Friday, December 12, 2014

This American Life Christmas Podcasts (1995 to 2013)

This American Life is one of the better radio shows/podcasts out there. I got hooked on the show last year. At times, the series can be whimsical, sad, funny, and dark. They've got almost two decades of episodes archived online.

I decided to go through and listen to all of the holiday episodes. While there hasn't been one every year, they've got quite a few of them kicking around: nine in all, unless I missed any. At an hour each, that's quite a lot of public radio Christmas. I started with the most recent then worked back to the beginning.

Act 1: Christmas

514: Thought That Counts (2013)
As is typical for the show, it's broken into a number of stories (or "acts," if you want to maintain Ira's terminology). This time it's three "acts" plus a prologue. Four stories in total.

The prologue is actually a little different this time: instead of a single short, it's several, and they're peppered throughout the episode. These are about teenagers trying to choose gifts for their parents. The stories contrast how children look at gifts they buy or make with how adults perceive the same presents.

After that, we get a piece of fiction by Jonathan Goldstein. The story is about Santa Claus starting to date once again after the death of his wife. In addition to Claus, it features a couple of witches from the Wizard of Oz. It's a cute concept, and there's some intriguing use of imagery. Still, it doesn't quite know whether it wants to be a joke or not. In addition, I felt like there were some lost opportunities. Overall, the characters had superficial connections at best to Baum's books, which I found disappointing, given L. Frank Baum's contributions to the Santa mythos. But solid writing and a  fascinating tone make it worthwhile despite these shortcomings.

After another chunk of the "prologue," we move on to a segment about "time capsules" created by Andy Warhol. Cataloging the contents of these is a full time job for three archivists. It's an interesting piece, though it's connection to the episode's theme is a bit dubious.

The last act is another short story, this time about a teenager falling into a life of crime at the holidays. It's a dark, character-driven piece. The subject matter is fairly conventional, but it's a good story.

The episode closes with a final segment from the thread started in the prologue. All in all, a decent episode, but not an especially memorable one.


482: Lights, Camera, Christmas! (2012)

The prologue is a brief but intriguing story about a 9 year-old girl who receives a guinea pig for Christmas, only to discover she's horribly allergic to her new pet. It's the resolution and search for meaning in the piece that makes it affecting.

The next story is the centerpiece of the show. It concerns a family who's built up the Santa myth into something spectacular for their children, arranging for friends and relatives to play the part. On its own, this is far from unique - there are acting services you can use to arrange for a "visit from Saint Nick" - but they take it much further and construct a believable narrative and elaborate mythology. There's world-building, a large cast of characters, and pathos in the fantasy they create. The story takes a dark turn, however, when the parents refuse to back down from the story as their children age. While the entire episode is really good, this 20 minute segment is essential for anyone who's invested in the Santa debate.

After that, the show moves on to a story about two girls who adopt (or perhaps abduct) a baby reindeer. Funny, sweet, but ultimately tragic, it's worth listening to.

The last segment is a work of holiday fiction by Ron Carlson. It's good, but - as is usually the case with fiction on this show - feels a bit anticlimactic after the real-life stories.


This is presented as something of a break from the stress of the holidays: an episode devoted entirely to Christmas humor. It opens with a recording of kids trying to make up jokes about the holidays. Their results are a great reminder for how the minds of children function, but the segment gets a little tiring, even at less than 6 minutes. Following that, there are five acts. The first is the best: Wyatt Cenac has a great story about a church visit to a prison on Christmas. Next up are a pair of short stories by Edith Zimmerman. They're fun, but lack any real substance. Mike Birbiglia provides a great story about Catholicism, though it's a bit dark for the show's theme. Gabe Liedman and Jenny Slate then deliver a solid old-fashioned comedy act about the holidays, and Julian McCullough tells a story that goes to even darker places than Birbiglia's. The last act is just an original song played over the credits by Dave Hill. The song isn't bad, but I was a bit disappointed.

