What’s so funny about The Walking Dead or Jurassic Park? A lot, according to writer and radio journalist John Moe. In Dear Luke: We Need To Talk, Darth: And Other Pop Culture Correspondences, Moe invites readers to take a peek into the secret memos, letters, emails, and even “Yelp” reviews of famous characters from popular culture. In Moe’s world, Darth Vader’s desk is full of crumpled up, half-finished letters to Luke Skywalker, the shark from Jaws is trying to control his compulsions to kill by keeping a journal, and the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park are gathered around a boardroom table brainstorming ways to get the park back on its feet.
Between writing for McSweeney’s, working on a book, and hosting his hilarious weekly radio show/podcast Wits, Moe stays pretty busy. Happily, he was able to take a breather and supply me with some correspondence of his own.
I noticed that you took a second swipe at the band in “Memo regarding changes to the Hotel California in light of Mr. Don Henley’s recent complaint.” You’re a musician, yourself. Does that influence who you choose for “Pop Song Correspondences”, be it on Wits or McSweeney’s?
Only in the sense that I think about music A LOT. Probably too much. And in the bands I’ve been in, I write the lyrics for the songs so I’m more lyrics-obsessed than the average person. As a writer and radio journalist, I’m always interested in telling stories so it all came together.
It looks like you have a wide range of pop culture knowledge. Do you actively pursue this or do you just soak it all up like a sponge?
It’s a hard thing to actively pursue and you don’t really need to because it’s just delivered to you. I will say that I have no interest in the reality show side of pop culture. I’ve never seen the Kardashian thing or any of those other shows because they seem so desperate and sad and I just don’t want to participate. But in terms of movies, music, most TV, I just feel naturally plugged in.
I see a lot of science fiction, fantasy, and horror here: Star Wars, Star Trek, Jurassic Park, Jaws, The Walking Dead. The X-Files, Psycho…Are you a fan of any of these things, personally? Have you had an “a-ha” moment watching any of them where you thought “That. That is the thing that’s going to make this work.”
I’m a fan of all of it to some extent. I’m more Wars than Trek. I’m really hooked on The Walking Dead and I’m not sure why. I just love hopelessness? With some of those things in the book like Jurassic Park, Jaws, and Walking Dead, I try to think about what characters we haven’t heard from and it’s generally the monsters: dinosaurs, sharks, and zombies. And in all those cases, the monsters are just in a tough spot and trying to make the best of it. With some of the others you mention, I try to flesh out the back story a bit and find a new angle.
Have you ever had something that you thought started out thinking might be funny but turned out to be impossible?
A lot of the ideas I’ve had, I just haven’t cracked them yet. I know there’s something great in “Sympathy for the Devil”, the way he demands everyone guess his name when everyone already knows his name. I just haven’t figured out how to make it work yet.
Some of the best satire and humor I’ve read comes from a darker place, be it contempt for the familiar, an urge to speak truth to power, or just to cause trouble. Some of your funniest pieces here are really, really dark. I never thought the old Popeye cartoon would creep me out more than it already did (The Goons are borderline horror movie material), but you really managed to take it to a new level with “The Cast of the Popeye Cartoons Remembers”, and “An Oral History of the Pac-Man Ghosts” is Kafkaesque. Where does this kind of thing come from?
Those two stories, as well as the Mickey Mouse/Goofy/Pluto one, kind of found their own trajectories. I had the characters explain themselves and tell their stories and then I just wrote up what the next logical thing would be. I don’t really see those stories as dark as just maybe less snappy and cheeky than the others. I think for the Pac-Man ghosts, for instance, the idea is already pretty grim: they are ghosts who live in a maze, they pursue a giant mouth who steals from them, sometimes they are stricken with a ghost disease(?) and become vulnerable. Nothing all that happy-funny about that.
Is it true you wrote for video games? Which ones?
I did. I wrote for a series of Ripley’s Believe It or Not games. I was also one of the writers on the Turbo edition of the board game Cranium. Fun assignments but very very hard.
Fans can be extremely prickly when it comes to the subjects of their adulation. Sometimes they can be downright humorless! Have you had anyone react badly to your take on a movie or television show?
