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The Trouble With Birthdays: Ira Glass

RK: So what did you insist on to make it hard-edged?

IG: At the beginning I was having to get the pieces onto “Morning Edition,” so they needed to have a point. They needed to be more than just somebody's story. They had to be directed toward some idea, in the same way that the regular commentators on “Morning Edition” were and the regular news stories were. And so to sound right to the editors there, I just knew from all my years at NPR, like, “This story isn't saying enough. The person has to say more about what this means.” One of the early experiments I did, long before “This American Life,” was this series where I would interview regular people. I would talk to them for an hour or two and ask them to tell me stories, then I'd ask them, like, “What did you make of it?” I would cut those together into these vignettes that would just hit their plot points so fiercely — there'd be the funny parts, and there'd be the emotional parts, and then they'd say, “And here's my thought about this,” all packaged all perfectly. I'd edit my voice out so you wouldn't hear any of the questions, so it just sounds like the person talking. I edited out my questions partly because I so didn't want to hear myself on the air.

Then I did a series on compulsive liars, and the thing that was great was that every story would have a reveal of, you know, “then that turned out to be a lie.” Every story would have its point, but the points were really subtle in the context of “Morning Edition.” Like a woman who was lied to by her husband talked about how she understood that he was a compulsive liar, and so sometimes she would just egg him on to see how far he would go. At that point you realize that she's complicit in this utterly conscious way in some of the deal with him. And she said that all of the things that he would lie to her about, like how beautiful she was, were lies you want to hear. So those would be the turns that the stories would take — you need things to turn back on themselves, for the person to make themselves into a reliable narrator by showing you the edge of the story. But those points were way too subtle, and that was the one series I did during that period where the word came down from the bosses at NPR: “We don't understand what this series is about. We need to hear experts.” The problem was, at the time anyway, there weren't really experts on compulsive lying, and the reason was that in the psychiatric literature, people who are compulsive liars don't come into treatment, because in essence a psychoanalytical treatment means you're going to sit in an office and try to come to the truth. Somebody said to me at one point that there were fewer than 100 case studies in the entire history of psychiatry of compulsive liars. So we don't really know that much, and there's not that much of interest to say. But I did get like two people who had studied it at some length, and even there I tried to get their interviews to have some feeling.

RK: But the heart of it was that you got really interested in talking to people, subtracting yourself and turning it into some kind of prose poem that could tell you something hard and specific. That was all there.

IG: But even to say it that way is more coherent than the way I was thinking about it. What I was thinking about was, there's a feeling in this thing when I put it together this way that I know that it's irresistible. There's something in the way the person is telling the story that is holding me here and that I can't turn away from, and I don't think anybody could. And so I just started to figure out more and more ways to do that — first without my voice in it, and then putting my voice in it as a reporter.

One of the things I haven't thought about in a long time, or maybe I've never thought about, is that inventing the show is actually just inventing the aesthetic. Once one invents an aesthetic for what the thing will be, then that's the achievement, you know? But you must feel like you invented an aesthetic, right?

RK: No.

IG: Oh, how can you not think that?

RK: Maybe. I don't know.

IG: It can totally be imitated. That's how you can tell if something is original, is if it can be imitated.

RK: It's funny, because one of the reasons I dropped out of public radio is I was sitting in a cab one day and somebody named Mo Moskowitz in New Jersey had done an absolutely perfect version of me — right down to all the nasal stuff and all the pauses and the glottal stops and everything.

IG: But where is he now, Krulwich? Where is Moskowitz now?

RK: [Laughs] I don't know. I guess what I really am jealous of you for is that you can play with the form by saying, “OK, this week we're gonna be a pretty hard-driving news show. We're gonna go on an aircraft carrier and find out who's there and what they're up to, how this war is being waged if you're not on the front line. And next week we're gonna—”

IG: Talk about dumb things kids say. And weirdly, it's the same voice. It's in the same aesthetic.

RK: That's the achievement, I think.

IG: But that seems more normal to me. It seems like most people are interested both in the hard news and what happens on an aircraft carrier and in the dumb things kids say. And so if people were simply expressing all the parts of their personality, then that's what more broadcasting would be.

RK: It's what the “All” of “All Things Considered” really implies. On the other hand, it turns out that the number of people who can roll from one side of the bed to the other gracefully is fairly small.

IG: I find that weird. I feel like that's just an accident of aesthetics — somehow the prevailing aesthetics that became the aesthetics of broadcasting, especially the news, just accidentally —

RK: No, no, not accidentally. The organizations decided that to have a voice they had to be credible, and to be credible it had to be somewhat official, and so they set the tone and they set the mood and they set a series of topics.

IG: But don't you feel that the longer that there is broadcasting, the more people will talk in a more normal voice? That's what I think when I watch the Jon Stewart show. On “The Daily Show” he's talking in the way that normal people actually talk about the news. In a way that's the achievement.

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