TRANSCRIPT Bullseye with Jesse Thorn: Remembering Big Bird’s Puppeteer Caroll Spinney

Taking a moment to look back at a past Bullseye guest we lost this year, Caroll Spinney. He was Big Bird’s puppeteer for 50 years, but he was so much more than the literal man inside the costume. Caroll was the voice and spirit of the iconic character many of us grew up watching. In this conversation director Dave LaMattina also joined us to discuss his documentary, I am Big Bird.

Guests: Caroll Spinney Dave LaMattina

Transcript

jesse thorn

Hey, all. Jesse, here. We’re getting near the end of the year. I wanted to thank you for listening to Bullseye. Making our show isn’t easy. We’ve got a very small staff that works tirelessly to book guests and edit interviews and keep things running smoothly. It is hard work that takes time, money, and effort. It’s also incredibly rewarding. When I hear it that a guest is an NPR listener, already, it means a lot. And it means something to know that you’re listening, as well. So, I’ll get to the point. If you wanna show your gratitude, this holiday season, consider supporting the NPR Member Station in your area. Any amount. It’s the single most effective way to keep shows like Bullseye going. It’ll make a huge difference to public radio in your community. It makes a huge difference to us, too. To get started with your donation to an NPR Member Station, visit donate.NPR.org/bullseye or just text the word “bullseye” to the number 49648. We’ll send you a text message with a link where you can find your local station and make your contribution. Message and data rates may apply. You can visit NPR.org/smsterms for privacy and text message terms.

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

jesse

I’m Jesse Thorn. It’s Bullseye.

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jesse

We’re looking back on past Bullseye guests we lost in 2019. First up, my conversation from 2014 with Caroll Spinney. He died this past December, at his home in Connecticut. He was 85. Caroll was, of course, the puppeteer and voice behind Big Bird. He also played Oscar the Grouch. If you’re an American under 50 or so, you probably grew up with Big Bird. And, in a way, you grew up as Big Bird. Because Big Bird isn’t just Sesame Street’s most popular character. He is the avatar of the children who watch. He’s physically huge, but inside he’s a three or four-year-old kid working to understand the world around him, just like you while you watch.

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Big Bird: Hi, Ari! Aristotle: Oh, hi, Big Bird! Big Bird: Um, whatcha doing? Aristotle: Oh, I’m reading. Big Bird: How can you read? You’re blind. Aristotle: I use my fingers! Big Bird: Well, I can’t seem to read my book with my fingers! Aristotle: Oh, well you got the wrong kind of book! Yeah. You see those little bumps, down there on the page? Big Bird: Oh yeah. Aristotle: Yeah, they’re sticking up on the page. Big Bird: Yeah? Aristotle: Well, that’s called braille!

jesse

For the longest time, the literal person you’d watch inside that huge ball of feathers was Caroll Spinney. When I talked with him, he was 80 and he was still playing Big Bird. In fact, he kept playing the role until 2018. When filmmaker Dave LaMattina met Spinney, he was struck at the depth of the relationship between the man and the bird—how much this iconic character drew from the life of this remarkable performer. So, he asked Spinney if he could make a documentary. The result: a beautiful film called I Am Big Bird. [Music fades in.] Anyway, here’s my interview with Dave LaMattina and the late Caroll Spinney.

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jesse

Dave, Caroll, welcome to Bullseye. It’s great to have you on the show.

caroll spinney

Thank you, Jess.

dave lamattina

Yeah, thank you for having us.

jesse

So, Caroll—you talk about this a little bit in the book, but you have been a puppeteer basically since always.

caroll

Yeah, and I supposed that’s long. [Jesse laughs.] I was eight. At five, I saw my first puppet show and I couldn’t wait to have a chance to try and do it, myself.

jesse

Do you remember the first puppet that you had or made?

caroll

The—it was a monkey. A little monkey. I can’t imagine what kind of a show I’ve given with only one real puppet and a stuffed, green, flannel snake. [Jesse laughs.] It must have been terrible.

