November 07

This American Life and the Illusion of No Illusion

Mark Oppenheimer

One winter a few years back, my wife and I went to see Ira Glass, the host of the radio show This American Life, perform at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut. It was not a live production of This American Life, but rather an evening with Ira Glass—it may even have been billed as An Evening with Ira Glass—and it involved Glass’s sitting on the stage in front of a soundboard, talking about what it is that he does, how his show works, what he’s going for. He would occasionally punch a button or turn a dial to play a particular snatch of a segment from an old episode. It was an hour and a half spent listening to one man who was sitting on a stage, in front of what looked like a keyboard, with a soft spotlight on him, speaking of the magic of radio and occasionally playing audio that perfectly made his point.

All of liberal, culture-vulture New Haven was there: the non-profit administrators, the clinical professors from the law school, those who vigorously opposed the Iraq War and Wal-Mart, those who try to shop locally. In the audience that night were at least a few dozen fans of “alt-country” but not one fan of the popular, NASCAR-country kind of country; a few dozen subscribers to a community-supported-agriculture farm; and many adults who as children had listened to the record Free to Be, You and Me. These were my people, and they sat rapt at the feet of the man who since the firing of Morning Edition’s Bob Edwards is the cultural figure that a certain segment of educated America can most easily agree to love.

Why was I not rapt? Why did I feel so uncomfortable with the unanimous adoration, the gasps at his wise and funny pronuciamentos, the general assent in the room that this hipster-bespectacled, Kermit-voiced Jew from Baltimore was a cultural treasure? Here’s a better question: Why, walking afterward from the Shubert to the parking lot a block away, did I feel the need to harsh on my wife’s flush-faced, post-Ira glow by being so contrary?

Here, as best as I can remember, is what I said:

“I mean, look, I recognize that the guy has talent, and that was pretty enjoyable. But have you noticed that there are no ideas in his ideas? He lets people talk, he edits it well, he makes it entertaining, but there’s nothing remotely intellectual about it. And so he gets people happy in the same way that Garrison Keillor gets people happy with his Midwestern-minstrelsy shtick, in that NPR-middlebrow way, where the audience thinks it has just had some sort of cultural experience. And they’ve been voyeurs of some sort, but I guess I just like having ideas in play, not just narrative. He seems to resist ideas;it’s all narrative. Which, as I say, is good enough as far as it goes, but it’s just so predictable how all these lefties fall over themselves loving him.”

Why would anyone marry the man who said that? Why had my wife?

In any event, she had the perfect reply: “Look, I really had a wonderful time. Why would you want to ruin it for me?”

I felt suitably low.

I hadn’t wanted to ruin her night of Glassolalia. I had spent the previous couple weeks giving myself speeches about how I wouldn’t ruin the night for her. “Just let her enjoy it,” I had told myself, over and over again. “Just bite your tongue.” But when the time came, I had not bitten my tongue. It would be too kind to say I was incapable of holding back; I was capable, but my will was weak, and I convinced myself there was some imperative to setting straight my wife—and the whole world, whoever would listen—on the matter of Ira Glass.

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I admit: if you like radio, you have to admire how Glass has breathed new life and personality into the art form, how his interviews with and documentary segments about unfamous, unimportant people have made such obviously good use of this homely, intimate, person-sized medium that it’s impossible to believe that no one had done anything like this show before 1998. If you don’t like radio, you might still like This American Life.

But if it’s dishonest to hate Ira Glass, it’s simpleminded to praise him uncritically. The critical reaction to Glass has been uniformly positive, in a way that should rouse our suspicions. There’s never been a proper profile published of Glass, the kind that would turn up bad debts or jilted lovers; for negativity aimed at Glass one has to rely on anonymous web chatter, or turn to The Onion, which in April ran this headline: THIS AMERICAN LIFE COMPLETES DOCUMENTATION OF LIBERAL, UPPER-MIDDLE-CLASS EXISTENCE.

