Photos courtesy MPR
T o a true Minnesotan, nothing is as satisfying as the belly-filling glow of knowing that you are right. What else could explain the draw of trivia night questions like, “What 2006 Pixar movie was accused of ripping off its plot from the 1991 Michael J. Fox classic Doc Hollywood?” 01 Spoiler alert: Cars. On this Monday night in January at Kings Wine Bar, the prospect of pop culture certitude is enough to get two-dozen under-40-somethings to brave 25-below windchills to take a voluntary written exam. Most are in groups, but there are a few lone wolves sitting at the bar, pints of Surly by their elbows, pencils poised above their sheets, ready for another round in the interminable quest for extra credit.
Two booths are reserved for Minnesota Public Radio employees and their groupies. Tonight’s event is an official excursion of the “Wits Social Club.” Wits is the upstart variety show produced and distributed by MPR that incorporates an amount of trivia appropriate to a show called Wits. 02 But hip trivia like, "Who said it: Confucius or Matthew McConaughey?" The show brings the coolest guest stars from the realms of comedy (Maria Bamford) and music (Father John Misty) and casts them in skits spoofing classic cartoons and pop songs.
Since 2010, Wits has been drawing a younger crowd of pop culture-philes than MPR’s core demographic. And it’s been steadily gaining national steam since MPR began offering it to the whole country in 2012. It’s carried on more than 140 of the 900 total public radio stations, and half of the major markets. It’s recorded at the Fitzgerald Theatre, on the same historic Lowertown St. Paul stage Garrison Keillor and company record their 690-market-wide juggernaut A Prairie Home Companion.
I’m at trivia night to hang with the host of Wits, John Moe, a 46-year-old transplant from Seattle dressed in what looks to be period flannel and sporting the scraggliest beard this side of McConaughey’s award season muskrat. He says he grew it because he wanted a “weird old-guy beard” that made him look like “a professor that had been denied tenure.” His family thought it was funny at first. “And now I’m the only one who thinks it’s funny.”
I’ve been hanging around the MPR offices for the last few weeks, sitting in on writing sessions, rehearsals, and edit meetings, but as soon as I step into the bar tonight, Moe challenges me to drop the objectivity B.S. “Are you going to just be the observing journalist this time or are you gonna play?”
We slide into Team Beccany’s booth. 03 Beccany and Jimothy are absurd can-we-keep-getting-away-with-this gag names that keep reoccurring in the Wits sketch comedy universe. We’re still waiting for John Munson, The New Standards bassist and Wits bandleader, to take his place in Team Jimothy’s booth. Moe leaves a message wondering if Munson’s going to make it out in this snowstorm, while three middle-aged ladies come up from the back of the bar. They’re wearing custom T-shirts that have been bewhiskered with facsimiles of Munson’s trademark handlebar mustache. In block letters the shirts proclaim: TEAM MUNSON. “Ugh,” Moe deadpans, “you guys better sit over there.”
Munson finally arrives, entering the bar in full-on local music legend regalia. 04 Bass player in Trip Shakespeare, Semisonic, The Flops, and now The New Standards. He must be 6'6" standing in his Sorels, resplendent in a beaver fur hat and what looks to be a (possibly) authentic yak hair coat. Team Munson coos.
To shield myself from the awkwardness, I check my fantasy basketball score. In addition to Wits, Moe hosts an MPR podcast, Home Dunk, billed as “sports for the person picked last in gym class.” In an attempt to find that pocket of lingua franca sports affords two semi-acquainted dudes, I offer that this is the first time I’ve played fantasy basketball since high school. “Oh,” Moe says. “Who’s on your team?” My big gun is Steph Curry, except for some reason I pronounce his name the way I pronounce my own, “Steven.” Whoops. Moe nods, and just before the rest of our team squeezes in says, “You know, if it ever comes up in conversation,” he’s using an earnest no-big-deal tone, “it’s pronounced [Stef-en] Curry.”