Actually, I found the entire show underwhelming. The topic apparently wasn't communicated to the comedians - or, if it was, they ignored it. As a result, we got a few too many dark, personal moments. Don't get me wrong: in moderation, these can be extremely effective in stand-up. But it's sort of like watching the endings to multiple dramedies in a row - the effect wears thin, the resonance is lost, and you wonder if you'd have been better off with lighter fare.

It's still good - in particular, I had a lot of fun with Cenac's routine - but it wasn't one of the better episodes.


As you'd expect, sometimes the theme of a show like "This American Life" winds up a bit forced. The concept behind this episode was to record a number of stories in a mall right before Christmas. Only, for some reason, they only wound up combining it with a story about a professional Santa organization that fell apart due to infighting. The Santa story takes up about half of the episode, so the episode definitely feels festive (in addition, they play Christmas music between the stories). I liked the Santa segment, though it didn't feel especially surprising or abnormal. I'm guessing people with less familiarity with documentaries and interviews with mall Santas will be less prepared to see them behaving like any other people when they're in an organization. The other stories are focused on mall life and business. The mall sections are good, but fairly low-key for the series (I did like the interview with the woman in security, though).


As a rule of thumb, I prefer the non-fiction segments on This American Life to their fictional content. You'd think that would bode poorly for an episode entirely consisting of Christmas stories, but that wasn't the case. Chock it up to a fantastic line-up of writers bringing their A-games: this was pretty great.

It opens with a brief intro, then moves onto a poem by David Rakoff. Set to the tempo of "A Night Before Christmas," it tells the story of woman who's become ostracized following an affair with her boss. It's not exactly a subtle piece, but it's certainly good.

Next, we cut to John Hodgeman, who offers a "history lesson" on the origins of the Christmas tree and some other traditions. As is almost always the case when Hodgeman is involved, the piece is absolutely hilarious. It's a stretch to call his segment a story, but who the hell cares?

The next piece is definitely a short story, though this time it's a stretch to connect it to Christmas. "My So-Called Jesus," by Heather O'Neill, updates the story of Jesus's life but omits the only part that's at all connected to Christmas. Fortunately, it's a top-notch story in its own right: I really liked this one. Along with Hodgeman's section, I'd call it the best of the episode.

I guess it's inevitable that any collection of new Christmas fiction would include something by David Sedaris. This short, about farm animals right before the holiday, is decent, but certainly nothing spectacular.

There's a song next, written by Sarah Vowell (who voices Violet in The Incredibles), about Christmas during the Revolutionary War. Again, good but not great.

The last piece is a second story about Jesus, or more specifically, his parents. It's a solid, but fairly straightforward, revision of the Christmas story. There's some good humor around being cuckolded by God, but nothing that feels like it's way outside the standard version.


A fairly conventional episode of This American Life, this offers three stories about trying to find the perfect gift. After a brief interview with some shoppers at Target who are comically convinced none of their gifts will be exchanged, the show opens with a long story about two brothers trying to find the perfect gift for their mother, who's a pretty horrible person. The story gets tedious, but - unless your mother is awful - you'll appreciate her a little more by the end. I don't think that was the intention of the piece, but I'd like to think it's a positive.

Next, there's a classic story from Truman Capote, narrated by the author himself. It's not bad, but - especially coming on the heels of the last segment - it's difficult to sit through. Two acts down, and tedium, more than gifts, seems like the dominant theme.

Fortunately, the third act changes pace, with a sad story from a Maine Christmas tree farm and a series of gifts. It's by far the best piece in the episode, though don't expect a happy ending.


This episode focuses on Santa Claus, my personal favorite aspect of the holidays. There's a brief talk with the author of The Battle for Christmas about the origins of Santa Claus at the beginning, followed by an 18 minute account of someone who became Santa. This is a neat story that goes in some fascinating directions. Next up is Sarah Vowell offering some thoughts on pop-music's obsession with Santa and sex. It's a funny piece, though it felt a little short. The next segment is about meeting a black Santa for the first time: it's short and simple, but it's a good portrait of how kids see both Santa and race.

