Celebrate the 20th Anniversary of This American Life With Our Favorite 20 Episodes
Today, the beloved radio show and podcast helmed by the inimitable Ira Glass turns 20 years old. In a blog post dedicated to the occasion, Glass writes, “One of the things about This American Life that I’m proudest of is that the show keeps changing.” We couldn’t agree more.
Not only did the show grow from a local Chicago program to the national phenomenon it is today, but, as Glass writes, “When it started, the program was mostly about applying the tools of journalism to stories that were too small and personal for most traditional journalists.” In 2015, This American Life is lauded as the home of some of the best original reporting happening to date. And, as Glass highlights in his post, it never stops pushing the medium’s boundaries.
To celebrate this milestone moment, we’ve rounded up 20 of our favorite This American Life episodes. Your commute just got a heck of a lot more interesting.
1. EPISODE 3: “POULTRY SLAM 1995”
Since we’re a little over a week away from Thanksgiving, we thought we’d kick this list off with the very first edition of what would become a near-annual tradition for This American Life: The Poultry Slam. In Glass’s own words, this episode consists of “an odd variety of stories and things you would not hear elsewhere about turkeys, chickens, ducks, fowl of all kind, and their mysterious hold over us.” Stories in this hour include tales of familial traditions, a poultry-themed poem, and a story about taxidermy from David Sedaris.
2. EPISODE 457: “WHAT I DID FOR LOVE”
In this Valentine’s Day-themed episode from 2012, we’re treated to stories of people willing to go to extremes for love. The opening act introduces us to a couple who decided, after 13 years of dating, that they wanted to sleep with other people before getting married—their revelations about love and monogamy will stay with you long after the episode is over. But the most memorable segment, called “21 Chump Street,” tells the story of an 18-year-old Florida boy who falls for the new girl at school. The catch? She’s an undercover cop.
3. EPISODE 528: “THE RADIO DRAMA EPISODE”
In one of the boundary-pushing endeavors Glass is so (rightly) proud of, This American Life takes over the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City for a live show. Listeners are treated to an opera—with music by Ira’s cousin, Philip Glass—about getting locked in a closet and a live, old-fashioned radio play staged by SNL’s Sasheer Zamata. The episode’s pièce de résistance, however, is an 18-minute musical by Hamilton composer, writer, and star Lin-Manuel Miranda that brings “21 Chump Street” to life.
4. EPISODE 492: “DR. GILMER AND MR. HYDE"
Two years before Serial took firm hold of the American public’s attention, Sarah Koenig—a longtime This American Life reporter—displayed her storytelling star power in this riveting episode. Koenig spends the entire hour unspooling the story of Dr. Benjamin Gilmer, a physician who takes over a rural South Carolina practice only to discover that his predecessor was also named Dr. Gilmer. Dr. Vince Gilmer (no relation) was forced to give up his practice when he was sent to prison for strangling his father. Koenig chronicles Benjamin’s attempt to reconcile the elder Dr. Gilmer’s grisly crime with his reputation as a kind and capable doctor.
The two groundbreaking—and devastating—Harper High School episodes, which spend five months with students and faculty at a Chicago school racked by gun violence (29 current or recent students were shot in the past year alone), is simply This American Life at its best.
6. EPISODE 339: “BREAK-UP”
In the standout segment of this episode dedicated to sappy, sad music, Starlee Kine (who is just as delightful as the host of Gimlet Media’s Mystery Show) is so fascinated by the healing effects of break-up songs that she is inspired to write one herself. Kine, it’s important to note, has no musical talent.
7. EPISODE 354: “MISTAKES WERE MADE”
The bulk of this classic 2008 episode is dedicated to Bob Nelson, a California TV repairman who tried to cheat death in the 1960s by starting his own cryonics company. How do you explain to family members that it may not in fact be possible to bring their frozen loved ones back from the dead?
8. EPISODE 513: “129 Cars”
We bet you never realized car dealerships were so interesting. This American Life infiltrated a Jeep dealership on Long Island as they struggle to meet their monthly sales goal: selling 129 cars by the end of the October. If they succeed, they’ll receive a huge bonus from the manufacturer; if they fail, they get nothing—and risk going into the red. You can’t help but root for this motley crew of gruff, no-nonsense salespeople.
9. EPISODE 529: “THE HUMAN SPECTACLE"
If you thought American reality television was bad, just wait until you hear about Susunu! Denpa Shōnen (Forward! Signal Youth). This American Life producer Stephanie Foo interviews Nasubi, a Japanese comedian who willingly lived in an empty apartment with no food, clothing, or contact with the outside world for over a year, depending only on prizes he wins from entering magazine sweepstakes for survival.
