by Rob Callahan
I attended one of the first “Wits” programs as an invited guest. I thought this had to do with them wanting someone with the prestige of Rob Callahan to be seen in the audience. You know, to lend their little show some credibility. I was young then. I often made these sorts of mistakes.
Actually, I was invited because John Hodgman and I looked a lot alike at the time and a certain MPR producer thought it would be hilarious if the two of us both came to that realization when we first spotted each other from across the room. In hindsight, I think it was hilarious to everyone but me. And possibly him.
Still, something about the show sucked me in and I kept going back. I even went so far as to grab a pair of advance tickets to this year’s season finale, knowing that it might just sell out, and that’s how I ended up in the audience for the Amy Sedaris/They Might Be Giants show. We’ll get to that, but first let’s talk about the evolution of John Moe’s pet-project-turned-flagship…
The most notable change I noticed was the live broadcast aspect of it. Saturday’s show was the first time they’d done that. On all previous shows, the host, guests, writers and band just sort of said what they liked, for as long as they cared to, and the whole thing got edited down for broadcast later. The shows ran long. They gave us an intermission. There was sometimes swearing.
With the live broadcast came rigid time constraints, which brought about shorter and more to-the-point segments separated by 60 second songs to keep the live audience entertained while the station paused for underwriting. I’ve been around a live broadcast or two in my time and I recognized those songs for what they were. I knew the voice of Frank Tavares was grating away at people in their cars and sitting rooms at that very moment. All I could do was turn to Nancy and, in my best impression of the “Support for…” guy, I started telling her that this program was made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Merck, a global healthcare leader working to help the world be well.
Aside from that, the single greatest overall change is evident in the writing. John Moe is clearly putting more time and energy into the monologues and sketches than he did in the early days. This, and the addition of Kevin Murphy, Bill Corbett and Joseph Scrimshaw as regular writers has moved Wits out of the realm of quirky live variety shows and into the arena of highly-polished entertainment.
There is also the band. While I admit that I still miss seeing the Ascotts singing at Wits, John Munson and the Witnesses are an assembly of highly specialized and generally unsung rock veterans who can pull of just about anything as long as it can be arranged for vibraphone, steel guitar and standup bass.
The Witnesses and They Might Be Giants have a teamup. Vibraphonist Steve Roehm steals the show starting at about 2:41. Steel guitarist Joe Savage would later repeat this feat at the outset of Istanbul (Not Constantinople).
Finally, the last change I’ll mention is the first one I noticed. This show wasn’t just sold out. This show was sold out with ticket holders lining up outside the venue in the early hours of the afternoon, baking all day under the oppressive sun, just to get a good seat once the doors opened. The line was already long by 6 pm, two hours before the show, when a street band and some strange mimes with bubble wands showed up to entertain the crowd. Food trucks and volunteers from the Fitzgerald came out as well to ensure those waiting in line would have access to meals, water, beer and wine.