More mainstream media have expressed no such reservations, and certainly no trace of wit or irony, in writing about Glass. In a 1999 article by Marshall Sella, The New York Times set the adulatory standard that has been followed ever since. I confess that the only part of Sella’s article I really liked was the headline: IRA GLASS IS, UM (PAUSE, DELETE)…LISTENING: THE PERFECTLY EDITED WORLD OF HIS ‘AMERICAN LIFE.’ In that headline (which Sella probably did not write) one finds hints of a mischievous, critical edge that is entirely missing from the article itself. Surely, I’m not the only listener who has felt in their gut: the “I’m right here with you, being myself” is not so perfectly polished that we don’t see the Windex streaks. Sometimes his folksiness is too obviously an act.

I would add that it’s not Glass’s act alone, and it wasn’t even his act to begin with. For two decades now, public radio has been divided between two affects: the perfectly modulated American version of the King’s English practiced by the Morning Edition and All Things Considered readers, especially Bob Edwards and Robert Siegel; and the intentionally slipshod, casually ungrammatical, “I’m just like you” warmth of Terry Gross and a host of local imitators (here in Connecticut we have Faith Middleton, known caustically as Faith Middlebrow, patroness of local authors and farmers’ markets, whose every Wednesday show is dedicated to “The Food Schmooze”).

Both affects can co-exist for one fan base because neither destroys the pretension of demotic, warm intimacy. News readers are, after all, allowed to have perfect diction and refined pronunciation—they’re reading from scripts, they’ve practiced ahead of time, and so they speak the way we all hope we’d speak if given the time. In other words, they’re not being snooty, just professional. Terry Gross, however, being the host of an interview show, and going for a spontaneous, unscripted vibe, would seem uppity if she spoke with the same correctness with which Robert Siegel reads the news and conducts his shorter, less freewheeling interviews. And so Gross says “like” and “um” more frequently than my teenage cousins.

There is a middle ground, and it’s occupied by interviewers like Tom Ashbrook, Neil Conan, and Leonard Lopate, all of whom are conversational without ever sounding juvenile. The price they all pay, however, is that some people find such correctness mated with such obvious intelligence to be condescending. The United States is no longer a country that allows its presidents to sound patrician, like Franklin D. Roosevelt, or its movie actors to sound like students of elocution, like Spencer Tracy or Cary Grant. The worst route to popularity today is to sound too knowing, and it is that knowingness that Ira Glass avoids at all costs. Every swallow, gulp, “um,” “like,” and lengthy pause is scripted to make him seem more likeably human, perhaps corny but, unlike Garrison Keillor, never cornball. Glass’s persona is halting yet at the same time supremely confident, and with it he combines hip and earnest—Elliot Smith and Walter Cronkite, the Upright Citizens Brigade and Johnny Carson—better than any other performer in America.

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In ascribing to Glass some measure of artifice, I’m not being cynical. Glass is very frank in the Times Magazine article about how hard he works to create the illusion of no illusion: scripting a humorous sketch for a pledge break, Glass asks at one point, “Does the ‘um’ work?” In the Shubert Theater performance that I saw, Glass proudly demonstrated how a particular fade-in of music can add gravity to the lines he’s reading. Glass spent twenty years in radio before inventing This American Life, and he’s a sure hand with these tricks of the trade.

Even so, listening to very early episodes of This American Life, which from its birth in 1995 until April 1996 was broadcast as Your Radio Playhouse, one can hear the Glass-in-formation, the pre-Glass, the as-not-yet Glass. There’s a laugh in the opening seconds of the first show that sounds, well, forced—a perception Glass never gives in later episodes, even when he is being very forced. Glass had the act down perfectly by about the fourth episode, “Vacations.” Weirdly, the intro to “Vacations” has been redubbed for the podcast you can now find online: Glass says, “From WBEZ in Chicago, it’s This American Life, I’m Ira Glass”—but in the shows broadcast the weeks before and after, Glass calls the show Your Radio Playhouse. Go figure. It’s almost as if Glass wanted his first perfect episode, and “Vacations” is as good as any episode he’s ever done, to carry the name of the show people came to associate with radio as good as “Vacations.” Then again, maybe “Vacations” was recorded after Glass et al. had decided to change the name but broadcast earlier than shows still made as Your Radio Playhouse. Whichever it is, “Vacations” marks a shift: it’s the episode in which the This American Life formula, and Glass’s patter, finally click.