Scott and Andy join us. Andy admits that his wife is taking care of the kids so he could come out and play on John Moe’s trivia team. They’re big fans, been to several Wits broadcasts. A lady named Susan squeezes in next to me, she’s only been to one live show, but she listens every weekend.
Moe was a drama major, so he nails the first question: “What is Juno’s Greek equivalent?” 05 Hera. The second divides our squad. “Who was the most successful third-party presidential candidate in U.S. history, winning 19 percent of the popular vote?” Moe, Scott, and Andy all think it was Ross Perot. I’m pretty sure it was Teddy Roosevelt and Moe seems swayed: “The Bull Moose Party! Well, T.R. is certainly the cooler answer.” From there, we feel confident about the fastest two-legged land-speed animal, 06 The ostrich. and Moe singlehandedly remembers five of the six women who have portrayed Catwoman. 07 Google it.
Eventually he slips into his Wits role, the straight man with the radio voice who’s prone to a corny pun but who’s ultimately focused on breezily moving the action along. He gives us some Wits lore and tells us about the time singer Ben Lee asked if he could trade his first-class ticket to St. Paul for two in coach so his wife could come. “Sure!” Moe remembers telling him. “‘Just give me your wife’s first and last name.’ And then Ben says, ‘Ione Skye.’” Half the table races to reference John Cusack holding up the boom box in Say Anything. 08 It is trivia night. Moe says Skye ended up playing Sally in a Peanuts sketch to his Charlie Brown and Patton Oswalt’s Linus.
Moe’s lived in St. Paul for seven years, and his wife and kids adore it. Somebody asks him if his kids listen to Wits. “The 12-year-old and the 14-year-old are fans,” he says, “but the 6-year-old hates it.” I ask him how St. Paul is different than Seattle.
“It comes down to miners versus farmers,” he says. “Seattle was originally settled by miners looking to strike gold up in Alaska, and it’s still that way, really.” Moe grew up in a suburb, “back when there were bears in the suburbs.” Although Seattle has dramatically changed in his lifetime, he says the tech revolution brought in a bunch of guys in the spirit of those Alaskan miners—guys who lit out for the West to strike it rich. “But when the Scandinavians and the Germans settled this area,” he says, “they were farmers. So if something wasn’t working, they didn’t leave—they got together and figured out how to make it better.”
Moe is taken with this place. And why shouldn’t he be—he’s an ex-theater kid living his Letterman dreams, hosting a national show that routinely flies in the funniest people in the country. “I’m on the field with the Yankees,” he says. “It’s so fucking crazy that I try not to think about it.” Moe sees himself as stumbling through a reverse manifest destiny. He was a struggling theater actor forced to take an editing job for Amazon before landing a gig on Seattle’s public radio station KUOW, eventually making his way to public radio Oz. He’s tattooed an outline of Minnesota on his shoulder.
Not that he’s suddenly kicked the grunge vibes for a sunny disposition. He walks around with a tiny Seattle rain cloud over his head. He’s open about the darkness in his life—he lost his older brother to suicide in 2007, and he struggles with depression himself. He has a reputation for wearing headphones around the office. In the course of my reporting, several of his colleagues use the word “melancholy” to describe him. He’s aware of all this. He says he’s still learning to be Minnesota nice.
“I was much more selfish with my acting career in Seattle,” he admits. “More out for myself.” His natural instinct is to go it alone, whether it’s finishing a script or preparing for an interview. He says his producers have to remind him that they can help, that Wits is a collaborative effort. He credits the “yes, and” culture of improv with helping him become a more generous performer. He gestures towards Munson, who’s surrounded by his mustachioed ladies, laughing like a pirate. “Doing this show and working with him has made me a better person.”
Just before I can think, Wow, John Moe is a pretty good dude, he looks at our sheet. “You know, I think the answer is Ross Perot.” I don’t protest. I get it, it’s the “Wits Social Club.” We’re all on Team Moe tonight.
