This American Life was Bad This Week
February 9, 2007 6:43 PM   Subscribe

I know there are a lot of This American Life fans here. But, have you ever listened and thought "Wow, this is awful." What are your least favorite TAL stories? I am working on putting together a class about good and bad "radical" radio and want some listener opinion besides my own.
posted by parmanparman to Media & Arts (47 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Star Lee Klein rubs me the wrong way.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 6:56 PM on February 9, 2007

I like everything listed on their favorites page from the website.
posted by rossination at 7:03 PM on February 9, 2007

I know it is much beloved by fans, but I really don't like the first story in the Fiasco! episode, about the Peter Pan play. Let me rephrase that: I really, really hate it. Not so much for the story, which is captivatingly awful in its own (kinda good) way, but the fact that they chose to tell it as a kind of dialog between the guy and Ira Glass. I like Ira, but I like him to be in the background. I don't need him goading somebody on and inserting himself into the experience. It would have been hundreds of times better without the Ira yukking it up the whole time. It was unneeded, like a laugh track.

That said, the story after that one on the episode ("What We Were Trying To Do") never fails to make me pee my pants with delight.

This is question is no doubt going to be deleted shortly as chatfilter, but I really, really had to get that off my chest.
posted by brain cloud at 7:07 PM on February 9, 2007

The story about the feud between Car Talk and the other car show in Wisconsin or something was the most boring thing I've ever heard.
posted by Doublewhiskeycokenoice at 7:07 PM on February 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'd be hard pressed to decide on a "least favourite" TAL story, but I second the Peter Pan one. I didn't like some of the really early (i.e. Your Radio Playhouse) stuff; but then I'm a big fan, so the question arises, are you sure this is the right subject for "bad" radio? Full disclosure: I am not in or from North America.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:27 PM on February 9, 2007

Response by poster: I am picking This American Life because it highlights a genre of radio that had been unexplored by public radio before that time. Since it was a trailblazer, a lot of critics gave it a free pass. I want to know what listeners think so I can present a balanced good & bad to a group of students learning about longform radio programming.

Full disclosure: I am the producer of a syndicated weekly public radio program.

posted by parmanparman at 7:34 PM on February 9, 2007

David Sedaris has not as yet worn out his aural welcome but Sarah Vowell's schtick has grown oh, so tiresome.
posted by y2karl at 7:37 PM on February 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

So... anything recent by Sarah Vowell.
posted by y2karl at 7:39 PM on February 9, 2007

Last week's episode, something about houses. Where as I really liked the second story about someone's coming of age the third one just lost me. For some reason the transition between the two just didn't work for me. I am not really sure what kind of explanation you are looking for here but this is an example of where the show fell apart for me. I guess the first and second story put me in a frame of mind that the third story just didn't live up to. It left me saying, in context of the other two stories, "Wow, this is awful."
posted by bkeene12 at 7:56 PM on February 9, 2007

Please disregard what I said about chatfilter, since the question was rephrased and subsequently undeleted.

However please do not disregard my comment about the #1 most suckiest TAL story evar.
posted by brain cloud at 8:01 PM on February 9, 2007

TAL does a great job of being consistently good, but here are the pieces I really don't like. None of these are more recent than 1997, since that's as far as I've gotten through the archives:

The one from New Beginnings in '95 (later rebroadcast) about the documentary on the guy with HIV. Nothing more fun than listening to somebody on the radio describe the action of a plotless TV documentary. I really didn't get that one. I also disliked the one about Kevin Kelly, the who found religion and lived as though he were about to die, which is also on this episode (and was also bewilderingly rebroadcast).

Ski Lesson, by Spalding Gray, from '96's Lessons episode. Again, I completely failed to grasp the point--it was just a very long story about some mildly interesting aspects of a guy's learning to ski.

Julia Sweeney, from 1996, the entire episode. I gave up on this one because I couldn't stand Julia Sweeney's constant nervous laughter.

The 1997 "Who's Canadian?" episode. My mother's Canadian, so I really shouldn't have found this nearly as crushingly boring as I did. The White Like Me segment is particularly dull. This is another episode I didn't finish listening to.
posted by phoenixy at 8:05 PM on February 9, 2007

A little OT, but Jonathon Goldstein has a radio program on CBC in Canada called Wiretap. First of all, I hate Jonathon Goldstein. I hate his voice, I hate his way of thinking and sense of moral superiority, and most of all I hate Wiretap. I hate its format, I hate its characters, I hate their lives, I hate it all. Go back to NPR, Jonathon Goldstein!!!

