An Open Letter To Ira Glass
EDIT (nearly two years later): Ira and I have met two times since this happened. He knows about this letter, and has a good sense of humor about it. He has apologized, and in retrospect, this letter was a bit… overzealous. Anyway, I think we’re cool now!
It’s This Mara Wilson’s Life with your host, Mara Wilson. Today’s story, An Open Letter to Ira Glass, in three acts: Encounter, Apology/Apologia, Assessment. As this is not actually Public Radio I am not going to ask for donations, but if you DO want to give me money for whatever reason, I am not going to stop you.
Act One: Encounter
I promised myself I would not get starstruck. But everywhere I looked, I saw famous faces, and it was becoming difficult to contain myself. I had come to the show because I was a Mike Birbiglia fan and he had promised free ice cream to opening night attendees of his new show, My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend. But then I noticed Kristen Schaal had walked through the door. I loved her as Mel, the sole obsessive fan on Flight of the Conchords, and loved her even more as a sketch and stand-up comedian. I was torn: should I be the responsible New Yorker who pretends not to notice when she sees a celebrity, or should I be the breathless fangirl? I would never ask for an autograph or a picture, but maybe I could walk up to her, say “Ms. Schaal, you are hilarious,” and walk away. A bit awkward, perhaps, but I was sure she would appreciate the compliment. I made a move to approach her, but when I got there, she seemed to be deeply involved in a conversation.
I contented myself with gushing to a friend via text message. Then I heard Kristen Schaal say “Hi, Ira!” I looked up to see a familiar face with dark glasses and salt-and-pepper hair. “Could that be…?” I asked myself, and then you spoke. There was no mistaking your voice. Before I could stop myself, I reached up and touched your windbreaker.
“Are you Ira?” I heard myself say.
You looked at me quizzically. “Yes…”
“Ira… Glass?” I said, my voice shaking.
Your expression shifted from confused to contemptuous. You threw a dismissive “yeah” over your shoulder as you turned back to your circle.
I wanted desperately to explain that I wasn’t trying to pitch a story or ask for anything, I just wanted to say that I loved the show. That had been my intent all along: find a lull in the conversation, compliment the show; then walk away. Let him go back to talking with his friends. All I could manage, though, was a quick stammered “I-I justreallylovetheshow–” And you were already gone.
I was mortified.
Act Two: Apology/Apologia
It is clear I caught you at a bad time. I purposely tried to speak up during a lull in your conversation, but I am very sorry if I did interrupt you. I am also sorry I called you “Ira,” which likely led you to believe that I knew you personally. That was very out of character: I was taught always to address someone you don’t know well by a prefix and their last name. So, for the record, I am sorry, Mr. Glass.
Being famous is not easy, and I want you to know that I understand this. When you are a public figure, people feel like they know you and are entitled to your presence. I know this because I was mildly famous once: fifteen years ago I played the title role in a film called Matilda, and for years, I could not go out in public without being recognized. I soon grew tired of it, and was not always pleasant to the recognizers. The turning point came when I was nine years old and was asked, as part of a panel interview with some other child actors, whether I liked being recognized and signing autographs. The others answered affirmatively, but I decided to tell the truth (despite having a successful acting career, I was a terrible liar.)
“Um, actually… not really,” I said, “I mean, sometimes I just want to be with my friends at the mall or at school and just want to be a normal kid…” I trailed off, noticing it had become very quiet in the room. Immediately following the panel, my father took me aside and told me, “Mara, if anyone asks you that again, just say yes.” I protested that I had told the truth, but he said, “No one wants to hear that. These people are your fans and they support you. It’s a compliment. How would you feel if someone you liked said they didn’t like having you as a fan?”
How would I feel? I would feel terrible. I hadn’t previously understood that it was a compliment. Acting didn’t feel like much of a challenge to me, and by the time one of my films was released, it felt like such a long time since production that I couldn’t take much pride in what I had done. I wasn’t sure why anyone would be excited to see me: I was just a nerdy kid who acted in movies instead of playing Barbies or softball. But my father was right: to these people, I meant something. The next time someone approached me, I reminded myself that I had made a significant difference in this person’s life, and I had to respect that.
I don’t act in films anymore, but I am still recognized sometimes, and for some reason, it’s always when I’m feeling and looking terrible. Once, when I was a student at NYU, I was sitting in the dining hall when my dining partner pointed out that a group of freshmen had just come in, got out their camera phones, and taken a picture of the back of my head. “Perfect,” I grumbled: I was running a fever, not wearing any makeup, and dressed in old yoga pants and a huge puffy winter coat. My only hope is that none of their friends believe it’s me in that picture.
But even when I am having a hard day, if someone approaches and asks me, “Were you in a movie?” I grin and bear it. “Yeah, that was me.” Maybe they’ll ask for my autograph or a picture, which will take two minutes at most. If I’m really in a hurry, I tell them, “I’m sorry, I have to go.” If they are nice about it (i.e., not insulting me or sneaking pictures of the back of my head), I see no reason not to be nice as well. I’m not perfect, but I have no reason to be ungracious.
Act Three: Assessment
I have met many famous people. Some I met in my former life as a “child star;” others I met randomly in New York. Most have been friendly and accommodating, and some I would even count among the kindest people I’ve ever met. However, it is extremely disappointing when someone whose work you really admire does not live up to expectations. This is especially true when someone who cultivated a public image as a warm, accessible person who tells stories of the human spirit, someone described on his own show as a “Friendly Man,” does not appear to be particularly friendly to a fan. I was not a paparazzo or a stalker or even a Brooklyn hipster fangirl begging to be put on the show (for the record, I believe in submitting the old fashioned way and I live in Queens) but simply someone wishing to pay a compliment. If I had been in your place, I would have simply said “Thanks.”
I do love This American Life. Other people’s lives have always been fascinating to me, but the show has also brought me a great deal of comfort. I listened to episodes about heartbreak when I went through my first serious break-up. It’s where I discovered some of my favorite writers and comedians, like Sarah Vowell and Mike Birbiglia. I cry every time I listen to Roger Dowds’ story in “Quiz Show” and Dan Savage’s story in “Return to the Scene of the Crime”. I have dreamed of one day being on the show, and have even attempted to pitch a story or two. This American Life has made a significant difference in my life.
I was disappointed by how you treated me in our brief encounter. But I am not going to stop listening to This American Life. I am still going to donate when pledge season comes around. I still would love to be on the show, and will probably try to pitch a story again at some point. Six years of art school taught me to separate the art from the artist, and Psychology 101 (as well as personal experience) taught me that social behavior is situational. But my father taught me an even more important lesson.
I am not nine years old anymore. And you know what, Mr. Glass? Neither are you.
Well, this letter was written and produced by Mara Wilson, with help from the tiny notebook I always carry around with me, the “Notes” app on my iPod touch, and Mike Birbiglia’s hilarious show My Girlfriend’s Boyfriend, which has so many hilariously mortifying moments that it almost made me forget my mortifying moment. I’ll be back at you next week (or more likely, within the next few days) with more stories of This Mara Wilson’s Life.