Wits: Writers banter, tweeters tap in new MPR variety show

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After a four-show trial run last spring, Minnesota Public Radio is mounting another season of Wits, its concept for a next-generation stage-show broadcast pairing smart, literary humor with contemporary music and powered in part by social media.

For the season’s opener, March 25, host John Moe welcomes comedian Patton Oswald and musician Grant Lee Phillips to the stage of MPR’s F. Scott Fitzgerald Theatre, the St. Paul home of A Prairie Home Companion.

Moe, right, hosts his friend, writer John Hodgman (yes, it’s the PC guy from Mac ads) in an MPR tryout of Wits last year. (Photo: Tom Campbell, MPR.)

That performance of Wits will be live-tweeted, webcast with video on Ustream.net, and recorded for statewide radio broadcast. Lineups for subsequent shows, monthly through June 24, will feature pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman, comedian Sandra Bernhard and graphic novelist Neil Gaiman. Each is paired with a musical guest and others yet to be booked, including guests who participate by phone.

MPR Live Event Director Tony Bol dreamed up Wits as a show that brings smart, funny people to the stage to converse, play music and provoke laughter in a live audience. He tapped producer Larissa Anderson to expand on the concept and recruit talent, including Moe, who also hosts American Public Media’s Marketplace Tech Report.

As an author and contributor to McSweeney’s, Moe brings his own credibility with readers. With his natural and spontaneous sense of humor, he has the dexterity to handle the unpredictability of live shows, Anderson says.

“John can take anything that’s thrown to him,” Bol says. “It’s not the script, it’s what you do around the script — that’s where the magic comes from.”

Anchoring the musical elements of each Wits production is John Munson, a Minneapolis musician who played bass for Semisonic and wrote songs and performed with Trip Shakespeare, an alternative rock band that disbanded in the early 1990s. He’s now performing with the New Standards, a band featured in annual holiday shows staged at the Fitz.

For its second season, Wits is broadening its guest list, adding comedians, magazine writers and screenwriters to the well-known authors of the tryout season. The producers aim to enhance the chemistry on stage. Guests are likely to know one another personally, as Oswald and Phillips do. Bernhard will appear with her musician friend Roseanne Cash, Anderson said.

Bringing pairs of friends to the stage, or guests whose work is complementary, helps to create special moments on stage, like “the feeling of being at a party that you really wanted to go to,” Moe said.

Adding to the banter will be Bill Corbett and Kevin Murphy of the cult TV fixture Mystery Science Theater 2000, who will live-tweet the stage shows from box seats in an update of the geezer hecklers of The Muppet Show. “We’re trying to be very experimental in our thinking about ways to build the show and in exploring how we push it into the digital sphere,” Anderson says. The Fitz will convene a tweet-up before each performance for interested audience members.

Last year, the Fitz designated a “Twitter Pit” seating section where audience members could tweet without fear of being hassled for having their phones out. In addition, Moe turned his Twitter account over to MPR interactive producer Julia Schrenkler, who micro-blogged the event for his thousands of followers while he was on stage. “The Twitter effort has been a real revelation to us,” he said.

Producers also are refining elements of the stage show so that it will work better for radio listeners. “We feel that we nailed stage performances really well last year,” Bol said. “The radio shows were okay, but they needed more finesse to make it translate to radio.”

Each live performance will be edited into an hourlong statewide broadcast on MPR’s news and contemporary music channels.

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