Do you remember when McDonald’s used to serve pizza? Why did they stop? How did it taste? There’s now a podcast created specifically to answer these questions, a podcast that brilliantly satirizes investigative journalism and the rising political influence of internet conspiracy theorists.
In the first few episodes of Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s, host Brian Thompson, a self-described freelance investigative journalist, calls up a few McDonald’s branches and asks straightforward questions in a soft monotone that can sound either gentle or creepy: “Do you serve pizza? Didn’t McDonald’s used to serve pizza? Why did McDonald’s stop serving pizza?” The employees are confused, and some hang up after the first question: an obvious prank call about a fictional menu item. But they’re wrong.
Sure, Whatever Happened isn’t good-faith investigative journalism. Brian Thompson is a comedian who performs sketches at UCB Los Angeles and voices several characters on Camp WWE, a sort of Muppet Babies for pro wrestling. Whatever Happened is a comedy podcast. But it’s not a prank show. In fact, most of its humor comes from Thompson taking the title question too seriously.
McDonald’s really did serve pizza from 1989 to 1991, testing it in over 500 locations to see if it could disrupt the growing pizza chain industry. The move spooked Pizza Hut enough that they offered discounts and ran ads mocking “McFrozen” dough. McDonald’s soon shut down the test run. Now pizza at McDonald’s is the stuff of legend, an occasional listicle entry, and possibly a good DJ name.
It takes Brian many episodes to arrive at this information. The branch employees know none of it; turnover on the front lines is a little too high for anyone to remember the menu back to the ‘80s. So Thompson calls customer service. They brush him off, as does the PR department, as does a private investigator he tries to hire. Occasionally someone knows what he’s talking about; some even remember eating the pizza. Thompson presses for more details, with an impressive professional restraint for a man seemingly obsessed. He ends nearly every interview with “Thank you for your candor.”
Thompson is never impolite or mean, not even when he calls a Christian prayer hotline for spiritual support in his quest and ends up grilling them about Donald Trump. He never punishes someone for accepting his schtick. He even avoids the cringe humor of Nathan Fielder, the self-deprecating host of Nathan for You. A McDonald’s worker recalling the taste of pizza, or a hotline rep praying for the investigation, sounds a lot like the sympathetic characters on human-interest shows such as This American Life. Thompson told me in an out-of-character interview, “It annoys me when the person who’s trying to be funny is the smart one or the cool one.” The joke isn’t in how seriously others take him, it’s how seriously he takes himself.
On another level, the joke is how unseriously the real Thompson takes himself. The show is lo-fi; he records his interviews by putting his phone on speaker and holding it up to his laptop microphone. Episodes usually last well under ten minutes, both a creative choice (“If they were any longer, it would wear thin”) and a way to keep down hosting costs. The show’s logo features white Comic Sans over a garish rainbow background. Thompson was surprised when iTunes accepted the show, especially since he pretended it was part of Slate’s sprawling podcast network Panoply Media. (Panoply sent a cease and desist, but they also coyly retweeted him.)
Whatever Happened has earned a small but prestigious audience. Early fans include novelist and Mountain Goats singer-songwriter John Darnielle (who tweeted the first episode the day it premiered) and former WireTap host Jonathan Goldstein. Goldstein, a hero of Thompson’s, spread it around Gimlet Media, where he now hosts the podcast Heavyweight. Gimlet featured the show in two of their email newsletters, and founder Alex Blumberg even invited Thompson to the office.
Thompson has released 33 episodes so far, which might seem a lot for such a specific concept, even if most are around six minutes. “I got the answer to my central question in two or three episodes,” he told me. (According to McDonald’s, pizza’s 11-minute prep time didn’t fit the chain’s standard for rapid turnaround.) “The rest of it is just my having to avoid facing down those facts.” His character, never satisfied with the obvious truth, invents surprisingly convincing counter-arguments, treating fast-food pizza like a nuanced and weighty issue. He frequently cites Little Caesar’s, which sells fast-food pizza with zero wait time. It’s a weak argument (pizza is Little Caesar’s main menu item, of course they can prep it in advance), but it’s strong enough for show biz.
This is the comedic power of caring too much. Thompson can take the show in any direction just by pointing his obsessive character at a new goal. Recently he visited the only McDonald’s that still serves pizza, in Pomeroy, Ohio. While planning his trip (which he funded on Kickstarter and turned into an epic half-hour episode), he read about a 2013 murder at a local motel. So he called up the motel owner. “I didn’t think they’d want to talk about it,” he told me. “But she told me every grisly detail about this murder, and how the guy who was killed was a pedophile – as if to say that it wasn’t that bad, that it was only a pedophile who got killed.” His character immediately draws this into his conspiracy theory, begging a local journalist to draw some connection to McDonald’s.
For the fake Thompson, everything connects to McDonald’s. This strategy even works when his interviewees don’t play along. Every time someone brushes him off, his character interprets it as a cover-up, turning every dead-end into a new lead. “For weeks at a time,” he told me, “the show could be about something completely different, while always coming back to the pizza thing as a touchstone.” Recently Thompson started a new tangent: Fast food chains often serve different menu items overseas. What if American soldier Bowe Bergdahl, suspected Taliban sympathizer and the subject of Serial season 2, actually left his post in search of McDonald’s pizza?
The hilarious mismatch of tone to subject, originally a simple parody, turned topical in the era of Trump. There’s much more than a surface connection to Pizzagate, the ludicrous conspiracy theory that convinced almost half of Trump voters that Hillary Clinton runs a pedophilia ring. With his misapplied gravitas, Thompson sounds a lot like Comet Ping-Pong shooter Edgar Welch, who said he wanted to “self-investigate” Pizzagate’s claims. In episode 25, Thompson tries to join the White House press corps, which seems weirdly almost possible now that the corps includes Gateway Pundit, a pro-Trump blog that didn’t even have a Wikipedia page until this January.
Thompson didn’t set out to specifically target citizen-journalist vigilantes. He picked his topic by asking himself, “What would be the stupidest possible podcast you could make?” and started recording that night. It’s an old technique for him; in college he asked “what would be the stupidest celebrity to create a fan page for?” and built one for Bronson Pinchot, who played Balki on Perfect Strangers.
But good timing turned Thompson’s escapist farce into cathartic satire. “I find Pizzagate’s incursion into the real world very upsetting,” he told me, “but I’ve always thought those kinds of conspiracy theories were really funny. They’re absurdity treated with the utmost seriousness. So I’m pleased if making fun of them has some extra relevance these days, but I’m also terrified that they’re becoming so mainstream.”
Thankfully that’s all subtext, and the show has plenty else going on. It’s rich with running gags, including a bit that echoes the old Bob & David sketch “Slow Talkers of America,” which fills the listener with giddy dread every time Thompson needs to write down a number or a name. Thompson often reads fake ads with taglines like “Adam & Eve: Sex tools for moms and dads” and “DraftKings.com: The men play for you.” The cease-and-desist from the Panoply network started a B-plot about a con man posing as “Panoply founder Mark Panoply” and the show’s ongoing quest to find a network.
Thompson’s metastasizing cast of characters was inspired by the longrunning Phil Hendrie Show, on which Hendrie plays a straight-man host and a collection of fictional guests. That show lasted for 25 years and hundreds of episodes. Even with its more specific premise, Whatever Happened has plenty of room to grow. Thompson recently released his first field recordings, and he’s considering a new format for season 2. He can always dig deeper into the fast-food industry, or follow any irrelevant story he wants – as long as he never learns what happened to pizza at McDonald’s.