We go on to win, handily. We dominate the Minnesota music category against an actual Minnesota musician. Team Munson finishes way down the table and Munson heckles us from the Jimothy booth, saying that we should be disqualified because the journalist got his hands dirty. Munson doesn’t seem to actually care—he’s a handsome bassist. It’s obvious that John Moe cares. And you bet your ass I care. Meggan, the PR lady, takes our team Instagram.
But the answer was Teddy Roosevelt.
T he Minnesota Public Radio mother ship is a gleaming five-story building with a digital news ticker wrapped around the façade—an interjection of big-time Times Square corporate media in downtown St. Peezy. In the lobby they’ve got three of those retro, egg-shaped stereo chairs—one tuned to each of the radio stations in the building: 91.1 News, 99.5 MPR Classical, and 89.3 The Current. Almost 400 people work here and the place emits a polite beige MPR energy. The carpeted noise level and the corduroyed fashion sense make it feel like you’re inside the world’s most prestigious elementary school library.
Moe suggests MPR is the “Nashville of public radio.” The analogy—a plucky mid-level city as spiritual hometown for a multi-million-dollar industry—makes sense. “If you want to work in public radio you can go to New York, D.C., Chicago, L.A., or St. Paul, Minnesota.” St. Paul is the home of public radio due to the providence of one man, Bill Kling. Kling retired in 2011, but MPR and its holding company, American Public Media, is still sometimes referred to as “The Klingon Empire.” A crypto-nonprofit conglomerate of production and distribution, APM owns and produces shows like Marketplace and The Splendid Table along with a countrywide network of 50 public radio stations. It makes its money charging stations across the country to air their programs and other shows they distribute, like the BBC World Service. And this entire multi-million-dollar enterprise is a nonprofit, partially subsidized by the government.
Kling started all this 09 “All” meaning he would go on to found more than MPR—Kling was also an original board member of National Public Radio. in 1967 when he ran a public radio station in Collegeville, Minnesota. Forty years later, MPR/APM is part of a massive niche market—each week, more than 30 million adults listen to public radio. Kling parlayed a small college-owned radio station into a sprawling 501(c)(3) octopus with a $165 million endowment as of 2013.
It’s exciting to have such a powerful media player in town, which is also why MPR’s company culture can irritate. Kling succeeded in convincing them that they’re underdogs on a holy mission of truth and the rest of us in the media are money-hungry sellouts. 10 These sort of optics contributed to the social media rending of garments that followed MPR’s abrupt dismissal of popular Current DJ Barb Abney in January. Big media gonna big media. John Moe takes his public radio mission very, very seriously. Apropos of nothing, he’s prone to tweets like, “I’m so proud and honored to work in public radio.” He believes that MPR’s model of sponsored content, uninterrupted by vulgar commercials, is nobler than the alternative.
“What I tell people during the member drives is: The world is complicated,” Moe says, “and anybody that tries to sell it to you as a story that you can really understand in 90 seconds on CNN is lying to you.”
Which is why it’s so funny that the show that made Kling and his entire company, the show that still looms over everything that MPR produces and gets brought up in virtually every conversation about Wits, is a comedy show, A Prairie Home Companion. 11 This season, in the funniest Wits show to date, Key & Peele’s Keegan-Michael Key did a Keillor impression that was so lovingly faithful—Key grew up in Detroit listening to APHC with his dad—that it wasn’t even that funny. It ended up being cut from the broadcast.
Garrison Keillor was an MPR morning DJ in 1970 when he had an idea for an old-time radio show. “By 1974, Prairie Home got really popular locally,” says Dave Kansas, MPR’s COO and chief content officer. “So Kling goes to NPR and says, ‘I’ve got this great show.’ NPR says, ‘You’re smoking your shoes, that program isn’t any good.’” The NPR snub pushed Kling to develop his own distribution network, initially Public Radio International, 12 PRI, founded in 1983, is still a major public radio content distributor based in Minneapolis. which was subsequently spun off before APM was incorporated in 2004. Ever since, the game has been to create programming that can connect to the ideal tote bag sponsorship–level listener in the way that Keillor can. He satisfies a middlebrow Writer’s Almanac literary impulse, and his gently satirical center-left sensibility appeals to our privileged guilt, harkening back to a golden age where we meddled in each other’s lives in a seemingly more meaningful way. Spending time with the self-satisfied residents of Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, “Where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average,” gets us to chortle at ourselves and to dutifully send in a check during the member drive.
