In the summer of 2015, American Public Media dropped the axe on John Moe when it canceled “Wits.” The celeb-and-music-focused variety show had become synonymous with Moe, and to watch it go by the wayside was sad and depressing both for fans as well as the host himself.
Moe disappeared from the public eye for some time after that, but recently reemerged with a new podcast that thrives on depression—literally, it’s in the name of the show.
Since launching in December 2016, “The Hilarious World of Depression” has quickly become one of the most popular podcasts in country, thanks to it’s impressive guest list including comedians like Maria Bamford and Andy Richter, and a wildly personal but relatable subject of depression and mental health.
The seeds for the show were planted long ago, Moe explains. “Over the years on Twitter, 90 percent of the mentions I’d get would be about dumb jokes I made,” he recalls. “The other 10 percent were from people saying they had been struggling with depression and suicidal thoughts, and that something we said or did on the show [‘Wits’] helped them through that period.”
Moe lost his own brother to suicide several years ago, due in part to untreated or improperly treated depression, making this subject a very personal one for him to tackle.
“I knew that I had wanted to do something about this, but originally I had pitched it as a book,” he says. “Then as I started developing it I realized it definitely worked better as a conversation and that’s when we started exploring the podcast idea.”
His next step was to attract guests. With so many talented actors, comedians, and musicians joining him on the Fitzgerald stage for “Wits” over the years, Moe’s rolodex had no shortage of potential takers. Explaining the idea, however, would prove more challenging.
“I was surprised that people we reached out to were really open to it,” he says. “We treated everyone really well during ‘Wits,’ which helped, but trying to explain, ‘Hey, come on this podcast that you haven’t heard and bare your soul and it’ll be great!’ wasn’t that easy.”
Still, Moe’s reputation was enough to get guests on board, and a generous sponsorship locally from HealthPartners, who saw the show as an opportunity to eliminate the stigma surrounding mental health, provided the funding to make the program a reality.
“Having HealthPartners sponsorship early on made it possible to actually travel to different places and create a more intimate setting for these interviews. We flew out to California and talked with Andy Richter in his office at ‘Conan.’ We went to New York and interviewed Sam Grittner in the apartment where he attempted suicide. We went to Maria Bamford’s house in Duluth. All of this made for a much more honest and intimate environment and allowed us to have some really personal conversations.”
One of the most personal of those conversations was a chat with Minnesota native Sam Grittner. The 34-year-old comedian moved to New York to pursue his comedy career but ultimately ended up battling addiction and depression, which ultimately led to an attempted suicide and a visit this past summer to a psych ward.
“I got out of the psych ward in July after 12 days and ran into a friend on the street who asked me what I’d been up to,” recalls Grittner. “I just broke down crying. I couldn’t handle telling another lie and having another secret, so I came clean.”
Thanks to months of intensive outpatient therapy, commitment to recovery, and a natural gift for storytelling, Grittner was able to put his life back together, and saw his story as a way to help others struggling with similar thoughts and feelings.
“I’m a firm believer in talking about my addiction, depression, and anxiety,” Grittner says. “I don’t feel ashamed about it. I’m flawed and I embrace those flaws. That’s why when John Moe asked me to participate in the podcast I said yes immediately.”
Moe was familiar with Grittner as a comedian, but became aware of his struggles after reading a harrowing essay he penned detailing his suicide attempt and the fallout. A trip to Grittner’s apartment in New York provided the backdrop for him to open up and share his truth in his own way.
“I’m a comedian, so of course I went in trying to figure out how to make it funny,” Grittner laughs. “I mean, I talk about it during the podcast but one of the things I thought the day after I tried to commit suicide was, ‘Great! Now I have new suicide material.’ But about five minutes into the interview I decided to just be raw and honest instead of trying to liven it up. In hindsight, I wish I brought a little more levity to the interview, but in the moment I felt like it was more important to share the unfiltered story.”
Grittner will join Moe on January 19 at Icehouse in Minneapolis for a special live event to celebrate the launch of the podcast, and plans to share an update on his life since that taping.
“I’ve done a lot of reflecting over the past few weeks,” Grittner says. “I came back to St. Paul to see my niece and nephew for the holidays, which felt good. Now that I’m back in New York I need to find a full-time job, so that’s a challenge. But honestly aside from that I’ve never felt this good before. My life is great and I’m happy as a clam.”
As for Moe, he sees a bright a future for the podcast that will stick with a similar subject matter but look for new ways to keep things fresh.
“We can’t have the same conversations over and over again,” Moe says. “We’ve had some really great entertainers reach out about being on the show and I think we can take it beyond the title. Honestly, I think this is the worst possible title I could come up with, but it stuck so we’re stuck with it.”