Review: This American Life Live! (2012)

ImageA theater buzzing with intellectuals and hipsters was what I expected and promptly received when I attended This American Life Live! You Can’t Do That On The Radio, a live performance of the ever-popular radio program and podcast series beamed to roughly 600 movie theaters around the country on May 8, 2012. If you listen to the show, the only thing that kept you from Thursday’s program was either lack of proximity to a not-sold-out movie theater or the $20 required to pay the hefty ticket price.

This American Life, for those uninitiated, is a publicly produced radio program broadcast weekly on over 500 stations around the country before being posted for free online, where it frequently has the distinction of being the most popular podcast in the country. Hosted by the soothingly precise voice of the invaluable Ira Glass (who could read you to sleep were he not pumping your brain with so much goodness), each episode has a chosen theme that is unpacked over an hour of selected stories of everyday people — most them either heartwarmingly or heartbreakingly true.  Perhaps the best way to understand the show is simply to listen (the most recent episode, #154: In Dog We Trust, is available here), and their website is packed with their expansive catalogue of nearly every program for the price the oxygen and time your consuming at this very moment (though the show is arguably a better use of the latter than anything I’m currently writing).

Hence the distinction “Live!” in the title of this one-of-a-kind theatrical experience, where listeners around the globe can bask in the glory of seeing nerds on-stage in real time in 600 different venues around the country. And this is indeed an event for a crowd, up to and including a specifically interactive performance from Grammy-award winning band OK Go. This Amercan Life has always seemed pointed at bringing people together through experience (shared or individual), and part of the fun of this particular presentation is that it literally accomplishes that expressed goal.

This time, it’s via a shared visual experience. You Can’t Do That On The Radio (YCDTOTR) kicks off, in an intentionally ironic fashion, with a hilarious story from blind Canadian writer Ryan Knighton and the experience of being trapped in his hotel room. The theme of the program is “The Invisible Becomes Visible”, offering the audience stories and performances highlighting those elements in life that are invisible to us at one point or another. Throughout the show, the audience is transported across the spectrums of joy and sorrow and celebration and disdain. When comedian Tig Notaro performs, we laugh. When Snap Judgment host Glynn Washington performs, we laugh, and then we cry.

And YCDTOTR does actually have several features that you just can’t do on the radio. Consider the remarkably visual quality of live readings from prolific writers David Rakoff and David Sedaris. There are also interpretive dance performances from Monica Bill Barnes & Company, which, while not being a connesuire of the art form, are thoroughly entertained, which is the highest endorsement I can give something I don’t usually have a taste for. Another of the night’s highlights was the premiere of a new short film from comedian Mike Birbiglia (whose award-winning indie feature Sleepwalk With Me will premiere in theaters on August 24, 2012), which This American Life has made available for free viewing here.

Check out an encore performance of YCDTOTR in theaters at 8:00 p.m. on May 15, 2012 (Mr. Glass requested at the end of the show to spread the word, and this review is the best way I know how). Because most large theater chains don’t do encores of live performances, there will be only 80 likely-to-sell-out shows (locations of which you can view here). There will also be upcoming screenings on various dates at independent venues across the US, as well as Australia on May 26 and 27. In the meantime, look for those selected elements of the show that lend themselves to radio to appear in an upcoming episode of the This American Life radio/podcast series.

Can’t make it to a theater but still want one hell of a show? Check out the previous performance of This American Life Live! — which included live performances from special guests Birbiglia, Joss Whedon (The Avengers, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dr. Horrible), Dan Savage (MTV’s Savage U), and Starlee Kine (NPR producer and writer) — available on DVD here.

For constant updates, follow @gsundt on Twitter.
For more of Gary’s reviews and musings, visit
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