It’s hallucinatory to speak with Ira Glass on the phone. Absurd really to dial a NYC number and be connected with the voice that I’ve communed with hundreds of times over the course of my life, bearing my soul, telling jokes, sometimes disagreeing with, but always coming back to a balance of friendship. His voice, so familiar is like a slightly nasal narcotic, and I remind myself to breathe.
Glass doesn’t know we are friends, though I suspect he’s got an inkling of the hundreds of thousands of fan folks like me who imagine that, given the opportunity, we would be friends. And that’s the thing, right? Beyond the exquisite storytelling, the incredible curiosity and dedication, Glass is, at his core, a deeply decent man. So I’m guessing that even as 2.2 million of us listen each week to This American Life (or binge on the podcasts Serial and S-Town), we imagine getting the Glass treatment and are thereby revealed to ourselves as much as we are to an audience.
For, as loyal (and even occasional) listeners know, Glass has the ability to unpeel and structure a story—revealing comedy, tragedy and heroics—in an manner that encapsulates an entire person. The stories on American Life are remarkable for their humanity and surprise.
When asked about what motivates him to find these stories Glass replied, “I have to say, the kinds of stories we make on our show really come out of my interests ... they come out of a bunch of things, my incompetence as a regular reporter when I was in my twenties, and my interest in doing stories about everyday life and everyday people. This set me off on a series of experiments of making different kinds of stories to figure out how to tell a story about everyday people that would be engaging and feel like something. That lead me to certain conclusions about how to tell a story on the radio...and honestly it brought me back to a very basic kind of storytelling where, when we do stories about everyday people on our show, they’re stories with an intensely interesting plot to them. And really we rely on the power of narrative, so the stories unfold like little movies for radio.“
“And the whole this is to just get caught up in it as a story. They happen to be about everyday people but they have all of this feeling to them. And you want to find out what’s going to happen, and then at some point, I or my coworkers here at the radio show became very interested in applying that to the news and what we found was that it’s just an enormously powerful way to do a news related story whether the story is about immigration, or politics or whatever. It is possible to get people interested in topics they might not think they are interested in just because they want to hear what happens to the people in the story.”
When we touched on the idea of the deeply human and reflective nature of his work, Glass said: “I think for any story to be good, there has to be somebody at the heart of it who you relate to or empathize with, or feel something for. Without that, it’s just a series of plot points [...] you want somebody at the center of it who is interesting enough to feel something about. And so I think that’s a lot of what you are responding to. And honestly, it’s hard to find stories. The trickiest part of the whole thing is finding stories where the plot is good enough and the people are compelling enough.”
Asked about the nature of his family: was/is storytelling a big part of his growing-up? Is it a part of the way his people connect? He gave a little chuckle and said: “No. In no way. We’re like an utterly civilian suburban family. And one of the reasons, honestly, where I had to invent a theory about how to do this was because in real life I’m not any special kind of storyteller. Like I’m an utterly civilian person when it comes to being able to tell a story about my own life and my family is the same way, we’re just utterly normal. There were no great raconteurs in the family or anything like that.”
In Glass’s projects, one of the things that stands out is the absolute dedication to the craft of spinning the tale. When I (self-servingly) queried about one of the most important things he’d learned, he answered, “I have come to believe that from the moment you start to conceive of what the story might be, as a reporter, even before you get the interview, it’s helpful to think about what would be the most exciting way to present the story. Obviously you don’t know all the facts yet, and you don’t know everything you’re going to know. But it’s good to go in with a working theory because you can start to imagine a really funny beginning or a really interesting way to bring up an idea. You can start to invent stuff even before you get the quotes. And that just turns out to be enormously helpful and in the very best stories you go in and half of what you thought is wrong and you learn all sorts of things and it’s very exciting. You tell the people in the story what you think it’s really about and they tell you, ‘you have it all wrong’ and that’s always the best.“
Trust is a huge part of the American Life equation, and when it is touched on, he replies: “We talk to lots of people who don’t open up, or they aren’t great talkers, or the story we thought they were going to tell us didn’t turn out to be true. We kill a tremendous amount of material. So the people who end up on the air are the people who trust us enough to be honest with us.”
