There are cultural chasms that divide people like me — the immigrants — from good ‘ol natural born Americans like, maybe, you.
The longer I stay on this side of the Atlantic, some of those chasms get filled in with either acceptance or understanding: Having to say “movie theater” instead of “cinema,” commercials playing immediately before TV credits, America exceptionalism… all seem reasonable enough after a while. Soon there doesn’t even seem to be anything inherently wrong with the word “dude,” or with wishing perfect strangers a nice day.
Other chasms are too deep. No British ex-pat will ever, for example, be truly comfortable using the word “pants” to mean “trousers,” and there’s no force on earth that will cause the word “soccer” to pass my lips. You can explain the rules of American Football to me as many times as you like, but I still won’t understand why they have to keep stopping even ten seconds.
For me — and I realize this could be only me — another chasm is the popularity of certain American broadcasters.
Here’s one: I don’t understand why anyone would voluntarily watch Jay Leno, or frankly how anyone whose punchlines need to be highlighted using a drum or cymbal can be rightly called a comedian.
More controversially: This American Life has always left me cold. Not only does Ira Glass have a voice that only Jim Henson could love, but his cutesy slices of — well, American Life — just leave me pining for my days flipping through the Guardian Weekend Magazine in a coffee shop on Frith Street. Our smug liberal media was just so much smugger, so much more liberal — and there was a reason Julie Burchill’s words were written down and not spoken out loud.
For all of his undoubted skills with a broadcast mixer, Ira Glass always just seemed like the wrong guy, with the wrong stories, in the wrong medium.
America, I was wrong about at least two of those things.
That realization — with a zee — came in two parts. The first was a little over a year ago, in the Smith Center in Vegas. A friend invited me to see Glass “sharing stories” on stage at the then newly-opened Smith Center in Vegas. In any other city, I would have turned down the tickets — but, let me tell you, in Vegas you drink at the first cultural oasis you find.
The show was called “Reinventing Radio: An Evening With Ira Glass,” and was precisely that: An evening listening to Ira Glass performing a cut-down, one-man version of This American Life, powered by an iPad.
And it was fantastic. Not only for how Glass showed off how tech can be combined with live speech and recorded audio to produce something worth paying to see, but also for how the inoffensive musings that have made Glass famous were transformed by a live stage from smug to spellbinding.
And then I went home and haven’t listened to a single episode of This American Life since.
Until today. Today, having brunch on my own in San Francisco, and realizing I’d forgotten to bring the book I’m reading, I punished myself by visiting the This American Life website. There I found this trailer for Glass’ latest stage presentation: This American Life, Live.
Taped at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — where else? — the show builds on Glass’ earlier live show, turning it into a full-blown opera, and a musical, and… well… there are rollerskating mice. You really have to watch the whole thing, which is available to stream or download for just $5. It’s one of the smartest, funniest pieces of theater I’ve ever seen. And certainly the only one I’ve been able to watch on a computer screen.
Here’s the description from the TAL site…
It’s This American Life’s wildest, most ambitious live show ever! Nearly 50 actors, singers, dancers, musicians and comedians joined Ira Glass onstage at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Opera House on June 7th, 2014 to try some things they’d never tried before. The result? Journalism turned into opera, into plays, into a Broadway musical (by Lin-Manuel Miranda, starring Lindsay Mendez and Anthony Ramos). Comedy from Mike Birbiglia, and SNL’s Sasheer Zamata. Songs from Stephin Merritt of the Magnetic Fields. Dance from Monica Bill Barnes & Company. The video can be yours for just five bucks!
If, like me, you’ve struggled to understand the appeal of Ira Glass and This American Life, then this live performance will finally put you in sync with America’s liberal radio viewers. If you’re already an Ira Glass fan, it’ll probably make your eyes and ears melt.
Either way, I was wrong about Ira Glass and this is your weekend viewing.