DATE February 26, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ira Glass, host and executive producer of "This
American Life," on the challenges of bringing the show to TV
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Our show today is about a big change for a public radio program we love, one
with a devoted following that expanded the definition of a radio voice, tells
such compelling true stories that movie producers look to it for screenplay
ideas and has a host that David Mamet describes as having reinvented radio.
(Soundbite of "This American Life")
Mr. IRA GLASS: Well, "This American Life," I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our
show we choose a theme, bring you different kinds of stories on that theme.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: We're used to hearing Ira open his show that way, but the opening we
just heard isn't from his radio program. It's from the new TV adaptation of
"This American Life." It premieres March 22nd on Showtime. Like the radio
show, the TV version will tell personal stories with unusual revelations, but
we'll be able to see the stories unfold. And that visual dimension has
created a lot of opportunities and problems to solve for the Peabody
Award-winning executive producer and host, Ira Glass, and we wanted to hear
all about it.
Ira, welcome back to FRESH AIR. One of the real trademarks of "This American
Life" is the opening of each radio show, in which you tell us what the theme
is and what each act is going to be. Now, you do that in the TV show, too,
but the question faced you when you were doing the TV show: Will we see you
telling us this? Are you going to be on camera? Are you going to be off
camera? And if you're on camera, what are you going to be doing? So would
you describe what your solution is to that question.
Mr. GLASS: Yes, our solution is that I do appear in the show. That was a
huge fight in and of itself among us on the staff, figuring out what would be
more disappointing, seeing me or not seeing me. You know what I mean?
GROSS: I know exactly what you mean.
Mr. GLASS: Billy Collins, the poet laureate, has this thing that he says,
where he says one of the most inevitably disappointing experiences is meeting
the author, and I feel like that goes, like, twice as much for radio people,
you know what I mean, like seeing the video people. But anyway--so once we
decided that I would appear, because it seemed a little artsy to never appear,
what we did is, like, our director and our designer, Chris Wilcha and Kira the
designer, they basically said, like, `OK. We're going to do the most
traditional possible thing that you can do on television, which is we're going
to give you a desk, you know, and if you think about Leno, Letterman, Jon
Stewart, the news guys, they all get--they give you a desk, except in our case
the desk will just go places. And so you'll be on a mountainside in Colorado.
You'll be in the oil fields of wherever. You will be on a factory floor and a
steel beam will be going by your head, but you'll never acknowledge where you
are, and we all kind of--the minute they said it, it seemed like the obvious
choice because, first of all, it's taking the convention but it's doing
something different with it.
And then, also, the TV show is incredibly photographic, like, it's designed as
something where the photography is really a character in the show in the way
the music is a character in the radio show. You know, the photography's just
very ambitious. And it would let the cinematographer and the director create
these incredibly beautiful composed shots.
GROSS: And just to explain, you know, when you say your desk travels, it
travels to a location that kind of visually describes what the theme of that
day's show is.
Mr. GLASS: Often. Though some of the themes, honestly, we couldn't think of
locations that would go with the theme, like some of the location--some of the
themes are just, like, a little abstract. So for some of them, like Pandora's
box, I'm on a lawn in a suburban house and behind us--behind me you see, like,
you know, nuclear power stations, so that one we could do. But what was the
one? One of them, like, we literally, we just got stumped, and so we just
chose the prettiest thing we could find...
GROSS: Which was?
Mr. GLASS: It was--it's not Pandora's box. "My Way." "My Way." And "My Way"
was so--and we felt like, well, we have a theme, "My Way," and all the stories
are people who sort of do it their way. And first of all, on the radio, you
could actually play the Frank Sinatra song. But on television, we would have
to license the song for broadcast on television, which would cost tens of
thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars, so we couldn't actually
use the song "My Way." And then we thought, well, one way around it: Let's
not use the Frank Sinatra song. Let's get a high school marching band to
perform "My Way" and we'll have this sort of visual spectacle, and there's
something kind of funny about the notion of this desk, which looks just like,
you know, a TV anchor desk, or Letterman's desk, sitting in the middle of like
a football field, with people marching around it and, again, never comment on
it. But then, like, that seemed like a problem, and also it would be
incredibly expensive even to license the "My Way," like, you know,
instrumental marching band version. And then we just kind of went through one
idea and another and then we just decided, forget it. Let's just go to the
side of a mountain and it'll be really pretty.
GROSS: Now, on radio, when you do your introductions, there's something,
like, really naked about it. I mean, you're just like talking to me on the
Mr. GLASS: Yeah.