That is all.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:06 PM on February 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I will have to check out Wiretap, maybe it will provide some insight for my audience.
posted by parmanparman at 8:19 PM on February 9, 2007

I've never heard a TAL episode I didn't like, and didn't think was a cut above everything else on the radio/audible internet. But I'm still baffled by David Sedaris and the nearly universal appreciation of his stuff. Especially the animal allegory stuff he is churning out now. It does absolutely nothing for me.

Is TAL really "radical" radio?
posted by Manjusri at 8:27 PM on February 9, 2007

Come to think of it, the first several episodes of TAL weren't very good. They hadn't quite gotten into their groove yet.
posted by Manjusri at 8:36 PM on February 9, 2007

I agree with brain cloud about the Ira laugh track; I much prefer the stories that are presented as a cohesive package, rather than the ones "moderated" by Ira. While I think he has a great appreciation for comedy as well as serious/touching moments, I think he has a bad tendency to miss a story's natural ending and drag it waaaaaay too far out. It almost ruined "Squirrel Cop" for me, even though the actual story was one of the funniest things I've ever heard.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 8:39 PM on February 9, 2007

I second Manjusri and the Sedaris animal stuff. Don't understand it. His personal history stuff is what we're not paying to download for free, and he should stick with it.

Also second Manjusri on another point: TAL is not radical radio. Radical radio would have to be Democracy Now! or whatever the UMASS campus station plays on Wednesday mornings at 10AM.
posted by KokuRyu at 8:39 PM on February 9, 2007

I'm still baffled by David Sedaris and the nearly universal appreciation of his stuff. Especially the animal allegory stuff he is churning out now.

I love David Sedaris. I love the way he tells a story, and many of his stories just never stop making me laugh.

But I agree about the animal allegory. Terrible.

Additionally, the first year of TAL was pretty uneven.

That said, when the standard comparison is commercial and talk radio, it's not hard to look good.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 8:41 PM on February 9, 2007

Also, I like a bunch of the other things mentioned here (I adore Sarah Vowell, loved the Fiasco show, loved the Canadian show...)

As for it being "radical" radio.. that just confuses me. It's just story-telling.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 8:44 PM on February 9, 2007

parmanparman can define what he means by "radical" but I think I get what he intended. TAL isn't radical in the campus-radical-Abbie-Hoffman kind of way, obviously, but in an engaging, I-can't-wait-for-next-week's-show way, which is pretty rare in radio these days. Other than the fact that it's all about the stories, be they fiction or factual, the show knows no boundaries. Well, I guess there might be some they aren't willing to cross ("This week, on our show, All About Assfucking!" -- think that to yourself in the Ira Glass voice, you know it would be funny) but it pulls few punches otherwise. What other outlet would provide one full hour of something so depressing and heart-wrenching as the "Unconditional Love" episode? What a downer! And yet, I know I couldn't stop listening. I sat in my car, in the garage, and cried, but I wouldn't leave because I didn't want to miss one second of it. I think that's what's radical about it.
posted by brain cloud at 8:59 PM on February 9, 2007

I know a lot of people loved the Teenage Embed series (two episodes?), but I couldn't make it past 10 minutes. Something about the narration made it totally boring. There was also one about unintentional documentaries that was cripplingly dull for the same reasons.
posted by hammurderer at 9:02 PM on February 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thank you, Brain Cloud. This is exactly what I am talking about: Driveway Moments.
posted by parmanparman at 9:05 PM on February 9, 2007

I recently started downloading episodes and listening to them in the car. Episode 305 (2005's holiday episode) was particularly uneven. I really couldn't stand that Twas the Night After poem that kicked off the episode; hated the rhyming and hated the delivery.
posted by MegoSteve at 9:18 PM on February 9, 2007

I didn't care for Episode 304: Heretics, but maybe because it was hard for me to relate to the subject and I found it hard to care about him: The story of Reverend Carlton Pearson, a renowned evangelical pastor in Tulsa, Oklahoma, who cast aside the idea of hell, and with it, everything he'd worked for over his entire life.