crosstalk

Jesse: Did you get anybody to come? Did your folks come? Caroll: Yeah! 16 people came! Jesse: 16! Caroll: Yeah. Jesse: That’s not a bad—that’s not a bad haul, Caroll. Caroll: Yeah. Mothers and kids and stuff. I put a ad in the little local post office. And people came. I was surprised.

jesse

When you went into the service, how old were you?

caroll

I was 19.

jesse

And that was, basically, the very early years of television, right?

caroll

Yes. I was only six years old, about that time, ‘cause it really started around 1947.

jesse

And you did some television in—while you were in the service?

caroll

Yes. I was stationed in Las Vegas. I was in the Air Force—Nellis Air Force Base. And I had my mother ship out puppets. I’d been doing puppet shows and birthday parties and things like that to earn money to go through art school. ‘Cause my father wasn’t empathetic about me going to school. He didn’t—had never—he didn’t even finish high school, ‘cause they were very poor. And he wanted me to be—go work in his factory. And I would run a machine for—it’s—so that way you won’t starve to death. But I didn’t think I was gonna starve to death being an artist. And—but I couldn’t—jobs paid so little. So, I was able to put myself through a great deal of the expense by doing puppet shows.

jesse

You know you later worked in Boston, right?

caroll

Yes.

jesse

When you thought about what a better job was than doing local children’s television, in Boston or Las Vegas, did it—did that mean getting paid more or did it mean doing a different kind of work?

caroll

Well, I wanted to have—to do something that had a little more meaning. It was great fun, working with the guy who played Bozo—Frank Avruch—and he’s still a friend. He’s even in the movie we’re gonna be discussing. And it was really wonderful to be on that show and so much fun to do it. I made it up as we went along. But I realized it wasn’t very important. It just—just froth. Eye candy. It was just—commercials in there. But to get on a show like Sesame Street—I had no idea what I was going for. I had—I created a really fancy puppet show and went to a puppet festival with it and Jim Henson was there, scouting. Lucky for me. I was in the right place at the right time.

jesse

But while we’re talking about origin stories, I wanna bring you—Dave LaMattina—into the conversation. You directed this film about Caroll’s life and work. And I wonder how you got to know Caroll?

dave

You know, in some ways, it was dumb luck. I wanted to always work in family entertainment and the premier destination for that, of course, is Sesame Street. And so, in 2005, I interned at Sesame Workshop, just in home video. I never met Caroll. And I didn’t know who he was until I was talking to a friend about how much I loved the internship and she said, “Oh, I’m related to Caroll Spinney!” And I said, “I don’t know who that is.” And so, she told me these amazing stories about Caroll and how he had been Big Bird and Oscar since 1969. And I immediately ran back and told my directing partner, who I directed the film with, Chad Walker, about it. And we said, “Man, we gotta make a film about this.” And so, I called the one person I still knew at Sesame Street and said, “Hey,” you know, “do you think this is something you guys would be interested in?” And she forwarded us onto the, you know, the head of PR there. And we thought, “Well, we’re never gonna hear back from them.” I think within a day we got an email back saying, “Oh, we love this idea. You should come in to meet Caroll.” And so, we went, a week later, and met Caroll and his wife, Deb, and Oscar the Grouch—who also attended the meeting.

jesse

[Chuckles.] It’s a classic show business good cop, bad cop situation. You know, you have—the talent gets to be nice and then you bring in Oscar the Grouch to be the heavy. [Caroll chuckles.]

dave

Yeah, I mean, it was absolutely insane to be sitting in that room and have Caroll, during the meeting, just sit down, reach into his duffel bag, and pull out Oscar the Grouch. And Oscar comes to life. It’s not like… it’s not like there’s a puppet there. It’s like there’s another person. And Oscar, without making any sort of formal introduction, is just alive and looking and blinking and, you know, Chad starts to tell the story about his wife having a gluten allergy. ‘Cause Caroll has a gluten allergy, and Oscar hasn’t said anything to this point. And all the sudden, he just goes, [deeply] “Boring!” And cuts Chad off. [Jesse laughs.]

crosstalk

Dave: And, uh… Caroll: That’s terrible. Dave: At that point we thought we were in good shape. Caroll: [Laughs.]

jesse

What was Big Bird like when Big Bird was created?

