There’s probably nothing that sums up my life as a suburban middle class white boy better than my unconditional love of This American Life. The weekly radio show isn’t easy to describe. Every episode has a theme and, in the words of host Ira Glass, “we bring you a variety of different stories on that theme.”
It’s almost like an audio documentary. There’s usually around 3 or 4 true stories broadcast each week ranging from funny, to sad, to frustrating. Every Sunday night that week’s episode is posted as a podcast in the iTunes music store. If one episode per week isn’t enough for you (it certainly isn’t for me) there’s an app that makes every episode since 1995 available and anyone is able to stream the entire archive for free on ThisAmericanLife.org.
For anyone unfamiliar (pssht, n00bs) one of the best places to start is episode #329: “Nice Work If You Can Get It.” There are four acts and a prologue in this episode. They delve into how little time astronauts actually spend in space, what it’s like to suddenly be famous, making deals with lottery winners, homesick explorers, and living in the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant.
“Nice Work If You Can Get It” is a prototypical episode of TAL, albeit better than the average. It features strong stories by regular contributors Sarah Vowell and John Hodgeman as well as producer Alex Blumberg. All three are familiar voices to TAL fans but Hodgeman will be familiar to anyone with a TV. He’s the guy who plays “PC” in the Apple commercials. Sarah Vowell is my all time favorite TAL personality. She’s the author of several books and is an expert when it comes to weaving history with pop culture. “The Homesick Explorer” is Vowell’s take on cartographer Charles Preuss’s diaries. Preuss is a miserable wreck as he travels through America with John Charles Fremont and Vowell sounds like she has a smile on her face through the whole story. Add a Dick Van Dyke joke in there and it’s radio gold.
This might be a surprise to some, but a lot of people actually think public radio is boring (shocking, I know). Sometimes This American Life stories drag on and on. The voice of the narrator matters a lot more than you might expect and the topics can be serious duds. “Nice Work If You Can Get It” avoids that trap. Every story moves along at a brisk pace and ends before getting tenuous.