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Q&A: Ira Glass on Storytelling and the Visual World, Part 2

By Elise Hennigan; Photos by Adrianne Mathiowetz on December 19, 2012


Q&A: Ira Glass on Storytelling and the Visual World, Part 2

If you are a This American Life fan, chances are that you have found yourself wondering at one point or another why Ira Glass is so damn good at what he does. “Why am I sobbing in the parking lot of Whole Foods listening to the end of your radio show again, Ira, WHYYYYYY???!!!“


FILTER recently chatted with Glass about his newly released live cinema event and what, exactly, makes for a good story. (Spoiler alert: Glass says, “You need a plot.” Fifth grade English teachers everywhere can now say, “I told you so!”)


This is the second part of a two-part interview. You can begin with Part One HEREYou can view the full-length, 2-hour stream of “The Invisible Made Visible” for $5 HERE.


Ira Glass with the cast of "The Invisible Made Visible."

I think people love This American Life because of the empathy it makes us feel. You really relate with the people you bring on your show. I always associate empathy with being a really effective listener. How are you so good at this? What makes a good listener?


Ira Glass: I think to be a good listener you just have to be actually interested in somebody else. When an interview is going well, I get more interested in the person the deeper we get into it. It just creates a feeling. Somebody recently said that a good interview is like a really great date. And I thought, “That is exactly what it’s like.” You feel like they’re getting to know you and you’re getting to know them and people are saying things that are really personal and it just feels very real. 


Since I was a teenager doing interviews, I have had the experience of being in interviews that are going well and just completely falling in love with the people I’m interviewing. Not in, like, a creepy way. Kind of like, “the world is a beautiful place that people live in” sort of way, you know?


I feel like when that happens, especially with radio where you can hear the sound of the people’s voices, it carries that feeling into the interview and over the air, too. Which means that not only do you have to ask questions, you have to talk back and add to an idea when somebody has an idea, and joke around with them, and cajole them and just kind of get in there and have fun with them.


You always seem to have these riveting stories on your show that also feel like they could have happened to anyone. They feel both ordinary and extraordinary. How do you craft compelling stories from seeming non-events?


I think that they only seem like non-events. If you actually make a list of all the things that happened to the people in the stories on the show, usually it is pretty surprising and pretty remarkable. I think that they have the air of being utterly ordinary stories, but they are hard to find and it’s a matter of practice. I can tell you, they are unusual stories. 


I had this experience when Dave Eggers interviewed me on stage once and he said in an off-hand remark, “Well, of course you can make a story out of anybody’s life.” He believes that. He believes that he can make a story of anybody’s life.  


Right. And you don’t?


I don’t think I believe that. We got into a little bit of an argument. I think you can make a story out of anybody’s life but I don’t think it would necessarily be an interesting story. You need things to be surprising, to be interesting.  


So, you need a twist, you need a character you can relate to. What else?


You need a plot. You need things to happen that drive you forward. For radio, you need to drive some sort of new idea about the way the world works. And then, extra points for funny and sad and charm and somebody unforgettable or details that are unforgettable.  


During the live event, David Rakoff performed the last story that he ever wrote for your show before he passed away this summer. It was so poignant and well done.  


[Pauses.] Thank you.  


Did you get a sense during his performance that this was really something special?


Yes. I mean, not only during the performance, but from the very first time that he and the choreographer, Monica, showed me the piece. I felt like it was really special. And more than a kind of “we’re putting on a show” sort of way. I felt like seeing my friend—who was dying—dance was just an incredible thing to witness.  


And I think it was a wonderful thing for him. I know it was. I know that he loved having the chance to dance and just have an excuse to do it.


David Rakoff


How did you set that up?


It’s funny, because they both were against the idea when I originally presented it to them. I was like, “Here’s what we’re going to do: You’re going to write a piece about all of the things that you’re losing, all the abilities you’re losing as you get sick. And then you’re going to talk about what it’s like to be a dancer. And you’ll be really funny about that. And then Monica will choreograph your dance!” And they were both very much against it. I think I did a bad job explaining what I was picturing, because Monica just felt like [she couldn’t do it.]


Then, she spent some time with Rakoff and saw him do a reading somewhere. And then she realized that he had such a sense of timing and presentation and presence on stage. He had such precision, even if he was just reading something, that she knew she would be able to invent something for him.  


As you know, it was really something. Then, after he died in August, we put up the video of that online for people who remembered who he is. I think that it meant a lot to all those people. There are some funny moments in it. He was very much against the idea that the audience would applaud at the end of the dance. It’s like, “Dude. They are going to applaud at the end of the dance. You just broke into a dance on stage. Have you ever been to anything in your life?” And he’s like, “No, no, no.” He just didn’t want that kind of interruption.  


So if you watch the video of it, he comes back to the microphone after he dances and starts reading immediately. As soon as he gets to the end of a sentence, everybody claps.  It’s like they have it pent up in them. He can’t stop them. 


That was really one of the show’s highlights. What else stood out?


I feel like Tig was really a highlight, too. And Terry Gross turned out to be a really good actress. 


Oh, yeah. I had no idea she was so funny. 


Yeah. In real life, she’s really funny. It’s funny because she is the complete master of her job [interviewing guests as a host on Fresh Air]. There is nobody better at that job in the country. Like, she is the number one person. She is the gold standard. Because of that, she rarely does anything, I think, that is a new job experience. It was really fun to watch her do it. She was very good immediately.


Anything else you’d like us to know?


I think that the live visual show that we did is special because it was something that we don’t do every week. I feel like it has the energy of the very, very best episodes of the show. Nothing could be taken for granted in a really nice way. I feel like we all just pushed as far as we could go with every second of the show.  F

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