caroll

He was the ugliest looking thing I ever saw. It was built around me and it didn’t exist when I—so, I—they said—I went in for measurements and they tried seeing how they would build it and they had never built anything quite like that, before. Although, it was something that Jim had always wanted to build: a really silly and funny bird. Sort of—and his—when it was being built around me, I said, “I should get to know more of what I’m going to be playing. What’s it gonna be like?” And he said, “Well, think of Mortimer Snerd and kind of a [in a nasal voice] ‘well, hi there, Mr. Bergen.’” Edgar Bergen’s character. One of his many characters—well, three characters. He—so… that’s how it started.

jesse

Let’s take a listen to Big Bird from the first season of Sesame Street. And you can’t see Big Bird… but he looks like Big Bird, but not like Big Bird. It’s very disconcerting.

caroll

Very much so.

jesse

[Laughing.] Yeah.

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[Fades in.] Speaker 1: Oh, that?! Big Bird: Woah! That is some kind of word! Woah! Music: Bold, rousing music reminiscent of something that would be played by a marching band. Big Bird: [He begins to sing. He pronounces the alphabet phonetically as though it were one long word.] ABC-DEF-GHI-JKL-MNOP-QRSTUV-WXYZ. It’s the most remarkable word I’ve ever seen! ABC-DEF-GHI-JKL-MNOP-QRSTUV-WXYZ. I wish I knew exactly what I mean! It starts out like an “A” word, as anyone can see. But somewhere in the middle, it gets awfully “QR” to me. ABC-DEF-GHI-JKL-MNOP-QRSTUV-WXYZ. If I ever find out just what this word can mean, I’ll be the smartest bird the world has ever seen! [Speaking.] Uh, maybe Gordan would know. [The clip fades out.]

caroll

[Pitching his voice high.] See, I don’t think I sound like that anymore.

jesse

[Laughs.] When did you find the… the heart of Big Bird that I think we—all of us who know and love Big Bird know now—which is this feeling of a child looking out at the world?

caroll

Well, I think it came from the—we had—first, we used the other songs that had been written, like “Octopus Garden” and stuff like that. And it was the writers who wrote stories. I real—and they were poignant stories that Big Bird would always try to be helpful and wanted to be liked. But he would run into dramatic situations. And gradually I—we had come upon a point where I said, “I think he shouldn’t be just a big, goofy guy. He should be a kid. Even though he’s 8 feet 2. ‘Cause the kids come in different sizes. He—his—kind of developed as he lived his stories. Which were so beautifully written. ‘Cause we had a really fabulous group of writers. At one point there were 17 of them, when we were making 130 new shows every week—every year. So, I think his character kind of grew into what he is.

jesse

Dave, do you remember what Big Bird meant to you, when you were the age that you watched Sesame Street?

dave

You know, it’s funny. I didn’t, until we went back on set the first day and saw Big Bird. And all of the sudden, there’s just this wave of emotion that rolls over you. I mean, it just—you don’t really think about Big Bird—means to you, he’s just there. He’s just your friend. He’s just someone that you identify with. And so I think, for—you know—at least for all of us on the team that made the film, there was some point—and episode or a skit—that, you know, it’s like that moment in Ratatouille where you go right back to your childhood. And, for me, it was a lot of the stuff with Big Bird in China. I remember Big Bird feeling so lost in that film. And I remember, as a child, really identifying with that and… I don’t know, it just—having someone to identify with and see, on screen, go through what you go through as a child—I guess for me he was just, I don’t know, a friend.

jesse

You know, I watched Sesame Street as a small child, and I was born in 1981. And then I am now watching it with my son, who’s two. And every—each time, as I’ve returned to the show, that feeling of recognition of Big Bird as being… your—as being you, on screen. The best part of you, on screen. You know, maybe not the most sophisticated part of you, on screen, but the part of you that—you know—wants to understand the world and be kind, is so powerful. Like, just such an overwhelming feeling.