I will say, however, that the show is almost 90-99% amazing to me and I've got nearly every show on CD, because one day I want my daughters to hear them.

Best episodes? House on Loon Lake (it was vastly different than most of the shows: It consists of one long story, lasting the entire hour, about a young boy, an abandoned house, and the mysterious family who once lived there but seemed to disappear without a trace.) and After the Flood, their Hurricane Katrina show.

(And Camp, Babysitting, Prom, Special Ed and about a hundred more! I loves me some Ira Glass.)
posted by ColdChef at 9:55 PM on February 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've got a pretty serious voice crush on Glass, and one of the reasons I finally came to like the Peter Pan episode, after disliking it for years was that he giggles.

But I've never liked the one where he goes shopping with his ex girlfriend. It's just a little too meta for me, and there's a certain level of pathetic that I choose not to associate with someone I crush on.

As a whole I strongly prefer the humorous episodes to the more serious ones that are going to make me cry. But I'm a wuss like that.
posted by librarianamy at 9:55 PM on February 9, 2007

Oh, and if pressed, I'll admit that I didn't finish listening to Episode 300, What's in a Number 2005 edition. Too dry and number-y.
posted by ColdChef at 9:57 PM on February 9, 2007

But, have you ever listened and thought "Wow, this is awful."

In 2000, I was interviewed by Ira Glass regarding my job at the time. The interview was never used. That's a fact for which I have felt gratitude twice now.
posted by y2karl at 10:27 PM on February 9, 2007

I don't have as comprehensive a mental catalogue of This American Life episodes as some of the people here. Still, I've listened to enough TAL to figure out that I like most of the documentary material, and hate most of the fiction. I agree with the comments above that the David Sedaris animal stories leave me cold. But you know what I really can't stand? The superhero stories. I'm not sure if it's just one guy who does superhero stories, or if they have a whole stable of superhero writers, but that's the category that drives me to switch the radio off.
posted by Orinda at 10:59 PM on February 9, 2007

I liked David Sedaris the first couple of times I heard him and his stories, but not anymore. It seems like they pick his stories, and go "Hey, we can make an episode that fits well with this."

I agree that the first year is uneven, and Ira seems kinda off his game when he talks to his family. I generally dislike any of the holiday themed episodes; although some are delightful. The episodes where there is audience participation, i.e. reading on stage - not my favorite either.
posted by bigmusic at 11:35 PM on February 9, 2007

I've liked every episode, but the ones that feel weak to me are often the episodes where the theme is tenuous. If they just let that theme be 'loose', it's not so bad, but when Ira comes in with some monologue trying to tie unrelated stories together, it's a little annoying.

I'm of two minds on the Ira thing too. I think he's wonderful at what he does. And he has created a feel for the show that depends on him. For a long time I wished they would rotate hosts, so the show wouldn't be about him, but about the feel of the show. That could still work - maybe. Like, if Ira died tomorrow (kenahara!) would This American Life suddenly suck?

I don't know enough about what's behind the scenes - like, do the other folks involved have as much creative contribution as he does? Because I think the show would be fine without him as the public 'face' of the show, but if it's him that's also controlling the feel, well then the show would innevitably suck without him.

I'm kind of blathering becuase it's past my bedtime, but to sum up, I find Ira annoying sometimes, I wish narration would rotate, but his creative instincts are great and the show rules.

PS - I kinda think that people dislike Sarah Vowel because of sexism. Everyone (well, according to this thread not EVERYONE, but most people) have no problem with David Sederis' unusual voice. I've never heard anyone complain about Scott Carrier's wierd delivery. Ditto for Starley Kine, although I think content wise she's weaker than a lot of the commentators.
posted by serazin at 12:40 AM on February 10, 2007

Ditto for Starley Kine meaning, I think that because of sexism, many people like her less than they do many male commentators.
posted by serazin at 12:42 AM on February 10, 2007

Agree with Doublewhiskeycokenoice. So bad.

The one about the guy who gets mistaken for a terrorist because he has a knife, spray paint, and pictures of himself with weapons in Afghanistan-- that was awesome.
posted by sneakin at 1:26 AM on February 10, 2007

p.s. Ira Glass's voice and the way he pronounces words with the letter "L" drives me UP a wall.
posted by sneakin at 1:27 AM on February 10, 2007

PS - I kinda think that people dislike Sarah Vowel because of sexism.

