The Art of Everyday Living

[28 November 2006]

By Patrick Schabe

“From WBEZ in Chicago, this is This American Life, I’m Ira Glass.”  It doesn’t have the by-rote slavish adherence to repetition that some of its fellows have, but it’s a classic case of a perfectly familiar intro line on radio.  It may come five minutes into the show, but when Glass breaks into the narrative to address you, the listener, privately and intimately welcoming you into a listening experience, it is pregnant with the same expectations and anticipations of the best of golden age radio.

Let’s get the bold hyperbole out of the way first: This American Life is the best thing on radio.  In fact, This American Life might be the best reason to even own a radio.  When it’s merely good, it’s that good.  When it’s great, it achieves a certain kind of transcendent storytelling ability that doesn’t really have a true contemporary equal.  Its stories of everyday life are revealed to be as dramatic and insightful as the most epic tragedies; this is real life polished and made compelling beyond the biggest dreams of reality TV executives.  And it emerges out of the slowly fraying medium of radio in a way that gives radio a renewed sense of relevance.

Sure, there are podcasts and online archives, but This American Life is best experienced as a voice that inserts itself into your daily life in ways that are particular to the classic radio experience—driving in your car, sitting on your porch, sprawled across your bed.  It’s an active listening that connects to your brain only through the ears, yet seems as tangible as being in the audience of a theater.  It is, in fact, the experience of being pulled into that elusive radio-space commonly referred to as the “theater of the mind”—a way that audio draws you in and takes you out of your immediate surroundings, denying your other senses, and creating a stage where the props are merely sound and imagination.  It’s an old radio magic that has long been dying out in the face of commercial music, news, and talk formats, having lost ground to the visual media of movies, television, and digital platforms, and yet This American Life manages to conjure this experience a way that is fresh and often startling.  And in terms of contemporary radio, nobody does it better.

Anyone familiar with National Public Radio fund raising campaigns has heard the network laud its “driveway moments”: those times when the material on the radio is so engaging that you don’t want to turn it off once you’ve reached your destination, opting instead to sit in your driveway (parking lot, etc.) until the story reaches its conclusion.  This American Life is a solid hour of “driveway moments”, weekly broadcasts take the listener to both unfamiliar locales and the nooks and crannies of the everyday world we think we already know.  It is a mixture of laughter and sorrow that will regularly break your heart.  It’s brilliant.

On the surface, it seems like a fairly simple idea, and every episode starts with the familiar set-up of the prologue.  Glass’s voice pops in to set up a scene, a light fill of music kicks in behind him, perhaps ambient, perhaps a little funky, and with a quick hook, he slides into someone’s story, be it relationship of a parrot and a dog, or the experiences of those in Iraq surrounded by the constant loss of life (to draw from a couple of recent episodes).  “Each week we choose a theme and put together different kinds of stories on that theme.  This week’s them is…” is also a familiar soundbite, and it sounds so simultaneously blunt and vague that even the show’s website makes fun of it, but it’s the core of the show, nonetheless.  The themes are generally abstract themselves, even when the titles are not—courage, reconciliation, family—though they occasionally come out of left field, such as one favorite episode that explores the concept of superheroes.  The themes are generally little more than a loose framework for the stories, broken up into different “acts”, and it is the individual stories themselves that are the really mystifying element.  This American Life interviews, describes, or gives voice to the experiences of everyday people alongside some of the most clever writers of our day, and both are equally compelling, revealing something extraordinary out of the seemingly simple.  And it’s been doing so for 11 years, with a steadily growing listenership and becoming one of Public Radio International’s flagship programs.

