Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ira Glass on fakery, musicals and the incredible whiteness of Lawrence

Posted By on Thu, Feb 18, 2010 at 8:00 AM

It's weird to dial a phone number and have Ira Glass pick up on the other end. It's kind of like calling the tooth fairy or the Easter Bunny. At first, it feels surreal.

click to enlarge Radio host, Ira Glass, mixing live onstage
  • Radio host, Ira Glass, mixing live onstage

If you're a fan of the public radio program This American Life, Glass' voice is unmistakable: definitely nerdy, a little bit nasal, lined with an undercurrent of laughter or irony. Each week, that voice brings millions of radio listeners a one-hour package of perfect storytelling. And with his pithy introductions and seamless interviews, Glass comes off as the coolest, funniest and smartest person you probably only wish you knew in real life.

This weekend, Glass will be in Kansas in the flesh, bringing his radio equipment to the stage of the Lied Center, where he'll re-create the magic of TAL in front of a live audience. In anticipation of Glass' Saturday-night appearance, I spoke yesterday with the famous radio host about his interview technique, a soon-to-air investigative series (possibly in song) and his favorite story about Lawrence.

So how do you start an interview?

I don't have any particular way. There was a period where I was explaining that we'd be talking for longer than would be on the air but I found that made people really uncomfortable and nervous. It took me a while to notice, but it's true: It would take five or six minutes to get the interview normal again. So that turned out to be a mistake. I say that at the end now. But the trick to making somebody be at ease in an interview, especially where I'm in one studio and they're in some other place and it's a very odd situation, the key is, if I seem to be relaxed, they will be, too. The problem is I almost never am relaxed. I get nervous talking to strangers. Often, you know, I've just finished my questions for the interview five seconds before the mic went on. So usually I'm completely flustered and then I have to fake being relaxed.

How do you get people to relax and share their personal stories? I find that a lot of times, when I'm interviewing someone, it helps to tell them a little bit about myself.

Yeah, I specifically do that. A guy who was a mentor to me used to say, 'Think of an interview as a party you're throwing and you are the host and whatever you do the guests will naturally follow.' It's your house and you're showing them how to behave. So if you tell a personal story about yourself, it's hard for anybody to not tell a personal story in response. So in an interview, within the first 10 to 15 minutes, I'll talk about myself so I'm not this robot broadcast voice, so I'll seem like a person.

Do you have a standard Ira Glass story that you tell?

No, no. It's all very much situational. Something comes up, comes up in a normal way and I'll say something that happened to me.

In order to seem so at ease on the air, do you write a really precise script, or do you just get to a place of knowing the content so well that it sounds like a friend of mine is on the other side of my speakers, telling me a story?

Actually, I'm often, like, recording whatever segment and its 3 o'clock in the afternoon and the show goes national in four hours and it's not clear if the show is going to come in on time and, as soon as I walk out of the studio, there are nine other things that have to happen before we're finished and there are three other things I have to write. So part of it is pure fakery. And part of it is trying to get that feeling that you have when you're talking to somebody in real life. ... I'm not a good actor or anything but this much acting I can do: I can pretend to be myself.

What do you keep in the studio to make yourself more comfortable?

Actually, it's a pretty austere, pretty ascetic place. It's pretty much like a monk's prayer cubicle. I only have what is exactly necessary to do the task at hand. There's nothing to distract me or remind me of anybody else. I've thought in the past about making it beautiful, you know, bringing in some beautiful lamps, but I think I like the clinical nothingness of it. I don't like it too bright, though. I think radio is more naturally done in the dark.

It seems like, over the past year or so, you guys have started to tackle more hard news, like the series you did explaining the health-care system.

Very much so, and we've been doing that for a while, taking on things in the news. Guantanamo, Katrina and many, many shows on some of the things happening in the war on terror that were not getting the coverage we thought they should. And it seemed like the stories we do -- narrative stories with characters and emotional plot lines -- would work really well and that, by doing our kinds of story we could bring a kind of light to it, a feeling to it that other kinds of journalism aren't necessarily doing.

I know you guys been working with ProPublica [a nonprofit, public-interest journalism outfit based in NYC] on a series of investigative pieces that will blow our minds, but you haven't talked much about it. Can you tell us even the genre ...

Yes, the characters are all human beings. There are no chimpanzees, giraffes or monkeys of any sort. [Laugh] It's about the financial crisis and we've actually talked about -- and this is going to sound insane -- that part of the story be done as a musical. That would be my wish. The ProPublica team is the best; they're capable of anything. But this would take them into territory they've never been before. Truthfully, it's up in the air, I don't know if that's going to happen. But we've talked about composers and who we would get to sing, but the truth is the story is such a hard story to do that we're not quite at that point.

So you're coming to the Lied Center in Lawrence this weekend for a show; what exactly do you do onstage?

I do this once a month at some public radio station somewhere and I basically sit there with a set up to recreate the radio show live. I basically hit very precise timing make whole thing feel and sound exactly like the radio show. It's very odd to watch happen. In general, seeing somebody you've only heard on the radio is a very odd experience. ... So a lot of it is me talking about how we make the radio show; a lot of it is also an excuse to play really, really funny clips form the show.

Have you ever been to Kansas? Or Lawrence?

I've never been to Lawrence, but I'm looking forward to doing it in Lawrence. I lived in Chicago for so long and I knew a lot of drama people who went to school there. So I do have a favorite story about Lawrence.

What's that?

Well, a friend, Rob Neuhaus was, at one point, trying to explain to me just how white it is, how unbelievably white. So he said he was at school in Lawrence and someone told him this story: They were on the highway and a car passed. And there were black people in the car. And Rob goes, 'Yeah?' But that was the whole story. That was it! Nothing else.

For more information or tickets for the Saturday show, visit the Lied Center.

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