dave

Yeah, you know, Sonia Manzano—in the film—said—who plays Maria—says that she always preferred Big Bird because he’s complicated, emotionally. Like a kid is. And to just have that to identify with—I’m having the same thing. I was born in 1980 and I have a son who will be two, in August. And we took him to see a stage show, and just to see Big Bird there, even, and how he interacts with kids. And seeing my son go through it, now. It’s remarkable. It’s still the same. It still has the same effect. We may have felt like we outgrew it, but once you’re back into it, it’s right there. It’s the same emotions.

jesse

Caroll, can you tell me a little bit about how you physically inhabit the Big Bird costume?

caroll

Well, it’s—it’s funny, it’s rather low-tech, mostly. I—it—I put on the bird feet. And the leggings used to be a kind of a strap that reached up and onto a belt I’d strap around me. And I’d wear shorts. And the feet are attached to the legs.

crosstalk

Caroll: But then they— Jesse: I liked seeing—I liked seeing an actual—like, you strapping on an actual belt [laughing] to hold up your leg pants. Caroll: Right.

caroll

Well, then they made it more practical. They made it like a—more like hip boots, where you put on, you know, pants that are made of rubber and those—that case, and the feet are attached just like hip boots. But this—now, they’re—it’s all orange fleece and—with those pink, stripe circles around his legs. Then the rest of it is a—all put together, one piece. And my assistant picks it up by the lower beak and a tab, that you can’t see, which is hid in the feathers. You know, yellow cloth. She could pick it up and it’s, like, made of series of hoops getting wider to make his size and smaller as it goes up the neck. I step—I lean over, and they slide him over me. I reach up and put my hand in this head and wiggle my fingers into place to get the controls so my little finger will move the eyes. I’ve learned, since I have a monitor inside to study, I look down and study his face—how to angle him to show—for either joy or worry or angst. My left hand goes into the left arm and the right one can move up and down, because of a fishing line and a seesaw movement. But it can’t grab anything like my left hand. Any props I use have to be picked up by my left hand. So.

jesse

You’ll hear the rest of my conversation with Caroll Spinney and Dave LaMattina after a break. Stay with us. It’s Bullseye, from MaximumFun.org and NPR.

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jesse

Welcome back to Bullseye. I’m Jesse Thorn. This week, we’re looking back on Bullseye guests we lost in 2019. Right now, we’re listening to my conversation with Caroll Spinney, who died in December. For over 50 years, he played Big Bird on Sesame Street. He was the subject of the 2014 documentary, I Am Big Bird. Dave LaMattina, the film director, is also in on the conversation. Are you ever—when you’re in the costume—especially now and recently, worried about just, simply put, your safety?

caroll

[Beat.] Uh, well, I don’t think there’s generally much danger. Although I did have some very dangerous moments when, one time, a klieg light missed me by 18 inches. Weighed over 100 pounds.

jesse

Because you have to walk around, only—and your only reference is a view through the camera’s eyes. You can’t see out of the costume, right?

caroll

No, I can’t. But—and it used to be—the television wires going to the TV sets was like an inch and a half thick. It was a very big cable. Now it’s the size of a regular little cable. So, that’s not quite so dangerous. But also, a real tripper. And I have fallen down a few times. Fallen off a few stages. One—quite a fall, one of them. In Guam.

jesse

I guess what I mean is that, you know, without being indelicate—while, by all appearances, you seem to be a really healthy dude, you’re also an 80-year-old man.

caroll

Yeah.

jesse

For whom… if you, you know—if you fell and… whatever! Things happen, right? You could break your hip and get a blood clot and die!

caroll

Yeah. Well. I guess everybody has that problem when they reach 80, too—also. But…

crosstalk

Jesse: But [chuckling] not everyone has the problem of walking around in a giant yellow suit, right? Caroll: No—walking around when you can’t see.

