the 1930s and ‘40s talk about them, in your house, when you were a kid?

david

[Sighs.] Um. Well, to go to this current project that I’m on, my father told me—many times, he told to me—told me the story several times—one of his earliest memories. He was born in 1920, in Jersey City, and he remembers his father—my grandfather—taking him on the tube train, when he was seven years old, over to the Lower Manhattan, to stand on Broadway. And he was on his—on my grandfather’s shoulders, to see Lindbergh come down Broadway in a tickertape parade. And he remembers cheering for Lindbergh as one of the greatest heroes he’d ever seen or experienced in his life. And then, of course, 12, 13 years later, he was a student at NYU and Lindbergh had turned himself into one the great villains in Jewish American life. Which is to say, he had embraced a pro-fascist, isolationist, and overtly antisemitic stance. And the astonishment of seeing somebody who was so much a hero be transformed, you know, at the edge of this terrifying moment in Europe, stayed with him. It was a—it was a profound memory for my father. I guess in a more general sense, they remember the gathering storm. And not really even knowing how far it was going to go. I don’t think anybody anticipated mass extermination or the technology of the death camps. I mean, that stuff came out—the sheer scope of it became more known to the general population at the end of the war. But obviously, there was an awareness of which branches of our family had not gotten out of Europe and which we lost track of. And there was a—there was certainly an awareness that doors were closing on European Jewry. And that something awful was happening.

jesse

Did your family—especially your parents’ generation—like being American and identify deeply as American?

david

Utterly. Utterly. We were Americans. In every fundamental way. And I think—and to an extent, by the end of their lives all my grandparents felt distinctly American. They were the ones who—they were the ones who arrived here, as immigrants, my grandparents. I have some great grandparents who made the trip after their kids and who died in this country and—you know, I can’t speak to them. I mean, some of them—you know—I know I have a great grandfather who never spoke English. You know. I think he was—you know, he never worked in this country. He was a—he lived out his last years, in this country, you know, davening on the porch and reading the Yiddish newspaper. And I’m not sure what he felt. But I would say, even my grandparents felt distinctly American once they had—once they had maneuvered their way into the culture and into the—and into the society.

jesse

Did you, in your lifetime, ever feel like your American-ness was questioned because of your Judaism? Did you ever feel like you had been made to be an outsider, in the country in which you were born, because of your cultural background?

david

Only in the political rhetoric of people on the extreme right. I mean, it’s happened as a matter of routine, on the internet. But there you’re exposing yourself to all gradations of white nationalism and racism and antisemitism. I mean, there’s an extremity in this country that… will engage in that, privately. And they’ll—you know, now that they have an anonymous tool of social engagement, they’ll do it online. Do I feel as if it actually threatens my own sense of myself as an American? No, I do not.

jesse

You were a newspaper reporter for many years, before you became a television writer. When you were a newspaper reporter, did the idea of working in another medium ever occur to you?

david

No. I thought I was—uh, books. I mean, I thought I would be working in prose as well. But I—the—it was an extension of journalism. I thought I would be a newspaperman and I would be going out on these books where I would spend a certain amount of time in certain—in certain places or in—inside certain institutions and I would write process books. And I did two of those, in my career. And then, somehow, I stumbled into television writing.

jesse

One of the interesting things, to me, about journalism—and especially, like, daily newspaper journalism, which is what you mostly worked in—is that, you know, you have to kind of gather enough information to see the bones of a narrative, so that you can—you know—pitch it to an editor and get it assigned and go out and work on it. But when you go out and work on it, you have to be open to the idea that the story is actually a very different story from the one that you imagined, when you pitched it to somebody. [David confirms.] I wonder if there was a time when you thought you had one story and found out that you had a very different story.

