Transcript

426:

Tough Room 2011
Transcript

Originally aired 02.04.2011

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/426

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, the year after 9/11.

Alexis Ohm

And 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.

Alex Blumberg

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 saw my whole meal that I'd 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 biggest as saucers. I had a 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, with the long hair. So 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.

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 did that day. Yes you did.

Jeff Ohm

I guess in retrospect, my reaction I regret, for 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 things, it just jacked me right there.

Ira Glass

Alexis pretty much knew what she was getting into talking about Osama bin Laden this way with her dad. He's 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 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 tough acts.

Act One, Make 'Em Laff, in which we go among comedy professionals who face a room that is so tough there is just one laugh every 100 jokes. Act Two, Bar Car Prophesy. 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, we go to the opposite of a tough room, the easiest room anywhere in this country. Well, maybe in this country isn't the right way to put it. Stay with us.

Act One. Make 'em Laff.

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 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 are 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 till the next round of editing.

Seth Reiss

Star of David to add seventh point. Report: America runs on--

Todd Hanson

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

Seth Reiss

I just thinks it's silly.

Todd Hanson

OK. I'm just saying.

Ira Glass

The jokes 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. It was a very tough room with a tough-minded editorial process that they'd been using for 20 years. And I wanted to see what that meant.

Onion Comedy Writer

Car commercial pretty adamant about car.

Man

Yeah.

Onion Comedy Writer

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 five 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 new 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 Rested 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's 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

And it 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 attached to them. Like I had this one that was "Spork Used as Knife." And for some reason, that was 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. Just nothing, just died. And I read it twice, and they were like, yeah, move on. Then, still-- that must have been this summer-- it was like months ago that I wrote 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--

Onion Comedy Writer 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. But 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 of his years of experience, even he can't tell which of his brand new jokes is any good.

Todd Hanson

Man evidently think those sideburns make him look cool. That's not funny.

Onion Comedy Writer 1

I kind of like that.

Todd Hanson

Really?

Onion Comedy Writer 1

Kind of.

Todd Hanson

Is it funny with something other than sideburns? No? OK. All right. Pornography desensitized populace demands new orifice to look at.

Onion Comedy Writer 1

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 the 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 come straight from real life. Casual relationship enters third year.

Megan Ganz

So that's still going on?

[LAUGHTER]

Megan Ganz

I'm 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 was 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 outstanding 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 the shared assumptions and what one of them called their hive mentality, it was sometimes hard to figure out why, for instance, "Local girlfriend always wants to do stuff," was a good enough headline to make it into paper, while a headline that seems nearly identical, "Nation's Girlfriends Call for More Quality Time," literally gets jeer-- jeers. Listen.

Onion Comedy Writer

Nation's girlfriends call for more quality time.

Todd Hanson

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

Onion Comedy Writer 1

I'm pregnant.

Todd Hanson

Lucy!

Ira Glass

Or why does this joke immediate, unquestioning approval?

Megan Ganz

Beauty regimen horrifying.

Onion Comedy Writer 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 of whether the point of the joke was, in fact, the taunting.

Todd Hanson

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

Onion Comedy Writer 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 did the Doritos themselves make the joke too obvious?

Megan Ganz

It's like, it would be funny and have funny details in it. But on its immediate surface, it's a joke about Doritos.

Onion Comedy Writer 1

I agree that Doritos has 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 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.

Onion Comedy Writer 1

Cardinal teaches Pope to make church by interlocking his fingers.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Or this one.

Gay retard teased.

[LAUGHTER]

Onion Comedy Writer 1

No! That's so awful.

Ira Glass

Or here's another

Onion Comedy Writer 1

Infertile woman treats frog-shaped humidifier as human child.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

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

Onion Comedy Writer 1

Biologist realizes he's been studying Cadbury Egg.

[LAUGHTER]

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 initially funny. But then we sit down on Tuesday and go, well, what does that mean though? Like, what do we say about that? Where does that joke go?

