The 19 Most Loved Episodes of “This American Life”

This Canadian only recently discovered “This American Life”, a weekly hour-long radio show produced by Chicago Public Radio (and available via podcast). I’d always felt that I got enough American life from the media–who needs more?

Then a few months ago I listened to episode #339, Break-up, and got kind of hooked.

With more than 300 episodes to choose from, I wanted to go back and listen to the cream of the crop. I spent some time perusing a bunch of sources and assembled a list of the web’s favourite episodes of the show. Basically, every time somebody mentioned that they liked an episode, I marked down a vote for it. In all, I gathered a list of 129 episodes which received at least one vote.

A List in 19 Acts

These 19 episodes got at least five votes, though the first four received considerably more than that. I gather they’re considered classics.

Links go to individual episodes, where you can listen via streaming MP3 or buy for 95 American cents. All descriptions are excerpted from the “This American Life” website.

  1. House on Loon Lake – Our entire show this week is one long story, sort of a real-life Hardy Boys mystery.
  2. Superpowers – We answer the following questions about superpowers: Can superheroes be real people? (No.) Can real people become superheroes? (Maybe.) And which is better: flight or invisibility? (Depends who you ask.)
  3. First Day – Stories of the first day on the job, the first day in a relationship, the first day in school.
  4. Fiasco! – Stories of when things go wrong. Really wrong. When you leave the normal realm of human error, fumble, mishap and mistake and enter the territory of really huge breakdowns.
  5. My Experimental Phase – Three stories about people who decide to try out a new life–the kind of life their parents never wanted for them.
  6. Godless America – At a time when House Majority Leader Tom Delay calls for enacting a “Biblical world view” in government, when Christians are asserting their ideals in the selection of judges, in public school science classes and elsewhere, This American Life spends an hour trying to remember why anyone liked the separation of church and state in the first place.
  7. Music Lessons – What’s frustrating about music lessons, what’s miraculous about them, and what they actually teach us.
  8. Notes on Camp – Stories of summer camp. People who love camp say that non-camp people simply don’t understand what’s so amazing about camp.
  9. Who’s Canadian – Notes and stories about the Canadians among us.
  10. 20 Acts in 60 Minutes – Instead of the regular “each week we choose a theme, and bring you three or four stories on that theme” business, this week we throw all that away and bring you twenty stories–yes, twenty in sixty minutes.
  11. 24 Hours at The Golden Apple – The This American Life producers document one day in a Chicago diner called The Golden Apple, starting at 5 a.m. and going until 5 a.m. the next morning.
  12. 81 Words – The story of how the American Psychiatric Association decided in 1973 that homosexuality was no longer a mental illness.
  13. Act V – We devote this entire episode to one story: over the course of six months, reporter and TAL contributor Jack Hitt followed a group of inmates at a high-security prison as they rehearsed and staged a production of the last act of Hamlet.
  14. Conventions – What happens when people with one common interest gather in monstrous, flourescent-lit halls for the weekend? Sometimes they drive each other crazy, sometimes they fall in love.
  15. Recordings for Someone – All the stories in this week’s show center on personal recordings that one person made for just one other person.
  16. The Middle of Nowhere – Stories from faraway, hard-to-get-to places, where all rules are off, nefarious things happen because no one’s looking, and there’s no one to appeal to.
  17. Testosterone – tories of people getting more testosterone and coming to regret it. And of people losing it and coming to appreciate life without it. The pros and cons of the hormone of desire.
  18. Sinatra – Stories, tributes, and attempts to understand the Chairman of the Board.
  19. Cruelty of Children – Stories about kids being mean to each other.

The list skews slightly toward more recent episodes, but not too badly. Incidentally, if somebody wants to submit this to MetaFilter, I’d appreciate it. It’s not kosher for me to do so, but I know many Mefi readers are also TAL lovers, and I used a couple of MeFi threads as two of my sources.

After the jump, you’ll find the other 109 episodes which received anywhere from one to four votes, in alphabetical order. I didn’t link to their show pages, because that would be a major pain. Just do a quick search on TAL’s website.

