Actor / Entertainer - LiveI just interviewed 16 of the world's greatest interviewers. Ask me anything.
Aug 11th 2017 by JesseThorn • 19 Questions • 5758 Points
After my brothers girlfriends bus got hung up while trying to find Schenectady and presumably needed to be towed to get free, I realized just about everyone who's ridden Greyhound has had a shit experience on Greyhound. I'd love to shed some light to anyone who's curious about some behind the scenes stuff or what being a motorcoach operator for the nations largest carrier is like.
My proof: 22 yr old me deadheading back up the Atlantic City Expressway, taken by my friend who I invited to ride with me that day https://imgur.com/gallery/hxZ8s
When you're interviewing, how much of your mental bandwidth is taken up with your own agenda as a broadcaster versus the simple pleasure of a conversation?
Tell me about this "black dog". Is it some urban tale?
What an interesting question. I think in my case, I'm always about 20-30% on the logistics: what I've got to cover, how it's going, if I need to pivot somewhere else, what I'm going to ask next. The rest is just enjoying the company of my guest. Like yesterday I interviewed Louie Anderson, and it was easy as pie. I just asked him what I was curious about and listened to him be the hilarious genius talker he is.
The tricky bit for me I think is that I get migraine headaches pretty chronically, so often - say 1/3 of the time - I'm either in pain or on medication when I'm doing the interview. That makes it a lot tougher to double-track my brain. But I manage.
There's a movie with Patrick Swayze, Meat Loaf, Randy Travis, and Gabriel Casseus where Patrick Swayze is a truck driver. He talks about the black dog you see after you've been on the road for too long and start getting too tired. It'll come out of nowhere in the middle of the night and dart out at you, and you'll think it's real and try to avoid it. I thought it was just some made up movie plot til the first time I saw it when I was really tired on an overnight. Not necessarily a dog, but any hallucination of something darting out in front of the bus. Happened quite a few times, very scary
I've been loving the Turnaround this summer, but I have so many episodes that are still in my queue. Why the choice to release 2x per week rather than stretching them out over a longer stretch of time?
(Great job on these by the way...they're fantastic, and you've proven yourself to be among the ranks of every interviewer you've interviewed)
Ooooooh that black dog. Yeah I can definitely tell you that's real. To give my tale some context, I'm a push over when it comes to sleep deprivation (Lasted a month in a grave yard software support job) and my girlfriend and I love going on road trips within our island home, Cebu, using only a Honda Wave 110CC motorcycle. Long story short, we had to cut off an overnight trip because of some complications with our accommodations in a certain place down south so we went home at night nearly at about 9PM. I know 9PM is very early for people but for me, it's already time to hit the sack. My eyes got heavy after an hour of driving but we were already near the major city and I decided to book it. Unfortunately for me, my sleepiness got the best of me and I managed to doze off for about a split second but thank goodness I still had the consciousness to remember that I was driving and managed to open my eyes. Upon opening them, I thought I saw an animal so my heart jumped but I never thought of swerving because that'd be the end of us, if we did.
TL;DR Saw the black dog in one of our road trips.
We just wanted to make it feel like a cool event that was only happening this summer. I actually think that we achieved that feeling - the audience was much larger than we anticipated, and the feedback's been awesome. Also, ultimately this is a limited project, we're really trying to provide an archive more than a continuing show, so we wanted to get the stuff out there.
That's exactly the reaction I would have. Makes you jump.
Would you do an interview for me? I'm interviewing interviewers who interview interviewers.
So they only require you to be off duty for 9 hours between shifts? They don't require that you get some sleep in that time? And they expected you to be ready to go within an hour when there's the possibility that you'd been up all day waiting and would be driving when you normally should be sleeping? Doesn't sound very safe.
I did this with Woody Battaglia, a nice comic from New York state, and he's publishing it later today on his podcast which is (believe it or not) a minute-by-minute breakdown of My Dinner With Andre. And my former colleague Thomas Matysik is a freelance journalist now and did a great interview with me, though you'd have to ask him where it'll end up.
Yup. When in the hotel or dorm, it's 9 hours + 1 hr to report. At your home terminal is 9 hours + 2 hours to report, except NYC which gets 3 hours to report. And no, they can only mandate you be off duty, they can't mandate that you sleep during that time off. They urge you to sleep, but we've all got things that need to get done sometimes during our time off. And then yeah, the varying schedule means your bodies internal clock is all fucked up. One day I could get a 3pm report, the next day a 5am report, be in the hotel for the next 36 hours playing blues clues with the board, then get 2 days of 9pm report, and I may not have even gone home at all in that time. There's a reason most of Greyhounds severe accidents are fatigue related. You can of course always call out sick or fatigued and they'll book you off for another 12 hours or so, but you can only do it so much before it starts causing problems with management.
