A Podcast Answers a Fast-Food Question That Nobody Is Asking

If there is a god of ludicrous ideas that later seem inspired, he must have smiled on Brian Thompson one evening four years ago. A comedy writer living in Los Angeles, Mr. Thompson had been bingeing on true crime podcasts when he decided to create a show that would plumb the stupidest, least consequential mystery he could imagine. For reasons he can’t fully explain, he came up with:

Whatever happened to pizza at McDonald’s?

Maybe you are too young to remember. Perhaps you forgot. Or there’s a chance you’ve blocked it. But the home of the Big Mac began selling pizza in the mid-1980s, hoping to grab market share from national pie chains. McDonald’s gave up a few years later. Nobody seemed to lament the passing of McPizza, and nobody was urging its return. Which, to Mr. Thompson in the fall of 2016, made the topic all the more appealing.

“I had heard about it when I was younger, but I’d never tried it,” he said. “And I knew there were a lot of McDonald’s that are open 24 hours, so I could call one of them right then.”

He called two. At the first, an employee hung up a few milliseconds after being asked about McDonald’s pizza. At the second, a manager was sincerely stumped.

“Sorry about that,” the manager said, politely. “Have a good night.”

By 3 in the morning, Mr. Thompson had edited the calls and added some narration. He ended with an off-kilter ad he wrote for Squarespace, the web hosting platform, which he falsely claimed was the show’s sponsor.

“Squarespace,” Mr. Thompson said, in a cheery version of a monotone at the end of the pitch. “Make website easy.”

Then he uploaded episode 1 of the “Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s?” podcast to iTunes.

That was 177 episodes ago.

What started as a lark meant to amuse himself and his girlfriend has evolved into something far richer — a deadpan satire about podcasts, the business of podcasting and the quirks of investigative journalism. “Whatever” has a core audience of about 30,000 listeners, one of whom tattooed a pizza slice and the words “Thank you for your candor” above her ankle, a phrase Mr. Thompson intones after interviews that have shed little light. The show has spun off an online version of a board game and a self-published book (“How to Be an Investigative Journalist”), and Mr. Thompson has shot a TV pilot episode that his manager is shopping around Hollywood.

While attempting to unravel the “mystery” of McPizza, Mr. Thompson has turned doggedness into a kind of performance art. He has traveled to a remote Alaskan island to study an abandoned McDonald’s and walked up to the gate of the White House, where he tried to enlist the help of President Trump, a noted fan of fast food. He has had bizarre, occasionally illuminating conversations with dozens of people, including a saleswoman at an aerial advertising company. (He wanted to fly a banner reading, “Do you know McDonald’s used to serve pizza? Well, it is true. They indeed did serve pizza.” But the quote was out of his price range.)

One trick to keeping this enterprise alive and entertaining is Mr. Thompson’s refusal to accept answers to the show’s titular question, which he had learned by Episode 5. McPizza failed for reasons that should have seemed evident before it was rolled out: It’s way, way off brand, and it didn’t bake fast enough to keep pace with the rest of the menu.

Pretty simple.

No way, says Mr. Thompson. Actually, all the talking on the show is done by a character played by Mr. Thompson, an earnest, eager naïf, also named Brian Thompson, who regards himself as an intrepid seeker of truth and seems to think he’s digging into a riddle for the ages.

“My character has always refused to believe reality,” said Mr. Thompson during a phone interview. “And that kind of opened up the possibility that the show could be anything I want.”

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Credit…Brian Thompson

McDonald’s, it turns out, is the ideal corporate foil for this absurdist spoof. Company spokesmen have never returned a single one of Mr. Thompson’s calls, allowing the show to imply that something dark and conspiratorial is at play.

The show is also sustained by events and coincidences that are easily given a sinister cast. Early on, Mr. Thompson learned that a McDonald’s in Pomeroy, Ohio, was the last franchise in the country still serving the pizza, and he raised money through Indiegogo to fly there and try it. (He described it as “at least as good as Little Caesars.”)

He wondered how the place kept selling an item that others in the chain didn’t offer. Once again, definitive answers were elusive because the franchise owner would not speak to him. (This reporter fared no better. Reached by phone and asked about the singular longevity of McPizza in Pomeroy, a supervisor at the restaurant, Kevin Matheny, said “We’re not at liberty to answer that question.”)

Several months after Mr. Thompson’s visit, the Pomeroy McDonald’s stopped selling McPizza. The podcast depicted this as retaliation against the show, a shameless effort to curtail old-fashioned muckraking. This makes sense only in the mind of “Brian Thompson,” whose baseline assumption is that McDonald’s ought to again sell pizza because people love it and because the company is in business to make money. Hence, any rationale for the product’s demise is under suspicion.