John Moe and Wits are nowhere near Prairie Home in terms of carriage or revenue—in fact, Wits is still being distributed for free—but APM believes it will have another hit on their hands. “New shows aren’t instantly magically profitable,” says Kansas. “There’s an investment cycle, and we’re in the middle of that cycle for Wits and we’re highly encouraged. It’s got all the right markers: live audience, people buying tickets, great buzz around the country, and stations picking it up in more and more places, especially the big markets.” 13 Since 2012, Wits has also been available in podcast form. It’s downloaded more than 200,000 times a month, less than say, APM’s The Dinner Party Download, which is downloaded 800,000 a month. But TDPD was available as a podcast for four years before Wits.
A s the managing director for APM’s national program development, Peter Clowney is tasked with finding or manufacturing new Keillors. He is unquestionably John Moe’s biggest champion at APM. A 44-year-old public radio wunderkind from Philly, Clowney’s piloted everything from Wits to The Dinner Party Download to Freakonomics Radio to the Infinite Guest podcast network. He seems partial to whiz-kid prep—thick-framed glasses, sweaters over oxford shirts—and he plays with a 7-by-7 Rubik’s Cube during production meetings. He printed out his resume for me and it’s basically a public radio walk of fame. He was on Ira Glass’s original staff on This American Life, he worked on Fresh Air with Terry Gross, he won a Peabody editing Kurt Andersen’s Studio 360. He came to APM to edit Marketplace, first as New York bureau editor, and then as executive producer in L.A. Then he moved to St. Paul to be an executive producer for the now-defunct Weekend America.
“I really trust talent,” Clowney says. “And John [Moe] is very skilled with language. He’s a terrific writer and he uses tape in a way that’s surprising.” Clowney thinks Moe stands out because he isn’t a product of public radio. “He came from being a playwright in Seattle, and then he was a weird greeting card editor at Amazon. He has some life experience that makes him different than the average bear.”
Clowney hired Moe to be the backup host for Weekend America, eventually relocating him and his family to St. Paul. In 2008, the economy tanked and Weekend America, a big budgeted show with a large staff of segment producers and writers, was shut down.
“I was sad,” Moe remembers. “But they made it clear to me that they really believed in me and I had a future in the company.” Afterward, Jon McTaggart, then COO, now CEO, took Moe out to lunch to ask him what he wanted to do.
“I was like, ‘I’ll sweep floors,’” Moe says. “‘I’ll do whatever.’” McTaggart told him they wanted to find Moe something that aligned with his personality. “I said, ‘I want to have humor, I want to have music, I want to talk to people, but I want to make things better. I want to do something that improves people’s lives in some way.’ Which is why I think a lot of us are in public radio.”
The senior producer of Wits is Larissa Anderson, a 37-year-old former high school English teacher who may have the most MPR MPR-origin story ever. Her position was initially partially funded by a Poetry Foundation grant dedicated to incorporating poetry across APM’s programming. In 2009, she became John Moe’s producer on the daily Marketplace spin-off Marketplace Tech. Anderson says that Moe is the fastest deadline writer she’s ever worked with: “And he just has this blend of being funny and human and poignant all at once.”
In January, Anderson was 30 weeks pregnant and worried about booking the rest of the spring season before maternity leave. In many ways, she’s Wits’ secret weapon—she’s the one who scours the podcast and comedy universe, the one who convinces the Keegan-Michael Keys and Colin Hanks and Kristen Schaals of the world to travel to St. Paul mid-winter for a low four-figure “honorarium.” 14 She wouldn’t tell me the specific amount, but whenever somebody uses the word “honorarium” it’s less than $5,000.
