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Ira Glass on doing magic tricks, Brad Pitt, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer

(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)
(Graphic: Nick Wanserski)

In 11 Questions, The A.V. Club asks interesting people 11 interesting questions—and then asks them to suggest one for our next interviewee.

At this point Ira Glass and his voice are synonymous with This American Life. But radio isn’t his only medium these days. He’s also a film producer. In 2006 his name was on the pre-Bridesmaids Paul Feig comedy, Unaccompanied Minors, based on a This American Life segment. Since then, however, he’s mainly worked on TAL storyteller Mike Birbiglia’s directorial efforts: 2012’s Sleepwalk With Me, which he co-wrote, and the recently released Don’t Think Twice. Don’t Think Twice follows the members of a team of improv comedians as they navigate their careers, their friendships suffering friction as they achieve varying degrees of success. It’s one of the few movies Glass has seen more than once, thanks to his role in its creation. We learned that and more when he answered our 11 questions.

1. What’s a question you wish an interviewer would ask you?

Ira Glass: Oh, my God. I remember David Sedaris was asked that once, and his answer was, “I wish somebody would ask me how much I made last year.” Because apparently he had done really, really well and was proud of it. I think the thing that I wish somebody would ask me is just to ask about the business side of the radio show. I feel like I actually work very hard to make sure the business side of the radio show runs, and no one has any interest in how a public radio show is run. And rightly so.

But it’s the sort of thing where you have certain things in your life that you invest a tremendous amount of time figuring out and learning and then you just feel like, “Well, now I know all this stuff, I wish I could tell someone.” And then occasionally someone will be starting a podcast or radio show and they’ll call me up and they’ll say, “Well, how do you do this?” Then what always happens is, I end up holding them on the phone for way longer than they want to be held, because I just feel like, “I learned all of this and I need to tell someone.”

The A.V. Club: What is the thing that you wish you could tell some of those people?

IG: Just one example will suffice to demonstrate the utter boring-ness of this, I think. For people starting public radio shows, one of the things you have to do is you have to talk every single public radio station into picking you up. So we’re on 500 stations. We have to convince them one by one. There’s no network boss to throw a switch. And so the way that we did it is that, we made a nice show, a show we’re proud of, but half of the stations in our first year told us they were picking us up because we did these pledge drive modules that were three and four minutes long that were really funny. If they played the pledge drive modules during drive time, they could make like $30,000 in 20 minutes from people calling in to pledge. [In] all of the early promotion for the show to get stations to pick us up, we would say, “Don’t pick us up because we’re trying to reinvent public radio. Don’t pick us up because we’re an idealistic program trying to do good work. Pick us up because we will make you money.” And that turned out to be tremendously effective to get onto stations. So there were all sorts of weird business strategies that only apply in the tiny little ecosystem that we find ourselves in public radio, that were, honestly, an essential part of us getting into the world and reaching an audience.

AVC: I feel like, a lot of times, we don’t ask artists about the business side of things, and it is fascinating stuff people mostly don’t know about.

IG: Yeah, like I wish people would talk to Judd Apatow and J.J. Abrams [and ask], “How do you manage all of the projects you’re managing all the time at the level of quality that you do?” It just seems, like, impossible. These are people with more than one TV show and they’re making movies and they seem super out in the world and in touch with who are new and interesting people to work with. “How do you structure your week?”

2. If you could ride a giant version of an animal to work every day, what animal would it be?

IG: Huh. I’m allergic to cats, so that’s out. [Pauses.] I’m going to go with Chihuahua, just because I can’t think of anything more frightening than a giant Chihuahua.

AVC: That is fair. Do you have any pets?

IG: Yes, we have a dog.

AVC: But not a Chihuahua.

IG: No, not a Chihuahua. We have a pit bull.

3. What movie have you seen the most?

IG: Honestly, I don’t see movies more than once. Let me think. There are a few exceptions. I went and saw Magnolia twice. I think that might be the only film I’ve seen more than twice. I guess there might be some other one I accidentally saw twice.

AVC: Why did you end up going to see Magnolia twice?

IG: I just liked it. And there was a lot to absorb. But that was so many years ago. I just feel like there’s so many movies I haven’t seen that I want to see, that I would never go back to the same one. It’s funny because all my friends, they have movies that they’ve seen over and over again. Like I just made a movie with Mike Birbiglia, and he has dozens of films that he’s seen over and over again that he’ll talk about. And Julie Snyder—who produces Serial, who I work with so closely—has all these movies that she’s seen over and over again and can recite parts by heart. I don’t know, I just don’t see it.

