Ira Glass describes his roots this way: "The Baltimore I grew up in was generic suburban America, though very Jewish. All I wanted to do was to get to a place where people cared about something that was interesting. In high school I thought, 'I know there's something interesting in the world, but I'm not seeing it.' " On his popular, award-winning public radio show This American Life -- presented live this Friday at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts -- Glass has found it, and it turns out to be just around the corner from generic America.
Using documentary, found tape, fiction, and interviews, This American Life features stories, Glass says, "about people on the fringe of American society who are having experiences that are small and overlooked. Courtney Love -- she's busy. She doesn't need us and in a certain way we shouldn't have her, either. We need to sing America."
This American Life's San Francisco visit will be the second stop in what Glass hopes will become a modified version of Garrison Keillor's nonstop touring, with a live show in an American city every six months. Most of the time, though, Glass and co-producers Julie Snyder, Alix Spiegel, and Nancy Updike operate out of Chicago, at radio station WBEZ, where Glass has worked for over a decade. At 39, he's been in public radio for 20 years. Besides hosting NPR's Talk of the Nation and producing the viciously wistful essays of NPR commentator (and former Macy's Christmas elf) David Sedaris, he's known for his in-depth, multipart radio features, including a year spent in Chicago public schools ("It's really painful, spending hours and hours trying to figure out what's there when what you really want to do is go home") and profiles of Chicago gang members and a government worker whose sole responsibility was to collect dead animals. This American Life debuted in 1995; it went national in 1996. With its number of listeners doubling every six months, Glass calculates that "[i]n 2008, more people will be listening than will exist."
Like Seinfeld, This American Life is about all sorts of things under the guise of being about nothing. While its weekly "themes" -- "Poultry," "Getting Over It," "The Job That Takes Over Your Life," "Monogamy," "Canadians" -- are just an excuse for uniting segments the staff likes, This American Life's storytelling mode gives it all coherence. Glass favors the style Twin Peaks and Northern Exposure made popular. "These were stories about idiosyncratic characters that were meant to represent everyday life in some way," Glass says. "They weren't shocking big stories but gave very small pleasures, and part of the pleasure was these quirky unexplained moments. Most of the experiences we describe in the show have not been described elsewhere."
For a recent program with the quasi-18th-century title "Fiasco: A Philosophical Inquiry," contributing editor Jack Hitt tells Glass about a disastrous school production of Peter Pan. The horror begins when amateur flying-machine operators dunk Wendy and friends to the floor, then sweep them along like mops. As Bolero builds in the background, Glass ventures a theme: "Today on the program: what happens when greatness does not occur, when fumble leads to mishap leads to error and, before you know it, you have left the realm of ordinary mistake and chaos and have entered the more ethereal, specialized realm ... of fiasco."
For This American Life's 100th episode earlier this month, Glass identified radio's peculiar -- and rarely realized -- magic: blind intimacy with a single voice. "That feeling that we get together every week, you know, you and me. I mean, literally, that's what it feels like. It feels like you and me. You and me. Even though we don't know each other." All of the show's contributors speak naturally, plainly. But it's Glass who creates the program's aura of intimacy. His syntax is so conversational, his tone so meant-just-for-you, his take on things so available to listeners that, after he ran a piece about getting over an old girlfriend, women all over the country called and sent him little packages and e-mails -- invitations of all sorts -- every day for five weeks. "Did you get together with any of them?" I ask. "Two or three for drinks, but that was it," he says. "We didn't even kiss."
One striking example of the show's radical idea of story is the documentary Dan Gediman put together about his older brother, a Tom Jones impersonator. Too many commentators hold up such avatars of tacky innocence and poke them with an ironic pitchfork. But this time the story is soaked in the younger brother's pride and mortification. Gediman tells us that his brother has fronted bunches of bands now on the dump-heap of history; that an A&R rep from Atlantic Records told him he'd be the next Bruce Springsteen; and that now, at age 43, his night life in karaoke has cost him his day job, and he lives at home with his parents. When Gediman asks a roomful of office partiers, shrieking as his brother rips through "Without Love," "What do you think of him?" we have stopped caring about a good laugh or good taste. Like Gediman, we want "to hear that he was making them happy, that they loved him."
Ira Glass wants stories about "something [the tellers] haven't quite worked out." Years ago, as a reporter, Glass learned, "If there's something irrational pulling you, even something unconscious, just follow it until that thing that's pulling you -- that desire -- is gone, and then it will all become clear."
-- Apollinaire Scherr
Up Jumped Springtime. By various authors. Directed by Danny Scheie. Starring Colman Domingo, Brian Yates, and Da'Mon Vann. At Theater Rhinoceros, 2926 16th St. (at South Van Ness), through June 6. Call 861-5079.
Gay theater has created stereotypes of its own to wallow in, and finding a show that doesn't is rare. Up Jumped Springtime wallows, God knows, but it wallows with so much energy it mostly doesn't matter. The show is a series of skits drawn from stories by gay African-American writers, with a few interludes written by the players. The players are Da'Mon Vann, Brian Yates, and Colman Domingo (who portrayed Bayard Rustin in the intriguing and un-stereotypical Civil Sex last year). All three are polished, powerful artists; in fact if they were anything less the show would seem ordinary, because it includes a skit about the AIDS quilt, two skits about Schoolboys Realizing They're Gay, a skit or two with Drag Queens Putting on Attitude, and some Oprah-style chatter about identity. The whole thing is about Being Yourself, and the title comes from a Stan Getz song, which goes, "When up jumped springtime/ Love came on in."
One of the best segments, "A First Affair," shows a junior high school kid named William going over to Stacy's house for a party. Stacy is a boy with a yardwide 'fro who was kept back in school and beats up kids on the playground. ("Tell her next time, I'll cut her fucking balls off," he screeches at some bully.) Stacy fascinates, frightens, and eventually comes on to William, inviting him to a party that William goes to in spite of his God-fearing, mixing-spoon-wielding mother. The party introduces him to his first glimmerings of gay love, and it ends not so differently from the other highlight, "Jay's Story," about a young man coming out to his brother. The brother promises to keep Jay's sex life a secret but then kind-of-but-not-really tells their sister, who gossips the news until Jay's parents find out. Both skits are uproarious because of Brian Yates' wild, high-pitched performances as Stacy and the sister, respectively. He plays up the cliches until the material burns.
Also excellent is "Aunt Ida Pieces a Quilt," which has Colman Domingo fitting his huge, cut-figured self into the character of a bent old woman with glasses. Aunt Ida talks to an invisible guest as she sews a quilt for her nephew. The skit is subtle enough to keep us from thinking that her nephew died of AIDS until she mentions that she's sending her handiwork to a big exhibit in Washington, D.C. The payoff seems negligible after the entertaining job Domingo does with Ida; it winds up feeling like a commercial for the AIDS quilt. The show as a whole is like that: a few tendentious touches flaw what would otherwise be an evening of liberating, bitchy entertainment.
-- Michael Scott Moore