This American Life is a long-running (1995-present), award-winning weekly Documentary series on American public radio, hosted by Ira Glass. Produced by Chicago Public Radio, it's a unique take on radio journalism, with a hip, literary style.
Though often thought of as an NPR production, it's actually distributed by Chicago Public Radio, with the actual delivery to stations undertaken by Public Radio Exchange. However, the show actually does air on many NPR member stations, as those stations are more often than not, also PRX affiliates. They have also done occasional Crossovers, in which NPR reporters like Chana Joffe-Walt present a story on TAL, which adds to the confusion. And of course, Glass himself is an NPR News veteran, having worked on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation before he got his own show.
Indeed, starting in 2008, TAL started a continued partnership with NPR News, the Planet Money quasi-Spin-Off podcast, consisting of NPR economics/politics reporters Adam Davidson, David Kestenbaum, Chana Joffe-Walt, and Jacob Goldstein, along with TAL regular Alex Blumberg talking about economics issues, ever since the Blumberg-Davidson TAL episode "The Giant Pool of Money" (basically the Origin Story of the financial crisis) proved to be a smash success. The Planet Money team, confusingly, also appears on actual NPR's Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
The show has an unusual structure based around the idea of storytelling. Each week's show loosely centers on a particular theme, and divided into several acts, nonfiction and fiction stories that explore that theme. Each show begins with a short prologue introduced by Glass, who then explains the theme between the prologue and first act. The number of stories varies by show, the range so far is 1 to 20.
In 2007, it became the first US public-radio series to Spin-Off a show on a commercial TV network, with an Emmy-winning Showtime version. After two seasons, the show was canceled by request of Glass and company, due to the difficult scheduling required to make both a TV show and a radio show simultaneously.
It's also known for launching the careers of several popular writers, such Sarah Vowell and David Sedaris, as well as featuring other notable recurring contributors, such as journalist David Rakoffnote and comedian Mike Birbiglia.
TAL also has presented a number of live shows throughout its history, and more recently, live digital-cinema broadcasts to movie theaters. These often serve as fundraisers for the radio show. The most recent of these included the live singing debut of Joss Whedon.
In 2020, This American Life won the first Pulitizer Prize for audio journalism.
Parodies include an article from The Onion here, Stephen Colbert's interview with Glass, a few episodes of the Kasper Hauser podcast (found here), the Chuck Tingle erotic story This American Butt with Ira Ass, and an ongoing series, This American Wife.
Available online as a podcast.
This American Life contains examples of the following tropes:
- American Accents: Ira Glass' Baltimorese aside, this show may have recorded every accent in the United States.
- American Title
- Butt-Monkey: Terrible kisser, cuckhold, sleepwalker? Thy name is Mike Birbiglia. A man who was once accused by police of crashing into his car with his car.
- Came Back Wrong: Chance the bull, in one of the stories.
- Christmas Episode: There is a new one every few years. The annual poultry slam counts as this.
- Church of Happyology: One episode has a segment about a new-agey psychic powers self-help book, written purely on a lark by a copy editor, that the narrator compares to another book "that, for legal reasons, I will only say rhymes with diuretics."
- The Deep South: Though the region has been covered before, the show once sent dozens of staff members to different counties in Georgia to find interesting stories. Ironically, the biggest story possibly finding the original recipe for Coca-Cola was saved for a later episode.
- Epic Fail: Invoked as the topic of this radio segment about epic fails, in particular a production of Peter Pan that becomes an utter fiasco in which the flying apparatus smacks the actors into the furniture, and Captain Hook's hook flies off his arm and hits an old woman in the stomach. By the end of the evening, firemen have arrived and all the normal boundaries between audience and actors have completely dissolved, with many in the audience hoping the performance gets even worse as it wouldn't be as fun otherwise.
- Follow the Leader: Several other PRI shows, such as To The Best of Our Knowledge and The Story, follow a similar story model, and probably wouldn't exist without the success of This American Life. Many stations air them back to back as well. The CBC series WireTap is arguably a Spin-Off, as its produced and hosted by former TAL producer Jonathan Goldstein, and shares several staff writers.
- Radiolab is starting to become more like TAL, now that it has correspondents and presents personal stories and anecdotes in addition to the science stories that made it famous.
- Storytelling programs on public radio, including The Moth and Snap Judgment, are gaining in popularity partly thanks to TAL.
- Harsher in Hindsight: Discussed Trope. In 2009, the show did an episode at Penn State University to discuss its #1 Party School ranking. In 2011, after the Jerry Sandusky fiasco, they returned to State College and interviewed many of the same people. Glass himself notes how chilling many of the original statements were in the new context.
- Human-Interest Story: A great many stories about unusual situations in the lives of ordinary Americans. It's sort of a human interest series actually, though not in the same sense as the typical TV newsmagazine.
- "I Want" Song: Referred to as the "I Wish" song, this was the subject of the prologue of Episode 259, "Promised Land". Then Ira sings one about the show.
