This American Life: The Best Episodes

Everybody has a story to tell and that is the driving force behind the hit NPR series This American Life from host Ira Glass. Since it debuted in 1995, this popular radio show has scoured the country for unique people and interesting stories to share with a mass audience. It has become one of the most popular shows on the radio with the ability to inspire in its listeners; wonder, laughter, and tears; in equal measure. If you have never flipped to the far side of the radio dial to check this program out, then you are missing out on one of the best shows on the air waves right now. With so many years of stories there have been some editions of This American Life which have stood out, so if you can only pick a handful of episodes to listen to here are the ones that best epitomize why this is such an amazing series. If you want to hear more stories from This American Life be sure to check out their archives here. And of course Public Radio is supported by listeners (or potential listeners) like you, so feel free to support your local NPR station.


Getting and Spending (aired: 9/23/2005): Money is a driving force in the world, and famous producer Marti Noxon (of Buffy the Vampire Slayer fame) kicks off this episode recounting a shady company she worked for many years ago. From there the show looks at those willing to commit nefarious acts to gain wealth. Eventually listeners end up with a trip to the Mall of America they will never forget courtesy of author and comedian John Hodgman.

Babysitting (aired: 1/5/2001): For many in America, babysitting is a first job for many young people. Framing this episode around Mary Poppins being the epitome of the perfect babysitter, Ira Glass delves into the realm of this unique job. This edition looks at babysitters in all forms; from older siblings looking over younger ones to major corporations looking at this as a new revenue source.


Amusement Park (aired: 8/12/2011): There is nothing like the sensory overload of an amusement park. The smell of fried food; the sounds of people screaming on rides; it is nothing short of thrilling. That is why in one of personal favorite episodes Ira Glass looks at such a great institution, both the those who visit the parks and those responsible for the magic. You reads two letters from two completely different listeners who had a shockingly similar carnival experience which stuck with them. But the highlight of this edition of This American Life, is a look at the staff of the gaming area of Worlds of Fun. This team is bound by a single charismatic manager who has earned their loyalty, but who is at a crossroads in his life.

The Giant Pool of Money (aired 5/9/2008): NPR is often stereotyped as being the station for stuffy news broadcasts, but when the Great Recession hit in 2008, the American people needed to know what happened. This is one of moments when This American Life stepped up to the plate, collaborating with NPR News, they utilized their storytelling abilities to break down and explain to the everyone what had happened to cause the economy to head south.


Notes on Camp (aired 8/28/1998): Going to summer camp is a rite of passage in America so naturally the show would take a look at this famed institution. From those who loved camp discussing it with their non-camp friends to ghost stories told around a fire; This American Life takes a unique look at camping and why its an experience like no other.

Harper High School Part 1 & 2 (aired 2/15/2013 and 2/22/2013): It is a tragedy that in recent years schools have become ground zero for so much senseless violence. In an edition to heavy for a single one hour broadcast, This American Life heads to Chicago’s Harper High School, where in a single year 29 students were the victims of gun violence. This heart-wrenching two-parter follows Principal Leonetta Sanders, her staff, and her students as they navigate the traditional high school events of; football games and homecoming; with the looming threat of gun violence constantly looming overhead. If by the end of these episodes you have not fought back tears, you may have to question if you are in fact a robot. If you are moved to action by this edition, the school has set up a place you can do so here.


Break Up (aired 8/17/2012): With this episode of This American Life, Glass looks at the emotionally gut wrenching process of a break up.In this episode which they dub as coming from “the heart of heartache” they find those who are suffering through this harsh time to see how they deal with it. Despite having little musical talent, Starlee Kine tries her hand at a break-up song after the unexpected end of her relationship and turns to the legendary Phil Collins for inspiration. This episode even takes an unconventional look at divorce, from the perspectives of an eight year old girl as well as a from a canine.

Fiasco! (aired 11/01/2013): Part of the human experience is having things go wrong. In fact sometimes, from the smallest of things a chain reaction can start where EVERYTHING goes wrong. This episode looks at four moments when a seemingly small decision led to a huge fiasco. From a village in the Middle Ages with a plan that goes completely wrong while fighting the barbarian invaders to the case of Wisconsin Public Radio becoming embroiled in a statewide scandal just because they wanted to play Car Talk. But the highlight of this episode is easily, Jack Hitt’s tale of a small town’s attempt at producing Peter Pan which ends when the fire department shows up.