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Chris Kompanek

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On the Culture Front: The Moth Raises a New Roof

Posted: 11/04/11 12:23 PM ET

Downtown storytelling group The Moth made their Town Hall debut Wednesday night with a thoroughly moving show celebrating the timeless nature of this simple art form and the life of monologist Spalding Gray.

Garrison Keillor hosted the event with his usual understated charm as he introduced the diverse lineup of storytellers that included Moth favorite Mike Birbiglia, novelist Tina McElroy Ansa, "modern-day Indiana Jones" Dr. Alan Rabinowitz, lapsed Mormon writer Elna Baker, and former longtime Moth host Jonathan Ames.

Birbiglia kicked off the show with a string of greatest hits-type bits united around the theme of self-deprecation. In one particularly memorable one, he's on stage at a charity benefit apologizing for being the celebrity they're stuck with and struggling to find the right tone for his act. "The first speaker walks on, and he's an 11-year-old boy who survived Leukemia," Birbiglia tells us. "I know. He's not funny at all." With a couple simple lines, he cut through complicated emotions drawing big laughs in such a natural way. He's the kind of guy you feel like you know just from seeing him tell a story even though he assured us in real life, "I'm really not funny at all."

Birbiglia's a tough act to follow, and Tina McElroy Ansa struggled to find her rhythm as she told of her tumultuous childhood as an African-American growing up with an entrepreneurial father in '50s south. Her story was compelling but rambling and often felt like she was unsure of where it was going even as she got to the end.

Dr. Alan Rabinowitz closed out the first half of the program with an engaging tale of how a search for a lost tribe of people in one of the most remote areas of the world led to a surprising discovery about his marriage and the childhood traumas he thought he left behind.

Elna Baker's story focused similarly on the necessity to leave one life behind in order to step into a new one. Specifically, she described how she struggled to tell her Mormon parents that, at 28, she's not a virgin anymore.

There was plenty of humor fused in with crisis, as there was in Jonathan Ames' moving story tribute to Spalding Gray, whose widow and young son were present to accept the Moth Award from Garrison Keilor for the late monologist.

Ames' story focused on brief encounters he had with Gray: asking him a question at a party, hoping Gray would catch a show he did at P.S. 122, etc. They were all fleeting and unsatisfying yet the personal nature of Gray's work made a big impression on Ames, and he didn't take telling this story lightly. In fact, he was terrified when he learned he'd be on stage in front of 1,400 people at Town Hall instead of the usual couple hundred they squeeze into the intimate players club. Ames apologized often and seemed more uncomfortable on stage than usual, but his story was one of most heartfelt of the night, or for the matter, any night i've been at the Moth.

Save for their podcasts, Moth shows generally exist for a single moment in time. But thankfully, their last big show, A New Yorker Night at the Moth, is available on Fora.TV for those who couldn't get tickets before the show which sold out almost instantly this past month.

The show features New Yorker writers like Michael Specter and Ian Frazier telling office stories Moth-style, combining the best of these two great literary institutions. Host Andy Borowitz provides the natural link between the two: he's hosted countless Moth shows and is a humor writer for the New Yorker. He's always a pleasure to see perform and even included a story about his experience of venturing into "real journalism."

Borowitz also hosted the one New Yorker event I made it to this year, a conversation with Zach Galifianakis that flowed like two friends having a beer -- Galifianakis even brought beer for him and Andy -- and ended with a cupcake Birthday party for Zach.

Unfortunately, it's not available as part of Fora's New Yorker Festival conference package, but many great shows are, including the National's concert and conversation with Atul Gawande, Steve Martin's talk with New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, and a literary exploration of the dark side with TC Boyle, Joyce Carol Oates, and George Saunders.

I couldn't help but marvel at the convenience of being able to check out all of these events from the comfort of my couch instead of on a tiny, uncomfortable folding chair. Still, though, there's nothing like being in a room with people telling stories, and I can't imagine that will ever change.