GROSS: You're just like telling me what the show's about. And on TV, it's
kind of headed in another direction. It's almost, like, surreal because you
and your desk are in a location that a desk doesn't belong, someplace, like,
outside by a mountainside or in front of a nuclear plant or whatever, and it's
incongruous, almost surreal, to see you at the desk in this location. And so
do you feel like, in some ways, when you're doing television, it's heading in
the opposite direction of the radio show because the radio show, like, it's
about--the introductions anyways--like you're--it's naked. You're just
Mr. GLASS: Yes is the short answer. Yes. I mean, the radio show is
intimate. Radio is incredibly intimate, and there's just no way to have that
kind of intimacy on TV. And one of the things I never really thought about,
like, until we did this as a TV show, is it had never occurred to me, like,
when one performs on the radio, when you talk on the radio, you're in a room
and it's incredibly quiet, and so it's this quiet, very personal sort of space
and you're talking into a microphone, and the microphone is just like three or
four inches from your mouth, like, I'm talking to a microphone that's close
enough that I could kiss it right now, you know, right now as I speak. And so
it's this incredibly sort of quiet, personal space. And it's really easy to
perform the thing so that it feels like you're just talking to somebody
because of that space.
Whereas on television, like, if you think about it, like, the camera is really
far away from the person on television. You know, I mean like, you never
think about this when you just sort of watch TV, but, like, the--I would be on
the shoots and the camera would be pointing at me and it would be like 15, 20
feet away, and there's lighting gear and there's, like, a crew, and then
you're just supposed to talk in an utterly normal tone of voice to somebody
who's like 20 feet away from you. And it's just so odd as a performance
situation and, really, if you think about, you're actually--when it gets
broadcast, you're talking to somebody who's sitting and watching from the
other side of the room, so you're even physically far from them. And so, you
know, I think there's lots of things that are kind of fun about TV, but the
intimacy of radio, you totally lose.
GROSS: But you manage to talk pretty directly to the television. I've had to
do that, like, once or twice and I look like I'm absolutely lost. You know, I
think I look, like, cross-eyed and that I don't know where I am or who I'm
talking to. It's really hard to--unless you're a real pro, I think it's
really hard to talk to a camera as if the camera was a person sitting in their
living room watching you. So, but it seems like you've learned to do that.
Mr. GLASS: I feel like a faker when I'm doing it. Like, you know what I
mean? Like, that's the thing that's so different is that I feel totally like
I'm faking, and this just shows how immature I am, and doing it is that for
TV, just the nature of it is that we do take after take after take, whereas on
the radio you don't really do that.
Mr. GLASS: You just kind of sit down and you try to act sincere, and you say
your thing and try to get it over. And, like, I would do take after take and
I would feel so--and partly like, because like--did you have this?--like, I
would sort of turn my shoulder a little bit or I would, like, dip a shoulder
as I speak or turns out I swivel in the chair the wrong way, and they'd be
just like, `No no. That just looks weird.' Or it turns out that when I speak,
I close my eyes a lot as I talk. And all of these things just look terrible
on camera and they would just, `No, no. Do that again. You sounded good, but
just do that again.' And like--so I'd do it like over and over and over, and,
like, every single time, trying to like be utterly, like, sincere, I have
never said this before in my life. I'm just talking to you and you know,
we're on, like, take 12, and then they're like, `OK, now let's do the medium
shot.' And they redo the exact same thing, like, over and over and over again.
Mr. GLASS: And I felt so embarrassed--and I know this is really
ridiculous--in front of the crew, like, that I'm acting like I'm sincere but
I'm just saying the same thing over and over and, yeah, it was very, it was
very odd. And I actually feel like, in the early episodes, the only reason it
looks halfway good is because we have the power to edit out all the bad takes.
GROSS: Now, one of the stories that you did on the TV show is a new version
of a story that you did years ago on "This American Life" before it was even a
nationally heard show, back when it was just heard in Chicago, and this is the
story of a kind of famous, or infamous, hot dog place in Chicago called The
Wiener Circle, and I--before we go any further, I just want you to describe
what the atmosphere there is like.
Mr. GLASS: The Wiener Circle is one of these places like where the patrons
yell at the staff and the staff yell at the patrons, though I say that and you
might picture a kind of a cutesy version of that where, you know, it's kind of
shtick or something. And it's not shtick at all. Like, people are
really--really, they say stuff that's actually shocking to each other. And
what happens on Friday and Saturday nights is a lot of people come out of the
bars late at night and they go to this place, and then it's a kind of crazy
free-for-all between the white mostly sort of yuppie north-side Chicago people
and the all-black staff working there. And so it's got this weird racial
component, and there are drunk people and it's just quite a scene.
GROSS: To give us a flavor of it, here's an excerpt of your TV version of the
story and you're talking to one of the employees who insults the customers.
(Soundbite of "This American Life")
Unidentified Woman #1: Well, here it is to go...(word censored by
Mr. GLASS: Was it easy to get into?
Woman #1: No, it wasn't easy at first, but then you know what? OK, let me
see how it started. I took an order and I think a guy said, `Hey, you
fat...(word censored by station)...let me get a hot dog.' Now, that's not my
speed. You know, I'm from the hood, so, `I fat? What?' I was just starting,
`Yo mama fat...(word censored by station)'...and it just started from there.
Woman #1: Tip the bucket if you want some fries.
Unidentified Woman #2: (Unintelligible).
Woman #1: Tip the bucket!
Unidentified Man: I did tip it!
Woman #1: You didn't tip it...(word censored by station).
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: And that's a clip from the TV version of "This American Life." Now, I
heard the radio story and the TV story, and they were done, I don't know,
what, like, 12 years apart or something...
