By Meleah Maynard
Larissa Anderson (B.A. ’99, M.A. ’03) has what she considers a dream job. How did this self-described “aimless” former grant writer, waitress, and singer-songwriter end up as senior producer of American Public Media’s nationally popular live radio show Wits?
It all started with the Old English epic poem Beowulf, which she first read in Professor Calvin Kendall’s English class at the University of Minnesota. After two rough years as a freshman and sophomore, Anderson was waiting tables and contemplating dropping out when she decided to try taking classes one more time. “That English class just lit my mind on fire,” she recalls. “We read Beowulf and I loved it and I thought: ‘That’s it. It’s English.’ I knew I wanted to focus on story making and storytelling.”
After earning her master’s degree in English education and teaching high school English for five years, she left the profession to volunteer at Minneapolis community radio station KFAI.
From there, she got an internship with American RadioWorks, the documentary unit of American Public Media, and worked on several mostly newsy shows, including Marketplace Tech Report.
Working closely with Wits host John Moe and others, Anderson susses out smart and funny comedians, actors, and musicians to appear as guests on the show, which is recorded in front of a live audience at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. Here’s what she had to say to Minnesota about producing Wits.
When you, John Moe, and MPR’s live event coordinator Tony Bol came up with the idea for Wits in 2010, what was your vision?
That first year we only did four shows because we were still doing Marketplace Tech Report and making this show in our spare time. We knew we wanted the show to be funny. We started out with writers and Julia Sweeney was our first guest. We also had George Saunders, Susan Orlean, and John Hodgman. And then we expanded out to include actors and comedians and musicians.
What do you look for in a guest?
We look for people who will be playful on stage and have fun. We try to really put a spotlight on people’s talents so we write shows so that everybody on stage shines. And we’re always throwing crazy wrenches around to see what happens. Sometimes we do game shows with comedians versus musicians. We once did a game called Funnier or Poignanter and the comedian told these sad, sad jokes and the musician did the punch line. It was so off the rails, which is almost better a lot of the time.
We want the audience to have fun, too. We used to have only general assignment seating and we would encourage people to change seats and make new friends, and they did. We also started the Wits Social Club. People can join and get discounts and early access to tickets and invitations to events like Wits Bowling Night. We’ve actually heard from people who say things like, “I just moved here and I didn’t feel like I fit in until I went to Wits.” That’s really meaningful for us to have such a strong connection with the audience.
Music on the show is quite exceptional too. We have an amazing house band, The Witnesses, and we have a wide range of musical guests. Recently, we had Typhoon. They’re from Portland and it was so great to hear people on Twitter saying things like, “Wow, I’ve never heard of Typhoon but now I’ve been listening them for the last 20 hours.”
Who do you dream of having on the show?
We’ve got a wish list, and we like to hear from people about who they would like to see on the show. Amy Poehler is on the list. So is Robin Williams. [This interview was conducted prior to Williams’s death on August 11.] Guests who have been on the show end up being our best ambassadors and it seems like word has gotten around that this is a fun show to do.
What next for the show?
We became a weekly national public radio show in January 2013 and next year, we’ll do fewer shows in St. Paul and more touring across the country. We’re working to build a national audience as enthusiastic and fun as the audience here.
To listen to Wits, tune into your local public radio station or visit www.witsradio.org