Episode 305: John Moe, The Ramones, Improv

Air Date:
Heard On BETA
Signs reading: "Don't Give Up," "You Are Not Alone," and "You Matter"
Dan Meyers via Unsplash

Public radio host John Moe on “The Hilarious World of Depression.” Author Donna Gaines tells us why the iconic punk rock band the Ramones matter. And Sam Wasson on his book, “Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art.”

Featured in this Show

  • Public Radio Host John Moe On 'The Hilarious World Of Depression'

    In his memoir, “The Hilarious World of Depression,” public radio host John Moe says that even in the darkest, most despairing times, he still finds depression funny.

    “I’ve always loved comedy in a really, really deeply connected way,” Moe told WPR’s “BETA.” “So in one sense, my way of understanding the world is to look for what’s funny about it. But even when I’m at my worst, I see it as this sort of naughty, transgressive entity that is like a toddler behind the wheel of a car. It’s a world out of balance. The toddler is in tremendous danger and you should get him out of there. But it’s funny. It’s funny that it’s this invisible thing in your mind that exists to tear you down, that it’s such an unmotivated cruelty that it sort of makes me laugh.”

    Moe worked at Amazon during its early days in the late ’90s and early 2000s.

    “We were all inventing our jobs at the time and it was confusing. And there were a lot of power plays and there was a lot of politics,” he said. “And so when I had massive deadlines approaching with a lot on the line and I didn’t have the tools to do my job because I was too busy figuring out what it was, that was one of my first instances of suicidal ideation, which was really surprising when it happened.”

    He recalls being on a bus in Seattle when this thought occurred to him.

    “It wasn’t that I was making a plan,” he said. “It wasn’t that I was in any danger. But there was like some wall that broke through. And I’m like, ‘Oh, no. I guess now that’s on the table.’ It was terrifying. I left in 2001 for public radio where all my problems will be solved.”

    One of the toughest things that Moe has ever had to deal with was the death of his older brother, Rick. Rick Moe struggled with addictions to drugs like marijuana and methamphetamine.

    “And there was a lot of depression that he didn’t identify as depression,” Moe said. “He thought he was being dumb and bad and making bad decisions and was weak when in fact, he had an illness that no nobody would ever choose. So he was in San Diego, and he had been clean for several years and was working at a Narcotics Anonymous hotline. And at that hotline, he was convincing people that life was worth living and that they should stick around. He could never seem to believe that about himself. He went to a shooting-range in San Diego, got a gun and shot himself.”

    Moe wrote a book called “Conservatize Me” that came out in the fall of 2006. In one section of the book, Moe writes about his visit to a shooting-range just outside Seattle. When he called the shooting-range, he discovered that he needed to bring a friend with him or else become a member because many people would just come to the shooting-range, check out a gun and shoot themselves right there.

    “Rick read the book around the holidays, joined a shooting-range in February and died in April of 2007. I have to choose my words carefully. I didn’t kill him. He pulled the trigger himself. But I’ve always felt that I gave him a road map to it and a plan. It’s something that if some other random reader had done the same thing, I’d be like, ‘Oh, that’s terrible. They must have been in a really bad place.’ But because it was my brother, I knew that it was my fault that he died.

    “And I’ve been to therapy treatments specifically aimed at that belief. And I’m doing pretty well. There’s always going to be part of my brain that knows that I’m responsible for his death. And it’s smaller than the part that says, of course I’m not. But it’s always going to be there.”

    Moe has found a therapist who specializes in cognitive behavioral therapy — a form of therapy he said he’s most drawn to.

    “What the therapy I went to really explored was, ‘Okay, why is this happening and how can we redirect it to more sensible, more workable thought patterns that are more in touch with the real world?’ And one of the ways that they do that is by saying, ‘Okay, what are the things that are causing you agitation and where did these things come from?’ That’s about knowing where you are and how you got there. I sometimes compare it to the difference between having a map of where you are, where you’ve come from, where you’re going, versus just constantly waking up behind the wheel and trying to get somewhere.”

    In 2016, Moe launched his American Public Media podcast, “The Hilarious World of Depression,” as a way to make people more aware about depression and mental illness. The show features candid conversations with top entertainers about their struggles. Guests have included NPR’s “Wait, Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” host Peter Sagal, comedian Maria Bamford, and Wilco founder Jeff Tweedy. Unfortunately, Minnesota Public Radio canceled the podcast in June because of financial difficulties resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

  • Author Donna Gaines Explains Why The Ramones Matter

    The Ramones are considered by many to be the first true punk rock group. The band formed in the Forest Hill Queens neighborhood in New York City.

    Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee and Tommy all adopted the last name “Ramone.” It was a homage to Paul McCartney who checked into hotels under the name “Paul Ramon.” We at BETA are still waiting to hear back from “Paul Ramon” to find out if he ever checked into hotels under the name “Paul McCartney.” We’ll let you know if we hear from him.

    Donna Gaines is a big Ramones fan. She’s also a sociologist, journalist and social worker, as well as the author of Why The Ramones Matter.

    “Part of what interested me about writing a book about a very well-known band was that they were a window to what it felt like to come of age in the 70s when music was so corporatized, when the American dream was slipping far out of reach for a lot of people, people coming of age and just feeling so alienated, and particularly the kids who were like the Ramones and some of the fans,” Gaines said.

    Gaines said that she believes The Ramones invented the genre of punk rock.

    “Well, let me just back up from a musicology point of view and say that there were garage bands early on and strains of punk in Iggy Pop’s music,” Gaines said. “Iggy and the Stooges, Wayne Kramer and The MC5. That all could be considered punk. But the Ramones really sealed it in blood with this first album — demoting the role of guitar solos, advancing the idea that it was democratically available to any person to create their own music and to have a band. There were just a lot of things that they brought to the table — the three-minute songs, and then the way they distilled their message. And then add to the above all things like you didn’t have to be beautiful, rich, be a maestro guitarist, have tons of corporate backing — the idea that it really belongs to the kids.”

    One could argue that lead singer Joey Ramone’s voice might have been the band’s secret weapon, its USP (Unique Selling Proposition). He was actually singing, unlike the vocalists of a lot of other punk rock bands who were shouting and yelling to express their anger.

    Does Gaines agree that Joey’s voice was part of what made the Ramones stand out?

    “Oh, absolutely,” she replied. “He was no screamer. He wasn’t a screecher. He used his voice as what it is, which is a musical instrument. And he worked at it. He took voice lessons. It was different. It was very different than, say, a screaming Sex Pistols. And of course, we loved them, too.”

    Joey and bassist Dee Dee Ramone wrote most of the songs for the band. “Dee Dee to me was speed pop,” Gaines said. “He was bizarro; he was a genius. He was absolutely original. And the songs were funny. They were critical. They were very radical. Joey’s songs had more of a romantic edge to them. Joey was more open musically than most people would even know. And so Joey had added a little romance to it. The combination of the two gave you a lot of variety and it included a lot of people — angry people and lonely people.”

    A couple of years after the Ramones retired and a long time after Dee Dee quit the band, Gaines ran into him on the Lower East Side. He told her that he didn’t feel like he fit in anywhere.

    “On the one hand, it was heartbreaking,” Gaines said. “On the other hand, it was the most validating thing he could have ever said. And I remember we were standing in a club where he was a king bee, and he was with his beautiful wife, Barbara Zampini, who was herself a musician. Anybody that would have walked by would have just been, ‘Wow, that’s Dee Dee.’ And he’s standing there in the city that he built — basically downtown punk New York. And he’s saying, look, I just don’t fit in anywhere. And I looked at him and I said, ‘Dee Dee, you don’t have to. We fit in with you.‘”

    “When you look at what the Ramones were all about, their ministry being to draw the outcast in from the margins,” Gaines said. “And this is something that comes up in every one of their stories — that they were outcasts, they were deviant kids, and they were people who felt they didn’t belong and they weren’t wanted. And they created this safe space for people who felt the same way and still do. I think one of my favorite songs is ‘Outsider,’ which I think I play it every day. Just makes me really feel like, wow, if I am, then I’m not alone.”

    So why does Donna Gaines think the Ramones matter?

    “They matter politically because they gave people the ability to critique the mainstream without having to go through college, which many people may not have been doing to learn critical thinking and critical theory. They gave people this alternative economic base in DIY (Do It Yourself), which allowed them to create their own music. They told the outcasts and the outsiders, ‘Hey, you matter. You’re welcome. Gabba Gabba. We accept you. We accept you, one of us.’ Now, what more does anyone want? Out of religion, out of family, out of community. And they gave that to people in music, you know, a brilliant music.”

