Random Questions With: John Flansburgh

Sep 4, 2014
Originally published on September 6, 2014 4:28 pm

John Flansburgh of They Might Be Giants is a Grammy Award-winning musician. He's also had his share of unusual jobs, including removing staples from medical documents and counting people on trains. Find out which jobs he left and which he got fired from in a game all about our Puzzle Giant.

Interview Highlights

On the TV theme song that almost was

[They Might Be Giants was] hired to write a theme song for America's Most Wanted, and they fired us! We had won a Grammy for the theme for the FOX show Malcolm In The Middle. The people at FOX, evidently the speed dial on their phone only holds one number. We're versatile, but not versatile enough.

On former odd jobs he has held

I worked for [the New York commuter rail] Metro North, counting people. I worked up and down the Metro North lines, and in Grand Central Station before it got nice. I removed staples from medical documents for a month. It was exactly as good as that sounds. And I worked for Random House for a while, and one of the jobs I was told I could never talk about in a public forum was touching up artwork on Dr. Seuss drawings.

(Is that the first time he's saying this out loud?!)


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Our next contestant is on the line. Hi, you're on ASK ME ANOTHER.

LIZ BERNSTEIN: Hi. I'm Liz Bernstein, from St. Augustine, Florida.

EISENBERG: Hello, Liz.



BERNSTEIN: Hi (laughter).

EISENBERG: Liz, this is John Flansburgh.

BERNSTEIN: I know (laughter).

EISENBERG: Liz is a big fan of yours.

FLANSBURGH: Excellent.

EISENBERG: This game is called Random Questions With John Flansburgh. We've asked John some random questions and you're going to figure out how he answered. Are you ready?

BERNSTEIN: I am ready, yes.

EISENBERG: All right, John loves all sorts of food, but he hates the taste of what, Liz? What herb? Is it anise, cilantro or dill?

BERNSTEIN: I know you love coffee and you're left-handed, John.

FLANSBURGH: Yes, that's...


BERNSTEIN: Anise, cilantro - I know that a lot of people don't like cilantro. So I'm going to go with cilantro.

FLANSBURGH: It's anise.

BERNSTEIN: That was my first guess, John.

FLANSBURGH: And it's just for the pronunciation.


FLANSBURGH: But I'm going to put that down as a correct answer anyway, Liz.

BERNSTEIN: Yes, thanks. Thank you. You're on my side.

EISENBERG: If John could be any member of the original rat pack - that's Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Peter Lawford or Joey Bishop, which one would he be?

BERNSTEIN: They've all got a lot of suave, a lot of swagger.


BERNSTEIN: True. But I'm going to go with Sammy Davis Jr.

FLANSBURGH: That is correct.


EISENBERG: All right.

BERNSTEIN: Yes, I got it.

FLANSBURGH: At first I was misreading this and I thought it said which one could he be?


FLANSBURGH: And I was thinking, like...

EISENBERG: Which one is he secretly?

FLANSBURGH: Joey Bishop.

EISENBERG: And why did you pick Sammy Davis Jr.?

FLANSBURGH: I love Sammy Davis Jr. I actually collect Sammy Davis Jr. records. And I find him - he's been liberated from good taste a little bit, you know? Like he - it's...

EISENBERG: That's such a nice way of putting that.

FLANSBURGH: But he's, you know, he's so profoundly talented. I just find him fantastic.

EISENBERG: What TV show would John most like to rewrite the theme song for? And your choices are whatever you can think of.

BERNSTEIN: Oh, my gosh. But that means it's whatever he could think of too. Let me go with "Gilligan's Island."

FLANSBURGH: That is incorrect.

BERNSTEIN: Well, you know.

EISENBERG: What is the correct answer?

FLANSBURGH: I don't know.

EISENBERG: Yeah, I know. I know what you said.

FLANSBURGH: What did I say?

EISENBERG: You said "America's Most Wanted."

FLANSBURGH: Oh, that's right. We were hired to write a theme for "America's Most Wanted" and they fired us.


EISENBERG: How were you hired to write that theme?

FLANSBURGH: Well, we had won a Grammy for a theme for the Fox network "Malcolm In The Middle" show. And so the people at Fox, they - evidently they - their speed-dial on their phone only holds one number.


EISENBERG: But I like that. They're like, they're good at "Malcolm In The Middle." You know what else they would be good at? "America's Most Wanted."

FLANSBURGH: Right, crooks. Well, you know.


FLANSBURGH: We're versatile.

EISENBERG: I like it.

FLANSBURGH: But evidently not versatile enough.

EISENBERG: You could've just repurposed the same song - "You're Not The Boss Of Me" sounds like a good "America's Most Wanted."

FLANSBURGH: Or perhaps a television commercial.

EISENBERG: Yes. Finally, which of these jobs did John have in his early 20s? Did he remove staples from medical documents? Did he count people on trains, or did he touch up artwork on Dr. Seuss drawings?

BERNSTEIN: You - I actually do know this for certain - you counted people on trains.

FLANSBURGH: That is correct.



FLANSBURGH: I worked for Metro North, counting people and I worked up and down the Metro North lines. I worked in Grand Central station before it got nice. But the truth is all those jobs I had - I removed staples from medical documents for a month - it was exactly as good as that sounds.


FLANSBURGH: And I worked for Random House for a while. And one of the jobs that I was told I could never talk about in a public forum was touching up artwork on Dr. Seuss drawings.

BERNSTEIN: Is this the first time that you're saying that out loud?


BERNSTEIN: In a public forum?


EISENBERG: (Laughter) No. As far as the litigators know, absolutely not.


EISENBERG: Congratulations Liz, you have done it.


EISENBERG: You've answered enough correct.

FLANSBURGH: Clean sweep.


EISENBERG: You have won your very own ASK ME ANOTHER limited edition anagram T-shirt. And not just any shirt, but the one that John Flansburgh is wearing right now.



FLANSBURGH: Autographed by Mr. Sammy Davis Jr.

EISENBERG: Autographed by...


EISENBERG: He is going to strip it off, put it in an envelope and we are going to send it to you. So well done.

BERNSTEIN: Yeah, this has been amazing, thank you (laughter).


EISENBERG: Coming up, we're going to get lucky with our musical guest Julian Velard. So loosen up and listen up. I'm Ophira Eisenberg and this is NPR's ASK ME ANOTHER. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.