david

I’ll sort of up that ante a little bit and say some of the moments I’m most proud of, in journalism, involved standing around with good editors and acknowledging that, while we had what seemed to be a good story, and what seemed to be a provocative story, and what—you know, maybe it’s even a story with a good guy and a bad guy—if we pull on this one thread, if we look at this one sentence in the fourth graph and we ask ourselves two more questions, and we go out and answer those questions with reporting, you watch the entire story fall apart. The premise of the story would actually fall apart, and you’d realize, “We’ve sleighted 30 inches for Sunday, and we really don’t have the story we think we have.” And some of the most responsible moments I was involved with were moments were you would end up spiking a story. Where you wouldn’t run it, because you came to understand that, you know, your singular view of what was true was way more complicated. And that, you know, you either had to do more reporting and figure out what the story was, or you had to admit that what you thought was news here was not news. And it’s so counter intuitive. You know, there’s such a pressure to publish and to—and to validate the hours that you spend on something, that there was something incredibly ethical about being part of a conversation that ended up spiking a story. ‘Cause the story wasn’t good enough or ‘cause the story had problems. One of the best editors I knew, it was said of him, “He can—he can send a story to the metro advance—you know, to the kill file so fast it’ll make your head spin.” You know? With three questions, he can knock your story down. And it was said as a joke, you know, ‘cause obviously that’s [chuckling] not the only skillset you need to be a newspaper editor, but there was an ethic to what we wouldn’t run. And of course, there’s nothing like that with the internet, now. You know, as soon as somebody thinks they know something, it’s published.

jesse

When you became a TV writer, you got involved in a very different kind of storytelling, where you—you know—when you’re writing television, you don’t have—you may have fealty to the capital T Truth, or responsibility to the capital T Truth, but you are—you are absolved of responsibility to the lowercase t truth, because you’re making fiction. What did you have to learn when you got, you know—when you got assigned an episode and when you first became a staff writer, about what makes television work, relative to what makes a—you know—a similar narrative in a newspaper work?

david

Television is just drama. Or it is when it works, I guess. When I was hired to start writing episodes of a television show that was based on a nonfiction book of mine, I didn’t have to learn the milieu, because I’d written the book. So, I had that. You know, I didn’t have to do any research into what I was writing about. In fact, I sort of walked into that writer’s room and I became an easy resource for any technical questions that came up. You know, anybody wanted to ask me anything about—you know, a barium and a timothy test, you know, for gunshot residue or what was probable cause or, you know, how’s an autopsy work? Like, [chuckles] I—you know, I’d spent a year in a homicide unit so I could answer those questions. What I had to learn was drama. I—you know, I think the thing—first thing they did was they said, “Read plays.” You know. “Do you go to the theatre? Do you—you know, how much—how familiar are you with drama?” And I had gone to the theatre a lot. I enjoyed the theatre. I had tickets to the Shakespeare theatre in DC and I’d seen a lot of stuff onstage, in Baltimore. And I—you know, I just—I enjoyed it for just enjoying it. But I hadn’t made any kind of systemic study in it. But I remember Jimmy Ashmere pressing… two books in my hand. A Perendeli and O’Neil. Oh, no. Uh. Chekov. And telling me, “Read these plays if you haven’t read them. And, by the way, if they come around see them onstage.” And… he wasn’t wrong! I mean, you know, it sounds a little bit highfalutin, since we were writing a network TV show, but all the guys I worked with were playwrights. They were people who had had their plays produced and, you know—Jimmy Ashmere, Eric Overmyer, Tom Fontana. They were telling me, “You have a different job, now. You’re a dramatist. Try to—you know—try to—try to think about what you’re doing.” And so, the pacing was different, and dialogue mattered intensely, and every line had to justify itself. And there was a whole new vernacular to learn. Never mind the camera and the actual technocracy of, you know, putting film in the can. You know. That was—it was much longer before I learned that. But first thing I had to learn was how to write a script and I certainly didn’t have the pacing correct, at first.

jesse

We’ll wrap up with David Simon after a quick break. Still to come: he’ll tell me about one of the most unique challenges he encountered when he was making The Wire. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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Music: Light, quiet music. Manoush Zomorodi: All that data collection. Speaker 1: They have the last ten years of your movements. Manoush: It can have real-life consequences. Speaker 2: And if you have that much information, that information’s gonna be misused. Manoush: I’m Manoush Zomorodi and who decides what’s right or wrong in our digital world? That’s next time on the Ted Radio Hour, from NPR. [Music ends.] Manoush: Subscribe or listen now.

