As This American Life (and in the interest of saving myself a total of 11 seconds over the course of this post, I will hereby refer to it as, TAL) prepares for the launch of its new Showtime incarnation, Ira Glass and the gang are out touring the country with rare live performances trying to 1) sell the new TV show and 2) convince loyal radio listeners that they haven’t sold out.
I think they succeeded on both fronts. This week’s theme was, appropriately enough, “What I Learned From TV.” And the stories on that theme came from TAL Duchess Sarah Vowell, cutie/portly John Hodgman, and sexpert Dan Savage. Plus we got a preview and discussion of the new Showtime series with Ira and director, Chris Wilcha. And double plus, the whole damn thing was accompanied by special musical guests…wait for it…Ok Go.
No, that’s the name of the band. Yes. It’s Ok Go. No, I was saying “wait for it” about revealing the name of the band. Do you know what I mean? Great, back to the review.
The night opened with a badly mixed performance by Ok Go. I know that sound mixing is an oft-listed complaint on this site, but come on. How hard is it to make the lead singer’s vocals audible? I’m not even asking for crisp and clear. Just give me audible. The band sounded great, but the vocals were nonexistent.
After that Ira made his entrance. And I do mean made his entrance. I think the man and the show he’s created are amazing, but I get the impression he may agree with me. A little too much. Ira made a big show of live mixing the intro of the show. It was cool, but a tad (and really, only a tad) manufactured. He set up the TV theme, talked a little about what were in for and spent a few minutes bouncing in and out of content for us and content for the episode they were recording.
Basically they did six live shows and they’ll be taking the best hour of stories and music out of those shows and editing it down to the hour-long episode that will air this weekend on your local NPR station. But the intro and outros for the episode were recorded live at last night’s show. Pretty interesting to see it all go down in-person. Though it did help emphasize how much of the joy of listening to that show is the precise craftsmanship of the audio experience. Hearing the hiccups in the stories and watching Glass miss a music intro here or there definitely fractures the moment. All the more reason to appreciate how great the weekly show is. But I digress (a great name for a blog if you ask me).
Sarah Vowell was first out of the gate. I’ll get this out of the way quickly so that you can expend your fury and then return to the rest of the post—I’m kind of over the Sarah Vowell thing. She’s a great writer and I’ve loved countless stories she’s down on TAL and NPR, but the whole act has worn a tad thin for me. Not that I don’t buy her, it’s just that the phrasing and delivery of her pieces is always the same and while I certainly don’t dislike her, I find it less and less captivating as of late. Sorry. Her story last night was one I’m almost certain I’ve heard or read before. She lectured on TV’s (unsurprisingly lame) versions of history. And, in particular, Pilgrim history. She took us through Thanksgiving episodes from The Brady Bunch, Happy Days and Bewitched. I don’t doubt that their versions of 1621 Virginia were craptastic, but really, was any episode of those shows any good? Then she praised Thanks, the short-lived Pilgrim sitcom from Fox. Vowell’s piece was all well and good, but a little mannered for me.
Next up was more badly mixed music from Ok Go. I really love this band and would have dug actually hearing them. Oh well, it’s not like they were performing in a famous musical hall renowned for its acoustics. Wait, never mind.
Then it was time for the portion of the evening I’d been most looking forward to, Mr. John Hodgman. Hodgman is simply awesome. His book, The Areas of My Expertise is genius and the audiobook version is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard. He’s a semi-frequent contributor to The Daily Show and is utterly ubiquitous as the PC in the (dare I say, overrated*) current Mac TV campaign. Hodgman talked about the results of becoming a celebrity. He described the experience of being recognized on the street and the “complete storewide freak out” that took place when he went to buy a cable at the Apple Store in SoHo. Hodgman was extremely funny, if a bit uneven in his live read. I was probably expecting too much coming off of Areas of My Expertise (which I can’t recommend highly enough), but he still kicked ass.
Hey, let’s not hear Ok Go again! Yeah, seriously fix the sound already. Jesus.