  • Author Sam Wasson Explains How America Invented Improv

    Sam Wasson is the author of “Improv Nation: How We Made a Great American Art.” As the subtitle of his book indicates, improvisation was invented here in the United States.

    “People assume improv has been around since the beginning of time,” Wasson told WPR’s “BETA.” “Ad-libbing has been around. Certainly, people have had scripts and have deviated from the scripts. But the whole notion of, ‘Can I get a suggestion from the audience?’ That was invented by Viola Spolin in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century.”

    Spolin was a social worker who invented improvisational games in order to get children to interact with each other, especially children who didn’t speak the same language. She worked with her son Paul Sills for the Second City Company in Chicago. Her book, “Improvisation for the Theater,” is considered a classic work,

    “Her son Paul takes his mother’s games for children, and he says, ‘Well, what if adults play these games on stage?’” Wasson explained. “And that could be a great way to convey the news of the day — just create instant theater for people and show people what their lives look like right now.”

    In 1955, Sills discovered two young actors at the University of Chicago and invited them to join America’s first improvisational theater, the Compass Players.

    “They were Mike Nichols and Elaine May,” Wasson said. “So at that point, improv comedy becomes invented accidentally. This was not work that was intended to be funny. That’s why I’m stressing the difference between improvisation and improv comedy. Improv comedy starts when Sills casts Mike and Elaine, whose natural pose is just to be funny.

    Wasson said that in his opinion, Nichols and May are the greatest improv comedians.

    “First of all, they picked material that was risky. And in today’s comedy culture, we’re so afraid of offending people. Mike and Elaine took on offensive subjects about motherhood and teenage sexuality; they would not be working today if they were in today’s comedy culture.

    “They were actors, great actors, great writers and great directors. They didn’t know that yet, but they had all those muscles working. And that’s what … great improv comedians need to be to improvise. A lot of improv comedians — great ones today — they don’t have all those muscles working. They may be great actors, but not necessarily great writers. They don’t have three out of the three. Mike and Elaine had three out of the three. And I can even add as a fourth the fearlessness to take on taboo subjects.”

    One of the most important figures in the world of modern improvisational theater was Del Close. He was a member of the Compass Players with Nichols and May and then moved on to Second City and worked with the San Francisco improv group, The Committee. Wasson describes Close as “sort of the patron saint of the Upright Citizens Brigade.

    “Del Close is the Zelig of improvisation, and he was a teacher and sort of a figure of risk. You know, he had many lessons. But I think Del’s great lesson to the world is take the crazy choice, make the crazy choice, because it’s only on the other side of crazy that you’re going to find new worlds emotionally and artistically. And in a way, he learned that from Elaine. He was in love with Elaine his whole life. And who can blame him? But Elaine used to say, ‘The only safe thing is to take a risk.’”

    As Wasson writes in his book, Close was creatively restless. This restlessness led to his creation of a new form of improvisation called “The Harold.”

    “The Harold was sort of a group creation by folks in and around The Committee in the mid-60s in San Francisco,” Wasson explained. “Del wanted to take improv out of the realm of short-form, which is to say sketch-size scenes. You know, the sort of length that you see on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ And he wanted to make it more theatrical: Can we take this thing and expand into an evening’s entertainment? Can we find a form to help us improvise for an hour? And ‘The Harold’ was the name they gave this improvising structure.”

    In 1976, “SCTV” (“Second City Television”) hit the airwaves in Canada as a spinoff of Toronto’s Second City improv theater. In 1981, NBC started airing “SCTV.”

    Wasson says that “SCTV” is “the greatest comedy show of all time.”

    “I would say what puts it over the top for me is that there’s actual filmmaking, that there’s satire in the camera work, the lighting, the cutting.This is because ‘SCTV’ is about media satire and show business satire. That extended into the visual presentation of these sketches. So these sketches were in effect like little movies, and that the cultural level of reference on ‘SCTV’ is also so high. I mean, unbelievably high. Just think about one of the greatest moments in comedy, ‘Johnny LaRue’s Christmas Special.’”

Episode Credits

  • Doug Gordon Host
  • Adam Friedrich Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Producer
  • Steve Gotcher Technical Director
  • John Moe Guest
  • Donna Gaines Guest
  • Sam Wasson Guest

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