jesse

It’s Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. My guest is David Simon. He is, of course, the creator of The Wire, The Deuce, and other television shows. His new show is called The Plot Against America. It’s set in the 1940s and imagines an America where the aviator, Charles Lindbergh—an isolationist and Nazi sympathizer—runs for president again Franklin D Roosevelt. It’s airing on HBO, now. Let’s get back into our conversation. There’s a book about The Wire that’s really great. Like, the idea that a TV tie-in book would be really good is a strange one. [Chuckles.] But The Wire book, which came out just, I think, maybe—what? Like two years into the run, or three years into the run? In the middle of the run. Is really great. And one of the things that it reproduces is some of the arguments that you made on behalf of the show, to HBO. And they’re like incredibly forceful, but not… none of them are, like, whiny. [Laughs.] You know what I mean? [David chuckles.] I’m trying to think of a classier way to say that, but I failed. None of them are, like, whiny! They’re just—they’re really clear. And it’s obvious that you had—that you had created that show with very specific aims in mind. Having worked on Homicide: Life on the Streets, which was one of the best police television shows that had existed to the point that The Wire was created, what did you want The Wire to be that couldn’t be done on NYPD Blue or Homicide or Drag Net?

david

Well, I wanted it to be much darker, because I wanted to attack the drug war as being a dysfunctional policy that had done so much to destroy urban society. Nothing less than urban society. I think it’s—you know, to this moment, I think it’s one of the most singular policy disasters in the history of the country. So, I wanted to attack that. And to do that, I wanted to create a continuing narrative. Which meant—first of all, if it’s on cable, and I learned this from watching Tom’s earlier show, Oz—Tom Fontana—put Oz on HBO and HBO let him and it was such an extraordinarily dark show. You know, a show about a maximum-security prison—that I thought, “Well, my god if they’ll put that on the air, they’ll put anything on the air!” So, I mean, the first thing I did was I did a miniseries based on my second book, The Corner, which was about a year on a—in an open-air drug market, in west Baltimore. A nonfiction book. And—

jesse

Did you pitch that series with, [brightly] “Hey guys! If you’ll make Oz, you’ll put anything on the air!”

david

Uh, I didn’t—I don’t think I had to say that sentence because clearly they were gonna counter-program network television. That was their intent. I mean, they were already in that business. Oz was in evidence. In fact, I offered to do it with Tom and for whatever reason Tom sent me in there alone. And so, I—it sold as a miniseries and I went to work on the scripts involving that book, and once I’d seen that—first of all, you can—you could—you didn’t have to tell a tale that was full of redemption and made people feel good every thirteen minutes so that they would, you know, go to the commercials and buy—you know—Lincolns and iPods and blue jeans and whatever else. The advertisers were not there to be appeased. There were no advertisers. You know, cable offered something very different. Which is we don’t have to tell a story that makes audiences happy at the end and puts them in a buying mood. We can maintain an audience base by counter-programming network television. So, we don’t need so much redemption and so much humor and so much—you know. And people are not gonna walk away from the television set if they can watch it three or four times. You know, okay—you can’t get it on Sunday night? Maybe you catch it on Wednesday or Thurs—yeah. Suddenly there was a vehicle that could deliver a darker image and a darker narrative. And that was important, because that’s all I had to say was that I was trained as a journalist and I was interested in writing political drama. You know. Drama that has a political purpose or a political argument or is steeped in the issue it’s dealing with. And finally, there was a vehicle on television where you could do some grown up stuff with it. You know. It was—the medium, I think in some ways, matured when they got rid of the advertisers on premium cable. And so, that was the one thing that I understood going in, with The Wire, was if—you know—if they’ll give me the room, I can tell something really long, really ornate. It can have sub-themes and people will find it. And maybe not everybody, but enough people will find it so maybe they’ll let me keep doing it.

jesse

I remember when the show was starting to get the recognition that it deserved—which didn’t really happen until later in its run, and frankly only—only happened partially, even then. I remember hearing a lot of people talking about Omar, the character who was a stick-up man who robbed drug dealers. And Brother Mouzone, a character who was sort of like a… if a fantastical version of a member of The Fruit of Islam was also a contract killer, and how much they loved them. And I remember thinking it was interesting that it was the characters—it was those characters who were kind of the biggest and the ones who were closest to characters in, like, a western or an opera or something else that is—you know. That is not afraid to be grand—who resonated with people the most. I don’t know if that was—if that’s true to your experience. [Chuckling.] You’ve had probably a lot more people talk to you about The Wire than I have. But if it is, like, do you—how did it feel, at the time? What did you think of that?

