It’s very rare that you have anything resembling stardom in radio, and Ira Glass from This American Life is one of that select number. His nationally syndicated, genre-busting series of edgy stories from the ranks of ordinary Americans has transcended the definition of public radio, and the following is strong enough for there to be a kids movie based on one story premise and a new Showtime series adapting the show into television. The promotional tour, “What I Learned from Television,” came as close as Boston and this audio enthusiast was not going to miss it.
So how do you add video to an audio endeavor without destroying it? This was pretty much at the heart of the live show and an issue Ira still obviously struggles with, though his clear enthuasism for his work and this experiment is contagious. The event itself took place in Boston’s Opera House, a beautiful, ornately adorned building with echoes of European cathedrals and classical theaters — a setting more “high art” than edgy. Boston’s literati was in full force, with a collegiate crowd sporting Harvard blazers, gray-haired poetry professors, 20-something socialites, and a stunning variety of well dressed people in between.
The format of the live show was the same as any of Ira’s regular shows, with a special “act” exclusively for us at the live show. The theme of the night, “What I Learned from Television,” was supported by a cast of TAL regulars, including Sarah Vowell, Jonathan Goldstein, and Dan Savage.
Sarah Vowell started by deconstructing the use of pilgrims and Thanksgiving in television. While her nasally voice might turn off some, it’s unique hers and she delivers her writing with a bone dry wit that is electrifying, grim and terrible. Who knew that there was a short-lived series that made fun of the whole premise of Thanksgiving? We’ve all seen the Indians and turkeys, but maybe not thought too hard about this societal construct. There followed a gut-laughing treatise of the awkward friendship of Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble, and a closing narrative of the portrayals of homo and heterosexual relationships on the boob tube.? All readers were solid, though not the back-and-forth explorational interviews that make the radio show so compelling.
Between acts Ira stopped in for some editorializing and commentary on the television program. He was neither embarassed to admit his love for the OC or his esteem for modern television writing. Quite honestly, this is what we came for, and Ira delivered with class, wit, and measured levels of self-deprecating humor. The Showtime show looks great, and the candid conversation between Glass and director Chris Wilcha revealed some interesting perspectives on one of my favorite subjects, the artistic difference of audio and video+audio. I don’t really want to give anything away, but the show has a slight surrealist edge that lends itself well to the unbearably real stories This American Life is so famous for (check out the trailer for a taste).
Tied together with a live band (Mates of State) that fit the mood appropriately, “What I Learned from Television” was a great way to spend an evening with ample parts humor, artistic discussion, and social commentary. Though I still don’t own a TV, nor would I ever pay for cable, I’m excited for the Showtime efforts and hope the show makes it onto YouTube!