Mr. GLASS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: ...and not only do you use the mediums, you know, in really
interesting ways, depending on--you know, TV for the TV version and radio for
the radio version, but your conclusions about what's going on there seem to be
a little different 12 years ago than they are for the TV version that you just
completed. Did your opinions of the place and what's going on there change?
Mr. GLASS: Yes. Yeah, they did. I mean, it's possible that it's just
gotten a lot harsher there in the last 12 years. That seems entirely
possible, and then part of it is, honestly, like, when you're standing there
with an audio tape recorder in the middle of this kind of melee, you focus on
a different kind of moment. Like, you end up doing these little micro-moments
with people on the sides, and there's a lot of, like, the customers talking to
the other customers and things like that. And there's something about seeing
the racist stuff being hurled back and forth, and it does get pretty racial
between the staff and the customers. There's something about seeing it--when
you see it, it just looks a lot harsher.
And so, I guess I'm saying, like, part of it it may have gotten worse, but
part of it really might be just the difference between radio and television.
It's so bare on TV how unbelievably disturbing it is, and truthfully, like, I
remembered it as being kind of harsh, but I remember it as being way sweeter,
like that there was something friendlier about it when I was there 12 years
ago and stayed there all night with a tape recorder. Going back with the
crew, we all felt diminished by the experience. We all just felt like we
really saw some things we wish we hadn't seen. It was...
GROSS: Yeah! I should say here that in the radio version, the one done 12
years ago, you talked about how it was kind of like theater and dinner, and
that how all the employees seemed to really actually like each other a lot and
enjoy the theatrical aspects of insulting the customers and being insulted in
return, enjoying that a lot more than just a kind of conventional fast food
job, and that there was a lot of genuine affection behind the scenes. And in
the TV version, you're basically thinking, `Boy, this is like Pandora's box.'
We're seeing--let people talk this way to each other and you see things you
really wish you hadn't seen.
Mr. GLASS: Yeah, and I think part of it is just the mix of personalities...
Mr. GLASS: ...and you know, it's different people, different staff, and it
just looked different to see it, like, to actually, like, have the camera in
the middle of it. It just bears witness in this way.
GROSS: Do you find that when you show up with a camera crew, that the
camera's presence and the crew's presence affects what's going on around you
in a way that, like, the radio microphone didn't, necessarily.
Mr. GLASS: Yeah, but I think it would be easy to exaggerate that.
Mr. GLASS: Like, in a certain way, people are so used to cameras and the
idea of a TV crew that you kind of know what you're in for, like, you know
what you're getting, you know what it is, you know how to relate to it if
you're somebody in a place and a camera crew shows up. Whereas, like, a
random guy with, like, a cassette recorder, you know what I mean? Just like,
you don't even know what it is, you know what I mean? It's so random that,
like, that can be a little weird. And then, you know, in the place where,
really, you know, a lot of a story gets built, which is in the interviews, the
same thing happens in the TV interviews that happens in the radio interviews,
which is, at the beginning, people can be a little self-conscious, but if
you're talking about something that actually is something that really means
something to them, you know, then it's easy to lose yourself in the
conversation, and they'll lose themselves in the conversation.
GROSS: My guest is Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of the public
radio program "This American Life." A new TV adaptation premiers on Showtime
March 22nd. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ira Glass and he's is about to
premiere the TV version of his public radio program "This American Life." The
TV version will premier on Showtime on March 22nd.
When you embarked on this, did you try to get advice from other people who'd
been in public radio who moved over to television permanently or temporarily?
And I mean, that includes Robert Krulwich, Deborah Amis, Cokie Roberts, Scott
Mr. GLASS: I mean, the only person I really talked to about it in a big way
was Krulwich. And Krulwich, you know, is such an amazing force on the radio.
He has such a distinctive style, and he has such a personality on the radio.
And he's so, like, funny and interesting and emotional, even when he's doing
sort of a science story. He's so noticeable as a reporter and has such a
queer voice. And then, on TV, he had figured out a way to do the same thing
at ABC. His TV work is so different from anybody else's.
And he said this thing which I, dude, totally haunted me, where he said that
on the radio, when you--once you get to a certain point of experience, you
know, a couple of years in and you know what you're doing, basically, you can
kind of make anything work, you know what I mean? Like, if you have a point
to make, you can generally make it. You can figure out a way to make it. And
if your interviewee doesn't totally give you the goods, well, then you sort of
paraphrase for them and you cut go back to them for another moment and
just--you can always kind of get your point across. You can work on the tape.
It's just a very flexible medium. And he said, TV, the thing about it that's
so weird is that you can do everything right--you know, you just--you set up
the whole thing right. You get story right. You get the quotes and all, and
some weird random thing will happen that will utterly kill it. And it could
be just something as small and subtle as at the key moment in the quote the
person breaks eye contact with the camera and looks away, and so suddenly, the
quote doesn't have the power it should. Or like some--the person doing it is
wearing some clothes that are distracting or there's something in background
of a shot that distracts at the key moment. And he just said, like, it's just
GROSS: And has that proved to be true?