Despite the talent on the production side, the impetus to create Wits was initially an empty stage. The Fitzgerald is a 1910 vaudeville theater that MPR bought and remodeled in 1981 for Prairie Home. The house that Keillor remodeled also functions as MPR’s biggest broadcast studio. If St. Paul is the Nashville of public radio, the Fitz is its Grand Ole Opry.
Tony Bol is a bow tie–wearing MPR lifer 15 MPR lifer means something beyond just drawing a paycheck. While growing up in Marine St. Croix, Bol claims that he used to play volleyball with Garrison Keillor. who was head of theater programming for nearly two decades. He was on the team that created the Talking Volumes literary series. Bol was constantly looking to fill the theater with MPR-friendly programming. “I had a series called The Stage Series of American Humorists,” he remembers. “We brought in Fran Lebowitz.”
That was the first in a string of proto-Wits. Stage Sessions with Heather McElhatton was another, and Current DJ Mary Lucia hosted one called FakeBook.
“These were all things that ask one question,” Bol says. “How do you take the public radio audience and their experience, and give a strong narrator an environment where you can have intelligent humor?” It was Bol who worked with Anderson to take a crack at an idea for a younger literary variety show. And it was Bol who came up with the name. “I was done with full-sentence names.” 16 Clowney was the sole dissident regarding the name. “I was pissy about it at first,” he says. “Because people here are so nervous about seeming to be pretentious or full of [themselves]. Wits felt too precise for me as a name—rather than cleverness, I’m more interested in charisma or joy. But in the end, it’s a short name, people remember it, it closes your mouth in a nice way.”
Anderson immediately thought of Moe as host, and thought John Munson would be perfect as bandleader. Anderson and Moe basically worked unpaid overtime to get it off the ground. “It was scrappy,” Bol says. “We had some Legacy [Fund] money and I had some discretionary funds to build an anchor show.”
The first shows in the spring of 2010 were very literary, featuring authors like Chuck Klosterman paired with musicians like The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn. Then, in 2011 during Wits’ second run, Clowney had a eureka moment. “Patton Oswalt just slayed it,” he says. “I was already a big fan of his stuff, and I was watching the fun that he was having, and seeing the joy and risk and craziness, and I was like, ‘Oh . . . oh!’” The show began regularly booking comedians and swapping literary readings for sketch comedy. 17 The exception that proves the rule is Wits regular Neil Gaiman. Menomonie, Wisconsin’s adopted English fantasy writer has become a sort of recurring character, nearly the way Chris Elliott was on early Letterman. Gaiman seems to be amusing himself just as much as the audience.
The Wits format has continued to evolve. It started with a Letterman-and-Shaffer dynamic and then became more of the John Moe show. Oftentimes, the guest can outshine the host. Or the guest doesn’t feel comfortable doing the sketches. The rhythm still hasn’t quite coalesced. Wits is figuring out who it is while attempting to crank out the requisite content.
“One of the hardest things that I had to solve was how the heck do I make enough of this to make a radio show?” Clowney says. “Most hour-long weekend public radio shows need at least 22, 23, hopefully more like 30, 35 episodes a year. Well we weren’t taping anything like that. Which is why I started experimenting with six or seven Wits at a run, or the crazy schedule that I put them through last year where we did 21 appearances in town, which was too much. I exhausted the Fitz. We had shows that didn’t get half-full. Beyond the revenue and risk side, it’s hard for John [Moe] and Larissa to do that much.”
Moe and the producers have always felt strongly about the musical part of the program—Larissa Anderson performed with a friend under the name Toast and Jam, and Moe fronted Seattle’s Free Range Chickens, “the finest chicken-suit-wearing local rock band of the mid-’90s.” The tastefully schmaltzy backing band put together by Munson has proved nimble accompaniment. It was Munson’s idea to feature vibraphone and pedal steel in the band, because most of the artists brought in were singer-songwriter types. “The harmonic structure was there already,” Munson says in his Northeast Minneapolis studio. “We just needed to kind of fill out the colors.”