Then we got the most interesting part of the night, a short discussion between Ira and Chris Wilcha. Wilcha was the guy with the unenviable task of translating TAL to television. I say unenviable because, in his words, if the show went poorly he was going to be the guy who ruined the beloved franchise. And if it went well, Ira Glass would get all the credit. I also say unenviable because, even in their short conversation, I got the sense that Ira (and the radio show staff) was kind of a bitch to work with. Wilcha showed two clips from the show that demonstrated this pretty well. The first was a piece of a beautifully shot interview where we simply saw the man being interviewed. The second, as per Ira’s request cut back to him from time to time for news-y reaction shots. It’s impossible to describe how shitty the second option looked. It was hilariously bad. Seeing something so well lit and produced resorting to (as Wilcha put it to Glass) “the visual grammar of TV news” was jarring and instantly wrong. The point though was that this question and apparently virtually every other one involved in making the show had to be demonstrated not to work. Essentially it sounds like Glass and the radio staff treated the TV crew like vendors. In Ira’s defense he admitted as much and said that he thinks the later episodes of the show are superior to the early ones because they started trusting Wilcha’s crew much more.
The clips we saw were gorgeous, but I’m going to be interested to see how the show plays out. While there’s nothing like TAL on radio (or at least there wasn’t when it started), the style of documentary that the TV show feels like in small snippets is fairly familiar. The more I see, the more it reminds me of Errol Morris’s work. I’m very curious to see if the series feels derivative or manages to have as clear and unique a voice as the radio program.
Next up were more TV musings from Ira including a charming story about the time Glass and his wife were watching The O.C. and two of the characters started talking about TAL. The especially charming part was Ira’s admission that he loves the show and that he and his wife sing “in full voice” the show’s theme “California” every time they watch. He explained, "I just sit there realizing that I love this show and that I love my wife.” I feel the same way every single time Mindy and I belt out The Dandy Warhols’ “We Used to Be Friends” at the start of every Veronica Mars episode*** (though the version in Seasons 1 and 2 was approximately 10,000 times better). Anyway, it was sweet.
Then we got the highlight of the night. Ok Go came out and talked to Ira about the YouTube explosions that were the “Million Ways” and “Here it Goes Again” videos. They also told the story of the first dance they ever choreographed. Years before the dance videos for the most recent album, the band had unleashed a Timberlake-ian number on a Chicago public access show and then rekindled the magic as a means of standing out at a 50+ band music festival in England. Well ladies and gentlemen, last night they did that original dance. All I can say is that it was magical. Transcendent even. The building blocks of later dances were evident to the Ok Go scholars in the crowd. There was diving under one another’s legs, spinning dance circles, elaborate hand motions, and stagy lip-synching. The embryo of the Matrix slap was there too. In short, you missed out.
Dan Savage closed the evening with a very funny story about censoring his young son’s viewing of Nickelodeon's The Suite Life of Zach and Cody. I’ve seen this show myself and gotten sucked in by its bizarre world. Savage’s main concern was the disturbingly precocious sexual appetite of one of the prepubescent lead characters and the resulting modeling effect it could have on his straight son. Funny stuff as per usual from the editor of the Stranger and the genius behind Savage Love.
A great night really. Entertaining, illuminating, badly mixed. Good times. And now, thanks to this exhaustive post, you’ve experienced it for yourself. In real time. Sorry about that.
Listen this weekend and see how close I was.
*My problem is the fact that they made the obviously funnier, smarter and more talented personality the “villain” in the ads. The Mac guy seems kind of like a douche whereas PC is fairly charming. Besides, the hipper-than-thou Mac cognoscenti (to which I happily pay thousands each year to belong) surely recognizes and appreciates Hodgman for his body of work. He’s just the cooler of the two guys and carries every spot. Just seems misplaced to me. But what do I know?***
**Including the many episodes we watched last year on a plane home from Spain.
***I’ll save you the trouble: Nothing.