caroll

And you have to walk confidently. And I try to study everything that’s around me. And my assistant, Lars, I’ll have her aim me, because I can’t see. We have a little—we can remove a feather or two, but now we’re in HD, you can’t do that. You could even see that little spot there’s a feather missing, ‘cause everything shows. But it—there’s some danger. One time—that same klieg light smashed to piece and it was—had been lit. So, a big burning chunk of asbestos—and I didn’t think it burned, but it was like a glowing coal. It landed in one of those… fluffy rings of pink on—around his legs. And set—the cloth they had used to make it was highly flammable, it turned out. And suddenly I’m looking down, inside, and I said, “I—it suddenly feels hot.” I look down and I see nothing—orange flame, and they were—started getting long enough to go up, inside the suit. And I was like, “Oh my god.” I said, “Hey! I’m on fire!” And the—all the people were just looking—worrying about—‘cause I had almost gotten hit. It was only a matter of seconds between the hit and me being on fire. And one of the camera men—I’ll give his name, Richie King—he saved my life. ‘Cause he went over and he patted the flame out with his hands. And so, I almost burned to death at the same time as almost being crushed to death.

jesse

I wanna play a clip that you share in the movie, Dave, that I—it was something that I hadn’t thought about since I was a toddler, I guess—or hadn’t seen since I was a toddler. And that is the show that came after the passing of the character Mr. Hooper—which was precipitated by the passing of the man who played him. And, you know, Mr. Hooper’s store was sort of the center of Sesame Street. And there was really a lot of question as to how to address that this had happened. And Big Bird turned out to be at the center of it. Let’s take a listen.

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Susan: Big Bird… Mr. Hooper’s not coming back. Big Bird: [Beat.] Why not? Susan: [Beat.] Big Bird, when people die… they don’t come back. Big Bird: Ever? Susan: No. Never. Big Bird: [Voice wavering.] Why not? Luis: Well, Big Bird… they’re dead. They can’t come back. Big Bird: [Getting upset.] Well, he’s gonna come back! Why—who’s gonna take care of the store?! And who’s gonna make my birdseed milkshakes and tell me stories? David: Big Bird, I’m gonna take care of the store. Mr. Hooper, he left it to me. And I’ll make you your milkshakes and we’ll all tell you stories. [Big Bird makes a quiet sound of distress.] And we’ll make sure you’re okay. Susan: Sure, we’ll look after you. Big Bird: Oh. [Beat.]

jesse

I mean, it’s hard for me to listen to even now.

caroll

Oh, I’m starting to cry, myself.

jesse

What was it like when you got that—when you—when they handed you that script?

caroll

Well, I was one—it’s—one of our funniest writers was the one that wrote it. It was the head writer at that time. Fabulous. Norman Stiles. I thought it was probably the greatest script I’d ever seen come down to us, to use. And I thought it was beautifully done. Because the question was: do you tell four-year-olds about people dying? And they thought you could just—we’d just say, “Well, Mr. Hooper has retired in Florida.” You know. But that was just an easy way out. So, they did some research and said, “We think we can do this.” And I think they did a great job. I think it would be a good service to have that as a video to show children who’ve lost their grandparent or something. But anyway, it really was—I think—beautifully done. One of the finest things we ever did.

jesse

Dave, do you remember—do you remember when that happened?

dave

You know, it’s funny. I don’t remember watching that episode as a child. I don’t know if it was—happened at a time where I was either too young or too old, but I don’t remember watching it as a child. So, the first time I watched it was when we dug back into—for this film. And, as a filmmaker, from that perspective it’s really hard to tell that story, because you can’t improve on the genius that is Norman Stiles and Caroll and the cast and John Stone, who directed that episode. It was—it was perfect. But you need to tell the story. And that’s one of those scenes that, you know—Chad, who also edits the film, put together and we watched on the first try. I mean, I was—actually happened to be on a train on the way to go to the funeral of my best friend from childhood. And, um… it was like I was watching it for the first time. Because I, you know, I’m sitting on the train crying. And… yeah, it’s just such a wonderful, wonderful performance that—even though I don’t remember it from childhood—it still struck me the same way, all these years later, which is—you know—a testament to all those people who were involved in that episode.

jesse

[Beat.] Dave, what’s the thing that you saw in Caroll that you saw reflected in Big Bird that made you wanna make a feature documentary?

