Q&A with Jesse Thorn


Jesse Thorn founded the podcast “The Sound of Young America” in 2000 while a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Public Radio International began distributing the show in 2007, making Thorn the youngest national host in public radio history. The show was renamed “Bullseye” in 2012 and recently became a part of NPR. He is the principal administrator, host and producer for maximumfun.org, which includes several comedy podcasts. He also is host of MaxFunCon (MFC), an annual meeting for burgeoning comedy and entertainment writers. A native of San Francisco, Thorn now lives in Los Angeles.

How does MaxFunCon differ from similar events?

I went to a wonderful conference called Build a couple years ago in Belfast, and I thought it had a similar spirit to MaxFunCon. It consisted only of general sessions, and it was about design for the Internet, but it had a similar spirit of creativity and "let's do this differently" to it—something that inspired people and made them want to go to it.

I'm also inspired by some of the great comedy festivals, especially the annual Del Close Marathon at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, which hosts an annual improv festival in New York, and by the SF Sketchfest (San Francisco Comedy Festival), which I worked for briefly. Really, though, compared with these festivals, our event is much more about community. It's like the summer camp I'd want to go to now as an adult.

You have a nontraditional job—radio host—but MaxFunCon is structured like a traditional threeday meeting. Why does the event have such a traditional style?

Unlike MaxFunCon, most other conferences don't have things such as big s'mores roasts, comedy shows or strange secret rituals. The structure of alternating general sessions with breakouts and that sort of thing is the norm because it's very convenient and effective.

How many gatherings do you plan each year?

We used to do one per year, but last year we added MaxFunCon East [at the Inn at Pocono Manor in Pennsylvania]. This year, we'll be doing just Max- FunCon, but we're also doing a comedy and music festival on a cruise ship out of Miami in the fall. We may do East events in the future, but the festival now is our focus.

Why do you use the UCLA Lake Arrowhead Conference Center instead of a major city and a more traditional venue?

We found traditional conference venues, such as urban hotels, dull and alienating. We wanted a place where it feels like people are coming together, rather than just visiting. Lake Arrowhead is accessible to Los Angeles, where many of our performers live, but it's also a whole different world. That facilitates the special retreat atmosphere we want.

Do you find that your attendees like this more remote location?

Absolutely. Just like a summer camp, it becomes a sort of special, hallowed place. If you search for our conference on Flickr, you will find some photos of people emerging from the fog on the mountain freeway to Lake Arrowhead, celebrating that they had made it to "the top of the world." That's what we love about it.

Was it more difficult to plan for MaxFunCon East than it is to plan MaxFunCon?

It's a lot more challenging to plan an event that's 3,000 miles from where you live. We had lots of contacts for performers and presenters, but a little bit of the vibe is hard to communicate over the phone.That's something that we know we'll have to build over time.

How would you describe your attendees?

Most of the folks are professionals, ranging in age from their late 20s to their early 40s. A lot of our attendees are self-employed, and see our conference as essential to their professional development.Many work in fields that are combinations of creative and technical, such as graphic design.We don't do any outside advertising, so these folks generally are from the listener base of our shows, and because of that, they're usually fans of the people who we bring in to perform.

What type of speakers/presenters do you look for when booking this event?

I look for speakers who can discuss creativity in a way that people will, basically, think is really cool., fascinating, diverting, funny, but not self-improvement-y. Last year, Susan Orlean gave a pretty perfect talk about the wonderful things she's found out about people she's met in her many years as a non-fiction writer. It really changed a lot of people.The year before, Jad Abumrad gave an absolutely amazing talk about how he makes the podcast show "Radiolab" and about how to be creative when things get really scary.

You tend to draw established names of the comedy world, such as Dick Cavett. Do you feel any pressure to draw a big name for each event?

I try to surprise people somewhat, but the truth is that at this point, the people who come to the event are there to be with each other, rather than to see any particular person perform. That's one of the reasons we hold back announcing the lineups until the last minute.

Can you give an example of a specific collaboration that came out of MaxFunCon?

Well, we've had a marriage, which is a pretty tremendous collaboration. Artist Steve Wolfhard met his wife, Leslie, at MaxFunCon, and we celebrated it the next year when they came to the event together. One of my favorites is a podcast called "The New Timey Radio Hour," which was started by people who were inspired by a talk at our first show. It's grant-funded and very high quality.

Are you thinking of expanding the meeting to other regions?

We've had lots of requests for a MaxFunCon South and Midwest. It would cost a lot more to do them, since we'd have to transport speakers and entertainers (who mostly live in New York and Los Angeles).That's tough, since we generally have a ratio of about three paid attendees to each performer, presenter and staff member.