In 1995, when Ira Glass started "This American Life" on Chicago Public Radio, there was nothing else like it. Since then it's launched the careers of David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell, re-engaged people in the almost-lost art of storytelling, and made Glass a household name (if your household is full of liberal-arts grads and has a Weekender subscription to The New York Times). The award-winning host talks to City Paper about what makes a good story, NPR fans, and what it's like to be a nerd sex symbol.
City Paper: What kind of dog do you have? [Glass was walking the dog during an initial call.]
Ira Glass: I have a pit bull. That makes it sound like my wife and I are much tougher kinds of people than we actually are. He's actually really sweet. He goes so far against type [in] that he's often a little scared of much smaller dogs. Which I suppose could be a whole metaphor for how my wife and I deal with the world. Maybe talking about that would be getting more personal than I should be getting. He's incredibly cute and weirdly smart. He's a very sweet dog.
CP: He sounds like a good dog for New York— looks pretty scary but is actually pretty sweet.
CP: You're coming to Philly for "Radio Stories & Other Stories: An Evening With Ira Glass." How do you translate what you get from the show and put it into a performance? What's involved?
IG: The way we do it is, I sit on stage with a console and quotes and music, and I can re-create the sound of our radio show. And a really big part of it is talking about the show and what we do and why we do it. The show's so different from other shows. But really it's probably just a bald-face excuse to play really funny or really moving clips from recent shows.
CP: Do you use different types of media, or is it just audio?
IG: It's mostly audio. It's funny because I've thought of playing clips from my TV series sometimes, too. But generally it's just audio.
CP: You've successfully moved into different types of media — television, podcasts — have you thought about staying ahead of this curve, invest in holograms like CNN?
IG: I look forward to a three-dimensional representation of one of our stories. Or alternately something acted out by tiny insects — in a sort of flea circus kind of format — where each of the fleas will represent a big character in whatever family drama and the whole thing can be staged on a small dinner plate. The training of the fleas is always a very time-consuming thing, I'm given to understand. But I believe that there are certain stories that can only be understood in the medium of fleas.
CP: I'm just trying to follow you —
IG: Can I just say as an interviewer, there are certain questions that the interviewer can come up with — and I say this as a professional interviewer — where the question is so much better than the answer anybody can give. I feel like that's what you just did. I think your question contained a premise that was so much funnier and better than any answer a person can come up with. Then as the interviewee you just try to go along with it but also feel a grudging respect for the question. But also I have to say a little anger, 'cause you feel cornered — that question was so much funnier and more interesting than any answer I can invent. So it creates a complicated relationship between the interviewer and the interviewee. The interviewee suddenly feels both jealous and admiring, but also trapped. I just wanted to express that that just all happened.
CP: I'm glad and sorry that I caused so many complex feelings, but I think you went in a really interesting direction.
IG: That thing you're saying where you're having opposite feelings — did you know that there's a thing called double-dipping feelings? I know this because it came up on one of our editorial meetings the other day. ... We were talking about having opposite feelings at the same time, and one of our senior producers said that her kids have a kids' book about this, and it's called Double-Dipping Feelings — you feel one thing and its opposite at the same time. And one of the producers ruefully said — "That's my problem. I only feel my feelings in sequence. And I never feel opposite feelings at the same time. That's why I'm always in the situation where I break up with somebody and then immediately feel like, 'Wait, wait, but I love you' and want them back. Because of not having double-dipping feelings."
And I was just sort of amazed that I had never thought of that as a phenomenon in and of itself. ... That's what I feel all the time about everything. I didn't realize that was a separate phenomenon that could be named. And once I heard it named, I didn't know what to do with it.
CP: My problem is that the phrase "double-dipping feelings" makes me think more of cookies than it does of emotions, like an Oreo. I'm sure the Germans have a word for a sadness and gladness of words all together — they have good words that mean complicated things.
IG: I feel if you and I could suddenly make the next question and answer happen entirely in German, we'd both come off so smart.
CP: What drives a good story?
IG: The things that drive a good story are the classical things that stories are made of. There has to be someone you can relate to. Something interesting has to happen to them and they have to change because of it. Then it all comes down to taste as to what's interesting. Saying it that way makes stories sound really boring. Describing it this way makes it sound like these wouldn't be useful criteria but in fact if you're making a show, people are pitching you all kinds of stuff. Often it'll be someone saying, "My uncle and I have a tape recorder and we're going to drive across the country interviewing people where we go," which is not a story because there's nothing at stake. That's not trying to find the answer to something, there's no chance that they're going to change very much as a result of that.
Last night a stranger walked up to me at the Apple store as I was trying to get my phone fixed. He pitched the idea — he and friends have a canoe that they've hidden under the abandoned Domino sugar factory in Brooklyn. They take the canoe out and go on these little excursions. He asked, "Isn't that a story?" and I was like, "No that's not a story — that sounds incredibly fun, so much more fun than anything I do on the weekend, but that's not a story because nothing happens — nobody changes, there's no stakes, nothing happens." And so when we're making stories for radio or TV or for the flea circus thing that is still in the early but very promising planning stages, the stories have to have characters and feelings and funny moments and emotional moments and turning points where things can change, and it's more like staging a drama, really — halfway between drama and journalism.
