Transcript

348:

Tough Room
Transcript

Originally aired 02.08.2008

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/348

Prologue.

Ira Glass

They can laugh about it now, the Ohm family. It was Thanksgiving dinner, suburban Minneapolis, big spread, pumpkins on the table, 14 people, and it was 2002, a year after 9/11.

Alexis Ohm

We were all just talking about 9/11, just 9/11 anything.

Ira Glass

This is Alexis, the baby of the family. She and her parents came into our studio and talked with one of our show's producers, Alex Blumberg.

Alexis Ohm

And one of the topics that was brought up was Osama bin Laden, and I just for some reason just said I thought he was attractive. I thought he was hot. And my dad really didn't appreciate that comment.

Jeff Ohm

I wasn't going to listen to any of it. I really wasn't. I mean, I wasn't going to let any comment like that about his looks get one inch further out of her mouth. I'll say to this day, it was ridiculous.

Ira Glass

What did your father say?

Alexis Ohm

I think he told me to [BLEEP] off.

Ira Glass

That had never happened before. Alexis looked at her two little cousins, Henry and Hugo, who didn't know how to react. Her mom Diane didn't know how to react.

Diane Ohm

I just my whole meal that I had spent a week preparing kind of going up in flames with that statement. The minute the F-bomb landed, I thought, well now, what am I going to do? There sat these two precious little boys, and their eyes were as big as saucers, and I had to do something, anything to smooth this horrible situation over. So I think I probably said something like, well, you know what? He does kind of look like Jesus, the long hair. Just to smooth it over, that's what I remember myself saying.

Ira Glass

Yeah, needless to say, comparing Osama bin Laden to Jesus didn't exactly smooth things over.

Alexis Ohm

Then we all just started yelling.

Jeff Ohm

Yeah, I probably went to about 250 degrees, because I just--

Alexis Ohm

I think you got out of your chair.

Jeff Ohm

I think I got out of my chair, I really did. I said, if that's the best we can come up with after what's happened to our country, boy, I'll tell you.

Diane Ohm

He was going off. And when Jeff goes off, we all listen. I do remember him saying something horrible, like I think the Middle East should be made into a parking lot.

Jeff Ohm

I don't think I ever said that.

Diane Ohm

I think you do that day.

Jeff Ohm

No, I know I didn't.

Diane Ohm

Yes, you did.

Jeff Ohm

I guess in retrospect, my reaction, I regret what I said. But I had to get my point across. I just for some reason had no appreciation for what Osama bin Laden looked like. This guy, I don't care what he looks like. I don't care if he looked like Paul Newman. He's still responsible for what he did. The looks thing, it just jacked me right there.

Ira Glass

Alexis pretty much knew what she was getting into to talk about Osama bin Laden this way with her dad. He is conservative and served in the army. She knew what kind of room she was working. But she hadn't really factored in the fact that it was Thanksgiving dinner. Her dad says that's a lot of what made it blow up.

Jeff Ohm

That was just the wrong place at the wrong time. It really was. I think the tension of Thanksgiving, getting the food all on the table, getting prepared, getting going. And then all of a sudden, here we go.

Ira Glass

Today on our show, we have stories of people facing various kinds of tough rooms, trying to calculate what they're going to say, what they can get away with, and usually not getting the reactions they figured they were going to get.

WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Our program today, Tough Room in four tough acts. Act one, Make 'Em Laff, in which we go among comedy professionals who face a room that is so tough, there's just one laugh every 100 jokes. Act two, Bar Car Prophecy. A young person tries to hang out in a tough room full of adults, adults and booze.

Act three, Mission Impossible. At the doorsteps to one of the great secular temples to science ever built, New York's Museum of Natural History, two Mormon missionaries work a very tough sidewalk as they try to bring unbelievers over to their way of seeing things. Act four, Tough Newsroom. Writer Malcolm Gladwell remembers getting a newspaper job with no experience, and no real idea of how to write for a newspaper. Stay with us.

Act One. Make 'em Laff.

Ira Glass

Act one, Make 'Em Laff. There are tough rooms for salesmen, and tough rooms for politicians, and tough rooms for teachers, and grant applicants, and job interviewees, and doctoral students taking their orals. But I think the classic tough room, the tough room that defines them all, is when a comedian stands in front of a silent audience, delivering one joke after another, and getting nothing back whatsoever. And there's no tougher audience than other comedians.

Seth Reiss

All right, here we go. Global warming proven by one 50-degree day in January. Area man just wants to know if he should cancel his annual Oscars party or not. Nation guesses it will have the chicken Caesar salad.

Ira Glass

It's Monday morning in the offices of The Onion, and to start the new issue, each of the writers has brought in a list of 15 headlines for their fake news newspaper. There are eight people at the table, seven men and one woman, which is par for the course in the comedy business, almost all of them in their 20s. Seth Reiss goes first. He's just 24, been at the paper for two years. And the way it works is, if Seth can convince two people to vote for a headline, it survives one more day until the next round of editing.

Seth Reiss

Star of David to add seventh point.

Todd Hanson

Sure.

Seth Reiss

Report: America runs on--

Todd Hanson

I'm sorry. It got enough votes, I just didn't understand why that was funny, and I was going to ask for it but I--

Seth Reiss

I just think it's silly.

Todd Hanson

OK. I'm just saying.

Ira Glass

The joke survives. Seth marks it with a highlighter. I came here because, by the time they're done with this process, The Onion is one of the most reliably funny things out there. And I heard that one of the reasons for that was this room. This was a very tough room, with a tough minded editorial process that they've been using for 20 years, and I wanted to see what that meant.

Man 2

Car commercial pretty adamant about car.

Todd Hanson

Yeah.

Man 2

Class struggle a breeze for local investment banker. Todd? [LAUGHTER]

Megan Ganz

Now you're just calling out who you want to vote for them? That's not right.