Edit: the craziest part of all this, Greyhound is actually one of the best in terms of time off between jobs. The federal minimum is 8 hours and most charter companies, in my experience, go by the bare minimum. For me it's just a matter of learning when to say no
At some point in the show, you spoke about this being a course in interviewing for you in some way. At the conclusion, do you feel you've learned significant lessons about the craft?
I just wish I was as clear in my convictions and defending them as Audie Cornish.
Come on man. Just let it loose. What's that one story you always tell?
Hah, me too. I asked Audie about that stuff because I knew she'd thought about it and would have an answer, and boy did she.
It's funny, one of the things I've learned from The Turnaround is actually from the process of making the show rather than the content. Because this was a non-paying side project, and because I was talking to people I really admire, I decided to do very minimal preparation for the conversations. I mean, a lot of folks I talked to I know, and others I did do some prep for, but essentially I decided to let myself off the hook for these. Lower the stakes. Because I have seventeen other jobs and because when I stress myself out I give myself migraine headaches, and because it is really something that I've prepared for with my work all my adult life. The reaction to the show has been immensely positive, and it makes me think of my Bullseye work in a new light. That's not to say I've quit preparing, but more that it has spurred me to surrender more control over the conversation. Or more of the illusion of control. To listen more actively and respond more authentically, and not be afraid to sound like a person.
Of course there are some iTunes reviews about how unprepared and amateurish I am, and that stings a bit, but I think it was a worthwhile tradeoff.
Pick your poison. There's my last night of training driving blind through a blizzard (16 inches of snow, zero visibility) all night long on an interstate that was shut down at 25mph for 10 hours. Had an inch of ice frozen onto some parts of the windshield.
There's the time I was doing NYC to Boston and the destination sign was stuck on Tijuana so in my thickest Spanish accent I announced "okay ladies and yentlemen gwelcone aboard the Greyhound lines to Tijuana Mexico making the one stop in boson Massachusetts, uhhh mi nombre Javier, okay we go" and then burnt out the brakes trying to follow another bus that was flying in the rain because it was my first time going into Boston
Or there's post Greyhound where I worked for this one company in Austin TX where I had to outrun a tornado while driving across Louisiana. Or my first ever job with them which I'll post below tomorrow
Or the sketchy Russian company I used to drive for where the AC went out in Orlando in May and my boss told me to go to Walmart and buy as many fans as I could plug into the outlets and drive back to NYC. I asked him if he wanted me to buy the ones that spray mist too.
How was the experience of The Turnaround different than you expected it to be?
He's keeping an eye on it.
It took a lot longer and was a lot harder than I expected. But probably the biggest surprise of the whole thing was how positive the reaction was. I figured it'd just go out to a thousand Jesse Thorn fans and three thousand journalists, and it's found quite an audience and generated a ton of positive feedback and even some press.
Lawn Care is important
One thing that struck me was how few of the people you interviewed had anything like the training or experience you'd need to even start on the ladder for a job like theirs today. Do you think talented, passionate people are still able to find a way into journalism if they didn't go to j school, work on their school paper, etc?
That's super interesting about the instructions. Is there anything stopping drivers from just getting their own gps or using google maps? (Since the company doesn't seem to be interested in upgrading.)
I think more than ever you don't need any of that shit to get into journalism. I mean, maybe to get a JOB job right out of college, but the internet has completely changed the game. I've never taken a journalism class or worked at a journalism institution. I made stuff, put it up, promoted it, people liked it, they stuck around, repeat. For about 15 years.
Greyhounds policy in routing. That and they frown upon having any type of distracting devices, such as a GPS
Do you agree with Werner Herzog that truth and fact are not the same thing?
What's the nastiest thing that's happened in your bus?
Yeah, sure, but I also agree with Brooke Gladstone that that doesn't mean you shouldn't have both. Her co-host Bob Garfield has been doing a great podcast series within On the Media's podcast feed about documentary practices, and I think they often benefit from the audience's expectations, which are built on the stricter practices of print journalism, when the documentarians are sometimes playing fast and loose.
That said, I don't think anyone goes to a Herzog doc expecting to see anything other than Truth told by any means necessary.
