Sunday, February 21, 2016

Episode 400

Since about October 2000 I have regularly listened to This American Life, originally as broadcast on WNYC (supplemented with streaming archived episodes), more recently as a podcast (and still supplemented with streaming archived episodes).  Over the more than 15 years that I've been listening to the show (which has since grown in popularity) quite a number of episodes have stuck with me, a disproportionate number of which have stories from Scott Carrier (Does it get better than Running After Antelope?).  Contributions of individuals aside, the show has been consistently great for the 20 years it has been on the air - which is an impressive feat (Hell, they even managed to develop a semi-well known passable spin-off [not counting the TV show].)

One episode, above all others, for more than six years has stood out as a miss.  First broadcast in early February 2010, episode 400, in which several of the show's producers attempted to produce stories based on suggestions from their respective parents.  And, ha ha, most of the stories pitched to these producers weren't very good and really didn't make for great radio.  The somewhat self-congratulatory point of whole thing seemed to be that professional radio producers are better at picking stories for radio/This American Life than average people.  (Give me at least a little bit of warning when you're going to hit me with such hard truths makers of This American Life - I don't want to hurt myself when I get knocked over).

(Kidding aside, yeah, we know - you're good at your jobs.  That's why so many people keep coming back to the show week after week and why Serial is as popular as it is.  I think it's fair to say that most listeners recognize this skill when we listen to the show.  While I, presumably like many other listeners, would love to be able to make a This American Life-style show, it is clearly beyond my skill set and the skill sets of many in the listening audience.  I think most of us recognize and accept that there is something in the skill department that the makers of This American Life bring to the table that we don't have.)

Of course, I am inclined to suggest that at least two of these parental suggestions didn't make great radio not because of the quality of the suggestion, but because the staff at This American Life just didn't understand the significance of the stories and, not surprisingly, the resulting stories missed the point/weren't that great.

In the show's first Act Lisa Pollak attempts to follow-up on her mother's suggestion that she look into funny funerals or humour at funerals or maybe funny things that have happened at funerals? She's never seems all that clear about the issue she is trying to examine.

I think the point Pollak misses is that her mother isn't looking for funny anecdotes about funerals gone awry, but about funerals that are true celebrations of the life of the deceased that involve the use of humour.  As someone, like Lisa Pollak's mother and father, who has attended a funeral that did have a fair number of laughs I think I see where's she's coming from.  Really, what better way is there to celebrate the life of the deceased than by remembering the high points of that life and, maybe, punctuating those memories with hearty laughter?

At my grandmother's funeral in 2003 there were plenty of laughs, all of which reminded the attendees of the best features of her personality.  Instead of wallowing in sadness and loss, we were reminded of my grandmother's unique contributions to our respective lives.  By others laughing along I could also tell (or at least thought I could tell) that others in attendance were reflecting on similar experiences they'd had with her.  The feeling that I had at the end of the event, despite the inherent sadness associated with her death, was that my grandmother was truly known and appreciated by those in attendance - and the shared laughter was the mechanism by which this truth revealed itself.  Had it been a normal, quiet funeral I would have been provided with no sense of the feelings of the other attendees.

Since this funeral I have realized that the only features of my funeral that I truly care about are that it is filled with laughs and that it celebrates my life instead of mourns my death.  I don't care about which songs are or are not played, which readings are or are not read, or where the event does or does not take place as long as most people leave after having had a hearty laugh.  (I can't really say that I'll be disappointed if this doesn't come to pass - I'll be dead after all - but I'll definitely be disappointed if this doesn't come to pass.)

I think part of the problem with Pollak's approach to the story is that she contacted funeral directors for input.  Despite this group seeming like an obvious place to turn, I'm not convinced that funeral directors as a group get this approach to funerals and that funerals really, at their core, should be celebrations.  Maybe it's because most funeral directors don't have a particularly strong connection to the people whose funerals they're leading (and thus don't know how to draw out the humour in each person's life) or because there's a general sense that funerals are supposed to be sad and sombre affairs (rather than funny) so that's what they give the dying public?  Or maybe it's because when you're surrounded by the business of death and the grieving it's hard to always find the light?  I don't know exactly the cause, but the reality seems to be that a strength of funeral directors, and their are many strengths, is not injecting levity into the funeral process.  And that's a shame, maybe even more of a shame than Lisa Pollak also seems to miss this point.

(Maybe the craziest part of this mess of a story is that after the story is played for the audience the staff of This American Life, themselves having just listened to the piece for the first time as a group, all heap praise on the piece and laud it for being well reported.  Apparently, the fact that even in the story Lisa Pollak's mother seems dissatisfied with the results of the investigation doesn't merit much consideration.  Weird.)

Alex Blumberg's story, or Act 3, based on a suggestion from his father to examine the origins of corporate personhood suffers from slightly different problems - it adheres too closely to the original pitch and spends too much time showing it's workings while transitioning to a more do-able version of the pitch.  In this case, the suggestion from Alex's father is something I think has the potential to be quite interesting and it seems to be a story pitch that Alex understands.  As is reported in the story, maybe the approach to the issue of corporate personhood suggested by Alex's father isn't quite the best way in - which isn't that surprising given his lack of expertise on the subject demonstrated by his quest to learn more - but that doesn't mean that the general topic isn't fascinating and ripe for inquiry.

Unfortunately, just as Alex's story has worked it's way through the hiccups of the pitch and is moving on to the interesting side of the story (and I suspect that in most This American Life episodes they would have just cut this prologue and gone right to the portion of the reporting that lead to fruitful results) Ira decides the story is too boring to continue and the kills it, leading to a reverse en media res of sorts.

How Alex's dad's pitch was handled was disappointing because I think that it is likely a This American Life-style narrative story about the origins of corporate personhood, or maybe a consequential instance of corporate personhood, could be a great fit for the now.  Now, because of the failings of this piece, we're unlikely to hear such a story.  It seems it's been decided that issues associated with corporate personhood are just too boring for This American Life.

For better or worse, I can't really remember the other stories included in this episode.  I suspect that means that they were just fine, but not particularly memorable for being either great successes or great failures.  Whatever the quality of the remaining stories, this certainly hasn't been one of the episodes I've been tempted to revisit over the years since it was first broadcast/podcast - it just wasn't that good.

The ultimate irony of epiosde being that in an attempt to demonstrate the special skills and contributions of producers of This American Life that go into the creation of each and every episode of the show, this episode was one of the least skillfully produced and execute.  These skilled producers certainly weren't able to manage the less-than-alchemical transition of silver to gold.  Instead, we were given a peak behind the curtain and shown that when handed a story they don't understand, just like us, the producers of This American Life fumble around and, sometimes, miss the point of the assignment.  Of course, I don't really think that this was the point they were trying to make.

(Ok, there hasn't been much narrative to this whole thing, but how was that for a This American Life-style ending.  Just throw a little Coffaro's Theme or Mogwai underneath and you wouldn't be able to to tell this wasn't the real thing.)

(Jeannette thinks this post may be a little harsh, especially when I am a fan of This American Life and typically listen to each episode the night it is released.  I think it is because I know the quality that is typical of the show that this somewhat disappointing episode merits discussion - but maybe I'm wrong and I should just let it go after six years.  The truth is that I'm probably probably overly committed to the idea of funny funerals to provide an unbiased assessment of any piece of work that doesn't understand their significance in the same way I do - it's possible that this first story set the tone for the entire episode and I'm not judging the rest of the episode fairly.

Who knows?

But you should definitely take the opinion of a rando on the internet who's been obsessing over a single episode of a long-running podcast for more than six years with a grain of salt.)

Cameron - 7
Neil - 0

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