The Strangest Thing We’ve Ever Done


Ira Glass (credit: This American Life)

“I think this might be the strangest thing our show has ever done.”

That’s what This American Life auteur Ira Glass said to comedian/filmmaker/TAL contributor Mike Birbiglia, while they were putting together Birbiglia’s new short film, which is set to debut at tomorrow’s This American Life Live! event.

Birbiglia won’t talk about the six-minute feature in any sort of detail–just that it’s funny, surreal and includes a special and surprising cameo.

“It is the film debut of a beloved person who will remain a secret until the night of the show,” Birbiglia said. “Anyone who is a fan of This American Life will most likely be a fan of this person.”

The super-secret short is just one part of the beloved NPR program’s third-such live edition, which takes place in Manhattan but will also be simultaneously broadcasted to select movie theater screens across the country. That means thousands of long-form broadcast fans can enjoy the show at the exact same time.

“It’s a very communal experience,” said Julie Borchard-Young, the president of BY Experience, the distributors behind This American Life Live! and other cinema simulcasts. “Those audience members are often enjoying the show in a silo, by themselves, through listening to the radio or the podcast, and this gives them a chance to come together.”

Tickets for tomorrow’s show times are sold out across the city, but late-to-the-party TAL fanatics take note: BAM’s website states, “Sold-out screenings often have a small number of empty seats available on the night of the event. A standby line will form 30 minutes prior to sold-out screenings and any remaining tickets will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. Please note that there is no guarantee that additional tickets will become available.” So, there’s still hope–good luck. And, Symphony Space on the Upper West Side will present two encore presentations the weekend of May 26 and 27. That negates the Live! part of the title, sure, but it’s still an opportunity to see This American Life in a new format–the subtitle for the showcase is “Things You Can’t Do On The Radio,” which is exactly what it sounds like.

That’s where Birbiglia’s film comes in. It’s also how energetic rockers OK Go got involved. Lead singer Damian Kulash was tight-lipped about what his band will be doing tomorrow, but did say that it involves everyone in the audience–both live and those on the other side of the silver screen–downloading an app to their phones so they can play along with OK Go’s musical performance.

“If it works, there will be upwards of 50,000 people all playing a song together,” Kulash said. The logistics may be challenging, but Kulash welcomes that.

“Are we going to be able to musically lead people in other cities based on the reaction of the people in our room?” he said. “It’s all new and really exciting.”

Other performers scheduled to appear at the event include writers David Sedaris and David Rakoff, comedian Tig Notaro and dance from Monica Bill Barnes & Company.

The organizing principle may be things that can’t be done on the radio, but the thoughtful, sincere aesthetic of This American Life will remain intact.

“Why this show will work is because Ira and crew have such a distinct outlook,” Kulash said. “The median isn’t what makes it, it’s the feeling.”

This American Life Live!–Things You Can’t Do On The Radio, encore screening
Leonard Nimoy Thalia at Symphony Space
2537 Broadway between 94th and 95th Streets in Manhattan
Saturday, May 26 at 7 p.m. and Sunday, May 27 at 3 p.m.
$20, $17 for members



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