Ira Glass

Though it's incredibly popular, with three quarters of a million copies in print each week plus 5 million individual visitors at the website every month, it's possible that, especially if you're older, you've never actually read The Onion. So here's what you need to know. It's written in newspaper form, though lots of the funniest stories aren't really news parody, but just everyday life described in a deadpan newspaper style, like "Stoners announce plans to get stoned for that," or "Rejection letter silently flipped off," or "Control of anecdote wrested from boyfriend." These were all considered for this one issue, by the way.

The younger staffers say that it's hard not to take what happens in this room personally sometimes. Seth Reiss tells me that he's made a resolution to stop muttering under his breath, you're all wrong, when the group rejects his headlines, because after all, they can't all be wrong. Megan Ganz, who is 23 and who has been at the paper for a year and a half, says it can be a blow, and it smarts when a headline that you're sure of, that you love, doesn't make the cut.

Megan Ganz

That happens a lot. And then all of that work just evaporates into nothing. There are headlines that I remember pitching that I think I know that they're not any good, but some part of my heart is like attached to them. Like I had this one that was, "Spork used as knife." And for some reason that was like the funniest thing I thought I'd ever thought of, was the fact that here's a utensil that's two utensils, and you're using it as the only utensil it isn't. And it didn't even get a titter in the meeting. Nothing, it just died. And I read it twice, and they were like, yeah, move on. Still, that must have been this summer. It was like months ago that I wrote that headline. I still think about it.

Todd Hanson

World's most depressing technical college creates world's most depressing bus ad. It's a slight variation on one that I've--

Man 1

I still like that.

Megan Ganz

I like that one.

Todd Hanson

OK.

Ira Glass

The highlighter is passed to Todd Hanson, who's not just the oldest person at the table, he's been at The Onion longer than anybody else. He started in 1990 when The Onion wasn't really a business, but more of a hobby for a few friends who all worked crappy jobs elsewhere to support themselves. In these meetings, he tends to talk the most, partly out of seniority, and partly, as he admits, because he just can't be any other way. Though when he reads his list, he's just like any of the other writers. And this is really the damnedest thing about their jobs. Even with all his years of experience, even he can't tell which of his brand new jokes is any good.

Todd Hanson

Man evidently thinks those sideburns make him look cool. It's not funny.

Man 1

I kind of like that.

Todd Hanson

Really?

Man 1

Kind of.

Todd Hanson

Is it funny with something other than sideburns?

Man 1

Sideburns?

Todd Hanson

No? OK, all right. Pornography desensitized populace demands new orifice to look at.

Seth Reiss

Yes.

Todd Hanson

OK. Area man not technically pathetic in that he fails to elicit pathos.

Megan Ganz

But are you just making a joke about how people incorrectly use the word pathetic?

Ira Glass

It takes them two long mornings, on Monday and on Tuesday, to come up with these 16 headlines they're going to use in the paper this week. And to get to those 16, they go through-- and I know this number is going to sound kind of crazy-- 600 possible headlines.

Todd Hanson

OK, this is a sad joke that comes straight from real life. Casual relationship enters third year.

Megan Ganz

So that's still going on? [LAUGHTER] Sorry. I'm sorry. That wasn't to be mean, that was a legitimate question, because we've talked about it before.

Ira Glass

Truthfully, the staff is a lot nicer to each other than I figured they'd be. Comedians can be incredibly competitive, and The Onion has gone through phases when the chemistry wasn't so chill. But mainly, they're just tough on the material. It's a tough room because of how minutely they dissect all the jokes. Over the years, they've developed a way of discussing the material that helps them decide whether something is so outstandingly funny, it beats a lot of other jokes that are also pretty funny, and what makes each joke funny, and how to make it funnier. As an outsider, and not privy to these shared assumptions and what one of them called their hive mentality, it's sometimes hard to figure out why, for instance, "Local girlfriend always wants to do stuff" was a good enough headline to make it into the paper, while a headline that seems nearly identical, "Nation's girlfriends call for more quality time," literally gets jeers. Jeers. Listen.

Man 2

Nation's girlfriends call for more quality time.

Todd Hanson

Or nation's wives spend all the husband's money on expensive hats. Coming home with another round shaped box. Look at that stack of round boxes.

Man 1

I'm pregnant.

Todd Hanson

Lucy?

Ira Glass

Or why does this joke get immediate, unquestioning approval?

Megan Ganz

Beauty regimen horrifying.

Man 1

Yes.

Todd Hanson

Yes, definitely. That's funny.

Ira Glass

While the headline "Roommate's unopened bag of Doritos taunting area man" deserved a long discussion over whether the point of the joke was in fact the taunting.

Todd Hanson

The reason it's funny is because the word taunting--

Man 1

Like he's been staring at it from a distance of 15 feet from his couch for the past 10 minutes.

Ira Glass

Or do the Doritos themselves make the joke too obvious?

Megan Ganz

It would be funny, and it would have funny details in it, but on its immediate surface, it's a joke about Doritos, and like a food item--

Man 1

I agree that Doritos is an immediate go-to kind of snack. Is there another snack it could be?

Todd Hanson

I mean Doritos is the exact right product.

Ira Glass

Watching them parse jokes like this, with a kind of academic precision that they're sort of proud of, hour after hour, it's not just tedious, it's the opposite of comedy. And the other thing that was very odd watching them work, was that most of the jokes that got the biggest laughs from the writers themselves did not make it into the paper. For example, this headline.

Man 2

Cardinal teaches pope to make church by interlocking his fingers.

Ira Glass

Or this one.

Man 3

Gay retard teased. [LAUGHTER]

Megan Ganz

That one's great.

Man 2

That's so awful.

Ira Glass

Or here's another.

Man 2

Infertile woman treats frog shaped humidifier as human child. [LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

And what the hell? Let's just do one more.

Man 1

Biologist realizes he's been studying Cadbury egg.

Ira Glass

After the meeting, I get explanations for the many mysterious decisions I've witnessed. I'm told that usually the jokes that get laughs on Monday do not survive. Again, Megan Ganz.