Towards the end of my training, probably the 5th week or so, I was doing a schedule from NYC to Harrisburg PA. Before we even got to Easton PA some guy threw up the entire big gulp of kool-aid he was drinking when he boarded all over the 2nd row.
Post Greyhound as a charter driver I was driving a travel camp and the girl sitting on the right side in the first row behind me projectile vomited out of nowhere. The camp counselor got most of it but a bit did get me
Hi, Jesse! I work at an imploding community newspaper. Is there any room in the podcast lifeboat for me? Seems like it's getting pretty crowded in there 😬
What made you want to become a greyhound driver, convenience or you wanted to travel?
We're already pretty close to cannibalism in here, please find your own means of flotation.
I had always been fascinated with the road and big trucks. All throughout college I knew I was gonna at least try out some sort of job where I could just have the road and my music, a sort of place of peace for me. After I graduated a financial situation came up that was ultimately what pushed me into filling out the application. I got the job and fell in love with the daily adventure and how soothing the combination of the highway and my music really was for me.
who is someone you want to interview but is of essentially no interest to your wider audience outside of maybe 10-20 people? which of your past interview subjects were basically people you wanted an excuse to interact with?
I've broken down in places with no reception
What do you do then?
All of my past interview subjects are people who I wanted an excuse to interact with. That's like the premise of my show :).
We do an occasional episode about baseball and a big swath of the public radio audience hates sports, so there's that. I mean, I did an hour with Swamp Dogg once. He was and is amazing, but nobody knows who the fuck Swamp Dogg is besides me (and, fun fact, Nick Hornby).
This particular instance was in the Adirondacks on I-87 heading south from Montreal to New York at about 2am. There are emergency phones every 2 miles on the highway. I was getting ready to start walking when I saw the headlights of the northbound bus approaching. He pulled over and we were shouting across the highway some ways to troubleshoot. It's absolutely desolate up there and many nights all you'll see for an hour or so is is the bus headed in the opposite direction, so it was quiet enough for us to hear each other. Fortunately it was easily solved, I just had to use the switch in the engine compartment to restart the bus.
Additional background on that story: That bus had started giving me problems the moment I got into the Villa Marie tunnel in Montreal, making a loud screeching noise through the windshield and the sign constantly beeping as it reset itself every few mins. Then about 3 km to the border I lost all throttle power and coasted into the border. While immigration processed my passengers I sat on hold with maintenance trying to get another bus brought down to me. After being on hold for 45 mins I said fuck it and kept going. Coming up a hill it happened again and the bus just coasted to a stop. Engine was still running but it was in neutral and wouldn't rev up at all, just idle. Ended up that supposedly the tracking system for the bus, Cadec, that each driver had to sign into before they can put the bus in gear was cutting me out. Shutting it down and rear starting it would fix it for some reason.
What is the worst thing to happen to you with a passenger?
I think he's great. We hoped to have him on the show, but it didn't work out.
As in? Like what's the worst thing that's happened to me on a bus with passengers, or what's my worst interaction with a passenger?
In a bunch of your Turnaround interviews, you ask about the context of the interview (live vs. taped, TV vs. radio, famous vs. ordinary people). In the end, how much of a difference does it make what we're using interviews for? Or, is the art of interviewing generally the same, and the same techniques work in all these different settings?
Whichever you deem worse.
It makes an IMMENSE difference. I mean the most-practiced form of journalistic interviewing is what a reporter does. Whether they're on a beat, or write longer features like Susan Orlean. That is really informational - the interview is the tool to learn the basic information on which the story is built. You may also need to pull quotes, but that's very different from what, say, I do - interview public people about their work, where 75% of what we say will end up in the consumer's ear.
I've never been a reporter (and it always seemed unpleasant and hard to me), so I was pretty rapt hearing about how that works from folks like Ray Suarez who've done it for realsies.
Never really had a truly terrible interaction with any customers. Worst thing I've ever gone through with passengers on board was probably the time I accidentally roasted the entire bus. The switches on the dash of one model of bus are interchangeable, so you have to memorize where each one is because the 4-ways switch might actually open the door. I was doing Atlantic City-Mt Laurel-NYC. I hit the switch for driver AC which was placed where it should be, but the wires must've been crossed in the panel because after about 2 hours of trying to figure out why the hell the cabin felt like the center of the sun and fucking with all the switches, I flipped driver AC off and the passenger AC came on. Turning it on had turned on the passenger heat.
