Public radio host John Moe explores life in Missouri, er, misery

Andy Downing
John Moe

Five years ago, humorist and public radio host John Moe started to question what he was doing with his life, a line of thought he said was brought on by some combination of middle age and the ongoing conversations sparked by his on- and off-air discussions about his brother, Rick, who died by suicide in 2007.

“And I thought, well, whenever I write about this [subject], whenever I tweet about it, whenever I talk to people about it, the reaction is so strong,” Moe said recently by phone. “I think there was a real hunger for it. People saw that others were dying and living in misery— that’s ‘misery,’ not Missouri; people had always been living in Missouri— and so I wanted to do something about it.”

As a result, Moe launched the radio show “The Hilarious World of Depression,” inviting comedians, musicians and the like to discuss their own mental health struggles on-air. “The show came about with the idea that these conversations could be provocative,” Moe said. “And they can make people feel less alone, and inspire them to reach out for the help that might be available to them.”

But while Moe has certainly talked publicly about his own history with depression, it has never been his focus, in part because he never believed it held the same interest with listeners as the stories of comparatively high-wattage guests like comedianPatton Oswalt andWilco frontman Jeff Tweedy. “It was probably my depression talking at the time, but [that internal voice] was like, ‘Nope. Nobody cares about your story,’” Moe said.

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But that has changed with the release of Moe’s new memoir,The Hilarious World of Depression, which shares its name with his radio show. In the book, the host digs into the childhood roots of his own depression and then traces them through adulthood, interspersing these revelations with cut scenes from his radio interviews. The book is deeply shaped by Moe’s years of on-air explorations, which have continued to deepen his understanding of depression even as aspects of the illness remain elusive. “I could have conversations about this for 50 years and still not figure out the mystery,” he said.

Prior to starting the radio show, Moe considered the emergence of depression to be completely unknowable, but he now subscribes to the belief that it is often based in some form of early trauma, which is why he frequently starts interviews by asking a subject about their childhood. This idea also drove his decision to address his story in linear fashion in his memoir, opening with the childhood years he spent living under a roof with parents who were still reconciling with deep traumas of their own.

“For my story, it’s crucial to know that my parents are World War II survivors. They grew up in Norway during the Nazi occupation, and that is a profound trauma they carried,” said Moe, who will participate in aThurber House digital reading and Q&A via Zoom at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, May 13. “There wasn’t therapy back then, and the way my father dealt with the trauma he experienced was through the therapy of vodka. … So if we’re being raised in that, and my brother develops an addiction, and my dad’s drinking continues, and nobody ever talks about it, and I never know what’s going on, then my nervousness and inability to trust people down the road begins to make more sense.”

Moe said he’s always approached storytelling on the radio as if he was casually relaying information to a friend, and the book preserves his direct, conversational voice, though he admitted it was a tad more long-winded on first pass. “I think the initial draft was 180,000 words, and the final version is around 90,000,” said Moe, who wrote at home and in cafes while listening to a running playlist that he documents in the book’s acknowledgements.

The Hilarious World of Depression lands at an interesting point in time, when many are learning to cope with a lingering cloud brought about by the coronavirus.

“I’ve been saying to people that this is sort of what depressed people have been going through all along, and now ‘normies’ get to experience this idea that there’s doom out there and there’s uncertainty and fear. … So we expect to be thanked now for our service,” Moe said, and laughed. “But I’ve also talked to people who have been depressed for their whole lives who are like, ‘Oh, I’m ready for this, because that formless, nameless fear I’ve had now has a name and a molecule attached to it.’ … For people with depression, I’ve compared it a little with the monster under the bed actually climbing out and saying, ‘Hi, I’ve been real all along, and my name’s Norman.’ It’s almost like there’s certainty where there’s never been certainty before.”