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NPR notable Ira Glass shares tricks to his trade

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Editor's note: A correction was made to this story on June 18.

"No editor would let you start a story with this quote, the one I'm starting with right here, except one that understood that surprise is everything," says Ira Glass, host of the popular radio and television show This American Life.

It's where the inveterate raconteur's mind automatically goes when we discuss, journalist to journalist, how I'll craft this article. The quote says something about how the show caught on.

In a manifesto written by Glass in the Transom Review, an online forum for radio journalists, he explains that in his early days of story-crafting, he put self-imposed restrictions on his own work, like doing tape-to-tape transitions. That translates to creating a coherent segment without narration, a story comprised solely of the subject talking.

Through his years of working in broadcasting (Glass began interning for National Public Radio in Washington, D.C., in 1978, at the age of 19), he'd always put something into his reporting that amused him along with the restriction: a funny or emotional moment, something no other reporter got.

"It's a war between people who are trying to invent something to amuse themselves and all the forces that would stop it, rightly or wrongly," says Glass.

These early exercises eventually birthed This American Life, which initially aired weekly on Chicago Public Radio in 1995, giving audiences an earful of someone else's existence. Glass quickly became regarded for his mastery of making the banal beautiful, an inherently difficult task.

"Surprise is a really big element," says Glass, "especially if you're doing stories where the people aren't famous and there's nothing in the news [to tie it to], then all the normal reasons for broadcasting the story are gone."

The combination, ordinary and astonishing, places stories into what Glass calls "a weird vortex of unlikelihood." But tantamount to Glass' craft, the stories must lead to an interesting idea about the world.

No God shall come before me

Take the recent radio program themed around the Ten Commandments, in which guest subject Shalom Auslander talks about his experience at Jewish day school. His name, Shalom, happens to be one of 72 names of the Lord. In the story, Auslander's teacher, a stern rabbi, tells him that he must write his name with an apostrophe at the end, instead of the "m," so as not to take the Lord's name in vain.

Whatever items bear his full name, he must put into a "Shaimos" box, which fills quickly with "Shalom" lunch sacks, homework assignments and even a pair of underwear with his name stitched on the tag. By tradition, items in the box would later be buried by the rabbis.

Relatively speaking, all of Shalom's tale sounds pretty ordinary in the sense that just about everyone has a story of unjust punishment lingering in their memories of childhood. But the moment of surprise that makes this story typical of This American Life happens when another of Auslander's classmates also gets shouted at for having God's name.

"Instead of feeling relieved," said Auslander, "I was disappointed. It was a pain in the ass being named God. But it was my pain and it was my ass."

In that moment, Auslander surprises the audience by delivering an unexpected response. Listeners realize that perhaps they too would feel that way. And it says something about the larger world when Auslander realizes, "It's one thing to be the only God, it's quite another, lesser thing to be one of two."

How does Buffy feel?

This is the element of This American Life that Glass calls the "How does Buffy feel?" moment. He says he picked up the phrase when listening to one of the writers for Buffy the Vampire Slayer walk the executive producer, Marti Noxon, through an episode.

Through the pitch he overheard all these things happen to Buffy. "And frankly, as a regular Buffy the Vampire Slayer watcher, it seemed perfectly good to me," says Glass.

But when the writer came to the end of his pitch, Noxon said, "You've gone through the trouble to create this incredible plot, but what does she feel about it? What does it do in her heart?"

Glass says that if a story doesn't have a "How does Buffy feel?" then he browbeats and cajoles the writer to put it in. Case in point: a recent story by Israeli writer Etgar Keret, whom Glass calls the Israeli Dave Eggers. Keidan recently won first prize in the Cannes Film Festival student competition.

The story Keret submitted to Glass is about an insatiable liar who ends up in a world where all his lies have come true. But, Glass says, "weirdly, you get to the end of the story and there's no stakes. His heart doesn't sink enough." So, he sent Keret a page-long e-mail suggesting two places where Keret should put in another sentence letting the character feel something, including Glass' own speculations on what he might feel.

At the end of our interview, I ask Glass what he would ask himself, if he were in my position.

"There are certain things going on with the show that are true, that no one else has really written about," he says.

"Inventing what the show would be was such an incredibly personal act," he says. "It began by answering the question, "What if someone with my taste were to make journalism?' ... Now I work with seven people and they've all been doing it for so long they're as good at it as I am."

The last television show of season two, "John Smith," aired this past week on Showtime. It came from two of This American Life's producers adhering to Glass' rules. There's no narration, just the subjects speaking: a television version of the tape-to-tape transitions Glass did when he interned for NPR. To complicate that, the show has the added burden of telling the story of a typical American through the various narratives of several people, all named John Smith.

Glass says there's some good and some bad in working with people just as competent with the show as he is.

The some good he leaves us to infer. The some bad, he says, is that "it's a much less personal act for me now ... I'm just part of a machine and it's a machine that I built."

scene@csindy.com

KRCC and Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center present Ira Glass

CC's Armstrong Hall, 14 E. Cache la Poudre St.

Saturday, June 14, 8 p.m.

Tickets: $35, non-members and day of show ($25, FAC and KRCC members); call 473-4801 or visit KRCC at 912 N. Weber St.

This American Liferadio show airs noon, Saturday, and 4 p.m., Sunday on KRCC. Check local listings for Showtime broadcasts.

  • Glass is revered for his mastery of making the banal beautiful.

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