The conversation pauses here, and I tell Glass that in advance of this interview, I was nervous and made a post to my Facebook page, telling my “friends” that I’d be talking with him. Further, that in my announcement, I had wondered what folks might like to ask him. One friend, Rangi McNeil, a NYC-based poet, suggested that I ask about former contributor, David Rakoff. Rakoff, an award-winning humorist died of cancer in 2012.
I ask if he would share a memory. He pauses for just the briefest of moments before answering, and in that moment the weight of friendship feels almost tangible.
“Oh, I have so many, it’s hard to even name one” he said. “I mean I remember in the months where he was dying, we went out for breakfast at the Second Avenue Deli on 33rd St.—which is a really funny sentence—and had a big Jewish breakfast, lox and fish and him asking me to speak at his memorial. I remember him in his dying days, he’d written his final book and wanted to record it himself. So I had taken him into the studio and we did a series of sessions where we recorded ... and you know, it was very ... I felt very close to him. But even from the very beginning, our very first conversation is on tape, it’s me talking about him being a Canadian living in America. From the minute we ever met we got along great. It’s really funny, very personal conversation and it’s an old show called Canadians. And after that our second experience was he had a job acting as Freud in Barney’s Department store window, and he would do therapy sessions. So again I barely knew him, and I went in for a therapy session and lied on the couch in the window of Barney’s and the people on the street can’t hear you, they can just see that you’re doing a therapy session, and we had this very intimate conversation.”
When asked if the conversation was helpful, Glass pauses and laughs, “I can’t remember the content, but I remember the tone. David and I are both therapists’ kids so it was easy for us to fall into a therapy related conversation very quick. It’s funny that so many of these memories revolve around work things, but I feel like some of our most intense interactions were about work. The first time I saw the dance piece he did in one of our live shows, he and the choreographer Monica Bill Barns showed it to me and I just wanted to hug him, it was so beautiful.”
Discussing the intersection of dance, radio and live performance brings us pretty naturally to ideas of comedy, tragedy and absurdity.
“I like things that are funny because I do, and then I like things that are sad and have a lot of feeling. For me, the most perfect form of a story is it starts off really funny so you get caught up into it, then once you’re inside of it, it gets really emotional and you start to have feelings. Which I have to say is not an unusual structure for a story. That’s the structure for Broadway musicals and many, many movies, and everything Judd Apatow has ever done. I don’t feel like I am working an obscure beat when I say that I like that.
At this point, we’re getting near the end of the time allotted for this chat, and I still have a couple of questions. We circle back to the event that brings Glass to NEFLa, An Evening With Ira Glass: Seven Things I’ve Learned. It’s designed to be a multimedia event (audio clips, music and video). When asked why he decided to move out of the confined space of the studio to the performative space of the stage, he’s candid. “I wish I could say there was an artistic reason. But originally it was entirely business considerations. When we started on the radio I called other radio shows and said ‘how do you do this?’ and one of the things people said was, ‘you want to publicize the show, but because you’re public radio you don’t have any money, here are the ways you can do it. And one of the effective ways, is once you get on a few stations, you do events in those cities...and they have to advertise it ... the public radio station has to fill the hall, so they have to say your name over and over on the radio ... and alert people that your show exists.”
Glass concluded by saying that since 1995, when American Life debuted, he’s hosted a live show about once a month and given a talk. “Over time, I came to take on the idea of how do you give a talk really, really well and had to train myself how to be on stage. I hadn’t been on stage since high school, I remember feeling ‘oh, this is like the first time I traveled to a foreign country, I have no idea what this is going to be’ […] to make it easier for myself, I structured it like a radio show [...] if I do that, I know what I am doing. What people will see this week is a variation of that.”
As our conversation winds up, I wedge one more question in: what’s the eighth thing you’ve learned? He laughs in recognition that it's hard to fit all the good things one discovers into a story.
“The way the speech is structured I swap things in and out all the time. So when there’s something I want to include, I just take something out and put something in. I have to say there is a thing that I am consistently leaving out and I wish I could put in, that is clips from our movies. We’ve now made three movies and sometimes, with some audiences if they seem tolerant, I play a clip and talk about it … because they’re really fun to play.”
An Evening With Ira Glass: Seven Things I’ve Learned, 8 p.m. Nov. 10, The Florida Theatre, floridatheatre.com, $39-$59