  • A Better Mousetrap
  • A Little Bit of Knowledge
  • Accidental Documentaries
  • Adventures in the Simple Life
  • And the Call Was Coming from the Basement
  • Apology
  • Ask the Expert
  • Auto Show
  • Babysitting
  • Bedside Diplomacy
  • Before it Had a Name
  • Berzerker
  • Break-Up
  • Christmas and Commerce
  • Classifieds
  • Come Back to Afghanistan
  • Compulsive Liars
  • Crime Scene
  • Cringe
  • Desparate Measures
  • Detectives
  • Dolls
  • Enemy Camp
  • Family Business
  • Family Legends
  • Father’s Day
  • Get Over It!
  • Ghosts of Elections Past
  • Go Ask Your Father
  • Guns
  • Harold
  • Heretics
  • Home Movies
  • Houses of Ill Repute
  • How To
  • How to Win Friends and Influence People
  • In Dog We Trust
  • In the Shadow of the City
  • Invisible Worlds
  • It’s Never Over
  • Jobs That Take Over Your Life
  • Kid Logic
  • Kindness of Strangers
  • Liars
  • Like It or Not
  • Lockup
  • Lost in America
  • Love Thy Neighbor
  • MacGyver
  • Mapping
  • Media Fringe
  • Meet the Pros
  • Mind Games
  • Monogamy
  • Monogamy and its Discontents
  • My Big Break
  • My Pen Pal
  • Numbers
  • On Horse across America
  • Perfect Evidence
  • Plan B
  • Poultry Slam ’03
  • Pray
  • Primary
  • Prom
  • Promised Land
  • Propriety
  • Rashoman
  • Reunited (and It Feels So Good)
  • Running After Antelope
  • Seemed Like a Good Idea at the Time
  • Sentencing
  • Shoulda Been Dead
  • Simulated Worlds
  • Sissies
  • Somewhere in the Arabian Sea
  • Starting from Scratch
  • Sucker
  • Swing Set
  • Teenage Embed Part Two
  • Telephone
  • The Allure of the Mean Friend
  • The Arms Dealer
  • The Cat Came Back
  • The Cruelty of Children
  • The Devil in Me
  • The Facts Don’t Matter
  • The Fix Is In
  • The Next Big Thing
  • The Parrot and the Potbellied Pig
  • The Real Thing
  • The Sanctity of Marriage
  • Them
  • This Thing Called Love
  • Time to Save the World
  • Trail of Tears
  • Twentieth Century Man
  • Two Steps Back
  • Unconditional Love
  • Valentine’s Day ’98
  • Voter Fraud
  • Wacky
  • We’re From the Private Sector and We’re Here To Help
  • Welcome to America
  • What Are You Looking At?
  • What I Should Have Said
  • What is This Thing?
  • When You Talk About Music
  • Why Did You Do That?


  1. I am a huge fan of this series too, Darren. Have you checked out the TV show? I just bought the Season One DVD and I’m really enjoying it.

    Although I am finding it weird seeing Ira Glass’s voice coming from his actual face. I always imagine him looking like Fred Armisen from Saturday Night Live. They have very similar voices, it seems to me.

    Another great podcast that I discovered when TAL featured an outtake is RadioLab.

  2. Hi Darren, I’ve been a fan of This American Life almost since its inception, and I have to agree that the top 5 or so in your list coincide pretty closely with my own.

    In the longer list, the two most underrated episodes are probably “In God We Trust” and “Babysitting” — both worth checking out (I listen to the Sedaris story in “In Dog We Trust” regularly).

    Also, very recently there was a new episode #352 “The Ghost of Bobby Dunbar” which was fantastic — a real life kind of detective story, which could make a fantastic movie if the family ever decided to sell someone the rights. Don’t know if you caught it on the podcast, but if you haven’t listened, it’s well worth it.

  3. If you liked the House on Loon Lake podcast, you will definitely enjoy Switched at Birth. That is my favorite one that I have heard so far.

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