This American Life: Live

Once or twice a year, esteemed radio show This American Life (TAL) transforms itself into a show that you can not just see with your ears, but one you can see with your eyes: they put on a live show in a theatre. That live show is then broadcast to other theatres—live in the US and Canada and on a slight delay to here in Oz.

It’s kind of fitting, then, that the show’s overall theme was making that which is invisible, visible; the first two segments were especially so. They featured artists who were blind and who told hilarious stories of trying to orientate yourself and find a telephone in an unfamiliar hotel room and of explaining your blindness to your toddler.

The subsequent segments/acts included such tales as how Taylor Dane is the most easily found celebrity ever and a dance that defies description but that had me cacking myself so hard I had to stifle a snort.

OK Go also impressed with an outstanding smartphone app and interactive song that had us giggling and playing, stomping, and clicking along. Then there was an artist who wasn’t actually an artist—she was a nanny whose penchant for taking photos was discovered after her death.

The thing is that her black-and-white images, of which there are hundreds of thousands, are so striking each one alone warrants display in a gallery. TAL described her as an Emily Dickens-like character, whose success came posthumously. Given her penchant for privacy and the fact that she’d never shown the images to anyone it’s unlikely we’d have seen the images were she still alive. Either way, I could have watched a slideshow of her images for hours.

I’ve got to admit that my bladder got the better of me. The radio show is normally around three acts long and that’s what I (and my bladder) expected. Turned out the live show was six acts long and, well, suffice to say I didn’t enjoy the second half as much as I did the first.

It may have had something to do with the fact that two segments fell a little short of my over-hyped expectations. At least, one did. Mike Birbiglia is my favourite contributor—his sleepwalking and boyfriend’s girlfriend stories are ones I’ve re-listened to a thousand times and quote regularly. He created a short film for the show, though, which wasn’t his usual insightful and funny.

It was ok (and I mean ok in the way that you draw out the ‘o’ and then the ‘k’). It started strongly, with the camera focusing on the soundboard and Mike talking about his serious sleep disorder off camera. I wanted to hear more about it—serious, funny, whatever. It’s his breakout story and one of which I never tire. Instead he went off into a fictitious, arguably slightly clichéd short film that relied on repeating a single gag in different settings. It was, eh (and I mean eh in the way that you kind of appreciate the gag but are non-committal about the film overall).

The second not-my-favourite segment was by David Rakoff, although I should qualify that with the fact that I’m not a fan and always find his stories run a little long for my taste. It finished with an interpretive dance that made me cringe even more than the tale. Still, he had a great moment where he recounted how to grate cheese when you only have one arm that works—it was so clever it warranted applause.

Realistically, two segments that don’t 100% work are par for the course with TAL (and above average for creative works in general). It experiments so much and yields so much that’s outstanding that it’s bound to have (and should be allowed) the odd small fail. Double thumbs up to this live show. I can’t wait for the next one.

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Fiona Crawford

Fiona Crawford is a freelance writer, editor, blogger, proofreader, and voracious reader. She regularly appears as a book reviewer in Australian BOOKSELLER+PUBLISHER magazine. Fiona is also (unfairly) known as the Book Burglar due to her penchant for buying family members—then permanently borrowing—books she wants to read herself.