Ira Glass, the host of the weekly public radio program “This American Life,” has taken his show on the road and is performing live with dancers. “Three Acts, Two Dancers and One Radio Host” was at Downtown’s Byham Theater last month, and the curious entertainment value of combining radio and dance has proven a success for the 56-year-old. The Baltimore native began his career as an intern for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C. “This American Life” airs locally on 90.5 WESA on Saturdays and Sundays.
I was wondering, do you dance at the end of the stage show?
I don’t discuss that, actually. [Laughing] I think if people are coming expecting me to dance, they will be disappointed. Let’s just say I tell stories and dancers dance and leave it at that.
You have a distinctive cadence to your voice, but I have noticed a lot of other talkers seem to be sounding like you lately.
I haven’t noticed people who sound like me, but I have noticed people trying not to sound like the sort of traditional public radio news sort of performance and just talk more the way they actually talk. When I hear Jad Abumrad, who is the host of “Radiolab,” I don’t think he sounds like me at all. I can tell that he heard me on the radio and was just like, “Oh, I will just try to talk like myself.” I definitely think there are more people doing it.
I talked about this on the show recently. It sort of put us in the middle of this weird war accidentally over this thing called “vocal fry” where people have been constantly writing to us complaining about how the female reporters on our show sound on the air. Vocal fry is this sort of creaky sound [listen to podcast to hear him imitate it]. I talked to a linguist at Stanford and she said the ways people speak changes all the time. This is just the latest one.
One of the things I have in common with the dancers I am working with on the show is that when I perform, they just seem like people on stage having the feelings people have. The same way that when I am performing on the mic I am just trying to sound like myself, they seem like themselves on stage. It was one of the things that attracted me to their work and made me want to collaborate with them.
A lot of story ideas for “This American Life” get killed. Do you ever go back and resurrect one?
It’s funny. Occasionally we will be stuck on how to fill out a theme, and someone will remember a story that we killed a year or two before. We will go back. I have got to say almost every time we do that there is a moment of brief and shining hope and then we realize, “Oh, right. This is the reason we killed it the first time.” There is a depressing plot twist that just ruins the story, or the person you need to be a great talker actually doesn't have any opinion about it at all. You dive back into the facts, and usually our hopes are dashed.
Has your career made you hyper curious?
I don’t think it has made me more curious, and, perversely in a practical way, I am so inundated with information and interesting things at my job, that when I am outside my job, I think I am maybe less curious than the average person [laughing]. In the two or three hours I will have with my wife at night, I will just want to watch the same TV shows that everyone else watches. Like let’s put on “Transparent,” or “Orange Is the New Black.” You know what I mean? I feel like I am so not a pioneer in looking for something amazing that no one else knows about anymore because my appetite for novelty and curiosity is being totally sated in my work life. People pitch us stuff, and other staffers find us stuff. The material comes to me way, way more.
Because you talk all day, how do you feel about silence?
[Silence] The honest truth is that for a large part of my life, I was super uncomfortable being around somebody else and not talking. It is something I am consciously trying to train myself to do now. It would come up with my wife. She would be like, “You are just talking to talk. This conversation isn't about anything.” I would have to admit, yes, that is actually true. So I have tried to train myself to be more comfortable with silence. Truthfully, in a radio piece, you want to include silences. You want to include the moments where somebody is sitting there thinking. It’s got so much more feeling. Those kinds of silences I am fine with.
The real-life silences are harder.
In so many ways, real life is more difficult than being on the radio [laughs].
As you became more successful, did you have to deal with an inflated sense of yourself creeping into your persona?
Are you asking did I become a huge crazy egotist? Wouldn’t I be the last one to know? But to answer your question, I am in a peculiar level of being famous where I will go and promote something on “The Tonight Show,” but then in my actual day-to-day life, nobody seems to know who I am at all. I can’t call up a restaurant and say my name and get a table. I’m not that famous.
I fly somewhere probably once a week either for a story or a speaking engagement. I have never had the experience [where] the person at the TSA or the person at the counter knew who I was. That’s fine with me. The one place I think it will kick in is when there is a famous person and a part of me will think, “Oh, I hope they know who I am because then I can talk to them not as like a cowering fan boy.”
There was a thing that someone dragged me to and there was Alan Cumming, the actor. I thought he’s somebody who could be listening to public radio, [but] he had no idea who I was. Just like none at all. That was the one time I might think, “Oh, maybe I am somebody,” which is to say, usually I am like “No, I am not somebody.’'
You have talked about being an atheist, but have you ever had doubts, even briefly, about there being something more?
I have not had the doubt going as far as me thinking maybe there is a God. It is like knowing you are in love with somebody or not. You are on one side of it or not. There is nothing you can do to argue yourself into it. I have had experiences with people who really believe, both on the radio and off, where I envy their belief. I envy what it gives them. There is nothing you can have that is as comforting.
Are you ever concerned that the most interesting thing about you are the other people you have interviewed and stories you have told through them?
I hadn’t thought about that, but I’m sure that’s true. My life is pretty undramatic. I work with people I like. I have a wife I have been with one way or another for 20 years. There is not a lot of trauma generally, which I am fine with, and really the most interesting things going through my head are the stories of the other people that we put on the show. I think that is a very apt thing. Other people’s stories are the most interesting thing about me.
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