The difference between radio and TV turns out to be a lot vaster than any of us thought when we started. We thought we'd be able to do stories just like on the radio. What doesn't sound like a big problem turns out to be a big, big problem. When we do radio, we generally do a story about something that happened in the past, so we can get all the people who it happened to to just sit down and tell us what happened — "What did you think at this point and this point and this point?" — and they can tell the story. You're doing journalism about something that's already happened.
The problem with TV is, if there's nothing to look at, you don't want to have to make it look like some corny documentary — slides and home movies or something like that — while people are telling a story. You want something to unfold in front of the camera that has some drama to it. And you can do that kind of thing where people come in and tell a story about something that happened in the past, but you're actually not using the medium of television for all that it's capable of, so why do it on television? For television you want something that's going to unfold in front of the camera that's dramatic and gripping and interesting and all of that. What you're looking for is to commit a piece of journalism about something which you know is going to happen but hasn't happened. If you think about how hard that is to find, where there's a situation where you know it's a great story and you know people are going to change — when you think about finding that — it's really, really hard. We've gotten better at TV and our second season we really think we understood what we were doing, and what made something good or bad, but finding stories where that could happen is so hard. So it turns out that there are big differences.
And when it comes to the flea circus version, though we haven't gotten very far into it, I could image that those stories will be ones without a lot of psychological undertone.
CP: Really just straight action when you're talking about fleas.
IG: Pretty much straight action, yeah.
CP: Do you get a lot of people walking up to you with great ideas all the time?
IG: Not so much people walking up to me with great ideas. Truthfully it's still very rare for me to be recognized anywhere. Most of our radio-show listeners don't know what I look like. And the TV show is a big success, but it's on a network that isn't in a lot of homes, and actually even fewer people saw the TV show than listen to the radio show, so it's unusual for someone to walk up to me and say hi. It's even more unusual for them to say hi and pitch a story. I bet a stranger walks up to me to pitch a story not once every two or three months.
CP: Going back to the Apple store for a second, my friend Steve works there. He apparently fixed your computer and Philip Glass'.
IG: Can you answer me a question? If you got Philip Glass' computer, you'd look around on it, wouldn't you?
CP: I don't know, I think they're sworn to some oath to not look at people's computers.
IG: But wouldn't you at least open up his iTunes to see what music he's listened to?
CP: I would want to know what his top songs are and if he's burning CDs for friends.
IG: Since he's my cousin I can tell you that I was scandalized when he got the iPhone and I looked at the iTunes part of the iPhone and it was 100 percent empty.
CP: Maybe he hadn't loaded it yet?
CP: Maybe he listens to the sounds of the world and composes from there.
IG: It seems — I'm guessing a little bit, but I think that he's thinking about music so much during the day that during a recreational moment to put on headphones and listen to music is the last thing he would do. It's like the lady at the shopping mall in Nashville that we did a story on who sits in a little room and runs the security cameras. She looks at 46 cameras video screens all day — that's all she does — so when she goes home she doesn't watch TV. After a good 10 or 12 hours of sitting at the piano writing down little notes and playing stuff, to listen to some music is the very last thing he wants to do.
CP: Do you have that problem listening to stories?
IG: No. Yesterday we finished a very intense show that was all I was thinking about for two weeks, and it was really a lot of pressure working on it, getting it done and getting it out, and for the next week all I'm doing is replaying and re-editing everything in my head. The best thing that can happen is that I go to a movie and shove that experience out with another story that someone else has made. So often on a Saturday I'll either go play poker or I'll go to a movie. Because I need something as intense as editing and writing to shove out all the editing and writing I just did, or else I'll just keep editing and writing the show we just finished.
Poker's good for that because it takes a lot of focus ... and trying to figure out what other people are thinking. There's money at stake so it drives anything else from your head.
CP: And there's the obligation to crap talk.
IG: Yeah, although apparently I'm bad at that. I'm very easy to read at the poker table.
CP: There's a thing here in Philadelphia called First Person Arts, and before your event at the Kimmel Center they're going to be hosting a themed Story Slam, which is a competitive storytelling event. What do you think about competitive storytelling?
IG: I've never seen anybody do it. I've been to events where people get up onstage and tell stories. It's like seeing music or anything else. If the people are good, it's really super fun, and if the people are bad, you can't have a less enjoyable evening. My sense is that by making it a competition you're letting everyone know that they're supposed to be entertainers and I think that seems like a smart thing. People aren't just standing up and telling stories from their own lives, but they're telling stories for their entertainment value. I'm for every aspect of that, 100 percent.
Wouldn't I be kind of a brat if I were somebody who does a radio show where people come on and tell their own stories if I were to tell you, "No, that sounds terrible. People coming on stage and telling their stories? No, the proper medium for that is radio, my friend." No. That seems like it's going to be a lot of fun.
