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No more half-‘Wits’: John Moe and MPR’s next national show

How an up-and-coming host uses Twitter as a “writer’s room,” collects the indie cream of the crop, and loosens up MPR’s starched collar.

MPR's 'Wits'

I’ll confess: for me, MPR’s variety show “Wits” isn’t yet appointment listening. Still, I’m thrilled for host John Moe, one of the Twin Cities’ most playful, supple minds, who this week got a full-time gig after splitting his time with “Marketplace Tech Report.”

For reasons legitimate and anachronistic, MPR is a heavily managed outfit that too seldom lets its freak flag fly. Characters fill that newsroom, but on-air, “no rant, no slant” is often misapplied as a deflavorizer, a stiltedness vaguely akin to Wits’ “Mad Men Show.” Though Keillor and Connelly are part of MPR’s DNA, they are also part of its creation myth. While there are signs of change online and on the Current, MPR doesn’t fully believe yet that people can be themselves and be respected.

That’s what makes Moe’s ascension so cool. He uses Twitter like Keillor used the New Yorker, for musings comedic (hashtag: #FartCop) and moving (loving, cautionary remembrances of a brother who committed suicide), but @johnmoe is a more accessible presence than the legend to whom he is increasingly compared. He’s an easy guy to root for, with a show in the process of becoming.

“Wits” skims the cream off a few decades of local and national indie scenes: Semisonic alum John Munson is the musical sidekick; Fringe Fest superstar Joe Scrimshaw and “Mystery Science 3000’s” Bill Corbett & Kevin Murphy help write; guests include Aimee Mann, Amy Sedaris, They Might Be Giants, Fred Willard — and somehow, author Neil Gaiman is half-way to living under the seats like Chris Elliott on the old “Late Night with David Letterman.”

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MPR’s news release stated clearly that “Wits” wants to be national, and lately, Moe has been retweeting pleas from fans all over the country. Though fans (and programmers counting “Prairie Home’s” age spots) might expect “Wits” to go weekly when Moe goes full-time Sept. 10, the only regular thing they’ll get is a podcast.

“We’ve only done 15 shows, ever,” says Moe of the “Wits” three-year history. “There will be lot more than there were this past season [seven]. We’re looking at a handful in the fall, and a bunch more in the summer.”

As for frequency, he says, “The idea of a national show is changing. Two of the biggest rock stars in public radio are Jad and Robert from ‘RadioLab,’ and they’re not on every week. They make 13, 20 shows a year and augment with podcasts, and that’s great.”

Moe envisions podcast fare including show highlights but also previews and reviews of upcoming guests: “I would’ve loved to have gotten ready for the Fred Willard show and talk to him a few weeks in advance.  And I could just listen for hours to someone like Fred tell stories about being on the ‘Love Boat,’ so just call him up when people are still remembering the show.”

“Wits” works the digital angle hard — even though it is not radiocast live, Fitzgerald Theater audience members and streaming listeners are encouraged to tweet with the hashtag #wits, filling my Twitterstream like the Grammy or Oscar telecasts. (If you’re reading but not yet a listener, this can make “Wits” feel like a clubhouse hard to break into, but I regard it as karma for my sports tweets.)

Moe, in fact, says he uses Twitter “like an online writers room,” working out ideas like “Mad Men Show” before they appear on-stage. “To make something as smooth as ‘Prairie Home Companion,’ I don’t know if I’ll ever get there,” Moe says. “The way my ideas tend to work is a little bit messy; I like to show the process, the mechanics of our thinking a little bit.” 

Still, #FartCop won’t necessarily become the next Guy Noir.

“Not everything on Twitter will eventually make it to ‘Wits’,” Moe says with a laugh. “Although I think ‘The Mad Men Show’ lends itself better than ‘FartCop.’ But I will take an idea I think is funny, a germ of an idea, and then I’ll check to see how many retweets did that get, how many [favorite] stars did that get, how did people respond — not that you’re beholden to everybody else, but you’d like to think you can put work out that’s going to resonate with people.

“The ‘Mad Men Show’ — it was such a weird sketch, I said, ‘If the reaction was 60 percent positive, I’ll be over the moon.’ And instead, it’s been 95 percent positive.”

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I asked Moe if there’s room for his deeper side, the one that keens for his brother. “I think there definitely is,” he replies. “This year, we had a lot of great comics on, so it was a really funny season. But that’s not to say we haven’t had people on who aren’t deep. Bobcat Goldthwait, he had made this really violent movie, and we talked about how you experience violence in a movie. Neil Gaiman talked about all these fears and nightmares he had as a kid … he later wrote ‘Coraline,’ and said, ‘Don’t throw away those childhood fears, they can be very useful in adulthood.’”

But again, one reason to root for “Wits” is that it hasn’t hardened yet. Says Moe, “There’s a lot of development to go; I’m really curious about what happens with the live shows and the podcasts. It started out the first year as a literary interview show with a little music; in the second year, it was a music and interview showcase, more playful. This year, with all the music and comedy, it became more of a variety show.  We want it to be funny and we want it to be smart. That’s why I love the name ‘Wits,’ because we don’t have to tell people it’s funny and smart.”