Saturday, January 3, 2009

This American Life

This American Life is truly one of my favorite things in the entire world. Its on the same list as the Brooklyn promenade, my sisters, and snow. Just to be clear, I am talking about the radio show, not the television show. No disrespect to the television show, but I've only seen it three times and each time it was the SAME episode. The one with Improv Everywhere and that weird bull with the hanging skin. You know what I'm talking about.

The radio show is many, many kinds of brilliant. Its a very simple concept. As stated at the start of each episode, each week they chose a theme, and tell a variety of stories on that theme. Its a pointed look at the everyday and not-so-everyday people and places and things observed by smart minded people. Its an escape to a different way of looking and thinking, and we are better for it.

If you don't listen to This American Life, its probably because you don't think you like radio. I suppose there is a giant leap that goes into listening to radio for the first time (although its also a podcast) and if you aren't an NPR fan (you should be!) you don't understand how fantastic it is. Most New Yorkers claim that they don't listen to radio because they don't drive. Well, you can get all of the episodes online and listen on your ipod on the train-- best thing EVER. Not only is it escapist, but its a completely zen experience.

Radio allows a state of relaxation by combining the best aspects of reading and watching. It encourages imagination by not giving us any visuals, yet doesn't ask us to put in any effort during the process. In that way it is a completely indulgent and decedent experience. Have you ever sat across from someone on the subway smiling and laughing to herself with an unfixed gaze? She is absolutely listening to This American Life.

Start listening to the radio, America. You will be better for it. Below is my list of the best episodes, although its much more extensive than this. Start and the top and work your way down because I have thought about the list a lot and its the way to go. Like I said, its one of my very favorite things in this world. And, like every other liberal-arts-influenced-twenty-something-female in North America, I have a huge crush on Ira Glass.

Best of This American Life
Kid Logic- I think about this episode a lot in terms of how our brains function and how absurd it is to think that we, as humans, believe that we have it all figured out. That we can have it all figured out. The tooth fairy story is amazing. It is the first This American Life story I came across on NPR and was thrilled beyond belief that I had discovered a radio show that told stories. This is where it all started for me.

Break-up- The Phil Collins story is my FAVORITE ever to be told on This American Life. Its so funny and sadly quite autobiographical in my life. But Starlee Jones helps me take myself less seriously and her song really does heal. The story of the young girl asking the mayor for advice is also heartbreakingly raw and real. This is a great episode.

Switched at Birth- SHOCKING. Its just how it sounds, this episode tells the story of two girls actually switched at birth who find out as adults. Everything about this episode is crazy-interesting, I think about it often.

What I Learned from TV- Sarah Vowell has a fantastic essay on Thanksgiving episodes of sitcoms, and Ira Glass talks about The O.C. and makes me MELT. The story on the guy who doesn't watch TV and laughs hysterically at America's Funniest Home Videos is hilarious. This is one of the all-around best episodes... every story is amazing.

Notes on Sleep- This is where I first heard Mike Birbiglia. SO FUNNY. The last story about understanding death through sleep also unfortunately rang true for me. I had no idea that other people had experienced this before, its super interesting and incredibly scary.

A Little Bit of Knowledge- Fascinating look at how our minds and worlds are formed and what happens if something is randomly missed. Like a normal, smart, educated twenty five year old asks one day at a party if unicorns are extinct or endangered. The story of the gay couple raising the young boy is also crazy-interesting.

Allure of the Mean Friend- We've all had one. This episode offers an inquiry as to why this bizarre phenomenon is so common.

Notes on Camp- This is Lauren Hoffman's favorite episode. You can always trust her taste.

Dreamhouse- The story of the father who decides to build his house stuck with me for a long time. It is told in a similar tone of The Glass Castle, and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Its about trust and dreams and how far both can stretch and how far both should stretch.

Going Big- Touches on big social ideas like bettering entire communities in Harlem through babies and tells the story of a daughter going to prison to be with her mom. Heartbreaking and beautiful.

How to Talk to Kids- Similar to Kid Logic, but told in a more serious, anthropological tone.

Act V- Inmates at a high-security prison rehearse and stage a production of the last act -- Act V -- of "Hamlet." It's a play about murder and its consequences, performed by murderers living out the consequences. (I stole that description from itunes, but its wording was much better than mine.)

The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar- I wonder if The Changling with Angelina was based on this story. Its a similar idea, and equally terrifying and unbelievable.

Ruining it for the Rest of Us- Mike Birbiglia is back for this episode- YAY. He tells the story of why comedy is bad for cancer benefits. Cracks me up.

There are many, many more but thats a start. I love you, Ira.


La said...

There's so much to say about this post. One, you showed me for the first time what Ira Glass looks like. I knew he would have glasses but that's not what I pictured. I think I always pictured this guy that worked at my favorite starbucks in Omaha. Two, kid logic was the first episode I ever listened to and I think I called you to tell you about it and we both became suddenly hooked. Three, the changeling was WAY more upsetting than the Bobby Dunbar episode. Noone should see that movie but the This American Life episode is worth listening to. I do agree that they were similar. Thanks for the list of your favorite episodes!

Katie Henly said...

Going Big changed my life. "Go big or go home" should be my new life motto. I'll add that to my new years resolutions list with looking like Heidi Klum. Babe.

David Henly said...

Love TAL. Have been podcasting it for quite a while. Don't miss 12/8 "Heretic". I actually wept for this guy. And all because he chose not to believe in Hell. Quite reasonable. After my years at Yale Divinity School i'm with him all the way. Happy New Year, kid. (ps - has Katie told you about MY radio show?)

tre cat said...

I agree with every single letter, syllable, space, comma and period of this post. It has revolutionized my life! I would like to thank Sharon Powell, family studies prof. at Olaf, for introducing it to me. For a GREAT laugh see the babysitting story halfway through the 20 Acts in 60 Seconds episode from a few weeks ago. :)