“Doing your song with a new band, that’s fucking scary,” he says. “You come in and run through day of and you play that night. We’re ready, but they don’t know that. They don’t know what the fuck they’re getting into.”
But while the sound of Wits was coming together, Munson was struggling with his role. Originally he was uncomfortable being involved with too much. “At a certain point, you know, I was writing, like, essays,” Munson says. “I’m not an essayist. It was very uncomfortable for me. I think John trusts the hell out of me to deliver the goods on the music, but I’m no actor, never have been.”
“Munson and Moe [as a tag team] just didn’t end up working,” Anderson says. “All the sudden there was a new voice and it just ended up getting confusing.”
“Then I was feeling sad about my role being reduced in the show,” Munson says. “So we had this meeting with the producers. I’m not going to have it out with John—[he’s] not even a guy I could imagine doing that with. He’s really reserved, more reserved than me.”
So Munson met with Clowney, Anderson, and Bol. “Peter is a smart guy. And he said, ‘OK, I hear what you’re saying in terms of what your needs are. Now I’m going to tell you what my needs are: I want John [Moe] to have a safe place to explore his creativity and to explore his sense of humor.’”
Munson shrugs. “And to be honest, that’s my background. I like working with really smart people, it’s fun and I like to support people like that. I’m good at it. Sometimes smart, creative people have quirks and you just have to fuckin’ bear down and deal with it.”
S o what is John Moe’s sense of humor? When I sit with him in his office, he’s hammering out a re-write of a Shakespearian version of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air for Keegan-Michael Key while listening to his go-to white noise, The Postal Service’s 2003 album Give Up. “I don’t even really hear it anymore. It just keeps me from nothingness.” He has three documents open because he can’t work on any one thing for more than 10 minutes at a time. “And I never laugh aloud,” he says, focused on his screen. “When we watch comedies at home my kids think it’s remarkable when I laugh more than twice.” He says his sense of humor tends towards darkness. “Darkness with a lot of talking animals. A lot of people running stores that don’t work out.” His tone briefly brightens. “Failed business ventures. Death.”
Moe’s comedy might have a tinge of melancholy, but I’m not sure it could be described as dark. 18 OK, if you wanna get high in our metaphysical dorm room we can argue that all comedy is fear of death, sure. And all religion. And all relationships. Remember when Woody gave Annie Hall Ernst Becker’s book The Denial of Death? Do you really want to be that guy? Paul F. Tompkins, a dapper L.A. comic and Wits’ most frequent guest, says it doesn’t have to be. “The point is it’s a variety show, it’s entertainment, and they just want the audience to have fun. It’s not about challenging people, it’s not about speaking truth to power. But I think that within this very family-friendly show, there’s a subtle edginess to it. It’s like cartoons that have something embedded into it for parents as well.”
Moe is making fun of pop songs and cartoons and Internet cats. He’s satirizing classic rock radio and cable television. His longest-running bit is something he created for the McSweeney’s literary humor website. “Pop Song Correspondences” are letters between characters who live in the pop song universe. It’s silly stuff like Moe and Jim Gaffigan trying to find funnel cakes in between verses of Munson’s band covering “Scarborough Fair.” In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud says that making something comic is about sublimating aggression. So is Moe really angry at the Smurfs and the Eagles?
Moe’s not writing the jokes all by himself, but the Wits writers’ room is more like a virtual writer’s closet. It’s basically him and Mike Fotis, a local guy from Brave New Workshop, meeting with Clowney and Anderson, with a couple freelance television writers in L.A. who e-mail Moe one or two sketches per show. “As we’ve evolved as a show,” Moe says, “we’ve actually used fewer and fewer writers. I know what I want now.”
