Ira Glass's Menagerie

by Todd Pruzan

Chicago's Navy Pier, jutting a mile into Lake Michigan, is your average run-of-the-mill urban revitalization mall-and-restaurant-and-tchotchke complex. It's also a "cut-rate amusement park," according to Ira Glass, who points to the Navy Pier Players as evidence. "Their job is to sing a cappella versions of various, old-timey songs," he explains. "And sometimes you'll come out into the Food Court, and they'll be standing there in front of a group of really confused-looking six-year-old children, and they'll be singing 'Bohemian Rhapsody!'"

Navy Pier, in short, is a simulated world. It's also a shocking blend of humor and pathos, but instead of sneering, Glass embraces it without apology; he revels in its sadness and (as Milan Kundera once defined kitsch) its "absolute denial of shit." It's also the home of National Public Radio's local affiliate WBEZ, where Glass produces his endearing hour-long radio journal "This American Life." Each week, Glass documents the subtle contradictions of his particularly urban American worldview: brainy, wry, sensitive.

Glass knows nothing if not the art of spinning a good yarn. A Brown semiotics grad, he studied "narrative theory" ("what makes a narrative pleasurable," he clarifies) while working as an NPR tape-cutter in the late seventies — a seeming grunt-level job that actually instills immense editing responsibilities in its bright-eyed, bushy-tailed practitioners.

After nearly a decade he became a reporter for NPR's daily program "All Things Considered," covering life and drama in Chicago public schools — a stage in his career that still brings the lure of book offers. (He hasn't bitten: "I'm busy! I've got a national radio show that's barely ready to air each week!")

A jumpy 37-year-old kid decked out in Morrissey's hornrims, Hugh Grant's floppy haircut, and Woody Allen's neuroses, Glass has a friendly, nebbishy voice and on-air persona to match. For more than a year "This American Life" has captured runaway topics, familiar enough to spark laughter and nods when he raises them, yet often too elusive and vague for the attention of other radio hosts — and, for that matter editors, directors, producers and writers. Glass has granted a full hour apiece to "The Job That Takes Over Your Life," "Vacations From Hell," "Double Lives," and "Simulated Worlds."

In his Raymond Carveresque "When You Talk About Music," Glass explored the bittersweet irony of music enthusiasts compromising their true love for the constraints of the real world. "This correspondent's brother started off trying to be a professional musician but it didn't work out," Glass recalls. " He ended up as a Tom Jones impersonator, but a really incredible one. It's one of these stories that other people would do with a kind of sneer about it; while there's definitely a funny side to our portrait, there's also real affection and respect in it."

Also impressive is the range of friends Glass assembles to document his topics — a salon worthy of the most influential literary magazine editor. Performance artists and writers David Sedaris, Sandra Tsing Loh, Beau O'Reilly, Margy Rochlin, Jenny Magnus, Daniel Pinkwater, and Harper's editors Jack Hitt and Paul Tough have all stepped up to the mike.

As have those stereotypical sources of angst from his youth in a Jewish suburb of Baltimore: Mom and Dad. "About one show in four turns out to be so dark," Glass says, "that we have to find something funny to do — so I interview my mom. There is such a natural drama and tension to it, that talking to mom will always work as radio."

Take, for example, the "sexpert" situation. "Just by coincidence," Glass says, "an ex-girlfriend of mine came across a magazine article which quoted my mother — my own mother — as a sex expert! As a sexpert! I didn't know."

Lesser mortals, natch, would have been reduced to sniveling on a therapist's couch. But not Glass. "I interviewed her. She turned out to be very funny on the whole subject of why she had never told her children that she's a nationally recognized sexpert."

But if Mrs. Glass seems a bit cagey around her kids, Ira too is afraid of sharing with his parents what he shares with thousands of listeners on the 66 stations that carry his syndicated show. To wit: tales of not-quite-dysfunctional family neurosis.

"The only time I ever feel inhibited because of my parents is if I'm talking about them or the family," Glass says, explaining why his recently broadcast tale of a Hawaiian vacation-from-hell was, on a personal level, something of a nailbiter. "I felt very, very careful — you know, I love my parents! I don't want to make them feel bad because of something I say about them to tens of thousands of people they've never met."

Luckily, Mom and Dad don't regularly tune in to "This American Life," and they didn't hear that episode. "And they're never going to, thank God." (As far as he's aware.)

Glass's favorite radio storytellers include Joe Frank, Harry Shearer and the venerable Paul Harvey, but his richly satisfying musical-and-spoken magazine draws heavily from the printed word. "I love Harper's magazine," he gushes. "The sensibility is really similar. … A lot of stuff at Harper's is both analytical and really, really funny. Not much broadcasting understands that it's OK to be rmart and funny at the same time."

Talk!Another important influence on the style and sensibility of Glass's show is the world of 'zines, with their personal visions and Xerographic artistry. "'Zines absolutely are the vanguard of what happens in American culture," Glass says. And if that's any clue as to the direction he sees his public radio network taking, he cites the 'zine's growing prevalence in mainstream culture. "ABC News has this twentysomething reporter now, who goes around with a High-8 camera and does pieces for them. That is totally 'zine."

But does "what makes a narrative pleasurable" on "This American Life" make equal sense for the slick, entertaining news package of a national TV network?

Glass is disarmingly charitable on this point. "The context changes the meaning — that's true. But, you know, we're stuck with ABC News. It's gonna be here one way or another. So I'd rather have it have guys like that on it."

But as simulated worlds go, the one depicted on "This American Life" sure beats the one on ABC. And it kicks the shit out of Navy Pier.   </end>

Todd Pruzan is associate editor at Chicago Magazine. He lives in Chicago.