You may have heard the buzz: "Wits" is back! "Wits" is bringing St. Vincent and Bobcat Goldthwait together for the first time! Or maybe you've seen the tweets: torrents of wry quotes and descriptions of tipsy tomfoolery that make #wits a locally trending topic once a month.
But what, exactly, is "Wits?" "Anybody who's been to the show has a feeling for what it is," says host John Moe, "but a big challenge for me has been nailing down a description of the show."
Well, let's start with the basics. "Wits" is a biweekly radio show produced by Minnesota Public Radio. It's also live entertainment: You can buy a ticket and join Moe and his guests at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul for the show's live broadcast. What exactly takes place over the course of the evening varies ... and that's part of the fun.
"Tony Bol, who runs events at MPR, had the idea to give humor some respect," remembers Moe about the show's 2010 genesis. "That's how 'Wits' was originally conceived: Humorous authors could talk and shed some light on their work. Then it evolved, bringing in more musicians -- it became a classic variety show, but for a new and younger audience."
For each of the spring season's seven episodes, "Wits" will bring two guests onstage at the Fitz: one talker and one singer, though the singers will do their share of talking, as well. The season kicks off Friday with "Saturday Night Live" alum Tim Meadows along with Rhett Miller of the Old 97's, and wraps up June 30 with a special supersized episode starring comic Amy Sedaris and nerd-pop legends They Might Be Giants. (See sidebar for the season's complete lineup.)
Moe begins each episode with a personal story to introduce the episode's theme, then welcomes the show's nonmusical guest onstage for a freewheeling interview. At some point the musical guest joins the action, performing with the show's music director, John Munson (best known as the bassist for Semisonic and the New Standards), and a three-piece band known as the Witnesses. By the time each episode is finished, there have typically been silly games, a chat with an additional call-in guest and banter with "the box dwellers": "Mystery Science Theater 3000" alums Kevin Murphy and Bill Corbett.
It's all a little ridiculous, but the show's loose and lively format allows for the kind of spontaneous fun and unexpected insights you don't get on, say, "Charlie Rose." "Our goal," says Moe, "is simply to find people who are smart and funny, and make a smart and funny show."
An archived audio stream and video clips from each episode are posted online. "Last year one of our most viral videos was when Adam Savage from 'Mythbusters' called in and performed Gloria Gaynor's 'I Will Survive' in the voice of Gollum from 'Lord of the Rings,'" says Moe.
Other highlights of past seasons included appearances by Neil Gaiman (a devout "Wits" fan, he's been on the show repeatedly), Chuck Klosterman, Craig Finn (who debuted songs from his recent solo album) and Rosanne Cash. "That was an uber-thrill for me," says Munson about Cash's appearance. "You feel like you're touching a piece of music history."
"There have been all these moments of surprise," says Moe, "like when singer/songwriter Josh Ritter turned out to have this killer comic mind that's not often called upon, and the moment in our first season when John Hodgman compelled me to lie down on the ground. I thought he was going to lie down with me, but he just left me there and dangled a mike over my head."