Seven Must-Listen This American Life Episodes

Music Lists This American Life

A week and a half ago, a friend and I braved the sprawly horrors of Atlanta’s Hollywood 24 to see the live broadcast of This American Life’s second-annual live show. Up in New York City, host Ira Glass sat at a desk before a crowd of hundreds, as thousands more sat in movie theater seats across the country and beheld the very odd phenomenon transpiring before us. This American Life has had great success as both a radio program and a television series, and though it translated rather awkwardly to the stage (when do we clap? why does Ira look so jowly? is Joss Whedon gonna cry?) it was still a great show.

No one tells a story quite like Glass and his crew, and over the past fourteen years they’ve spun nearly four hundred of them. I came to it relatively late, only subscribing to the weekly podcast two years ago, but I’ve tried to play catch-up the best I can. Lately, I’ve found myself pressing the show onto more and more friends, kinda shocked that not every single person I know already listens to it. If you’re like those folks, the recording of last week’s live show (available this weekend) is a pretty good first step (warning: Dan Savage’s piece about his mother dying will absolutely gut you) but here are seven more prime entry points for your imminent This American Life devotion.

#104: Music Lessons
Two of the show’s all-time greatest contributors, Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris, really shine here: Vowell tells of her experience as a high school band geek (which culminated with her participation in an all-ages recorder ensemble), and Sedaris’ story of growing up the child of a raging jazz aficionado includes his dangerously hilarious renditions of commercial jingles in the voice of Billie Holiday. (And I do mean “dangerously hilarious.” Based on personal experience, I would not recommend listening to this segment while operating a motor vehicle or other heavy machinery.)

#109: Notes on Camp
If you went to summer camp, this one will get you. If you never went to summer camp, this one will get you. Might also make you want to be eleven years old again. That’s some serious power, folks. Respect it.

#203: Recordings for Someone
This was the very first episode of This American Life that I ever heard, and let me tell you, randomly switching my car radio over to WABE only to hear some seemingly deranged woman ranting about The Little Mermaid was quite a strange experience. I definitely had a driveway moment with this one, and I’ve been stuck on the show ever since (though, admittedly, it’s rare that an episode lives up to the sheer weirdness of that particular segment).

#293: A Little Bit of Knowledge
Because, really, who doesn’t pick up a copy of Modern Jackass every once in a while?

#304: Heretics
The shownearly always tackles religion in a really great way, giving respect and credence to peoples’ beliefs, avoiding both evangelism and caricature. Most importantly, though, the stories of religion always acknowledge one really important thing—faith is messy. And there may be no better example of that than this hour-long story tracing the rise and fall of a young fundamentalist preacher, who went from basically sitting at the right hand of Oral Roberts to preaching the idea of the nonexistence of Hell. Yeah, really messy.

#347: Matchmakers
The most classic episodes induce both weeping and laughter, and this one is right up there with the best. Elna Baker’s bizarre story of working at the F.A.O. Schwartz “newborn nursery” may just surpass the hilarity of Sedaris-as-Holiday (see #104, above).

#355: The Giant Pool of Money
This episode blew me away when it aired last fall, and remains one of the best pieces of reporting about our recently-icky economy that I’ve encountered so far, laryngitic Glass and all.

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