Newly minted Wisconsin State Journal columnist (and former Mad Mag editor) Doug Moe talks about life before, during and after The Capital Times
How’s the new gig? What’s different? For 11 years when I was doing the column, I always wrote a day ahead and then would go home. If my eyes had snapped open in the middle of the night and I thought, “Oh, how could you write that?” or, “Gosh, I hope I spelled that guy’s name right,” I could tweak it. Even in the days of two editions of The Cap Times, the first edition didn’t go until 9:30 in the morning. When it went down to one edition you had ’til noon to tweak it. Now the paper hits the driveway at 5:30 and there it is! That was scary the first couple of weeks. The other thing, honestly, is the expanded readership. I think most writers would like that. We signed on a lot of the former daily Cap Times subscribers and so [subscriptions] are up around 100,000 now daily.
Are you thinking differently about how your write your column? Not really. I try to keep it very local. I try to mix it up. I wouldn’t want to have three sports in a row, two histories in a row. I would love to have five funny ones in a row because it’s the hardest thing in the world to do. My first reaction to an idea is, can I make this humorous? It’s really hard. There’s a line in that great Peter O’Toole movie My Favorite Year, where he’s an actor and he says, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”
Dave Barry makes a lot of money for a reason. Right, and The Onion is the only print newspaper that’s rapidly expanding its print edition in cities all over the country.
Some people might not know the distance you traveled from one newsroom to the other. [Ed's Note: The State Journal nabbed Moe from The Cap Times—both papers are in the same building on Fish Hatchery Road) What was that experience like? Without getting into the whole thing, that was tough in early February when [Cap Times management] had the meeting and they basically told virtually everybody to reapply for their jobs. And so that started the process for me. Granted, I guess it seems kind of unusual because I’m the only one that did move over. But it happened, and I’m still friends with The Cap Times folks. … Every day it seems more natural to be over here. It was and continues to be ... tough isn’t really the word … it’s unsettled, you know, I think it still is, around the building a little bit.
How did you get started in journalism? I got out of college in 1979, and I didn’t have any loans to pay off. My girlfriend at the time was living in Portage and working for the Portage Daily Register, so I moved up there and it was very cheap to live and I launched a freelance career. I wrote like a maniac for everybody that would pay me. I got a book contract in 1984 to collaborate with a crazy football player named Lyle Alzado on his autobiography. Then in 1986, [Madison Magazine publishers] the Selks created an associate editor position for me, which was really just a writing position, and I did that for five years and became editor in 1991 and stayed through ’97.
What were those years like when you were trying to capture Madison in Madison Magazine? It was great. I think on the financial end they had good years and bad years. … But I was shielded from that. I was just a writer. But even when Gail was publisher and I was editor, she never burdened me with that, which was nice. I wrote a lot. I wrote most of the covers for an extended period, or at least the lead stories. And I wrote a fun column that’s not a whole lot different that what I do in the paper—we called it “Hanging Out.” And then I did some press criticism, which drove ’em nuts out here at the newspaper.
Tell us about your book career, starting with the one back in the '80s. That one, by the way, was never published. I’ve started revisiting it as a biography. His name was Lyle Alzado and his agent lived in Madison. Lyle became the poster child for steroids because he had denied using them for many, many years, and then ended up getting brain cancer and blaming steroids. The medical community was split but he died at 42. It was just a crazy experience collaborating with the guy. The first line of the new manuscript is: “On the night of the day I flew two thousand miles to move into a house with Lyle Alzado, he moved out.” He had a horrible fight with his wife, whom he was breaking up with. I’m cowering under the guest bed, and they’re screaming at each other.
My first [book] was the Royko biography in 1999. I collaborated on a biography of [Madison architect] Marshall Erdman that his family financed [Uncommon Sense: The Life of Marshall Erdman]. The UW boxing book came out in ’04, the column collection a couple of years ago, and now this fall I’ve got a new one, Favre: His 20 Greatest Games [Big Earth Publishing]. I just got a note yesterday from the publisher, they’re really happy with it.
