Tonight at Powell's City of Books, Jonathan Goldstein reads from Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bible!, his new collection of humor spoofing, you know, that other book.
Goldstein is most closely associated with This American Life, the generation-defining public radio show started by Ira Glass, which is fast approaching its fifteenth year on the air. Last week, I spoke with Goldstein over the phone about the new book; his entry into radio; and my favorite of his projects, WireTap, a fascinating show Goldstein created for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Read all about it... after the jump!
THE MERCURY: Did you begin writing the stories that make up Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bible! with a book in mind?
JONATHAN GOLDSTEIN: I actually had the idea in 2003, maybe. I was working as a producer at This American Life, then I moved back home to Canada with the idea of writing these Bible stories. I wrote one for This American Life while I was slowly going Jack Nicholson-style crazy (from The Shining) trying to write. So the stories would come out when I was called upon—if there was a producer at This American Life who had a theme they wanted me to write to, where a Bible story might be appropriate. It would give me a deadline, which was great. But a couple of summers ago I wrote the Noah's ark chapter, which kind of kick-started me into taking the book on in earnest.
Your book picks up a rich tradition of Bible parody written by the likes of, say, Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. Did you lean on any particular influences for your book?
I don't know about Groucho Marx or Woody Allen. But it makes sense. After I did the Adam and Eve story some people wrote in and said, "you know, Mark Twain has already done this." And I didn't know that either. So the subject obviously has a particular appeal for humor writers. But besides the Bible itself, what I was also influenced by was pop culture rehashes of the Bible. Like History of the World and Holy Moses. Even Fred and Barney getting stuck in a whale on a Flinstones episode.
A lot of us know you from your radio work. How'd you get into radio?
It was pretty sideways. What happened was I did a lot of crappy jobs. I worked as a telemarketer for ten years. I was putting together 'zines at that time and filling boxes with rejection letters from publishers. And my big breakthrough was with some of these reading events I started attending. I found I was an okay reader—people laughed at my stuff and I got an okay reaction. There was a radio producer there who wanted me to do essays on the CBC, and I found it really fun. After that it kicked off in a big way. I fell in love with radio at This American Life. I went to the show as a fan, not as a radio guy. Until that point it was just a medium for the dissemination of writing. But with This American Life I began to feel radio was a language in itself and interesting things could be done.
From there you went on to create WireTap, which is a show built around telephone interviews. I wonder if that idea sprang to mind during your telemarketing days.
I've never really though about that before. But there was a kind of boldness that came out of me from telemarketing that probably wouldn't have happened from going door-to-door. And for the guests on the show, I think it's a little easier to perform over than phone than if there's a microphone in front of them. The mic telegraphs its broadcast-iness much more than a telephone, which is more intimate.
Catch Jonathan Goldstein tonight at Powell's City of Books, 1005 W Burnside, 7:30pm, free
Get the best of the Mercury each week in your inbox!