March 29, 2010
Ira Glass: Why do we all like the storytellers?
“Everyone likes someone who is good at telling stories,” a friend once observed to me years ago. Tonight with Ira Glass on stage, it seems to be true.
It’s 6:20 PM, and Ira Glass is re-cutting the opening for our 7:00 PM show. He’s on stage at UCLA’s Royce Hall, about to do a show presented by KCRW called “A Night with Ira Glass: Radio Stories & Other Stories.” He is on stage, behind a desk with a laptop and soundboard, surrounded by a hive of swarming reporters.
Glass maintains an aura of informality, as if he is in production with each of us, even while we are a sea of unidentified journalists. A curly-haired young radio reporter stands tepidly by him. Glass takes the microphone to hold it himself: “I can’t stand bad mic placement.” A photographer inadvertently stands in front of a row of other photographers when he asks Ira Glass a question, and before answering the question Glass cautions, “You’re in their shot.”
This sense of offhand conversation carries into the actual show. Even while I sit in a black sea of an anonymous crowd, I have to remind myself that Ira Glass is not talking to just me, in a coffee shop, while he also happens to be tinkering with his production equipment. I also have to take a mental step back to notice that Glass continues to be saturated in the theme of storytelling to a meta-degree. He is a professional storyteller, and tonight he tells stories to demonstrate the developed craft of storytelling. He never seems to be reading from a script. Rather, he seems to be transparent in all that he does – even telling us that he plays audio clips from interviews off his laptop on the right, while on the left he plays from a music player. He stammers, mid-story that takes place in Florida, to ask us to help him quickly clarify whether it is “Palm Beach, or Palm Springs?” that he is referring to, and then he taps the laptop with an exaggerated sweep of the right arm, as if he were plucking a high piano note.
He has prefaced this evening with the definition of “story” as a sequence of actions. What draws us into stories is that as an audience we feel motion toward a place - a destination. He makes us see his reins; a raconteur lures us with the hungry desire to know where the story is going – “where are you going?” we are brought to think, as we listen in suspense. He recalls High Holy Days services with his family Maryland when he realized that the rabbi’s captivating sermon parallels his own structure of storytelling.
Glass carries on with this transparency by giving us, offhand, a few tricks of the trade. For example, as a radio interviewer he tries to provoke people to recount dialogue, such as “He says…she says…” which is just as good as capturing the action in real-time.
Toward the end of the performance, which really seems more like a conversation (except, oh, right, only Ira Glass is doing the talking), Glass explicitly comes to the crux of his thesis. The psychological building blocks of what makes a person, he says, is the ability to see into another person’s perspective. He says in an age when we’re bombarded by narrative (advertisements, texts, etc.), it is rare that the mainstream news media makes us feel that we have seen inside another person’s perspective. Those moments of seeing, of insight, however, are sacred because they make us feel less harried or blinded or unconscious, or as Glass puts it, “make us feel less crazy.” In our productive, industrial culture, people are expected to innovate and create, but Glass points out, “No one talks about where ideas come from. Ideas come from other ideas.” And ultimately, when Glass bites the meat of why stories are important, his voice slows down. With a somber tone, he cites that “irrational” and “deep” part of us. Then, he leaves us with a haunting pause. Glass really seems to be showing and telling his point at the same time.
The house lights go up, and we flow seamlessly into the Q&A finale. Much of the audience seems fascinated by this nerd behind the desk on stage. A man from the balcony asks if Glass recites stories incessantly, like when he comes home and has dinner with his family. A girl from the back of the auditorium asks Glass for tips on getting an internship. That man in the spotlight seems to shine with a quaint and quirky celebrity – for this evening we’ve all been in conversation with him yet we want MORE -
We want to know what he’s like at home, we want to know how to get a job with him, we want to… BE him? Is there something so alluring about being a conductor behind a desk with human voices, music, and witty reflection at his disposal? There are many people who can talk our ear off, but we don’t want to be them. But this chatty DJ has drawn a following because he can deftly command human voices from the sound speakers (people talking about their mother’s ashes or their summer jobs), and then remix it with an ironic jingle or harrowing crescendo. We’re on the edge of our seats as if to ask, “Where are you going?”
Imagine: like Ira Glass, you are an American, wearing the conventional drab gray business suit, at the office. Suddenly your cubicle disintegrates. A stage is revealed – and your desk is in the spotlight, before a sea of a large, friendly audience. You become your own DJ, with a soundtrack of your life ready at the player on your left. And from the laptop on your right, you scratch and spin recordings from conversations, eavesdropped snippets, recounting of quotidian memories.
And won’t it be a glorious moment, when instead of having to ask someone else, “Where are you going?”, you’re the one with the answer.