After that, there's a brief four-minute Chickenman episode about the crime fighter tracking down counterfeit Santas. While I generally love superheroes and the rich history of the genre, I've yet to appreciate the appeal of Chickenman. I guess you had to be listening in the 1960's.

Lastly, there's a piece by David Sedaris. As I've already implied, I'm not really a fan of Sedaris's fiction, but the limited memoir work I've seen from him has been outstanding. Fortunately, that's what this is. It's really more about Easter than Christmas, focusing on an experience he had while trying to learn French in Paris when a Moroccan student asked what 'Easter' was. Christmas is certainly mentioned, but I'm surprised they didn't hold this for a few months. Regardless, it's pretty hilarious.


Apparently, back in 1997 This American Life devoted an entire episode to three stories by David Sedaris. All are fiction - no memoir here - and each has a different reader. The first, a mock-review of small-town school Christmas plays, is read by the author; the second, a story about a small-town homemaker's subsequent breakdown unveiled in a Christmas letter, is read by Julia Sweeney; and Matt Malloy takes the last story, a tale about a smarmy TV producer trying to blackmail a small town into convincing a grieving mother to cooperate with their movie-of-the-week.

I realize I just said that I dislike Sedaris's fiction, but that was before hearing these read aloud. I'd now like to amend that statement to say that I despise David Sedaris's fiction.

Okay, that's a little harsh. He does some interesting things with point-of-view and structure, and there were a handful of jokes that worked for me in each piece. But by and large, I found them mean-spirited, not particularly funny, and utterly lacking in subtlety.


47: Christmas and Commerce (1996)
I'm getting close to the beginning now. This was prefaced by a brief description of the program for listeners of radio stations picking up This American Life just for the episode. It featured an extended edition of David Sedaris's "Santaland Diaries," which is apparently one of the most popular segments in NPR history.

Incidentally, I have read this piece before, but it doesn't really get old. I've said it before, I'll say it again: I dislike the man's fiction, but his memoir writing is a hell of a lot of fun. Santaland Diaries shines a light on Macy's world-famous Christmas section from the point-of-view of an elf working the line. The piece manages to depict the environment as simultaneously disturbing yet still oddly magical.

At 34 minutes, it also takes up more than half the episode. It's followed by a 15 minute piece I liked even more from a man playing Sigmund Freud in a Christmas display. The actor takes ownership of the role to a surprising degree, and his description of the experience is fascinating.

These are bookended by a couple of short pieces: a Toys R Us visited at closing time on Christmas Eve and a recording of one family's Christmas in the 60's. Overall, a really good episode.


6: Christmas (1995)
This is one of the earliest episode of This American Life. It starts with a half-hour radio play written by - you guessed it - David Sedaris about what can only be described as the Christmas fiction industry. The whole thing comes off as a tad self-indulgent: it's about a writing class being taught to exploit the holidays for profit. Fortunately, it's also pretty damn hilarious. I guess I get to wrap up the Sedaris stuff on a high note. I really enjoyed it.

The rest of the show is divided between several short bits - a story about growing up in a rural community, a piece on a kid in the criminal justice system who's likely about to be tried as an adult, and a church in Chicago. These shorts are all well put-together, but not particularly memorable.


Act 2: Christmas/Not Christmas

We're not quite done yet. In addition to the episodes covered above, there have also been a few that weren't really Christmas episodes, but that aired close to December 25 and featured themes designed to correlate with the holidays. I could have skipped these. In fact, after listening to TEN holiday episodes, I probably should have. But I've got more commitment than common sense, so here goes:

346: Home Alone (2007)
The title is, of course, an allusion to the Home Alone series, though this is never brought up, nor are the stories holiday themed in nature.

The prologue is about a woman who's happy living on her own. The next segment isn't quite so up-beat: it follows a woman with the job of investigating people's homes after they've died to try and locate connections to friends and family who need to be contacted. It's a fascinating piece.

The second act recounts the story of a boy who lived alone for five months after his mother was hospitalized. It's a great story of an unlikely situation.

