Ira Glass, the geeky host and executive producer of public-radio’s This American Life, calls himself a late bloomer. Though he began his career in broadcasting at the age of 19, Glass claims that he ”wasn’t a competent writer for radio until 27 or 28.” This American Life, which launched in 1995, had a late blooming of its own last Thursday when it was recast as a television show on Showtime.
The radio and television broadcasts share a similar structure: each show consists of different stories built loosely around a theme. In the television series’ first episode, an account of peeing on the school bus is linked to the tale of a cloned bull. The theme? ”Reality Check.” Glass and the show’s collaborators help tell such stories, their voices gently guiding these mini-parables of daily life in America.
What the television program does not have in common with its predecessor is the radio show’s 1.7 million-strong audience. Yet. Glass hopes not only to bring some of his old crowd with him, but to court a new one — part of the reason for bringing this phenomenally popular series to life in a new medium. EW.com talked to Glass on the day of the series premiere, just before the TAL office had a celebratory toast.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the TV show come about?
IRA GLASS: When Showtime came around, we said, ”If you want us to think about this, you have to hook us up with people who can explain how in the world you can have a TV show that has the feeling of the radio show.” So they hooked us up with Killer Films. All their films have this real vision to them, and integrity. They’re very old-school, independent-movie, stick-to-their-guns kind of producers. We just liked them. That was one of the turning points.
What else motivated you to do this?
Only 6 percent of the public-radio audience is signed up for Showtime. So that means that very few of our regular people are watching the network, and so there could be a whole new crowd [of viewers]. And you know, television is the medium of our time — it seemed exciting. [With the radio show] we’ve mastered the medium of the 1940s. Let’s jump ahead 50 years.
How do you think total strangers to the radio show will react to the TV show?
I have no idea! That’s part of the science experiment that happens tonight. I [did meet] one, a reporter from a magazine who had never listened to the radio show, but watched the screeners. I met him and I was like, Oh my God! You’re the guy! You’re the lab rat! You’re the one who we’ve theorized would exist someday! He found the radio show through the TV show. That was really amazing. It’s like we conjured him out of vapor, this guy.
What upcoming stories are you excited about?
I have two stories right now that I’m so excited to do. We needed a story about a dream job. I’d been wondering — we have 100 people who are astronauts. They have business cards that say astronaut. We only do like three shuttle missions, so 18 of them go into space. So, you’re an astronaut. You clock in at the Johnson Space Center in the morning, and you go to your…. What do you go to? Do you go to your desk? What do you do all day? What’s your job? So I’ve been calling astronauts and trying to figure out the deal.
How do you feel about being seen on TV?
Not so crazy about it. I’m not somebody who was always very careful about my appearance. It didn’t matter to me. I didn’t have any clothes. I didn’t care. I work in radio. I don’t like seeing pictures of myself. I’m almost 50 years old. You don’t want to see pictures of yourself once you’re over 40. I don’t want to meet girls or anything. I’m married.
But aren’t you considered a heartthrob in some circles?
Sometimes I’m told this, and it seems like an exaggeration. I have a friend who’s in the band OK Go. You know what — he’s a heartthrob. He’s insanely good-looking. He goes on stage and girls scream. That’s what it means to be a heartthrob. I meet lots of people from my audience, and what they are is super-smart, really funny, utterly normal — like my show. They always seem like people who would be my friends but they accidentally don’t happen to be. They have a very adult relationship with me and the radio show.
There’s a lot of sadness in the stories on the TV show.
I feel like if a story has real stakes, sadness is always a possibility. That’s as true for a TV drama as it is for us. In that way, in the emotional climate of it, I feel like we’re closer to a TV drama than we are to a reality show.
What is it like knowing that people are willing to give you so much access?
I was surprised at that, truthfully. At this point, we’ve done so many stories, that I understand that people will tell us certain things about themselves. Doing TV, I was surprised at how much time people would give us. On the radio, it’d only take an hour or so. For TV, we’d have to stay around for four days. It’s so much time, and you think, ”Why do people put up with this?”
How did you become such a good storyteller?
In nature, I’m not such a good storyteller. At the end of the day, I find that when I have to tell my wife what happened during the day, I will totally freeze up under the pressure. I make some classic storytelling mistakes. I just want her to know everything all at once. I don’t stage out information properly, so it’s almost unlistenable.
What’s next for you?
If [Showtime] picks up the TV show, I’ll do another year of that while putting out more and better radio shows during that year, and try not to burn [myself] out. We have a movie deal with DreamWorks. We’re talking about turning a couple of radio stories into feature films. These would be stories that would be closer to what we do normally on the radio show. I feel like we have more to offer editorially in that way.