It's all about bouncing back

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Maximum Fun at Bumbershoot

The demand -- and the lines -- for comedy at Bumbershoot are growing exponentially each year. As a happy result of this trend, the festival now sports three stages of funny stuff with big-name acts performing nightly. So how can a lesser-known show attract a consistent audience in the middle of the afternoon? One will manage simply by promoting its audacious claim to be, alternately, "a public radio show about things that are awesome" and, simply put, "Maximum Fun."

"The Sound of Young America", hosted by Jesse Thorn (who pokes fun at his own relative anonymity by introducing himself weekly as "America's Radio Sweetheart"), is a series of in-depth interviews with artists, musicians, authors and comedians. That sounds painfully ordinary, but TSOYA is definitely a standout in this genre and worth going out of your way to catch for several reasons.

First, as the show's playful title suggests, Thorn has honed a style and content mix that blissfully contrasts TSOYA with the panoply of public radio shows written and developed for the Boomer audience. That counterpoint is regularly evident in the guest list of offbeat artists that Thorn develops, in part, by engaging with the online community of his loyal listeners. "The bookings on the show are an amalgam of my own personal taste and that of my audience," says Thorm. "I'm always hearing from audience members about folks they'd like to hear on the show – I solicit suggestions on the air, on the forums [at the show's website], on Facebook and MySpace, everywhere. When people suggest guests, I always check them out." Over time, the result is a program that makes many of the show's hipster followers feel as though the material was designed particularly to address their tastes and interests.

But a cool guest list – even if it sports all of your quirky favorites – is hardly enough to elevate a show to the level of "Maximum Fun." TYOSA is actually a gem because Thorn's interview style is lively and funny, but also surprisingly respectful and incisive. It offers the type of performers who frequently aren't given a full hour on "Fresh Air" or "The Actor's Studio" the same opportunity for thoughtful discussion of their work and process. "My goal," Thorn told me, "is to give serious consideration to things that others might not take seriously. And have fun doing it, of course." That desire to delve into conversations that reveal the best about the frequently overlooked is especially refreshing and noticeable in Thorn's interviews of comedians. Rather than following the dated late-night formula for interviews of stand-ups which expects them to throw out bits, Thorn (obviously a devotee of the art form) engages them in careful analysis of the craft, reviewing the unique method of each performer in relation to the material and the profession. His singular ability to engage them on this level allows us to learn about these artists and their work from a fresh perspective. His past comedic guests have included Mike Birbiglia, Tim and Eric, Patton Oswald, Bob Odenkirk, Joel Hodgson, Greg Proops and David Mitchell. You can find those past interviews in the show's archives.

Finally, TSOYA is also noteworthy as one of the best examples of how to use the internet to reverse the traditional model for broadcast success. Supported entirely by a set of loyal listeners, TSOYA demonstrates that with sufficient high-quality material and clever self-promotion, one individual can create an intelligent and entertaining show on his own terms, build an audience and only then sign a broadcast agreement. The show has more than 10,000 supporters donating as little as two to five dollars a month to keep it going (all conveniently deducted from one's Paypal account). Only recently, starting in July 2007, did the show gain distribution through Public Radio International. Patiently building the show in this manner has undoubtedly helped Thom retain TSOYA's appealingly fresh and independent flavor. And as any artist or comedian will tell you, maximum freedom yields maximum fun.

No word yet on who Thorn will interview during the Bumbershoot shows.

"The Sound of Young America" is currently scheduled for afternoon performances at 2:45pm on Friday, Saturday and Sunday on Bumbershoot's Comedy Stage South. You can find more information about Thorne and "The Sound of Young America" at

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