The contrived (though totally winning) world of This American Life depends on a perfect marriage of form and content. The form is provided by the three-act structure, Glass’s pause-swallow-um, the perfectly selected music (I didn’t know Stevie Wonder’s sublime Mistra Know-It-All until I heard it at the conclusion of an act on This American Life), and the rest of the radio architecture that Glass and his crew have mastered so well. The content, however, is a bit harder to pin down. Certainly there is an emphasis on the little people, non-celebrities. But it’s not quite the kind of relentless emphasis on the common man and woman for which, says, Studs Terkel or Joeseph Mitchell is celebrated. After all, there’s a heavy dose of David Sedaris, Dan Savage, Sarah Vowell, and others who if they weren’t celebrities when Glass first featured their monologues are fairly celebrated now.

So what is the content, often produced by celebrity contributors, that speaks so directly to people? Is it what The Onion says, a “documentation of liberal, upper-middle-class existence”? Actually, The Onion gets it exactly wrong. Very few of the stories are about the liberal, upper-middle class. Rather, they are stories pitched to the liberal upper-middle class.

It was not The Onion but Summer, Seth Cohen’s girlfriend on the television show The O.C., who got it right when she said, “This American Life? Is that that show by those hipster know-it-alls who talk about how fascinating ordinary people are?” Yes, that is This American Life. Whether it’s allowing those ordinary people to speak in their own words about how fascinating they are or the very arch Dan Savage telling us in his hip, funny way about, say, the street kid whose baby Savage and his gay partner adopted, there is a relentless inspection of ordinary people, an attempt to plumb their workaday lives for moments of universal interest. And there is a concomitant effort by many of the celebrity contributors to appear ordinary, if only for a moment. Sedaris’s stories, in particular, always tend to rely on the kind of absurd moments that can only happen to non-celebrities, like being taken for a Frenchman by American tourists in a Paris subway. In fact, what Sedaris never tells me about, in his monologues or essays, is precisely the kind of thing I want to know from celebrities: Did you meet anyone cool? How much money do you make? Have you used your celebrity to get laid? Those are the kind of revelations that would never, ever occur on This American Life.

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It’s fine, of course, that on this radio show celebrity is prohibited; after all, far too much of American media culture is devoted to documenting people who seem to be famous just for being famous. It’s a small, ironic price to pay, but a price nonetheless, that This American Life actually has contributors whose lives as famous or well accomplished people are worth documenting yet their show enforces the artifice that for one hour a week we’re all just small-town Americans. New Yorkers and Chicagoans are made over into slightly edgier Lake Wobegoners. Yet admirably self-deprecating like Lake Wobegoners, too: I learned about the dig at This American Life on The O.C. from, of all people, Ira Glass himself, who as an O.C. fan was so tickled that he quoted Summer’s remark on his show.

What does bother me is that we already have a show that celebrates Lake Wobegone, and it happens to be a show that I hate. This American Life is a far better celebration of the small and pointillist in American life, but it retains one feature of Garrison Keillor’s small-town Americana that I find abhorrent, and that is his aversion to the cerebral. In their concern not to seem too NPR-ish (This American Life is not produced by NPR, but you get the idea), Keillor and Glass both keep desperately away from big ideas. “Don’t be bookish,” you can hear the producers thinking in their heads. “That will seem too New York, or Chicago, or Ivy League, or Jewish. And what we’re going for is American.”