dave

Love. Just… the love that radiates from Caroll and his wife, Deb, is remarkable. It’s intoxicating to be around. It makes things a little bit brighter, I think, for all of us that have been a part of this film. And I think that it has made us live our lives a little bit differently, just knowing—getting to know Caroll. Let me remove Big Bird from the equation. We said to someone, the other day, you know—well, a lot of times, now, we approach a situation—you know—we get a lot of fan mail directed to Caroll. And a lot of it takes a lot of time for us to respond to or to share things with, but we do it. Because our, sort of, way we approach things now is, “How would Caroll and Deb do this?” That love is so intertwined with Big Bird. You know, you can’t—you can’t separate it. That’s what makes Big Bird—and someone says that, in the film. “That’s what makes Big Bird who he is.” And so, that is something that we were really… amazed to discover, when we—when we jumped into this project. And really happy that we feel like we capture it in the film.

jesse

When I started watching Sesame Street with my son, who’s a toddler, and I was reminded of how deep that… how deep that well of love that seemed to come out of that show was. And still does come out of that show. I wonder if that’s part of what has kept you, Caroll, so deeply tied to this world for 45 years.

caroll

Well, I—kind of encouraged by the fact an awful lot of artists, or performance or paint, do seem to have a long life and it—there’s—perhaps it’s because there’s a lot of purpose, in life, for them and it’s not—hasn’t become boring. And I—my hero is Señor Wences. You remember? “S’alright? S’alright.” And he did the funny things on Ed Sullivan. Course that’s way before your time, but still sometimes you’d see his stuff. He performed on the very last day he lived. On stage in Madrid, where he’s really from. And it was a basically half-puppet act and mostly a ventriloquist, but without a traditional ventriloquist dummy. He’d draw a face on his hand and use his thumb, folded, as a—as the lower jaw. And talk to Yan. Well, he performed on the last day of his life. He went home and went to bed. And he—that was what he—he didn’t get up. But [chuckling] kind of a nice way to go, since he was 102. So, he’s my great hero. I’d love to emulate him, and I don’t know if I’ll be that lucky. I feel 80 is—definitely feels older than 79. So—but I’m very optimistic. And optimism, I think, is a—is one of the things that is good to live on.

jesse

Well, Dave, Caroll, thank you so much for taking the time to be on Bullseye. It was really great to get to talk to you.

caroll

Well, I love NPR, and thanks for asking us to be on.

dave

Thanks for having us.

crosstalk

Jesse: And Caroll— Caroll: Thank you, Jess. Thank you. Jesse: Thank you for all the work that you’ve done. [Music fades in.]

caroll

[In his Big Bird voice.] Thank you very much, Jess. Haha. [Returning to his regular voice.] I didn’t notice you were here, Big Bird. You used to take up a lot more room. [They chuckle.]

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jesse

Caroll Spinney and Dave LaMattina. Dave’s documentary about Caroll is really great. It’s called I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story. [Music fades out.]

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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, the other day, Anderson Paak played a concert! Hey! Anderson Paak! Come on Bullseye, please! [Laughs.] We wanna have you. Invitation is open. Show is produced by speaking into microphones. Our producer is Kevin Ferguson. Jesus Ambrosio is our associate producer. We get help from Casey O’Brien and our production fellows are Jordan Kauwling and Melissa Dueñas. 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. And we have been doing this show for almost two decades, now. When someone who has been on this show passes away, it’s a reminder that I’ve been doing this a very long time. You can find almost all of our archives on our website, at MaximumFun.org. You can also find many of them in your favorite podcast app or on Facebook or YouTube. One guest who passed away who I really loved talking to—I had him on the show twice—was Harvey Pekar, the creator of the comic American Splendor, which is one of my favorite works of American literature. And Harvey Pekar was everything you would hope you could find in a… grumpy uncle. A wonderful, brilliant man and a great interview subject. I talked to him by phone a couple of times, back when I was producing this show out of Santa Cruz and you can find those interviews on our website, at MaximumFun.org. I think that’s about it. Just remember: all great radio hosts have a signature sign off.

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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.

If you would like to pitch a guest for Bullseye, please CLICK HERE. You can also follow Bullseye on Twitter, YouTube, and Facebook. For more about Bullseye and to see a list of stations that carry it, please click here.

People

Producer

Associate Producer

Maximum Fun Production Fellow

Maximum Fun Production Fellow

How to listen

Stream or download episodes directly from our website, or listen via your favorite podcatcher!

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