Mr. GLASS: Oh, my God. Yeah, yeah. Totally. I mean, in the first story we
shot, there's this moment where--it's this story of this guy and he loves his
bull and the bull dies and then he brings--he basically brings it back to life
through cloning and then the clone tries to kill him. And we're at the
hospital and in the radio version--we made a radio version of this story
because we didn't know if the TV show would ever air, so we thought, like,
`This is a good story,' so we made a radio version and put it on the air. And
in it, there's this moment where the producer that I was with, Jane Feltes,
has this totally emotional moment where she describes what happened when this
bull tried to kill the guy. And her voice is shaking and it's this totally
gripping, effective moment of radio.
And when we went to get to the TV version, I was like, `Well, we've got to use
that, like, that's the emotional center of this scene, like, that's where you
feel the feeling of it.' And we put it together and then you see Jane standing
there, and she's this sort of 20-something from Chicago with a nose ring and
streaks in her hair and cute clothes, and you just think, like, `What's she
doing in Texas?' It just seems like--like you don't even--and she seems so
scared by what had happened but the rancher's wife seems sort of unconcerned
and then you think, `Well, maybe the city people just don't know what they're
talking about,' which wasn't true. I mean, he was in tremendous danger, he
did almost die. And I don't know, like, the fact of the way she looked
registered so randomly, the nose ring and all that, that your mind wandered at
what should be the emotional center of the story. And so we had to kill it.
We killed it.
And so instead, we sort of make that scene work differently, where you know,
we filmed on the way to the hospital, and you know, there's the drama of
getting to the hospital and him being wheeled out, and so you see him all beat
up. And there's a feeling to that, too, this guy who you spent the whole
story with, seeing him all messed up like that. So there was a way to cover
for it, but the fact that we couldn't use what was the most emotional piece of
tape in the story, it was just very strange.
GROSS: Why don't I just play--because we have a clip of it--the moment that
you're talking about that you couldn't use on television because of the
piercings and how incongruous she looked on this ranch.
(Soundbite of "This American Life")
Ms. JANE FELTES: I screamed and I didn't want to look at it, because I
thought he was going to like, kill him, you know? And I didn't want...
Mr. GLASS: What did you see? Like, what...
Ms. FELTES: I just saw him, like, fly up in the air, and then the bull--it
was loud. It seemed really loud because it was at the corner of the fence, so
he threw up up in the air and he landed, like, on the corner of the fence.
And then he's ramming him in the ground into the fence, so the fences are all
shaking and the bull's making all the noises.
Unidentified Woman #3: (Unintelligible)...horns.
Ms. FELTES: And it seems like the bull's going to break through the fences
after he's done killing him, you know what I mean? It just, it was very, very
loud, very, very fast.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: So that's the tape you couldn't use. Is it hard to let go of a good
moment when you really want it to work but you can't get it to work?
Mr. GLASS: Oh my God, yeah. I mean, that would happen a lot in all of these
very, very small...
Mr. GLASS: ...ways. But my job, since I was 19, on the radio, has been to
find really great moments of tape and figure out how to get those moments into
the story because those will have a lot of meaning and feeling. And so I feel
like that's all I know how to do, right? And so then I'd be in this situation
where it would be like, `This is really nice tape and it says so much about
her, and so there must be a way that we can get the good tape into the show,'
and we would put it in, it would just be like, it didn't--it just didn't work.
And it was so, like, crazy making and I would just feel like, `Is there
something wrong with me?' And then, at some point, as we got further into it,
like, I think I and the other producers on the radio show, we sort of learned
the rhythm of television. We learned that the pacing of a television story
and the way--because there are places where you can totally digress, and there
are places where you can totally, like, let a person talk, and you can have,
like, very, very lovely moments and funny moments. But they're completely
different places than on radio.
GROSS: Ira Glass is the host and executive producer of the public radio
program "This American Life." A TV adaptation of the program premieres on
Showtime March 22nd. Ira will be back in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Ira Glass, the host and
executive producer of the Peabody Award-winning public radio show "This
American Life." A new TV adaptation of the show premieres March 22nd on
Public radio people pride themselves on being able to create stories without
pictures. We've been talking about what it's like for a brilliant radio
producer like Ira to cross over to TV and have to start thinking visually.
There's a lot of times when radio producers close their eyes and just listen.
Like, if you're trying to see how, like, a film clip sounds, you might close
your eyes and just listen to the film clip to see if it would work on the
Mr. GLASS: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Do you feel, after a long period of kind of closing your eyes to do
your stories, that now you've, like, opened your eyes, and you're trying to,
like, see the world in a way that you've never looked at it before, because in
addition to just, like, listening now for your work, you have to see for your
work, too? So just in, like, your day-to-day life, are you seeing things that
you never paid attention to before?
Mr. GLASS: I wish that the answer to that would be yes...
GROSS: It's not, huh?
