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Life & Arts

Matching 'Wits' with John Moe

JohnMoe_Wits.jpg
Minnesota Public Radio/flickr
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John Moe during a May 2015 performance of 'Wits.'

Wits, the live public radio show that brings comedians, actors and musicians to the stage, is coming to Austin's Paramount Theater this week.

Host John Moe has managed to combine two of his interests – acting on stage and creating public radio — into what has become a pretty good gig. He talked with KUT’s Jimmy Maas this week about how it all began while he was still the host of “Marketplace Tech” based in Minneapolis.

Moe: Off to the side of that, the producer of that show, Larissa Anderson, and I started doing this evening interview series, on stage interview series, like you’d see a lot of public radio stations around the country do stuff like that. And ours was focused on humor writers, you know, whimsical people, like John Hodgman was one of our guests our first season. We did that for a while, and it got some interest and people liked it, so we kept doing it.  Then we started adding in bigger names in music, and we started gravitating towards comedians and actors, more so than authors. We started adding in some improv and some sketch comedy and really making it more of a comedy music show, rather than a straight up literary show. The more we did of that, the bigger the response seemed to be, the more tickets we sold, the more people asking to hear it. So, our hobby kind of became our job, and we passed off the Tech Report to some other people, and Wits became full-time and became a national show.

Maas:  Is this something you envisioned from the beginning?

Moe: Well, after the first time we did it I kind of felt like it was going to be something big. Our guest on our very first show was Julia Sweeney, the actress and monologist, and out of that show she said, “You know I was on the very first ‘This American Life,’ and I knew right then that that thing was going to be big, and I know that ‘Wits’ is going to be big, too.” And I kind of felt the same way, that we’re kind of tapping into something. I used to be an actor before I got into public radio. So I’m very comfortable on stage, and I’ve written comedy, and I’ve written books. So, it all sort of seemed to line up with what I have been unwittingly training myself to do.

Maas: Note to self: Book Julia Sweeney.

Moe: Book Julia Sweeney. She is the magical fairy of public radio.

Maas: So, tell me about the road show.

Moe: Yeah, we've done shows on the road. We tend to have more guests for a lot of these things than we would back here in Minnesota. So, we played L.A. a couple times. We played San Francisco Sketchfest. We did a show in Portland, but this will be our first time not in either Minnesota or the West Coast, and our first time in Texas, for sure. I love Austin, I’ve been down there only once. I was there for the Texas Book Festival in 2006, where David Rakoff sort of did a panel reading kind of thing in Texas House chambers in the Capitol, and we had a lot of overflow people come in at the last minute. They were very disgruntled, and they weren't in the mood for comedy and for humor writing, because they just they were too late to get into the event in the Texas Senate chambers, where an author named Barack Obama was reading from his book. We got all the disgruntled Obama turn-aways, and then we had to make them laugh. So, Texas is full of adventure for me.

Maas: John Moe, sloppy seconds.

Moe: That’s right. When no one else will have you, when Barack Obama turns you down, come to me.

Maas: Fred Willard. Have you worked with him before? And, if so, how was that?

Moe: Yeah, he's been on one before. It's been a couple years now. He is just the greatest guy. I'm so happy to have them on the show again. He is everything you think he would be, just charming and avuncular – I think I'm using that term correctly. Just a completely down to earth, friendly guy, who happens to be one of the giants in American comedy, one of the all-time greats. You’re just talking with this real nice guy named Fred and then he realizes, “Oh my god, this is like ‘Spinal Tap’ and ‘Waiting for Guffman,’ 'Best in Show.’  This is Fred Willard I'm talking to.” But it's easy to forget the fame because he’s just a regular guy.

Maas: It's wild how he’s managed to stay relevant for five decades now.

Moe: Yeah, I mean, he's somebody who is on “Get Smart” and then he's on “Comedy Bang Bang.” You know and he's on “Laverne and Shirley” and then he's on all these obscure, kind of out-there web comics that are that are going on. Everybody has always wanted Fred. It's a real credit to him that he can, but he can go with about anything.

Maas: How long are you staying in Austin? Are you just in and out?

Moe: Yeah, just a few days, unfortunately I think we're there until Friday.

Maas: Highlights that you are looking forward to seeing when you're not doing the show?

Moe: Everyone tells me to get to the LBJ Museum. And I'm sure, if any live music will be happening in Austin that night, maybe I'll be in luck and there will be one or two places in Austin that have live music. I'm not sure. I don't really know if you guys have much music down there.

Maas: We’re working on the scene.

Moe: Okay, good.

Maas: We're slowly putting a couple of bands together.

Moe: Brick by brick by brick.

Maas: A marching band or two.

Moe: Yes… a smooth jazz combo.

You can catch “Wits” with John Moe and special guests Fred Willard, Shinyribs and Carrie Rodriguez at the Paramount, Thursday May 21st. You can catch the radio show every Saturday night at 7 p.m. on KUT 90.5 or right here on KUT.org.