Megan Ganz

A lot of the jokes that we laugh really hard at don't make it in the paper, because they're just like initially funny, but then we sit down on Tuesday and go, well what does that mean though? What will we say about that? Where does that joke go? There was a headline once that everyone laughed at really hard, that was "Woman crying by penguin exhibit." Do you guys remember this headline? "Woman sobbing near penguin exhibit." And everyone laughed really hard, and then everyone went, OK, but why is that funny? It's funny because it's penguins, I guess, and like women crying is kind of a weird thing to be happening near them. But then nobody would pitch that on a Tuesday meeting as being funny, even though it made everyone laugh. Nobody would pitch that, because what do you write about that? It doesn't go anywhere.

Ira Glass

And then there's this mystery. Why did the story "Local girlfriend always wants to do stuff" make the paper, while "Nation's girlfriends call for more quality time" got heckled. Todd Hanson and Dan Guterman explain that the story that went with "Local girlfriend always wants to do stuff" was actually written in a way that made fun of the guy in the relationship.

Todd Hanson

In talking about what a sort of lowly loser he is for being irked by his girlfriend's desire to do things. It's just more like, she's always wanting to go do stuff, and be around people. And she always wants to leave the house.

Dan Guterman

And that seemed more original and different to us, whereas nation girlfriends-- what was it?

Todd Hanson

Call for more quality time.

Dan Guterman

Just seemed like a joke about nagging girlfriends.

Ira Glass

And the problem with a joke about nagging girlfriends isn't the political correctness of it, but simply it's a really tired joke.

Dan Guterman

It's a really tired joke.

Ira Glass

In fact, all through their editorial meanings, they're talking constantly about what jokes are tired. A joke about the Green Party and marijuana brownies was killed partly because mentioning the Green Party at all seemed passe. A headline about Nicole Richie's new baby, "Nicole Richie thinks baby looks fat," was ditched on the theory that any Nicole Richie fat or anorexia reference was very 2005. But one area where tastes differ on the staff is when it comes to silliness. They're for silliness, sometimes. Take the joke, "Scientist realizes he's been studying Cadbury egg" that got such a big laugh on Monday. It's just a silly joke, says Megan.

Megan Ganz

Like, we do silly jokes, granted. But it just doesn't have that X factor of being silly and kind of compelling. I don't know, it doesn't have-- I can't explain what the difference is between that one and we ran one that was "Thirsty mayor drinks town's entire water supply." And that one, we had the same reaction when it was read. We laughed really hard. And then it went in the paper. And why is that one sillier and in a better way than the other one is silly? It's funny because it's almost always agreed upon in the meetings.

Ira Glass

Almost, but not quite. When Todd Hanson and I sat down for an interview, he spontaneously brought up the exact same headline Megan had mentioned, but to make a very different point.

Todd Hanson

No, no, don't get me wrong. I like the silly jokes. I just have to think them through and find out what they're saying. Like I remember there was a joke, "Thirsty mayor drinks entire town's water supply." And I just kept saying, why? What is it? Thirsty guy drinks a whole lake? Like what's funny about that? That's just silly in a way that isn't funny. And they're like, no, no, you got to trust us. It's funny because he's the thirsty mayor, he drinks the whole town. And they were trying to explain it to me, and I just didn't get it. And then finally, it clicked in my head, and I said, oh I get it. It's about misappropriation of public resources by a corrupt ruling oligarchy, or whatever. And then everyone made fun of me, like oh yeah, that's what it's about. It's not just silly. Well, of course it's silly, but it has something to say, and that's why it's funny. That's what I think.

I just don't think jokes that don't have anything to say are that funny. If you can't find something legitimate to say within the context of the joke, no matter how silly it is, I don't see the point of it.

Ira Glass

In fact, to sort this out, a whole language has emerged over the years at The Onion to talk about whether something is too silly, or silly in the wrong way. Writers speak about a joke taking them to Silly Town, or Crazyville, or Sillytown Heights, which is either good or bad depending on the person. And it can be bad, though it's usually good, when something is called a laffer. That's laffer with two f's. A laffer is a big dumb joke that you have to laugh at. If the photo that accompanies a story is a sandwich holding a press conference, that's a laffer. And the whole story is a laffertunity.

Laffers are often the most emailed stories, the most popular things that The Onion does. And while everybody on staff likes both silly jokes and jokes with a bigger meaning, a few of the younger writers definitely have more tolerance for jokes that are purely silly, and a different vision for what should go in the paper. And there are a couple times during the editorial meetings that I watched where the two sides squared off against each other. At one point, they were discussing two headlines that covered very familiar ground at The Onion. "Plan to stay in all weekend and play video games goes off smoothly," and "Area man makes it through day." Seth, one of the newest staffers, and Todd, the oldest, saw these very differently.

Seth Reiss

Especially the video game one seems very Onion by the numbers.

Todd Hanson

That's kind of why I liked it.

Seth Reiss

I know. But almost to a point where it's like that sentiment, I don't think we're doing anything new there.

Todd Hanson

I don't know, I just think that that is The Onion's ethos. That's kind of like what The Onion is about. That's what America is--

Seth Reiss

I feel like you've done that joke before.

Todd Hanson

The reason we've done that joke before is American has been like that for a long time, and it still is.

Seth Reiss

But the sentiment is so similar to the sentiment of a lot of Onion headlines that people aren't going to notice that. They're just going to be like, oh, The Onion does this again. It just doesn't feel right to me.

Todd Hanson

I'm going to keep writing jokes like that till the day I die. So I'm just warning you.

Ira Glass

At the heart of this dispute is a problem that comes up in any creative project that lasts even a few years. You don't want to become a parody of yourself. You don't want to keep repeating the same things over and over. And yet, there are some things that you do a lot of, that are just built into the DNA of what you make. This is definitely something that we struggle with here on our radio show. And in fact, The Onion once did an article that made fun of us for rehashing certain kinds of stories, which was funny, and it stung.

