Public radio listeners may know John Moe as the eloquent and affable host of the nationally syndicated American Public Media series Wits, which has presented a variety of guests such as Neil Gaiman, Roseanne Cash, Yo La Tengo, John Hodgman, Paul F Tompkins, Maria Bamford, and many more, in an eclectic broadcast which combines improv, sketch comedy, conversation, and music, recorded before a live audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, Minnesota. True to the title of the show, Moe brings both wit and warmth to the program, the latter of which is a particularly useful tool to fight legendarily brutal, and potentially fatal, St. Paul winters.
“God tries to ice murder all the people here every year,” Moe once observed, “and we always feel triumphant when/if we survive.”
While Moe’s public radio career has put him on the national map, readers of McSweeney’s may know him for his Pop Song Correspondences, which were fictional reply letters to popular songs.
Not only has Moe incorporated those correspondences into his Wits broadcasts, he is now the author of an anthology of new pieces entitled Dear Luke, We Need to Talk, Darth: And Other Pop Culture Correspondences. Over the book’s 300 pages, Moe expands on the correspondence concept to include different types of letters, diaries, and even snarky online commentary drawn from the wider world of pop culture at large.
In addition to the titular chapter, wherein Darth Vader informs Luke Skywalker of his secret paternity via a handwritten missive, Moe incorporates characters and tropes from such other popular fictions as The Walking Dead, The Wizard of Oz, Breaking Bad, and more. So, in addition to the tortured, homoerotic, correspondences between Popeye and Bluto, Moe also elaborates on the lost log entries of Star Trek‘s Captain Kirk, a Yelp-like review of Psycho‘s Bates Motel, Don Draper’s cocktail recipe cards, all of Jay-Z’s “99 Problems” and the complete rules of Fight Club.
Speaking on the phone from St. Paul, Moe explains the initial premise of his earliest Pop Song Correspondences.
“I think if you’re trying to present the point of view of one character,” he says, “it’s just a really convenient format because there needs to be a reason for writing the letter, and then it’s the character presenting themselves and their point of view over the course of that letter. The character is motivated by the reason they’re writing the letter, such as catching Jon Bon Jovi and sending out the message to the other cops that he’s “Wanted: Dead Or Alive.”
Besides being the soul of wit, Moe finds the inherent brevity of a typical note or letter to be an excellent way of narrowing his comic focus.
“I find that with fiction is really easy to just go on and on and on, and an idea just keeps unfolding to another idea,” he admits. “Sure, you can have a long letter, but generally, you’re trying to get everything you need within a page or so. I’ve always found any kind of limitation really liberating. I used to host a radio show that was like a module that was dropped into Morning Edition and All Things Considered, at [NPR] stations around the country, and it was four minutes long. It was really gratifying because I knew that those were the rules. It’s good to work within that.”
Moe’s letters imagine real life circumstances imposed on fictional characters from literature, films, TV shows, and pop songs. Where he says they differ from everyday “fan fiction” is that he is actively mining his subjects for humor by exploring the unanswered questions about the scenarios presented in the works. He cites the shady shenanigans offered in The Eagles’ “Hotel California” as a prime example.
“I’ve heard ‘Hotel California’ millions more times than I would have ever wanted to,” says Moe, “but it’s inescapable. The line that always struck me with that song is ‘They stab it with their steely knives but they just can’t kill the beast.’ First, what makes one kind of knife ‘steelier’ than another, and why are they not specifying which species of beast? And what’s going on at this hotel where ‘beast stabbing’ is part of the day’s events? So, then you start imagining the rest of the hotel, like the obstreperous check out guy at the end who will check you out but won’t let you leave. And in truth, I think a lot of these songs where written when the people were just really, really high, but they’re set now, in our consciousness and in our culture. When you have the story in a song, it’s really easy to start imagining the story around that.”
Moe is emphatic that, for better or worse, most pop songs are our folk songs. When writing a pop song correspondence, Moe says he’ll listen closely for the stories in a song, and then imagine populating the world of that song.
