Monday, May 21, 2007

This American Life goes Televised

Ira in the middle of nowhere

I'm slightly obsessed with the public radio show, This American Life (TAL). I was first introduced to the show when I was employed at the University of Michigan. There wasn't enough work to fill the day, and I noticed my co-worker often had her headphones on. I eventually learned that she was making her way through the free online archives of TAL as a way to help pass the time. And it has become my habit to stay sane by doing the same in my illustrious career of mindless data entry.

For me, TAL is kinda like that certain band that you love. A band that isn't exactly unknown, but is far from mainstream. When you meet a fellow devotee, there is a certain kinship you feel with that person, while at the same time you suspect they couldn't possibly experience it as you do. When people haven't heard TAL, you feel sorry for them for missing out so long. At the same time you email links of your favorite audio to the unenlightened, you kinda think new fans are posers that just jumped on the band wagon. And you secretly fear you yourself are a poser because you only started listening in 2000, and TAL has been around since 1995.

7 years later, I've shelled out $30 on three separate occasions for a Sarah Vowell reading, an Ira Glass radio demonstration and a David Sedaris reading/book-signing. And at each performance I was simultaneously incredulous that the venues were sold-out because TAL is my thing, but also not really surprised either, because TAL is so awesome. I bought Davy Rothbart's book of short stories based solely on his affiliation with TAL (he should stick to nonfiction). And when I found out a college friend got a job as a production assistant on TAL, it was all I could do not to grill her for every detail, from the layout of the studio to what she knows about Ira's wife. I find myself repeatedly saying, "tell me again about the time Ira borrowed a can of soup from you". If it weren't for the fact we were friends well before her production assistant days, she'd probably think I'm only friends with her because of her TAL connection.

And then there is the day your favorite band sells out. At least it looks that way. The band is on MTV, their ticket prices go up and the venues are larger. In this case, my favorite public radio show was not only becoming a TV show, but a cable TV show. Not basic cable either, but effing Showtime. And when TAL went on tour to promote the television version, tickets cost 50 bucks. And its probably the first time in the history of the Twin Cities that the NPR venue of choice wasn't the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, but the Orpheum in Minneapolis. I can't afford Showtime and I can't afford $50 tickets. But I still really wanted to give TAL the benefit of the doubt regarding this whole TV scheme. And that's where my production assistant friend came in. She received an offer for free tickets and was nice of enough to share a free ticket with this TAL super-fan.

Ira's not dumb. He's knows fans are skeptical of the TV show. So he addressed the issue to the Minneapolis audience, where someone in the audience reportedly yelled out, "Judas." I missed that. The Judas shouter was drowned out by the guy on my side of the theater who yelled out, "What were you thinking?!". Ira attempted to quell our fears and put us at ease with humorous tales of how they too had doubts and stumbled along the way in converting to a TV show. He admitted that elements of stories that had worked well on radio didn't translate well to the screen. He specifically cited the example of how the power of the emotion in the voice of one of their regular interviewers ended up somewhat lost when matched with her appearance. I left thinking that at least Ira was honest and hoping that the opposite could also be true: that an image could possibly enhance the power of the audio.

So I finally got to see an episode. My girlfriend's parents were out of town and she'd been at home every night to watch the dog. And they have Showtime. I emailed my friend who used to work on the show and this is what I said:

P-funk and I watched an episode of This American Life last night (that is a strange sentence. Watched This American Life). We watched episode 2, which had the story of the middle schooler who doesn't believe in love that was previewed at the live show.

I didn't dislike the show, but I can't say that I really liked it either. It was just weird. Ira is sitting at this late-night-talk-show-host-type desk in the middle of nowhere, and you can imagine people who haven't heard the radio show thinking, "who the hell is this guy? And why is he sitting in the middle of the mountains.... at a desk?". One thing I hadn't realized until last night is that the TV show is only 30 minutes per episode (compared to an hour long radio show). The episode had three acts and was only 28 minutes long. It is strange in television to have a half hour program that has three separate vignettes with no overlap and no wrap-up at the end. There is just nothing out there to compare it to, which could either be exciting or just leave people going "what the hell is this?".

I'm sure some of my uneasiness comes simply from knowing the radio show so well . I kept turning to P-funk last night, saying, "This is weird, isn't this weird?". And she kept reminding me that she's never really listened to the radio show (other than a few stories I've forced upon her), so she couldn't really comment.

I will say one thing: one of the Acts was about a photo journalist who had the choice to spring into action and try to save a drowning woman or continue to act as an observer/photographer. He chose the later (there were other people trying to help her). They showed a series of photos as he described the scene and at one point the story takes a dramatic turn and the corresponding photo literally made me gasp out loud. And there is something about that image that never would've fully translated on radio.


chinesetwine said...

Having not heard much of the radio show, what was P-funk's reaction to the tv show? Did she think it was hip or all over the map or what?

coryq said...

Like anything moved from one meduim to the next, there is some loss and some improvement. Think Harry Potter: You can enjoy both the book and the movie, right? I can appreciate the shock of translation. Hope it doesn't diminish your love of the original.

Lisa said...

I heart TAL! However, I haven't been a fan as long as you, and I've never seen the tv version either. :)