Last Thursday I went to City North Theater in Chicago with hundreds of other people and packed myself in like a sardine to watch This American Life Live. I’ve been a huge fan and loyal listener of TAL for well over a decade. I find myself inexplicably without a radio at the moment, and I often miss the broadcast, but I still make a point of catching up at least once a month. The brilliantly collected and curated collections of stories remain the most satisfying cultural cupcake in my weekly diet. It’s a profoundly moving show, and if you’re not listening, you really should be.
The live show was no exception. With a lineup of some of TAL’s best contributors, and a chance to watch host Ira Glass in action, it couldn’t fail to please. The theme for the week was Return to the Scene of the Crime, and included Mike Birbiglia, Dan Savage, Starlee Kine, two animated segments by Chris Ware (one set to Andrew Bird’s disturbingly brilliant “Eugene”), a short clip from the Showtime version of This American Life and a great guest spot by Joss Whedon, in his first ever public singing performance. Great stuff.
That being said, watching the show proved to be an oddly disjointed affair. A collection of stories that would have seemed seamless on radio was weirdly distracting to watch. Trying to catch all of Ira’s little flourishes over the sound board, getting sidetracked by Starlee’s dress – adorable, in a weird and enchanting fabric with little men carrying inside-out umbrellas printed topsy-turvy all over it – and watching Dan Savage struggle through a heroically brave and heartbreaking story about his mother’s recent death: all of these things kept me from honing in on the purity of the overall concept the way I usually do. I found that the two segments that have stuck with me most intensely were ones that were made specifically to be watched.
The first of these was an animated Quimby the Mouse short by Chris Ware, set to Andrew Bird’s “Eugene.” Quimby is Ware’s most complex, raw and intimate character, and this film was no exception. It was disturbing, abusive, and unavoidable in its simplicity. It’s still playing in my head four days later (helped along by an immediate download of the song). I’d hoped to add a link to it here, as I was pretty sure Ira said they’d have it posted on the website, but so far it’s not there. I’ll update if it shows up.
The second was a short clip from the This American Life series on Showtime, from an episode called John Smith. The episode tells the story of a life, in stories taken from people all over the country with the same name. The clip they showed was only about four minutes long, and included mostly single lines from John Smiths at various ages from infancy through death. Seeing a life compacted and spoken in that short amount of time knocked the wind out of me, and convinced me that I need to watch both seasons as soon as possible.
The major treat of the evening, for me, was seeing Joss Whedon play and sing a song from Commentary! The Musical. When Whedon’s internet phenomemon Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog was released on DVD, he decided (in what Ira Glass accurately described as “an incredibly macho move”) to write the commentary for the DVD as a second, but interdependent, musical. It is a work of true staggering genius and hilarity.
So, all in all, a wonderful show, but I still prefer the audio version and will keep tuning in every week. And if anyone knows the name and address of that place on Belmont in Chicago where they sell refurbished vintage radios, will you email it to me? I gotta get a radio.
Oh, and if you want to see it – and I do recommend it – they’re showing it again on May 3 in Montreal and on May 7 in selected cities in the US. The radio version will be broadcast this coming weekend May 1-3 on NPR.