In this thread, that would be me. Could you elaborate on that insinuation ? Have I stopped beating my wife ? Well, no--I never started.

Sarah Vowell's voice is distinctive. I quite like it. But her stories have gotten all too generically Sarah Vowell-ish to my ears and her delivery of them all too too cutely ham handed, especially in the live before an audience context. I have found her tiresome as performer lately. But taste is subjective. Your mileage may vary.

One thing that can be said about Sedaris, on the other hand, is that he is actually trying something new.
posted by y2karl at 1:31 AM on February 10, 2007

A few months ago -- around the midterm elections, if I recall correctly -- in the middle of one episode, Ira Glass just goes on a tear about how he wished John Kerry would just disappear. It was amusing, but not good radio.
posted by brett at 6:52 AM on February 10, 2007

There was one episode in which Sedaris wrote an experimental radio drama over the top of some arbitrary background audio (sound effects or whatever). It was SO pointless and boring.

On a more general note, (and this isn't what you asked for but I hope it falls in the "listener opinions" category), I'm not a big fan of the show, despite that the stories they do are almost always interesting to me. The show gets in its own way, formally. I hate how music swells up punctually and purposelessly ever 20 seconds, the cute/earnest/casual triangle of emotional range (reproduced ad nauseum because the people who contribute and read their stories are, duh, listeners of the show), and the ubiquity of Ira. My two cents.
posted by sleevener at 7:30 AM on February 10, 2007

One story that I recall annoying me was one about being afraid of places or things you normally wouldn't be, or at least, hadn't before an incident. It was packaged with a story about an older brother who apparently lived to scare the living daylights out of his younger brothers. The story I'm referring to concerned a lady being attacked by a rabid raccoon, which lead to her being afraid of the woods.

It actually began well with some tension, but sort of spiraled downhill about a third of the way through. I think thats one thing that annoyed me so much, it began well and then went out the window. Part of it was that it seemed like the rest of the situation was manufactured to try and be scarier than it appeared. That and well, the individuals involved (and Glass) had this city-bred naivety towards nature which I felt was silly.

I'm not a fan of David Sedaris, because often they place his work between or after shows which are based on experiences in real life. Thats what I like about the show, the stories are real people talking about real experiences. Sedaris is an entertainer and his pieces are blatantly designed for laughs, like stand up routines (and sometimes are stand up routines, when he's recorded in front of an audience you hear laughing). Oh, and I don't care for the animal stories either.

I don't mind Glass' narration, but sometimes stories run on longer than need be and lose some of their effectiveness as a result.
posted by Atreides at 7:39 AM on February 10, 2007

I've noticed that I tend to like the show a lot more immediately after I listen to it, but if I stop to think about it a short while later some of the stories seem to be a bit, well... commonplace, I guess is the right word. For example: there's an alt.npr podcast called "Love and Radio" (in a very similar style to TAL) that included a story about a woman who used to simulate sex with her dolls when she was a girl. I listened to it and thought that it was pretty amusing, but after speaking with a friend about the story about a week later I realized that almost everybody has a story like that! My theory is that the music and clever editing really help you think some of the stories are so fantastic they could never happen to you.
posted by backseatpilot at 7:42 AM on February 10, 2007


I probably should have mediated what I said a bit since my intent wasn't to jump on you - you handled it very gracefully though!

I kind of agree about Vowell's stories becoming formulaic - I think the same thing about Sederis - although they both still really get me in a good way sometimes. Some of Vowells stories are my absolute favorite TALs. I love the John Brown one. And Trail of Tears.

Outside of this particular thread I've heard a lot of Vowell bashing. People on Metafilter and elsewhere specifically complain about her voice. I think that does have to do with sexism, becuase woman are, in my view, allowed a narrower range of expression than men.

This is kind of a weak analogy, but can you imagine a female Dylan making it - especially in the 60s? What about a female Andy Rooney? Whineyness is tollerated in men in a way it isn't in women. That's my two cents anyway.
posted by serazin at 8:17 AM on February 10, 2007

I've never heard anyone complain about Scott Carrier's wierd delivery.

I will! I find it creepy and depressing, which I guess suits the atmosphere of his pieces, but is such a drag to listen to.

