We are a story-oriented people. Whether they are salacious, sorrowful, thrilling or offbeat stories doesn’t matter: we just love to listen. Ira Glass knows this. He’s been telling stories for over 20 years, the last 12 as host of Chicago Public Radio’s This American Life.
Glass has brought his storytelling abilities to television in Showtime’s new 30-minute version of the radio broadcast. The format follows that of the radio show: each episode has a theme, played out through a few slice-of-life stories from the American landscape. Glass sets up each piece and provides necessary background as the story progresses, but for the most part, on TV, he’s unobtrusive.
The premiere episode featured the theme “Reality Check,” with two stories about people “snapped back to reality.” At first, the two pieces seem unrelated, one being about a pet bull and the other about a performance by a rock band. Yet, the individuals in both must confront the fact that their perceptions are not as accurate as they had hoped. Both stories have been featured on the radio show. The original (that is, not Showtime) website explains that future episodes will feature original stories, but the producers relied on proven stories for the pilot because they weren’t sure the show would sell. Such honesty is a series hallmark.
First up are Ralph and Sandra Fisher, the proud owners of Chance, a Brahma Bull whose gentle nature made him a semi-celebrity before his death at the age of 19. It’s evident that Ralph loves Chance, just as many people consider their dogs or cats as their “babies.” Shortly before Chance’s demise, Ralph arranged for Texas A&M University to clone the animal, and named the clone Second Chance.
However, despite Ralph and Sandra’s hopes, Second Chance doesn’t have the original Chance’s gentle demeanor. At his fourth birthday party (yes, Ralph has a huge party for him every year), Second Chance gored Ralph in the arm. A year and a half later, while Glass and film crew were visiting, he struck again. This time, Ralph wound up with 80 stitches in his scrotum. Still, Ralph remains convinced that SC will mellow with age, and become a loving, tender bull like his predecessor.
The bull’s tale is immediately followed by the story of Ghosts of Pasha (GoP), an unknown rock band who find themselves at the center of a prank spinning out of control. It begins when Improv Everywhere, a New York-based group committed to causing “scenes of chaos and joy in public places,” selects the band for their latest mission. When GoP comes on stage at a small bar to play what is only their third public show, they are surprised to find the room filled with screaming, dancing diehard Ghosts of Pasha fans. Actually members of the improv troupe, they have memorized the band’s songs so they can sing along and print GoP t-shirts.
The band members become suspicious when their “fans” have cleared out before they even finish getting their equipment offstage. The prank is reported on Improv’s website and picked up by the media, including Rolling Stone. Suddenly, GoP is a national joke. Guitarist Chris Partyka, teased mercilessly as a child, feels anger, then depression, feeling once again that he is the taunted kid on the playground. Improv creator Charlie Todd is unapologetic about the pain he has inflicted, arguing that such misery is justifiable because it is well-intentioned. Eventually, Partyka and his bandmates rationalize the prank as a fantasy fulfilled.
Such stories help to make up this American life. Glass’ specialty is finding seemingly obscure or trivial occurrences, demonstrating and respecting their significance in the lives of those involved. Unlike newsmagazines that feature “human interest” stories, such as 60 Minutes or 20/20, This American Life doesn’t “investigate.” The stories are not exposés, but glimpses in to the way things are. No calls to action, no proselytizing, no adulation. Just stories.
Glass’ handsomely dweebish appearance suits television. To present his stories, he has adopted the traditional posture of the host, seated behind a desk, reading his introductions off a teleprompter. However, the location of the desk varies; for one segment, it is alongside a country road, for another, near a nuclear power plant. Such images suggest Glass’ willingness to “go anywhere” for a story, as well as the specificity of the material. On radio, Glass excels at creating images with his words. With the addition of a visual representation of characters, places, and events, his obligations are diminished, and he wisely stays out of the way. While there’s no doubt that Garrison Keillor is the star of Prairie Home Companion, on radio and television, on The American Life, the stories are central.
This American Life is incontrovertible evidence that National Public Radio is deserving of public and governmental support. It educates us and illuminates the human condition. Its kind of storytelling can’t be found anywhere else. This is who we are, America. Feast upon it.