Like, there was a headline once that everyone laughed at really hard. It 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 the penguins, I guess. And 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. What do you write about that? It doesn't go anywhere.

Ira Glass

And then there was this mystery. Why did this 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 explained 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

And 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. She always wants to leave the house.

Dan Guterman

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

Onion Comedy Writer 1

It's a really tired joke.

Ira Glass

In fact, all through their editorial meetings, 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 seem 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. 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, though to made a very different point.

Todd Hanson

No, 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 just kept saying, why? What is it? Thirst guy drinks a whole lake? What's funny about that? It's just silly. It's silly in a way that isn't funny. And they're like, no, no. You have to trust us. Because he's the thirsty mayor. He drinks the whole town.

And they were trying to explain it to me. 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 Sillytown, 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 those silly jokes and jokes with a bigger meaning, a fewer 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 were 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. It seems very Onion by the numbers.

Todd Hanson

That's kind of why I liked it.

Seth Reiss

I know. But I'll tell you, almost to a point where that sentiment, I don't think we're doing anything new there.

Todd Hanson

I don't know, I just think of that as The Onion's ethos. That's kind of what The Onion is about. I mean, 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 because America 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, they're not going to notice that. They're just going to be like, oh, The Onion does this again. I don't know. It just doesn't feel right.

Todd Hanson

Well, I'm going to keep writing jokes like that until 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. Yet there are some things 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 the 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, like with the youngs and olds, the problem 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. I know we've talked it many times, the young people here, it's strange for us to write for your idols.

Ira Glass

But also you're saying to Todd, who's been here forever, 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 wasn'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 room full of people who would even entertain the possibility that it might, who feel that strongly about it? That's a very tough room.

[MUSIC - "HA HA" BY HARPER SIMON]

Act Two. Bar Car Prophesy.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Bar Car Prophesy. 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

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 this 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-minutes 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 grown ups, 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 named 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 grown ups, 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 for my backpack and gave myself a reading right there in the bar car. I'd 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 Madame Blavatsky. Gauzy Indian dresses, [? batik ?] kaftans, chunky silver rings on my fingers. My Tarot cards smelled of patchouli and sandalwood, cigarettes and pot. I shuffled 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 I 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 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 grown ups-- 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 blond 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 had 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 in those cards, not for anyone. Not even for him.

I kept quiet for a 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 though. 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 grown ups. 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. It comes out next year.

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.

Jane Feltes

Elder [? Longey ?] -- Elder doesn't mean older; it's just a title given to missionaries-- is 20, an army brat most recently from Utah. Elder [? Mellor ?] 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.

Mormon Missionary 1

How you 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".

Mormon Missionary 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, or 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.

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.

Mormon Missionary 1

Everyone's walking down 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. 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 [? Longey ?] lives in Chinatown with three other missionaries in a two bedroom apartment. Elder [? Mellor'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'd even call them interactions.

Mormon Missionary 1

Hey, sister.

Jane Feltes

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

Mormon Missionary 1

Have you ever seen this picture before?

Pedestrian

Sorry?

Jane Feltes

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

Mormon Missionary 1

Have you ever see this picture before?

Pedestrian

Yes, I have.

Mormon Missionary 1

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

Pedestrian

I'm Christian, I don't know.

Mormon Missionary 1

Yeah, we are too.

Pedestrian

All right. But I'm not Mormon. Thank you though.

Jane Feltes

"I'm not Mormon," she says. "Thank you though."

Mormon Missionary 1

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

Jane Feltes

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

Mormon Missionary 2

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 anybody 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?

Mormon Missionary 2

And I feel, I don't know. That guy really doesn't want to go to church. Sometimes I get defensive. Under my breath I'll mutter something.

Mormon Missionary 1

Elder [? Longey, ?] did you ever get the my baby's sleeping, I have to go watch it?

Mormon Missionary 2

Oh, yeah.

Mormon Missionary 1

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

Mormon Missionary 2

Yeah, excuses.