Mr. GLASS: ...because it's such interesting question and, like, no. I mean,
the place where it's true, where it is different, is when I watch television
Mr. GLASS: ...because now I notice all these things that I never would have
noticed before. I'm like, literally--I'll be sitting on the couch with my
wife and something will happen and I'll be like, `Oh, oh, oh, wow. Is that a
two-camera setup? ' And she'll be just like--she'll hit me, and she'll go,
`What do you--what's happened to you?' You know what I mean? Like, I'll
notice things, like, in the commercials where I'll be, like, `Wow, the
lighting on that. Like, well, how are they doing that? Like, what's the
light source on that?' You know, and again, in the past, it always--the only
annoying things I would do would be, like, I would get so obsessed with, like,
the music that plays underneath stuff, you know what I mean?
Mr. GLASS: Like, where, like, music is playing underneath something on TV or
in a movie, like, I become obsessed with that and would totally notice the
music entrance and like, you know, like with my wife, like, we'll be watching,
you know, the "Gilmore Girls," and one of the lousy music cues--they have
lousy music cues on that show--will come on, and I'll go like--she'll hear me
like take in my breath. She'll go like, `I know, honey. I know. The music.'
You know? I'm like--so that she was used to. But now there's a whole other
GROSS: Now, in addition to, like, doing this new TV show, you've also been
starting to work on movies. You're writing a screenplay, but you also have
this deal now with a movie company that they get first look, which means they
get to hear...
Mr. GLASS: Dibs.
GROSS: And--yeah, and...
Mr. GLASS: It's dibs. They get dibs.
GROSS: They get to hear or read "This American Life" stories and make a bid
to make a movie on it before anybody else does. And the first movie has been
made based on that process, and that movie came out before the holidays. It
was called "Unaccompanied Minors." And I just want to ask you a few things
about that adventure.
Mr. GLASS: Sure. Sure.
GROSS: And let's start with what the story was itself. It was based on a
"This American Life" story about children of divorced parents who, around
Christmas, are flown without adult supervision to the other parent. So...
Mr. GLASS: Right.
GROSS: ...if the mother has custody, Christmas, they're flying to see their
father. And this is a story about what happened one December 26th when the
kids were at the airport going back to the parent where they lived, and there
was such a bad snowstorm that all the flights were grounded, and the kids were
all kind of herded into a big room. So you had all these, like, children
without parents in this, like, big room together, and I want to play a short
excerpt of Susan Burton's story from "This American Life." So here she is
being escorted to the room with all the other children of divorced parents who
are stranded at the airport, and she's with her sister Betsy.
(Soundbite of "This American Life")
Ms. SUSAN BURTON: A second woman appeared and we followed her to a gray
unmarked door. She fumbled with her keys. I squeezed Betsy's hand. The door
opened onto a room packed with kids sitting on their winter jackets. There
were dozens of kids, all kinds of kids, some in small groups, the young ones
conversing with stuffed animals, others looking uncomfortable in dresses or
overheated in moon boots that had been too big to pack. Most of them were
facing a podium at the front of the room, as if they'd been dropped off at the
public library and were waiting for a reading by Shel Silverstein.
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: OK, so that scene, it's, like, kids look like they're waiting for a
reading by Shel Silverstein. But here's the movie version where, you know,
the kid in the movie is getting led into the room at the airport with all the
kids who are stranded...
Mr. GLASS: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: So here's the movie version.
Mr. GLASS: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Yeah.
(Soundbite of "Unaccompanied Minors")
Unidentified Actor #1: Where are we going?
Unidentified Actor #2: Somewhere really fun.
Unidentified Actor #3: Are we going to prison?
Actor #2: No. We're going to have fun with all the other kids who were
flying by themselves. Welcome to the unaccompanied minors room.
(Soundbite of music, screams)
(End of soundbite)
GROSS: And it's nothing but mayhem after that...
Mr. GLASS: Yes.
GROSS: ...with kids doing every kind of mischief known to man, which is
really, like, such a far departure from the story, from the radio story. So
could you see that coming, right away, that the movie version was going to be
so completely different than the radio version?
Mr. GLASS: Yes. And we actually embraced that. I mean, we didn't--you
know, we didn't think--it never occurred to us that this could be a movie and
producers came to us and said, like, `This could bee a comedy for kids based
on this premise,' and so we knew from the start that it would be very
different from Susan's story. Susan's story is a memoir, and it's wistful and
it's sad and it's written for adults. And you know, it's not targeted at
eight year olds. And so we knew that, you know, it was going to be a kids'
comedy and that the idea was that all these kids of divorce would end up in a
room together and then it would be Christmas and they would have an adventure
and they'd make Christmas together.
And truthfully, like, this is the kind of thing where there have been other
movies in this deal that we've been very, very active as a staff in trying to
make the movies happen and been very involved in the scriptwriting process and
in trying to, you know, see that certain stories get told a certain way. But
this is one where, really, somebody came to us and we felt like we had no
expertise about making a kids' film and we just said, like, `That seems good.'
You know, like, `Go with it. You guys do it.' And they got a director who we
really like, Paul Feig, who did "Freaks and Geeks," and we just felt like, you
know, go to it.
