I saw Ira Glass, of This American Life (TAL) fame, speak recently in Seattle at Benaroya Hall. Years ago I met him backstage at a conference in NYC. He’s tall. and thin. And very funny, nice and slightly sarcastic all at the same time. We chatted about my sacred NYC places tour, which he seemed both entertained and baffled by. Very human and friendly, much like what you’d expect him to be based on TAL.
In Seattle he spoke for nearly two hours, giving a mix of backstories about episodes from the show, theories on storytelling and journalism, and answering audience questions. He did a fantastic job. Without any slides, or props (other than the desk), he let the stories and his ideas speak for themselves.
On stage, he sat behind a large desk, reminding me for some reason of John Cleese’s regular setup on Monty Python. With a mixing board and CD player, he played segments from the show, as well as music underneath his own monologues. Somehow the fact he was sitting down drew the audience in more, reminiscent of Spalding Grey’s monologue style (sample here).
He closed the show talking about the ancient tale Scheherazade (1001 nights), and this riff on the power of storytelling:
What the story is about, among other things, is what narrative does to us. A back door to a very deep place in us. A place where reason doesn’t necessarily hold sway… We live in a very odd cultural moment where from the moment we wake up till the moment we go to bed we are bombarded with stories like no one who has ever lived. And I mean everything on the radio, everything on TV, every ad, every billboard, every song, all the little videos on the internet, it’s like story, story, story. And for me it’s like the number of stories I encounter over the course of a day, so many of them it seems like the colors are too bright, and the thoughts are partial, and its rare that I can imagine what it’d be like if i were in that situation.
Stories that are done well enough that we can even empathize, and that touch you, it’s rare still somehow… and we live in such a divided country, and world, where we so rarely get inside each others lives, especially people who live different from us, I think like anything that helps with that is probably a good thing. Not just like the news, or information, but stories that take you inside someone’s experience, because that’s what stories can do like nothing else can. And that’s what we shoot for on the show.