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Glass on glass

Glass on glass


In an interview with, This American Life's handsome host, Ira Glass, defends his decision to bring his radio show to TV, reveals his favorite This American Life stories, and admits how living with the gym bunnies of Chelsea seriously messes with his self-esteem.


With its folksy, funny, and sometimes heartbreaking vignettes of everyday existence, radio program This American Life--produced by Chicago Public Radio and widely heard on National Public Radio--has captivated listeners for over a decade. Now host Ira Glass brings the program to Showtime, and talks to The Advocate about everything from crazed fans to Tyra Banks.

Hey, Ira. I just saw the whole series and I loved it. Oh, thank you.

How much self-analyzing went into bringing the radio show to TV? Was there a lot of inner turmoil? [The ThisAmerican Life staff and I] believed it would be impossible to do more self-analyzing than we did. I feel like the staff and I took it as far as we could possibly go because there was a long period where Showtime was asking us to do [the TV show] and we simply weren't sure it could be done at all. Once we started working on the pilot, there was the incredibly horrible process of figuring out the aesthetic of this thing we were inventing. In the beginning we talked about doing a lot of animation and a lot of fancy stuff, but in the end we felt like that stuff wasn't as expressive for what we wanted to do. In the end you want to come to solutions that are simple.

Do you have a stock response that you keep handy for the people who think you sold out by bringing This American Life to TV? I really need one, don't I? I mean, people aren't saying to me, "You sold out." It's more like people, the fans of ours, don't understand. It's total incomprehension. It doesn't go as far as selling out. Sometimes there's a feeling of betrayal because I think there are still people who view anything to do with television as just being bad. I feel that's a little out of date, truthfully. Television has gotten so much better in the last 10 years. But I think that still, for many people, if it's television, that means it's a force of evil. So when I'm getting this incredibly skeptical response from our own fans, the thing I've been saying is that we did this because we thought we could make a nice show. We didn't do [the TV show] wanting to do anything different. We thought we could make a show that has exactly the feeling and the values of our radio show. And it seemed worth trying.

So no nefarious reasons. There's no dignity in saying this, but the radio show had been on the air for over a decade, and it just seemed like it would be fun to try something new. It wasn't more complicated than that. We knew that we weren't going to stop making the radio show, and it just seemed like, well, we have this TV network that wants to throw all this money not at us but at this project. When do you get a chance like that? When we were doing the pilot, we got all sorts of guarantees from the network, like if we did the pilot and we found that the things they needed for it to be a TV show were simply things we didn't agree with, we could kill the whole project.

That's a lot of control. In the end, they basically said, if we were going to be unhappy with it, chances are they were going to be unhappy with it too.

Do you believe the TV show packs the same punch as the radio show? If I didn't think that, we wouldn't be doing it. The thing I would say to the radio listeners is, just look at the preview online. I feel like once people see that stuff they feel much more confident. We just did this six-city tour, and I would say to the audience, "Were you worried when you heard we were doing a TV show?" In every city they roared back, "Yes!" In Minnesota a guy yelled out, "Judas!"

The people in them all start out a little silly, but by the end you've give them credence and the audience is no longer judging them. How do you manage to tell the stories without being condescending? Is it in the stories you choose? I don't think it's the stories we choose as much as it is our general sense of aesthetics. I don't think it's that interesting to laugh at people. Stories are more interesting if you're empathizing. As soon as you start empathizing, basically you've opened up the entire world of feelings that are possible to have as a person. If you're laughing at somebody, that's a feeling, but it's a very finite feeling. I don't knock reality shows. I watch those shows. I just feel like it's human drama, and it's interesting, but that's not our way.

I don't think people would be screaming "Judas" if there was aTemptation Island 3. Even with a pretty good show like Project Runway there's a certain amount of laughing at a certain character because they're just an ass. Runway gets great when there is someone you really love and you want to win. Of course you feel this about Tim Gunn.

You opened yourself up to this. Are you watching Idol? I should preface this by saying that everything I watch on TV I watch just because my wife watches. Anything that's her taste becomes my taste. I'm just a sheep. That being said, I'm not watching Idol this season. I stopped watching after the Fantasia season because I loved her so much I didn't want to go through that process with anyone else. I haven't sat through the dance contest one yet.