10. EPISODE 218: “ACT V”
In “Act V,” reporter Jack Hitt follows a group of inmates at Missouri Eastern Correctional Center, a high security prison, as they rehearse and perform Hamlet. This fascinating episode is at once thought-provoking and touching: As the episode description so eloquently puts it, “It's a play about murder and its consequences, performed by murderers, living out the consequences.”
See actors in the Prison Performing Arts Program perform a hip-hop version of Hamlet's soliloquy in 2015 below.
11. EPISODE 534: “A NOT-SO-SIMPLE MAJORITY"
Producer Ben Calhoun takes listeners inside an all-out war in East Ramapo, New York—between the city’s school board and the residents sending children to its schools. Calhoun chronicles how the Hasidic community in East Ramapo commandeers the school board (even though they most often choose to send their kids to private yeshivas) and the messy dispute that follows. As the episode description puts it, the conflict is “one of the most volatile local political battles we've ever encountered.”
12. EPISODE 480: “ANIMAL SACRIFICE”
This 2012 episode dedicated to the lengths we’ll go to for our four-legged friends—and what they’ll sacrifice for us—is a must-listen for animal lovers. In the final act, the This American Life staff confronts Glass about the personal sacrifices he’s made to care for his anxious, allergic dog, Piney (including purchasing kangaroo meat and Valium prescriptions—for the dog).
13. EPISODE 348: “TOUGH ROOM”
Meetings are terrible, but there’s no way yours are anywhere near as scary as The Onion’s editorial meetings. Listen (and cringe) as some of the funniest writers working today pitch their best story ideas—only to be met with awkward silence. (Act three, following two Mormon missionaries trying to find converts in New York City's Upper West Side, is equally painful.) It’s probably not a bad idea to save this one for the next time you’re preparing for a big meeting—whatever room you’re headed into, it’ll feel like a party by comparison.
14. EPISODE 484: “DOPPELGANGERS"
You’ll never look at calamari the same way again. To say any more would ruin the surprise.
15. EPISODE 199: “THE HOUSE ON LOON LAKE"
The entire hour-long episode is devoted to a single story: the eerie, intriguing abandoned house in Freedom, N.H., that Adam Beckman and his friends broke into as kids in the 1970s. What's remarkable about this house is that the people who lived there appear to have simply vanished one day decades before, leaving everything behind: salt and pepper shakers on the kitchen table, notes tucked into the bedroom mirror, a wallet with money still in it. What happened to them? Beckman returns to Freedom as an adult to find out. His fascination with this time capsule is contagious.
16. EPISODE 109: “NOTES ON CAMP”
What’s so special about camp? People who have never spent a magical summer in the forest telling scary stories, making dream catchers, and singing songs may never understand. This early episode attempts to “bridge the gap between camp people and non-camp people” by talking to campers and counselors about the traditions and rituals that comprise some of their happiest memories.
Posted by Lake of the Woods and Greenwoods Camps on Friday, August 8, 2014
17. EPISODE 350: “HUMAN RESOURCES”
This episode includes a disparate trio of segments, including the exploration of The Plan, a widely accepted theory that there's a plot by rich white people to supplant poor, mostly black city residents with gentrifiers; and chimpanzee retirement homes, where former animal actors, ex-research subjects, and abandoned pets get three square meals a day and plenty of TV time. The first segment stands out for its sheer WTF quality: In each borough of NYC, there's at least one room—"the rubber room"—where public school teachers accused of misconduct are sent to wait all day, every day, while they're investigated by the Board of Education. They're not allowed to teach, but they get paid a full salary. And they wait. Some wait in this purgatory for years, costing NYC $35 million annually.
18. EPISODE 414: “THE RIGHT TO REMAIN SILENT”
In "Right to Remain Silent," reporter Graham Rayman tells the story of police officer and modern-day Frank Serpico Adrian Schoolcraft. After Schoolcraft blew the whistle on his department's use of quotas, the NYPD threw him into a psychiatric facility against his will. The episode serves as a summary and follow-up to Rayman's extensive reporting on the subject that had appeared in the Village Voice. It is a shocking, detailed example of just how far the institutions tasked with protecting us will go to silence one of their own.
19. EPISODE 259: “PROMISED LAND"
While this whole episode—filled with an original song, a story about fasting, and overheard conversations—is worth a listen, its first act, in which Starlee Kine tries to get into Disneyland, is one of the funniest things we’ve ever heard.
20. EPISODE 550: "THREE MILES"
In his 20th anniversary blog post, Ira calls this 2015 episode “one of my favorite things we’ve ever done.” The tale of two schools, told by veteran producer Chana Joffe-Walt, recounts the “foreign exchange program” necessary to introduce students from two Bronx schools—one public, one private—located just three miles apart.