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Can Ira Glass’s quirky radio show This American Life make the transition to Showtime?

By Ken Parish Perkins

As geeks go, Ira Glass is a beaut, a bespectacled connoisseur of hipster nerdology who doesn’t come close to thinking like you and me, simply because he isn’t like you and me. His brain flows along a different wavelength in some other parallel universe and, usually, at a much quirkier clip.

For instance, stories filed for This American Life, the exquisitely offbeat and popular public-radio program that he co-owns with Chicago Public Radio and hosts with acerbic dryness, wit, and humor, are nuggets of ordinary simplicity made extraordinary by how they’re thought through, approached, reported, delivered, and agonized over. Whether it’s presenting the story of a 70-year-old bungee jumper or of a five-year-old uncle, This American Life has proven to be an anomaly of creative freshness, even on public radio, where there’s far more wiggle room than on commercial radio to unearth and nurture an authoritatively original, if a bit crackly, voice.

With a splendid body of work, he’s mastered this tiny part of the radio universe, so the fact that a restless Glass, now 48, is looking for a wider playground shouldn’t come as a jolt. What might be a surprise is that the playground is television, a parasite of a medium with a proven ability to suck the creative juices right out of your skull. Some radio purists are already whispering, “Is he crossing to the dark side?”

“We’ve certainly pondered that quagmire,” confesses Glass, who works out of Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. “Yet here we are, with our brains intact.”

Indeed, This American Life, which aired last month on Showtime, is a lot like its radio version, but with pictures. It offers a cinematic style that’s a throwback to old-school television; it’s as if contemporary documentary style hooked up with The Twilight Zone. Narrator Glass is heard and seen at the beginning of each story, when he appears in some unnamed place, sitting at a desk, a microphone on his right and a coffee mug on his left. It could be that he’s in a cow pasture or in the salt flats of Utah or near nuclear cooling towers in Pennsylvania or on top of a snowcapped mountain in Colorado — it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the story. Or does it?

Symbolism and impressionism are what This American Life thrives on and what Glass, who majored in semiotics (the study of signs and symbols and of how meaning is constructed and understood, if you’re wondering) at Brown University, is about, too, which is what makes him so irresistible to both the part of the intelligentsia who are convinced he’s wacky and the part who fancy him as an honorary member of their genius clique.

Nearly 1.7 million listeners on more than 500 stations tune in to the radio show each week, hoping to get their fill of unusual stories that often orbit themes like reality checks and growth spurts. It’s this loyal group that’s unsure of whether This American Life should birth a TV baby — and if it does, what should it look like? Glass wasn’t certain either.

“Part of the power of radio comes from the invisibility,” says Glass, dressed in a black suit, a black tie, a white shirt, and dark horn-rimmed glasses, as though he’s just arrived from a funeral. “There’s just something more powerful about hearing somebody talk in that radio darkness, where you don’t see them. They can be a sort of numinous, mythic figure in a way that they can never really be on television. And we have to give that up.”

Glass and Chris Wilcha, his director and coexecutive producer, wanted the photography on the TV version to be as intriguing as the show’s sound, music, and voices. They shot with one camera, as opposed to 10, to allow a certain level of intimacy. Having sounded different from everything else on the radio, This American Life now needed to look different. It does.

“To turn the radio show into a television show, we could have just put people into a studio and filmed them telling their stories,” says Wilcha, a filmmaker whose documentary The Target Shoots First was a festival-circuit hit. “But it felt like that wasn’t ambitious enough. It felt like that wouldn’t be exploiting everything you can do with pictures to the degree we wanted. We wanted pictures to be part of telling the story.”

Some stories prove more difficult to do with visuals, like the interesting short story about a girl who peed on the bus in grade school. Yet others, including one about a senior citizen trying to get her film into the Sundance Film Festival, one about a cloned bull and the man who tried to love him, and one about people offering their organs via Craigs­list, fit right in.

Still other stories, like the one in which a man buys a tombstone to announce the “deaths” of his living sons after having a fight with them over money, were initially produced for television but then were shifted to radio. The cemetery wouldn’t let them film, and the tombstone buyer refused to be on camera. (The man, says Glass, was sure that he would “pull a Jerry Springer.”)

Whether the TV version will win over radio loyalists is unknown, though not for Glass, who is convinced that “they’ll see that we’re not doing this because we thought we would get rich or famous, but that we just thought it would be cool to work with pictures — to see if we could come up with something visual that has the same emotional appeal of the stories we love.”

As for the purists who are upset that their hero has crossed over to the dark side, “I wish that I could engender that kind of hate,” Glass says, laughing. “That would be so flattering.”