Andy Borowitz Talks The Moth In Milwaukee
The Moth was founded in 1997 as a way for poet and novelist George Dawes Green to relive the joy of sharing memorable stories with his friends in Georgia. The first few Moth events were intimate evenings held in Green’s New York Apartment. Word began to travel about his simple-yet-enthralling story circles, and everyone suddenly wanted in on the excitement. Today, The Moth draws huge crowds in cities around the world. The events feature a wide variety of speakers (celebrity or general public) who must capture the attention of sold-out audiences with 10-minute stories based on real experiences. If that doesn’t sound daunting enough, the speakers aren’t allowed to have any notes on stage.
On June 6, The Moth will make its first stop in Milwaukee. Comedian and writer Andy Borowitz will host the event at the Turner Hall Ballroom. Borowitz has written for numerous television series, including Square Pegs and The Facts of Life. He is also the creator of the NAACP Image Award winning series The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. Today, Borowitz contributes humor pieces to The New Yorker and writes satirical news pieces on his website The Borowitz Report. Borowitz recently spoke with ThirdCoast Digest about The Moth’s upcoming Milwaukee show.
ThirdCoast Digest: How did you become involved with The Moth?
Andy Borowitz: About 10 years ago I was at a party in New York City at George Plimpton’s house. I don’t say that because I was ever friends with George Plimpton, I just use it for local flavor. This woman came up to me and started telling me about this organization where people got up and told true stories, and it sounded really strange to me. So many people in New York are doing things that are half-assed, and it’s really hard to know when something is for real.
Then I saw an article in the New York Times about the show, and they were talking about how it had a wide assortment of storytellers and said what an unusual evening it was. So I met with Joey Xanders, the woman who was the director of The Moth. She said, “We have an evening coming up that features stories from risk takers,” I think it was called “Out on a Limb.” “We’re going to have firemen, people who save refugees and others who did all of these brave, daring things.”
So I thought, “Well, that pretty much leaves me out since I’ve never done anything that required courage.” I decided to tell a story about being a coward since that would be a nice palate cleanser for the audience. I could speak for all of the wimps in the audience. I did it, and it went well. After that they started asking if I would host some of the shows.
AB: I usually talk at the beginning of each act, and I’ll discuss the theme of the show. If we’re going to a new place, like Milwaukee, I may talk a little bit about the city and what my experiences there have been.
TCD: Have you been to Milwaukee before, and if so do you have any notable stories about your visit?
AB: I have never been to Milwaukee. I’m from the Midwest, from Cleveland. But Milwaukee will be totally new to me.
TCD: One of the most unique aspects of The Moth is that it brings in very notable speakers like Joe Jackson, Dan Savage and Darryl McDaniels, but it also blends that with “everyman” stories. Do you see a particular reason why a celebrity would be drawn to this type of event as opposed to why an everyman speaker would?
AB: In a way I think that some of the celebrities have the most to lose. If you’re an actor who has been working from a script, well, here you have no script and you’re not playing a character. You’re playing yourself. Usually the storytelling is so natural and authentic that the audience can sniff out a very rehearsed performance. I think that the celebrities have a lot at stake. They can fall flat on their faces. On the other hand, if they’re frustrated with the fact that they’re always reading from a script and playing a character, it might be liberating to be able to stand up and tell a true story from their lives.
For the everyman, I think there is a recent explosion in “slams” of various kinds and open-mic, spoken word events around the country. It can be as small as a Starbucks or a local café, or it can be The Moth, where you’re not just appearing in front of hundreds of people, but you could also potentially appear in the podcast, which is listened to by millions of people.
TCD: Does it surprise you that, with today’s instant access to almost any form of entertainment, people are willing to set aside several hours an evening and drive across town to hear a few people tell stories?
AB: It surprised me when I first heard the concept 10 years ago. I thought, “What the hell is that?” I just didn’t know what to make of it. But from the first show I was involved in I immediately understood something special was happening because the audience was enthralled. It’s only gotten bigger and bigger. The shows have sold out consistently in New York, and we’ve gotten big audiences everywhere. The podcast has just been crazy, and now they’re talking about doing an NPR series based on it.
My theory is that most entertainment now, in all the arts, aspires to a kind of polish and finish that has had the effect of draining it of all spontaneity. The biggest movie this weekend is this movie called Up. I’m sure it’s wonderful. It’s Pixar, and it’s supposed to be very funny, touching and imaginative. I’m sure people will love it, and it will make $70 million. But there’s no getting away from the fact that it was made by a computer. It was made by people, but it was made by computers. It’s extremely polished and a finished, road-tested, focus group tested piece of entertainment.
There’s something about narrative. We have a primal need for it. I think it goes back to us sitting around the campfire and hearing about someone killing a bear. If it’s enthralling, it is just fantastic. One of the reasons The Moth is working is because we’re having a backlash towards this overly-polished, overly-processed culture.
TCD: Are there any particular qualities that you feel set Moth stories aside from an every day anecdote?
AB: A Moth story has to take you some place emotionally, even if it’s a funny story. A lot of people think, “I have a story that would be great for The Moth” because something funny happened to them one time. It might be memorable and something you would tell at a dinner party, but to keep people’s interest for 10 minutes … 10 minutes is an eternity!
It needs to be something where we are with the storyteller, following him or her on a journey. It also needs the good-old-fashioned element of surprise. It’s nice if the story has a turn in it that we haven’t heard before. The cliché that truth is stranger than fiction often comes true in these stories. Sometimes the things that happen in real life aren’t the things you’d write about in fiction because they would just seem too strange.
The Moth will be visiting Milwaukee on Saturday, June 6 at the Turner Hall Ballroom. The show starts at 8 pm, and tickets are available for $12. For more information about the show, or to buy your tickets, visit the Turner Hall Ballroom’s website.