Least favorite TAL, though: Any piece that's just some contributor reading original fiction. Nick Hornby read a story once that was pretty decent, but still, hearing him read didn't give the story anything like the dimension of hearing a few different voices talk about a real-life event. That's what the show does best, I think.

That said, I too am especially disappointed by the Sedaris animal stories. I love his earlier writing and everything Sarah Vowell's ever done, and I'm a fan of both their voices. It hadn't occurred to me before, but I think serazin's onto something re: sexism.
posted by clavicle at 9:33 AM on February 10, 2007

People on Metafilter and elsewhere specifically complain about her voice.

Well, I didn't complain about her voice. But then I like squeaky girl voices. Jennifer Tilley comes to mind.

Whineyness is tolerated in men in a way it isn't in women.

I have to say that statement gave me whiplash of the eye rolling muscles.
posted by y2karl at 9:52 AM on February 10, 2007

On a more serious note, what I don't like about This American Life is its star system. Sarah Vowell is a star, David Sedaris another. When TAL comes to Seattle, they put Dan Savage on stage with Sarah Vowell. It's product, product, product. It's like NPR meets Entertainment Tonight. They have become parodies of themselves. I'd rather have a truly interesting story by someone unknown than uninspired product from one of their stars. That's what I was complaining about.
posted by y2karl at 9:59 AM on February 10, 2007

What about a female Andy Rooney? Whineyness is tollerated in men in a way it isn't in women.

I hate the regular Andy Rooney. But I still love Sarah Vowell.

I think you're high on something re: sexism.
posted by Tacos Are Pretty Great at 10:23 AM on February 10, 2007

A huge second to the Carlton Pearson episode.

As a disclaimer, I'm not a big TAL fan. I don't mind it, but it's not the shining beacon of radio people like to treat it as.

But that episode made me very, very angry, and not in a good way. I am a Christian, and at least of progressive of a Christian as Pearson is (probably more). But fuckin' A, you don't betray an entire congregation because you think you got a message from God. That is what crazy people do.

Every detractor interviewed on that story was made to look like a backward hick, and Pearson was made to look like the heroic underdog. Fine, Ira, come to whatever shittily convenient conclusion you want, but don't michaelmoore good people into sounding like villains.

Also, I'm sure any radical radio class will talk about WFMU, but do you know about Pirate Cat? It might deserve a mention as well.
posted by roll truck roll at 11:16 AM on February 10, 2007

Since your class (if not this question) also deals with the good of "radical" radio, I think Scott Carrier's stories stand out above the rest of the show's contributors. Episode 80 is a particularly good one; his long story there, almost the entire episode, is also in his book "Running After Antelope".

But what you really want is Episode 181, which is an episode entirely composed of Scott Carrier stories. The blurb on the website says "A special show, composed entirely of stories from just one This American Life contributor: Scott Carrier, whose strange and compelling stories sound like nothing else on the radio."

As for least favorite, I can't find any of the episodes quickly, but I very often dislike shows that have parts of plays. I remember some one-woman-show that was in a couple of episodes that I found excruciating. I may just be referring to Julia Sweeney's stuff; I think her in show credit would mention a play she was doing.
posted by msbrauer at 3:06 PM on February 10, 2007

I generally come away from this show feeling satisfied, like my brain just had a good meal. Every once in a while, though, one segment of a show just doesn't do it for me. "What We Were Trying to Do" from "Fiasco!" was, to me, a good example of this-- painfully boring exercise in Just Trying Too Hard. I was working out while listening to it, which is generally a good time to have my full attention, but I found myself wanting to turn it off and tolerate the dull silence instead.
posted by hollisimo at 4:32 PM on February 10, 2007

I have to nth the "David Sedaris needs to stop writing animal fables" sentiment. And while I generally like Jonathan Goldstein (and Wiretap), his re-telling of Biblical events (Cain and Abel, Noah and the flood) should air with a warning to not operate heavy machinery while listening. I don't dislike Squirrel Cop, however, I don't find it particularly extraordinary. I 2nd what Phoenixy had to say about Spalding Gray's Ski Lessons. I've listened to every episode in the archives and I have to say the show is definitely winning the battle against mediocrity.
posted by Dalton at 5:15 PM on February 10, 2007

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