Mormon Missionary 1

Hey, brother, how you feeling today?

Mormon Missionary 2

How are you doing today, brother?

Mormon Missionary 1

Hey, sisters, can we invite you guys to get your Mormon on by--

Jane Feltes

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

Mormon Missionary 2

Have a good one.

Jane Feltes

I figured it had to be a Mormon thing. It turns out, it's not.

Mormon Missionary 2

I picked that up in the Bronx. "Hey, what's up brother?" Usually in the Bronx they're like, "Hey, what's up?" They'll like 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 [? Longey ?] approaches a man sitting on the steps.

Mormon Missionary 2

Donde vive? In Manhattan?

Man

Brooklyn.

Mormon Missionary 2

Brooklyn, que parte?

Jane Feltes

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

Mormon Missionary 1

En Francais? Believe de Mormon? Au revoir.

Jane Feltes

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

Mormon Missionary 2

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?

Mormon Missionary 2

Yes.

Mormon Missionary 1

Most definitely.

Mormon Missionary 2

Most definitely.

Jane Feltes

What are you going to do?

Mormon Missionary 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.

Mormon Missionary 2

They're happy people.

Mormon Missionary 1

They're very successful. I wonder what I could do if I did that. Or those guys who sell scissors, going door to door. Like CUTCO. They sell scissors. I'm like, I'm sure I can sell some scissors. Sometimes I think I could sell scissors better than that guy. Because you know how to do deal with people turning you down. 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 things that keeps you going is like eternal life. With scissors, I don't know.

Mormon Missionary 1

I don't know, 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 this, but OK.

Jane Feltes

Elder [? Mellor ?] 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.

Mormon Missionary 2

What about Jeremiah and things like that?

Man

In dreams. They had dreams. God did not speak to them

Mormon Missionary 2

Right. Our message is that God has a prophet on the earth again.

Man

There are many prophets.

Mormon Missionary 2

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

Jane Feltes

It was like watching a couple of football fans talk about the Superbowl, 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 seem relieved to have found someone who relates to the world the way they do.

Man

God bless you.

Mormon Missionary 2

You too, brother. Have a good one.

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're very faithful people.

Jane Feltes

You guys have that in common.

Mormon Missionary 1

Yeah, that's true. But like going along with the Jews and Muslims and stuff is they understand the idea of the covenant, you know, 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. Contrails Of My Tears.

Brett Martin

A couple of years ago I was on a flight from New York to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The movie was Sweet Home Alabama, which you'll remember. It's about a southern girl played by Reese Witherspoon who moves to New York, joins the fashion industry, and then is forced to return home and come to terms with her white trash roots.

At the end, there's a wedding scene when the character has to explain to her big city husband-to-be that she's leaving him for her earthy, down-home high school sweetheart.

Reese Witherspoon

The truth is I gave my heart away a long time ago, my whole heart. And I never really got it back. And I don't even know what else to say. But I'm sorry. I can't marry you.

Brett Martin

Into the stunned silence that follows walks Candice Bergen as the jilted fiance's dragon lady of a mother, who, coincidentally, also happens to be the mayor of New York.

After a volley of insults, Witherspoon decks Bergen. And it is at this moment, somewhere between when Witherspoon drawled, "Nobody talks to my mama like that," and her father, Earl Smooter, raised his face to the heavens and declared, "Praise the Lord. The South has rise again," that something because to happen to me. My face got hot and constricted. A softball rose in my throat that required a surprisingly loud snort to choke back. My breathing grew rapid. In short, I lost it and started to cry.

I should say that Sweet Home Alabama is not a very good movie. It's actually a pretty terrible movie. I have no particular attachment to Reese Witherspoon, and I'm not from the South. Also, this was the fourth time I'd seen it.

See, my name is Brett and I cry at movies on airplanes. Not sometimes, always. And not some movies, all movies. Don't believe me? Here's a by no means complete list. Bend It Like Beckham, 101 Dalmations, What A Girl Wants, Daredevil.

