Guiding light: Ira Glass takes listeners behind the scenes Friday.
Guiding light: Ira Glass takes listeners behind the scenes Friday.

Glass Work

Ira Glass is prepared to disappoint you. On the street, in the grocery store, at a restaurant, the witty, stuttering, guffawing, nasally, dorky, much-loved host of This American Life knows that he cannot live up to the expectations people have for him. Nobody can. They're not real. They're his show's listeners' perceptions of the image he projects on air. Whether he's introducing a new story by David Sedaris, interviewing some interesting person he discovered or using a personal anecdote to uncover a universal truth like This American Life's devotees are so used to having delivered weekly via their radio speakers, Glass is also revealing himself piece by piece in his trademark candid, conversational (though well-tuned in advance) style. He longs to be the shiny, exciting, well-spoken person fans have created in their heads. Without a script and a talented crew of producers, no one can be that good. But it's this just-between-you-and-me way of speaking he uses that drives those calculations of what he's like away from the mike. He sounds like he just turned on a recorder and started talking. He sounds like he's wingin' it. He sounds like a really funny guy sitting at a bar, telling a story you'll repeat to friends for weeks.

But there's one thing that Ira Glass does better than anyone else. The real Ira Glass. The 24-hour, 365-day Ira Glass. He does This American Life. Or, rather, he lives This American Life. (Part of the myth of Ira Glass is that he once forgot to pay rent for four months in a row because it just slipped his mind.) His nearly 8-year-old creation has featured everything from disastrous community theater productions of Peter Pan to police officers attempting to capture a squirrel in an attic to a September 21, 2001, show that in one hour told five stories the networks never would have covered, including humorist David Sedaris reporting from France as a different kind of American in Paris. But it's still hard to sum up what This American Life is. Factually, it's a radio show produced in Chicago for Public Radio International and broadcast locally on KERA that covers breaking news, personal monologues, old memories, reflections and wacky occurrences. Basically, it's storytelling. But really it's so much more. Listeners feel a connection, not just to Glass but to regular contributors such as Sedaris, Sarah Vowell and David Rakoff, and this affection drives an estimated 1.6 million people to listen to This American Life on 450 public radio stations across the country.

But here's one situation out of the studio and in the real world where Glass won't disappoint. During a KERA-hosted event called Lies, Sissies and Fiascoes, Glass will not only talk about his show in general, but also put an episode together live from the stage of the Fort Worth Convention Center. He'll give his fans a peek behind the wizard's curtain by naming the "13 guiding principles" that shape each week's show and then demonstrate how he, his staff and his contributors apply them, combining the different narratives (or acts, as they're fittingly called), music, introductions, segues and conclusions that fuse into a greater theme such as "Poultry Slam '03" or "Your Dream, My Nightmare." The latter of which could be Glass' take on this evening, if only the fondness of This American Life weren't mutual.


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