Can you like TAL and avoid being pretentious?

Arts & Literature Column
Written by Nathan Mattise

National Public Radio has a large audience and This American Life is among its most popular programs. It’s been the launching pad for popular authors such as David Sedaris and Sarah Vowell (and features cool guests like sex columnist Dan Savage or comedians like Mike Birbiglia). The TAL Wikipedia states that it consistently ranks 1 or 2 in the weekly iTunes Most Downloaded Podcasts. Host Ira Glass has even been quoted as saying their listenership grew by at least half a million through that avenue alone.

But, did you know, This American Life has been around since 1995?

I’m not sure you’d ever be able to tell from recent coverage of the show. Reoccurring pushes from hip, pop culture observers are springing up a lot and they all feel a little condescending. It happened when the show first went to television and now it happens whenever there is a TAL Live Telecast to movie theaters across the country. Here is an overdramatic recreation:

Hip, pop culture obersever’s blog post or brief in a hip media outlet:

” Hey general public, I just got into this great program called This American Life. The show is super smart storytelling that really captures everyday people that make life so interesting (and really smart people listen to it because they are intelligent enough to see the intrigue within anyone). Did you miss this [cool TAL event] that just happened? (If you’re following, we didn’t miss it. We’re a hip media outlet recently aware of this 15-year old show and its new appeal to young folks). Well, it’s OK. You can get in on this cool, underground sensation late thanks to podcasting. Check out these 5 to 7 episodes that we really like based on our sub-2 years of listening.”

Based on how folks are being turned on to this (subculture aficionado blog posts / unknown entity atop the iTunes Podcast charts) and criticisms of the show’s (uber liberal, progressive, sometimes preachy?) content itself, I’m worried about my TAL fandom. Can I listen to this show without slightly feeling or immediately being labeled pretentious?

I’m not entirely sure. On one hand the skill exhibited in this show really is undeniable. Evoking emotion out of people through any medium (song, print, television or movie screen, in this case radio) certainly warrants admiration. TAL seems able to deliver emotion on an absurdly consistent basis. The recent show broadcast to movie screens everywhere was a a good indicator of this. Mike Birbiglia makes you laugh. Starlee Kline makes you laugh and challenges you to think. Dan Savage challenges you to think and moves you to tears. Virtually any episode you randomly select out of their podcast archives will give you the same thing: unique and engaging storytelling that evokes a range of emotions from you (and normally all done within very specific topic guidelines). It’s impressed me as a journalist/storyteller/multi-media enthusiast so much that I’ve called it my dream job, basically memorized their submission guidelines (and methodically prepared pieces to try) and also applied for their internship twice (with another attempt tentatively slated for Summer 2011).

On the other hand, it is really off-putting when folks advertise an entity as “must see, anyone who is cultured is versed in this, ‘let me show you since I’m hip and I like it,’ etc.” I think this is what makes things like LOST, Coldplay or Slumdog Millionare somewhat divisive regardless of their mass appeal and success. TAL seems dangerously close to entering that territory because of all the trumpeting from entities that are scrambling to jump on the bandwagon. It’s great for the show to continually gain followers and I was one of them (my frosh year of college I got it from a friend), but at some point does it ostracize long time fans when newbies are the loudest voices claiming ownership and a willingness to share this entity?

I haven’t listened to a TAL weekly podcast in over a month but I did manage to catch it at my local Regal Theater. I hope once all the noise quiets down I find myself falling in love with it all over again.

(Links today from USA Today’s Pop Candy, Variety, The New Yorker, Wikipedia and

E-mail me to say what a ridiculously pretentious argument this is to begin with. Utterly ridiculous…

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Filed under Arts & Literature, Columns

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