CP: You have an open Q&A session at the end of your events. Do you find people tell you really good or really bad stories at the end of your events?
IG: I don't know what happened, but public radio has ended up having such a mature fanbase. By that I mean people are smart in a mature way, that by the end of the event people ask utterly appropriate and surprisingly interesting questions. It's funny because I've been to other public events where the people who ask the questions are just horrible. They stand up and tell long digressive stories where they give all of their political opinions before asking their questions. That has just not been my experience with the public radio crowd. I find that fans seem pretty with it. People don't usually pitch me stories, but occasionally someone will ask me, "If I were to pitch a story, how do I do it?" and I tell them about our Web site, where we get a story if not every week then every other week just from people e-mailing us, and then I'll usually ask them if they have such a story, and then if I'm feeling in the right mood and they seem like they're going to be funny or a good talker, I'll ask them to pitch it. That usually goes well.
There is one story I got from that that ended up on the show. There was a girl who was a physicist in her early 20s. Her little brother is developmentally disabled and 18. She was back from studying physics in Germany at some fancy school there and she was home with her family. She went to school with him one day and they went on a field trip to a museum. At some point she thought maybe someone at the museum thought she was someone in the class and was developmentally disabled herself. But she couldn't tell because they used a tone of voice with her that was the tone of voice you'd use with a fellow adult. So she was convinced by the tone of voice with this person that they knew she wasn't in the class, and the longer she talked to this person the more it started dawning on her, "Wait a second, he thinks I'm one of the kids," and periodically he'd say something to her and she'd think, "No, he knows I'm not developmentally disabled." Finally it became stunningly clear that he thought that she was one of the kids and she didn't know how to how to tell him. Anyway, hijinks ensue.
CP: You go all over the place for these tours — do you find yourself getting new story ideas?
IG: Not on these kinds of trips. I get into town and pretty quickly I have to be at the sound check and then there's a reception for the public radio people and I'm meeting people at the reception, but it's not the kind of thing where I get out and learn anything new. I don't believe at the end of my half-day in Philadelphia that I will understand what Philadelphia is all about.
CP: We have our own NPR personality, Terry Gross. Are you going to hang out?
IG: I don't know, she's a pretty heavy drinker and I try to keep it on more of a serious tip. I don't know if I can swing with her.
CP: I don't know, I can image the two of you sitting at a table and closing your eyes so you just hear each other's voices.
IG: Again, the interviewer has a line much better than anything the interviewee can say. I don't know, I haven't talked to her. I'm friends with Terry. I heard she might be coming to the show. If she does I hope to see her. But I'm telling this to you and I haven't actually talked to her. I don't want her to read this in the paper and say, "Oh really, he wants to get together, he could give a call," so I don't know.
I think she's the greatest. I have this whole story I was going to tell onstage in Philadelphia about her, but if I tell it to you I can't use it onstage, so I'm just going to shut up.
One of the great things is that Fresh Air is an actual arts show and that part is so great, but some of the most memorable shows she does are just everything else she does having to do with the arts. An interview she did with an evangelical minister got him fired, or forced him to resign officially, from his job, after she talked to him about his politics and the evangelical movement and how they're changing. It was such a great interview. I hear these interviews and I think, it's such an amazing interview, and I know it's one of eight interviews she did that week. And if I could do one interview as good a week I'd be really happy. I admire her. I wish I could do my job as well as she does hers.
CP: You've been listed as one of the sexiest men around. How does that make you feel?
IG: It makes me feel like some very sexy man has had a terrible injustice done. I'm almost 50 years old and I feel about as sexy as you can feel at that age, which is not tremendously sexy. For me to make a list of the 30 sexiest men in America, literally tens of millions of men would have to die first if it weren't rigged. There are many, many men ahead of me in line. I don't know how I jumped the queue. If I were to get there on my merits as one of the 30 or 50 sexiest men in this country, there would have to be a genocide of men, so I don't know how that happened.
CP: Do you have crazy fans? Do they ever overstep the comfort zone?
IG: I wish I could say yes because it would be such a better story, but honestly the answer is no. ... There's one woman who for a while was coming to every performance I did. If I did a DVD signing she'd be there. But she was nothing but a sweetheart, and truthfully was so shy she wouldn't even shake my hand at the reception. So I'd be like, "Oh, it's her again." She seemed utterly lovely. That's about it.
CP: Seems like she's really conforming to the stereotypes of the regular NPR listeners.
IG: Like, what would be the thing you would expect? That would be what you would expect, right?
CP: Yeah, a quiet and respectful — not stalker — just big fan who listens to your show in her car.
IG: Little shy, possibly glasses-wearing.
CP: Do you find there are a lot of glasses in the audience? Is there a reflection problem onstage?
IG: Horrible, the glare. It's a huge problem. It can be so distracting.
Radio Stories & Other Stories: An Evening With Ira Glass | Sat., Jan. 24, 8 p.m., $29-$40, Kimmel Center, 300 S. Broad St., 215-790-5800, kimmelcenter.org