Let me be clear. I am not afraid of flying. I like flying. And I'm not a crier, at least not on land. Like many men I know, even sensitive ones who know that having a cry can be healthy and good, I passed some invisible line in adolescence where I simply stopped doing it. There have been many times in life that I probably should have cried, actually tried to cry, and wasn't able to. Because, of course, I didn't happen to be at 30,000 feet.

Needless to say, this can be embarrassing. I once confessed my problem to a friend, and he thought for a long moment before saying, I'm sorry to hear that. Does it make your mascara run?

Earlier this year I was flying from Denver to New York and found myself seated next to a big, burly guy with a cowboy shirt and a western belt buckle. Before takeoff, we talked about football or college basketball or something. Then they announced the movie. It was Under The Tuscan Sun. I glanced at my macho new buddy, thought about watching Diane Lane experience love and loss while rediscovering her inner strength at a farmhouse in the Italian countryside, and read the Sky Mall catalog instead.

For a long time, I thought I was alone in this. Then a few months ago, I was at a party and overheard another guest describe how he fell to pieces watching an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond on a flight to California. I started asking around and found I wasn't completely alone.

Greg is a 32-year-old guy in jeans and a Mets hat who just finished reading a book about college sports.

Greg

I think it might have been the only movie available was Dirty Dancing 2: Havana Nights. The parents watch them dance and they see how special this relationship is. And at that moment, they've gone from angry parents to sort of accepting of Javier. I mean, I got choked up.

Brett Martin

As my fellow weepers will tell you, even not watching the movie is no guarantee of safety. Here's my friend, Lindsay.

Lindsay

So I was on a flight, I believe California to New York. The specifics don't really stand out. But I do remember that it required a $2 deposit for earphones or something. And I wasn't ready to pay the $2 or I didn't have $2. And I decided I'd read my book. But the movie is playing. And I see it. And I can't take my eyes off of it. So I end up watching the entire duration of the movie without sound. And at various points throughout it I started welling up, thinking wow, I can't believe I'm crying in a movie I can't hear the sound to. And it's Freaky Friday.

Brett Martin

Or take Steven, an avid film festival goer and professional movie critic who can discourse at length on the differences between early and late period Kurosawa. His plane hadn't even taken off.

Steven

And they were just running this loop of commercials and in-flight programming and stuff. They hadn't started the movie. It was very early on. And there was this AMEX commercial. A man traveling through Europe, and you know, I think it was nighttime. I want to say it was raining or something. And this kind of haggard traveller, this businessman, is walking briskly through the street. And then they close up on a wallet, clearly his, that he had left behind unknowingly.

And then you see, cut to the hotel where he's checking in. And the woman asks for a credit card. And then he pats himself down and realizes he doesn't have it. He goes into a state of panic. I think that's when I started choking up.

And then he gets American Express on the phone. They explain it'll be OK. He'll have a credit card in the morning. And then I start to relax a little bit. And then he says wait, I'm not going to be in this city. Tomorrow I have to travel. And then I started chocking up again. And then they said, oh, we'll have a waiting for you in that city. And then I just started crying after that. I was so happy for him, and relieved. It was a pretty tense situation there for about 15 or 20 seconds.

Brett Martin

This is one of the strange features of our problem. We're less likely to cry at the sad parts of a movie, or financial services industry commercial, than at the happy ones, the parts where everything turns out all right. For instance, in the movie Larger Than Life, which I saw somewhere over the Atlantic a few years ago, it wasn't the moment where Bill Murray is separated from the elephant that his dead circus clown father has left him as a means to change his life as a down-on-his-luck motivational speaker that had me reaching for the tissues. It was when they were reunited.