Though,there's an interesting story about "Unaccompanied Minors" and that is
that the movie version orginally was--it had, the script, the original script,
had way more divorce stuff in it. And this is something that would never
happen on the radio show. It had way more divorce stuff, and so there were
moments--for example, there's one moment in particular where the kids are sort
of like having their caper and sort of like trying to make Christmas, and they
round a corner and they're feeling like really triumphant, and, like, `We're
so happy and, like, divorce kids rule,' and they round a corner and they see,
like, a nuclear family, which is actually just sort of sitting on the floor
and the mom is caring for the kids and the dad is there with the kids and
they're having this really sweet moment, and the divorced kids totally come up
short and they stand there and they stare at it and they feel really, really
Mr. GLASS: And one of the studio executives basically said--once we were
into production--said he just thought, like, divorce was too much of a downer,
and could we please get more of the divorce out of the film. And like, and
this executive himself was divorced and had kids through the divorce, and you
know, just whatever, you know. And he just thought, like, he was reacting
from his heart, like, he would not want to go to that film with his kids, you
know what I mean? And then you, like, you don't even know what to say, like,
he's the boss, you know? And so I know the people, everybody working on the
film sort of tried to talk him out of it and say, like, `No, no, that's what's
going to be really great about this film, is it's going to be this romp but
with these, like, little emotional moments, you know? And look who you hired
for it, Paul Feig, the "Freaks and Geeks" guy, like, that's all that guy does.
That's his business. It's like funny, funny, funny, deeply sad. Funny,
funny, funny, deeply sad.' And so this thing that I think would have given the
film more emotional ballast--and I think really would have made it more
special. I mean, I think, I mean, I like the film, but it would have made it
more different and also something I think, like, divorced kids would treasure
a little more.
Mr. GLASS: Like, you know, like, in the end, it just couldn't survive.
GROSS: And you're writing, or have written, a screenplay now?
Mr. GLASS: Have written. Have written. Yeah. Then, this was this thing
where, under our deal--basically, our deal specified that if we spotted
anything that could be a movie, we had to alert the movie studio. And so a
friend of a friend had written this nonfiction book called "Urban Tribes" that
was about, basically, people who--people getting married later and later.
People get married much, much later than they did even 20 years ago. And in
the middle of this nonfiction book, there was the perfect plot of a romantic
comedy just sitting right there. And so I said to, you know, our studio
executives, `Hey, you guys should know about this. It's a very zeitgeisty
book about, you know, the way people in their 20s and 30s live today, and in
the middle of it there's a romantic comedy, like, a perfect romantic comedy
plot,' you know? And they said, `That sounds great.'
In fact--this was when we were at Warner Brothers, now we're at Dreamworks.
When we were at Warner Brothers, the executive who was our guy was this guy
named Kevin McCormick who--his whole early career was making very
of-the-moment films. His very first film was "Saturday Night Fever," which
came from an article in New York Magazine. And so when I saw "Urban Tribes,"
I thought, like, `Well, that's exactly what Kevin loves, is these things that
express, like, "This is a particular moment in time in our country."'
And the fact that it had a perfect romantic comedy plot where the guy--I mean,
in the book, Ethan Waters, the writer, basically, the book opens with his
girlfriend, like, he wants to go off with his friends on this thing they do
every year, and she wants him to come to her best friend's wedding. And she
can't understand, like, how his friends could be so important, and she
basically gives him this speech and says, like, `You people, you live like
children, like, you know, you're not leading an adult life, calling each other
50 times a day and sending each other e-mails and having bowling night and
dinner night together and all the things you do, like, you're not living like
an adult.' And eventually he has to choose between the friends and the girl
and it's a kind of a natural romantic comedy plot. And in the end, in the
book, he chooses the girl and, of course, in the movie, he would too.
And anyway, so we presented this to Kevin and Kevin was like, `Great' and
basically hooked us up with this director who did this film that I loved
called "Roger Dodger," and the director's name is Dylan Kidd. And so then,
like, it was just every weekend for just months, we would work on this thing.
And I got to say, like, it was really, really fun.
GROSS: Do you hear your dialogue differently as a result of it?
Mr. GLASS: Yeah, and I notice the conciseness of dialogue. Like, there are
moments in movies--like there's a moment--like it'll happen in the dumbest
movie, like I saw "Fantastic Four" in a hotel room and there was like a moment
where they have to get across the relationship of the two, of the man and the
woman, they're the couple, and they do it in like one phrase and a look, and
It's just like, wow, that's efficient. Or in "The Devil Wears Prada," there's
this moment where she comes back from the big party and it's the boyfriend's
birthday and they have to have the fight, and they do it in like one shot
where she walks in. She's got the cupcake, she's got the candle. He gives
her a look. He crosses to the other room, and you're like, `Wow, you could
not do that in fewer seconds, get across the feeling of the scene,' like, it's
so efficient, you know, and I never would have noticed that before writing a
GROSS: My guest is Ira Glass, the host and executive producer of "This
American Life." A new TV adaptation premieres on Showtime March 22nd. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ira Glass and he's starting a
TV version of his radio program "This American Life," and the TV version
premieres on Showtime on March 22nd.
You are so associated with public radio, I mean, as being, like, a person who
kind of created a whole new style in public radio and who's been in public
radio since you were a teenager. Now that you're spending more time in
television and in movies, do people ever make you feel like you're cheating on
a spouse by--you know, like, having an affair with another medium?