The third act is kind of a cheat: it's not about being "home alone" at all. Instead, it tells the story of a woman and her children who were held hostage for several days by a drug dealer. Fortunately, the mother's quick thinking and unflappable demeanor managed to turn a potential tragedy into a very different kind of story. By the time the drug dealer left, he was far more scared of her than she was of him. And her children never even knew they were in danger.

This episode is a good example of what This American Life does best: tell amazing, true stories about life in America.


202: Faith (2001)
This is exactly what it sounds like: an episode about stories relating to faith. It was scheduled to coincide with the holidays, but none of the stories are connected to Christmas.

The prologue is autobiographical in nature, focusing on a period of Ira Glass's life when he became convinced that aliens had visited the human race throughout history. When he finally accepted the myriad problems with this worldview, he likewise lost his faith in general. It's a neat, relatable tale.

The next segment is another short one about a Christian relief worker in Afghanistan who discovered some common ground with Muslims, including members of the Taliban.

After that, we get a piece about a massive cross that was constructed along a highway in Texas and what it's come to mean to people. It's a fascinating and in-depth look at a bizarre landmark, how it came to exist, and how it's perceived.

Next up, there's a story about a secular writer working at a magazine focusing on true stories about faith and miracles. Depending on how jaded you're feeling, it could either be seen as a profound meditation on the nature of faith or a justification for a disingenuous profession. Either way, it's quite intriguing.

The last act discusses a black church which has a white preacher who's far more socially liberal than his congregation. It's a neat exploration of culture and religion that explores both where they do and do not see eye-to-eye.

All in all, a good episode.


147: A Teenager's Guide to God (1999)
This episode follows a youth missionary group going to West Virginia. They still maintain the act format, but it's for show only: the entire episode focuses on the same group of kids. It's a interesting story, and - despite the fact it would have been easy to do so - it doesn't judge the program.


Act 3: Poultry Slams

The "Poultry Slam" episodes are intended to highlight birds - particularly turkeys and chickens - and are timed to coincide with the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas due to the large amount of fowl consumed during this period. Over the years, This American Life has made quite a few of these.

Do they really qualify as holiday themed? To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. But at this point I feel relatively committed to this project. Call it the sunk cost fallacy: I've poured a lot of hours into this post, and I'd rather pour a lot more than have someone with a different opinion accuse me of cutting corners.

3: Poultry Slam 1995
This is just the third episode of This American Life (in fact, the show had a different name at the time). The episode starts extremely strongly, with a story about "Duki", a stuffed duck which was given a personality by one of their two daughters. Instead of being forgotten, Duki has endured over the decades and grown into an honorary member of the family. It's difficult to convey the the level of commitment that family has to the character and fantasy, and the story is a hell of a lot of fun.

The rest of the episode is something of a hodgepodge of shorts. There's a story about 3000 turkeys dying on a farm during a storm, an interview with a cooking show, a poem, and a David Sedaris story about taxidermy. The episode's main selling point, however, is a new episode of Chickenman. Like I've said before: I'm not a fan.

Despite the Chickenman bit, the episode is solid. The Duki story is great, and the shorts offer a good variety.

44: Poultry Slam 1996
Almost the entire episode aired in 1996 was a repeat of the year before. Looking ahead, this looks like it's going to be a reoccurring strategy: for them to put together "clip shows" for the Poultry Slam, then add in a new story or two.

I'm not going to listen to the same stories over and over again, but I'll cover the new ones. This one is essentially a side story about South African witch doctors that spins off of Sedaris's nonfiction piece about buying a taxidermy chicken head connected to a chicken foot.

85: Poultry Slam 1997
This opens with some discussion of Franklin's lobbying to make the turkey the national bird. From there, we move onto a fifteen minute piece about an epic opera about Chicken Little that's in Italian and performed with clothespins. If that sentence left any doubt, the story is absolutely riveting.

Next up are two short stories about slaughtering chickens and (unsuccessfully) hunting ducks: both entertaining. Finally, there's an extended story about a chicken photographer. All in all, it's a fun episode, albeit one lacking in gravitas.