“You start to imagine what things look like, and that leads to the kind of outstanding questions that you might have for that world. I would just think about these songs that I’ve heard a thousand times, and then just start kind of questioning them a little bit. Everybody knows ‘Hotel California,’ the same way everybody would know the songs that were sung around the household in Victorian England. The songs that are that familiar become our de facto folk songs. So just as you would, if you were in ancient Greece, take a familiar fable and you’d embellish it any way you want, I’m doing the same with ‘Hotel California’ instead of Oedipus.”
Moving on from popular songs, Dear Luke widens the lens to take a similarly deconstructive look at the flimsy premises of beloved TV series, such as Moe’s classified CIA correspondence from Special Agent Gilligan regarding his “Island” project.
“I imagined,” says Moe, “that Gilligan was an undercover researcher exploring what would happen to people on this island. But once left on the island, he goes insane, as anybody would. So a little bit of Lord of the Flies comes to Gilligan’s Island. I also asked why was this island ‘uncharted’? You’d think being only a “three-hour tour” from Hawaii this island would be easily charted, unless this was the perfect storm, a storm that lasted for days and days, blowing them literally off the map. And of course, everybody also wonders why did the Howell’s bring so many changes of clothes for what was a three-hour tour, so I needed to include that because it’s a perfectly legit question. So, it’s fun to raise the question, but to actually answer the question, in whatever format you want, gives it a sense of closure.”
Taking a cue from his publishers, who suggested that Moe incorporate other contemporary forms of short communications, Dear Luke also parodies Yelp reviews, text messaging, and even to-do lists. Thus we get Leonard Cohen sending texts to himself, and an equally absurd correspondence between the many colorful sweaters of Bill Cosby.
“We didn’t want it to just be letters,” says Moe. “I thought it would be fun to invent scenarios like the one with the Pac-Man ghosts who are just sort of doomed to live in a maze, not only throughout their life but through their afterlife, or to have Cosby’s sweaters be part of an evil, and failed, conspiracy. I’m always fascinated by failure; I think failure is both hilarious and intriguing, and under-served. My favorite kind of failure is when things just kind of putter out, and everybody’s ambitions end, not dramatically, but just falling apart. I find entropy really hilarious too, and that’s what happens to the sweaters.”
Moe describes himself as a “pretty huge fan” of all the subjects he parodies in the book, and notes that his correspondences wouldn’t work if he had a hipster’s ironic detachment from his targets. Moe says he has watched these TV shows, listened to these pop songs, and seen these movies, many times over.
“That’s how I can get the familiarity to write about them,” he says. “I’ve always made fun of things that I’ve loved. I grew up in a family where we all just made fun of each other, all the time, because we cared enough to do so. I wouldn’t make fun of something I don’t care about, or something that I hate. This is supposed to be fun, so you have fun with things that you like.”
Moe claims that his real ace in the hole is that he’s never considered himself “cool.” After growing up in the Pacific Northwest, Moe says he began to feel priced out soon after the grunge revolution made Seattle the temporary capital of Hipster America.
“I began to feel like an outsider in the place I was actually from,” says Moe. “Then the traffic got terrible and the cost of living got really high, so I liked the idea of just packing up and moving somewhere else, and somewhere unexpected.”
Somewhere else, turned out to be St. Paul, Minnesota.
“St. Paul,” says Moe, “is just too dorky to ever be cool; especially St. Paul, which is the less cool of the Twin Cities. I’ve never felt cool, I didn’t feel cool when I was a kid, and I never felt cool enough for Seattle. There’s nothing funnier than a hipster with a thick Minnesotan accent.”
While Moe incorporates characters such as The Man with the Yellow Hat from Curious George (whom he casts as a mentally ill, anonymous monkey owner in the city) and other legally guarded characters such Mickey Mouse, he says he has yet to face any legal action over them.
“I had this diary piece called “Winnie the Pooh Is My Co-Worker,” that was published in a McSweeney’s anthology but I’ve heard nary a blip from Disney, who owns that character. Random House’s lawyers feel that we’re safely inside the satire zone, so I’m not worried about it until the jack-booted thugs show up at my door.”
Knowing John Moe, if such cease and desist letters ever get written, he will have likely written them himself. And they’ll be hilarious.