Word of Moth

A legendary local storytelling event turns ten.

STAGE OF TURBULENCE Malcolm Gladwell does his signature Sideshow Bob impression.

STAGE OF TURBULENCE Malcolm Gladwell does his signature Sideshow Bob impression. Photo: David Polenberg

[Ed note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]

Over the past decade, the Moth storytelling series has showcased raconteurs ranging from the well-established (Richard Price, Moby) to the somewhat obscure (hot-dog-eating champ “Hungry” Charles Hardy). The organization has branched out in the years since it started, helping high-school kids and even going on tour. But it’s still best known for its performance nights—happenings, really—which are notorious for their rogue energy and droll unpredictability. On Monday 12, the Moth will celebrate its tenth birthday—with a Moth Ball, natch, hosted by comedian, author and Bush buster Andy Borowitz. He’ll referee a showdown between Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik, who have no doubt been trash-talking each other in the New Yorker offices for weeks. In anticipation of the fete, we asked a handful of alums to reminisce about the Moth’s frequently madcap events.

Philip Gourevitch, author of We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families: Part of the kick of the Moth, in the early years especially, was the sense that everybody was performing without a net. You’d rehearse the story, sure, but memorization was considered terminally uncool, so you were up there winging it. It was guerrilla theater. The audience didn’t know what was coming—and the performers didn’t quite know how it was going to come out either. People who thrive on that just gravitated to the scene and let it rip.

Bliss Broyard, author of One Drop: The first time I ever told a story at the Moth, in 1999, at the now defunct Lansky Lounge in the Lower East Side, I remember how I was standing by the bar, waiting to go on, and I thought to myself, Wow, your knees really do knock when you’re nervous. But that fear and exhilaration is what makes the experience of being a storyteller and an audience member so powerful and addictive.

Gay Talese, author of A Writer’s Life: Hell, I’m 75, I grew up when talking on the telephone was high technology, but today people are into their iPods, into their singular world of watching the screen and being on the Internet. Everything is so technically centered in the lives of people today, and you and Wall Street and the Taliban are all on the Internet, follow me? But at the Moth, you have voices, people making eye contact, an audience listening to people onstage telling stories that are out of the mouth, and out of the imagination. And it’s successful. It seems so contemporary and yet so old-fashioned, and what it does is cast doubt on the notion that we’re trapped in our technology.

Dan Kennedy, author of Loser Goes First: Without the Moth, my time as a struggling writer in New York City would have just been a lot of sitting at my desk alone and typing—it’s a weird, lo-fi cross between going to confession, rehab and a literary event.

Malcolm Gladwell, author of Blink: The Moth moment I will never forget was Philip Gourevitch telling a story about a woman he met in Africa. I remember feeling a rude shock when it was over and I realized that I wasn’t in Africa along with him.

Philip Gourevitch: It was a story about fighting a duel over a woman named Fatima—a duel with pistols, of course, on a beach in Togo. This was when the great Joey Xanders was running the show. George Plimpton was the MC, and he kept playing this little flute and trying to charm a nonexistent snake. Tony Hendra told a story that became the book Father Joe, so he was marching around the stage and singing beautifully, a medley of Gregorian chants and the somewhat less hallowed tune “Hitler Has Only Got One Ball.” The last thing I remember seeing onstage was [actor] Andre Gregory tearing his own shirt off for reasons not immediately apparent.

Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!: One of my best Moth memories occurred back in 1999. We were having a show at BAM and George Plimpton was hosting. I was scheduled to do an improvised story, and it was time for Mr. Plimpton, whom I had never met but greatly admired, to bring me to the stage. He said into the microphone: “What a lot of people don’t know is that my middle name is Ames. I’m George Ames Plimpton, and I think the next storyteller is a long-lost cousin of mine.… So please welcome to the stage my cousin Jonathan Ames!” Well, I was shocked. The incredibly famous George Plimpton was claiming to be related to me, but I knew this couldn’t be. I’m as Jewish as a piece of matzo and Plimpton was as Waspy as a blue blazer at a coast-of-Maine cocktail party. I ambled up to the stage and said into the microphone, “What a lot of people don’t know is that my middle name is Plimpton. I’m Jonathan Plimpton Ames.” It doesn’t seem so funny now, but at the time there was a great roar of laughter and George Plimpton smiled beatifically, and after that we became very good friends, though we never became cousins.

Dan Kennedy: I remember being at a Moth party in 2004 when Malcolm Gladwell’s hair caught fire in the kitchen. I remember Buck Henry hitting on my girlfriend. I remember sharing a stage with everyone from Lewis Lapham to a wickedly funny reformed pickpocket named O.T.

Melissa Bank, author of The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing: I’d been worried about the telling part—the performance—which turned out to be almost beside the point. The point was the story itself. [Moth executive producer] Lea Thau helped me find the emotional truth and narrative coherence in an experience that had haunted me for years. Who can ever do that for somebody else? It was sort of a miracle.

Lea Thau: At one of our MothSlams, Sex and the City writer and producer Cindy Chupack put her name in the hat and told a great story. She received the highest score from two of the judging teams, but the third judging team gave her a very low score, which cost her the win. When the judges were asked about the low score, they said: “It wasn’t her story. She stole it from Sex and the City.” In fact, it was a true story of her own that she had also written into an episode of the show, and it illustrates the power of our best stories to reach into the future and shape our lives.

Philip Gourevitch: I couldn’t believe everyone was telling personal stories. I like my stories made up. Joey said fiction was fine. Of course, I performed my fictions as if they were real, in the first person. My narrators were not heroes. So some people thought ill of me. Then they found out I was making it all up, and they really got indignant. But it was really very fun to mess with that kind of atmosphere of belief.

James Braly, performer, author of Life in a Marital Institution: I first saw Spalding Gray in the 1980s and knew right away that was what I wanted to do with my life. The question was, how? But when I saw the Moth one night at Joe’s Pub, I realized I’d stumbled into a place where I could face my fantasies five minutes at a time. That was seven years ago. This winter I’m going to have a show produced in New York. It’s corny to say, but the Moth changed my life.

Gay Talese: The Moth is revelatory. It’s a towering example of how the well-told story can entertain, even in this age when everything seems so elusive.

The Moth Ball is on Mon 12.