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Ira Glass Goes Electric

Creating a TV show with the aesthetic sensibility of This American Life

By HANNY HINDI
New Yorkers are nerds.

This isn't a description you hear too often. New Yorkers have done a good job of hiding their ailment by calling it something else: hip. It's hip to have been into graphic novels and comix (not "comics") long before they were "in." It's hip to know the tracklist of the latest Sub Pop release months before the record's leaked online. It's hip to catch every last reference in Tarantino's latest movie -- and not just the "obvious" nods to the Spaghetti Westerns. These things are hip because the hipsters are the indoor kids, and nowhere did they make that clearer than inside Lincoln Center on February 26, during a live performance of "This American Life," or, for those in the know, "TAL."

"Hello New Amsterdam!" This was how Sarah Vowell greeted the assembled hipsters before considering the phenomenon of sit-com Thanksgiving specials. Every last They Might Be Giants fan in the hall -- and they were legion -- tittered with glee. The truly hip would have noted that "TMBG" performed at an earlier "TAL" live show, recorded at New York's Town Hall in December of 1998, and broadcast as Episode 118: "What You Lookin' At?" But TMBG was not providing this evening's musical entertainment. That task was being handled by the twee husband-and-wife duo Mates of State. They played a few of their own. They covered a Nico track from "Chelsea Girl." They did a bit of filler - exactly 60 seconds long - which the radio crew would use to edit the show for broadcast. And, toward the end of the night, "TAL" host Ira Glass cued them to perform "California," theme song of the dearly departed Fox teen-drama "The O.C."

But this is probably a good time to slow down and let the un-hip catch their breath.

Ira Glass created "This American Life" after years of working as a reporter and producer for National Public Radio. The first episode was broadcast in 1995, and it's followed the same format ever since: "each week we choose a theme, and bring you three or four stories on that theme." At last count, more than a million and a half people tune in to listen to these stories every week.

February's live show at Lincoln Center was the beginning of a multi-city tour that ended in Los Angeles on March 12. The format was familiar. Ira introduced the show and the authors. Sarah Vowell did her piece. Novelist Jonathan Goldstein delved into the intricacies of Barney Rubble's friendship with Fred Flintstone. Columnist Dan Savage, not known for his fussiness on matters romantic, expressed his misgivings about Disney's "The Suite Life" and what it might teach his son about heterosexual relationships. If you're a fan of the show, you've caught the theme by now. Actually, you probably knew it before you started reading. The theme that night was "television." The title was "How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love TV." (A Kubrick reference for the cinephiles.) In fact, this wasn't just any "TAL" live show; it was the launch of "TAL" in pictures. "This American Life" was coming to cable.

The evening began with a moment for the comix fans: a story from Episode 3 of the series animated by Chicago cartoonist Chris Ware. Later, Ira and series director Chris Wilcha "premiered" another of the series' stories, this one about a 14-year-old boy named Joe who has decided that he will never, ever, fall in love. At one point, Ira asks him if he's even considered the possibility. This was his answer:

I think I may have envisioned it twice. Generally, it took place in a D&D-type world, in which I meet up with some companion who's a good archer. (I'm a berserker-type character.) We roam around, eventually fall in love, but our relationship is based around, you know, fighting monsters and stealing treasure and stuff.

This got the most enthusiastic laughs, the most heartfelt applause, of the entire night.

New Yorkers are nerds.

*****

When Ira spoke in New York in April, 2000, he walked out onto the stage and said, "Good evening. I'm Ira Glass. This is what I look like." He had a familiar voice back then, a familiar laugh even, but not a familiar face. These days, you're a lot more likely to know what he looks like. (One friend described Ira as a "cutie" moments before confessing that her formative childhood crush was on Ghostbuster Egon Spengler.) Ira is a familiar face today because, in 2002, Showtime approached him about developing "This American Life" for TV. To make it happen, the "TAL" crew did what Ira described in Episode 307 of the radio show -- "In the Shadow of the City" -- as "the one thing that everybody in Chicago agrees is the worst thing that anybody can do": in mid-2006, they moved to New York. The pilot aired on March 22, but that night at Lincoln Center was the show's premiere.

Nothing could top the response to Joe's role-playing game tryst, but the evening was a hit. A huge hit. This wasn't a sure thing, either. There was always a fear that "radio purists," the "true" "TAL" fans, furious that Ira had gone electric, would want the show to fail.