To take just one example: the episode “Pray,” first aired in March 2000. Alix Spiegel files a story from Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Pastor Ted Haggard (later known for his enjoyment of a gay escort’s services) is trying to have his congregation systematically pray for every person in the city. It’s a great story, which Spiegel found at a time when few reporters had paid any attention to Haggard, a rising evangelical star. But when she quotes evangelical Christians using mysterious language that she doesn’t understand, like “spiritual dynamics” and “truing your walk,” she never defines the terms or seems even to care what they mean—because the whole point, after all, is to show this strange corner of American life, not to explain it, or investigate it, or teach people about it. That’s for the Times and All Things Considered. She’s just the naïve ingénue, uttering lines like, “I come from a family of non-religious Jews…and while I know some devout Christians, all of my friends belong to the America that never goes to church on Sunday.” As if that’s something one might quickly overcome, rather than an extraordinary debility for a reporter (all of her friends?). One gets the sense that Spiegel could have parachuted into Vietnam in 1970, asked the villagers about their innovative rice-farming techniques, then hitchhiked to safety, neglecting to ask where all the men in the village had gone.

Spiegel’s story deteriorates into a rather touched otherworldliness. For example, while in Colorado Springs she has trouble sleeping, and it turns out that one of the Christians she’s met has been praying for her to suffer insomnia until she comes to Jesus. But that’s the kind of fortunate happening that every long-form journalist prays for: the plot twist that makes non-fiction read like fiction. It’s perfect for Ira Glass, who wants from his radio pieces precisely what I want in the long magazine articles I write: truth with a narrative arc. He and his reporters are marvelously adept at getting that narrative. They’re so adept that I get annoyed—partly because I’m jealous, and partly because I’m dubious. Sometimes, I am sure, they cheat with the narrative, if only a little. Just small changes of emphasis, no outright lies, just to improve the rhythm of the story.

And that’s okay. That’s okay because This American Life has become part of that other public-radio pantheon, the one that comprises not Morning Edition and overnight broadcasts of the BBC, but Prairie Home Companion and Terry Gross and Car Talk—which, you may not know, is made up of numerous segments taped at various times during the week and carefully edited into the marvelously tight hour that we laugh to on Sunday mornings. It’s the public radio of likes and ums, the one that allows us not to turn our brains off but to turn down their wattage a bit, as if there were a computer status between “Sleep” and fully awake. Maybe we’d call it “Drowsy.” And in Drowsy mode, we listen to stories with voices that are halting and a bit geeky, not unlike our own; we hear local folklore delivered in regional accents; and at the end we go to sleep, untroubled by the nagging complexities of experts or new, undigested knowledge.

It might be a grand literature, this thing we hear at night with the lights off or in the car with the engine idling. It is not, however, journalism, and it can be anti-intellectual in a way that I mourn. Ira Glass has all the right instincts. When I saw him speak in New Haven, he named Howard Stern as a man he admired (a claim he has repeated elsewhere). The audience gasped, of course, but I understood why Glass loves Stern: because they are both superb entertainers. It’s not easy to keep people rapt without bells or lights, and both men know how to hold people in a low-tech but entirely compelling way. But there’s an important difference I can’t get out of my mind, and to explain it I’ll just reminisce about my favorite bit of Howard Stern radio.

On the day of the Million Man March in 1995, Stern sent one of his cast to Washington to interview participants. And that man—I think it was Stuttering John, but I don’t remember for sure—got on tape members of the Five Percent Nation, a radical Nation of Islam splinter group, saying unbelievably stupid things. They were spouting numerology, bizarre conspiracy theories, all manner of blather—and Stern broadcast the tapes and just ridiculed the Five Percenters. It was funny, and it was cruel, and it was the kind of jagged, pain-causing shard of American life that usually has no place in the aesthetic of This American Life.

There are exceptions, like the 2006 episode of This American Life, “Habeas, Schmabeas,” a funny and horrifying documentary about the detainees at Guantanamo Bay. Glass’s two episodes on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been exceptions, too. Those exceptions—and they are becoming more frequent, come to think of it—prove that Glass, who makes radio that is so entertaining, and so moving, can make radio that is tough and assertive, too. Give me more episodes like that and I’ll forgive the coy everyman artifice, and just be grateful for this humungous talent working among us.


Images from top: Statue of Liberty Amulet 2, Manhattan Bridge Amulet 1 and Empire State Building Amulet by Yona Verwer from her Amulets For Buildings on the Terror Watch List series.


Mark Oppenheimer writes for The New York Times Magazine and is a senior book critic for The Forward. He hosts Castaway, a regular podcast at