AVC: You get to see more.

IG: The truth is, I just don’t have that much time to see movies. So if I get two hours where I can actually see a film, I don’t want to go backwards, I want to go forwards.

4. What’s a stupid thing you incorrectly believed for a long time?

IG: Huh. [Pauses.] That’s a really great question. [Pauses.] Let’s come back to that.

5. What’s the most interesting thing you’ve heard about yourself that isn’t true?

IG: I remember when I first got married, there was a certain amount of internet traffic on the subject of, “Who is this beard who is allegedly married to Ira Glass? Obviously, he’s gay.”

AVC: What was your reaction to that?

IG: Amusement.

6. What’s the weirdest thing you’ve ever eaten?

IG: It’s not that weird in the scale of weirdness, but while in Japan, I had the kind of shrimp where they have live shrimp and they pull them out of the tank, cut the shell off them, and hand them to you to eat basically while still alive.

AVC: An experience you would relive or not?

IG: Probably not. It was fine.

AVC: Why wouldn’t you go back to it?

IG: It’s a little creepy on its face. It just makes you feel strange about yourself.

7. What’s the first concert you ever went to?

IG: First concert I went to was—what’s the name of the band who did, um... Oh my God, hold on. I can totally picture this band too. Please stand by. It was a band that I didn’t like. I’m looking them up because I remember their hit song.

AVC: Are you Googling?

IG: Yeah, hold on. What is the name? Oh, no, it wasn’t them. Hold on for a second. Dude, I’m so sorry, I’m old and I can’t remember the name of this band. Keep going.

AVC: Do you want to come back to that one?

IG: I do.

8. What’s the most interesting opportunity you’ve gotten through your work?

IG: I’ve just met a bunch of people who it doesn’t seem like a person would ever meet in varying circumstances. Like David Mamet. To me, David Mamet was an iconic figure, and then somehow, through a series of circumstances, I found myself at his house, having dinner with him and his family. And you just think, “What happened, exactly?” This person I admire so much, and here I am, talking to him, and he just seems like some smart Jewish guy. It’s weird when that happens. It’s happened a couple of times, and each time it’s like, “What? What’s going on in my life that this is a thing?”

AVC: So it’s the personal interactions with these idols.

IG: Yeah. I’m trying to think if there’s anything else. Just a couple of months ago, Keegan-Michael Key hosted the Peabody Awards. And I know him a little bit now, because he’s in a movie that I produced, Don’t Think Twice. I spent a little bit of time with him on the set, and he’s a very friendly, unpretentious person. I had hosted this show in the past. He did a little video with the previous hosts of the awards show giving him advice. Basically, they wrote a comedy sketch for the different hosts. And so I got to be in a comedy video with Keegan-Michael Key, which is so above my pay grade as a comedy performer. Do you know what I mean? He’s just one of the most iconic funny TV-video performers alive. And then to be in a room with cameras and he’s doing lines, and I’m supposed to be doing lines back. It was really hard to stay normal about it, you know? Maybe scratch the first part of this answer and go straight to that. It was a really unusual experience to have.

9. What embarrassing phase did you go through?

IG: Oh, there were many of them. But I would single out especially [that] I did magic tricks and balloon animals for children’s birthday parties when I was a young teenager. All over the suburban Baltimore area.

AVC: What led you down that path?

IG: I went to the Baltimore County Public Library on Liberty Road and took out—at one point I realized, “Oh, they have books on how to do magic tricks.” So I took out the books and taught myself some magic tricks. And then, once I knew some, I just felt completely free to take out an ad in the back of the Jewish Times and then start booking shows for $5 a show. That’s exactly the impulse with which I started my own radio show. It was sort of an early manifestation of it. I don’t know why I had the gall to think, like, “Oh, I just learned my very first magic tricks from a book: I’m ready for an audience.” A paying audience. But fortunately they were 5 years old, so I was up to the job.

AVC: Was there a reason you were drawn to learning magic tricks?

IG: Yeah, it’s cool. It’s just really cool. You can make stuff disappear. I was so excited by the idea of magic tricks that it was shocking to me that there were books in the public library that anyone could access that told you how these incredible things were done.

