Wednesday, November 24, 2010

That American Life

Ira: (Voice-over) It was getting to be a dangerous situation, and something they really hadn’t planned on.  Many educated couples who listen to This American Life on their local NPR affiliate enjoy the show, but few get hooked the way the Epsteins did.

Dr. Epstein: I studied orthodontics at Penn, and later established a successful practice. At one point I’d heard that endodontics was a growing field, but I stuck with my dream of establishing an orthodontic practice. My patients were for the most part spoiled Manhattan private school kids whose parents sent them to orthodonists under the theory that flawless teeth would increase their chances of getting into Harvard. Then my wife listened to one of your episodes and something happened. Soon we were planning our schedules so that we could listen together. I remember the one about the woman who goes to Africa to be with her chimp. It was very touching because the chimp eventually leaves her and she stays on anyway.

Ira: If you could put it in words, what attracted you guys to the show?

Epstein: Well it wasn’t your voice. Both my wife and I have always found your voice very unprofessional, even grating. You sound like a weasel, I have to say.

Ira: So what do you think it was? You don’t have to worry about hurting my feelings. We at This American Life take pride in our no-holds-barred attitude towards American life, and that goes for the show itself.

Epstein: Well, I’d say that we both had this fantasy that someday you would do an episode about us, and that’s exactly what’s happened.

Ira: (V.O.) The admission reminded me of Khrushchev banging his shoe on the podium when addressed the UN. He said, “We shall bury you!” I think he said something worse, but that was the translation that was offered. I’d always thought that This American Life attracted its large radio audience because of the quality of the stories, and, without feeling vain, I thought that my narrations had something to do with it. Was it possible that there was a sizeable portion of our audience who listened simply because they hoped that someday they might be profiled? 

Ira: Wasn’t it magical thinking to believe that if you listened to the show you eventually would find yourself the subject of This American Life.

Epstein: Not really. We’d heard of other examples. For instance, the chimp lady apparently had been an avid listener to the show. I also knew an otolaryngologist who’d been a listener. In his case it was his kids who were the subjects of one of your portraits. Apparently, my otolaryngologist friend had been filling planes with bales of marijuana and doing quite a business running them between Key West and Ponce. His kids had been the ones who turned him in, and apparently the reason they’d done it had nothing to do with their concern about the illegality of the drugs, but rather with their feelings about the duty of citizens to pay taxes on imported items.  Both kids had phobias about the IRS, and I think it was one of the things you explored in that episode.

Ira: (V.O.) At this point I felt the need to cut the interview short so as not to perpetuate the false impression that listeners to This American Life would eventually find themselves on the air. Democracy is nice, but as producers we have to look for the best story. This is Ira Glass for This American Life.

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