116: Poultry Slam 1998
This Poultry Slam tries to explore the line between pet and dinner, as it pertains to birds. The prologue features an interview with a young girl who lives on a farm and sees no problem with chickens transitioning from companions to meals. It's pretty adorable, actually.

The next section relates an antidote about a performance artist who adopts a chicken. After that, there's a strange story about a writer traveling to France to recreate Francois Mitterand's last meal, a small, bony bird. Both these stories are more bizarre than they sound. I didn't love them, but they were interesting.

The last two stories are the best. One is an interview with a woman who started a national letter writing campaign to try and shut down This American Life's Poultry Slams, on the grounds the episodes were maligning the birds. All things considered, I thought Ira was relatively balanced in how he conducted the interview and portrayed her. The final story is an account from David Rakoff of going to an Israeli farm as a teenager and coming to terms with his identity. It's a interesting, well told tale.

145: Poultry Slam 1999
Another "clip show" from prior years. This does add a fascinating piece about Colonel Sanders. Contrary to the "southern gentleman" motif, the show's interviews suggest a relatively progressive businessman who valued the business - and friendship - of minority customer and employees. It's a fun piece.

252: Poultry Slam 2003
This year was entirely made up of stories from prior years. I'm not listening through, so I can't say for sure whether they re-cut anything or not. Probably?

343: Poultry Slam 2007
Another year, another set of stories from the show's past. It probably sounds like I'm bitter, but the truth is, as much as I enjoy TAL, I'm grateful that I don't have to listen to yet another hour of poultry-themed stories.

369: Poultry Slam 2008
After a decade of recycling poultry bits, This American Life seems to have decided it was time for something new. This time, they chose a theme of chickens and God, and set out to explore the relationship between poultry and divinity.

I loved this episode.

After a brief intro, the episode goes to the mountains of Afghanistan, where an ex-smugger has purchased an expensive scroll supposedly imbued with mystical powers of protection. He needs this for a friend of his who's about to be put in an extremely dangerous situation, so the ex-smuggler wants to make sure it works. His method for testing it? He ties it to the head of a chicken and tries to shoot it. Things ultimately go poorly for the bird, so if you're bothered by stories about the killing of animals, you might want to sit this one out. If you can handle it, though, it's fantastic.

I feel a little bad saying this, given its significance to the family it's about, but the next segment was my least favorite of the episode. It's about a series of encounters a woman has with small birds corresponding with the suicide of her husband. Unsurprisingly, she sees a great deal of meaning in the encounters. It is sweet, but... I guess I'm just a skeptic at heart.

The third act chronicles a priest trying to serve as a mediator between an industrial farm and its employees. The chickens aren't actually important: it's really a story about workers' rights, factory conditions, and the intersection of faith and politics. But it's a good story.

Next up, there's a piece about the history of the study of chickens losing their feathers in tornadoes but surviving. It's about six minutes long: I could have happily listened to a full hour about this.

Lastly, there's a short story about a religious man dying, going to heaven, meeting God, and discovering he's a giant Chicken. Normally, I hate stories like these: they're usually one note jokes that get old after the punchline's been delivered. But this one stayed funny and - more importantly - went somewhere. I enjoyed it quite a bit.

452: Poultry Slam 2011
There's another new episode in 2011. It's not quite as good as the 2008 one, but that's a high bar: this is still a great hour of radio. It opens with a defense lawyer with a story about how she almost called a chicken onto the stand to play tic-tac-toe. It's a great story; even better than it sounds.

The next segment tells the "tragic" story of a turkey which attacked some people making a delivery and was subsequently killed by police. The story weaves into the turkey's past, and by the end feels like a fine detective story that's almost epic in scope. Impressive journalism, to say the least.

The third section is about foie gras, specifically about a version of the delicacy produced in a humane manner. Once again: this is an intriguing story.


This review was published on Mainlining Christmas. It was written by me, Erin Snyder, and proof-read by my wife, Lindsay, who, when I asked her whether she liked the post, said, "To be honest, I'm not entirely sure. But at this point I feel relatively committed to this project. Call it the sunk cost fallacy."

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