Others were just frustrations, like breaking down and getting lost. Outside of Greyhound, while driving charters my worst experience involved a fatality and a fellow driver who will never walk or speak again.
Edit: it wasn't my bus, but a bus in our convoy
I was scrolling to see someone ask if you tried to get Howard Stern. Can you go into any more detail on that? We all know he hates doing interviews but was it just a simple "no" from his people? Did they show any interest? As a Howard fan and especially of his interviews it was great to see him at the top of your list
We asked his reps, got a no back. Pretty straightforward.
Was there anything your subjects said that made you go, "damn, I'm gonna have to start using that?" (I'm thinking about when you mentioned Scott Simon's question from the TAL comic book; that's one of my big go-to tricks too.)
I wanted more of that than I got. What I got, really, was a lesson in kind of higher-order stuff. The kind of big feelings and big aspirations that sometimes as a pessimist I am afraid of engaging.
Hi Jesse- thanks for creating the Turnaround, it's quickly become one of my favorite listens and I'm sad it's over- I was hoping for a Krista Tippett episode.
If the tables were turned, which of your guests would you like to be interviewed by?
You spoke about Sound Reporting on the show- are there any other books you'd recommend or that have had a particular influence on your life or career?
Books that have had an influence on my life is a long list :). I'll just say everyone should read more George Saunders.
But career-wise, there isn't much. Jessica Abel has made a great comic about how This American Life is made, along with a onger book about their broader eco-system of narrative radio documentarians. They're great.
Uhm... Transom.org has a lot of great stuff. I'm hoping to find some time to write a piece for them about what I've learned from this show.
One striking thing in this series is how different everyone's interviewing technique/style/approach/process is. As an interviewer yourself, whose approach felt most similar to your own and whose felt most foreign and in what ways?
Marc Maron probably does the show that's closest to my show, but he does it very differently than I. Probably Terry Gross is the closest to what I do technique-wise, though I'm maybe in between Terry and Marc.
I believe you won the award for most meta thing ever done. What's Larry King like? He's always seemed good natured and funny when he's appeared on Conan for skits or interviews.
He's extremely good-natured and funny, and he is extremely efficient. He sits down, he's there with you, 1000%. He thanks you when you're done, and leaves to get a sandwich. It's amazing. He just does the thing in front of him to the MAX.
Who is the best dressed interviewer (excluding yourself)?
Bob Costas always looks quite good, I think. Hmm, I like Charlie Rose's suits.
I also have to ask the obligatory: would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or 1 horse-sized duck? What about 100 duck-sized Katie Courics against 1 horse-sized Larry King?
I would rather be the third wheel on Katie Couric and Larry King's REAL-LIFE ROMANCE DATE.
Should not go without saying that I found The Turnaround to be profoundly enlightening and affecting. Thank you so much for it and for letting me pretend I'm a feature interviewer for an afternoon.
Do you think any of the other guests "hammed" up their performances for the sake of producing a better interview? I felt like Audie Cornish was maybe more combative because she knew it would be a better, more exciting interview. Errol Morris was a little more off the wall. Larry King was shockingly intimate. After all, these folks know better than anyone else what makes a great interview!
I think everyone was excited to talk about the thing they care about most in the world, basically. They were pumped for that. Some of them (Ira, Terry Gross) are naturally low-key. Some are absurdly specific and clear (Audie, Brooke). I think everyone brought their A-game. I'd say the TV people, who I didn't know at all for the most part, were a little TV-ish, very polished but less forthcoming, but I did a pretty good job breaking that, I think.
What question do you always wish that your interviewer would ask you, but no-one ever does?
I usually just want to talk about the San Francisco Giants.
Maron on mbmbam would be sublime, I bet he'd love to give advice that should never be followed.
the fans would eat him alive
Hi Jesse! Just finished listening to the podcast and you did a terrific job at making every interview entertaining and insightful. My personal favourite might have been the Audie Cornish interview. My question is - what was the most unexpected thing that you learned from doing this? Was this how you thought it would turn out? Thanks for the memories either way!
I refuse to answer this question. I won't fall into your trap! You'll never succeed using my own magic against me!
do you still have the henry kloss tivoli radio? any gear you recommend over that or is that still the best?
I do! I have a couple of them, actually - they were on clearance at Target one time and a bought a few. They're great radios, and I use the one in my kitchen to listen to podcasts (through an AUX cable) when I'm cleaning up.
More recently, I spent a bunch of money on SONOS equipment, and it really is superb. Listening right now in my office to a record that's playing on my big stereo upstairs in my living room.