When you sit down to write, what motivates you? Really, in winter, it’s nice to have something to do. Wit this one, there was a lot of research to do first. I managed to get tapes or DVDs of all the games that I’d picked. So then you watch the games and take notes. That’s arduous. What I always tell people is—maybe it sounds simplistic and is easier said than done—but the truth of the matter is if you do two or three pages a day, in six months you’ve got a 400-page manuscript.
Do you have a book you’ve always wanted to do? The Alzado biography, with all the steroid implications, could be important. But the great unfinished story is Leo Burt and the Sterling Hall bombing.
Do you have theories about what happened to Burt? No more than anybody else. I identified him as the Unabomber in Madison Magazine six months before they caught the real one.
Are you expecting the [conversation] about whether or not those 20 Favre games you’ve chosen are really the greatest? I think that’s probably one of the reasons they came up with the idea is that it will generate a lot of controversy or at least discussion. I tried to pick games that had some larger implications other than that he’d played extremely well because he played well a lot of times. I was able to pick the obvious one that people always mention first is the Monday night game after his father died. He played heroically under extreme circumstances. I did the game where he came back after he admitted his painkiller addition. The publisher said [I] managed to capture the arc of his life cast inside these 20 games. That’s what I was shooting for. Like the Monday night Denver game this year when his wife was in the press box and had just decided to come forward [with her book] and so that gave me the chance to write about their relationship. I picked the last game in County Stadium, where Brett scored on the last-second scramble run in the second or third year. It gave me the chance to talk about the Packers history in Milwaukee and the decision to move out. I interviewed Bob Harlan because he was the guy who made that tough call.
When you edited the magazine how hard was it to decide what to write about? When I became editor my goal was to have the best mix of stories I possibly could.
What was it like finding good writers? Some months are better than others, but like you, sometimes you get lucky. A guy named Dwight Allen moved to town from the New Yorker. So immediately I assigned him a column on Roundy Coughlin, who was the hayseed, colorful, widely read sports columnist for the State Journal. He wrote a column called “Roundy Says” from the forties into the seventies, and I always had an idea that if the right writer came along that he would be a great history profile. And Dwight just did a spectacular job. And then over the transom came W.C. Heinz. He had collaborated with Vince Lombardi on Run to Daylight. He was one of a half a dozen best sports writers of his era and I knew him through a mutual friend. But on the 25th anniversary of Lombardi’s death he sends me in a reminiscence of his time with Lombardi. And then we got David Maraniss to write coming back to Madison after 25 years, what had changed. Those are the pieces that I remember, when I was able to get lucky and lure some real special writers.
Finally, Doug, finish these sentences:
Brett Favre should... stay retired (my selfish author side coming out).
Golf shoes... are overrated. I used to play barefoot until some bureaucrat decided what they put on the grass is bad for you.
The kid in me… never met a cheeseburger he didn't like.
Brennan's "Three on Thursday"
1. Hitting the Shelves: The Chris Farley Show: A Biography in Three Acts ($26.95, Viking) is due out May 6. Big brother Tom Farley and John Belushi co-biographer Tanner Colby conducted more than a hundred interviews to capture the Madisonian and famous comedian’s life story in the words of those who knew him. Sure, the book will sell—Playboy is about to excerpt it—because it features Chevy Chase, Lorne Michaels and David Spade (who comes off looking petty, even spiteful at times), Madison readers will love the walk down memory lane and admire the Farley family’s Midwestern humility willingness to share their story, warts and all.
2. Here’s what Doug Moe told me about Chris Farley: “I went out with [former TV anchor and Congressman] Scott Klug, and he hosted us for three days in New York, which was really fun. We went to the rehearsal and the show that night, went to the after party. Then that next morning we went over to Chris’s apartment and he made us breakfast. He was a cover story in Madison Magazine in February of 1994.
3. Best Writing in April: “It takes longer for two guys to get picked up than one, so we were surprised 10 minutes in when a faded green, two-door Chevy Nova, the victim of a half-ass chop job, cut hard into the shoulder and crunched to a stop on the white gravel 50 yards up the interstate.” – From “On the road? Hitchhiking isn’t what it used to be” by Andy Moore, Isthmus, April 11, 2008