Ira Glass on 'This American Life,' Killing Big Bird and the Rules of Storytelling

Sundance Film Festival Ira Glass - P 2012
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Sundance Film Festival Ira Glass - P 2012

The radio host talks to THR about the special live version of his show, Mitt Romney's famed threat to public broadcasting and working with Joss Whedon and Mike Birbiglia.

For a man who has earned his fame by helping countless average Americans tell their stories -- from the fantastic to the fantastically mundane -- Ira Glass' tale, in this increasingly zoned-out and tech-upped world, deserves its own dedicated episode of This American Life.

The creator and host of that public radio program, Glass has been carrying the flag for the classic medium, and the tradition of oral storytelling, for nearly two decades. The mild-mannered and soft-spoken 53-year-old Baltimore native, known for his quick wit and black frame glasses, has become a cult hero in the 17 years since This American Life first aired on WBEZ Chicago; during the course of nearly 500 hourlong episodes, he and his producers have painted an ever-evolving mosaic of everyday America, finding remarkable stories in the diners, schools, science labs and haunted hotels across the nation.

Glass and This American Life command near 2 million listeners per new weekly show and have pushed into new mediums in recent years. The radio show produced a televised version on Showtime between 2007 and 2008, earning three Emmys, and Glass has begun producing films, including this summer's comedy Sleepwalk With Me with his co-writer Mike Birbiglia, who also directed and starred in the film. This American Life also has branched out into live stage shows, simulcasting the events to movie theaters across the country.

PHOTOS: The Scene at Sundance 2012

The latest, appropriately named The Invisible Made Visible, which features performances from David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Tig Notaro and Birbiglia, is available for instant download online for $5. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Glass about the show and a slew of other topics -- among them GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney's famed "kill Big Bird" threat to public broadcasting, about which Glass said, "My dream is to be the show that, when a Republican candidate stands up and says what the U.S. government can no longer fund, that he names our show."

The Hollywood Reporter: Why did you decide a stage show was the next step for This American Life?

Ira Glass: The impetus to the whole thing was that I saw something that I wanted to present to our audience. I saw this dance company, who we put in the show, and I just thought there’s something about the sensibility of what they do -- which is super-fun, super-accessible but also emotional and had a real feeling to it and seemed really original too. I just thought our audience would really go for it. It reminded me of the feeling of certain stories that are on the radio show but with no words at all. So that got me thinking about what to do with a show.

And then it just seemed like an interesting thing to try to figure out, as a little puzzle, of what would be all the different ways that we could have something visual that we could show people, all the different ways to tell a story, so we got these Disney animators to work with us in their time off, doing the animation. And then I did a story which was pure pictures, and we just added from there.

THR: Was that a goal, to get as many different visual storytelling methods as you could into the show?

Glass: Yeah, and I talked to some people and could never find the right thing. I talked to a juggler, I talked to a couple of magicians, and I was just never able to get the right combo of something that would be a story in the style of our show but also to have that.

THR: The live show has a few short films, but a lot of the visuals were interpretive.

Glass: When we did the TV show, it was just stories in the style of our show, with pictures. And then when we did just the film with Mike Birbiglia, Sleepwalk With Me, it was just adapting a story to film, whereas this really is the radio show in a way that is pure. It’s people standing up, and some of them are just reading stories off a page, but about half of it is stuff that is too visual to put on the radio. And it plays more like a very old-fashioned, very eccentric variety show.

THR: Through the silly Killing Big Bird thing, the fate, at least briefly, of public broadcasting was brought up during the presidential race. What did you think of all that as it was happening?

Glass: Well, I first thought -- and now that the election is over, I feel like I can say it out loud -- was that I really wished he had mentioned our show.

THR: Romney?

Glass: Romney, yes! That’s the kind of press money can’t buy. When you’re working in public radio, you don’t have any money to advertise. That would have been awesome. And I was watching the debate and thinking, “Please say us, please say us.” And I know we were just not quite big enough. I knew that if he mentioned the car guys [from Car Talk] or Morning Edition, and I was just like, ugh, we are so second tier! We are almost there. My dream is to be the show that, when a Republican candidate stands up and says what the U.S. government can no longer fund, that he names our show. But the sad fact is that we get no money from the federal government for our show, so if a candidate did that, it would be completely ridiculous.

THR: You would have had a Tumblr, at least.