10. Have you ever stolen anything? What?

IG: I don’t think I’ve ever stolen anything.

11. Who’s the most famous person you’ve ever met?

IG: I think the most famous person I’ve ever met is Brad Pitt.

AVC: What was that experience like?

IG: That experience was totally lovely. Somehow, again, in some crazy, unlikely scenario—this is years ago—and it seemed like people might want to be making movies out of stories from the radio show. So I and my senior producer, Julie Snyder, were invited to dinner in the home of Brad Grey, who at the time was with a firm called Brillstein-Grey and now runs one of the big studios [Paramount]. And at the dinner was Brad Pitt and his then-wife Jennifer Aniston and some executives from Warner Bros. and Julie and I. And then we all sat around a table in Brad Grey’s incredibly beautiful home, and were served an incredibly expensive catered dinner.

What I learned about Brad Pitt from that is that Brad Pitt is really game to talk about whatever and is really fun to talk to and was totally up for discussing anything. He had a lot of things he wanted to say, and he was, like, super fun. I feel like if I hadn’t known going in what it would be like, I would have been frightened. I think I was frightened. And also—I know that people know this—but he is very good looking. He’s so good-looking there’s a lightbulb inside of him shooting good-looking-ness in all directions. I don’t think I had ever been around a movie star and I couldn’t tell, is it because I recognize you from the movies or are you actually that good looking? But even when you’re asking yourself that question, you’re in a special territory of good-looking-ness that one doesn’t run into all the time. I just really respected that he was just funny. He was just game in a way that was super-endearing. It was just fun in a way that I wouldn’t have expected.

Bonus 12th question from Cameron Esposito: Knowing that you work in public radio, what sports did you play as a child? Please talk about how that went.

IG: [Laughs.] Excellent question. Excellent, excellent question. I played no sports well. Because I was a boy in the United States Of America, I was forced into Little League and played horrible Little League baseball, and played football and basketball in school situations where I was forced to. I don’t think I ever played any sports recreationally for my own pleasure. I was bad at them from the start. I was a chubby, unathletic kid and conformed to every possible stereotype you could imagine of someone who would end up in public broadcasting.

AVC: Do you have a question for the next person?

IG: This would be so much easier to do if I didn’t have jet lag from being in Australia earlier this week. My brain is barely up to this task. Hold on. [Pauses.] Here is my question. It begins with a prelude. I found these 11 questions enormously difficult. Was that just me? Did you?

AVC: Going back to the more difficult ones...

IG: I know the band. It was Emerson, Lake & Palmer. And I did not like Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but my across-the-street neighbor Mark did. And I went with him to Merriweather Post Pavilion and we saw them. I liked their one hit song “Lucky Man,” but the rest of the thing was just totally above my head. The rest of the concert was totally above my head. It was not a successful concert-going venture.

AVC: What was your first successful concert-going venture?

IG: Probably Bruce Springsteen in 1979. I think it’s right after Born To Run that I saw Bruce Springsteen and it was just an amazing, inspiring concert.

Lastly, what’s the stupid thing you incorrectly believed for a long time?

IG: Oh, dude, that is such a good question. I feel like there are so many things like this. We’ve done whole segments on our show too. I don’t have a good answer for this, but I have an answer for it. I remember clearly that when I was little it was explained to me [that] the way that babies were made was that God put the baby into some lady’s stomach, right? And, at some point, I learned how it really happened, and really that was the beginning of the end of my belief in God. Up until that point, it had always been a really weird act of intervention on God’s part. He didn’t manifest in any other way in the world and even as a kid I felt like, “That’s so strange that God would, like, get so involved in that one thing” when you really don’t see him taking personal interest in anything else. And the one thing that was taken off the list of things God did, I realized, “Oh, he doesn’t do anything does he? He’s not around at all. He’s not on the scene.” And so that was the beginning of my path towards atheism.

AVC: I presume that Don’t Think Twice and Sleepwalk With Me are the exceptions to the rule of rarely seeing a movie more than once. Obviously, you’re personally involved in those films?

IG: Oh, no, I’ve seen those films hundreds of times at this point. Not hundreds, but certainly dozens. I sat in on the edits and the music mixes. The premiere of the film was last night and I hadn’t seen the film in a few months. What was interesting was, not having seen the film in a few months, I was actually able to re-experience the feelings of the movie again, which was incredible.