His American Life: A Look at Ira Glass

That sincere, in-the-same-room-with-you voice has proved to be seductive for the listeners of Ira Glass. This American Life, his true-stories show distributed by Public Radio International, recently celebrated its tenth anniversary. Next up are a screenplay and a TV series. Even with a move to New York coming soon, Glass took time out to talk about life, love, work, and how a bad relationship led to a creative breakthrough.

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MFC: You’ve said you hate writing?

IG: Writing is the hardest part of the job. Writing is just very difficult. I’m an adequate performer. And I think I have a special talent as an editor. Editing is what I do best. But writing, uh, slogging through the material and picking out the quotes and imposing structure-the points you are going to include in the story and the points you are going to have to toss away-

MFC: You’re filling me with enthusiasm about doing this article.

IG: [laughs] Well, you have to do the actual work when you’re writing; there is no way around it. And that’s why writing sucks.

MFC: Yet you just finished writing a screenplay?

IG: Right, with Dylan Kidd. He directed a movie called Roger Dodger. This American Life has a deal with Warner Bros., where they have dibs on stories from the radio show. And I have a deal with Warner Bros., as well, where I have to tell them about any idea that might make a good movie. If I have a dream that has cinematic structure, I have to drop a dime on it. So I read this book called Urban Tribes, a nonfiction book about a guy who wants to go to the Burning Man festival with his friends instead of going with his girlfriend to her friend’s wedding. It’s almost a piece of sociology. Here’s what interesting: the number of single people in this country has doubled in one generation. People are taking longer and longer to get married; there is this whole decade between finishing college and not getting married, where your friends become your family. And that’s where this character is in the book: he has reached the point where he has to choose.

To me, it was clearly a romantic comedy of our times. So I went to my Warner Bros. guy and said, “This is what American life is now; this is the exact moment of time for this story.” And he bought it in a second.

MFC: Had you ever written a screenplay before?

IG: Never.

MFC: So you had to move to a visual medium? How did you do that?

IG: Well, this is what I love about it-it can be fiction. I can make things up instead of having to try to fit the story around the facts. There is something so pleasant about that, a kind of floating-in-midair feeling where you can’t even see the ground. It’s a lot of fun for me. But, yes, I had to learn movies, which is also great fun when you’re doing it with a professional movie director. Dylan and I watched movies together, and he pointed out all kinds of things that I never would have really noticed.

MFC: Like what? What movies did you watch together?

IG: One was Annie Hall by Woody Allen. So Dylan pointed out to me that normally in a romantic or screwball comedy, you see the two people meet cute. But in Annie Hall, Allen totally screws with the structure, so when you first see them, they’re fighting. They enter fighting [laughs]. Then he goes back and tells how they met, and that way it’s much more poignant.

MFC: Will you do more screenplays?

IG: I have no idea. It’s been so much fun, but shocking. I mean, this is a studio movie. We can spend a lot of money, much more money than is spent on the radio show.

MFC: Speaking of visual projects, what about the television show?

IG: Showtime came to This American Life and wanted us to do the radio show as a cable TV show. And our reaction was, Oh, listen, thanks for thinking of us, but we don’t want to compromise and we don’t want something tacky and awful. And every time we’d add a new condition, expecting them to go away, they’d say, “Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead.” Finally we reached this point where we couldn’t drive them away.

MFC: I love that. If only life always worked like that.

IG: It would be great, right? So we had lots of things we didn’t want: nothing that looks like anything else; nothing that looks like a TV newsmagazine. And we got exactly what we wanted. Beautiful photography, wide-screen, very original approach. I’m only on the screen for 15 seconds, and the rest of it is other people and their stories. The pilot has this rancher who had this bull, and he wants to bring it back from the dead. But you never see me interviewing anyone-too TV newsmagazine. I don’t want to get into that kind of expected TV grammar.

MFC: So has Showtime picked up This American Life?

IG: Yes [laughs]. This is how we got stuck doing a TV series. [In January, Showtime ordered six episodes to air in the fall.]

MFC: Do you watch much television?

IG: Some. The OC. I never miss that. Gilmore Girls. Family Guy. And because Anaheed watches Project Runway, I do, too.

MFC: Like the radio show, will the TV show be about people talking? I mean, talking at length?

IG: Yes. Because you have to feel like that person is living some version of a life that could have been yours. That’s the beauty and that’s the art of it all. You want to feel the feelings of it. You want to know what the dream of it is, and the happy and the sad and the funny. That only comes across when someone talks for a long time. In radio, there is, of course, a literal choice where we can narrate the story and tell the listeners this and that and the whole point of the story. Or the person can tell his story himself.

MFC: As you said earlier, you can’t come in at the end and say it for someone. The person has to tell you the key point or the turning point himself.

IG: Hmm, uh, OK. It’s been a crazy ten years. So much happened and so much didn’t. And I tried to be better and in some ways I succeeded. I got tired and scared and crazed and busy and frustrated and excited. And-oh, yes-happy, too.

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