The sound of Ira Glass’s nasal voice—his initially off-putting cadence as he says his usual “so here’s a story…of a guy…”—now puts me at ease when I listen to “This American Life” each week. The weekly hour-long Chicago Public Radio show, now a sensation and a top-downloaded podcast, gives the listener humorous, heartbreaking, and informative stories each week, each relating to the episode’s theme. So much of the show is dependent on Glass, our host, guiding us through with music, sound bytes, and anecdotes, and I’ve come to love the frequent contributors to the show.
So when it was announced that there was going to be a live stage show of “This American Life,” in New York City, streaming live (well, except on the West Coast) in movie theaters around the country on Apr. 23, I jumped at the chance to buy the overpriced tickets. I was pumped, but also a bit nervous about how seeing instead of hearing the show would affect its quality. Fortunately, the experience was definitely worthwhile, as Glass and contributors Dan Savage, Starlee Kine, Mike Birbiglia, Chris Ware, and Joss Whedon (yes, that Joss Whedon) made the extra-long episode “Return to the Scene of the Crime” both impressive and enjoyable.
Glass began the episode in his usual fashion, telling a brief vignette that clues the listener/viewer into this week’s theme. As usual, Glass talked over quotes from the people involved in the story, interweaving pre-recorded conversations with quirky, NPR-esque music. This time, however, we got to see what Glass does at these moments. Glass was constantly busy, cueing up clips, starting music, talking into the microphone, grinning to the camera as he got accustomed to his audience. Art by cartoonist Chris Ware added a surreal aspect to the story, and was able to visually connect the story of a girl’s punishment for shoplifting to the hidden truths we all have to carry with us on a daily basis.
From there, the event took off. Comedian Mike Birbiglia proved to be a crowd pleaser as he stood on stage and told the story of how he dealt with finances after getting in a car crash. Birbiglia’s affable stage presence proved hilarious and ultimately touching as he learned to let things go.
The quirkiest aspect of the night came with a second Chris Ware cartoon, inspired by an Elie Wiesel quote and set to an Andrew Bird song. While the animation was well done and whimsical, the story—of a mouse falling in love with a headless cat—was almost too off-beat, and the short did not fit in with the show’s theme as seamlessly as the other acts.
Starlee Kine, a frequent contributor to the show known for her high voice and infamous quest to write her own perfect breakup song, then came on stage to deliver her piece. Her story about going to a therapy center to deal with mommy issues was hilarious, honest, and touching. On stage though, the addition of the visual made the story even more impressive. Artist Arthur Jones—who tours with Kine as she does this around the country—drew sketches on post-it notes to accompany each aspect of Kine’s story. The humorous drawings made the anecdote more than just a typical episode act, and made it a memorable story.
One of the more popular contributors to the show, The Stranger editor Dan Savage, was perhaps the most surprising act of the night. Normally on the show for his funny, honest, and reflective stories about himself, his boyfriend, and their son, Savage surprised most of the audience by describing his return to the Catholic church. In the most emotional part of the show, Savage got choked up multiple times as he discussed his mother’s recent death, while still interspersing the story with his much-loved sense of humor.
The show closed with a performance by Joss Whedon, of ”Buffy” and ”Dr. Horrible’s Sing-a-long Blog” fame. In his first public performance, Whedon sang and played his DVD commentary to “Dr. Horrible,” a musical in itself commenting on the act of rewatching one’s work and commenting on it. While Whedon’s voice was nothing impressive, the song itself was, on both a musical and lyrical level.
Seeing the faces in front of the voices I love to hear every week was an interesting and ultimately wonderful experience. The stories were terrific, and the added visuals made the show worth seeing on the big screen. Some of the event will be released in podcast form next week, but to see Ira’s face on the big screen, you can see a rebroadcast of it at theaters around the country (the closest theater to campus is Ontario Mills) on May 7.