To the millions of listeners of his long-running weekly public-radio show, This American Life, Ira Glass is more voice than face. For the past decade, his slightly high-pitched, casual, and personable delivery has provided the foundation for a show that has redefined radio news with its engrossing stories, from the journalistic (an analytical look at Iraqi war deaths) to the strikingly personal (one writer’s reflection on how his odd behavior ended his marriage). TAL owes much of its success to its radio format, to Glass as a voice. But beginning in March, he will also be a face: TAL is expanding to television, with six half-hour episodes on Showtime. Not only did the TAL staff have to translate the show’s sensibility for television, but it also had to move its base from Chicago to New York to do it. The whole experience, says Glass, nearly killed them all. Before he came to Chicago for a live TAL performance to celebrate the TV show’s debut, Glass talked to The A.V. Club about TV, making it work, and running out of sincerity.
The A.V. Club: What was the most challenging aspect of conveying TAL’s sensibility to a different medium?
Ira Glass: When we began the project, we had no idea if it could be done at all, because part of the power of the radio show comes from, literally, the invisibility of radio. The fact that you don’t see the people, that just gives things such intimacy. And since the kinds of stories we’re doing are so personal, it lets you get away with certain things, the fact that it’s so intimate. Whereas, if someone’s confessing a certain kind of thing or telling a certain kind of thing, and you see their face, they become such a specific person that unless it plays exactly right, it can misfire. So that was one concern. [It was also difficult] actually finding stories that had the kind of characters that we like, and the kind of plots that we like, and surprising things happening, and also that would gesture at some new, original idea that you’d never heard before. For it to do all of that and then also have something interesting to look at, that was quite a challenge—and it kicked our ass.
AVC: It’s like you’re going back to square one.
IG: Seriously, I feel like I just had the best year of my life and the very worst year of my life. We’re talking about whether there’s going to be a second season, and truthfully, I don’t even know if I can take it physically, just to make it through the year. And honestly, my wife and I, starting a month ago when we finished the television show, we’re not strangers to each other, but it’s something uncomfortably similar.
AVC: Adam Beckman was the director of photography, and having the right photography seems critical here.
IG: He’s the one who identified the challenge as an idea. He said, “You know, the way the radio show is built, there are moments where people are reflecting on something that happened to them. As a TV show, you want to be able to support those moments of reflection, those moments where someone’s saying, ‘Here’s my thought on this thing that just happened.’” And he said, “As soon as you have that as your problem, you realize there are certain kinds of images that you can use for that, that wouldn’t be too distracting.” Then you kind of build backwards from there. That led him to a whole set of conclusions that he and Chris Wilcha, our director, came to, which were: the camera on a tripod, the camera very still, people walk in and out of the frame, shoot it widescreen, make it look like a movie. They committed to this thing where instead of having a couple of cameras so you could always get the coverage that you need, and get every single thing that happens onto videotape, they just said, “We are not going to get everything on tape. We’re just going to have one camera, and we’re not going to get everything, and we’re going to make that work for us.” Which in a way was a really scary thing to do. Scarier for them, because they actually understood just how screwed up that could leave us.
AVC: Before one story, you say “People act different before the camera, even if it isn’t real.” How did you adjust to being in front of a camera?
IG: You get into this situation, performing for TV, where you have to speak with utter sincerity. It’s just like the radio. You have to say it like you mean it, even though the thing you’re saying is actually planned out. On the radio, I’ll do one or two takes, like, “Oh, that one’s a little fast. Let’s do it again.” I mean, I know what I’m doing on the radio. But on TV, because I’ll dip my shoulder a little bit, or I’ll turn my head at the wrong moment, you have to do it again. I would find myself in these situations where I would do take after take after take, each time trying to sound completely sincere. And what I learned is that I don’t actually have that much sincerity inside me. I’d actually use up sincerity after four takes. Then you really have to just act. You have to act a version of yourself, like you’re playing an actor and the part you’re playing is you—which you think would be the easiest role in the world to play, a role that anyone could play. In fact, it’s really weird. And partly, I think this is a really moronic way to look at it, but I would feel really embarrassed that the crew would see me seeming really sincere but faking it over and over, like everyone could see what a faker I am. Which is crazy.
AVC: That makes sense, though. You’re still mindful of people who are watching you.
IG: I’ve never so appreciated what actors do and how strange it is.