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Q&A: Ira Glass on Storytelling and the Visual World, Part 1

By Elise Hennigan; Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz on December 18, 2012


Q&A: Ira Glass on Storytelling and the Visual World, Part 1

“Radio is like a machine for empathy,” Ira Glass, the creator and host of This American Life, explains over the phone. “It just works especially well, as a medium, to take you into somebody else’s life. It’s easier if you don’t see them to relate to them. You’re not impeded by their physical appearance.”

Glass is a stone-cold master of audio storytelling. The anecdotes that he brings on the air seem to always hit that sweet spot of being surprising and inevitable, momentous and entirely ordinary at the same time.

While Glass usually relies on just the spoken word, this year he veered from his bread-and-butter storytelling style to help produce two visual pieces: the feature length independent comedy film Sleepwalk With Me, and a live, onstage This American Life show, “The Invisible Made Visible.” (You can view the full-length, 2-hour stream of the cinema event for $5 HERE.)


Damian Kulash and Ira Glass

The live show features comic monologues by David Sedaris, Glynn Washington and Ryan Knighton, and Tig Notaro; a short film by Mike Birbiglia starring Fresh Air’s Terry Gross; a live, musical performance by OK Go executed in tandem with an interactive app; a live dance performance from Monica Bill Barnes & Company; and a poignant performance from comedian and longtime contributor David Rakoff (that would end up to be the last piece he wrote for This American Life before he passed away this summer).

Even in the visual format, when subtleties have the potential to be overwhelmed by moving pictures and gimmicks, the live cinema event easily maintains its familiar charm. Like its radio show cousin, the live show is predicated on honest-to-goodness storytelling and the visuals act to enhance, not detract from that.

FILTER recently chatted with Glass about the live cinema event and how he gets to that storytelling sweet spot.

The format of the live visual cinema event that This American Life performed this summer was quite different from your radio show’s usual back-and-forth interview format. Did everything go as you envisioned?

Ira Glass: Yes, it did. Like a lot of the very best creative projects, it was very much a fear-based process. I could feel the deadline on its way and feared having enough stuff that was awesome enough. Because of that, we ended up over-commissioning in every direction. We ended up with dancers and animation and we ran a movie and we built an app and we had a band. Anything I could possibly think of to throw in there, we tried.

So did you end up with too much material?

I mean, we even went aggressively after certain things that didn’t work out but were all ready to be in the show. Like, there was a whole thing to get a magician…

[In the interest of not ruining a possible future surprise, we won’t give away the details of Glass’ plan to use magicians in his show. He sounded very serious about it.]

We were scared we had too much material and that we were going to go over time and get cut off. So the entire show was timed down to the second before we even arrived in the space.

That would be difficult to do with a live show.

Yeah. To do that we went back to previous shows we had done like this and timed how long the laughter takes. Like, how long do people laugh, per minute, for an average story by David Sedaris? How long will we need to break for applause between each act?


David Sedaris


How did you choose the segments that ended up in the live show?

Originally, I had the dancers and I had Tig [Notaro]. I wanted to do the show because I had seen the dancers perform and thought they were wonderful. There was something in their style that reminded me of our show when our show is working. They completely saw themselves as entertainers. It was 100-percent accessible. It seemed really personal and real and, more than anything we put on the radio, utterly original. It invented its own aesthetic.

I just thought, “People who like our show would like this.” It’s charming. It’s easy to love. I should try to create a show around this because other people would like it. And because who ever goes to dance usually? You know? A tiny, tiny group of people.

So I started with that. Then, I had the story by Tig. In fact, I had her on tape for a year, her Taylor Dayne story. I knew that it would work on the radio without visuals. But I also know when you see her do it, it’s way funnier because she has such a deadpan presence.

They both seem to express very ordinary moments and feelings mixed with the will to entertain. Why do you think people get so much pleasure from hearing about the ordinary moments of other people’s lives?

The only answer I have is so corny—but, it’s fun to imagine yourself in their situation. It’s fun to hear about somebody else’s life at such a level of detail that you can imagine being them.

On the radio show, I feel like in the last two years, we’ve done a lot of stories where we tackled the news. And so we’ve done a lot of stuff from inside Iraq and Afghanistan and here and there. You know, stuff that very experienced reporters go out and cover. I feel like when we do it, we’re very mindful of trying to get inside people’s lives at a level where you get the detail that would make it possible to imagine being them.

I think while there’s a lot of excellent journalism out there covering the important issues and the important things happening in the world, often in the rush to just keep up with, “Wait, what happened today, what happened this week, what happened this month?” a lot of that stuff that would make it feel three-dimensional gets pushed by the wayside. But because we’re a documentary show, we can do that. We have the advantage of being only once a week. I mean, that’s our market advantage in a way.


Check back tomorrow for Part II of the interview where we discuss the late, great David Rakoff’s final performance, Terry Gross as a short film star and Glass’ disagreement with Dave Eggers on where to find a good story. 

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