Today, NPR launches Cabinet of Wonders, a new radio program featuring the best of New York's acclaimed variety show by the same name. Cabinet is staged by its host and founder John Wesley Harding and routinely touts an exciting cast of comedians, authors and musicians. We picked Harding's brain this week about the show and how he selects each night's guests.
How did you come up with the idea for Cabinet of Wonders?
It was a way to combine the fact that I'm a musician and a writer. So I asked my writer friends (most of whom would like to be musicians) and my musician friends (most of whom would like to have their lyrics carefully considered as at a reading); and then I worked out that comedy could be the glue in the middle.
In fact, initially it was a fun way to do an album release party, and it blossomed from there. And that's how the show came about. Besides, the time was right for a little variety. Maybe watching one person on stage for 90 minutes is a bit old hat. This is more like a cross between the Stax Review and a Secret Policeman's Ball (with great literature).
From books to music you've got a great and varied background, how does that experience help you host the show?
Well, apart from anything else, it means I read a lot and I listen a lot, and I have pretty catholic tastes. The show's mainly stuff that I like and the idea is to put all those things together - great literary writing, really fine comedians, wonderful musicians - and then sculpt them into a show which, rather than seeming like a hastily thrown together benefit, is a carefully-curated Cabinet of Wonders: that's where the hard, and enjoyable, work is. And that's why the show has the format it has, involving poems about the performers and so on. My influences are all very vaudeville: I'm just trying to update those influences to my own ends.
What characteristics, talents, or abilities do you look for when picking your guests?
The main thing is that I love what they do. And after that (because I believe that all good performed art, whatever it's chosen genre or medium, can sit together happily on one bill) the only important thing is that no one is too much of a prima donna, because the show can't quite handle that.
There's very much a "let's do the show right here" atmosphere, so it's important that everyone digs in together. The great thing about performers is... they're performers. They want to be good. So if you pick people who are good, they very rarely let you down.
Is there a comedian, a writer and a musician you've also wanted to be part of the show, but haven't gotten yet. Who are they?
David Bowie! Because he's one of my musical heroes and he's been very quiet of late.
Any number of writers, though you have to be careful with writers in the Cabaret setting. I've seen writers kill with completely and totally serious readings, but it takes a special reader to do that.
Apart from that, I just love to put things together that people wouldn't expect, so they leave liking something they had no idea they would or simply had no idea that it even existed.
What do you do to make the stage show radio friendly?
Have very few ventriloquist acts. Try to swear as little as possible. Describe what people are wearing in helpful detail.