Mr. GLASS: Last thing you'd think, actually. Like, it's funny, because you
know, trying the TV show especially, like, we all on the staff of the radio
show, we're very worried about the people who like the radio show and if they
would feel betrayed and if they would, you know, if they would go with us.
And people have been surprisingly gracious, actually. I mean, maybe this is
just what they say to you if you're the on-air person, you know, I mean, like,
if they meet you, they just don't want to be, like, rude to your face, but
I've done now many, many, many public radio events in Chicago and in different
cities around the country and at different stations, and people have really
seemed to be curious about the TV show and to have an attitude of kind of
like, `Go get 'em.' You know, like, `Go win one for our team.'
And so people have been surprisingly forgiving, and we haven't had to get into
kind of a dumb sort of, like, `Which is better, TV or radio?' You're like,
well, `Which do you love more, you're like, who do you love more, TV or radio?
' Like, you know, that seems sort of like a--it seems silly. Like, they're
different mediums and they're good at different things and they can--the
farmer and the cowboy can be friends.
GROSS: Well, what are some of the TV and radio shows that you grew up with
and that were, you know, that were really important to you?
Mr. GLASS: I mean, the TV shows that were the most important were really,
like, corny shows like, I was a huge "Star Trek" fan when I was a kid. And
then, I mean, there was a period of, like, you know, comedies like "The Mary
Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family" and, like, "Mash" and just, like,
stuff that was sort of super-mega-hits that everybody liked. And then on the
radio, like, I didn't really listen to radio in any serious way until I was in
high school, and we didn't get public radio, like, we didn't listen to it, we
weren't a public radio family. I didn't hear of public radio until somebody
suggested I look for a job there, and so my hero when I was in high school was
a sort of a proto-shock jock in Baltimore named Jim Embrey, whose on-air name
was Johnny Walker, who did jokes and little news in the morning and did bits
all morning long and was really quite a force on WFBR 1300 AM. And my senior
year in high school, I sent him three pages of jokes, and he liked them, and
for that whole summer I would write him jokes. Every morning I would drive
down to WFBR and drop off a sheaf of jokes, then I could watch him do his
show, which was quite, quite exciting. And that was it.
If anything, like, the things that I think had more effect on me, like, it
would be like the melodrama of "Star Trek." I feel like I still carry a little
bit of that, like, I love that kind of, like, melodrama, and I feel like you
can definitely--that whole idea of what you're going to tell a drama and it's
going to be really dramatic and then it's going to reach for some big
universal idea which is so, like, at the heart of like our radio show and the
TV show. It's totally contained in the corniest nonsense on "Star Trek," and
then there's a writer who I like named Jane Espenson who does a blog, and she
writes for "Battlestar Galactica," and one of the things she says on her blog
is that generally, when you see the space ships, you know the big ideas are
about to follow. You know, like, they're in tow.
And then, the other thing that was a really big thing for me was just, like,
Broadway musicals. Like, I was a Jew growing up in the '60s and that's the
stuff that was playing in the house. And all that stuff has the kind of like
big dramatic like funny moments and emotional moments and reaching for a big
idea and you know, "Fiddler on the Roof" and "West Side Story" and all that
GROSS: I don't know how self-conscious you are as a person, but, you know, as
the producer of the TV version of "This American Life," you have to be looking
the video that you've shot of yourself introducing...
Mr. GLASS: I know.
GROSS: ...the show...
Mr. GLASS: Oh my God.
GROSS: ...being on camera...
Mr. GLASS: Oh my God.
GROSS: ... and you have to look at it critically as a producer and say,
`This works, this doesn't,' you know, `I look good in this, I don't look good
in that.' Looking at it as a producer, not as somebody just, like, looking in
a mirror. And I'm wondering if that exercise is making you any more or less
self-conscious as a person?
Mr. GLASS: It's making me, like, I know this isn't, like--it's making me
both. And it's interesting because when we got into TV, every time there was
a shot of me, I felt so self-conscious about it and thought--and I--and
thought I looked terrible, truthfully, and felt embarrassed for the way I
looked on camera.
And I know that this thing had happened with the radio show, which was, when I
started the radio show, I had always been, like my own editor, you know, I
mean, like if I was doing a story, you know, I was just a reporter on NPR, and
so I would edit my own tape and I would edit--you know, I would record my
script and I would edit out the bad takes and all. But you know, to do a
weekly show, you have to kind of be egoless about how you sound, and so other
people would edit the interviews and edit my voice tracks. And so I got used
to walking by other people's offices and my voice would be coming out of them
sounding terrible, you know, like, just saying stupid things and bad takes and
just whatever. And there came a point pretty early on when I just completely
got past that, where I didn't feel embarrassed and, in fact, my voice seemed
to me, on tape, to be just like an industrial product.
And I was just hoping, like, `God, I just hope that with the pictures, that's
going to happen.' And episode one came and went, episode two came and went,
episode three came and went. It was just like--because some day I'm going to
sit down with Chris the director and Joe the editor and we're going to look at
different takes of me sitting out on the salt flats and I'm at the desk and,
you know, and there I'm like, `Why did my mouth go like that?' and like,
`What? That's the way my hair really looks to other people and not the way
that I think it looks?'
