`Life' changes for Glass' show

July 11, 2006|By ROBERT K. ELDER | ROBERT K. ELDER,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

NEW YORK -- Chicago Public Radio's hottest show now calls Manhattan home.

Well, sort of.

As This American Life makes the transition from audio to audio-visual for its coming television series on Showtime, host Ira Glass, a native of Baltimore, is having some trouble settling in.

"This is our show in a nutshell," said the bespectacled Glass, staring at two overstuffed boxes of months-old mail shipped from Chicago. "I feel like we don't work anywhere in particular."

For the past few months, Glass and his staff have worked mostly out of Left/Right Inc., a spacious but stuffy production office in New York City's bustling Chelsea district.

Also being produced in the same office: Frontline episodes, modeling reality show The Agency and I Pity the Fool, Mr. T's foray into reality programming.

But that's changed. Just this month, This Life moved into its own offices, one block away.

Figuring out how to make This Life pieces work on TV has been particularly challenging, Glass said. For one, longtime contributor David Sedaris (Me Talk Pretty One Day) wants to read pieces for the show, but doesn't want to be filmed. Producer Jane Feltes is considering everything from animation to America's Most Wanted-style re-enactments, though this last suggestion she produces under a giggle.

And a coming This Life television episode about Congress has created several dilemmas.

"It's funny, it's hard to do journalism about Congress anyway. You can't take a camera to the House floor. You can't even follow them down the hallway," Glass said. "So how do we cover stories no one else is covering, and what do you look at during those stories?"

This Life's cable incarnation won't air until fall, and only the pilot is ready. Time is short. Plus, not only is Glass adapting Ethan Watters' book Urban Tribes into a movie with director Dylan Kidd (Roger Dodger), but he and the staff are trying to turn out one new radio show a month.

Producing the first radio show out of New York (A Better Mouse Trap in April) was "like assembling a radio show out of Lego blocks," said Glass. "Because we don't have a real, proper studio."

This should change now that Glass and his staff have moved into the new space, but most are still adjusting to new apartments, new neighborhoods -- New York experiences.

"I killed my third cockroach last night," Feltes said, sounding more than a little dismayed.

Before she settled with her husband into their West Village apartment, they were shown one place with "a roach motel in the corner, and you could see outside through cracks in the wall," Feltes said.

Now, if this was a This American Life story, it would embrace a cliche, explore the roots of a cultural myth, then dismantle it.

This is not that kind of story. Some cliches carry the patina of truth.

"Everyone who comes up to you asks, `How do you like New York? You love it, don't you?' -- like I moved here from a barn, like Chicago isn't a real city, like I was in Siberia and I just got dropped in the middle of New York," Feltes said. "I just thought, for it being twice as expensive and the apartment being half the size, I wanted it to be double the fun. It's been maybe 20 percent more fun."

For his part, newlywed Glass said he and his wife, Anaheed Alani, "made a beginner's mistake in the New York real estate market."

After looking at a range of possibilities, they found a "shockingly beautiful" apartment in Brooklyn's booming Williamsburg neighborhood that was even larger than their Lakeview residence in Chicago.

"The thing a New Yorker would have paid more attention to was the 15 minutes from the subway, which makes you feel really isolated," Glass said.

That means going home for lunch and a walk with their new puppy (a pit bull named Piney) can be a two-hour round-trip proposition.

"Honestly, I thought we were going to have a life where we would see other people here," Glass said. "But, if anything, I see fewer of my friends and get out less often because it takes so long to get home. Because in Chicago, you can hop in the car and be anywhere in 20 minutes."

Glass and Alani recently found another apartment in Manhattan "after a few false starts" that will accept dogs, Glass said.

"At one home in the West Village, the elderly owner asked if she could do an interview ... with the dog. We didn't get that one," Glass wrote in a recent e-mail.

He does miss some things about Chicago, namely his co-workers at WBEZ, doggy day care Canine University and restaurants such as Lula Cafe and Biasetti's steakhouse.

Lisa Pollak, the last producer to relocate, is still figuring out which train to take to get to work. Because of space constraints, half of her possessions are in storage.

"It's actually nice though, to have less stuff. You're free of the burden of your possessions," she said.

New York has other benefits, namely that "it's really good for the staff to be together in the same place," Pollak said.

On this count, everyone agrees. It's the first time the staff has been in one location since producers Wendy Dorr, Julie Snyder and Alex Blumberg pioneered a This American Life office in Brooklyn Heights three years ago.

Working on the television show has "actually turned out to be fun," Glass said. "It doesn't look like reality TV; it doesn't look like a newsmagazine. What it looks like is a movie. So anything you can do in a wide-screen movie, you can do in this."

Robert K. Elder writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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