Megan Ganz says that as one of the newer writers on staff, she worries sometimes that they're just repeating the same jokes over and over with different words. There's one, for instance, where a big government institution just acts like your schmo college roommate, like "Syria attends Mideast peace talks for free continental breakfast." Funny, but it's a formula.

Megan Ganz

And now, they have with the youngs and olds, the promise is all of the young people grew up reading the stuff that the older people wrote. So we formed our sense of humor on The Onion, and then became writers for The Onion. You're trying to write for your idols. It's strange. It's strange for us. We've talked about it many times, the young people here, it's strange for us to write for your idols.

Ira Glass

But also are you saying to Todd, who's been here forever, like yeah, you can't do that again. Don't do that joke again. I'm tired of that joke.

Megan Ganz

That is really horrible, isn't it? So I've been trying to mimic him throughout my life to get to where I am. And now that I'm where I am, I'm like, don't do what you do.

Ira Glass

In the end, "Area man makes it through day" makes it onto a list of stories that will appear in upcoming issues of The Onion, partly because the founder and editor in chief of the paper, Scott Dikkers, liked it. But this disagreement wan't even close to the biggest fight they've all had lately. That fight, I'm told, was over the headline "Ghost just dropped by to say boo." One group 100% hated it, one group 100% loved it. People raised their voices. One usually mild mannered editor walked out in protest.

Joe Randazzo

I guess people kind of read it as like a third grade joke book joke.

Ira Glass

Editor Joe Randazzo says it was an existential fight about what kind of paper they were, that would or would not publish such a thing.

Joe Randazzo

One member of staff may love The Onion that would never have "Ghost just dropped by to say boo," while another member of staff may love the fact that The Onion can include a joke that says "Ghost just dropped by to say boo." It's totally subjective though.

Ira Glass

Finally, the editor in chief had to tell everybody to cut it out, and they published the joke. And this one headline did not ruin the paper. But a roomful of people who would even entertain the possibility that it might, who feel that strongly about it, that's a very tough room.

Act Two. Bar Car Prophesy.

Ira Glass

Act two, Bar Car Prophecy. When you're a kid, adulthood itself can seem kind of a tough room, in which you're going to have to adapt to the strange custom that is the world of adults. But for Rosie Schaap, when she was a kid, the prospect of hanging with the adults seemed exciting, an adventure.

Rosie Schaap

In 1986, when I was 15, I discovered the bar car on the Metro North New Haven line, a dingy, crowded, badly ventilated chamber, where commuters drank enough to get a decent buzz going, told dirty jokes, and chain smoked. These were my kind of people, and even though in my memory the whole place is covered in a sort of grimy yellow film, it was my kind of joint. I took the train once a week from Westport, Connecticut, to Manhattan's Grand Central Station to see my psychoanalyst. As self-absorbed as any teenager, I'd come to enjoy psychoanalysis. I'd been going since eighth grade, and the 50-minute sessions made me feel like the featured guest on a talk show. It helped that my shrink sounded a lot like Dick Cavett.

But from the moment I first stumbled into the bar car after one of our appointments, my return trip to Westport became the best part of my Thursday visits. I liked the company of grownups, especially strangers. With them, I found it easy to feel smart and funny and interesting.

Once when I was eight and we were vacationing at the beach, my mother sent me to borrow a skillet from the neighbors, a bunch of 30-somethings in a shared rental. They were lounging on an L-shaped white couch, and seemed to get a kick out of everything I said, even the word skillet. I wasn't even sure what the word meant until a tall woman handed me a heavy pan with flared sides. I thanked her and turned to leave, but they weren't ready to let me go. They had questions. Who was I? What grade was I in? What was I into?

I was astonished by their interest. I sat myself down and asked if they wanted to hear a joke. So this Jewish American princess married an Indian chief. Guess what they name their baby? I paused for effect. White fish. It's a terrible joke. I'd heard my mother tell it to one of her friends. I didn't exactly get it. But these grownups sitting there drinking wine tumbled off the big white couch laughing, and I felt like a superstar.

That's how I wanted to feel in the bar car, surrounded by its regulars, mostly men in wrinkled suits and loosened neckties. I liked listening to them. They drank beer or scotch, laughed loudly, talked fast, and always seemed happy to see each other. They were a tribe, and I wanted in. Still, I didn't dare pony up to the bar and order myself a beer. There was no way the weary Metro North crew would serve me. I needed a point of entry.

I found what I was looking for the night I pulled my Tarot cards from my backpack and gave myself a reading right there in the bar car. I had been studying The Pictorial Key to the Tarot, a 1910 primer by Arthur Edward Waite, and had cultivated a look that fell somewhere between Janis Joplin and Madam Blavatsky, gauzy Indian dresses, batik caftans, chunky silver rings on my fingers. My Tarot cards smelled of patchouli and sandalwood, cigarettes and pot. I shuffled them and then began to lay them out in the Celtic cross pattern I'd learned from Waite's book.

First, the significator, the card that stood for me. Then the card that crossed me, signifying the things that blocked my path. Next, the card that crowned me, representing my ideals and aims. And so on and so on, until it laid out the 10th and final card, which would reveal the answer to my question. By then, a small crowd had gathered around me. When I finished, a woman asked if I'd give her a reading. It was the first time someone in the bar car had spoken to me without wanting to see my ticket.

She asked what I charged. I hadn't thought about that. I mulled it over and told her I thought it was kind of bad mojo to take money for readings, but I was cool with bartering, and I wouldn't mind a beer. She didn't ask how old I was.

Her reading was good, mostly positive cards. Yes, I told her, she would thrive at her new job. She might even get a promotion soon. She smiled and discreetly got me that beer. Suddenly, it was like a divination marathon. I must have done five readings in an hour. The more I read, the more confident I grew. A routine took shape. As I laid down the cards, I'd sing Neil Young's After the Gold Rush quietly, almost under my breath.

