Chaos Attraction

An Evening With Ira Glass

2010-05-04, 9:53 a.m.

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So apparently the notifylist stopped working and nobody said anything about it to me and I can't find anything about it. Grrr. Have now replaced with TinyLetter.


So, last Thursday Ira Glass came out to my neck of the woods. It was awesome. I was psyched about this all month...alas, people I know IRL had no idea what or who I was talking about. Hence why this goes to the Internet...he said great things about story structure and how they put things together. If not for the part where I don't want to live on the East Coast, I'd kinda want to work for that show.

He started out the show in the dark for the first ten minutes--just like real radio! He pointed out there's an intimacy to hearing a voice in the dark.

He is ah, not enamored with TV news and called it crap, and pointed out that (a) public radio is doing better than all other mediums of journalism these days, (b) This American Life has people talking like real people rather than newsbots and that's why it works, and (c) the job of journalism is to describe what is.

The big secret of TAL is its story structure: action, action, action, (deep) thought. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

He played a story clip of a man talking about how he goofed around with his boss's 9-year-old kid at work. One day he walks out of the bathroom without his glasses on and sees a short figure at the end of the hall, so he starts moving like a crab and talking in a goofy voice... Ira Glass paused it and said, "At this point, nobody turns off the radio." Something in the telling of this story makes it interesting. You're creating narrative suspense. You know just reading this that this guy's not performing for his young friend the way he thinks he is, but what's the kicker? (In this case, it was a new intern of short stature. Who, according to IG, was used to weird shit happening to her by now.) You feel like something is going to happen and it leads to motion, no matter how banal. He also played a clip interviewing a girl who spends 12 hours a day on a military ship doing nothing but filling the candy machines.

You want to find out the universality of the story, what it is that we all have in common. Reason and logic do not hold sway.

The TAR staff organize their interviews and structures of stories to hold people. They try to get people to re-enact what happened and re-create dialogue to make it interesting. The stories build into arcs until someone hits the point. The key to interviews is that he's actually interested! You tell personal stories in an interview too, you just don't publish those. "If an interview goes well, I totally fall in love with the person."

The way TAL puts together a show is that they pick one story that they for sure want to do, pick a theme to go with it, then look for stories related to that theme. (Usually they just ask people they know.) They look at 25-30 stories, produce 7 to see where they lead, and about 3-4 make the show, which gets determined at the last minute. (He pointed out that The Onion comes up with 600 story ideas in their meetings and publish 17-18.) There are backup stories if one doesn't work out. Preferably they should play like a movie.

He played us the story of a man who pitched them the story of his dad, who got so annoyed at the cemetery charging him for interring his wife's ashes that he stomped out and dumped them out in the parking lot. Sounds like a great story, right? Until they called the cemetery for fact-checking the day before the show was to air and found out that the cemetery didn't charge for that, the wife's ashes were in the crypt, and the employee he talked to said that if that had actually happened, they'd still be talking about it today. It didn't air. Later during the Q&A, one lady asked which stories were actually true and IG was horrified that after hearing this one, she thought they were all fake. "They're ALL true!"

Now, Ira Glass thought he'd made up this wonderful story structure. Until he went home for the Jewish high holidays one year and while he's sitting there listening to the service and thinking, "That is the job. Get up there once a week, say your thing...that is the job." (Hm, sounds like the one you do now, isn't it?) Then he notices that the rabbi is talking in the same sort of structure. Turns out Jesus did that structure in the Bible... so IG didn't make it up. "It's not innovation, it's old school." That style was designed for people who couldn't read.

He pointed out in this day and age that we can be surrounded by stories all the time if we choose.

He talked a lot about Scheherazade and said she "is very Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 3." She saved her own life via narrative suspense--these are things that could save your life! He points out that at the end of the story the king learns empathy and realizes that her dad the vizier must be worried sick for her, and tell him that it's going to be okay.

It was pretty funny how he'd get random at times, such as commenting that anyone who got dragged here on a date had no idea who he was and must be bored out of their minds, the aforementioned "local news is crap", stuff like that. At the start of the show the guy who introduced him used a podium (and said stuff along the lines of, "Please don't ask a question if it's longer than a story on TAL"), and then as I mentioned, the stage was dark for 10 minutes. About halfway through, IG finally noticed the podium was gone and was gobsmacked for like a minute. Then was all, "oh, yeah, I had the stage dark, huh." He also commented on the random shrubberies put up on stage to make it more interesting.

He also talked about trying to put together the "stories our parents pitched us" show, and how after nagging his in-laws for ages, they finally came out with, "Did we tell you about the time we met the 9/11 terrorists?" (Turned out they just said hi to them and that was it, but it had a hell of an opening line.)

Oh, and at one point he did a balloon animal (a poodle) for visual interest. After handing it to a lady in the front row, he apologized for smelling like "the state of Alaska" because he had previously been there and someone poured beer on him in a bar.

He did a half hour of Q&A, which got interesting:

* One guy asked if people ever got the impression that public radio wasn't all about liberals. Uh..."I have never ever been asked that question."

* Naturally, someone asked about David Sedaris, who is coming back here next year. (Note: when the guy introducing IG talked about next year's program, the audience was cheering when DS's name was mentioned. I muttered, "and this entire crowd will be back here at the same time next year for that.") He had a story cued up about how DS had noticed all these divorced dads with kids at the zoo and then overheard some girl in the bathroom saying over and over again, "I love you, I love you, I love you, but I don't know how to love you." It turned out to be a 7-year-old girl, and DS wondered how the kid learned that so early. IG pointed out that DS is good at having a huge idea in the middle of a comedy piece, then going back to the jokes.

* One student asked for advice in life and IG asked him what he was interested in. "Architecture, but they don't have that at UC Davis." IG promptly said, "Transfer." And then amusingly enough, in the middle of the answer he totally wandered off to talk about vets ("you have a vet school here, right?") and how his dog is so sickly it has five different vets and how it has to be fed only rabbit meat and IG feels guilty about killing all these rabbits that could have been pets instead of his dog. Then eventually he wandered back to saying that
if you want to do creative work, getting ideas is a job. Surround yourself with ideas, have fun--your job is to amuse yourself.

* He also played a clip of himself at age 27 doing a story (note: he'd been working in radio since age 19) and he was freaking terrible at it. "We wouldn't take an intern who sounded like that today." So it kind of makes you feel better that it took him so long to get better!


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