The End of Irony: Ira Glass Makes Empathy Entertaining

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The End of Irony: Ira Glass Makes Empathy Entertaining

PasteCover-75.jpg This story originally appeared in Issue #2 of Paste Magazine in the fall of 2002, republished in celebration of Paste’s 20th Anniversary.


Prologue: His voice is not the deep baritone like most of his public radio colleagues. The music, clips and questions have a distinct homeyness, and the stories aren’t typically what you’d call newsworthy. Yet Ira Glass’s This American Life is one of the most vital, intelligent and delightful radio programs on the air.

Act 1: Don’t Call Him a Storyteller

Every Saturday on noncommercial radio stations around the country, Ira Glass proves himself to be a master storyteller. Just don’t tell him that.

“I see myself completely as a reporter,” the host of This American Life says adamantly. “‘Storyteller’ seems like some mealy-mouthed crap-ass guy sitting on a cracker barrel. Horribleness. It’s repulsive to me—‘storyteller.’ The only time it ever comes up,” he adds laughing, “is at the end of the day if I’m talking to my girlfriend and I’m trying to relate what happened at the bank or something and it gets really boring. And she interrupts me—‘uh huh … master storyteller at work.’ That’s the only possible way that word would enter any of our conversations on the show.”

Nevertheless, Glass and his team of producers spend hundreds of hours each week sifting through story ideas, conducting interviews and transforming it all into a series of narratives based on a single theme. The show, which premiered on Chicago’s WBEZ radio in 1995 and was distributed nationally the following year, uses everything from the superficially mundane to the extraordinary and the bizarre. The only thing you can count on each week is that you’ll hear interesting and unexpected stories and encounter the host’s quirky wit and inquisitiveness. Whether the subject is bullies, babysitting or basketball, This American Life refreshingly lacks the cynical irony and condescension that’s become ubiquitous on the airwaves.

“We tend to view ourselves as anti-irony,” says the 42-year-old reporter. “I mean, we feel irony is sort of played out actually; we feel irony is very 1990s. One of the things that … makes the aesthetic different is that you can tell that we’re not mocking things. We’re not making fun of them. We’re not taking an ironic distance. You can tell that we’re actually doing stories that we really love about people we’re genuinely interested in.”

One of those recent stories was about the U.S.S. Stennis, an aircraft carrier in the Arabian Sea. None of the three producers who spent time on the ship had any sort of military background in their families. Their only concept of life aboard a cruiser was from documentaries whose sole aim was to impress the viewer with America’s technological prowess and from movies that portrayed a very foreign culture from civilian life.

“What we were struck with is that they seemed utterly normal,” says Glass. “It just seemed very familiar and the way that they dealt with their situation was very understandable. They didn’t seem to be any different from the people that we all deal with every day in secular civilian life. We related to that, and I think interesting work comes from empathy—it comes from seeing, ‘Oh, here’s what I’d do in this situation.’ In anything—you can’t build something that has feeling to it without empathy and without trying to understand someone else’s point of view.”

Glass and his team seem to enjoy the challenge of finding the familiarity in odd and unfamiliar places. In the case of the Stennis, that meant exploring the interpersonal relationships on board, the struggles of being away from home and … snack food.

“I remember Alix [Spiegal], one of the producers I went with saying, ‘I knew we were really powerful but you don’t realize how powerful we are until you’re eating Rice Krispies in the middle of the Arab world on this aircraft carrier.’”

Act 2: Not Just Educational Programming

While the stories generally seek to bring about empathy and understanding, Glass wants This American Life to entertain as much as educate. And at times—like the 14-minute story of “Squirrel Cop”—nothing is funnier. A rookie police officer answers a call for a squirrel in the attic. Instead of calling animal control, he attempts to impress the beautiful wife by taking care of it himself.

“Within like two or three minutes a couch is on fire, a smoke alarm is going off, and the guy who owns the house has been bashed over the head and is bleeding,” Glass says, recounting one of his favorite moments on the show. “It’s weird that you can do slapstick on the radio, but apparently you can. We’re not believers in the idea that public broadcasting should be listened to because it’s good for you—we ourselves don’t listen because it’s good for us. We feel like people should be listening because it’s interesting and entertaining on its own. And public broadcasting should aspire to and achieve that level of skill in the way it presented.”

Jack Hitt, the producer responsible for “Squirrel Cop,” also produced a recent segment on inmates performing Hamlet in a Missouri prison. All were incarcerated for violent crimes and offered unique perspectives on the play’s central plot line—Hamlet’s internal struggle on whether to commit murder. It’s a prime example of the show veers away from typical feature reporting—Hitt allows himself to be moved by the people he encounters. He visits the inmates over the course of several months, watching the beauty of their interpretations of Shakespeare’s work. But he’s never able to get them to talk about their crimes. Just before the dress rehearsal, he can stand it no longer and reviews the court records for each amateur actor. The brutality of their crimes is worse than he feared, and he struggles to reconcile the men he has come to know with the men who committed these appalling acts.

“The mission of public broadcasting,” says Glass, “is to provide a perspective on life in this country and around the world that you can’t get elsewhere and I feel like that perspective means some moment of analysis, some thought.”

Act 3: Seeking a Greater Understanding

It’s those moments of analysis where the listener often feels a connection with the reporter who’s just discovered some unexpected sense of connection to the subject.
That’s what happened when producer Alix Spiegel, a secular Jew, visited Colorado Springs for a 1997 story on the New Life Church’s efforts to systematically pray in front of every house in the city. In it, she revealed her own wrestling with faith, when it might have been easy to mock the beliefs of the churchgoers. She befriended the pastor, Ted Haggard, and tried to understand her subjects rather than dismiss them. She can’t sleep, and Haggard admits that he’s prayed she won’t be able to until she becomes a Christian.

The barrage of posts to the show’s website revealed that many listeners were aghast that Spiegal would even acknowledge that God might exist. But her honesty and transparency as she struggled with the concept of God moved many others.

“Whenever we do a story on the Christians, our listenership feels obliged to write in on the website about how Christians are bad,” says Glass. “Usually when you see a Christian on the news or in a movie, they’re the most numbskull kind of one-note, unfeeling sort of person. Whereas if you actually think about your Christian friends, they tend to be the most wonderful people you know and way more empathetic than most people. One of the things we try to do is stories about Christians in a way that actually seems to reflect the way that they actually are instead of the way they are portrayed.”

Occasionally, though, the subject matter is just beyond comprehension. In August, contributors Nancy Updike and Adam Davidson each spent a week in Ramallah and Tel Aviv, Israel. Former leftists debated whether Palestinians were born animals or they’ve been taught to be animals. Residents of Ramallah who live under the oppression of curfew expressed a near unanimous support for the violence of the Intifada. It was one of the few episodes that left the listener—and Glass—thinking, “I can sympathize, but I just can’t understand.”