Then, when I was done, I'd give the whole pattern an initial once over and look solemnly into the questioner's eyes. The cards are here to guide us, I'd say in a voice an octave lower than my own, but what they tell us is not carved in stone. You have the power to change any of this. And all these grownups, accountants, lawyers, executives, hung on my every word.

The next week, after therapy, my fortune telling for alcohol scheme began in earnest. Again, I settled into the bar car and gave myself a reading. And again, a cluster of commuters assembled around me. I felt like I'd cracked a code. They'd sit down next to me and listen obediently. When you shuffle the cards, put your energy into them. Concentrate on your question, I instructed them. If you're doing this half-heartedly, the cards will know.

This continued for weeks, and out of it I got plenty of beer, a couple of books, a pair of silver earrings. That, and the undivided attention of all these adults. I'd explain what each position in the Celtic cross meant, the significance of casting more cups than swords, more wands than pentacles. If someone's reading turned up an unusually high number of Major Arcana cards, I'd go quiet for a moment before I disclosed to him how much power that foretold, and urged him to use that power responsibly for the greater good.

I never asked them their names, and I never told them mine, not my real one anyway. Yet time after time, as I laid out their futures, complete strangers would drop intimate clues about their lives, their jobs, their families. More than once, a wingtip wearing banker or salesman confided in me that he'd taken acid and sloshed around in the mud at Woodstock, and felt very connected to the energy of the universe. I'd nod and say something like, that's awesome, man. I wish I'd been there. It was as if I'd materialized before their eyes, like some ghost from their youth come back to answer questions about their future.

Of course there were people in the bar car who paid me no mind, and others who made their skepticism known. But I was dismissive of the nonbelievers. They were out of touch, and that was their loss. Still, one heckler in the crowd made me nervous. I couldn't pinpoint his age, mid-30s I guessed. He was a broad shouldered, thick necked guy with a beer gut, strawberry blonde hair, and a big, ruddy face. He looked like a Kennedy, but you couldn't quite put your finger on which one. And did he have a mouth on him. The F-word used as a noun, verb, and adjective strung together in one sentence, and then the next, and the next, like artillery fire.

The guy was always drunker and louder than anyone else. Once, he cupped his hands into a makeshift megaphone and sort of stage shouted at me something like, the '60s are over. Get a life. As much as I basked in my bar car celebrity, I dreaded seeing that guy.

And then one Thursday, after I'd already served a few of my patrons, he half-staggered, half-swaggered over to me. All right, he said, this is total BS, but go ahead, do mine. He plunked himself down across from me, his knees a little too close. I wanted to tell him to go away. I wanted to tell him that his unwillingness to believe would insult the spirits and make them uncooperative, but I worried he'd call me a fraud.

I played it cool and started my spiel. Shuffle, focus, give the cards your energy. He rolled his eyes but played along. He cut the cards once and handed me the deck. I laid them out. First I set down his significator, the 10 of swords, possibly the worst card of all, with a solitary, prostrate figure under a black sky, pierced in the back by all 10 swords. It represents, in Waite's words, pain, affliction, sadness.

The rest of the cards weren't much better. He pulled the tower, a card signaling corruption, destruction, and the presence of evil. He got the death card too. And as much as I disliked the guy, I really didn't like what I saw on those cards, not for anyone, not even for him.

I kept quiet for long minute while I tried to figure out how to spin this, but there was nothing good I could say. Maintaining eye contact is key to being a good mystic, but I couldn't even meet his gaze. Well, what's it say? he finally asked. I took a deep breath. None of this is carved in stone or written in blood. He cut me off, well, what? So I told him what I saw, and as I interpreted one dismal symbol after another, the guy leaned in closer, put his elbows on the table, buried his head in his hands, and started to cry.

He told me that his marriage was falling apart. That he constantly worried about his health. That he was too young for heart problems, but he had them. That he felt as though his life had added up to zero. He asked, will I ever be happy? The cards, I answered bluntly, said no. But, I told him, just like I told everyone else, you have the power to change that. He shook his head and glared at me with red, swollen eyes that said he did not. Maybe he didn't. Maybe no one had the power. Maybe the days that lie ahead of us are set in stone and that was that, and maybe I'd been the cynic.

Something I had believed in had become a gambit for attention. I hadn't thought it through, and maybe I'd even hurt people. In the background, other passengers were caught up in conversation, laughing and drinking and carrying on. I could think of nothing more to say to the guy, nothing reassuring. I felt small and foolish, and when the guy finally got off the train a couple of stops before mine, I was relieved.

I sat awake in my bed that night and thought about him. I imagined him going home to a white clapboard colonial, to an unhappy wife pretending to be asleep. I imagined him returning the next day to a job he hated, and getting wasted again that afternoon. But of course, at 15, I couldn't imagine what it was like to be him, to live his life, and I realized I didn't want to be able to. Reading Tarot cards in the bar car had been fun until it got serious. Adults had problems I could not begin to fathom, and they had things to say I wasn't ready to hear.

I didn't go back to the bar car. I missed the grownups, I missed their attention, but I was not one of them. I didn't belong there. Although I could feel adulthood encroaching, real adulthood, which now seemed less about drinking and smoking and freedom, and more about loss, and fear, and the sense that death itself lay waiting somewhere just ahead.

Ira Glass

Rosie Schaap. This story comes from a book of essays that she's writing about drinking called Drinking With Men. She's looking for a publisher.

Coming up, if Jerry Seinfeld became a Mormon tomorrow, the most likely way that it would happen would be because of two guys that we are going to introduce you to. That's in a minute, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International, when our program continues.

Act Three. Mission: Impossible.

Ira Glass

It's This American life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our show, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme, and-- Hello? Hello? [TAPS MICROPHONE] Hello? Anybody out there? OK, if you're out there, make a noise. Tough room. That's our theme. Very clever how we do this here on the public radio, huh? We've arrived at act three of our show. Act three, Mission Impossible.

