This (Televised) American Life
Perhaps it’s a stretch to describe any public radio personality as a superstar. But if there were such a thing, Ira Glass, host of the weekly radio show “This American Life,” would be it. Glass, 47, is nerdy in a hip kind of way, and he unselfconsciously professes his love, in equal measures, for radio shock jock Howard Stern, the now-defunct television drama “The O. C.” and fellow National Public Radio personality Terry Gross.
For one hour each week, “This American Life” tells true stories about everyday Americans; the show’s Web site describes them as “movies for radio.” The stories are organized loosely around a theme — recent ones have included “Quiz Show” and “Houses of Ill Repute” — and manage to locate drama, humor, joy and sorrow in such unlikely places that listeners can’t help but fall in love with the elderly Brooklyn man whose house has become a haven for homeless prostitutes, or with the building superintendent who was part of a Brazilian death squad.
This week, Glass and “This American Life” make the leap from the airwaves to the small screen: The first episode of the brand-new “This American Life” television show airs March 22 on Showtime. Earlier this month, Glass and his colleagues went on a six-city tour, promoting the television program and producing a live version of the radio show that airs this week; the theme is “What I Learned From Television.” Glass sat down with the Forward’s Beth Schwartzapfel to talk about making radio and making television, and what he learned about storytelling from his childhood rabbi.
BS: So what have you learned from television? What did you find you could do on television that you couldn’t do on the radio?
IG: One of the basic things I didn’t expect from television is that there would be a power to seeing somebody’s face as they tell a story, that there would be a drama to it that could be as powerful as not seeing the person. When we went into it, I truly believed that the most powerful way to hear a story would be if the person’s invisible and they’re saying it on the radio. But actually, I think that there are moments in the story that are enhanced by seeing someone’s face. Their face carries a lot of feeling. It allows empathy, and it’s a different thing than the radio.
I [also] wasn’t sure, when we went into it, if the two kinds of moments that I think of as being at the heart of our radio show would survive into TV. One is the weird, digressive, funny moment that’s just in there because it amuses us. Another is the kind of moment where someone will have gone through a bunch of stuff, and then they’ll [reflect on] something that they now realize about the world. It’s a light moment, and then a super-reflective moment, and it wasn’t clear to me that those things would be able to be on TV and have the same kind of feeling. Now that we’ve done it, I feel like it’s more just a matter of taste. That people have never done it because it’s not their thing.
BS: What did you find you can do on the radio that you can’t do on television?
IG: In the first few years of the radio show, I felt like it detracted from the power of radio to actually ever see the person who was on the show. I still believe this. It’s more powerful if you don’t know what the people look like. The invisibility of radio is a part of what gives it its numinous power. The person on the radio isn’t an actual person; they’re more of an idea of a person.
I remember when I met Terry Gross for the first time. It’s not like it’s surprising who Terry Gross is: If you were to think about it, she is a glasses-wearing Jewish lady of a certain age. She’s a slim, well-put-together, East Coast smart person. She’s exactly what you would expect if you were to take a second to think about who would be that lady on the radio. But the fact is, I never even bothered to think, what does Terry Gross look like? To me, she was just a presence on the radio; she was just an intelligence, and a sensibility, and that is more powerful than her being any particular person.
For the first few years of the show, I never let myself be photographed. And truthfully, it made it hard to publicize the show, because America is dominated by a photographic fetish, and you literally can’t get into a newspaper or magazine in the United States of America unless you will give them a picture, or agree to sit for a picture.
[But] the overall feeling of the television show is as much like the radio show as could humanly be done. Hopefully the overall feeling of the television show is enough like the radio show that when I show up in it, it doesn’t seem jarring and strange. Inevitably, if people know me from the radio, the first moment they see me is going to be a bad moment. [He laughs.] Oh, that’s what he looks like? There’s just no way around that.
BS: One of the stories in the first season of the television show is about an atheist who poses as Jesus in a series of paintings. It seems like Jesus stories lend themselves so well to television — the iconography —
IG: They’re iconic, exactly.
BS: Do Jewish stories lend themselves, as well, to drama? Are there Jewish stories on the television show?
