This American Life Lights Up Skirball Center With Live Broadcast

Ira GThere isn’t a guy at NYU who wouldn’t grow up to be Ira Glass if they could. It wouldn’t be such a bad gig for a girl either 458 download. Last night, at our Skirball Center for the Performing Arts, a swarm of mini and wannabe Iras wrapped entirely around the block, from the show doors at Skirball to the front entrance of Kimmel. Nearly every smiling face donned some sort of frames, and most of the crowd leaned closer to his age than mine. Once inside, lights shone Hollywood bright and every seat was filled. Pun-heavy puzzles were projected onto a movie theater-sized screen and we waited. Then, he arrived.

The patron saint of thinking man’s radio, Ira Glass, smiled and waved as a too-long applause rattled the theater as if it were canned for Jay Leno. Sitting at his carefully arranged station—complete with a microphone, soundboard and a machine to cue the music—Glass introduced the evening, matching the glee of the audience with his exuberant tone, by telling the story of Putnam County, Florida. You see, in Putnam, if you’re caught shoplifting, a particularly Old Testament judge orders that you go back to the establishment you robbed and carry a sign outside that reads, “I stole from a local store.” A playful cartoon accompanied Glass’ tale—of course, not possible in a radio-only broadcast—and the night’s theme was established: “Return to the Scene of the Crime.”

Act One brought comedian Mike Birbiglia front and center, sporting a button-down and a black hoodie, to tell his story, titled “DU-Whyyy?!“about being T-boned by a drunk driver. Each punchline, largely dependent on his deadpan delivery, was received with hearty approval by the audience, especially the guy directly behind me who had without a doubt the worst laugh in the history of humanity. It was the kind of obnoxious cackle that stifled my own laughs, the pain in my ears eclipsing the cerebral tickle. Still, Eli Wiesel jokes always land and an emotional payoff was unexpected but rewarding.

Act Two, “Cry Me A River,” was a touching little Chris Ware cartoon about a bird mouse who falls in love with a cat head, all set to the sweet sounds of Andrew Bird’s Bowl of Fire’s “Eugene.” Folks at 430 theaters around the country, tuning in for the live broadcast, also had the pleasure of viewing the short which will be available online at the show’s website.

The all-around adorable This American Life favorite Starlee Kine strutted out in a pink dress and black high-heels and tights for Act Three, “Whack-a-Mom,” about the therapy required by her sheltered childhood and tumultuous young adult life. Her piece focused on her eight day stay at the self-help retreat organized by the Hoffman Institute and like all good TAL contributors, her squeaky, idiosyncratic voice pulled us all gladly into her head.

During a break in the show, Glass introduced an arresting clip from the This American Life television show, airing the enticing first two minutes of the second season’s finale, titled “John Smith,” which aired on Showtime. I’d wager that the cheap plug worked and every person in that theater, if they haven’t already, will now seek out the TV version of their favorite radio show.

My most anticipated moment—Dan Savage’s segment—was up next and his Act Four story, “Our Man of Perpetual Sorrow,” was everything I could have hoped for and then some. The renowned sex columnist and author told the story of his Catholic gradeschool and time as an altar boy, but was quick to point out that, no, the story was not going there. Instead, he detailed his personal journey from inundated schoolboy to nonbeliever in his usual matter-of-fact tone with his typically cutting observations. He spoke mainly about his relationship with his mother and her religious beliefs and told of his own coming out, upon which his mother immediately called her priest. When she explained to her religious guide her alarming new predicament as the mother of a gay child, the priest proceeded to come out to her himself. I won’t give away any more, but will note that Mr. Savage got choked up on at least four occasions and I wasn’t the only one with tears on my sleeve by the time he was finished. After, a touching clip of Ira, Dan and their mothers at the very first live broadcast of This American Life—seven years ago from a Chicago bar—served as yet another highlight of the night.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss Whedon performed a song on piano for Act Five, “Return to the Scene of the Scene.” The composition came from Whedon’s highly successful recent project, Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Upon the release of the Neil Patrick Harris internet vehicle on DVD, Whedon recorded an entire director’s commentary in musical style and performed a selection from that which mocked his fans for overdetermining his work. Though not a Whedon fan myself, I could appreciate the importance of the seminal director’s first ever musical performance.

I think it’s a common feeling among This American Life fans that our heroes can do no wrong. But since I was a child my father has always said to me, “I’ll trust you until you give me a reason not to,” and it’s that sort of logic that builds a relationship between a brand of media and its fans like the one This American Life enjoys. Fact is, they have never wronged us before. Last night was no different and only enhanced the adoration I have for everyone involved. If ever you’ve trusted a recommendation, listen to last night’s show when it airs on the weekend of May 1st or catch the theatore encores on May 7th. All of the deails are here—don’t sleep on it.

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    6 Comments

  1. Roger C says

    Good review; Ira Glass and the contributors were, as always, superb.

    I want to write a short addendum to your Mike Birbiglia review which seemed to focus mainly on his humor. Yes, he’s a very funny guy ( I went to see his one man show “Sleep Walk with Me” recently), but it’s his ability to geniusly mix smart wit with introspection that makes him so impressive: you’re laughing one second and then furrowing your eyebrows and in deep thought the next second.

    …not your typical Dane Cook…

  2. Pat Powers says

    I watch the live broadcast last night from a theater in Illinois and was wondering if anyone could relay the bit he did before the John Smith preview (I think)? He asked if anyone in the audience was hearing This American Life for the first time.

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