In the Bible, God is constantly sending his prophets into situations where nobody wants to hear what they have to say. And after high school, young Mormon men are basically supposed to do the same thing. They are encouraged to go on a two year mission to spread the gospel. They pay their own way. Jane Feltes has followed two of these guys out to convert people in a place that we usually don't think of as a bastion of Mormonism, or particularly friendly to missionaries: the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

Jane Feltes

Elder [? Longing-- ?] elder doesn't mean older, it's just a title given to missionaries-- is 20, an army brat most recently from Utah. Elder [? Meller ?] is from Utah too, and he's 21. They're both in the second year of their mission, so they kind of have it down.

Elder 1

How are doing today sir? Have you ever had the chance to read the Book of Mormon? No chance? All right, do you know anyone in the area we can share our message about Christ with?

Jane Feltes

The guy literally tells him, get lost.

Elder 1

You don't know anybody in the area we can do some service for? All right, you have a great day, sir.

Jane Feltes

Today they're stopping people outside the American Museum of Natural History, but they work all over New York and its suburbs. And the toughest thing about being a missionary in New York isn't what you might think, that it's too secular, too Jewish, or too unfriendly or too cool for school, especially Sunday school. No, the problem is competition. In New York, there are so many distractions on the street, people trying to hand you fliers or get you into their hair salon or comedy show. And if you're saying no to someone who asks, do you have one minute to save the environment, you're not going to say yes to these guys.

Elder 1

Everyone's walking on the street, and everybody's walking about the same pace, and anything that will disrupt the flow will cause them to be angry, just because they're already in the mindset that they're going somewhere. Anything that stops them is going to make them angry. And usually we're the ones that stop them. We're usually that disruption.

Jane Feltes

Both guys are living off their savings while they're here. Elder [? Longing ?] lives in Chinatown with three other missionaries in a two bedroom apartment. Elder [? Meller's ?] two bedroom in Harlem houses six missionaries. And for 12 hours every day, from 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM, most of their interactions are less than 30 seconds, if you can even call them interactions.

Elder 2

Hey sister.

Jane Feltes

Elder [? Meller ?] calls out to a cute woman in her late 20s.

Elder 2

Have you ever seen this picture before?

Woman 1

I'm sorry?

Jane Feltes

He shows her a picture of Jesus baptizing Peter on the cover of his Book of Mormon.

Elder 2

Have you ever seen this picture before?

Woman 1

Yes, I have.

Elder 2

That's good. We want to invite you to be baptized by that same authority that he's given.

Woman 1

I'm Christian. I don't know if that matters.

Elder 2

Yeah, we are too.

Woman

But I'm not Mormon. Thank you though.

Jane Feltes

But I'm not Mormon, she says, thank you though.

Elder 2

I wouldn't talk to you if you were Mormon, right? Where are you from?

Jane Feltes

She's gone within seven seconds. Par for the course, says Elder [? Longing. ?]

Elder 1

I don't know if you saw, but when people say no, and we're still trying to talk to them, we're just trying different things. No, I don't want that. Do you know anyone who does want it? No, I don't know. Well, do you know anyone who wants to come to church? No, I don't know anybody. Well, do you want to come to church?

Jane Feltes

And then they walk away and you feel what?

Elder 1

And I feel like that guy really does not want to go to church. Sometimes I get defensive, like under my breath, I'll mutter something.

Elder 2

Elder [? Longing, ?] do you ever get my baby's sleeping, I have to go watch it.

Elder 1

Oh yeah.

Elder 2

I hate that. It's like, it's sleeping, you don't need to watch it.

Elder 1

Yeah, excuses.

Elder 2

Hey brother, how are you feeling today? How are you doing today, brother? Hey sisters, can we invite you guys to get your Mormon on by coming--

Jane Feltes

Calling everybody brother and sister was not working at all for them.

Elder 2

Have a good one.

Jane Feltes

I figured it had to be a Mormon thing. Turns out it's not.

Elder 1

I picked that up in the Bronx. You'd say hey, what's up brother? And so usually in the Bronx, they're like, hey, what's up? And they'll say it back.

Jane Feltes

This definitely ain't the Bronx though. Right across the street lives Jerry Seinfeld, Glenn Close, John McEnroe, and Helen Gurley Brown, which makes it the toughest kind of neighborhood for missionaries. In the Bronx, people will talk to them, let them visit their homes. But the wealthier the area, they say, like here on Central Park West, it's a much harder sell.

Spreading the word about Mormonism is a numbers game, and to talk to the greatest number of people in a day in New York City, the guys have each learned how to strike up a conversation in at least five different languages. Elder [? Longing ?] approaches a man sitting on the steps.

Elder 1

[SPEAKING SPANISH]

Jane Feltes

Elder [? Meller ?] hears a woman speaking French to her child.

Elder 2

[SPEAKING FRENCH]

Jane Feltes

And Elder [? Longing, ?] he even knows some sign language.

Elder 1

My sign language is improving.

Jane Feltes

Over the course of the afternoon, approaching every person who walks by, they get a couple dozen cards with the church's address into people's hands. They say on average they manage to get about three or four new people to come to church each week, which seems amazingly low, given that it's two of them working basically every waking minute.

Jane Feltes

Are these skills that you're learning out here these few years, are they things you think you're going to take into your career?

Elder 1

Yes. Most definitely.

Elder 2

Most definitely.

Jane Feltes

What are you going to do?

Elder 1

I thought about it. I was like, I bet selling life insurance is way easier than this. Because I've met people who do sell life insurance, and they're like--

Elder 2

They're happy people.

Elder 1

They're very successful. I wonder what I could do if I did that. Or like those guys who sell scissors, go door to door, like Cutco, they sell scissors. I'm like, I'm sure I could sell some scissors. Like sometimes I think, I think I could sell scissors better than that guy, because you know how to deal with people turning you down. Like even if you get turned down over and over again, it's finding that little thing that keeps you going, that little thing that keeps you talking to people.

