Nerdette host Greta Johnsen recently revealed that she has a secret obsession: she used to play the bassoon.
This week, Johnsen and co-host Tricia Bobeda celebrate the orchestra’s largest woodwind. They talked about the history of the instrument with bassoonist and culture writer Eileen Reynolds, jammed with a Principal Bassoonist from the Chicago Philharmonic, and even called up the self-proclaimed “Bassoon King,” Rainn Wilson.
Wilson, best known for his role as Dwight Schrute on The Office, created quite a stir in the bassoon community with the release of his 2015 autobiography The Bassoon King as bassoonists everywhere finally received their long-awaited moment in the spotlight.
Greta Johnsen: Rainn Wilson, we’re very excited to talk to you about bassoons today.
Rainn Wilson: I never thought that I would get a call from someone saying, “Hey, we’re doing a podcast on bassoons,” and they would call me as an authority. I’m just pleased as punch. This is fantastic. This is like a dream come true.
Johnsen: Has this really never happened to you before? I find that hard to believe.
Wilson: No one does podcasts on bassoons. Or double reeds, or woodwinds for that matter.
Johnsen: How did you get into playing the bassoon?
Wilson: I was a lowly clarinetist, but I had my eyes on the saxophone section, because the saxophones were so much fun. They played the Pink Panther theme and they put on sunglasses when they played it. So I went to my junior high school band teacher. His name was John Law. I’m not kidding, Johnny Law. It was his actual name. And I said, “Mr. Law, can I play the saxophone instead of the clarinet?”
And he said, “No, we’re full up on saxophones, but you know what’s even cooler than the saxophone? You know what the coolest possible instrument is?”
And I was like, “No, what’s that?” And he was like, “The bassoon.”
I got swindled, basically. I got conned into playing bassoon.
Johnsen: How long did you end up playing?
Wilson: I started at the end of seventh grade and played all the way through my senior year of high school. At that point, I had segued from being a band nerd to a being a drama nerd.
I talk about the hierarchy of nerds in [my book], and I went all through that hierarchy. I started at the lowest, which was chess club. Band nerds are cooler than chess nerds. They are also cooler than Model United Nations nerds, which I also was. But then drama nerds are kind of the king of the nerds. Because there are actually attractive people in drama.
Johnsen: Where does debate fall into this? I was a debate nerd. I lettered in debate and band.
Wilson: Oh boy, I think it’s just under band, but it’s very highly respected, because you’re probably going to go to an Ivy League college or something with all that debate experience.
Johnsen: Did you ever make your own reeds for your bassoon?
Wilson: I tried to make my own reeds, but I ended up buying the reeds. I also had some double reed disasters. I remember breaking my reed right before a concert, and I was like, “Thank god I’ve got my backup reed.” And I took out my backup reed, and it was chipped or broken or cracked or something.
It was awful. I think I had to have my dad tear ass in our Ford Pinto wagon to the local music store and get me a reed at the very last minute. It was crazy.
You know those Buzzfeed things that are like, “Only Brunettes Will Understand These Tweets”? Well, these are stories that only double reed-ers would understand. Like, “Here’s A Nightmare Scenario That Only Bassoonists Can Understand.”
Johnsen: Have you ever thought about just learning the Pink Panther theme on bassoon? Then you can be the guy with the sunglasses.
Wilson: Here’s the pathetic thing, though: The bassoon looks pretty rad. It looks like, “Oh wow, this is fancy and awe-inspiring.” But, it sounds like someone with a cold hocking up a loogie. You can’t really do the Pink Panther theme because the sound is so small. It makes such a feeble little wretchy drawl.
Johnsen: You talk about that in your book, The Bassoon King. Did you get angry bassooners emailing you for saying such horrible things about the bassoon?
Wilson: Here’s where I got the hate: I did an appearance to promote the book on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and I played bassoon.
And in a fit of rock ‘n’ roll rage, I smashed the bassoon.
They had gotten the cheapest, lousiest, cruddiest, used bassoon they could find in New York City for a couple hundred dollars for me to smash. I mean, it had to be vaguely playable.
But the outrage I got on the internet! They had an online campaign — “Let’s write bad reviews of Rainn’s book on Amazon by the dozens so people won’t buy his book. That will get him back for smashing that bassoon.” It’s the most misguided social justice you’ve ever heard of in your life.
It was a barely functional bassoon that could play “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” That was all I could get out on it.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Click the “play” button to listen to the entire conversation.