Fewer than three years ago, Ira himself hadn't stopped worrying and learned to love TV. He was still ready to pass on the show. He was committed to radio -- and an expert at it -- and didn't want to compromise what he was doing by trying something completely new.

 In April of 2004, Ira called his friend Adam Beckman, a cinematographer whose wife Wendy works for "TAL," to see if he was missing anything. They spoke about some possible approaches to the series, but after they got off the phone Adam felt that he still had more to say. So, he sent Ira a long email that identified the heart of the problem: how to create a television series with the "aesthetic sensibility and tone" of the radio show. Over the next few pages Adam considered just about every idea imaginable.

Give cameras to the subjects and let them record their own "diaries." Take the passive approach of the Maysles brothers, the documentary filmmakers who made "Salesman" and "Grey Gardens," and make the camera as unobtrusive as possible. Or, take the active approach of Errol Morris, the director of "Fog of War" and "Fast, Cheap and Out of Control," with his aggressive interviewing technique and highly stylized shots...

Ira was sold. He even took the unusual step of hiring Adam as the cinematographer before hiring a director. The first director who was hired was David Schisgall, who'd made a documentary about suburban swingers in 1999. He didn't end up directing the show, but the next hire, Chris Wilcha, did.

Jenny Golden, the senior editor of the series, (and, I should disclose, a close personal friend), described Ira and Chris as "curators," a description that also applies to Adam. Chris Wilcha's office clearly announces the presence of a "curator" with a wall of VHS cassette tapes. He'll hold on to movies he doesn't even like particularly just because of a 30-second moment that solves some filmmaking problem in a unique way: a dangling lens cap in a scene of Agns Varda's "The Gleaners and I"; a dolly used to shoot an interview in Hartmut Bitomsky's "B-52." It's the collection I'd imagined in Adam's office after reading his email to Ira. It's the cinematic equivalent of the music collection at the "TAL" office in Manhattan. This was definitely a like-minded group.

Well, somewhat like-minded. One fundamental conflict was never quite resolved: the TV crew would always want to cut voice-overs out, and the radio crew would always want to write them in. The radio crew usually won.

In the "Illustrated Guide to Radio," which he co-wrote with cartoonist Jessica Abel, Ira points out that "radio is a peculiarly didactic medium." This is why there's always that little moment of reflection at the end of each "TAL" story, drawing a broader significance from the anecdote we just heard. I asked Ira if he'd always planned on keeping these moments in the less didactic medium of TV. "It wouldn't be our show without it." If you watch the shows with an ear for unnecessary dialogue or redundant voice-overs, you'll find them. But the writing does establish the "sensibility and tone" Adam wrote about. It works. The images, on the other hand, don't do as much as they could.

Ira has said that he wanted the images in the TV show to function like the music in the radio show. But the music in the radio show is almost always an exclamation point, rather than a counterpoint. This is easier to understand if you compare Chris Ware's little animated short for the TV show with an earlier work he made with Ira. The TV short depicts the story of 5th and 6th graders who are overtaken by a trend that makes them into "competing news teams" using cardboard cameras. At one point, there's this exchange between Jeff, the narrator of the story, and Ira:

Ira: So this really totally became a trend.

Jeff: Oh. Totally. I mean, 100% trend.

While this is being said, the word "TREND" shows up in big letters on the screen, followed by "TOTALLY" and "100%".  This is about as literal as it gets, and, unfortunately, that's true of many of the show's images.

The earlier Chris Ware/"TAL" collaboration is very different. "Lost Buildings" is about a young kid who traveled all over Chicago to look at old Louis Sullivan buildings. The story is a solid "TAL" piece. The images are intricate and beautiful. Specific visual themes -- snowflakes, ticking clocks -- are developed throughout the story. Everything is brought together at the end with the simplest image of all: a black circle in the middle of the screen. It's astonishing. You can buy it on the "TAL" website, and you should get it right now.

As Adam wrote about "Lost Buildings" in his email to Ira, it's "much more than just a radio piece with pictures attached." That's still not quite true of the TV show. But, if the images are as adventurous in Season 2 as they are in "Lost Buildings," "TAL" won't be the really good TV show it is right now. It'll be great.

And, how do I know all this stuff? About underground comix and indie documentaries? "Visual counterpoint" and "musical themes"? Well, I confess: I'm a New Yorker, too.

Hanny Hindi is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY. He can be reached at dearsir.youmayberight.regards@gmail.com

Published: April 03, 2007
Issue: Spring 2007