Jane Feltes

But in this, that little thing that keeps you going is like eternal life. With scissors, I don't know if--

Elder 1

I don't know, a paycheck. I don't know.

Jane Feltes

While I'm with them, their longest conversations are with guys who seem down on their luck. One guy might have been drunk, and another guy who, if he wasn't homeless, was probably often mistaken for homeless. And they spend even more time with people they have no hope of baptizing, like this guy.

Man

Here you go, last one. I don't like the way they translated it, but OK. Read this.

Jane Feltes

Elder [? Meller is ?] standing talking to a middle aged orthodox Jewish man in a navy trench coat and hat. The two men get into a long, in-depth discussion about religion, specifically whether, as the Mormons believe, a prophet walked the Earth in America in the 1800s.

Elder 2

What about Jeremiah and things like that?

Man

In dreams, they had dreams. God did not speak to them.

Elder 2

All right. Our message is that God has a prophet on the Earth again.

Man

There are many prophets.

Elder 2

This is true, but there are those ordained, like Moses.

Jane Feltes

It's like watching a couple football fans talk about the Super Bowl, even though they were rooting for different teams. They know they'll never convince the other that their team is better, but they're really enjoying the back and forth. They seemed relieved to have found someone who relates to the world the way they do.

Man

God bless you.

Elder 2

You too brother. Have a good one.

Elder 1

I think some of my favorite people I like talking to, I like talking to Jews, and I like talking to Muslims. Muslims are really cool, just because I find that they're more devout. It's easier for me to talk to them because they are very faithful people.

Jane Feltes

You guys have that in common.

Elder 2

That's true. But more like going along with the Jews and Muslims and stuff is they understand the idea of a covenant, a two way agreement. So they're more devout with it.

Jane Feltes

At 6:00 PM, it's dark and so cold nobody's on the street anymore. So the guys head off on a home visit, to meet with a new potential convert. They have three hours of work ahead of them today, and roughly a combined 3,240 hours to go.

Ira Glass

Jane Feltes is one of the producers of our show.

Act Four. Tough News Room.

Ira Glass

Act four, Tough Newsroom. These days, Malcolm Gladwell is very good at what he does. He's a reporter. He writes for the New Yorker magazine. He's had a number of iconic bestselling books, including The Tipping Point and Blink. But it was not always this way. No, no, no. Once upon a time, the world of journalism was a totally forbidden and alien place to him. And he talked about this onstage at The Moth in New York City.

Malcolm Gladwell

My first job, my first real job, was at the Washington Post, and I still don't know really know how I got hired, because I didn't have any newspaper experience. I hadn't even worked for my high school newspaper. But they put me on the business desk, which is where you put people at the Washington Post who don't know anything about journalism. And I just sat there for the first six weeks, and I didn't do a thing.

And people were looking at me and wondering about me, and finally the business editor took pity on me, and he gave me an earnings story to do. It was about a local company named Maryland Biosciences, and I just had to write up their earnings. And so I wrote it up, like three paragraphs long, it took me like five hours, and that was my first story in the Washington Post.

But unfortunately, I wrote that the Maryland Biosciences had lost $5 million in the previous quarter, and they in fact had made $5 million in the previous quarter. And on the morning the story ran, the stock dropped 10 points. And the CEO called Ben Bradlee on the phone and just chewed him out. And I got in all kinds of trouble, and I was put on probation. And if I had doubts about journalism before, they were redoubled now. And I was wondering, what am I doing? I can't even read a balance sheet properly. And I really was despairing, and I was turning over this story again and again. How did I do it? Where did I go wrong?

And then I had a kind of epiphany, which I really credit for why I stayed in journalism, and didn't go selling real estate, or whatever the other things I was thinking of doing in that moment. I realized first of all that I had made up this story, but I'd gotten into the paper, and no one had stopped me. And secondly, I'd moved the stock 10 points. And it was a kind of Jayson Blair moment. And all of a sudden, there's a little glimmer, and I can begin to see that there's some hope in this profession. This thing that didn't make sense to me is now kind of making sense.

I get moved to the health desk and science desk, which is where they put you at the Washington Post if you know even less than the people in the business. And one of the first stories I did was a story about the AIDS conference, which was a big deal back then. There were three cities being considered for the next conference, Rome, Vancouver, and Amsterdam. And it's a big deal for a reporter, because you got to go to one of these cities, and it was a week's paid vacation.

But my problem with Rome, Amsterdam, and Vancouver, they're very nice cities, but I'd been to all of them. And I really in my heart of hearts wanted to go to Australia. And so I'm writing up the story, and I thought, would anyone mind? So I just said, NIH officials said they were considering Rome, Vancouver, Amsterdam, and Sydney. And the next morning, I see that the wires have picked up the story, and they've called the Sydney Tourist Bureau, and they said are you at all interested in hosting the AIDS convention? And they said, well of course. And then the Miami Herald picked up the story, and they called the NIH, and they said, Sydney says they're really interested in hosting.

And the guys at NIH, what do they know? They're like, that's fantastic. Yes, we are considering-- I can't tell you how exhilarated this makes me feel. And I have a sense of real power for the first time.

Right around that time, a new guy joined the science desk, a guy named Billy Booth, and Billy didn't come from newspapers either. And I could tell that he was as shell shocked as I had been. So I went to him and I said, Billy, I know how you feel. I've been there. But there's a secret to this business. It's not what you think, it's actually quite-- and one of the things we get to do is that we had to read all of these medical journals every week. And every week there would be some new paper describing some incredibly obscure disease that scientists had made some advance against.

And I said to Billy, we can write about these diseases, but we don't have to tell anyone that they're obscure. And so we started something called disease of the week. We would write about these diseases, and we would find some lab technician, and we would quote them as saying this is the greatest thing that ever happened. Of course, it was for the lab technician. We'd put in like the 19th paragraph that this a disease that only afflicted one in every 400 million people.