To Mr. Thompson’s delight, he keeps unearthing new rationales for the product’s cancellation. At one point, he heard about a McDonald’s in Adak, Alaska, a largely deserted island in the middle of the Bering Sea. For years, Adak was a Cold War outpost for Army and Navy barracks, but it was decommissioned in the early 1990s, and the McDonald’s there was abandoned. Last year, Mr. Thompson raised money online to travel the 3,100 miles there, hoping that the husk of a restaurant would contain his Holy Grail: a McDonald’s pizza oven.

He flew to Anchorage, then took a once-a-week, three-hour flight to Adak. After landing, he went straight to the McDonald’s and was disappointed to see it had been boarded up — there was no way inside. The trip seemed a grand bust. But as Mr. Thompson prepared to leave the island, his Airbnb host suggested he call a guy named Larry, who, it turned out, had once found a pizza oven in a derelict bowling alley. Evidently, it had been hauled out of the defunct McDonald’s. Larry determined it had been manufactured for McDonald’s by Garland Commercial Industries, a company in Freeland, Pa.

To “Brian Thompson,” this was a breakthrough on a par with the formulation of the laws of thermodynamics. He called Garland, and a representative put him in touch with a service tech in Cleveland who had once repaired McDonald’s ovens. Unlike the corporate P.R. department, this guy was chatty.

“They were only in McDonald’s for roughly two to three years because of the difficulty to program them,” the tech said on Episode 143. “I don’t even think there’s program manuals for it.”

And thus, to Mr. Thompson’s delight, three years into the show, he’d added another reason that McDonald’s killed pizza — the ovens were a fiasco.

“Armed with this treasure trove of dangerous information,” he said, ending the episode. “I shall continue my investigation next week.”

Credit…Brian Thompson

As funny as the show is, it can induce winces, particularly when Mr. Thompson is talking to minimum-wage workers, who have little choice but to treat the oddball on the phone diplomatically. It’s a pitfall Mr. Thompson is acutely aware of and tries to avoid by making himself the butt of every joke.

“I don’t want this to be a prank show, as much as I love prank shows,” he said. “I really want to be the dumbest person in the room at all times.”

Mr. Thompson grew up in northeast Louisiana and originally hoped to write fiction. He segued to stand-up comedy after graduating from college, then started a daily science news podcast in his late 20s. That landed him a job with a science education nonprofit in Los Angeles, which quickly imploded. He started performing and writing for the Upright Citizens Brigade, a comedy group, and has spent recent years writing for TV comedies and doing voice-over work.

Nothing he’s done, though, has resonated like his podcast. The day after he posted the first episode, he checked a Twitter account he’d set up for the show and found a batch of enthusiastic messages. This included a tweet from John Darnielle of the indie rock band the Mountain Goats, who wrote: “New favorite thing alert.”

“To me, it’s a show about branding and the way podcasting has grown,” Mr. Darnielle said in an interview. “We watched it go from an industry with no real boundaries, no rules about how you do it, to a medium that was trying to emulate what TV was, with umbrella companies with seven podcasts.”

In the years since Mr. Thompson began “Whatever,” the business of podcasting has boomed, with shows and podcast networks snapped up in deals worth millions. Mr. Thompson has no beef with money, and he recoups his costs — about $100 a month in podcast hosting fees — through ads automatically added to the show. But he’s irked by podcasts that blur the commercial and editorial by having hosts read advertisements, a throwback to TV’s early days.

It’s a practice he lampoons on “Whatever.” In each episode, he writes an ad for a real company that hasn’t paid him a cent, including Audible and Spotify. For a while, he called the podcast “ZipRecruiter Presents Whatever Happened to Pizza at McDonald’s.” Then ZipRecruiter sent a cease-and-desist letter.

Sometimes Mr. Thompson will satirize the topic of a popular podcast, which, in one memorable instance, yielded unexpected treasure. When Season 2 of “Serial” — now owned by The New York Times — focused on Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier who went AWOL in Afghanistan, Mr. Thompson did episodes about a fictional soldier who wandered off a base in search of McPizza.

He started reporting on the subject of McDonald’s in Afghanistan — and to his amazement, he found a real employee at an Afghan embassy who told him that all over the country, there were bootleg fast-food restaurants selling food based on underground recipes, including McPizza.

“This gave me the idea that maybe the recipe for McPizza was floating out there on the black market at some point,” Mr. Thompson said.

It’s just one of many leads he plans to follow up, which could keep him busy for a long time. There’s a middle school in Utah that years ago buried a time capsule with some kind of McPizza variant that came in a wrapper. He’ll need to visit. And recently, Mr. Thompson heard about a McDonald’s on a barge that opened in Vancouver for the 1986 World’s Fair — around the time of the pizza’s debut.

“My dream would be to take scuba diving lessons and search underwater where this barge was located during the fair,” he said. “I want to do an episode about looking for evidence of McDonald’s pizza on the bottom of the river.”