This Sunday, This American Life host Ira Glass visits the State Theatre for the latest stop on his "One Radio Host, Two Dancers" tour. It's exactly as it sounds: Ira's endearing brand of storytelling brought to life by the radio host himself, plus two (unironic!) backup dancers. So what does the Chicago radio man think of our great state? Read on.
You once co-produced an episode of This American Life that dug into the hidden history of the Dakota Indians in Minnesota. What insight did it give you, if any, into our conflicted Minnesota personality?
It was a reporter from Mankato, John Biewen, who pitched that story and did such a beautiful job with it, and what was most interesting to me was his feeling that "I think maybe I should feel bad about this part of my history but really, I don't know much about it." That's something that lots of Americans feel about our country's broken treaties and shameful past with Native Americans, of course, but I think in Minnesota you encounter a very pure version of it because the history really was suppressed. Like, as an act of state policy. Mary Wingerd's great book North Country
documents this. At some point everyone stopped talking about the Dakota Wars because they thought it would scare off new settlers from moving in. As a result, these huge historical events—much of that war—happened all around John's hometown but it was barely mentioned when he was a kid. That's weird. And not the way it is everywhere else. If anything, other parts of the country fetishize any little bits of history they can document.
What's the most Minnesotan thing about you?
Duh: the fact that I work in public radio. Isn't that, like, the biggest employer in the state? Seriously, there's no place in the country where public radio is held so dear or listened to so widely or such a cultural force. I wish my local public radio station had a news operation the size of MPR’s, or a local music channel as great as The Current. And in general, the sensibility of public radio everywhere, all over America, seems very Minnesotan to me. It wants the best for all concerned. It doesn't raise its voice around strangers. It's nice. There's a disproportionate number of white people.
It’s true! You’re in the land of Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, the godfather of public radio variety shows. Are you a Prairie Home Companion listener?
I admire his show. One of my favorite things that's happened to me in radio just happened this last year when he invited me onto the program. It's amazing to see them rehearse and change the show over the course of a Saturday to prep it for air. The actors, the musicians, Mr. K: they're all so nimble in making adjustments and—I thought—astonishingly ruthless about chucking out stuff they don't think is working. Watching them make the show is as good a show as the show itself. They should sell tickets to that. Or film it before Mr. K retires. It's fun to watch.
I’m curious as to how "One Radio Host, Two Dancers" came together. What did the pitch sound like?
Ha. There was no pitch. If we had to pitch it to someone, how would the answer have been “yes”? It's an utterly ridiculous idea for a show. My co-conspirators Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass and I just thought it would be fun, and we started making the show. They'd been in this thing we did in May 2012, where we performed an episode of the radio show onstage and beamed it into movie theaters around the country. They danced, and choreographed a dance for one of our writers, David Rakoff. Afterwards, we tried to figure out a way to keep working together. I had this feeling that their sensibility was exactly the sensibility of the radio show, but without any words. It seemed like we should be able to cook something up.
What’s your favorite music to dance to right now?
Ylvis's “What Does the Fox Say?” Not that we use that song in our show. That song is genius. And maybe because I spend so much time with dancers now, I've done this thing with that fantastic video
that I've never done in my life: stared at it trying to learn the little dance moves they do. Fortunately, they're pretty easy.
What’s the last thing that made you laugh out loud?
One of my producers Sarah Koenig and her mom in the studio today, recording something for this week's show. This week's radio show KILLS and it's so sad for me because I'm barely on it. Sarah's guest-hosting because the whole episode is about her and her mom and just like the last time she guest-hosted—a show on coincidences—Sarah’s kicking my host-y ass with her excellence. Damn her with her talent!
Finally, America needs to know: How many pairs of glasses do you own?
One. I own the pair I wear every day. Every eight or ten years I get new lenses, when I'm at the point where they're so scratched up even someone as oblivious as me has to admit I can't see through them. I've replaced the frames once since 1990. Suddenly as I type these words the thought is occurring to me that maybe this is weird. Is this weird? Do people who wear glasses own more than one pair?
"Ira Glass: One Radio Host, Two Dancers" shows at the State Theatre this Sunday, Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. Tickets available online, by phone (1-800-982-2787) , or at the State Theatre's Box Office.