This week’s This American Life starts by underscoring the futile grandiosity displayed in social climbing. It ends by imaginatively placing superheroes within an all-too-human social context characterized by pettiness and unfulfilled romantic attachment.
The episode’s prologue, featuring Paul Feig (who directed Bridesmaids), is more amusing than several of the acts that follow. When Feig was eleven, his father handed him a copy of Dale Carnegie’s 1936 book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Feig decided to try some of the techniques the book suggested in a bid to become more popular. But he felt he needed tangible proof to show his dad that he really was popular. So he ran for class president—and won. His term as president, though, is disrupted by a surprise I won’t reveal here. I’ll just say that Feig’s story offers some bittersweet humor reminiscent of Alexander Payne’s razor-sharp film Election. As the episode progressed, I began to wish that Glass had turned Feig’s story into a full-length segment.
The first act, a story told by David Sedaris, is easily the episode’s strongest. Sedaris reminisces about the time Thad Pope, a popular boy at school, hit him in the mouth with a rock. The rock damaged a tooth, leaving young Sedaris in need of a root canal. Sedaris’s father was determined that the Popes would foot the bill. So David and his father go over to the popular boy’s house to settle the issue.
Sedaris sketches the other boy’s home in precise detail, noting the other father’s “sherbert-colored golf pants” and the “hanging Tiffany lamp shades” in the so-called “rumpus room”. Sedaris hints at a subtle class difference that his younger self would not have been so keenly aware of, but never states explicitly that his family and the family of rock-lobbing Thad come from different socioeconomic strata. The segment calls to mind the play God of Carnage, which is also about two sets of parents meeting after the wealthier scion injures another child. But Sedaris’s story has none of that play’s acidity. Instead, he envelops us warmly in the psychology of his younger self, an insecure middle schooler who idolizes perfect Thad and winces at his father. It is a self that most of us will be able to understand and identify with.
Act two, written by Inside Amy Schumer writer Tami Sagher, imagines the United States’s efforts to build a terrorism-fighting coalition after 9/11 as a series of phone calls. Building a coalition, in this conceit, is like organizing a sleepover. “Hi. Pakistan? Hi, it’s America,” Sagher says in a sing-song lilt. “I almost didn’t recognize your voice, it’s been so long…how’s Kashmir? That’s yours, right?” The premise is politically aware and wickedly funny; and at six minutes, the segment doesn’t wear out its welcome.
In act three the episode begins to lose momentum and strays from its initial theme. Luke Burbank reports on a man named Mark Wyzenbeek, from Auburn, Washington, who wears a Superman costume in public places as a way of brightening others’ days and attracting conversation. Wyzenbeek started wearing the outfits after his wife died in a car accident. Burbank follows him to a sports bar where, cape and all, Wyzenbeek absorbs odd looks, questions about the costume (“Do you have a sock in there?”), and teasing.
The segment is presented as a mildly observed oddity, but one with notes of redemption: by dressing up as Superman, Wyzenbeek can move past his grief and even cheer up others. I, however, found the story of Wyzenbeek’s mourning ritual sobering and distressing—a possible interpretation that neither Wyzenbeek nor Burbank seemed to acknowledge. Here is a man whose grieving takes the form of a suspended adolescence that subjects him to public ridicule. I didn’t feel joy at the idea of seeing a grown man (and a widower) in a Superman outfit; knowing his story, I felt discomfort—as if I were intruding upon a private grieving practice. I am further perplexed by The Seattle Times coverage of Wyzenbeek, which reports that he and his wife were estranged before his death (a detail Burbank does not mention). Wyzenbeek is the best judge of his own happiness, and I admire his search for purpose. But I found the segment to be a tragedy masquerading as a sweet slice-of-life piece.
The final act, while amusing, marks the episode’s full shift away from its “how to win friends” theme and toward a series of meditations on Superman. Jonathan Goldstein presents a comic story about what it would be like to date Lois Lane after she broke up with Superman. His story of a flabby-bellied schmuck who serves as Lois’s post-Man of Steel rebound makes for pleasant enough car listening, but lacks the verbal firepower that elicits laughter in Sedaris’s more masterful segment.
The episode tilts more toward pure comedy than reportage: of the four acts and the prologue, only Wyzenbeek’s story is reported. Given its comedic tilt, this episode—especially the much stronger first half—would be a good one to play on a commute or as gentle background listening if you’re looking for some low-commitment entertainment.
This American Life frequently digs up material from its archives; most of this episode dates from 2001. This practice of re-broadcasting would be improved if Ira Glass would supply more clear detail about the provenance of each segment. He specifies that act two comes from 2001, a detail that he perhaps deemed necessary to explain the joke’s political context. But he doesn’t provide dates for the other acts, although presumably all three are from 2001 as well. And is the prologue from 2001, or earlier? Because Glass updates the commentary that runs between the acts (he notes that Sagher is on staff at Inside Amy Schumer, a TV show that didn’t exist in 2001), this confusion is magnified.
About the Author
This post is available under a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives license. That means you can republish this post and others on the site for free, as long as you credit Audiologue and the author in accordance with our republishing guidelines.