Friday, April 24, 2009

This American Life--Live! Twee in HD**

Posted By on Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 12:08 PM

click to enlarge ira.jpg
This American Life went live last night. Normally available only on radio or podcast, Ira Glass and friends performed the show's signature hour-long mix of tangentially related stories on a Columbia University stage and broadcast it to over 400 movie screens nationwide, including the Green Hills Regal. What resulted was kind of what you'd expect. Like an intelligent take on the variety show (are you listening, Leno?).

Just like all TALs, the show revolved around a central theme. In this case: "Return to the Scene of the Crime." If you're a fan of the show you know that some stories get inelegantly shoehorned just to fit the theme. This was the case last night. But, again, if you're a fan, you also know that this doesn't matter in the least.

After an entertaining word-play countdown that I now officially nominate to replace all pre-preview movie infotainment, Glass sat down at a desk set off-center to a round of applause (and yes, there were a few in the Green Hills crowd who whooped and clapped along*). In front of a mic and two turntable-ish recording devices, Glass started the performance on an odd note of explanation; waving his right hand and saying "quotes" and then his left hand with an accompanying "music."

*In the right crowd, the question of whether or not to clap in a movie theater can be as divisive as politics or religion. The argument against is pretty simple: The people you wish to applaud can't hear you. A counter argument can't be provided in this post because, again, THE PEOPLE YOU WISH TO APPLAUD CAN'T HEAR YOU.


Filming what is normally meant to go on radio is already a way of revealing the strings behind the puppet show. What Glass's minor bit of exposition meant to show, I think, was how his hands then made them dance. That's one of the advantages to showing what happens behind the scenes: TAL, even when it's not filmed as such, is always a performance. And Glass is an argument in favor of the human capacity for multi-tasking...

While simultaneously talking from a script and looking into the camera, Glass was pushing buttons to bring up audio and background music. He looked like a conductor, right down to the minor flourishes he made when he brought his hands up, then down, to hit the cue just right.

One problem with all the moving parts: Since most people are used to only listening, not watching TAL (because this is the first time they've broadcast live, and they only occasionally record live, and since, as Glass himself pointed out, just about no one has Showtime or watched the Emmy-winning TV version of the show) it was sometimes hard to focus on what was actually being said because, hey, now you could see the guy doing the talking. Also, due to some unfortunate shading, the lenses on Glass's chunky black, uh, glasses made it look like he had the largest bi-focals this side of Palm Beach.

The only other time it felt like Hey, why am I watching this? was during the run-down of credits. Normally that'd be when you'd either tune out, turn the volume down or find something else to listen to. But when you're seated in a dark movie theater you end up watching, and listening, to every person who ever worked on the show get called out by name. A nuisance? Maybe. But totally minor considering the performances that preceeded it.

As for those performances, I'm not going to go into detail here. The show will be rebroadcast on radio and podcast in two weeks. And demand for tickets was high enough that there'll be an encore on May 7th (presumably also at Green Hills, although at this point that hasn't been announced). Just know that if you already like Dan Savage, Starlee Kine, Mike Birbiglia and Joss Whedon*, nothing about this show will change that opinion.

*In fact, if like us you'd never watched a second of Buffy or Firefly or anything else Whedon's Midas touch has turned to gold, you just might leave the theater thinking he stole the show. And that you need to go on Amazon and order some Dr. Horrible DVDs right this second.

**One last note. That "twee" comment is a reflection of a common criticism/backhanded praise of TAL: That the show's delicate treatment of seemingly ordinary people doing seemingly ordinary things sometimes borders on the so-cute-it's-kind-of-nauseating. Especially when Sarah Vowell is involved. (One man's opinion!). But I don't quite buy it (the headline just happened to rhyme) and I doubt you'll find a much more emotionally compelling, and un-twee, four minutes of live TV than Savage's essay on losing his mother. Just sayin'.

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