So successful was the program that it jumped to television. After a successful first run on Showtime last year, a second season will air this May. In the opening of one of TV episodes from the first season, a group of believers takes photographs of the sun in order to glimpse images of the Divine. Seeking revelation myself, I spoke to Ira Glass in his offices in Manhattan.
What is the value of telling stories?
The story is a machine for empathy. In contrast to logic or reason, a story is about emotion that gets staged over a sequence of dramatic moments, so you empathize with the characters without really thinking about it too much. It is a really powerful tool for imagining yourself in other people’s situations.
The mission of our show [is] to take the people and present them at exactly life scale. So when we do a story about sailors on an aircraft carrier that is flying missions over Afghanistan in the early months of the war on terror, we didn’t only go for the heroic gung-ho men and women who are traveling in harm’s way, we go for what it is actually like for the majority of the people there. In the show we did, the first person you meet is a woman whose job it is to fill candy machines on the ship with candy. That’s her job in the war on terror, which she laughs about.
Most people on the aircraft carrier don’t fly planes, or shoot guns at bad guys to make the world a better place. They do laundry, they check the radar, they fix the intercom system. That’s a lot of what it means to be in the military.
How do you tell a story well?
There is a kind of structure for a story that was peculiarly compelling for the radio. I thought I had invented it atom-by-atom sitting in an editing booth in Washington on M Street when I was in my 20s. Then I found out that it is one of the oldest forms of telling a story--it was the structure of a sermon.
I actually realized it when I went home for Yom Kippur in Baltimore. We have a great rabbi. He is one of those guys whose sermons are the total entertainment package. There is one anecdote after another and then, of course, the Torah portion for that week. He then ties it all together with some heartfelt emotional moment.
So I’m with my sisters and my mother and he is giving the sermon and doing his thing, and I thought, oh, that’s the structure of my radio show.
Does every story that makes it onto This American Life have a moral?
A moral overstates it. Every story has some thought about the world. For example, we did a story about a married woman who reconnects with a friend who was in the same profession, and he starts to call her up, and she gets all these feelings and starts to look forward to his calls, but she is feeling guilty about that because she is married and they have kids. Finally, she says to her husband that she wants to see this old friend for a cup of coffee. The husband says that he is not thrilled about it, but agrees.
Before she goes, she is honest with her husband about the fact that she is having all these feelings for this guy and very excited when he calls, and the husband says to her: “Oh, I’m so sorry I can’t do that for you anymore.” So the woman thinks to herself: “What am I doing?” and she goes to the phone and she calls the guy and tells him never to call her again.
When we were playing through the piece as we prepared the episode, one of the editors said, “I don’t know when I will need the information contained in this story, but I am glad that I have heard it and I will know what to do if I am in this situation.” Now that is a story where there was a moral, which said: “Act this way in the world, here is how you should see this.”
But isn’t there always something like that?
No, honestly sometimes [the takeaway is] just something that is interesting to me, but it is not a moral. There was this story about a guy name Lenny Davis who has some reason to believe that the person who was his dad, was not his biological father and instead he thinks that his uncle is. He goes on this long detective-like search and finally he discovers through a DNA test that his dad really was his dad. What was interesting to me about this story was the question: “What difference does it make?” Both his dad and his uncle are dead, what does it accomplish to know that one or the other is his dad?