In fact, the first time this happened to me was during one of the happiest scenes I'd ever seen. It was in Big Night, Stanley Tucci's movie about fraternal love and Italian food. Mid-way through the movie, Tucci's character and his brother stage a feast in their New Jersey restaurant, and, at one point, bring out a whole roast pig. The camera pans across the faces of the guests just amazed by this unbelievable bounty being wheeled into the room. And the lump because to rise in my throat.

I found myself brimming over with joy, with the sense that somewhere in the darkness, miles below, just like on screen, people were laughing, communing, sharing a meal. It was impossibly beautiful. And there was just nothing to do but cry.

I've never heard of anyone crying inappropriately on trains, or on buses, or in boats, or cars. What is it about airplanes?

Lindsay

I remember getting off the plane thinking, I should really actually be embarrassed by the fact that I just cried during Freaky Friday and I didn't even hear the sound to it. But I wasn't. It's like, what happens in air stays in air, I guess.

Brett Martin

The people I talked to offered a lot of excuses. It's the recirculated air. Your eyes are dry. You're often tired and leaving people behind. And, of course, there's the obvious conclusion. We're all scared to death. But I've been on hundreds of planes, including quite a few tiny ones, one sea plane that landed on water, and one blimp. I've taken the controls of a plane. I've jumped out of a plane. I've searched my soul. An honest-to-god, I find no fear of flying. And all the frequent criers I interviewed felt the same.

No, something else happens up there, in that weird hanging state between where you're going and where you've left, where there's no phone calls to take, nowhere to go, nothing to do. Some strange overhead compartment of the heart opens up. And critical judgment grabs its flotational seat cushion and follows the lighted pathway to the big, yellow slide.

My friend Greg says this actually makes the ride better. Think about it. You're stuck in a seat for 5, or 10, or 15 hours. And how would you rather pass the time? Sitting there being a critic, or just simply giving in?

Greg

I mean, I wouldn't have watched Havana Nights in the waiting area waiting to get on the plane. On Earth, no, not a chance. But once you step on the plane, I'm open to and accepting the movie. And then once you do that, it's going to leave me jelly, turn me into jelly.

Brett Martin

My own theory goes something like this. My father once told me that the reason squirrels get hit by cars is that evolutionarily nothing in their little hard-wired brains is capable of understanding a large object is hurtling toward them at 70 miles per hour. Well, even though I fly all the time, nothing in my little hard-wired brain is capable of understanding-- I mean really understanding-- stepping onto a metal tube, hanging in space for a while, and then stepping off 6,000 miles away in a place with different weather, different stars, different time.

It puts you into a kind of sterile, infantilizing travel purgatory. You're strapped in, given a blanket, a little sippy cup, and tiny silverware, forced to do whatever you're told and borne away at speeds you can't conceive without seeing where you're going.

We all deal with this dislocation differently. Many times I've thought, why can't I just have air rage? Why can't I be the guy drinking 14 mini bottles of Amaretto, surfing down the aisle on the dinner cart, groping stewardesses, and cursing? But then, I do a lot of yelling and screaming down here on the ground, even a little groping. What I don't do is cry. Not over breakups, or reunions, or triumphs, or deaths, or leaving home, or coming back, or any of life's other bumps and transformations. Maybe that's the key to my air-- what, sorrow? Maybe I cry the tears I should be shedding on Earth.

And all of you people who don't cry on airplanes, you're probably the ones I see sobbing on the subway, or on street corners, or at funerals. You probably get it all out at home. Well, boo hoo. Do us all a favor and keep it in the air, you babies.

Ira Glass

Brett Martin is a correspondent for GQ Magazine in New York.

[MUSIC - "MOVE THE CROWD" BY ERIC B. & RAKIM]

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. Seth Lind is our production manager. Emily Condon is our office manager. Adrianne Mathiowetz runs our website. Music help from Jessica Hopper. Production help from Eric Mennel.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International. WBEZ management oversight by our boss, Mr. Torey Malatia, who says that he is absolutely certain after all these years that doing the pledge drive must be good for something.

Man

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 could sell some scissors.

Ira Glass

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

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.