And every week we did another disease, and every week we got a little bolder. And the stories got just a little bit more outrageous, and they started running not on a 16, or not on 15, and then 13, and then 2, and then on the front page. And we started to have a certain kind of swagger. We felt like drunk with power. But it wasn't enough. And we began to think, you know what? It's not enough just to cure diseases. We'd like to effect to change the very language of American journalism. And that's when the contest was born.

Now, I don't remember whose idea the contest was, whether it was me or Billy, but we were just so inseparable in those days, it was probably a combination. But what we decided was to introduce the phrase "raises new and troubling questions" to American journalism. And the contest was that we were going to give ourselves a month, and the person who got that phrase into the newspaper the most times over the course of the month would win.

And so I struck first. It was a story on Medicare spending. Medicare had gone up 12% the previous year, which I said raises new and troubling questions about the status of the American health care establishment. Billy comes back the next day, he'd got a piece from one of the physics journals about this sub-atomic particle called the Higgs boson, which was very big in the '90s. And he said that this recent work on Higgs boson raises new and troubling questions about our understanding of dark matter. And so we're tied.

Two days later, I come back. Piece on FDA cutbacks, raises new and troubling questions about the safety of the nation's drug supply. Billy does a piece, a wonderful profile of this botanist, in which he said that her most recent work raises new and troubling questions about our understanding of non-flowering perennials. It's back and forth. It's a horse race. And we get consumed by this. And we're showing up 8:00 in the morning to check the wires, looking for things that are conceivably both new and troubling.

One day left in the contest, we've done 30 days, I'm ahead 10-9, and I'm convinced I got it in the bag. Right at the end of the afternoon, Billy pulls something off the wires about declining test scores, writes a little thing, it's this long, about how this raises new and troubling questions about the intellectual fitness of American schoolchildren. Gets it in the paper, and not only that, the copy desk, when they're making up the headline for the story, the headline is, "Report raises new and troubling questions." It's a twofer. He goes ahead of me 11-10, I feel like I've been kicked in the stomach. It's devastating.

And I go to Billy and I say, we're not done. We need to have a championship round. And by the way, raises new and troubling questions was too easy, because everything raises new and troubling questions. So we need to have a much tougher standard this time. I said, what are you thinking? He said, I think we should use the word perverse. And I said, no way. I think we should use the phrase often baffling. So we argue back and forth, and finally we compromise, and we go with perverse and often baffling.

Now, I don't need to tell you how hard it is to get the phrase perverse and often baffling into a newspaper. You've got to find something that is-- perverse isn't good enough. Baffling isn't good enough. Perverse and baffling isn't good enough. It must be perverse and often baffling. It must oscillate between the state of bafflement and transparency, while simultaneously remaining perverse.

We killed ourselves on that one. Literally, it was an obsession. We would come in and we would just sweat it out, and we would try and try. Billy did a piece on mollusks once, in which he tried to claim that mollusks represented a perverse and often baffling something. And the copy desk took out often, arguing, I think correctly, that mollusks were either baffling or they weren't. Mollusks did not oscillate.

I came back with a piece on the anthropology of women's breasts. I claimed that they represented a perverse and often baffling development in anthropology, and my editor took out perverse and said, this is a family newspaper. You can't call women's breasts perverse. And I went to the mat on that one. Finally, the story was killed. It was ugly. Anyway, we're really broken up about this. We can't get this damn phrase in the paper, and we're going out drinking at night. And a lot of my old doubts about journalism are starting to come back. And I'm saying, do I really want to be part of a profession that has no room for the perverse and the often baffling?

And then one day, I'm having this conversation with a gastroentrologist. And he tells me that, did I know that there were more gastroentrologists per capita in Washington DC than any other city in the country? And I said, I did not know that. But then I said, I thought that doctor's fees were higher in Washington DC than anywhere else in the country? And he goes, yeah. Light bulb goes on above my head, because the law of supply and demand says, the greater the supply, the lower the price should be. But here we have a case where we've got a very large supply of gastroentrologists, but the price of gastroentrologists is going up. That is a perverse phenomenon, and until I explain it to you, it's baffling.

I raced back to the office, whipping into my desk, make a couple of phone calls, and I bang it out. And you can look it up, right on the front page, September 21, 1992, "Washington DC has more gastroentrologists per capita than any other city in the country. But in a reflection of the perverse and often baffling economics of the health care profession, it simultaneously has the highest doctor's fees in the country."

[APPLAUSE]

Billy is devastated. I am triumphant. All those doubts about journalism melt away, and I say, this thing called newspaper writing, I can do it. One week passes, I get a letter in the mail. Dear sir, with respect to your story on the gastroentrologists of the Washington DC region, the economics of the health care profession are neither perverse nor baffling.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Malcolm Gladwell, on stage at the Moth, where people come to tell both true stories and occasional tall tales. This story appears in one of the Moth's greatest hits collections. Their website, where they have all kinds of free stories to listen to, is themoth.org. By the way, if there's any ambiguity in here at all, young journalists please note, putting false information into the newspaper is wrong.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Robyn Semien, with Alex Blumberg, Jane Feltes, John Jeter, Sarah Koenig, Lisa Pollak, Alissa Shipp, and Nancy Updike. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Production help from Seth Lind and Emily Youssef. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Special thanks today to Michael Purdy, Bradley Olsen, and Robert Krulwich.

Our website, where you can get our free weekly podcast or listen to any of our old shows for absolutely free, www.thisamericanlife.org. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight for our program by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who says that he is absolutely certain that all these years doing the pledge drive must be good for something.

Elder 1

I thought about it. I was like, I bet selling life insurance is way easier than this. Or like those guys who sell scissors, go door to door, like Cutco, they sell scissors. I'm like, I'm sure I can sell some scissors.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. I'm back next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.