This week’s This American Life comes to us from 2009. The episode is a recording of a live show that, six years ago, was performed onstage in New York and beamed to 430 movie theaters across the country.
Why review an episode that has, by any mark, already achieved exceptional success? More than 50,000 people saw the episode in theaters. Entertainment and business journalists have noted Ira Glass’s canny expansion of This American Life’s already-enviable brand–an expansion in which live events have played a major role. And the audience, audible on the recording, laughed all the way through.
The audience’s snorts and cheers are just one reminder of the episode’s provenance as a live show. We also hear (but do not see) clips from Joss Whedon’s Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog—an inclusion that requires Ira Glass to interject at one point, “Everybody listening on the radio, he’s holding up a baggie of brown liquid.” But by then, the joke is already lost.
No media buff could listen to this broadcast without admiring Glass’s boldness in disseminating his show through three forms of media: live theatre, cinema, and radio. The episode doesn’t work equally well in each location. Material that was buoyed by energy and visuals of the live taping comes across as thin once stripped to audio only.
This episode makes apparent the special difficulties involved in translating a long-form radio journalism format into a live show (and then translating that same episode back into radio). And in their attempt to bring This American Life onstage, Glass and his producers fall into some patterns that I think the show should avoid—not just in order to preserve its distinctive appeal, but also because of the outsized influence This American Life has on other podcasts.
The show opens with a story about an 18-year-old woman from Putnam County, Florida. After she’s convicted of shoplifting (she stole candy bars and milk), she receives an unusual sentence. She’s forced to walk back and forth in front of a Kangaroo Express, holding a sign that reads: “I stole from this store.”
A full episode could take wing from this start. The episode could probe the validity of public-shaming punishments, or investigate the psychological difficulty involved in re-encountering a place where you transgressed. It could discuss what we owe other people in society after we make mistakes. (Did the woman wrong just the store she stole from? Did she wrong all of society by breaking the law? Did she wrong herself?) All these possibilities would fall under the banner of “Return to the Scene of the Crime.”
But instead, the live show pivots to segments only peripherally related to the show’s stated theme. Mike Birbiglia (who you might recognize as Danny Pearson from Orange is the New Black) tells us about getting hit by a drunk driver—and then getting charged $12,000 for the other driver’s car repairs after a negligent cop finds him, not the drunk driver, at fault. He becomes obsessed with the case. He pores over the police report endlessly, tracks down the other driver online, and scribbles plans of attack on a napkin at dinner with his girlfriend. The other meaty segment features Dan Savage, who tells us about his urge to return to Catholicism after his mother’s death.
You can hear Savage’s voice quaver as he talks about his mother’s last moments in the hospital—a moving reminder of the story’s intensely personal nature, made still more emotionally powerful by our knowledge of how smooth and polished a speaker Savage is. And Birbiglia entertains with droll deadpan, reminding us that the stage is more often the province of stand-up comedy than long-form storytelling.
So what’s wrong?
The most successful This American Life episodes tell stories about ordinary people in extraordinary situations. Think about the parent and child in the midst of an impromptu school integration scheme outside Ferguson, or the Chicago family who docked a 25-foot-long boat in its driveway. All sorts of lives are possible in America, the show suggests in episode after episode.
This live show, by contrast, is not about “typical” people to whom atypical things happen. It’s about celebrities feeling the brush of the ordinary: a traffic accident in Birbiglia’s case, the death of a parent and a crisis of faith in Savage’s. Neither story has a full arc. Savage flirts with the idea of returning to the Catholic Church but almost immediately finds it politically unsavory. Birbiglia’s obsession with the traffic accident abruptly ends, and he pays the fine. Each story glides on the charisma and, yes, fame of the people recounting them. The live show’s reliance on celebrity rather than content, as well as its digressive approach toward the episode’s stated theme, is most apparent in the middle section, which features Joss Whedon singing about DVD commentaries.
Maybe Glass thought he needed celebrity heft to make the live show a success. And I don’t expect This American Life to follow the same formula—reported stories about relatively unknown people—for every episode. But what makes This American Life a staple is its commitment to well-plotted storytelling, careful meditations on a chosen theme (one theme per episode), and textured accounts of bizarre, quirky, or politically salient experiences that affect real people. The live show falls short on all three fronts.
Why is This American Life re-airing this episode? It would be hyperbolic, but not exactly untrue, to say that its glance backwards to 2009 is a return to the scene of one of its own crimes: seeking publicity and exposure rather than trusting in the quiet absorbing narratives that give This American Life its beloved place in American radio journalism.
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