And just like--and I'm watching this, and, like, by the fifth and sixth
episode, it was done. It was done. Like, I was dead to me. I was over
myself. Like, I--to me--it was just like, `You know what? I don't look that
good to me, but, like, I actually don't care anymore,' and on the radio, I
never had that great of a radio voice and now I'm used to that. And it's
like, that's the way it's going to be on the TV and I'm not going to think
about it anymore.
GROSS: Well, of course people love how you sound on the radio, and you look
great on TV, so congratulations on the new show and thanks so much for talking
with us about it.
Mr. GLASS: Oh, thanks so much for having me.
GROSS: Ira Glass is the host and executive producer of the public radio
program "This American Life." A TV adaptation of the program premieres on
Showtime March 22nd. To celebrate, Ira's taking the show on a performance
tour that begins tonight at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, continues
tomorrow at the Boston Opera House and goes on to Minneapolis, Chicago,
Seattle, and LA.
GROSS: Coming up, David Bianculli reviews the new TV series "The Black
Donnellys." This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Review: David Bianculli reviews NBC's "The Black Donnellys" from
Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco and finds it quite entertaining
TERRY GROSS, host:
Tonight on NBC, a new series arrives from Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, whose
most recent collaboration was the movie "Crash." But this time they're writing
for television and, as TV critic David Bianculli points out, it's not the
DAVID BIANCULLI reporting:
These days, Paul Haggis has a very impressive movie resume. He wrote, or
co-wrote the screenplays for "Million-Dollar Baby" and "Crash." But long
before that, he toiled in the vineyards of TV. I first noticed him as the
creator of the fabulously quirky CBS series "Due South," which starred Paul
Gross as a Royal Canadian Mountie located to Chicago. Then Haggis found a
collaborator in Bobby Moresco, and their first effort together was one of my
all-time favorite TV crime dramas, "EZ Streets," starring Ken Olin and Joe
Pantoliano. Now they're back writing a TV crime show again and I'm thrilled
to report it's very much in the "EZ Streets" vein.
"The Black Donnellys," like "EZ Streets," is about the power struggles between
rival mobs in a tough neighborhood. This time, the neighborhood is New York's
Hell's Kitchen and the setting is current, even though it evokes an earlier
era. The protagonists are the four brothers Donnelly, tough Irish guys who
never left the 'hood and seem destined to turn into hoods if they're not
careful. There's a hot-headed brother, a ladies' man, an inveterate gambler
and the responsible brother, who wants to keep his siblings out of trouble,
stay straight and win the heart of the neighborhood beauty he's had a crush on
since they were little kids.
These roles are all played by relative unknowns. Jonathan Tucker as the
responsible Tommy is the initial standout, and they're only part of a large,
impressive cast. There's also the neighborhood Irish mob boss and the nearby
Italian mob boss who's encroaching on the territory. All these factions are
struggling for power while the brothers are fighting either with them or with
each other. And the whole complicated story is narrated by a childhood friend
of the Donnelly brothers, an opportunistic guy with the memorable nickname of
Joey Ice Cream. In this case, Ice Cream is a flavor that adds greatly to the
storyline, as in this scene, when a silly confrontation between one of the
brothers, an Irish bartender, and his clientele turns into a Joey Ice Cream
observation on ethnic stereotypes.
(Soundbite "The Black Donnellys")
(Soundbite of loud noise)
Unidentified Actor #1: Hey, no banging on the machines!
Unidentified Actor #2: What? It took my money.
Actor #1: It's supposed to take your money.
Actor #2: You want to yell in my other ear?
Mr. KEITH NOBBS: (as Joey Ice Cream) The Irish have always been victims of
negative stereotyping. I mean, people think we're all drunks and brawlers.
And sometimes that gets you so mad all you want to do is get drunk and punch
(Soundbite of music)
(End of soundbite)
BIANCULLI: Could that funny remark by Joe Ice Cream, played very playfully by
Keith Nobbs, offend some viewers? Sure it could. So could some of the strong
violence in the show. I've seen five episodes, and they contain the most
intentionally casual outbreaks of brutality since "The Sopranos." But they
also contain other hallmarks of Paul Haggis's TV series, including an
against-the-grain use of music. Some of the most violent scenes are
accompanied by some of the most angelic singing and instrumentation. And
surprises that trip you up and take your breath away, even when you're on the
lookout for them.
Tonight's opening episode contains at least two of those. Combined, they
manage to echo everything from "The Usual Suspects" to The Godfather" while
remaining completely original. "The Black Donnellys" may not be an easy sell
for NBC. On-air promos don't do it justice, and it's the sort of television
that demands your full attention. When Joey Ice Cream says one thing while
the picture shows something else entirely, it's not the sort of TV show you
can watch while multitasking. Good guys, bad guys, seemingly fatal showdowns.
Nothing and no one in "The Black Donnellys" is precisely what it seems. All
that you can count on with certainty here is that you'll be very solidly
GROSS: David Bianculli is TV critic for the New York Daily News.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.