But despite the strange and ambiguous premise of the show, it’s actually incredibly precise and meticulously crafted.  A lot of time and effort goes into each episode (such that This American Life was able to offer listeners a comic book about the creation of an episode, featuring some of the show’s key producers and technicians, titled Radio: An Insider’s Guide).  An enormous amount of time is spent editing each segment, with story producers splicing each spoken expression, each sound effect, and of utmost importance, each second of musical soundtrack, to create the exact right mood and the perfect timing.  It’s an art form in and of itself to be able to produce compelling sound pieces, and its marriage to well-written and often gripping stories is a powerful force.  While seemingly unfocused and off-the-cuff at first listen, there is nothing sloppy about This American Life, and this has been acknowledged by various organizations who have recognized the show with awards, including the Peabody.

Stories of Hope and Fear is the third collection of stories culled from This American Life to have been packaged as a CD set for sale beyond the public radio airwaves (not counting some sets sold through the show’s website, or discs of individual shows, which are also available).  These sets tend to show off the show as multifaceted, taking pieces spread over different episodes and repurposing them for a new theme.  They are longer and more of a collection than the material available in each episode, and in some sense there is something lost in the tinkering with the usual format.  The discs don’t quite achieve the same coherence as certain episodes of the show have done.  And while the stories gathered are favorites, and display some of the incredible range of the show, they tend to feel like individual pieces of their own, rather then the “acts” that the framework of themes place them into.  In other words, the context has changed just enough that this set and its two predecessors, Lies, Sissies, and Fiascoes: The Best of This American Life and Crimebusters + Crossed Wires: Stories from This American Life, don’t have the exact same magic that makes them work so brilliantly on the air, and the suspicion lies in the difference in media.

Or maybe it’s the simple lack of Glass as narrator, weaving the stories into some odd cohesion in the interstitial breaks between acts.  At first, Glass seems like an odd candidate for charming and engaging host.  He doesn’t have the rich timbre associated with classic radio men, the deep fatherly voice of, say, a Garrison Keilor.  Glass’s voice is a slightly nasal Midwestern one, the voice of a normal, even fairly geeky, guy.  Rather than wooing the listener with the kind of smooth, smoky tones of a late night call-in host, Glass’s voice conveys humor and pathos by being fairly laid back, commonly comic, and yet also knowing and able to perceive the depth of feeling that his subjects possess.  Glass asks probing, searching questions, and for all his geeky affability, you realize quickly that he values the insights these people provide, and is comfortable in his ability to pull those threads out of the various tales and convey them to his listeners with finely controlled craft.  As such, he becomes a guide that feels like someone you know, trusting him to tell you a story that makes you think and feel about a subject you might not have considered in such a way.  The illusion of the friendly connection between Glass and the audience gives the stories a sort of “these really are my people” gravitas that is an ephemeral key to the show’s success and that is missing from these sets.

That is what this set of CDs lacks, and what makes it a slightly paler reflection of the show itself.  But what it contains is a series of wonderfully crafted vignettes that are each powerful in their own right, each keyed into a slightly different aspect of what makes This American Life a powerful force overall.  These are pieces selected because they became favorites of staff and listeners, the people the show is really for, and so there are no duds here.  Stories of Hope and Fear is broken up into two discs, appropriately titled “Hope” and “Fear” and give the impression of forming a bifocal theme to mirror the show.  But the ultimate conclusion made in comparing these two sets of stories is that hope and fear are intertwined in such a way that they feed one another.  Any story in the set could be read as an example of either hope or fear, and that becomes a central unifying message, if such a set needs to have one.

Included here are selections from some of This American Life‘s longtime contributors, like “Is This Thing On?” from Jonathan Goldstein and Starlee Kine, and “So a Chipmunk and a Squirrel Walk Into a Bar”, a short story written and read by David Sedaris.  Show producer Julie Snyder is interviewed by Glass to recount her horrific tale of being at the infinite hold mercy of her phone company in “On Hold No One Can Hear You Scream”.  Other stories come from outside contributors, or are the stories of everyday people whose lives have somehow had that one odd, uncommon quirk come to the attention of a story writer and interviewer, such as “The Babysitters”, which recounts the unreal copings of being raised by a mentally unstable parent in the words of the now grown up children..