- Intrepid Reporter: A number of episodes are devoted to what is really best described as muckraking, with several of the show's contributors and occasionally Glass himself (as he did in 2011 exposing a Hanging Judge at a drug court in southern Georgia) getting into the act.
- The all-time most-downloaded TAL program is "Mr. Daisey Goes to the Apple Factory", an excerpt from a much longer story called "The Agony & the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs". In this story, spoken word performer Mike Daisey purported to expose inhumane working conditions in factories in Shenzhen, China making Apple products. TAL's factchecking of Daisey's story was thorough — but not thorough enough. While conditions in Chinese factories really are cruelly harsh, many details of Daisey's personal story were proven false and had to be retracted (audio here). Daisey has never apologized.
- It's Been Done: The photo is the setting of Ira's host segments from the first TV season. Glass and the production team didn't realize Monty Python's Flying Circus already did it until it was too late.
- A self educated electrician and inventor who's a friend of the reporter claims to make an important discovery indicating Albert Einstein might have been wrong. Possibly revolutionary stuff! But as the friend investigates and tries to get a credible analysis he learns more and more that is friend is mentally disturbed and wrote a paper that's an example of thousands sent to prominent physicists each week claiming the same thing. Ultimately he gets a sit down with a physics professor to go through the paper with a fine-tooth comb to point out the dozens of errors his friend made that gave him the incorrect conclusion. The friend still won't admit he might have been wrong, leading to serious doubts about his mental stability.
- Lamarck Was Right: Noted by David Rakoff in Episode 47: Christmas and Commerce, where Rakoff plays Sigmund Freud and is quite good at psychology, despite not having any education in the field. He then notes that both of his parents were involved with psychology so it would only make sense that he would be good at asking people about their feelings.
- Live Episode: "What I Learned from Television" and "Return to the Scene of the Crime."
- Magazine Show
- Mood Whiplash: One episode ("Fall Guy", aired June 28, 2009) jumps from a comedian talking about his beatdown-filled freshman year of high school as part of his routine, to a sobering story about Lynndie England and the Abu-Ghraib prison scandal.
- This actually happens a lot, to juxtapose how many different variations on a story are out there. For example, if the show is about finding your biological parents after a long search, expect the story of the happy reunion to be followed by the story of finding only their graves a week after they died.
- The Movie: Unaccompanied Minors, based on a non-fiction essay by Susan Burton that first appeared on the This American Life episode "Babysitting". It's the first film to come out of a first-refusal deal Warner Bros. has for movies based off This American Life stories and essays.
- Another episode, "Fear of Sleep," featuring a story from Mike Birbiglia, spawned the feature film Sleepwalk With Me, written and directed by Birbiglia and Ira Glass.
- Obi-Wan Moment: In-Universe, from the Babysitting episode, there's a story about an older brother, Doug, pretends he is a werewolf to terrorize his younger brothers. One of his brothers, Steve who is 11, was left behind by his brother and was afraid for his life. By the time Doug comes in Steve basically says, "Go ahead, kill me. Just get it over with".
- Once an Episode: During the credits, producer Torey Mallatia is quoted as saying something, followed by a clip from earlier in the show. It is inevitably funny, and hence also counts as something of a Credits Gag.
- As of episode 501 Torey has actually retired.
- Police Brutality: One episode revolved around an NYPD officer who secretly recorded his superiors pushing illegal arrest quotas. When they figured it out, they raided his house with SWAT teams in the guise of "protecting him" from committing suicide. Only his second recorder saved him from being mentally discharged from the force and discredited. Upon moving to upstate NY, the local cops gave him the Rewarded as a Traitor Deserves treatment.
- Secret Ingredient: They devoted a whole episode to cracking the secret of Coca-Cola. They got pretty close—close enough that getting the exact flavor could be done with a little tweaking.
- Self-Deprecation: In episode 475, Ira Glass notes that unlike pretty much everyone else you hear on This American Life, Sonari Glinton actually has a good radio voice. (Ira has mentioned on other occasions that he doesn't have much of a radio voice.)
- Sheep in Wolf's Clothing: In 1996, Dan Savage became a local functionary of the Washington Republican Party in a vain effort to reduce Gay Panic in state politics.
- Signature Style: Sometimes it seems like every reporter is deliberately trying to imitate Ira Glass' characteristic and highly idiosyncratic delivery, rising nearly to the level of Stealth Parody.
- The show itself has a very distinct style, albeit one that has been aped several times at this point. The various acts, the introductions and story wrap-ups all follow a similar arc, such that when the show is changed (for example, spending most of the episode "Pen Pals" on a single story), it can be very jarring.
- Spin-Off: In 2014, TAL announced a new podcast series called Serial, hosted by long-time contributor Sarah Koenig, in which the format is altered so that a single story (beginning with The Case of Adnan Syed) is followed through multiple episodes, with the story told as a journey that the audience is following, learning things as the writers/producers/correspondents do.
- Superhero Episode: Superpowers, though only one story focuses on a person actually trying to be a traditional superhero, while the others are more about superhuman powers (as the title suggests).