Our favorite This American Life moments
Most recently, Ira Glass and his This American Life team have been known for the scandal surrounding one of the show’s most popular episodes. The reason this story stands out is because the crew behind TAL is known for their passion for presenting the truth, and doing so in a manner that is both artful and entertaining. Tonight, This American Life reminds us why we love the show by doing a live broadcast in movie theaters across the country. Guests include David Rakoff, David Sedaris, Mike Birbiglia, OK Go, and more, and details for the live showing (okay, it’s not quite live; the show will be recorded and then aired an hour later) can be found here. In preparation for tonight, we thought we’d look at just a few of our favorite TAL segments, as a warm-up of sorts for the real thing.
239: Lost In America
Act Three. I Found Your Letter.
The idea behind something getting a new life has always appealed to me. I’m a recycling fiend: I buy repurposed purses made from rice bags and candy wrappers. I got really pissed off when I found that they couldn’t refill the ink cartridges on my new printer. I turn found objects into art that I present to my parents and friends as gifts that, while I’m not convinced they truly appreciate or even like, I’m sure they at least get a laugh out of. So when I discovered Found magazine via This American Life in 2003, I was frankly a little miffed that I hadn’t thought of it first (being a journalist and found-object enthusiast—if that indeed is a “thing.”) Shortly after, however, I had a “them’s my people moment” and learned to love hearing about the letters, notes, school papers and such lost by their original owners, then collected and published by Davy Rothbart.
Rothbart explains that the idea got started when he found the following note on the windshield of his car:
I fucking hate you you said you had to work then whys your car HERE at HER place?? You're a fucking LIAR. I hate you. I fucking hate you
PS Page me later
Many of the items are funny. Some are touching and even sad. But they all offer a tiny glimpse into a stranger’s life that reminds us that perhaps we aren’t such strangers after all. [Shanna Mooney]
348: Tough Room
Act One: Make ’Em Laff
Back in 2008, I didn’t work for The Onion or The A.V. Club. I was a publicist at different record labels around Chicago. That didn’t mean that I didn’t read The Onion, though, because what self-respecting person doesn’t? I knew that the stories were funny, but I just didn’t put all that much thought into them. I thought incredibly smart writers came up with them, and they just worked. In a sense, Make ’Em Laff is what that’s about, but to a much more extreme extent then I previously thought. The segment takes This American Life into The Onion writers’ room in New York where brilliant minds bounce zillions of incredibly smart, funny ideas off each other, the vast majority of which don't even get a chuckle. It’s the definition of a tough room, and it really made me realize just how much work goes into something like The Onion being so consistently funny. It’s not an accident that the publication has succeeded and gone on to birth other great companies like The A.V. Club. Years later, I’d say that 20 percent of the time I tell someone I work for The Onion, they mention this segment, which I think is not only a great testament to TAL, but to The Onion. That 17-minute-long blurb made people realize that being funny isn’t just something that comes naturally, but rather something you have to work at. Moreover, that segment has reminded me that the easiest jokes or ideas, while funny, aren’t always the most lasting ones, and that I have to work harder every single day to do work that really matters. [Marah Eakin]
Act Two: I Am Here To Make Frenemies
I watch an unhealthy amount of reality TV. Beginning in the nascent days of Survivor and The Apprentice, I gobbled the stuff without really knowing why: The characters weren’t that likable, and the drama often seemed constructed or petty, yet I just couldn’t stop sopping the shit up. It was Rich Juzwiak’s astute report on the state of reality TV frenemies that made me realize just why reality TV can be so fun to watch: The contestants (that’s a charitable term for some shows—in reality, many of the cast members on these shows aren’t trying to win anything, and are in fact just stars) are shoved together and forced to interact, and it’s this environment that brings out a kind of “I don’t give a shit about you” attitude that you don’t often see in real life, but is fun to watch while you sit brain-dead on the couch. It seems that the people who appear on these shows don’t think of them as “real life,” and instead see their platform as an opportunity to advance their own social standing, whether it be through self-promotion or winning a contest. Everyone has their own personal motive for appearing on reality TV; how many of these people can say that they do so with goal of forming new human bonds. [Jason Zabel]
454: Mr. Daisey And The Apple Factory and 460: Retraction
It took awhile, but This American Life finally had its Million Little Pieces moment this year with the retraction of its most popular episode, Mr. Daisey And The Apple Factory, a title which now sounds eerily perfect for a fairy tale. You’ve probably heard the tale by now: Mike Daisey, gifted storyteller and alleged investigator of truth, traveled to China to visit an Apple factory run by Foxconn, a large motherboard manufacturer that plays a huge role in the creation of some of life’s most fascinating and beloved gadgets. In the original episode, Daisey, storyteller that he is, describes the horrors of the Foxconn plant in spurious detail, including blatantly false descriptions, like the guards outside of the Foxconn factory holding machine guns. But the whole bit is passed off as truth. It was details like the machine gun that tipped off another public radio reporter, one who knew that no one but Chinese police were allowed to have guns in that country. And so began a quest for hard truths. TAL fact-checks and verifies all of its stories, but with this story failed to reach out to a translator who could have verified Daisey’s account of his time in China. There’s no doubt that modern manufacturing produces some horrors, but Daisey, who knew that everything he was to say on TAL was supposed to be factual, ignored the hard truths in favor of a kind of “emotional truth,” one that favored exaggeration and blatant lies. These newly discovered errors didn’t fly with Glass and team, and the result is episode 460, a point by point breakdown of Daisey’s lies, including a discussion with the liar himself. It’s a tense hour of radio, and one that reminds you just how seriously TAL takes its journalistic mission. If they say that something is the truth, they want it to be the truth; not too many outlets still exist where the facts are paramount to any slant or hype, or, for that matter, an interesting story. [JZ]
Episode 296—After The Flood
Hitting air just a week after Hurricane Katrina came ashore along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts, TAL was able to do what few outlets or shows had done: Feature a series of small stories about the chaos of Katrina that managed to cover the larger themes of the disaster. The first act focuses on the Convention Center and the horrors—and humanity—that occurred there. Act three detailed the public’s perception of the aftermath with those of the victims. Most importantly, though, the second act brought to light the story of New Orleans residents who tried to escape the city into neighboring city Gretna via the Crescent City Connection, a bridge over the Mississippi River, only to be met by an armed police force refusing them entry. It chronicled the racial tension, the chaos, the fear, and the desperation of those awful days following America’s greatest natural disaster to date. [Marcus Gilmer]
Episode 355—The Giant Pool Of Money
In the fall of 2008, as the nation hurtled towards a landmark presidential election, it also experienced a freefall into the greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression. A precursor to this recession was the housing crisis, which is topic so thoroughly tackled in this episode, a collaboration between the TAL team and the NPR team behind the Planet Money podcast. It unravels and untangles what’s an incredibly complicated situation that has large impact on the entire country in a way that the average listener can finally understand. [MG]
Episode 430—Very Tough Love
When TAL airs some of its more lighthearted and quirky stories, it’s hard to forget that there’s real journalism going on here. This particular episode, however, is an episode that uses personal narratives to do solid, thorough investigative journalism on a controversial drug court in Georgia and the judge who presides over it. The balance between the micro view and the macro view—between the personal and the expansive—is one TAL does well, and this episode is a great gateway into those episodes. Similar ones include Episode 441—When Patents Attack and Episode 396—#1 Party School (which later got a follow-up after the Sandusky scandal rocked Penn State). [MG]