My Top 5 Stories from This American Life

When I started listening regularly to This American Life, I’d just turned 17. More than six years and nearly 200 episodes later, the show has spawned a television series, two theatrical events, a spinoff series (Planet Money), and half a dozen careers. In honour of their 500th episode, the crew of the show decided to share their favourite moments of the show, while I decided to pick my all-time top 5 stories. While there are many more stories I adore, these are particularly special and I’ll never forget where I was and how I felt when I first heard them.

5. “Robyn’s Dad’s Story”

Episode 400: Stories Pitched by Our Parents (2010)

For their 400th episode, the creators of This American Life decided to run an entire episode of stories pitched by their parents over the years. They were an incredibly diverse bunch of stories, ranging from a twee song about the Erie Canal to an investigation into the legal concept of corporate personhood, but by far the most popular segment was the story of Robyn Semien’s dad.

As a teenager in car-crazy 1950s Richmond, California, the elder Semien developed an almost supernatural talent for electronics. How did he use this power? To power his car through a rotary phone dial in the steering wheel, of course! In the process, he invented his own locks, power windows, and ignition system. If somebody wanted to do something in that car, they had to go through him.

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4. Jar Jar Head

Episode 232: The Real Story (2003)

In 1999, America was peaceful and prosperous, and let’s be honest, a little crazy. The American dream was finally coming to a new generation, but after John Hodgman attended an advanced screening of The Phantom Menace, everything started to go wrong. In order to save his country, Hodgman embarked on an ambitious plan: to rewrite the first installment of the Star Wars prequels.

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3. The Motherhood of the Traveling Pants

Episode 475: Send a Message (2012)

One day in the 1980s, the daughter of a large Italian family was expecting to give birth any day when her Nonna made her a little pair of pants. Lo and behold, the baby was a boy. Later, when her sister was pregnant, Nonna made her a dress– and the baby was a girl. Pretty soon, brothers, sisters, and cousins all got in on the act, making a prediction on Nonna’s behalf and sending their expecting relatives either the pants or the dress.

Nonna’s long gone, and now those babies are having babies of their own, will the pants still work?

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2. The Invisible Man vs. Hawk-Man

Episode 178: Superpowers (2001)

Flight or Invisibility? Which would you choose? When John Hodgman first posed this question, he discovered a lot about the people who answered, that these superpowers were unique in their way to tap into people’s everyday lives, fears, and sense of right and wrong.

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1. Brooklyn Archipelago

Episode 307: In the Shadow of the City (2006)

In the mid-2000s, Alex Zharov was a teenage celebrity in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. Looking for adventure anywhere he could, he and his older friends took a boat trip around Jamaica Bay and became shipwrecked. Thinking he was going ashore, Alex swam to find help, only to end up cold and bloodied on a desert island– only a mile or so from the towers of New York City.

I heard this story wasting time in Social Justice class in January 2007, and decided to go out and do something like that. I’m still not back.

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