Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

This Television Life

Have you ever listened to that show on NPR, This American Life? I don’t know about you, but as far as I’m concerned, it has to be one of the most amazing things to ever grace our country’s airwaves. Back when it started, over a decade ago now, it was unlike just about anything you heard on public radio. This wasn’t a show about news or music or comedy. It wasn’t even, really, a show about people. It was a show about stories, stripped down to their pure essence, people talking to you with a little bit of music in the background.

Humans seem to have a natural craving for stories. Whatever the topic, it’s more fun to hear a story about it. Everyone tells stories. Everyone tells stories, but some people love crafting them until they’re perfect, like little pastries of information with curves in all the right places. And that’s what This American Life did each week on the radio: it presented three or four perfectly-crafted stories, all tangentially related to one loose theme, to your car or home for one full hour.

A couple years ago the Showtime network called Ira Glass, the head and host of This American Life and asked him if he wanted to make a television version of his show. For most people, getting a call from a television network would be a fairly big deal. But not Glass. Every week, his radio show is heard by 1.6 million people. A hit show on Showtime gets half a million. So Glass said no, there was no way their show would work on television. Still, Showtime persisted, asking what it would take to make it work. So Glass thought of every crazy demand that came to mind. And Showtime met them all.

The result, which premieres tonight on the pay-cable Showtime network, has to be one of the most amazing things to grace American television. It is unlike just about anything you’ve ever seen on TV. The best way I can think to describe it is this: Have you ever seen one of those stock photo movies? You know, the kind with the lusciously oversaturated colors, weird landscapes, and slow-motion movements? The kind of footage that makes the normal world look magical? Now, take that, and imagine an entire television show made out of it. It’s absolutely incredible.

To promote the show, since Showtime isn’t exactly, This American Life went on a six-city tour. I caught them in Chicago, where a jam-packed crowd of dedicated fans (still pissed about the team moving to New York to film the TV show) came to hear “What I Learned From Television”. We were in the Chicago Theater, a local landmark that holds thousands. And, I have to say, it’s probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a theater.

You know how on the radio show, they do these incredibly moving stories that just send chills of emotion down your spine. Now imagine listening to that, in the middle of a crowd of thousands of people who all came out to hear the very same thing. I mean, these were people who cheered individual names in the credits at the end of the show. (We’ll miss you Elizabeth Meister!) I’ve never felt a room so charged with emotion before.

So do these guys a favor. Do yourself a favor. Take your Nielsen box and switch it to Showtime tonight at 10:30. It’ll be like nothing you’ve ever felt before.

You should follow me on twitter here.

March 23, 2007



I love your site. Keep it up.

Did you catch Ira Glass talking about making the TV show on Fresh Air? http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=7600694

Somebody also posted some good stuff from him on YouTube. I put all 4 segments on one page here: http://thinkorthwim.com/2007/03/04/ira-glass-on-how-to-tell-a-story/

posted by Jeff Buscher on March 23, 2007 #

http://psych.utoronto.ca/~peterson/mom.htm for the page.

http://www.psych.utoronto.ca/~peterson/Peterson1.wmv for the ‘story’ opening. The lecture is called, “There’s no such thing as a dragon.”

This psychologist believes that storytelling is an evolutionary tool that mankind has used for a long time.

It’s interesting (to me anyway) and the video linked to above runs less than an hour. He’s a pretty good speaker in a laid-back way.


posted by Ken on March 23, 2007 #

Somethign similar might be Australian Story http://www.abc.net.au/austory/

posted by James on March 23, 2007 #

Actually, the fact that myths from around the world include dragons proves that dinosaurs coexisted with man. ;)

Aaron, thanks for the link. People keep telling me to listen to This American Life but I hadn’t gotten around to it until now.

posted by David McCabe on March 23, 2007 #

“We at Showtime Online express our apologies; however, these pages are intended for access only from within the United States.”

Apologies not accepted.

posted by Pablo Stafforini on March 23, 2007 #

the KPF* family of stations (I’m familiar with L.A. and San Francisco, not sure if they’re elsewhere) used to have a series by a man with the name “Joe Frank”. He had a new show most weeks with some light music in the background and told a number of stories. It gets really interesting because sometimes the stories have a point, sometimes they seem to offer a point but derail right before they get there, leaving you wondering. Sometimes it’s just prose about what’s going on in his life (for about 3 months he described a prolonged breakup he was going through). It sounds similar to what you’re talking about and there’s a wealth of material available if you can find it, but it may take some searching.


posted by Paul on April 4, 2007 #

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