IG: There are Jews on the TV show, but there are no particularly Jewish stories. Christians are actually, to me, anyway, as a Jew, much more interesting in America. And weirdly, much more misunderstood. Evangelical Christians are the most incompetently portrayed group in America, in TV, in fiction, in the news. When Christians say that the media gets them wrong, Christians are absolutely right. Christian life in this country is really horribly documented, and way more interesting than is done. Generally, in the media, very religious Christians are portrayed as hardheaded doctrinaire knuckleheads. But in fact, from my experience, the most religious Christians I know tend to be incredibly thoughtful, complicated, generous to a fault, very principled and not knuckleheads. Actually, they’re sort of weirdly the opposite of the stereotype, and that includes people from the hardcore fundamentalist faiths.
Maybe it’s just that I am Jewish and I’m so familiar with being a Jew, and I went to religious school and that is so much more familiar. I certainly wouldn’t rule out doing a story about those different kinds of things that happen among Jews, but we don’t stumble on them in the same way.
[But] many of our contributors are Jewish, so many of the stories [on the radio show] are about Jewish-y things. People going back to understand the roots of their Holocaust past; we did an episode in Israel; we did numerous stories about going away to Jewish day camp. Adam Davidson did a story for us about how, when he was a kid, he decided that he wanted to become the prime minister of Israel, from reading David Ben-Gurion’s biography, and started keeping a diary like David Ben-Gurion did, knowing that one day this would be an important document like David Ben-Gurion’s diary. And David Rakoff did a story about working on a kibbutz one summer. It’s a regular feature of our show; it’s a very Jewish show. So much so that often, we’ll have a story, and we’ll just think, “Well, this is a great story, but let’s not run it this week because last week we did something that was so Jew-y, we can’t do a whole other Israel thing again this week! We just did one!” And so we don’t get into that problem with the Christian stories. It’s still a very Jew-y show, even if we don’t want it to be.
BS: Was being Jewish a big part of your upbringing?
IG: We went to Beth Israel, a Conservative shul in Baltimore, and went after school and Sundays for Hebrew school, and then after six years of that, we all went to Baltimore Hebrew College for another few years of after-school classes. And I have very fond feelings about all that.
In fact, the guy who was the rabbi at Beth Israel…was an incredible rabbi named Seymour Esrog, who just passed away two or three years ago. I remember he was such an amazing preacher. He was a total entertainment package — he was incredibly funny, and very moving, totally knew how to milk a story — and then he gave you a little “Now here’s what we’re going to take away from this today when we walk out of here.” He totally had that, too. He’d quote from movies and things he was reading, and I remember even the kids would stay for the sermon. And I remember thinking, as a kid: “That guy’s got the job, man. You get up there once a week, you say your thing to the people,” and it was much, much later that I realized, “Oh, I got that job!”
Also I remember, going back a few years ago, I’d figured out this whole way to tell a story on the radio. This story structure I came to totally from trial and error, where there’ll be the action part of the story at the beginning and then there’ll be a moment of reflection, and then an anecdote, and then a moment of reflection. Which doesn’t sound like that big of a deal, but it was a big deal for me: a very different and more compelling way to tell a story than what most journalists do. And so, I sort of invented this thing sitting in an editing room at NPR, and tried it out in the field, and then built our radio show based on it. And so our radio show’s on the air for a couple of years, then I went back to Baltimore for High Holiday services, and we went and saw Rabbi Esrog. And I’m taking apart his Yom Kippur sermon, the structure of it — it’s been years since I saw him give a sermon — and at some point, I’m like: “Oh my God. The structure of this is exactly the structure of the radio show.” And I’ve talked to people who have been to seminary, and they’re like: “Yes, every sermon is that structure. Every single sermon you will ever hear is that structure — anecdote, moment of reflection, anecdote, moment of reflection.” And I’m like: “Did everybody know? Why did I have to invent this in a little room on M Street in Washington, D.C.?”
BS: Do you still go to synagogue?
IG: I don’t believe in God, and so I feel like a fraud when I’m in a synagogue. I feel like somebody’s who’s in a theme park of my own childhood. I know all the songs, and it makes me feel really warm and nostalgic, and it’s incredibly comforting. But then I think that I don’t believe anything that’s being said here. And so, I have no business here. This is for somebody else. This is perfectly pleasant, but it seems a little sleazy — to be there, where other people are having a relationship with God, and I’m there because I like the music. [He laughs.] That seems like other people are putting on a show for me or something. That’s not right. That’s not what that’s for. It’s nice hanging around with other people, but, you know — I’ve got a wife for that.