Not so far. But I don’t really set out to destroy any of the subjects or say that they’re terrible. Most of the things I write about and make fun of are things I really love. Hopefully that comes across.
I look at things like “The Onion” (founded in Madison, Wisconsin), and humorists like Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, and yourself, and wonder if there’s some kind of satiric or absurdist tradition of humor in the midwest.
Well, I think we have maybe more time on our hands here to think things over. And I do believe that Midwesterners are inherently more social. But I’ve only lived here six years or so. I grew up in Seattle and lived there my whole life.
It seems to me that finding a suitable subject for parody might be hard work. Finding something that’s “so so” isn’t that hard, but those things don’t really work for humor, do they? I may be completely off-base here, but am I right in thinking that something has to be really awful or really good to be a good target for humor? What kind of criteria do you use, if any, to select your topics?
I don’t think it needs to fit either one of those. For what I do, it just has to have a strongly unique characteristic. I don’t think Happy Days was an especially brilliant show. A good show, very popular, but it was no I Love Lucy or Breaking Bad. But it did have Fonzie, who was just such a unique character that there are plenty of alternative stories one could explore.
Actually, one of my early ideas for the book was about Chuck, Richie Cunningham’s older brother, who was in the first season for a few episodes and then NEVER HEARD FROM AGAIN. I tried writing up something about how Chuck moved into a shed in the back yard and simply watched all the action of the whole series. But it’s hard to tell a story that is completely passive.
Do you think that public radio is a good target? Ever want to take a swing at A Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, or Snap Judgment? I love Snap and host Glynn Washington, but you know what they say: You only hurt the ones you love.
The first radio sketch I ever wrote was about Ira Glass filling in for the Car Talk guys. Public radio is hilarious, I’ve always thought so. I guess I didn’t tackle much of it in this book but it is ripe. I’d love to do it but I worry I might be too inside.
You’ve had a long career as a writer and journalist, and I’m curious if being exposed to so many voices and styles of writing has helped you to develop your career as a humorist. I’m a former public relations guy for a very large organization, and I have to say that your mastery of “corporate-ese” is impeccable.
Thank you. Yeah, I’ve had a lot of jobs, read a lot of company e-mails, been in plenty of staff meetings. I didn’t really start writing in earnest until I was in my early thirties. I thought it sounded fun to be a writer before that but I honestly didn’t know what I’d write about. There are great young writers out there, bless ‘em, but I needed to live a while first.
While I wouldn’t put anything I’ve written anywhere near the level of your own work, I know that my sense of humor seems to be at its sharpest when I’m a little tired or irritated. Deciding to be “funny” never works for me. What is your ideal state of mind and environment for work?
I do enough of it and have for so long that I can tell my brain that it’s time to get to work and then I can produce. Between the weekly radio show and the book and everything else, I can’t really afford to do anything other than hunker down and turn on the writing spigot. I do have some habits, though. I don’t write much at home, mostly because I have three kids who don’t really want to leave me alone. So I write either at my office or at this one cafe, Nina’s in St Paul, where I can go, put on headphones, and plow through things (and spend money and tip well). I never meet anyone there for lunch, I never socialize there, it’s a place where I’ve trained my brain to understand that it is a work space.
Do you have any advice to would be comedy writers, or maybe even writers who just want to make a living at their work?
Listen to who you are instead of trying to write like Donna Tartt or Dave Eggers or anyone else. Lean in to the stupid idea that you don’t think anyone else will like and work that idea. And really work it. The writing muscle is like any other muscle, it gets stronger the more exercise you give it. I know in my case, years of journalism work has meant I have air time to fill and I have strict, immovable deadlines. That meant I was always “in shape” with writing and I met deadlines.
The other thing is to find a venue where you might be at home. Years ago, a friend pointed me to the McSweeney’s website as a place where my sensibility might match up. Like the site, I was fond of over-analyzing for comic effect, overly wordy descriptors, and turning pop culture inside out. That exposure and platform meant everything to me and I just thanked that friend a couple of days ago.