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Podthoughts by Colin Marshall: “The Moth: Stories Told”

Posted by Maximum Fun on 17th May 2008

Who holds the title of greatest living monologist? Many readers would nominate Mike Daisey, who appeared at The Sound Live in NYC, and who Jesse recently named “the official monologist of” But why is he so compelling? How can one guy, alone, just talking about the lives of himself and others draw us in like a tractor beam?

The very same friend who introduced me to The Sound wrote this about Daisey’s act:

We call this a monologue, but it’s storytelling. Respectable theaters don’t get urban elites to shell out $25 a head for storytelling. If they advertised “Mike Daisey Telling Stories” you might expect animal crackers and milk, and possibly even a nap. “Honey, where are my footie pajamas? You know, the dressy ones?” So they call it a monologue and Mike Daisey tells his stories, and the audience sits rapt. Even after eighty or ninety minutes — with no intermission — none of the rustling, none of the coughing, none of the shifting in seats you hear in a theater or concert hall as the end draws near and attentions wander.

Storytelling: that’s the skill Daisey has mastered, and I would submit there ain’t a man, woman or child alive who doesn’t enjoy a good story.

The Moth understands this. You might expect it to be an insect, but no, it’s an organization that promotes the art of storytelling. Founded in some guy’s living room a decade ago, The Moth has grown enormously: it now holds all sorts of events featuring tales told by fascinating personalities both known and unknown, all over the country. In this case, “all over the country” tends to mean, well, both coasts, but if you’re out of the 212 or the 310, you’re not out of luck. The Moth, you see, has a podcast. [iTunes link]

Each installment adheres to the same rules: one storyteller, one story, ten to fifteen minutes, live on stage, no notes. This sounds like a tightrope act where to bomb is just as likely as to draw rapturous applause, but as much fun as that would be, we’re dealing with story professionals here. There’s the New Yorker‘s Malcolm Gladwell, recounting how he entertained himself early in his journalism career by wedging the phrase “perverse and often baffling” into as many articles as possible. [MP3] There’s the same organ’s Adam Gopnik telling of his inability to properly use the term “LOL.” [MP3] There’s screenwriter Cindy Chupack describing how the prospect of signing a 30-year-mortgage may well have turned her husband gay. [MP3] And yes, there’s good old Mike Daisey taking us to a very dark psychological place indeed, one where he’s made to endure a seven-hour death march of an audition at the hands of worshiped indie filmmaker Todd Solondz. [MP3]

Vulnerable as The Moth’s subject matter may be to the same jab The Onion made about This American Life — I guarantee you’ll hear plenty about therapy, the foibles of professional life and what it’s like to look for love in all the wrong places — they’re two of the best games in Podcast Town when it comes to storytelling. And hey, The Moth has Jonathan Ames talking about his Christmas spent doing freebase with a transsexual [MP3], so it’s not like they don’t spice it up.

[Direct all correspondence to colinjmarshall at gmail. Podthoughts discussion thread available here.]