You mean the one with Heather Mills, where her leg is about to pop off at any moment? Top Model is amusing beyond belief, though. I know, I've seen a fair amount because of my wife.

Back to reality, how do you come up with the This American Life stories? It's a combination of people bringing them to us and stuff we go and find. Some things are just random people who write though our Web site and pitch something.

Do you hear certain pitches that you know would work for the TV show and not the radio show, and vice versa? Almost everything we hear is for the radio show and only very rarely do we hear something that has as much visual possibility for TV. If we get picked up for a second season, it will be a drama to figure out what the stories will be.

What's your favorite story on the TV show? I would say it's the story about the 14-year-old who decides he's never going to fall in love. What I like about this story is that it's built around an interview that's very much like the kinds of interviews we do on the radio show, where the pleasure of the interview is in a bunch of very small, often funny moments that also reveal the kid's character. But then at the same time, there are points where this story is carried by the visuals. The visuals are the engine that run the story in a bunch of different places.

Tell me about producer Christine Vachon's influence on the show. Christine is the reason the show exists. Showtime came to us, and we said for this to happen you have to hook us up with filmmakers, and they have to be people we respect. Showtime came back, "How about Christine Vachon?" We were like, "OK!" Everything they do at Killer [Films] has such complete integrity and originality and nerviness. We started this process is 2002, and for years it didn't seem like it was going to go anywhere. Christine was the reason, I think, that it finally came to be. She's certainly one of the big reasons we got through it. We needed somebody with a little clout to help us say no to things. Christine was going to be the person who was going to be the pit bull. I say that as a pit bull owner, knowing that pit bulls are actually very sweet. Christine and I went to college together [at Brown University].

Now it's time for the fluffy questions. Do you ever give thought to the fact that you're the thinking gay guy's sex symbol? I don't think I'm hot enough to be a gay man's sex symbol. I live in Chelsea [in New York City] and have gay friends. I am definitely not in shape enough. If I wanted to sleep with a gay man, I think I'd have to work out a little more.

Maybe if you moved to Williamsburg or Silver Lake, you'd think differently. It's incredibly flattering if that's true. Occasionally when I'm giving a speech or on the radio and mention that I have a wife, I'll get an e-mail from a gay man saying, "Please, stop pretending. Who is this 'wife' character you talk about?"

You must be able to sympathize with straight celebs who are constantly being called gay. I always feel like it's very flattering to be included in that club. It's a group you'd like to be part of.

On the show, your suits are pretty snazzy. Who's the designer, and what do you wear when you do the radio show? On the radio show I'm not quite as well-dressed as on TV. For the TV show we got a stylist, and the suits are John Varvatos. In real life when I pick a suit for myself, I go more for the Paul Smith thing. I have one incredibly beautiful Armani suit that has this wonderful fabric. In real life I look like somebody who has been working in public radio, which is to say, not particularly well-dressed.

Now that you're on TV are you checking the mirror more? I lost a lot of weight to do TV. I lost 30 pounds. It wasn't because anybody asked me, it was just because I knew I was going to be looking at pictures of myself, and I didn't want to wince every time.

How did you do it? I stopped eating starches and went to the gym every day. Fear is a huge motivator; getting a network TV show helped.

And where are the glasses from? In the '90s I found a pair of glasses I could stand. Actually I've gotten tired of these glasses and have gone to look for others that I like as much, and I just haven't found anything.

Sitting at the desk at the beginning of the show, you're in front of a green screen, right? No--the desk is everywhere we go. If you look at the way it's photographed you can tell I'm really there. I'm there on the side of a mountain in Colorado.

Shut up. Where were you in the scene with the billowing pillars of smoke behind you? You're talking about the nuclear power station in Pennsylvania. That's a day of my life, that shot. It was incredibly cold. But as I've learned on America's Next Top Model, sometimes when you're on camera you just have to work through the cold.

Thank God for Tyra Banks. Yes, thank God for Tyra.

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Neal Broverman

Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.
Neal Broverman is the Editorial Director, Print of Pride Media, publishers of The Advocate, Out, Out Traveler, and Plus, spending more than 20 years in journalism. He indulges his interest in transportation and urban planning with regular contributions to Los Angeles magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times and USA Today. He lives in the City of Angels with his husband, children, and their chiweenie.