david

Yeah! I mean, they were—they were gunslingers. So that resonates pretty well with an American audience. They were sort of loosely based on real people, on real stories. Omar is based on a couple guys—Donnie Andrews, Ferdinand Harvin, Shorty Boyd. People who robbed drug dealers in Baltimore, who were known. You know, many of them known personally to my writing partner, Ed Burns. I knew—I knew Donnie Andrews for the last part of his life. And then Father Mouzone was based on a guy named Vernon Collins, who had a Muslim name. He—I don’t know if—I think he joined the Nation of Islam when he was in prison and he embraced the identity, but I don’t think he was actually active. But he had the vibe of being—I mean, I think he embraced—he went to the Nation when he was in prison. I don’t think he stayed with them in any really [chuckling] orthodox way. But he emerged on the street as a—as a presence with some sort of NOI vibe to him, even if it wasn’t legitimate.

jesse

What’s a particularly difficult challenge that you took on, on one of the shows that you’ve created since then that you’re proud of how you managed?

david

Well, the one we have out now, Plot Against America—I feel like we took a novel that was written by Philip Roth, in which it’s the memories of his ten year old self translated through that child having grown to adulthood, remembering his childhood and remembering an alternate history of America, from the 1940s, of his family and the trauma they experienced when America takes a dry run at fascism. It’s a—its’ a complicated piece. And, of course, doing the point of a view of a ten year old child, later on as perceived by that child all grown up, you’re either gonna have to do yards of voiceover or that child is gonna be—have to be exposed not just to dinner table talk about what happened, which is the way it is in the book, but rather has to be there—has to be physically there for far too much of the history. And the goings on. So, we had to expand to six characters—not all of whom, certainly none of whom had point of view in the novel. And we had to create scenes in a Philip Roth book, you know, by this giant of literature, that didn’t exist. And so, we were—you know, we were a couple of television hacks: Ed Burns, Rena Rexrode, myself. We’re… we’re sitting there, trying to write our way past the pages of a literary lion’s novel and not fall on our ass. I mean, on some very basic level, if that’s not ambition for some television writers, I don’t know what is. Expanding that book required a lot of thought and a lot of characterization and a certain amount of risk.

jesse

Do you still have the instinct when you’re writing television—which you’ve been doing for, you know, 20+ years now—to be a reporter? To go ask questions and find something concrete that you can— [David confirms.] —hang your fiction on?

david

Yes. I spent—I began the day interviewing somebody about something on a story. They were a participant in something that happened six years ago… I finally caught up with them. I was able to sit down. I was able to start asking questions. Start formulating where the narrative might take us, if we incorporated this person’s part of the story. For a—for a miniseries that may or may not get made. That was the beginning of my day, was that interview. So, yeah. At some point, everything begins with trying to find the source material that’s around it.

jesse

David Simon, I am so grateful to you for coming on Bullseye and I so love and admire your work and have for so many years. And I hope you’ll come back again, sometime. I’m real—I’m really thankful.

david

Thank you. Thank you for the attention.

jesse

David Simon. The Plot Against America is his great new show. You can catch it right now, on HBO.

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jesse

That’s the end of another episode of Bullseye. Bullseye is produced at MaximumFun.org world headquarters, overlooking MacArthur Park in beautiful Los Angeles, California—where McArthur Park lake is overflowing from the recent rains. And overflowing with fish. We saw somebody out the window catch a very big carp. The show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio is our associate producer. We have help from Casey O’Brien. Our production fellow is Jordan Kauwling. Our interstitial music is by Dan Wally, also known as DJW. Our theme song is by The Go! Team. Our thanks to them and their label, Memphis Industries, for letting us use it. And we have decades of interviews in our archives, available to you. If you love The Wire, for example, we’ve had a number of people on Bullseye from that show. Michael K Williams, who played Omar, was a wonderful, wonderful conversation. Once, when The Wire was still on TV, Wendell Pierce and Andre Royo—who played Bunk and Bubbles on the show—came over to my apartment for an interview, back in the days when I made this show at my apartment. We even had Aiden Gillen, Mayor Tommy Carcetti himself, on the show. You can find all those on our website, MaximumFun.org. We’re also on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. Just search for Bullseye with Jesse Thorn. You can keep up with the show there. 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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