I talked to one of the L.A. guys, Ben Acker, a Largo vet who writes for Marvel comics and his own old-timey radio podcast, Thrilling Adventure Hour. Acker believes there’s overlap between what Wits is going for and what’s going on in the rest of the comedy universe, specifically what’s happening along the Upright Citizens Brigade-Largo-Adult Swim axis of the absurd. “I think that Largo and Moe both share a deep interest in the dark ontological weirdness of these children’s characters that you see,” Acker says. “The ‘Why are we here?’ of a character. I think we’ve both thought about that more than the creators of these characters in some cases! And I know John [Moe] isn’t from the Midwest, but he brings with him a Midwestern friendliness and openness.”
Or a Midwestern passive-aggressiveness. The closest Wits comes to mean is a sketch called “Amazon Review Theater,” where Tompkins will over enunciate his way through one-star Amazon reviews of classics like The Beatles’ White Album or Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. The skit stems from the sublimated rage Moe felt while working in Amazon’s toy department. “My oldest child was born in 2000 and I was still at Amazon,” Moe says. “When you have your first kid, everybody gives you a whole bunch of stuff. And I noticed that he wasn’t playing with any of the toys people got him. He liked spatulas and magnifying glasses and pots and pans, and meanwhile, I’m at work trying to sell all this plastic shit. I’m like, what am I doing? This is going to end up in a landfill and not biodegrade.”
There is some good, clean righteous anger of the modern progressive in there, but it’s too easily overshadowed by the inherent edginess of guests like Hannibal Buress, the standup who killed Bill Cosby’s career, or Maria Bamford, whose act is a personal discourse on mental illness delivered in a fragile, unnerving way. Wits can feel like it’s tempering the attitude of guests for public radio, or worse, completely editing it out.
Understandably, Wits is intended for an MPR crowd, and that crowd’s comfort level with the Ph scale of comedy can skew toward the basic. There was a funny un-PC exchange between Colin Hanks and Father John Misty about dumb women who love Nic Cage that earned Misty some boos, and didn’t make it to broadcast. During another show, Hari Kondabolu took a shot at the band OK Go (“I was about to say, ‘OK Stop’”), and in the broadcast version Moe included a defacto disclaimer: “Don’t worry, the ribbing was all in good fun.”
My conversations with people who worked for Wits were peppered with defensive reminders that “comedy is subjective.” Sure. It’s obvious that John Moe is attempting to own the nerdy outcast thing, and that’s not my tribe. Too often I hear the audience laughing to prove they got the reference—the consolation of trivia—and not because the joke is aimed at a sensitive target or is releasing the tension of a shared fear. 19 Unless not getting the reference is the biggest latent fear of the typical Wits audience member. Like Paul F. Tompkins says, comedy doesn’t always have to be about challenging people, but Wits can be disappointing when you consider they’re bringing the funniest people in comedy to a stage in St. Paul and broadcasting the results into the world. Is putting the best comedians in the country in skits about Internet cats the best Minnesota has to offer? 20 Obviously one of my greatest latent fears.
But maybe, if you really think about Moe’s comedy, you realize he does have a target, and it’s perfectly in line with MPR’s seeming superiority complex. His aggression is rooted in a deep unease with encounters in American pop art, with all the junk food he consumed on the radio and on TV, with all the junk he sold at Amazon. And his public radio audience is uneasy too, yet compelled to keep consuming. It’s like when you’ve eaten too much and you can’t stop eating—it fills you with self-satisfaction and self-loathing at the same time. Keillor was one of the first to master this mixture of guilt and resentment, making fun of the quick biscuits we were all compulsively buying.
But Moe is more relevant than Keillor now—his carriage numbers are nowhere close but he’s younger and so is his audience. Culture consumption is fragmented, true regional differences are disappearing as fast as the moose in the Northwoods. Those of us of a certain class of a certain income and with a certain amount of education watch the same stuff and listen to the same stuff and read the same stuff and buy the same stuff as everybody else like us in America. Wits listeners don’t talk like they did in Fargo, but they watch Fargo on FX. Maybe John Moe is the public radio variety show host for this place, in this time. For his part, he says he doesn’t have the answers. “I can maybe try to be funnier, but I can’t write to win people over,” he says. “Do I want to be loved by everybody? Of course. I’m terribly insecure.”