Glass: I feel like the discussion as to whether the federal government should fund public broadcasting is a public one and, in my world, a very political one to comment on. But just a tiny, tiny portion of public radio’s money comes from the federal government. And when the Republicans say that public radio would survive without that money, the truth is, they’re right, it would survive. Certain things would go away; the smallest stations would be in danger of going out of business for sure, but if you live in a big market, most of the things that you hear on the radio would be just fine. Your station would exist, and most of it would stick around. Public TV, I don’t really know much about that part. I don’t know what the effect would be.

THR: What do you think is required to be in a good story? You often think stakes, but not all the radio stories you have offer huge stakes, necessarily.

Glass: Well, in our context, with the stories only needing to be like five to 15 minutes, even though the stakes don’t have to be the same kinds of stakes that are in a full-length movie or even a full-length episode of TV, there has to be stakes. Something has to be at stake to make you care. And there has to be somebody at the heart of it who you can relate to at least partially. And then for us, we just need to have the forward motion of plot, which makes us different from a lot of journalism, which isn’t plot-based. And so in that way, it’s very traditional storytelling.

So when we’re looking at a story, what we’re looking at is we’re looking at plot, looking at who the characters are, looking at what idea it drives to. Because on radio, unlike film or TV, you want there to be a plot, but it also needs to drive at some new thought about the world - which in a great TV drama or film you don’t necessarily need for it to be incredibly wonderful. And one of the things that’s been interesting, actually, is that we’ve been doing more films. And in development on films, I’ve been giving notes on scripts and seeing what way more experienced people that I work with on those things, the notes that they give. You definitely don’t have to drive towards an idea in a film but you can have one.

And then, you know, extra points if it’s funny, and extra extra points if it’s funny and sad in different sections. And if the people are good talkers, that’s half the battle.

THR: You mention film and Sleepwalk With Me. I was hoping that you would beat out Joss Whedon’s box office for The Avengers.

Glass: Well, we did, that first weekend. Our per-screen average, we beat The Avengers. Number of screens, I have to say, he did do a rather better job than we did.

THR: But that’s not really your fault, right?

Glass: Exactly. I can only control what I can control.

THR: People really loved that promotional stuff. How did that happen?

Glass: Well, Joss has been on the radio show, and he’s a buddy -- and like the main character in Clueless, he was willing to use his popularity to help others, you know?

THR: That’s a great analogy.

Glass: I don’t know if she’s a role model for him or not. But you know, I just sent him an e-mail suggesting something, and he made up something that was so much funnier and effective than what I suggested to him. I hope some day I’m in position to return the favor.

THR: Mike has told the Sleepwalk story on the radio and in a live show, and he wrote a book about it. It’s obviously fictionalized onscreen, but it’s largely true. What did you decide was OK to embellish and change, and which facts had to stay in there?

Glass: It’s funny; almost everything that happens in the film really happened, but some of it happened in slightly different order. There are a couple scenes that are embellished, but even those scenes are very much trying to get to the essence of what really happened, but with the efficiency of movie storytelling. The biggest change was one of the very first ones, which was in his book and when he told this as a one-man show onstage; he told the real story of what happened, and in the real story, he’s wondering what he should do with this girl, and should they get married or not get married. And in real life and in those versions of the story, he and the girl resolve what they’re going to do, and then after that, he jumps through a window, and one of the first things we realized was that in a movie that’s not how it would go. I said to him, "I don’t know that much about making a movie, but I’ve been to the movies, and I know that if you jump through a window in a movie, you have to learn a lesson."

And so, the first thing we did was that we moved it so that he jumps through a window and then he and the girl figure out what they’re going to do. Jumping through the window is the lesson that makes him re-evaluate his life and come to closure with the girl and make a decision. And so, weirdly, the most incredible part to that story, which are the sleepwalks, really happened. Like he really did jump out of a second-story window at a La Quinta Inn, and he really did have a dream where he was in the Olympics and was standing on top of a bookcase and fell off. Some of the actual lines that they parents say in the film really were said to him, and some of the things that Abby (his girlfriend, played by Lauren Ambrose) really said to him.

THR: It’s really remarkable that those all happened, and the absurd moments are also true.

Glass: Well you know the old adage, that great stories happen to people that can tell them.

THR: Do you find that’s the case?

Glass: That’s absolutely the case. Often we’ll try to produce a story with someone about something incredible that happened to them, but they just can’t tell the story. And that’s just death for radio. And then I know lots of people who, things happen to them that if they happened to me, I never would be able to tell as stories. Like when I listened to Marc Maron’s podcast, he’ll just describe something that happened that morning, and I’ll say, "I could never pull that off and be entertaining."