Among the 1.4 million individuals who regard him as an essential part of their weekend, This American Life host Ira Glass is officially famous: Since graduating from the tape-cutting room at an NPR station in Washington, D.C., where he began as a bumbling intern at age nineteen, Glass has become an almost heroic voice in the wilderness known as radioland. After taking to the airwaves in 1996, This American Life has spread to 420 stations and helped launch the careers of contributors including humorist David Sedaris. The show has also won a Peabody award and a Du-Pont Columbia award, and inspired Time magazine to anoint Glass "America's Best Radio Host" in 2002.Still, the 44-year-old Chicagoan in horn-rims is a realist when it comes to his place within the culture he covers so cleverly. "We're doing great, but let's face it: Most people have never heard of us," Glass says. "Howard Stern could crush us with the small of his smallest digit."
Stern may prevail over TAL in a ratings war, but he'd lose the battle of wits. Each week, the hour-long program is a series of packaged stories, both fiction and non-fiction, shaped more by odd and unusual characters and everyday happenings than by current events. Unlike its more stoic counterparts such as All Things Considered, This American Life isn't overly concerned with being newsy or topical; rather, its staff is obsessed with telling tales. A web of writers and producers contributes vignettes, commentaries, sound collages, poems, interviews and every other imaginable auditory experience, all linked by a weekly, if nebulous, theme. It's experimental, edgy...and it's given thousands of otherwise radio-weary listeners something to tune in to.
This week, the show gives Denver something to look at, as well. Glass comes to the Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, at 7 tonight for a live taping of This American Life. It's the last date in a short, and unusual, foray out of the studio that's put the Life-ers before live audiences in Boston, Portland, Washington, D.C., and Chicago. Glass's bookish entourage will include novelist and McSweeney's contributor Sarah Vowell, Found Magazine editor Davy Rothbart and TAL regular Jonathan Goldstein.
"It's not exactly like being on the road with the Rolling Stones," Glass says. "It's a bunch of nerds."
The lineup receives a boost of coolness from the presence of guitarist/songwriter Jon Langford, founder of the punk band the Mekons and current star of the Bloodshot Records alt-country label. And on the road, the writers indulge in narrative devices that don't work in the blind world of radio: During one segment, Glass and cartoonist Chris Ware (creator of the anti-comic series The Smartest Kid on Earth) will co-report a piece as Ware's images flash on a screen. Glass's bespectacled mug is also a big part of the show.
"At almost every live show, someone says to me how strange it is to see my voice coming out of my mouth," Glass says. "I have a tremendous amount of sympathy for that. When I first started cutting tape, I would spend all day in a tiny room, editing the voices of these commentators. When I'd hear them speak, it was like, 'How are you doing that? It sounds just like the recording.'
"Radio people are such a tiny subsegment of the subsegment of the media world," he says. "I feel like it would be like meeting people from Pixar. It's so weird and specialized. But most of the people we meet are like people we would be friends with; we just accidentally haven't yet met. They tend to be just like us."
Tickets to join the fun are $34 and can be purchased by calling 303-830-TIXS or 303-623-0103. This American Life airs Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. on KCFR/1340-AM, and Sundays at 4 p.m. on Boulder's KGNU/88.5-FM. -- Laura Bond
Gay activist's life staged
Humor, dementia, flashbacks, getting lost -- all are included in For Lenny and Me, a play based on the life and ideas of activist, writer and Denver resident Lenny Jaramillo. Jaramillo supported a wide range of humanitarian issues, from the protest of apartheid to support for people with AIDS. However, he is best remembered for his work in the gay Chicano community. He co-founded the Ambiente Latino support group and the non-profit La Gente Unida, and was a columnist for Out Front Colorado. Rather than focus on achievements, though, Lenny and Me explores Jaramillo's ideas and personality. It "captures the creativity of Lenny," says writer-director Donaciano Martinez.
Performances are at 2:30 and 4 today at the Mercury Cafe, 2199 California Street. Tickets are $5. -- Jonelle Wilkinson Seitz
Kathleen Madigan doesn't know why she walked onto an open-mike-night comedy stage in 1990. The former journalist's best guess is that she was young and stupid.Yet the St. Louis native has followed the standup trail farther than most Seinfeld wannabes. In appearances with David Letterman, Jay Leno and Conan O'Brien, she's displayed understated yet intelligent humor, including shrewd takes on political trouble spots.
From one stage, Madigan scoffed that she was unimpressed with footage of Taliban "training camps, aka the monkey bars. I could take those apart with a screwdriver. That's their army? I could be a colonel in that army."