Each one offers a sharply direct look into the life of a person or character, revealed in all of their ugliness and splendor, and yet also allows for inference and imagination to do their work, filling in the gaps, letting things that go unsaid be perfectly clear.  One fantastic example of this, possibly the funniest story on the whole set, comes in Sascha Rothchild’s piece, “Miami Vices”.  The piece is pulled from one performance during a unique stage show in Miami, where individuals take the stage and read from their real life childhood diaries—direct recitations of the words written by their younger selves.  Rotchild’s piece is, in just about every respect, the well-documented journey through every parent’s nightmare.  As a young girl, Rothchild begs her parents to let her attend public school in the cultural stew that is Miami.  She quickly falls in with the wrong crowd, first loses her virginity then has unsafe sex with multiple boyfriends, gets involved in drugs, develops a cocaine problem, and begins to completely give up on her education.  And yet, somehow, the diary entries are read with such a straight, self-mocking delivery by the adult Rothchild that it is hilarious.  In the midst of what could be justly viewed as terrible situations, Rotchild illuminates how much of it came of youthful naiveté, and she manages to both mock and hug the silliness of the girl she once was that confessed so much ridiculous and dangerous behavior to her diary.  And to bolster the reading, the audience for the performance is captured laughing along with Rothchild, transforming the piece from a sardonic self-mocking one woman show into a shared experience, as if young Sascha’s story is predictable and familiar and understandable.  That humor is built on empathy, which turns the piece into a reconciliation with the embarrassing skeletons in Rothchild’s closet.  The piece ends by noting that Rothchild soon after went into rehab, finished high school and college, and is drug free.  That piece is on the “Hope” disc.

In counterpoint, the “Fear” disc begins with “Fears of Your Life” by Michael Bernard Loggins, a developmentally disabled young man who has spent many years of his life institutionalized.  Loggins took it upon himself to catalog all of the things he is afraid of for a project, and that list made its way into a specialty publication.  Here, the list is read by an actor, Tom Wright, but the result is to merely clarify and dramatize Loggins’ own voice.  In a singular, sometimes rambling list format, it is impossible not to step into Loggins’ own mind, listen to his fear, and pick up clues to his life and the way he sees the world, and at the same time empathize with all those fears that your own normally functioning brain can build elaborate rationalizations around and away from.  Hearing them delivered by a less analytical voice makes those fears primal, and they cut through your own bullshit better than you ever could.  And yet your ability to cope with those fears, to recognize the avoidable aspects of Loggins’ life in your own, is itself a bit of thanksgiving for the listener.

That’s the kind of power that this quirky, artsy, hip little show manages to wield, seemingly at ease.  In reality it’s extremely controlled, and there is an incredible amount of craft involved, but it’s so subtle and meticulous that it feels almost effortless.  Just as surprising and insightful as the stories are, they also seem to be pulled out of the vortex of ordinary life naturally, making us see that we live in this milieu every waking moment if only we had someone to direct our attention.  That overall ambition, to record the American experience and share its quirks and mythologies, is certainly met on this collection.  This American Life is well-represented on Stories of Hope and Fear, and every story here is one worth listening to.  At over two hours, that’s an impressive set. 

But again, there is something truly captivating about This American Life‘s radio presence, and a set such as this doesn’t quite manage to capture that wholly.  Instead, it works well as a collection of favorites, and as a companion piece to the show itself, encouraging listeners to tune in to the weekly broadcast for the original performances.  This American Life is branching out further in the new year with a television series on Showtime and a feature film adaptation of one of its stories, but it’s hard to imagine that they, too, will be able to capture the same precise feeling that the radio broadcast generates.  The theater of the mind is a dramatic element with unique properties, after all, and sound is a unique medium.  But like this collection, anything that encourages the further success of this brilliant bit of storytelling is welcome, so long as the original core is maintained.

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