Ira Glass, best known and adored as the creator and distinctive voice behind This American Life, is expanding his oeuvre. The long-running radio series now has six movies in production. The first is Sleepwalk with Me, based on comedian Mike Birbiglia’s autobiographical one-man show. We talked with co-writer and first-time film producer Glass prior to his appearance for the movie’s San Francisco premiere August 31.
How did your experience studying semiotics in college inform your work?
It completely changed everything for me and I use it every day in my job. Do you really want me to explain this? I totally can.
Semiotics is this body of narrative theory and what it’s interested in is not the old school, traditional literary theories like “What is the author’s intent? What are the themes? What does it say about the author’s life?” It has no interest in that. what semiotics is interested in is how does a story get its hooks into us and keep us watching, listening, reading, whatever. What’s keeping us moving forward? And when a story ends and is satisfying, what makes it satisfying? What does it consist of and how is that produced? And so there are all these kinds of tricks and ways of thinking about the structure of a story that I learned in college that I use all the time. The action itself can create suspense.
One of the things I learned as a young semiotics nerd was that if you have plot moving forward, no matter how banal the facts of it, simply the fact that the plot is rolling forward makes you wonder what’s going to happen next, which creates suspense. So you can control peoples’ attention simply by having things move forward in a story. That’s why when we start [This American Life] we just start with some anecdote, a story. Because I feel like it pulls people in better than listing what’s coming in the upcoming hour.
In “On storytelling,” there’s a blurb that was taken out of it and which made the rounds on the Internet for a while, where you talk about how you have to have patience to allow your practice to catch up to your taste. You start out with great taste but lousy practice …That video series was insane; somebody showed up one day from Current TV, I think, and wanted to do these training tapes for people on how to tell a story and was like, “Talk!” So I did, and I feel like I’m more famous for those videos than I am for my actual work.
That happens I guess. Well, you used this audio clip of your reporting from when you were about 28 and there is some obvious roughness to it, strange vocal inflections …
And the writing is terrible and the structure of it is terrible and the entire thinking through of how to do it is terrible. Not just the execution, the premise. (continue reading)